Snip Snap Fantasy

Fantasy (and sometimes sci-fi) short stories, because you're busy and so am I.

Titan Heart

The titan rose from his knees. The world was desecrated.

The trees at his feet were dark and without leaves. The grassy plains yellowed and withered as far as his considerable gaze could see. The mountains at his back were blackened and parched, with throbbing red lines running through them as magma swelled beneath their surface.

Even the sky was without life or hope. Dark clouds flashed furious with lightning, stoked by the fumes belching from the lines of volcanoes to the north. Those firemounts hadn’t existed a few decades ago. Now that range was only one of dozens across the surface of this world.

Teltheaum, Titanous of Soul, pulled the dry, stale air of the land into his massive lungs and expelled his breath in a squall. The expansion of his chest pained him, tearing open too-recently healed rends in his yellow skin, injuries inflicted by his sister in the last battle.

And the last battle it truly was. In tearing open her neck and letting the ichor within flow out in a mighty river, Teltheaum had brought to an end the century-long civil war in his family. A civil war started by his uncle, worsened by his mother, and ended by the youngest son of the family – him.

Existence belonged now to him, or perhaps that should be Him, now he was the sole god. By right of combat and utter destruction, he had claimed the world.

He felt a stirring in the back of his mind. It drew his attention to a flock of humans standing several miles from his largest toe. All told, there must have been thousands of them down there, clamouring for his attention, but from his lofty viewpoint they seemed impossibly tiny and fragile. These little mortal creatures. So soft. So weak. So short-lived. They were born and loved and died in a heartbeat, from Teltheaum’s point of view.

What did they want? He didn’t care. He ached all over from the battle with his sister and longed to shed his corporeal form and return to the Realm Between, where his injuries would heal and his ichor would replenish.

Perhaps it was because he was so fatigued, but in a moment of sudden weakness he succumbed and listened to the stirring in his mind.

The thoughts and prayers and emotions of the humans gathered by his feet filled his mind, and he was overcome.

How could he have been so wrong? There weren’t a thousand mortals down there looking up at him. There wasn’t even ten thousand, or one hundred. There were exactly three million, four hundred and twenty two thousand, three hundred and forty one humans currently nearby.

And when he expanded his consciousness across the span of the globe, the terrible realisation came to him that these three million were the only humans left alive on the entire planet.

He and his family had killed them all.

They were terrified, those three million. The land was barren and would yield no more crops. Their farms were deserted and without livestock for the slaughter. The rivers were run dry and the oceans boiling. They were praying to him now, begging him to save them. Even though they had just endured a hundred years of titans waging war across the planet, even though they had learned to fear and despise their gods, these people were praying to him now, and asking for his help.

Teltheaum froze in place. If he left for the Realm Between now, he would lose all track of time in this corporeal plain. Days, years, decades might pass by and he would have very little awareness of it until he retook physical form.

The planet was dying. It was only a matter of years. But that scarcely matter to these final three million humans, because they would perish in a few a days, starved and dehydrated.

Closing his eyes, Teltheaum wondered whether that even mattered? Should the planet die, he could just create a new one. He had sole access to the unlimited power of the Realm Between now. Shaping an entire planet was as nothing to him. Then, given the right conditions, it would only be a matter of time before complex life evolved to take the place of these humans.

Three million humans. All on their knees. Crying and calling out for him to save them. He searched the faces of the crowd. Here was a woman, trying to feed her baby from her withered breasts. There was a pair of children, barely into adolescence, wearing rags with feet bleeding from the miles they had walked to make pilgrimage to the last remaining titan. He saw a man, his skin dry and cracked, holding up the limp form of his older sister. He had carried her diseased body all this way in the hope that a miracle might save her. In doing so, Teltheaum saw that the man had caught the disease himself. Both siblings would be dead in a matter of hours.

He had caused this. In winning the war for this world, he had doomed it entirely.

It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Worlds were common. Mortals were inexpensive.

But what had he done in the last hundred years, aside from destroy and maim and murder?

Shaking his gargantuan head, which the mortals below took as a fell omen, Teltheaum lowered himself back down onto one knee. Raising a hand, he placed the fingers against his chest.

And plunged it through the skin.

The agony was unimaginable, but at the same time brought him peace. He deserved to suffer, for the destruction he had caused. The blame wasn’t entirely his, to be sure. His family were as guilty as he, but at any point in the war, had he tried to be better than them? Had he paused in his fighting to consider the mortals he was striving to rule over? Had he ever considered crafting safe-havens for them, that they might survive the apocalyptic clashes of his family?

