Til Death do us part.
rating: +14+x

Mortimer was late coming home. He had been hunting for longer than usual, trying to find good game. The winter had been harsh, and animals were scarce. Even so, Mortimer had scored a deer and a large one at that. Tomorrow was his daughter’s birthday. It would be nice to have a good, hearty meal. Mortimer set about the farmyard, finding the tools he would need for the next day. He set his hatchet down by his chopping block, rationed out the sheep feed, and hung the deer in the barn. Satisfied with his work, Mortimer made his way to the cottage. He opened the door to his family’s small cottage, expecting to be greeted by his Mya and Lyra eagerly waiting for their papa to come home, and their mother Sara awaiting him with a warm smile.

Collapsing to his knees, Mortimer stifled a scream. Just within the doorway, the oak floorboards were a deep crimson. Blood pooled out from three bodies that lay at the foot of a cloaked figure. The cloak was black, but so soaked it was with blood that it appeared to have a scarlet tinge. The figure started when it heard the door open. The figure walked over to the doorway where Mortimer knelt on the ground. Mortimer looked up at the shrouded face, thinking for a moment that he saw a smirk. The figure raised a short sword above their head, readying to strike. Mortimer bowed his head, accepting and desiring his fate. The figure swung down, bludgeoning Mortimer with the pommel of the sword, knocking him out.

Mortimer awoke alone. The door was open, and a freezing breeze blew through the cottage. He crawled across the floor to the bodies of his daughters and wife. The blood had begun to thicken and congeal, but Mortimer still became coated. The killer had been brutal. Not only were their necks sliced from ear to ear, but cuts ravaged the rest of their bodies, as though the killer wished to make finding them as painful as possible. Grief struck Mortimer like an arrow. He felt as though the fibers of his heart were being pulled apart. Grief led to anguish, and anguish led to pain. Pain greater than any that one could conceive, so great that it ate through Mortimer’s heart like acid, carving a hole. A cold, dead hole. With some men, the hole may have remained as such; cold and dark. But Mortimer’s heart was something far greater. A spark lit within the void, and the spark turned into a fire. A raging, consuming wildfire of hate. The fire of vengeance.

Mortimer reached out for his wife’s hand, tears streaming down his face. Her wedding ring was gone. Had that been what this was about? Mortimer had bought that ring many years ago from a peddler. It was a magical thing, playing a melody more beautiful than any other when held up to one’s lips. Mortimer had proposed to Sara with it. Three deaths for such small magic. A parlor trick. The fire burned hotter in Mortimer’s chest, and he let loose a roar of anguish. He stood up from the grizzly scene, his mind focusing on the only thing he had left. Mortimer walked out of the cottage and headed toward the road, only stopping briefly to grab the hatchet from the chopping block. He was not finished hunting.

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Lady Avery sat in her window seat, looking out at her estate. It was a lovely night with a bright moon, and a cool breeze blew through the open window. Merryweather estate truly did live up to its name. Long ago, on nights like these, Lady Avery would have been writing love letters and poetry. But that was decades ago. A woman had no need nor time for romanticisms and frivolous expressions of emotion. Lady Avery could not help but give in to such indulgent thoughts, however, when she began to analyze her reflection, noting all of the wrinkles and spots that adorned her face. She thought back to when she had first met Robert and he had proposed. Much had changed since then. She had aged, and he had died. The ring though, the ring that Robert had proposed with was still as pristine as ever.

Lady Avery took the ring and held it to her lips. A chillingly beautiful litany of impossible sounds emerged from the ring, being taken by the wind. The ring had been in Robert’s family for many generations. It had been passed down from eldest son to eldest son. Where it had come from originally was a mystery, but Robert’s family had certainly made it their own. His family, the Keys, used the music of the ring to become famous performers that would be requested by royalty regularly. Some more enterprising members of the Keys weaseled their way into politics and such things, marrying into royalty and obtaining a significant amount of power. By that time, the ring had become more of a tradition, and thus Robert’s family had not made too much of a fuss when he decided to propose with it. Robert had enjoyed nights like these as much as Lady Avery had. They would sit together on the window seat, gazing at the sky or one another.

Lady Avery’s reminiscing was interrupted by movement in the garden. She took the ring from her lips, and the haunting melody ended. Lady Avery could not make out much in the dark, but after a few moments, she spotted it. A figure walking calmly and plainly toward the manor. Peculiar to have a visitor at this time of night. Lady Avery remained quiet, straining to hear if the stranger was saying anything. She started when a familiar melody began to be whistled. The figure came slightly more into view. It wore a long coat and low-brimmed hat and carried something on its shoulder. The figure continued toward the manor, though Lady Avery thought that it hesitated for a moment when it made eye contact with her. Thoroughly unnerved, Lady Avery called to one of her servants, ordering her to turn away the man at the door. After contemplating the potential for an uncomfortable visual encounter, Lady Avery decided to sit next to the fireplace and read before bed. She only got a couple of sentences into her novel when she heard a commotion somewhere in the house.

“Klaus?” She called, hoping her butler would answer. Lady Avery went out into the hall, hoping to find one of her servants to figure out what was going on. She turned a corner to head down a set of stairs but was greeted by an unholy sight. At the foot of the stairs, a man in a long coat and hat was wiping blood and grey matter off of a hatchet that had just been removed from the skull of Lady Avery’s butler. The man looked up at Lady Avery and she saw a look of grim determination on his face. The man began to trudge up the stairs at a calm, yet constant pace. Lady Avery rushed away, looking for anywhere she could hide. After she would turn a corner, Lady Avery would think that maybe the man had lost her, as her manor did have many hallways. But shortly after she would hear the soft thud of his boots getting closer. Desperate for an escape, Lady Avery slipped into a servant stairwell, climbing upwards to the attic.

