By ZYKLON XZYRUZ
“The young one, he plays with fire,” the Metalworker rasped, the opalescent flames of his fingertips dancing so dangerously close to my brother’s neck that he winced in pain. His voice crackled with the electric fury of a thousand forgotten tongues as he ashed his Camel 99 straight on his skin.
“But I am the fire.”
I. 99 Upside-Down is 666
Ninety-nine men ascended the tower that night, and the Servants of the Scab carried six out in body bags. They were the dead sons of noblemen—claiming to bear Old Zyrgothian blood, of course.
But from the second my eyes flashed across those lumpy sacs, stiff with rigor mortis, I knew that claim was bullshit. Their auras were thinner than the last grains of sand trickling through the hourglass of their wasted lives. Even in death, the blood of the One True Line would burn as radiant and wild as always.
Since my earliest memories I’ve been able to judge people by not only the color, but the size of their aura. Most flicker and burn out before I can even blink, but some loom larger, like crooked blocks missing edges, before scattering to the starwinds. They come in every color, from blackened indigo to brightest green. But none burned even half as bright as Prince Ralyn’s.
There aren’t many others who share this gift, but the few I’ve crossed paths with tell me that mine is violet, and blood orange, and star-spun gold. My father’s is prismatic and tears a hole in the sky, a frenzied flash of every color all in one.
But I’ve combed the Dread Reaches for decades in search of one last glimpse of that ever-radiant purple—as defiant, and weird, and ultraviolent as him. And I’d found myself at yet another empty lead: A dead end on a dead planet.
I sighed, slamming the spiked pauldrons of my shoulders against the tower door again and again until it split. No matter how raw and relentless the disappointment burned, it was no excuse to shun a thankless job.
II. The Mark of the Beast is a Freckle
“You haven’t been sleeping?” The doctor folds his hands, perplexed. He studies me with an uncharacteristic level of intrigue, probably because the dark grey bruises under my eyes make it look like I’ve been up for two weeks straight.
“That’s a lie,” I sigh, shaking my head, clenching the clawed ends of the chair in frustration. Every other day, I nap a few hours here and there. I think.
Never sleep, you live forever.
“I just . . . need help with these weird dreams.”
He stares at me expectantly, probably wondering if I’m stupid. Finally, I spit it out. “I dream of people and places that were never real. Other planets.”
I leave out the most important part, staring down at the flat brown dot on my hand with a twinge of anxiety. Any fool could mistake it for a mole or a sliver, but most fools don’t know my secret.
“Interesting,” the doctor mumbles, scratching down some notes. “Anything else?” He leaves plenty of empty space to let me ramble: You know, that boring old trick all sociopaths have used since the dawn of time.
It works. My social skills aren’t exactly top-notch: I spent half my life dead, and the other half fantasizing that I was in the Valfarian army.
“I dream that I’m the son of the Devil, too” I spit, with a hint of mania that catches him off guard. A sick kaleidoscope of melted, half-digested colors bleeds down over my vision, and my eyes roll back.
Stoic as always, he simply scribbles on his clipboard and waits for me to fill the silence.
“Sometimes they feel more real than here,” I insist. My frustration pounds and burns, expanding like a mushroom cloud by the second. I can no longer hold myself back from springing to my feet and slamming my hand down on the desk, upturned.
I show him the Mark of the Beast.
He doesn’t flinch, only smiles sadly and reaches for his script pad.
III. The Morning Star is Just the Metalworker’s Ashtray (And He Only Ashes on People)
Not even the Servants of the Scab could clean up this fucking wreck—even if their numbers hadn’t been reduced from 99,999 to 900 overnight. That’s Terrorboric Incinerator Mines for you.
The tiny mushroom cloud wafting up from my cigarette was about as far as you can get from the hellfire that rained down over all Specular IX last night, but the contrast made me smirk all the same.
My sense of humor has always been kind of weird. At least, that’s what people tell me before they die.
Some called them “Morning Stars” because they were stupid enough to think they heralded the end of the world. Others—far fewer in number—knew they were just reverse-engineered Blood Spine cores. Neither the Empyre or the Valfarian Dominion wanted society’s herd to know: For reasons very different, but convenient all the same.
I don’t remember how or why the idea came to me, but every time those fluorescent indigo mushroom clouds hover over the distant horizon of any doomed world, it takes me back to then. Before I wandered the Free Worlds, I stalked the slopes of Iramesh digging my own grave. Prince Ralyn—then, a mere overseer. A lackey for his father’s shadow government—was coming down from one of his benders and . . . Yeah, you can already imagine how this is going to go.
But when you’ve seen the bioluminescent splendor of Old Zyrgoth’s eternal triumph from the inside, it’s like staring into every sun on every world you’ve ever staggered through blindly, all at once.