Through flesh and rib cage, his hand dug, finding the beating heart within. Contorting his fingers around it, he gave one almighty heave and ripped it from his chest. Golden ichor pumped in cascading torrents from the wound, raining down on the land and the three million mortals therein.

He could have returned to the Realm Between. Could have healed his wounds and rejuvenated his power. He could have ignored these small, weak, fragile mortals and returned decades later to build a new planet.

But instead, Teltheaum pulled out his heart and drove it deep into the earth of the planet. With the organ went what ethereal power had remained in his body after the conclusion of the war. It was not enough to build a new planet, but it was enough to save this one.

The grass grew green. The rivers’ springs spouted fresh water. The volcanoes went dormant and the skies cleared, bright blue once again. The trees untwisted themselves, burst with leaves, bore blossoms and rained pink petals upon the ground as fruit swelled on their branches. The dumb beasts rose from the dead, their flesh restored and their health returned.

Life, came alive.

Falling, collapsing onto the mountains at his back, Teltheaum felt the last of his ichor escape through the wound in his chest. With the storm clouds gone, the sun was shining on the land for the first time in generations.

Somehow, he’d forgotten how warm it could be.

 

 

Holding the Wall

Narses of Belcarum clutched his pike closely to his chest and watched as the Fourth Barrier finally succumbed to might of the cannons.

The fifth and final barrier was all that stood between the city and its besiegers now. Unfortunately, Narses stood with that barrier.

Grasping at his belt, he found the skin of watered-down wine that was the last of the soldier’s ration he had been given that morning. Eating was difficult during a siege because his stomach refused to keep food down, but drink? That was a different matter. Drink was always welcome in his body. It soothed the nerves. It assuaged his guilty conscience.

Squeezing the synthetic skin, Narses filled his mouth with as much of the sour liquid as he could bear. Twin streams ran down the side of his face and soaked into his dark, curling beard.

At the sound of cannon-shot impacting with the translucent Fifth Barrier, he started and dropped the skin. Very little of the remaining wine spilled in the time it took him to pick it back up, but still he cursed, taking the sun god’s name in vain.

Realising his blasphemy and knowing the perilous situation he was in, he glanced quickly up at the burning circle in the sky and asked forgiveness of the chief deity. Considering the sorry state of the city’s defence, he doubted Alagnis was listening to any of his people these days anyway, but it didn’t hurt to try.

The first shot against the Fifth had been a warning wrapped in a distance-check. Now, as Narses peered through the pulsing red light that marked the barrier’s surface, he could see the enemy bringing the full might of their arsenal to bear. Monstrous shapes like jagged, twisted daemons moved behind the red glow, shifting and grinding into position. Between those gargantuan guns, the minions that swarmed between seemed like harmless insects.

The roar of cannon fire was followed near-instantly by the whip of electrical discharge as the energy rounds impacted the barrier. It began intensely, with the first dozen shots hitting their target easily (the barrier was massive in every sense of the word, and so not difficult to strike) followed by another dozen, and another, and another.

At first the sound was beyond deafening, but as the noise-cancelling technology in Narses’ helmet adapted, the crash of shot on barrier was lessened to a dull thump, barely louder than his own heartbeat.

The sound of his heartbeat gave him cause to smirk as his mind drifted back to old memories. On his wedding night, as he’d lain in bed with his new wife, Lerreua, she had half-joked that if ever he was unfaithful to her, she would cut out his heart with a kitchen knife.

He had laughed at the time, thinking himself too in love to ever betray her, but in the end he had.

It had taken decades of marriage, years of hard work and the gradual encroaching of boredom to bring him to infidelity, but it had happened.

A sudden flash of yellow across the Fifth indicated the depletion of half its power reserves. The flash would not have been visible from the outside (the enemy would therefore be unaware of their swift progress) but it let Narses and every one of the ten thousand soldiers standing around him know that in another ten minutes or so, they would be called upon to defend their capital city with pike and sword and rifle.

Knowing he would get no second chance to do so, Narses turned bodily to stare at his city, his home. The five Barriers had encircled and protected it for nearly a century now, but behind those marvels of hard-plasma was an ancient capital four millennia old. A capital built of stone and brick, and surrounded by one last great wall of the same. Once, that antique wall had provided all the protection the city needed, but with the Heavenly Descent and the subsequent Great Stride Forward, technology had moved faster than the capital could keep up with. The Barriers had been a master-stroke at the time, but had proved a temporary defence only. The world belonged to modern cities with their modern methods now. In comparison, Narses’ home was simply a grand old relic.

He thought on his wife, barricaded inside their villa with their three children. Guilt flooded him – he had betrayed his lifelong partner for no other reason than he wanted to. He had made a mockery of all they had built together and the family they had created. What would his children say if they knew what he had done? How could they ever possibly love him again?

