Apluma and the Surly Mask
Part 1: A Schoolyard Chase through the City of Ellomyr
Clak-clak, clak-clak, clak-clak.
Apluma’s sandals beat a steady rhythm against the cobbled streets as he ran.
He heard the staccato footsteps of his pursuers behind him. It was a perfect musical juxtaposition, a melody to the beat.
“Get back here shard-brain!”
“Quit running you cult freak!”
And there, his classmates’ taunts were the lyrics, a rhapsody of insults. Degrading but never-the-less part of the song that played now on this street. It was just one of countless rhythms that played throughout the city of Ellomyr and the world: busy streets, the patterns of daily routines, the natural rise and fall of weather and the season. All together they made the Great Song that flowed through and cradled the entire ninth world.
His classmates had made fun of him for talking about things like that. They said he and his parents were part of a cult. They insulted him. They tried to catch him and mess up his robes and rub drit all over his facial tattoos. Yet even as they did all that they were still contributing to the rhythms. How did they not hear them? How did anyone not hear them?
Best to worry about that that another time. He wanted to keep his robes clean for evening song. He was almost four blocks from the school. Surely they were getting tired. He glanced back. Nope, the group of five kids was still right behind him. They would’ve caught him by now if he hadn’t practiced running and memorized routes through the city’s sprawling streets. By the Shard! They were really determined today.
When he had been younger he had thought that maybe the other kids teased him because of his looks. He was small for his age and bony. His black hair was thick and coarse, almost like the spines of a pricker-rat. The golden swirling tattoos on his face – the traditional markings of a Rhythmic that spelled out one’s name in the rhythm of shardsong – stood out against his dark skin in a way he thought was gaudy.
His moms had explained the real reason to him two year ago on his tenth birthday, while he received the marks of initiation. Many people didn’t understand the Rhythmic ways. They refused to listen to the peace of the Great Song. Instead they took the anger they could not quell and lashed out at others. Those who had already found their peace.
“You mustn’t hate them,” Ma Strada always said. “They too are part of the great song and we shouldn’t let their anger come into us. Let the peace grow within you until there is no room for anger.”
Apluma tried not to be angry. He tried really, really hard.
Of course peace didn’t mean he was going to just let them do whatever they wanted to him. Not today! He turned past the new Redmire guild house and ran into the Vansk Commons. He barely stopped himself from colliding into the crowd gathered there. That was weird. The common usually had only a handful of people lounging on the grassy lawn or admiring the flower bush sculptures. Yet now the place was packed. Did something happen? No matter. The next stage of his escape route was on the other side of the crowd. He started weaving through the people, muttering scattered “excuse me’s” here and there.
Halfway through he saw the source of the commotion. A woman was in the middle of the lawn standing on the base of the statue of Gurner Fron. She had a silver cone strapped across her mouth that seemed to aplify her voice as she read from a copy of the Ellomyr Informical.
“…have just been told by the city guard that a large horde of margr is gathering nearby. Many of you know of the battle against the margr that our grandparents fought. We have reason to believe that these margr are the descendants of the survivors, and that in the ensuing years they have grown more monstrous and strange by exposure to the Iron Wind.”
Murmurs of alarm rippled through the crowd. Apluma froze in shock. Margr? Margr that had been changed by the Iron Wind? This was like something out of a serial. They weren’t actually coming to Ellomyr again, right?
His thoughts were interrupted as one of the bullies, a tall girl named Greshia, grabbed him from behind.
“Ha! I got the shard-brain! I got–!”
Apluma twisted around and punched her. She staggered back and tripped over someone’s feet. For some reason a lot people believed that Rhythmics had a vow of non-violence. That was ridiculous. Rhythmics worshipped the rhythms of humans and nature. There were plenty of rhythms out there that weren’t peaceful. Of course Apluma preferred to not punch others but sometimes they deserved it.
Looks like he couldn’t wait around to hear more about the margr. He shook off the throbbing in his hand and began to move faster through the crowd.
He emerged on the other side. He looked around. No bullies in sight.
“Ha!” he punched the air. That’s when he saw the other four kids come out of the crowd. Oh come on! He ran off into an alley. They gave chase.
Clak-clak, clak-clak, clak-clak.