Yeah, I survived the trial by fire—or acid, if you want to get all weird about it—and stared straight through his soul. And even though I never expected it, he stared back.
He stared into the broken mind of a burned out nobody and extracted the formula that would later be refined into the manufacturing process for Holographic Quasi-Nuclear Restabilization—among many other secrets that would cost me my soul to sell.
When I was a kid, I thought about joining the sideshow. There was nothing I was good at but pyrotechnics. Little did I know that it was far more than a passing hobby, like my mother desperately hoped.
It was the only thing I was ever good at for the rest of my life.
Suddenly, Ralyn was cutting through the Empyrean outer worlds by daisy-chaining the deactivated scrap mines and necromancing them back to life instead of sitting around in an Absolvim vortex smoking wormweed all day.
The shadow government noticed. Fast.
In the end, they saw the potential to finally reverse engineer the missing piece for their Terrorboric stockpiles. So by their orders, the Prince of Old Zyrgoth unwound me from his own blood and spat me out.
From that day forward, I was a willing slave to the Valfarian Dominion and everything they pretended to stand for. My mother would have been proud. She’d been a Valfarian loyalist since she had a one-night stand with some random mercenary and got stuck with me.
Decades later, I heard through the airwaves that the entire city she still lived in went up in an indigo mushroom cloud.
I never had to wonder if it was one of mine. I already knew.
IV. Terrorborics Can’t Hurt You Any More Than You Already Hurt Yourself
“I’m going to raise the amphetamine dose and put you on sleeping pills,” the doctor commands. There’s something to his tone I cannot place—something between amusement and misery. “Perhaps that will help with the hallucinations . . . And the nightmares.”
His accent is weird. It sounds Romanian or something, but I can’t shake the feeling that this raspy tongue is lost to time.
I’m hit with the strong suspicion he only put me on the amphetamines to see how bad they’d fuck with me. It worked. The hallucinations have gotten worse than ever before, and sometimes I’m so consumed by the visions of psychedelic mushroom clouds beyond time that I forget my own name.
The doctor reaches into the pocket of his grey tweed blazer and pulls out a pack of Camel 99s. Upside down, of course. Defying gravity, none fall out as he reaches across the table and offers me one. I snatch it and light it up with the black-and-gold ace of spades lighter from my pocket.
For a moment, I worry that he glimpsed the countless cigarette burns on the bottom of my arm when my sleeve rolled up. But like a Yakuza, I know how to hide them. Sometimes, I just get sloppy.
“Why would I want to take sleeping pills?” I ask, cross. His suggestion is rude. I’ll put them in the pile along with the rest. In case of emergency, break head upon glass. “Just give me more speed instead.”
“Already did,” he answers with a cruel smirk. He never smirks. “You need sleep. Half the time, you make no sense. I’m not here to help you streamline your nightly scrap run, kid. If you can’t live without the extra kick, learn to cook.”
I puff smoke angrily from my nostrils like a dragon robbed of its treasure. The mere idea of having a sleeping pill in the same house as me makes me sick. Sleep one night, the whole world dies.
He must sense my disgust. He leans forward, plucks the cigarette from between my lips, and takes a long, hungry drag himself.
“And don’t forget to take your risperidone. I don’t want to perform surgery in the middle of the night again. Especially since you’re always driving. I may be the best, but still . . . Risky.”
V. The Morning Dove is Just the Devil’s Glove (And the Puppet Show’s Just Getting Started)
Searching for dog tags in the city of the dead isn’t pretty. In fact, it makes you feel like complete shit.
Specular IX is one of the most boring worlds I’ve ever been to. I reached up through the chest cavities of the damned, desperately combing for any signs of identification-turned-shrapnel. Sometimes, the markers get shoved inside when the bodies aren’t close enough to the center of impact to be instantly blown to pieces.
At least, that’s what I tell the Commander, so he’ll let me carve out bird’s nests in all the corpses. I do this so the birds have a place to roost. I do this because I know Prince Ralyn likes Ravens. Hell, he wears two carved from metal on each of his spiked, night-black pauldrons.
The more I sleep, the more I dream of his time lost and otherworldly glory. Oh, how I longed to be a part of something great . . . Something only he could inspire. Something that spanned lifetimes and galaxies, so I could do more with my life than sit around from waystation to waystation, waiting for a liner of clueless tourists just big enough to be worth the risk, but small enough to fall off the radar without causing any more than a ‘blip’.
Most of the time I’d just end up accidentally incinerating everyone onboard anyway, but at least it was something to get my blood pumping.
Oh, what I’d trade to go back to those scrapyard days, if only I knew that my future held those few precious months inside his cold embrace . . .