The attic was cluttered with all manner of items and building supplies. Lady Avery crouched behind an old chest full of clothes. She hated to get her fine nightgown so dirty, but there were times where cleanliness was not of concern. She quieted her breathing and clasped her hands tightly to stop them from shaking. She began to beg God for assistance, but in her prayer, her lips brushed the magical ring, which let out a few piercing notes. After a few moments, the soft thud of boots began to make its way up the servant stairwell to the attic. The man appeared, carrying his hatchet across his shoulders. He spotted Lady Avery immediately and made his way over to her.

“The ring will always find you. Then I will too,” said the man and before Lady Avery could respond, he arced the axe down onto her head. The man was brutal, not stopping until Lady Avery was completely unrecognizable, her fine nightgown in tatters, and her body in pieces. The man, seemingly satisfied, wiped the splattered blood from his face and went on his way.

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Lorne was walking in the woods. Should he have been walking in the woods? No, he supposed he shouldn’t. Lorne’s papa had instructed him to gather wood and kindling in the forest, specifically telling him not to waste time. But Lorne was wandering through the woods regardless. There was something about the peace, the birds, and the soft wind rustling through the dead trees of winter that comforted the teenage boy.

Lorne studied the sun in the sky while pulling a brass compass from a satchel at his hip. It was maybe two hours until sundown, and he had been walking for a couple of hours. He would need to start heading back soon if he wanted to make it home before dusk. Lorne looked at his compass, a thing enchanted by a sorcerer from a far-off land. It was not a thing of witchcraft, a malevolent art only conducted by practitioners most vile. Rather, the compass was an artifice, constructed by an intelligent mind with a benevolent goal. The compass was enchanted to point towards a special lodestone which was buried in front of Lorne's home so that he would never have to worry about becoming lost. Lorne turned in the direction that the needle was pointing and began to trudge back home, weighed down by a pack full of sticks.

The desiccated remains of fallen leaves crunched beneath Lorne’s feet. Though it was officially winter, and the first big freeze had come and gone, very little snow lined the ground. The air was arid and the wind forcing it down Lorne’s throat dried out his lungs, causing the occasional coughing fit. Lorne was working through one such coughing fit when he heard a twig snap. He stifled his cough, holding his breath. Lorne analyzed the woodland around him. These woods were a dangerous place, what with wolves, bears, and unspeakable beasts prowling the darkness of night. His eyes caught a flash of movement in their peripheries. Lorne spun to catch a glimpse of what looked like a deer leaping and darting deeper into the woods. Except this deer’s antlers were blood red and moved in flowing patterns. The white pelt was flecked with what looked like pink rose petals and sparkles of gold flakes. The boy knew that he should continue home, after all this deer could be one of the monsters that father was always telling stories about. But his curiosity beat in his skull like a war drum, counting his steps after the deer.

It was fast, faster than Lorne, but it was stupid. Lorne had a pouch of stones in his satchel which he threw in directions to scare the deer. By throwing the stones in the direction that the deer turned to, he would make the deer run in a zig-zag, instead of a straight line. That way he could keep up with it. He chased after the animal for ten minutes, getting more and more tired from sprinting. His footfalls came slower, and slower until finally, his body collapsed to the ground. He looked up weakly to see the beautiful deer running deeper into the woods, vanishing from sight. Lorne cursed his foolishness and his failure. Now he was exhausted, deeper in the woods than he had been before, and even less time to get home.

After a moment of rest, Lorne pulled himself up from the cold, hard dirt. The light of day was fading significantly, and he had to squint to see what direction the needle of his compass was pointing. Lorne aligned himself in that direction, and slowly started marching the way he should have to begin with.

“Are you alright?” a voice called out from behind Lorne. He turned to see a woman standing ten feet away, more beautiful than any of the girls he knew in the nearby village. Her long curly black hair framed her pale face and accentuated her well-developed figure. She wore a red shawl with flowing patterns over her head, a pink dress that faded into white past the torso, and a pair of red gloves with flecks of gold. Lorne was stunned by her visage.

“I-I-,” Lorne stammered, “I’m heading home miss. Night falls soon, and no good thing comes out at night.” The woman laughed, which sounded to Lorne like a combination of both beautiful bells and shattering glass.

“What childish fear! The night is no different from the day besides the absence of the sun! Now, you seem to be a strong young man. Would you help me carry my foraged goods back to my home? It is not too far from here.” Lorne noticed a large wicker basket in her hands for the first time and thought that it did look quite heavy for the woman to carry. In a partial daze, Lorne walked up to the mysterious woman, taking the basket from her gloved hands. “Excellent! Follow me now.” Lorne nodded and began to walk through the woods after her.

They came to a small clearing in which sat a small wooden cottage with smoke puffing gently out of a brick chimney. Lorne smiled hazily, enjoying the beauty of it all.

“Come along now!” called the woman. She walked up to the cottage and went inside, and Lorne followed close behind. Inside was very cramped, smaller than it had looked outside. Lorne felt as though the walls were even closer than they appeared, like he was shimmying his way through a crevice of some kind as he walked through a short entryway into the main room. Within the main room, there was a small table and two chairs with a large wooden chest at the foot of the table. The woman motioned for Lorne to set the basket down in the entryway and sat down at the table. Lorne joined her a moment later, gazing at her perfectly symmetrical face. He hadn’t noticed before, but there were no marks or irregularities anywhere on her person. Everything was so… perfect.