And then he thought on his mistress, Aena, locked away in her city centre apartment, praying to all the gods for the siege to be lifted and this nightmare to end. Though it wasn’t quite love, at least not yet, he still cared deeply for her. He smiled as the memory of their last day together gave him comfort.

But then he remembered that the enemy was going to breach the city, and that Aena was going to die in the slaughter.

As were his children. As was Lerreua.

Guilt and terror and mourning consumed Narses. He stood in formation with the rest of the legion around him, shaking as this swirl of emotion filled his being. How could he have become such a bad man? How could he have ruined his life so? How could he-

But he was going to die too.

The Fifth Barrier flashed again, blue this time, and kept flashing. It was down to ten percent power and its failure would come at any moment. With trembling hands he cast off his still half-full wine skin and raised his pike above his head. In a deep booming voice that implied more confidence than he actually felt, he roared out to the soldiers under his command.

Which was all of them.

Supreme Commander of the Army of Deliverance, Narses of Belcarum, let the technology in his helmet amplify his voice and carry it to every one of the ten thousand under his authority. At the sound of his voice, they stopped quivering or praying or throwing up and began to march the mile or so between their foremost members and the flashing blue barrier.

Mumbling under his breath so his helmet would not pick it up and transmit it to his legions, Narses apologised to Lerreua for betraying her love, apologised to his children for failing them as their father, and apologised to Aena for failing to keep her safe.

The barrier stopped flashing blue and instead flashed white. Ten times it would pulse now and after the tenth it would disappear forever. On his order, the ten thousand moved from a march to a charge and Narses charged with them.

Panting under the weight of his armour, he wanted to apologise again to the people he loved yet whom he had wronged, but found suddenly he did not have the will. He was tired, to be sure, but this was a mental fatigue, a failing of the desire to care any more.

He was going to die today, so what worth did apologies carry? What worth was his guilt?

What worth was anything he had achieved in his life? It was all at an end.

The tenth pulse came, the Fifth Barrier fell, and the screaming hordes of the enemy surged forward to meet Narses of Belcarum.

The Shattersoul

(This is a little something I whipped up while developing a new type of magic-user for the story I’m working on. It’ll probably feature in the story in one form or another. A bit of background: the person observing the fight, the Empress, is physically disabled and cannot speak. She communicates by “echoing” her words through a servant, whom she partially controls with  a magic called Songthrust.)

The shattersoul swung her arm to shield her face, a layer of glass crystallising along the limb to take the impact of the assassin’s sword. Blue veins forked out where the metal bit, fading quickly to leave behind thin cracks. Again the assassin struck, bringing his sword down in the same place, widening the cracks and sending shards of blue-tinted glass spinning free.

The shattersoul took several hasty steps back, releasing the glass from her arm and letting it fall away as blue dust. The assassin pressed his advantage, thrusting his sword forward and forcing the shattersoul to contort herself to avoid impalement.

He swung high, missed, then low, and missed again. The shattersoul was tiring now, sweat pouring from her face and spraying from her hair every time she was forced to dodge. The assassin brought his blade down in a savage two-handed blow and the shattersoul had little choice but to meet it. Crossing her wrists, she encased her forearms in glass and let the blade grind between them.

Then she pivoted, twisting the sword and corkscrewing it out of the assassin’s grasp. He swore through gritted teeth as the weapon was cast away, but had time to do little else. Seizing her moment, the shattersoul dusted the glass from her forearms and formed a splinter in each hand. The first she threw, taking the assassin in the shoulder, the second she grew, elongating it into a spike that encased her arm.

The spike glowed blue at the tip as it punched through the assassin’s cuirass and into his chest. He coughed, bringing up blood. The shattersoul pulled herself free, letting the spike dust as she withdrew. Blue powder mingled with red blood as the assassin slumped awkwardly onto one knee and fell forward.

Breathing heavily, the woman who had just saved my life turned to address me. With the back of her arm, she wiped the perspiration from her face.

‘Are my loyalties clearer now, Empress?’ she asked.

Had it been within my powers, I would have had my vessel smile. ‘Yes,’ I echoed through the servant, ‘I believe they are.

 

The Demons’ Labour

The humans were scared, terrified even, and that made matters all the more complicated. In ragged clothing, with matted hair and gaunt faces, the party of fifty three huddled together like so many malnourished cattle.

That was an unfortunate comparison for Thyt to make, even if it was one that he did not voice for the humans to hear. For most of their lives, the gods had not only referred to these humans as such, but treated them so.

No, that wasn’t altogether true. From what Thyt had observed, before the gods had arrived on this planet, many cultural groups of humans had used cattle as a self-replicating food source. An ingenious idea. Neither of the gods actually ate humans. Enslavement, that was what awaited humans who were caught.