He ran out of the alley and onto a cramped street full of rundown stone buildings with layers of wooden shelters crammed in the narrow alleys between them. The makeshift dwellings looked like some fungus growing up between rocks. This was the Skirts, where they less fortunate of Ellomyr lived and scraped by.
Apluma heard the bullies getting closer. He ran over and hauled himself onto the low wooden roof of one of the ramshackle shelters. A beggar with a half metal face gave him a dirty look. It couldn’t be helped. There was a twisting path that went across the roofs of the shelters. It should throw his pursuers off. He was fairly confident that only he was light enough to get across it either way. He got to his feet and started running again.
He ducked and wove through the layers of ramshackle dwellings. His footsteps echoed hollowly on the wooden boards.
Thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk,
A board underneath him splintered and gave way. Apluma tumbled through it into the one-room house below. He caught a brief glimpse of the surprised face of a rusty automaton then there was an impact. More wood shattering as he fell through the floor. It was built over something else. A dark space. He further and hit stone hard. Rolled down a slope. Careened head over heels, then came to a stop.
Part 2: Apluma Unearths a New Friend
Apluma lay with his eyes closed for a time. His whole body hurt. His back and arm throbbed where he had landed on them. The rhythm of it was strangely comforting. Even here you couldn’t escape the rhythms.
Where was here exactly? Apluma opened his eyes. A ray of light streamed in through the hole he had fallen through. Motes of dust spun in the beam. It must have been seven feet off the ground. It looked like he had fallen through, landed on a stone slope, then rolled to a stop. Skist, he could’ve died!
Apluma tried to push himself off the ground only for pain to suddenly seer through his right arm. Looks like he wasn’t completely unscathed. He waited a few moments for the pain to recede, then picked himself with his good arm. He stood up and looked around.
This place was old and dusty. Maybe it had been some sort of small basement that had been built over during the years? The walls were dirt but the floor was bedrock and tilted at an angle. What ever this place had been, it was empty now.
Wait, no not entirely empty. There was a glint of light glinted off someting on the floor. Apluma cradled his broken arm gingerly and scaled the sloped floor to get a better look.
Embedded into the rock – upright like a knife stuck into a wooden table – was a grey mask. Someone had taken various sized squares of metal and assembled it into the shape of a human face. A glass bead was embedded in the brow. The mask stared at Apluma with its two empty eyeholes. Its expression was twisted into a scowl.
It was rather creepy.
Apluma stared at the mask. What should he do about this? Obviously this was some sort of numenera. His moms had taught him to leave anything he didn’t understand alone. It could be dangerous. Normally he would follow their advice.
But this obviously wasn’t a normal situation. That he happened to fall into some abandoned room and find this mask waiting here… It felt like it was meant to happen. Destiny.
He laughed at himself. He was being silly. This wasn’t like the serial stories in the Informical. He wasn’t going to put on this mask and use its power to fly into the stars or conquer a kingdom. He knew the real world wasn’t like that.
…And yet he couldn’t quite get the thought of “destiny” out of his head. Obviously this mask wasn’t going to turn him into a mighty nano but at the least maybe it had some ability that could get him out of this basement. The hole he had fallen through was seven feet above his head and there was nothing else here he could use for help. It was worth a shot.
With his good arm he reached over and gently picked-up the mask. The corner of it embedded in the rock came out with surprising ease. He realized that unlike the rest of the room it wasn’t dusty. That had to mean it was magical, right?
He cautiously turned the mask around and placed it on his face. Moments passed. Was it doing something? It didn’t feel like it. Maybe he had to do say certain words or push a button to activate it?
Something sharp sliced across his forehead.
With a cry of pain Apluma dropped the mask. It clattered away across the sloped floor. He clutched his forehead. He felt blood trickle through his fingers
A sudden light caught his attention. In the corner of the room where it had tumbled to, the mask started to glow.
Apluma suddenly recalled a conversation he had with Ma Felis. He had asked her if his destiny was written in the Great Song. She had laughed. “There’s no destiny in the great song, Aplu. There are just our actions and the consequences.”
Little multi-colored lines of light started to trail across the surface of the mask in whirling patterns. The glass orb on its brow glowed red. As Apluma stared in shock the air in the eyeholes shivered and was suddenly filled by a pale blue color. Red irises faded into existence. They swiveled about then turned to gaze at Apluma. There was a loud crackling croak, like an intake of breath.