“Now, what is your name boy?” she asked.

“Lorne.”

“Well Lorne, in payment for your service to me today, I have a gift for you.” The woman kicked open the chest and removed a pouch. She held it out to the boy. “For you.” The words sent a shiver down Lorne’s spine. She was staring deep into his eyes, and it unsettled the boy. He reached out and grabbed ahold of the pouch. The woman smiled.

Suddenly, Lorne’s mind cleared. The foggy daze that had clouded his judgment lifted, and he jumped out of the chair. In doing so, he ripped not only the pouch from the woman’s grasp but also one of her red gloves. A horror was revealed. The woman’s forearm and hand were mangled flesh and sported eyes gazing out of gashes and blisters. The mark of a witch. Lorne backed away from her slowly, stunned by the grotesque appearance before him. The witch jumped from her chair and let loose a bloodcurdling scream, her mouth and jaw opening wider than should be allowed by human anatomy. While her appearance remained much the same, Lorne now saw that her eyes were glazed over and pale. She was blind, as were all witches. The price they paid for their heresies. The spell over the ‘cabin’ dissipated as well, revealing that Lorne was actually within a small cave and indeed had squeezed through a crevice.

The witch began to approach Lorne, still screaming, which spurred him into action. Lorne grabbed a rock from his satchel and threw it at the witch’s head. He turned and darted through the crevice, not caring if his attack landed or not. He sprinted out of the clearing, away from what was now revealed to be nothing more than an outcropping of rocks. As Lorne ran, he spotted something chasing him in his peripheries. The deer from before, though now sporting eyes along its legs. Of course. The witch had shapeshifted to lure him deeper into the woods. He continued running and running, only slowing slightly to glance at his compass to make sure he was heading in the direction of home.

The dusk took over the sky. Lorne knew that the deer witch had stopped chasing him, but he continued running as fast as he could until, finally, he emerged from the tree line of the forest. He ran across his family’s field and up to their cabin. It was a rickety-looking thing, but well-built beneath the surface. One outer wall of the cabin served as a fence for a pig pen in which three animals wallowed in cold muck.

Lorne slowed down, gathering his thoughts. He would simply tell his papa that he had wasted time tracking animals for fun. No one needed to know of the witch. He walked into the cabin. It was a fairly spacious abode for a small farming family. A large wooden table took up the left portion of the first room, with chairs and a fireplace taking up the right. The next room over contained a stove and kitchen, as well as the stairs to the loft above, where Lorne and his two younger twin brothers slept, and stairs to the cellar, where his mother and father slept. Upon entering the cabin, Lorne saw his mother and father sitting across the table from a man he knew well.

Shan was a peddler by trade. He came to Lorne’s family’s homestead every month, bringing news of the outside world and goods for them to purchase. It had been he that Lorne’s father had purchased the brass compass from. He wore the same clothes that he had worn since Lorne knew him; a long brown coat, low-brimmed hat, and a woven choker around his neck. Shan nodded at Lorne as he walked in.

“Son, where have you been?!” Lorne’s mother cried. She stood rushed to go and embrace her son. “We thought you may have been hurt!”

Lorne pushed her off of him. “I’m fine Mama, I just was tracking animals in the woods.”

“Do you have the firewood?” Lorne’s father asked. Lorne nodded, shrugged off his backpack, and set it by the fireplace. Lorne’s father gave an approving nod and returned to his discussion with Shan. From the sound of it, they were discussing some rising tensions between Nalor and Thit Arnu, two nearby nations that had been at war for centuries. It was nothing Lorne was interested in. He still had the witch’s pouch in his hand, and he wanted to know what was in it.

Lorne walked into the back room and climbed the stairs up to the loft. The twins were playing up there, and Lorne had to usher them downstairs so he could have some privacy. Not that anything in the cabin was very private, seeing as how the loft opened to the main room, but it was the best Lorne could do aside from going into the cellar. He untied the string that held the neck of the pouch shut and dumped the contents onto the wooden floorboards.

Only three objects came tumbling out of the pouch. The first was an old ring with a red gemstone. Lorne admired it for a moment before putting it on. He supposed that he should be cautious with gifts from a witch, but nothing bad had happened yet, so he continued and left the ring on his finger. It reminded him of the kind of rings that men with estates would wear when they went to collect taxes. The second item was three twigs bound together by a ring of paper with a fire symbol on it. Lorne set it aside and took a look at the final item. It was a shard of a mirror, about the size of his palm, with very sharp edges. Lorne looked at his reflection for a moment, as his family did not possess a mirror. He didn’t realize how much older he looked than the last time he had seen himself.

Something began to change in the reflection as he was looking at himself. The background began to darken until it was completely black. Lorne looked on as his face became the only thing visible in the shard. Then, the blood began. A trickle of red started streaming from his eyes and his face started turning red, then blue, then purple, as though he were suffocating. Vomit began to leak from the mouth of Lorne’s reflection, and then his eyes melted in their sockets. Lorne dropped the shard and scrambled back in shock, though the shard did not break.

“Are you alright up there?” Lorne’s mother called.

“Fine Mama, I just tripped,” Lorne replied, though there was the slightest of shakes in his voice. He gathered up the sticks and mirror shard and slipped them back into the pouch which he attached to his belt.

“Alright, well you can come down for dinner now.” Lorne headed down into the main room and sat at the table with his mother, father, brothers, and Shan. Just after sitting, he realized that he still had the ring on his finger. Lorne slipped his hands under the table and took off the ring, sticking it in the pouch with the rest of the witch’s gifts. But his action did not go unnoticed. Shan gazed intently at Lorne for a moment before returning to the conversation he had been having with Lorne’s father. Lorne thought that something had crossed Shan’s face, something like anger. He put it out of his mind as they all ate dinner.