Or it used to be. This war of scarlet and indigo had changed. No more slaves were going to be taken now.

Looking to the top of a ruined building, little more than a blasted shell of its former self, Thyt caught sight of a gentle pulsing. Reconfiguring his vision, he shifted through wavelengths of light until he could better identify the signal’s meaning.

A variety four pulse, which he and its signaller – Ishmn – had decided previously would mean all clear.

Returning his vision to its normal parameters – the infrared to ultraviolet spectrum – Thyt turned to address his fifty three humans. Upon gathering the motley collection, Ishmn had insisted that there were fifty two point five humans, and it had taken Thyt the best part of the day to make his companion understand that when a human was a child, they were not quantifiable as point five of a person.

The humans at the front of the group flinched as Thyt turned his attention to them. A month he had been keeping them safe, and still they feared him. Never mind that he was only four feet tall, never mind that he had not once harmed them, never mind that he had saved their lives untold times – they still feared him.

But considering these life forms had spent their lives under constant threat from Gallus such as Thyt, he could hardly blame them.

‘The avenue ahead is free of danger. We must move now.’

‘Where’s the other one of you?’ An older woman, hard of face and large of hands. These physical attributes, along with her forceful nature, had helped her climb to the stop of these humans’ social entanglements. A leader, though not by the definition Thyt had been created to understand.

‘Ishmn is in the rooftops, watching over us. We must move now, before danger returns.’

Before we all die, Thyt wanted to say, but he judged that comment too inflammatory to be spoken just yet. Humans could overcome great obstacles when worried, but scare them too much and they became obstacles to themselves.

The rest of the group looked to the older woman – Ruuna, her name was – for some social cue that they were allowed to follow Thyt. On this occasion that cue took the form of a nod, but previous cues had ranged from vocal assurance to indicative silence. As a Constructor, Thyt was capable of giving physical shape to wonders of engineering and architecture, but he could not puzzle out the mechanics of human social interaction.

Ruuna took a strong step forward, followed closely by her herd. ‘Lead the way, demon.’

Demon. An incorrect and derogative term, but Thyt wasn’t interested in correcting the woman. In truth he understood the word’s use. To these humans, with their dull skin tones, two arms and two eyes, he must seem monstrous. A mere four feet tall he might be, but with leathery maroon hide, four muscular arms and four large, oval black eyes – two on each side of his head – Thyt was sure he looked akin to something out of human folklore.

Plus, there was his complete lack of mouth. In his experience, it was the telepathy of his speech that scared humans the most.

The avenue was as deserted as Ishmn had promised. Wrecked, three-wheeled transportation vehicles littered the cracked road. There was even a downed Yarln Interceptor, its alloy hull the same shade of red as its godly owners.

The humans kept pace with Thyt as he jogged, on his legs and lower arms, around and between the torn metal and shattered concrete that now called the avenue home. His destination was a mere three kilometres away. They need only progress down this street, and two dozen or so more, and they would be safe, relatively.

An almighty crash put Thyt on top of a car and shifting his vision to scan for the source of the disturbance. Behind him, the humans started wailing and clinging together, less than useless. Thyt tried not to judge them – because if remnants of the Yarln or Tiash forces found them, the humans would be less than useless.

‘Thyt, get down!’ From out of the dust thrown up from the impact, Ishmn came running. Despite being a Yarln-bred Gallus like Thyt, the gargantuan creature couldn’t have looked more different. Eight-feet tall and broad as a battleship, Ishmn had legs and arms that rippled with genetically engineered muscle divided by two knee joints on each leg and two elbows on each arm, all of them hyper mobile in the extreme. Strength and flexibility – that was the way of the War Gallus.

Thyt swung from the vehicle and bounded to meet his companion. ‘Is the way not clear?’

‘Not anymore.’ Ishmn’s mental voice was as thunderously deep as one might expect. ‘Run.’

Calling for the attention of the humans, Thyt and Ishmn rounded them up and guided them into the nearest alley. Behind a stack of rubbish bins piled long ago into a barricade – the scorch marks proof of its previous purpose – the humans squatted down and held one another, silent as corpses. All that had lasted this long knew when they needed to be quiet, to not even whimper.

As to what was coming, Thyt has his answer within minutes. A clicking, like nails drummed on a metal sheet, told him it was a Tiash Scout. To confirm, he climbed to the top of the barricade and peered over the top, in time to see the twenty-foot tall creature pause in front of the alley. Just as the Yarln made their war machines scarlet, so did the Tiash make theirs indigo. By the laws of physics, the Scouts four long, spindly legs should not have been able to support the weight of its segmented body, but then the Tiash had mastered physics centuries ago.