Then the mask spoke.
“Hello boy, what is your name?”
Apluma gaped. Oh, by the shard! He’d done it now. What was it going to do to him? Eat his brain? Apluma silently sang the psalm of protection. May the rhythm be uninterrupted. May my heart be wrapped in song. May it shield me from–
“Your name boy!” yelled the mask. “Now!”
Apluma whimpered. Blood had started to drip into his eyes. “A-A-Apluma. Rhythmic Apluma Ferria!”
The mask was quiet for a moment. Lines of violet light fell out of the eyeholes. They looked like tears, yet when it spoke again its voice was as cold as before.
“Hello Apluma,” It said. “My name is Bly Summerwait. You’re going to tell me what I’ve missed.”
Part 3: An Ellomyr Vista Before the Storm
It was traditional for Rhythmics to construct their houses with cloth walls and Apluma’s mothers were nothing if not traditional. Consequently the Ferria family home resembled a multi-room tent. It was set up on the flat roof of a boarding house a few blocks from the Trilling Shard. Going up four flights of stairs to just to get home was a trial but the landlady who let them live there was kind and the view was worth it.
The Songs of Teaching claimed that these sorts of traditional dwellings allowed one to listen to the rhythms around them without thick walls to block the sounds. It also unfortunately meant nothing stopped Apluma from his hearing mother as she weeped in the other room.
“We’re going to die.” Ma Felis sobbed. “They’re going to rip us apart and eat us!”
“There, there,” Apluma heard Ma Strada comfort her. “It’ll be alright. The whole city is coming together to stop the margr.”
Apluma shivered and slid closer to the warming globe set up in the middle of the gathering room. Ma Felis would get like this sometimes, so full of worry that she couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and cry. He never knew what to do when this happened. Usually he would just sit patiently in the room until Ma Strada had calmed her down.
He felt like crying too. He’d gotten more details about the margr situation after a city guardsman had rescued him from that basement. There were hundreds and hundreds of the abhumans out there, all bent and twisted into horrifying new shapes by the Iron Wind.
All of them coming to Ellomyr.
He nervously picked at the bandage on his forehead. He’d told his parent that he’d tripped and hit his forehead on the edge of a table. He hadn’t told them about finding the mask. Ma Felis didn’t need anything else to worry about and Ma Strada would probably make him get rid of it. The spirit in the mask also seemed in no hurry to make her presence known to others.
“Aplu!” Ma Strada called from the other room.
“Why don’t you go outside and sing a song of blessings to the shard for us?”
What she really meant was: go outside so I can talk to Felis without you overhearing.
Apluma didn’t mind leaving. He wasn’t any help here. “Okay.”
“Thank you Aplu!”
He got up and pushed aside the curtain that served as their front door. He stepped out into the cool night air.
From here he could see the heart of Ellomyr spread out below. He leaned on the barrier around the edge of the boarding house roof and stared out into the lights of the metropolis. People moved through the narrow streets, following their routines and patterns. Yells and hollers floated between the building and spires that thrust into the sky. How could a city so chaotic feel peaceful from up above?
“I remember when only two hundred people lived here.”
Apluma looked over at the metal mask. He had propped it up against a houseplant on the barrier so it could look out over the city. Blue lines moved across it’s gray surface like waves. The mask – or Bly as she said her name was – had said she’d once lived in the city as a person and wanted to see what had changed in the years of her absence. She’d already spent an hour grilling him about Ellomyr’s history while they were stuck in the abandoned basement waiting for help.
“I told my colleagues at the university that this place was the quietest village in the ninth world,” she said. “Look at it now.”
“It’s the Trilling Shard,” Apluma replied. “It tunes directly into the Great Song. People are drawn to it and come here, even if they don’t know why.”
“Oh right, the Great Song. Of course.”
Apluma ignored her sarcastic tone. Let her believe what she wanted. He was just glad that she hadn’t ended up liquefying his eyeballs. In terms of things that could happen while messing with the relics of the past, finding out your artifact contained the spirit of an ill-tempered nano was pretty tame.
He heard panicked voices in the distance. A crowd of people was gathered around the Trilling Shard. It was some sort of city meeting. Looks like an argument had broken out. Now everyone was talking over each other and yelling.
“What’s going on over there?” Bly asked.
“I think they’re having a meeting about the city’s defense against the margr. Looks like it’s not going well.”