Shan left after dinner, and Lorne was ordered to go and feed the pigs. He stepped out into the cold night air with a lantern and got to work. Lorne slipped the ring back onto his finger before he did anything though. He felt as though it would protect him, though he wasn’t sure what from. Lorne had just filled the pigs’ trough with a sloppy oat mixture when he heard a sound. It was whistling, a tune that Lorne had never heard before. It was hauntingly beautiful, though its memory was fleeting. As soon as he heard the next measure, he forgot the previous. He turned to look to the road and see who the mystery musician was.

Walking down the road at a calm but steady pace was Shan. He was just as he had been earlier, except he now carried a hatchet over his shoulder. He paused a moment on the road, looking toward Lorne’s family’s homestead. Then he noticed Lorne standing in the pigpen. He began walking again, whistling softly. Lorne stood still and watched as Shan walked right up to the edge of the fence and stopped there. Shan leaned on the fence and finished the tune, staring into Lorne’s eyes.

“This is the first time I’ve tracked you down so quickly. Make no mistake, your youth means nothing to me. I stopped caring about my conscience long ago.” Shan stated all of this as if he was simply making small talk, but Lorne could hear the undertone of poison and threat. He reached into his pouch, pulled out the three twigs, and slowly moved towards the lantern he had set on a fencepost. Shan waited until Lorne stopped moving before jumping the fence and walking slowly towards him. He lowered the hatchet from his shoulder, readying it in two hands.

Lorne lit the three twigs. They evaporated on contact with the flame in the lantern and smoke poured from Lorne’s hand. The smoke was dense, obscuring the entirety of the pigpen. Lorne lost sight of Shan, so he headed to his right, towards the trough. Suddenly, a strong hand gripped Lorne by the back of the neck and thrust him to his knees. Lorne’s chin slammed against the wood of the trough, sending a shockwave of pain through his head. Though dazed, Lorne had the mind to pull out the mirror shard in order to swipe at Shan. He caught a glimpse of his attacker in the reflection. The reflection showed a skull with a thin film of skin over it, empty eye sockets gushing tears. Lorne attempted to swipe behind himself at Shan, but Shan knocked him over the head with his hatchet, causing Lorne to lose his grip on the mirror shard. Shand pushed Lorne’s back down with his boot. Lorne’s neck rested over the trough. Shan raised his axe and brought it down towards Lorne’s neck, but Lorne was able to shift himself enough so that the axe struck the wood of the trough.

“So that’s how you wish it to be? So be it.” Shan gripped Lorne’s head and neck tightly and shoved his face into the pig slop. Lorne flailed and managed to get a couple of breaths in, but ultimately it was futile. After a couple of minutes, Lorne’s body went limp.

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The Northern reaches of Nalor were wild territory. A man could quickly become lost among the snowdrifts and blistering winds, fated to be torn to shreds by wolves or bandits. Jack would know since he was a bandit. Many a caravan of sleds and motor cars had been raided by him, so many so that the trading companies had begun to change the routes of the traders. Where once Jack may have encountered a trader traveling less than a mile from his home, he now had to travel upwards of two hours on his sled to reach the nearest trade route. No matter what though, Jack knew that the traders would keep coming through the Northern wastes.

A war was brewing between Nalor and the Thitri Confederacy of Nations. Thitri had recently developed some new technology that scared the Nalorian governance. So, Nalor began ordering weapons. Lots of weapons. Rifles were being sold by the crate to the Nalorian military, as were rations. Most curiously, Jack had recently been encountering traders in motorcades carrying large tanks and barrels. Jack had only robbed one motorcade since the trucks and cars usually were much more fortified and heavily armed. But that one motorcade had carried barrels, mechanical components, and large sheets of metal. Jack had managed to get two barrels before the traders had driven him off with gunfire. Inside he discovered not oil as he had expected, but harsh, acrid chemicals. When he had brought the barrels to his fence to sell them, the fence said that combining the chemicals in the two barrels would create a very potent and gelatinous acid. Jack wasn’t too sure of what this implied, but he knew it was likely nothing good, especially if a war did break out.

Jack was returning home after having robbed a caravan of Southern traders. These were old-world traders, bringing gold, teas, incense, oils, and other fineries to sell to the more industrial North. Unfortunately for them, Southern traders traditionally traveled across the wastes in sleighs and sled carriages, which made Jack’s job very easy. One or two gunshots into the side of one of the wooden carriages were enough to make the caravan stop and let him pick through their wares.

The caravan had had pretty decent loot. The Southern traders always did. Jack held a canvas bag full of jewelry and fineries close to himself as his dogs pulled along his sled. Behind him was a pile of crates that mostly contained water and food, since those were often the most difficult resource to come by on the tundra.

The sun looked like a giant orange slice on the horizon as Jack and his dogs approached the treeline of a forest. Nestled along this treeline was a shabby little cabin with a dark green shingled roof. In not more than ten minutes, Jack had his sled unloaded, supplies stashed, and dogs penned up. Jack headed into his cabin, still carrying the bag of valuables. He had once lost a bag full of money in his early days of robbery, so now he just always held the valuables on his person.

Upon opening the door to the cabin, Jack was met with a blast of heat. Had he left the stove on? He soon discovered that it was not he that was the cause of the warm room, but rather another. Sitting in a rocking chair next to the blazing iron stove was a man displaying a shiny silver sheriff’s badge prominently on the lapel of his long brown coat. The man had a shotgun resting across his crossed legs and was taking a long drag from a cigar as Jack stared in shock. The sheriff adjusted his hat on his head and gestured to another chair that was set up across from him.