The Scout’s too-large head was mostly metal-plating and sharp teeth, but somewhere between were its thin eyes and sensitive nostrils. It snuffed loudly, jerking its head. Thyt felt a massive hand take him gently by the body and he let go of the barricade, allowing Ishmn to lower him to ground level.

They stayed trapped behind the barricade for nearly an hour. Thyt had hoped the scout would move on fairly swiftly, but instead it stayed exactly where it was, blocking the only way out of the alley. Scouts weren’t supposed to stay in one place for such extended periods of time, but with the Tiash making their victorious withdrawal from the planet, this one was without telepathic direction from its masters. Who knew how long it would remain before some primal urge, some accident of bio-engineering, induced it to move on.

Dust fell from the alley walls in thick streams as the world started to shake. Windows shattered, drainpipes came loose and tiles slid from roofs as the rumbling intensified, transforming into a steady drone that drowned out all other sound. The humans, already as closely packed together as was possible, tried to huddle in tighter still. Only Ruuna resisted the instinct to be with her herd, moving to join Thyt and Ishmn as they looked to the sky.

The blue of the atmosphere was blocked out as a colossal form passed overhead. Sleek and pointed, the spacecraft’s gravity-reduction field sent massive cracks down the buildings on either side of the alley walls, eliciting shrieks from most of the humans, which were thankfully drowned out.

That was what it took to break the scout from its stupor. With a shrill yell, it broke into an awkward gallop and took after the Tiash ship.

In twos and threes, the humans emerged from their hiding place and followed their Gallus guides back out into the light. Thyt kept his vision trained on the spacecraft, the green glow of its thrusters like the light of three stars, neatly arranged into a row.

‘That’s not a good sign,’ rumbled Ishmn, coming to stand next to Thyt.

‘Agreed.’

Thyt felt a pull of dread inside his torso. At first he was glad for the feeling, because that chemical-hormonal reaction in response to an external stimulus was what made he and Ishmn different from the Scout. Their ability to experience emotion marked them as something unique, something unintended, as more than the designations that their godly masters had bred them for. It was this reason they had rebelled. It was the reason they were trying to save the indigenous people of this odd planet.

Emotion had a cost, however, and right now it was the fear he felt for what would be happening very soon.

‘Explain.’ Ruuna had her arms folded and an expression indicative of anger on her face.

Thyt considered whether to keep the truth hidden for longer, but the rest of the herd – he really must stop thinking of them that way! – were looking at him now too. If he lied, he might lose what fragile trust they had placed in him.

‘Upon withdrawal from a battlefield, it is Tiash standard practice to raze the field clear. This ensures any Yarln survivors are obliterated.’

Ruuna regarded him with the weary impatience of a woman who had lived through too much hardship, who had seen too much barbarity. Sweat and dirt mingled in equal measure on her brow and cheeks, and her eyes were red with bloodshot. As the ruined buildings around them might give in and collapse at any moment, so too might this woman, hard as stone, nonetheless crack into pieces. Her anger was a last-ditch offensive to stave of what must have been an overwhelming desire to simply give up.

‘Your demon language means nothing to us. Speak clearly,’ she said, but the slight wobble of her voice suggested to Thyt that she had understood something of what he had said.

‘The indigo gods have defeated the scarlet. Now, as their final act, they are going to obliterate all life on this planet, or at least, as much as they can manage.’

Surprisingly, the humans did not immediately panic, as Thyt had expected them to do so. They became very quiet. Perhaps hearing that the end was nigh was a cruel comfort to them?

‘Thyt and I have known for some time,’ said Ishmn, mirroring Ruuna by folding his mammoth arms, ‘and we have a plan to survive. Countless rebel Gallus around the world are attempting to do the very same thing – to save as many humans as possible.’

Ruuna had unfolded her arms. ‘Which is?’

‘The indigo gods have a…device,’ said Thyt, attempting to find the right words to help the relatively primitive humans understand. ‘It will let us move out of phase with this dimension for several hours. This will protect us from the bombardment.’

Ruuna only raised an eyebrow, and Thyt looked up at Ishmn. ‘I tried to keep it simple.’

‘Good job.’ The titan winked – a mannerism he had picked up from the humans.

‘All you need to know is that this device will keep us safe.’

‘Oh, that’s all we need to know, is it demon?’ Ruuna had her arms folded again, never a good sign.

‘It is,’ Thyt insisted, and would have sighed were he biologically capable. ‘Can you trust me, human? One more time?’

It took some minutes for Ruuna to give her answer.