I don’t care how many times he takes credit for the mass produced Terrorboric incinerator mines—even if he blows a thousand worlds to ash in the name of the old ways. It’s not like I understood the worth of that equation anyway, or any of the others that came after it.
To me, they were all just strings of worthless numbers that made no more of a ‘blip’ on the essence of my consciousness than a ship no one would ever miss going up in blue fire.
With a sigh, I reached so far up inside the chest cavity of the next blast victim that I found the inside of her throat, and eventually, her soft palette. She was dead from radiation sickness, judging by the burns that peppered her body and her wide, panic-filled eyes.
Never sleep, you live forever.
When I was bored, I flapped my hands inside their lips and pretended they were talking to me out there on the fields. We all knew that eight out of ten of these hunks of meat were civilians. They didn’t even wear dog tags. Another thankless job; Another senseless formality.
Sleep one night, the whole world dies, the corpse limply mouthed back at me and smiled, even though I didn’t move my hand at all.
To my surprise, when I retracted my wrist from that pulpy and decimated throat with shock, my hands were clutching a pair of old prayer beads. Purple and orange, orange and gold. Blood-soaked and empty, like me.
With a sigh, I fastened them around my neck to replace the amulet to Noctyrion that was torn away in the battle and walked away.
VI. The Valfarian Armies Were Never Real
“Ten . . . I thought you said you were going to help me with the hallucinations . . . Nine . . .” I mumble, counting backwards from ten as ordered.
“I am,” the doctor sternly replies. Alone in the operating room, I hear the clamor of my brain case echo off a cold tin tray. Somehow, nothing hurts, and what once was a sterile white operating room now dances and melts upward like a thousand boiling lava lamps through a seraphim’s kaleidoscope. “Now keep counting.”
“Eight . . .” I mutter, weaker this time. The excited clamor of tools in a different tray distracts me, and my body goes stiff as I suddenly feel like I’m back out there running the roads—or the spaceways?
“Very good . . .” He purrs with victorious delight. I smell my brains cooking as he cauterizes the bleeds with sick precision, mending every cut with unmatched care.
“Seven . . .” Paralyzed, I see the puppet smiling again even though my eyes are wide open, and the Dread Reaches have been incinerated for a million years. It almost feels like time itself is unwinding as he works; like my memories are rewriting themselves. Some of the visions make zero sense: Blue mushroom clouds smothering entire worlds in a single blink, spaceships imploding into vast walls of fire as the stars themselves scream with joy.
But as he probes deeper, ever-inward, I see myself sitting there in his office on the day I showed him the Mark of the Beast.
The pyrotechnic sideshow of every imaginable color screeches to a grinding halt. Before the operation, he warned me he’d be watching the monitors all the time. They’d help him work more precisely and quickly, he said. But I feel his thousand eyes burning into me from every side, flooding my body mercilessly, like the piercing rush of a thousand needles. He isn’t looking at the monitors. He’s staring straight into the chokehold at the center of my brain.
“No sign of quasi-nuclear destabilization . . .” He mutters, dropping all his tools at once and furiously scratching notes on a clipboard.
“Six . . .” I choke out, wondering if that’s good or bad.
“I thought for sure the amphetamines would induce adequate psychosis . . .”
“S-six . . .” I whisper, stuck. I thrash at the bottom of Prince Ralyn’s throat again, in perfect synch with the screeching of the monitors.
“. . . But sometimes, when only cinders remain, an extra spark is required.”
The last thing I smell is the wrong kind of cooked flesh—the sticky, wet runoff of a really bad car accident.
He finishes, tapping his meathook against the tray like coffin nails with manic satisfaction.
“There, back to Igvarmord with you,” he scoffs, tearing out the pyrokinetic suppressor implanted deep within my brain, stringing all my thoughts like razor wire along with it.
“Most never get a chance to start again. Don’t fuck it up.”
Carelessly, he flicks a button on the side of the operating table that starts up a conveyor belt, sending my body off to the incinerator.
On the way out the door, he reaches into the pocket of my black denim jacket and steals my bottle of speed. He empties six pills into his hand and swallows them dry, then shoves the rest in his bloodied tool belt.
The mind-melting throat of colors tears a hole in the sky, and I hear the war drums of the Valfarian armies pounding with unhinged freedom again at last.
Far away, fading into the black, the seraphim scream a funeral march.
Theirs. Not mine.
THIS IS A STORY FOR ALL THOSE WHO DIED WITHOUT KNOWING THEY WERE STRONGER, SHARPER, AND SICKER THAN THE ONES WHO DROVE THEM TO ETERNAL SILENCE. MAY YOU FACE YOUR ADVERSARIES AT THE END OF TIME ON THE VAST, BLACK BATTLEFIELDS OF IGVARMORD, AND SHOW THEM WHAT IT TRULY MEANS TO BURN.