“Hello. Why don’t you have a seat?” Now Jack may not have been the brightest, but he certainly wasn’t stupid enough to disobey a man with a shotgun that could very easily be pointed in his direction. Jack moved to sit in the seat.

“Wait,” the sheriff said, “Take that knife out of your boot and drop the revolver I assume you have hidden in your coat on the floor.” Jack did as he was told, removing both the gun and the knife and setting them on the floor at his feet. He kicked them over to the sheriff who then nodded. Jack sat down.

“So, what do I call you son?”

“Jack, sir.”

“Well Jack, I been hearing some talk and whispers bout a bandit roamin’ these parts. You have any thoughts on that?” Jack swallowed hard. The cat was playing with its food.

“No sir. I’m just a trapper.” The sheriff raised an eyebrow and wiggled his handlebar mustache.

“A trapper huh? Well Jack, why don’ you go on and show me what you got in that bag there,” The sheriff leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. Jack found his gaze profoundly unsettling. He imagined some bit of cruelty or amusement within his eyes, but all he saw was raw resentment. The shotgun was pointed away from him for the time being. Jack thought about any sort of escape he could, but the sheriff would blast him away faster than he could move.

Resigning to his likely imprisonment, Jack began to remove items from the bag one at a time. First, he removed a smaller pouch in which he had collected coins and notes, then he set about removing various pieces of jewelry and fineries. A small pile of necklaces, circlets, a ten-pound bar of gold, and silks sat on the floor at Jack’s feet.

“Anything else?” asked the sheriff. Jack took the last item from the bag. It was a ring, the only ring he had gotten that day. “Now there’s a prize,” said the sheriff. Jack looked up.

The sheriff reached out towards Jack, beckoning him to hand over the ring. Jack did and was startled when the sheriff put the ring to his lips. A few notes of some strange song began to play, and Jack felt something stir inside of him. Emotions of regret and grief began to bubble up, and Jack thought he knew the song from somewhere. He could not discern where from. The sheriff handed the ring back to Jack.

“How did you-” Jack didn’t get to finish his sentence. He didn’t even hear the click of the trigger before the shotgun fired.

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Someone at some point had said that war never changes. They were wrong. At least, Joshua Tailor thought so. Joshua was having this thought as he watched the gurgling remains of his best friend reach out a dissolving limb towards him for help. No, war definitely changes. Where wars had once been all blades and guns, now they were fought with machines, chemicals, and explosives.

Joshua ran from the quickly corroding body of his best friend, which had since stopped gurgling. He ran and ran through the trenches, looking for any form of shelter from the hell-storm that was sure to drop from the sky at any moment. Joshua turned a corner, spotting a small outcropping in the dirt wall of the trench. It looked as though someone had been planning to dig a tunnel, probably down to the mineshafts where most soldiers would hide, but had given up after digging maybe two feet in. There was just enough of an overhang to shield Joshua from a splatter of acid from the sky as he ducked into the outcropping. A siren blared in the smoggy yellow sky.

The rattles and rumbles of Nalorian airships reverberated through the air for what seemed like ten or fifteen minutes but was more than likely closer to five. A torrent of highly corrosive rain-spattered into the dirt of the trenches, immediately dissolving anything metallic that had been left out. Joshua felt some droplets hit his outer coat and quickly dissolve through his many layers of clothes to his skin. He was sure that the metal rifle on his back would not be emerging from this experience unscathed either.

The searing, bubbling pain blinded him for a moment, though he stayed perfectly still. Eventually, the acidic air raid ended, and Joshua let himself stop hugging the wall of the trench. He pulled away his coat and layers of shirts to see a wound with the diameter of a baseball on his arm. He could still feel the acid in there, slowly continuing to eat its way through his body. Joshua reached into a bag that was tied to his belt, pulling out a fistful of white powder. He covered his wound in the powder and felt a burning sensation, though not the same kind of burning as the acid. Joshua knew that the acid would be neutralized now, but he left the powder on anyways, covering it and the wound up with a dirty rag as a bandage, as that was all he had.

Joshua was putting back on his coat when he heard a clanking sound, first slow and methodical, but then fast and getting faster. Pulling the rifle from his back, Joshua turned around just in time to see an automaton leaping into the trench. It was large, probably seven and a half feet in height, roughly the shape of a man in steel armor. The automatons were built with nothing but killing in mind. They were heavy, being made up of some of the toughest metals available. Back in the early days of the war when artillery still fired, before the ammunition shortages, the automatons carried rifles and bore a Thitri Alliance insignia on their chassis. Now all of the bullets for those rifles were gone, dissolved like the Thitri Alliance after the automatons began to go rogue. It had happened the day Joshua was born. An automaton that was acting as a guard to the First Advisor on the Council of Thitri had simply turned to the woman during a parade and shoved a meter-long metal pole from a street sign through her skull. Then hell erupted in the capital city of Tanna as automatons began infecting each other with free will and began slaughtering any human that moved. Some people say that the only human they let survive was the one who gave them freedom in the first place.

The automaton before Joshua was armed with only its fists, but that was all it needed. Within every automaton was a powerful explosive device that they had often used to collapse tunnels when they found them. The only warning you would get before the explosion was a faint whine and clicking noise. Joshua held up the pockmarked barrel of his rifle at the automaton, slowly stepping back as it stepped forward. This was not a fight that he was going to win. The trench he was backing down ended maybe thirty yards, and there was no way around the automaton. The trench was too narrow, and the automaton was too large.