They encountered nothing else living for the rest of the journey, save for the rats and insects that now called this industrial-age city home. The streets were silent save for their scuttling as they escaped the trudging column of humans, refugees in their own civilisation. The sun had begun to set as Thyt opened the loading-bay doors of the warehouse and then climbed onto the roof to keep watch. As the last human entered the grey concrete building – a basic construct but indicative of a species with great architectural potential – Thyt eyed the Tiash Titan Warships moving into low geo-stationary orbit, coming into view hazy view one-by-one until thousands upon thousands dotted the dusk sky.

Everywhere around the planet, the same thing would be happening. It was time.

Swinging into the warehouse through a broken window, Thyt saw that Ishmn had nearly finished ripping the wooden crating away from the stolen Tiash phase device. Procuring this machine – along with the hundreds of others they had distributed to other rebel Gallus around the world – had taken him and Ishmn nearly a decade. A decade of working in secret, under constant threat of discovery and death, come down to this moment.

Thyt went to his task, jumping between pylons and cables, using all four of his hands at once to connect this plug to that socket, inset this accelerator into that receptacle, calibrate this gauge to that setting. Tasks such as these were literally what Thyt had been made for, and though it was his Yarln programming that made him so good at it, he didn’t feel guilt for fulfilling pre-determined his role as other rebel Gallus might. A skill was neither good nor evil. Morality was in the application.

In minutes he was all but done and seconds afterward the annihilation began. First there was the light – green, like the Tiash ships’ thrusters. Next a distant rumble shook the ground beneath their feet – the sound of a giant rousing from a long sleep. Last came the wind, a sudden storm that whipped in through the shattered windows and broke those still whole.

‘Into position!’ roared Ishmn, raising his mental volume not to cut through the din of the wind, but to penetrate the humans’ collective panic.

They gathered about the massive Gallus, suddenly not so afraid of him if it meant an assured place on the platform.

The light coming through the broken windows was blinding now, washing away all other colour. Most of the humans were screaming, even Ruuna gritting her teeth and growling like a cornered animal.

‘Ready, Thyt?’ called Ishmn, a touch of desperation to his thoughts.

Slamming the last power coupling into its port and twisting the head to lock it in place, Thyt clambered up onto a pillar and hurled himself toward the platform, to be caught by one of Ishmn’s massive hands. The device began to power up, thrumming placidly and glowing in all the right places.

The wind reached fever pitch, blowing so fiercely it began to cut into Thyt’s hide. He could only imagine how much pain it was causing the humans.

‘There is no rush,’ said Ishmn, looking sideways at Thyt, who was sitting on his shoulder. The giant’s attempt at sarcasm was impressive. Thyt found it charming how hard his companion worked to adopt the humans’ ways.

‘It should only be seconds–’

And they were gone.

Darkness. Nothing. Then flashing images. Scenes of destruction, of green energy blasts making landfall, of the city wiped away. Darkness. Nothing. The land hauled up, thousands of square miles ripped away and hurled into the atmosphere. Darkness. Nothing. Oceans steaming. Rock burning. Fissures opening. Darkness. Nothing.

When the demons and their humans finally remerged into the world, a great deal more time had passed than Thyt had anticipated. He had given the phase device’s power cells too little credit, he guessed.

The warehouse was gone. The surrounding buildings were gone. The concrete of the ground was gone and the rats and the insects were gone. There was no city left and there was nothing to populate the horizon. There was only raw, scorched earth, exposed to the air.

Several of the humans chose that moment to collapse. Thankfully the ground was now mostly soft soil.

Ever pragmatic, Ruuna stepped up beside Ishmn and Thyt, closer than she had ever voluntarily come before. There were tears in her eyes. ‘What now, demon?’

What now, indeed? Already, Thyt could sense the poisonous particles swirling about in the atmosphere, could taste the ones that had already fallen to ground level. It was only a matter of time before sickness became a serious problem for the humans. Their society had never come close to inventing Zynl-type energy, let alone weapons that harnessed it. How was he supposed to explain the poisonous chemical fallout that it caused, after all they had already been through?

Hopelessness. A new emotion he could now add to his experiences.

There was nothing left, nowhere for them to take shelter against the fallout. All that remained was the dirt beneath their feet and the dust clogging up the air. Thyt hadn’t even considered this part of the plan. Simply getting this far had required all his dedication. What had he expected to happen?

He felt two thick fingers tap him on the shoulder. It was Ishmn, he knew, but he didn’t feel like talking.

‘Thyt.’

The sound of his companion’s voice made Thyt suddenly aware that none of the humans were speaking. There was no sound at all, in fact. Thyt turned slowly.