“The margr?! Is that what everyone is up in arms about?”
“Yeah. A whole horde of them ran into the Iron Wind and now they’re worse than ever and heading towards us.”
“Skist! This again.”
A fight had broken out amidst the crowd. The city guard was moving in to break it up. Apluma watched as they dragged two of the fighters apart. How was the city going to get through this?
Apluma silently said the Song of Blessings. May the future be bright. May obstacles fall before us. May the path be clear–
“I know a way to fight them off.”
Apluma stopped and turned to look at the mask. “You have a way to fight the margr?”
“Yeah, I think so. As long as this city hasn’t changed too much.”
Apluma eyed her warily.
“How can I trust you?”
Bly scoffed. “You think I want to end up in the hands of cannibalistic beastmen? I’m sure that’d be just a wonderful experience.”
“I know a place where we can get something to defeat the margr.” Bly repeated. “I’m obviously not getting there on my own but if you take me then I can show you how you can save the city.”
Apluma looked into Bly’s blue and red eyes, and tried to read her intentions. Could he really trust her? Maybe she was going to lead him to a dungeon and steal his body for her own use. He knew next to nothing about who she was. Then again, she hadn’t seemed like a bad person to him, just a grumpy one.
He heard Ma Felis crying inside.
Growing up Apluma had heard stories about the heroes of Ellomyr: Nieten, Hiero Sol, Jird, and countless others. This city was here – he was here – because they had decided that while other ran away, they were going to fight. They had stood firm when anyone sensible would have fled. It was these hero’s sacrifices that the city was built on.
Apluma was tired of running away. He wanted to be a hero.
He picked up the mask. “Where do we need to go?”
Part 4: Bly Leads Apluma Underground
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“It’s the vagueness of your core tenets that bothers me.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“You claim to worship rhythms, but rhythms are just patterns.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Almost anything can be a pattern.”
Apluma wiped the sweat from his brow. For an abandoned building this place sure was hard to break into. He’d been ramming the locked door with a board he had found for a while now and it still refused to budge. Thankfully he was in a fairly deserted area on the fringes of the city and no one had come by asking what he was doing here in the middle of the night. He would’ve come earlier but he had to wait for his mothers to fall asleep before he could sneak out.
“Just because it’s a pattern doesn’t inherently make it holy.”
Bly, the woman in the mask, continued to blasphemy from where he had the mask stored in his pack. He really didn’t know why she felt the need to express her thoughts about Rhymthicism to him. He hadn’t thought her to be the talkative type but there had hardly been a moment of silence as she’d guided him across town to this large square building. Maybe she was making up for all those years being in a dusty basement.
“We worship the rhythms because they have arisen out of a chaos to be full and complete.” Apluma recited. “Form begat of formless. Order begat of chaos. All reflections and pieces of the Great Song.”
Bly scoffed. “Yeah that’s a fancy way of saying patterns happen. It doesn’t mean anything. That’s just the way things are.”
Apluma sighed. Why he was on the other side of town past midnight arguing religion with a mask? This wasn’t the sort of adventure he imagined the heroes of old going on. He picked up the board and went back to hammering on the door.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Rhythms mean something can arise from nothing. We take solace in this and listen to the rhythms around us so that we may always remember this truth.”
“Seems like there are better uses of your time.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The wood around bolt splintered and the door flew open. It was pitch black inside.
“Did you get it open?” Bly asked. “Let me see.”
Apluma pulled the mask and a glowglobe out of his pack. He held them both in front of the open door.
“Are you sure this is the place?”
“Trust me. Go in.”
Apluma swallowed. With the mask in one hand and the glowglobe in the other, he stepped into the building.
CLACK… clack… clack…
His foot fell on a smooth stone floor and the sound echoed throughout the interior. Was this all one large room? He thought Bly was taking him to a nano workshop. Cautiously he walked further into the darkness.
Apluma looked down. Under his foot was a broken twig. Or he thought it was a twig. It was coiled like a spring and covered in what looked like rust. Where did that come from? He held his lantern out in front of him. That’s when he saw it.
It looked like a scraggly bush had grown to the size of a house. It was a large structure made of more of the twisted black twigs. The branches came together to form a latticework of delicate walls that loomed over Apluma. The whole thing was covered in rust. The corners of the black mass were warped and stretched. It almost looked like they were reaching down to grab him.