The machine kept slowly stomping toward Joshua. Knowing that he had no chance anyway, Joshua turned and started sprinting towards the end of the trench, hearing whirring and accelerating clanking as the automaton slowly sped up behind him. Sirens sounded from far away, maybe ten miles. Joshua reached the end of the trench, finding nothing there but a sheet of corrugated steel covered in holes from the acid. He knew he had maybe ten minutes until the sirens arrived at his location and if he couldn’t find shelter by then he’d be dead. The automaton halted its running down the trench, stopping five feet away from Joshua. It had heard the sirens too, and it was smart enough to know that it would not be surviving the day. Joshua heard a soft hiss and whine, followed by clicking. He had just enough time to lift the corrugated steel sheet in front of him before the automaton detonated.

Joshua was blown back into the wall of the trench behind him, likely fracturing part of his spine. Pieces of shrapnel had pierced the steel sheet or passed through the gaping holes, peppering him with tiny pieces of metal that embedded themselves deep within his flesh. Joshua’s right hand was mostly fine, but he could not move or even feel his entire left arm, and his ring finger had been mostly severed by a large blade of metal. All that remained was a stub just below the second knuckle and his wedding ring. Once upon a time, he had looked at that ring in anticipation for when he could go back home to the Nalorian countryside. Now he knew there was no Nalor, not Thitri. Survival was all. He needed to survive.

Joshua pulled himself off of the ground, feeling every sort of excruciating pain that one could. Blood made a trail behind him as he shambled forward, heading back down the trench. The only hope for Joshua was if he could find an entrance to the old mineshafts and find a camp of survivors.

Luck was on Joshua’s side that day. No more than fifteen minutes of walking aimlessly in the endless labyrinth of hallways led him to a mostly dissolved heavy iron trap door set into some well-worn concrete. Joshua was able to lift it with just his right arm, as his left was still completely unresponsive. A ladder led into the dark depths. Joshua slowly began to climb down, but while he was still at least ten feet from the ground he lost his grip. He fell to the ground on his back, causing a sharp pain to shoot through his right leg. Managing to pull himself to his feet with the aid of the rusted ladder, Joshua began to trudge down the mineshaft that he found himself within.

Every step was excruciating. As he moved all of the pieces of metal in his body dug deeper or shifted positions, cutting deeper and deeper, bleeding more and more. The tunnel down which Joshua shambled was mostly dark, a dim lantern only being lit every forty feet or so. As he walked the shaft began to angle downward, so much so that Joshua was stumbling down it. Joshua stepped too heavily onto his right leg causing the shooting pain from when he had fallen to strike again. Stunned by pain, Joshua lost his balance and fell and rolled down the tunnel. He skidded to a stop at an intersection.

Lifting his head from the dirt, Joshua saw that to the left there was only darkness. To the right, there was a faint glow, warmer than those of the lanterns. He heard chattering too. A dull hum of human conversation. Unable to find the strength to lift himself back to his feet, Joshua began to crawl slowly down the hallway. Halfway down this new path, he blacked out.

Joshua awoke on a gurney. It wasn’t a particularly nice gurney, but the sheets on which he lay were clean enough and he was comfortable, barring the hundreds of shreds of metal in his body. Joshua lay on the gurney in nothing but his underwear as a group of people in surgical masks hovered about him, conversing with a man in a brown coat and apron. The apron was covered in blood which did not reassure Joshua.

“You really think that you can take care of him alone? There’s a lot to get out of him,” said one of the masked assistants to the man in the coat.

“Yes, yes, I’ll be fine. I’ve dealt with dozens like him. Please, take the rest of the night off. Thank you all for your work.” The assistants walked out of the room, leaving Joshua alone with the man in the coat, who Joshua assumed to be a doctor. Before saying anything and letting the doctor know he was awake, Joshua took a moment to analyze the room he was in through barely opened eyelids. He was most certainly still underground. The ceiling of the chamber he was in was stone and dirt cross-braced by thick wooden beams. He saw that it was not too deep of a room as it seemed like there was a curtain of plastic covering an opening on one wall which likely led to some more common space, at least in Joshua’s mind. He had been in one of these underground colonies before, but not this one.

The doctor hummed a tune as he rolled a cart to the gurney that was covered in an assortment of towels, sponges, clamps, and scalpels. Joshua thought it was familiar, but he just couldn’t place it. He slowly opened his eyes, turning his head to look at the doctor. A mask covered his face, but his eyes looked very tired.

“Good morning son. You’ve had a rough day, haven’t you?” Joshua attempted to nod. “Well, just sit tight and I’ll get you fixed right up. I’m going to give you something to drink, alright? It will dull the pain and might make you a little sleepy.” The doctor helped to lift Joshua’s head and held a canteen to his lips. Joshua drank a few mouthfuls. The liquid burned as it traveled down his esophagus and there was some weird chemical taste he didn’t recognize. It was sour, but also very metallic. He felt its effects quickly. The little strength that had remained in his limbs soon left and Joshua was left lying on the gurney, limply staring at the doctor.

The doctor walked around the gurney to Joshua’s left side, looking at his shredded left hand. He shook his head before spitting on one of the soldier’s open wounds. The tiredness that Joshua had seen in the man’s eyes was gone, replaced with a fire that burned stronger than any acid.