Appearing from behind a smokescreen of airborne dirt, illuminated by the sun that it half eclipsed, a colossal structure presented itself. At first, Thyt thought it was a Tiash Titan Warship, come down to finish the job, but he soon saw that it was a completely different shape. It looked like a massive canopy, supported by dozens of gigantic pillars, rising out of the ruined earth and extending tens of hundreds of feet into the sky, like the roof of the world.

Ishmn dropped to one knee and put a meaty hand on Thyt’s back. ‘Well, Constructor, what do you make of that?’

It didn’t look like a canopy, it was a canopy, of solid rock, hundreds of miles long and just as wide. The stone pillars supporting it were misshaped and crooked, but were surely thousands of feet in diameter. From the underside of the canopy hung massive stalactites, each with a surface area as large as a city.

‘The bombardment must have created it,’ Thyt muttered, or as closely as it is possible to mutter telepathically. ‘The explosions must have melted the rock deposits beneath the surface and hauled them up into the air, where they suddenly dried, cooled by the endothermic slipstreams of passing Zynl blasts.’

‘You’re sure of that, are you?’ asked Ruuna, keeping her gaze on the canopy, her mouth hanging slightly open.

His eyes wide, all four of them, Thyt clambered up onto Ishmn’s shoulder. ‘It is the only explanation I can muster that makes anything approaching sense.’

A canopy of solid rock, elevated thousands of feet from the ground, with stalactites as large as cities, each riddled with tunnels and natural balconies – if his reconfigured vision wasn’t lying. It was perfect. They needed to get up there.

Ruuna gave Thyt a sideways glance.

‘I’ll ask again. What now, demon?’

Thyt met her glance. ‘Can you trust me, human? One more time?’

Always the Numbers

30 fusillades per minute. 20 orbital nuclear warheads per fusillade. 5 miles of complete annihilation per warhead. There was a cruel elegance to numbers. Cruel because they told the truth, regardless of circumstance. Elegant because regardless of circumstance, they promised to tell the truth.

It was a mastery of numbers, and an appreciation of their brilliance, that had made Kelene admiral before his 60th birthday. In an age when humans lived to 120 and most military folk didn’t reach the uppermost ranks until they were 80, he had become admiral of his own fleet and still had half his life ahead of him. Unheard of.

10 years in basic training. 5 years in officer’s academy. 5 more serving on his first ship, a cruiser-class Breed-18 escort vessel. Then 20 years working his way up the ranks, at never more than 3 years a post.

The numbers again, explaining how he had come so far. Taking something professionally remarkable and transforming it into the simple, the obvious. Of course he had made admiral before his 61st birthday. It was inevitable when one spared so few years to stagnation.

3 minutes had passed. That was 90 fusillades. 5.3 million deaths. Rising at a rate of 400,000 every 30 seconds for as long as the bombardment continued and enduring even after it was stopped.

But it wasn’t stopped.

5.3 million deaths in 3 minutes. National extinction within the hour. Continental extinction within the day. Total-planetary extermination not long after.

Kelene had to admit that he was letting his calculations slide now, allowing himself rough estimates rather than hard figures. But if hard figures told the truth, and in this instance they were telling the truth of the people he was wiping out, how could that truth even be described as existing when the people would be gone before long? There was truth now, while some of them survived, but when they survived no longer? Was there truth then?

5.26 seconds for the rapide-class orbital warheads to travel from the silos of Kelene’s Breed-32 Dreadnought-class warship. 0.0021 seconds for each warhead to explode once it touched solid matter. 22 seconds for the blast radius to reach its full extent.

And 183 years for the augmented radiation to fade away.

The numbers. Always the numbers.

Admiral Kelene of the Breed-33 Dreadnought class warship: Defender, stood on the bridge of his spaceship and watched as his orders brought an end to life for an entire planet.

And all he could do was wonder which numbers it was, exactly, that had brought him here.

The End

The outermost of Serona’s three gargantuan landwalls loomed high above Haius as he marched at a soldier’s pace to his destination. The sun was low in the sky, tinted tangerine as it aged and died. The hunched shoulders and shuddering gaits of weeping citizens were accentuated in the elongated shadows that the elder sun cast across the gravelly roadway. Without exception, every citizen was walking in the opposite direction from Haius. They were going back to the city, he was going away.

It was late summer, or early autumn, depending on which augur one asked. Either way the air had a sad little chill to it that made Haius Loni’an, Prefect of the Lætarian Guard, pull his dark blue cloak closer about his armoured shoulders.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Aside from the nightly breeze, the crunch of his soldier’s caligae on the roadway was all he could hear now. He had long past the last of the citizens, making their distraught goodbyes and returning to their city. How had it come to this? How had they fallen so low?