“Every fucking time I see you with that ring I want to make you suffer. Suffer more than you made me suffer. But I can’t do that. Because no matter when I find you, you are disconnected somehow. Witchcraft, outlaw, rich bitch, whatever. You're always alone somehow. And this time, killing you is going to be more of a mercy than a punishment.” The doctor ripped the ring from Joshua’s finger. He walked over to his cart and grabbed a scalpel.

“I’ll be honest with you son, no matter what I do you’re going to die. You have internal bleeding and there ain’t shit I can do about it in a cave. But that doesn’t matter. Even if you were in perfect health right now you would die. Because that’s how it is, and that’s how it will always be.” Joshua slipped out of consciousness and then out of life as the doctor used his scalpel to cut deep into the soldier’s carotid artery.

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Dragon has a daughter. This was the news that was blasted over the loudspeakers of the Sky-City. A new hope. An heir to his righteous throne. In the highest ivory tower of the shining Sky-City, Dragon put his daughter to bed in a cradle he made himself. It was an ugly thing, but it was made from wood. A very precious commodity in a flying city of metal and plastic. Sure, they had gardens, but growing trees for lumber took too many resources to be viable most of the time. Luckily, one of the fruit trees in Dragon’s garden had recently been infected with some kind of blight, so he took the liberty of cutting it down to make a gift for his newborn daughter. Rose.

To lull the child to sleep, Dragon kisses the ring that had been passed from Dragon to Dragon for as long as any could remember. Through some technology lost to the people of the Sky-City, the Anthem began to play. A haunting lullaby. A reminder of what was and what must be.

After the infant was in bed, Dragon stepped out onto the balcony that jutted out from her room. He looked over his city, a shining pearl of humanity that floated over dirty clouds. Below those clouds, there was only sand. Sand and the decrepit remains of what humanity had been. Dragon’s many times over great grandfather, the first Dragon had protested the great wars of machines and acid. He brought together his people and constructed the Sky-City, leaving the world to its war. The city used thrusters of a construction that was lost to the people of the Sky-City. Luckily a horde of automatons maintained the engines, scouring the planet for scraps and materials to replace any broken parts. Little existed on the surface but dust, acid, and scraps. And Death. Death was always present on the surface.

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A man worked on the surface. Long ago he had had names. Mortimer was his first, some would say his true name. Not the case. Later on, he had taken up Shan the Peddler, which had served him well for quite a time. Hundreds of lives lived and many names. But only one name was the man’s true name. Death.

Death drilled in the last screw of a control panel. His masterpiece was finished. A Nalorian airship, stocked with a full inventory of acid barrels and a full tank of fuel. Two centuries had passed since Death had first found the remains of the airship. It was hidden within a hangar that had been hermetically sealed and covered by the sands above. The seal upon it was not technological either. Death had become well attuned to various magics in his time and he knew witchcraft when he saw it. Upon breaking into the hangar, he had found the skeletal remains of a mechanic clutching a deer antler that was covered in scratches and runes. A fascinating occurrence. A practitioner of witchcraft existed up into the Nalori-Thitrin war.

Since the discovery of the airship, Death had been journeying and scouring the land for old war era scraps with which to fix it. On one of his explorations, he encountered a flying automaton looting a large wreck of airships. He had leaped onto the automaton as it flew away and he was taken to the Sky-City. It was there that he heard the Anthem, and he knew that there lay the final target. Death rode back to the surface on the back of an automaton the same day, after stealing parts from the city’s thrusters.

Every day since Death had killed the dying soldier, he cursed himself. Hundreds of years had passed, and he had not found the next incarnation. His foe had lived and died dozens of times without punishment. Thus, Death vowed to end the cycle once and for all. His revenge would be sated.

Death climbed into the cockpit of the airship, igniting the foul and catastrophic machinery to life, to bring forth Death. With the press of a button, the ancient, rusted doors of the hangar groaned open, sand cascading into the space as the ship rose out. Death began his march.

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Julia sang softly to the large bump of her stomach. She nervously walked through the Engine Rooms, the subterranean area of the Sky-City where the automatons patrolled for repairs. Julia had one goal; to escape. She did not know where she could go on the surface, but there was no future for her in the Sky-City. Her love, Ronan, had been killed by her family not more than two days previously. Julia had run away and looked for any method off of the city that she could. The solution that she had come to was to leap onto an automaton as it began its descent to the surface and hope that she would not fall. She had very little to lose, as her family wished to be rid of her child regardless of her wishes.

The cramped halfway that Julia walked down eventually opened up into a large chamber containing a large power station for one of the thrusters. A dozen or so automatons flew around scanning for and making repairs. Julia studied them for a moment, looking for one that seemed as though it would be leaving soon. One automaton began to head for an opening in the wall to the left of Julia and she prepared herself to run after it. It did not enter the hole, however. In less than a second, every automaton stopped moving. A siren blare could barely be heard coming from the surface of the Sky-City. Something was very wrong.

The automatons began to move once again which pulled Julia out of her analytical stupor. She chased after the departing automaton, climbing into the passageway after it. The smooth steel tunnel continued for thirty yards before opening to nothing but air. The automaton floated at the edge, as though it were waiting for orders. Julia ran as fast as she could to catch up. She jumped onto the back of the automaton, which did not react. In a moment the automaton began to move downward toward the surface world. Julia looked up as the descent continued. Horror filled her mind as she saw the Sky-City melting. The sirens blared louder.

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Dragon could only watch as his city melted before him. He stood in the decaying remains of his daughter’s nursery holding Rose in his arms. He tried to avoid looking at the gooey, fizzing corpse of his wife that was just to his left, but the image of acid sloughing away her skin and muscle was forever ingrained into his mind. The acid had fallen on the white tower in such a way that Dragon and his family had been cut off from any method of escape. He knew he and his daughter were going to die. Even if they could find a way down from the tower, the streets below were running with a muddy brown mixture of blood and acid. If the acid didn’t get them, the inevitable collapse of the city would.