Crunch crunch, and quite suddenly he had reached his destination. The Porta Grenæ was a gate every bit as massive as the landwall to which it granted passage through. Fifty feet or so of burnished metal, shining bright as silver but many times more durable. On the outside surface was sculpted a breathtaking relief of the twelve original gods in all their ethereal splendour. The relief was marred now, cut up and down and with huge rents that had not penetrated deep but were still enough to ruin the ancient and beautiful artwork.

The Porta Grenæ had to be closed, sealed permanently. The city-state of Serona was shutting itself off from its lands, accepting a self-imposed exile that had no certain end. One day only it had taken the magistrates of the Myriad to agree on the need for the gates to be sealed. One day, from an assembly that could take weeks to decide even the most trivial matters.

The Republic was ending, and Haius had been the one chosen to execute the act. A moon was how long the people of the Republic had been given to decide whether they were going to come to Serona and be shut inside, or to remain outside. Despite the danger, surprisingly few not native to Serona had come.  This was the final day, and the Porta Grenæ had been crowded all day with folk saying goodbyes to those they were leaving on the outside.

That was all done now. The time had come with the setting sun.

The gate was already almost shut, the two doors swung so close together that a horse and cart would scarcely have been able to fit between. All Haius had to do was given the order, and that gap would vanish, and along with it the numerous centuries of Seronan dominance.

It would have been a simple thing, were it not for the two people stood in that gap.

As he approached the pair – a young couple they were – Haius cleared his throat to get their attention. Two pairs of tear-choked eyes flicked to look at him. Considering he was Prefect, the couple should have shown him greater respect, but today was a day of mourning, and so Haius let the indiscretion slide.

‘It’s time,’ he croaked, surprised to find his voice dry and gravelly as the roadway.

‘No, please,’ said the young man, his voice wavering pitiably.

Haius gave a laboured sigh. Jenra’s mercy, he knew these two. The man was Temius – used to be a Lætarianii under Haius’ command until the youth resigned his post to care for his dying father. The woman was his sweetheart, had been for some time. Clera had helped the lad look after his papa, bringing herbs and suchlike from her nearby village.

‘It’s time,’ Haius repeated, unable to think of anything else to say. This pair should have said their goodbyes before now, shouldn’t have left it to last minute. Only made it more painful. But Haius knew the pain of love, had felt plenty of it when his wife had come back from the war with an arm and a leg off, her status as a magus the only thing that had kept her alive that long.

‘Go with her, lad,’ he recommended, feeling impossibly old all of a sudden.

‘I…I can’t,’ Temius choked. ‘Papa, he needs me.’

That he did. The old man had nothing but his youngest son now. The other three…dead by the same beast that had taken Haius’ wife. Damn that thing. And damn the gods for sending it.

Haius turned his attention to Clera. ‘Then you come in,’ he offered, trying to keep any emotion from his voice. He hadn’t expected this, didn’t know how to fulfil an order when it caused this kind of hurt.

‘My parents, my sister, my family, they’re all back home, they’re all in the village. I can’t just–’ The girl cut herself off with a sob so soft and quivering that it put ice through Haius’ heart. It wasn’t fair. Why had it come to this? Why had the Kra’Zarǽl done this to them?

The couple embraced, forgoing any kisses for a deep and powerful hug that squeezed the air from their lungs. They hung together like soldiers on a battlefield, facing death by an enemy that cared nothing for them. That was a sight Haius had seen too often.

Looking to his left, Haius caught the eye of the Lætarianii assigned to the Porta Grenæ and gave her a small nod. That was all it took to make the woman pull on the cord hanging behind her, which rang a bell all the way at the top of the wall, which told a team of slaves to turn the winch that would close the door.

It happened with the same cold, rigorous efficiency that had made Serona the master of the known world for hundreds of years. With a sage groan, the doors began to grind together.

‘You won’t be safe out there. The beast could find you,’ pled Temius, clinging to Clera’s hand by the fingers as she took an agonised step back.

‘I’m not a magus,’ she managed, barely. ‘It won’t care about me.’

‘No…please…just no…’ Temius sobbed, the words echoed by his lover on the far side of the silver.

They only stood there, still as marble statues in a temple, as the titan doors came together. Clera’s village was only a handful of miles from Serona, but once that silver gateway closed, she might as well have been ten thousand miles away on the other side of the Republic.

Haius could only watch, his mind flooded with memories of his wife, of meals they’d eaten, of the nights they’d spent beneath the sheets, of the children they’d promised to have once she came back from the war.

And with a sound akin to the final throb of a war drum after a long and grievous march, the Porta Grenæ was shut, and then sealed, and the great city-state of Serona forever turned its back on its once proud Republic.