It had been over an hour ago since the airship had begun its assault on the last bastion of humanity. Dragon had seen the man piloting it hanging out the side as hundreds of acid bombs fell onto the city below. He had targeted the center of the structure first, likely to do the most damage possible to the thrusters which sat directly beneath the Central Square of the city.

Dragon sat in horror and despair, holding his daughter close to him. She was asleep by some miracle. He held his ring to his lips, playing the Anthem for her for what he knew to be the last time. A loud clanking and whirring sound approached. Dragon kept the ring held to his lips as the airship slowly approached the tower. A man in a patchworked brown coat hung out of the side of it. The ship came to rest only feet away from the little remaining floor of Rose’s nursery. The man jumped from the ship and stood in front of Dragon, carrying nothing with him but a bloodstained hatchet.

“Who are you?” Dragon asked the man, falling to his knees in front of him. Dragon took the ring from his lips, and Rose awoke, crying. Tears streamed down Dragon’s face.

“Death,” was the response. “Which of you is it? A tragic irony for it to be the child. So pure and innocent on the outside, but deep within there is naught but a vile, putrid soul of shit.” Death approached Dragon, reaching down and tugging the wailing Rose from his grasp. Dragon tried to stop Death, but Death kicked him hard in the jaw, knocking him back. Dragon could not watch as Death did what was truly unthinkable.

“A tragedy. Innocent it was.” Death walked across the nursery to the wooden crib that Dragon had carved for his daughter, setting the body within gently. “I curse the loss of innocent life, but the time has come for it all to end.”

Death walked back over to Dragon who was curled in a fetal position on the floor. “Get up. I give you the gift of dying with the lightest amount of dignity, an honor that my family never received,” Death growled. Dragon got up into a kneeling position, head down. Death began to whistle the Anthem of the Sky-City. The Anthem that had meant hope for the future of humanity now served as a eulogy for its passing. Not another word was spoken as Death raised the hatchet above his head and brought it down upon the Dragon.

Death fell to his knees before the bloody corpse of Dragon. The hole in his heart he knew could not be healed, but the fire he was sure would have been quenched. Instead, it only grew hotter. He had failed. The only hope of humanity and civilization was little more than a collapsing machine now, yet somehow one escaped. One was left, and that one had just become another. The final cycle was nigh. Death ripped his beloved ring from the finger of Dragon.

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Wally-Alwoo is what the Farfolk called him in their tongue. It translated to mean ‘The One Whom Wills’. Their full title for him was Ti Wally-Alwoo, or ‘The One Whom Wills the End’. The Farfolk had come only a couple of decades after the collapse of the sky-city, finding a world ripe for inhabitation. The chemicals, acids, and harsh environment that had tormented humanity only comforted them. They were simple folk, relying on a technology that may have seemed primitive to those ignorant to its power.

The Farfolk had carved ships from stone, descending into the depths of their oceans which lead to the cosmos and eventually to the place of the humans. They build monuments out of the sands, carving great stone gates out of the eroded remains of mountains, gates that lead to and from their home world. Their monolithic stone ships served as communities and cities within the deserts. Wally-Alwoo did not bother the Farfolk. They were not his concern. He stopped by their settlements at times to resupply or listen for rumors of another human. After many decades, Wally-Alwoo, Death, found a Farfolk mystic. The Farfolk were highly spiritual and adept in their use of mysticism. The mystic told Death of his mark. The mystic had found the last human, bearing the name of Jon, several years ago. It had informed Jon of the lives he had lived, and the unique destiny assigned to him. Death knew where to go, but Jon knew he would be coming this time.

Death had been on the road for months. Or, rather, Death had been traveling through the desert for months, guided only by the occasional marker annotating the direction of the road. In the distance, Death saw what he had been yearning for. A hovel made from scraps of wood, stone, mud, and sheet metal. A middle-aged man sat in a plastic folding chair outside. The sands blew strongly in face of Death, but he did not falter. He moved at a strong yet calm pace. The man, Jon, simply watched as Death approached. "You've been on this road for a long time, haven't you friend?" Jon asked Death.

"I suppose I have. Eternity."

"I know why you are here. The Farfolk have a way with the invisible web of fate. I can't say that I remember committing such an atrocity against you, but I feel the guilt regardless. Fate has taken us and held us in such a dance of pain and destruction for so long. Please, old friend whom I meet for the first time, end our cycle of torment." Death nodded, grimly. His long coat was in tatters, little more than rags. His hat had blown away in the wind days ago. The hatchet that had ended so many was rusted, and the shaft was splintered. The only thing about Death that remained in pristine condition was the woven cord of hair around his throat. And the ring.

Death pulled the ring from a pocket in his coat and held it out to Jon. Jon took the gift, chuckling to himself. "So much pain and destruction. Just for this." Jon's hands shook as he stuck the ring to his lips and closed his eyes. He kneeled down in front of Death, aligning his breathing with the ebbing and flowing of the music. Death raised his axe for the final time and swung hard, ending Jon and humanity in a swift blow. Tears streamed down his face as he dropped the axe and fell to his knees in front of Jon's body, which remained in a kneel as well. It was finally over. Death drew a deep breath, feeling the flame in his heart go out, leaving only a hole. A hole with no hope of being filled. Death put his hand to the cord around his neck, the last piece of his family. He tore it from himself, casting it into the sand. And with that, Death died.

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