Apluma shivered. “What is this place?”
“It’s called the Black Nest,” Bly answered. “The Iron Wind made it. Used to be bigger. Many years ago the city tried to tear it down. They got about a quarter of it destroyed before it released a huge cloud of hallucinogenic gas. A third of the city thought bugs were crawling out of their eyeballs. In the end they decided to board up the whole place and forget about it.”
Apluma eyed the nest warily. He felt a malignant aura radiating from the gnarled mass. “What was it before the Iron Wind came?”
Bly paused for a moment. “Just a house. Come on, we’re looking for a specific part of the floor near the back.”
Apluma carefully circled around the heap of rusty twigs. His glowglobe shone through the structure, casting a web of shadows on the wall behind it. Bly directed him onward.
“Go forward… Go forward… Okay stop. There should be an entrance buried right under your feet.”
Apluma looked down. The ground was the same solid sheet of stone as it was in the rest of the building. “How do we get through this?”
“Put the mask on and I’ll show you.”
Apluma hesitated. He hadn’t worn the mask since it had sliced his forehead in the basement. “I don’t know about that.”
Bly sighed. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“You already hurt me.”
“I needed organic material to wake from hibernation, it was a preprogramed response from the mask to someone putting it on.”
“Look boy, I promise not too hurt you again. Okay?”
“Or take over my mind?”
“Or take over your mind. I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to.”
Well, he’d come this far already. Apluma slid the mask over his face once again. Despite the lack of any obvious means of keeping it secured in place it remained on his face when he took his hands away.
When he’d held the mask in his hand the eyeholes had been taken up by Bly’s blue and red… eye thingies, but as he wore it now he found he could see through them completely fine.
“Are you ready?”
Apluma jumped. When Bly talked while he wore the mask it sounded like she was standing right behind him.
“Um, yes. What do I do?”
“Look at the area of the stone you want to get rid of. Focus on it. See it in your mind: How big it is, what it feels like.”
“Now think: dissolve.”
As soon as he thought the word the patch of stone in front of him turned to sand. With a sound like a sigh it funneled down into the earth, revealing the entrance to a stairway. Apluma gaped.
“By the shard!”
He threw his arms into the air. He’d just done magic! That was awesome! What else could he do? He crouched down over the hole and made to pull off the mask to get a better look at his work.
“Keep the mask on,” Bly said, interrupting him before he could take it off. “Who knows what’s in that air.”
“In the air?”
“Poisons, toxins, nanomachines. Lot of things nasty things can be in the air of places that have been sealed up for years. If you keep the mask on it should make it safe for you to breathe.”
“Oh cool! That’s handy. Can you help me breathe underwater too?”
“No I can’t, but THE MASK can. I’m not the mask. I’m just stuck in here.”
“Why are you stuck in there?” Apluma realized he had yet to ask her that.
“I wanted some peace and quiet and… well, let’s just say things went wrong. Now are we going to save Ellomyr or not?”
Apluma sighed. Every question he asked Bly just raised two more. Well, he’d worry about that later. He cautiously climbed into the hole and headed down the underground staircase.
It descended about ten feet before letting out into a room. Apluma shone his glowglobe around. Was this a cellar? It smelled like decay and smoke. There were shelves full of rotted papers on the walls. It looked like something feral had ripped apart a large machine and scattered the pieces across the floor. Claw marks covered everything.
“What happened here?”
“I had an unexpected visitor.”
Apluma stopped. “This place was yours?!”
“I used to work here.”
A million questions raced through Apluma’s mind.
“You did? Were you working in secret? What happened? Is this where you got put into the mask? Can we use the machines to get you out of it?”
“The answers are respectively: yes, yes, none of your concern, no, and that would take too long. We have a lot of work ahead of us, so stop wasting time.”
Of all the magical artifacts in the ninth world he had to find the crabbiest one. “So where is this thing that will ‘save Ellomyr?’”
“Under the tarp in the corner. Careful not to step on it.”
Apluma turned around. What he had first taken as an empty section of floor was actually a large tarp weighted down in the corners with stones. He cautiously approached it. Whatever this device was it must be pretty flat. He reached down and yanked the tarp away.
Behind the mask Apluma’s eyes widened.
Underneath the tarp was a deep cylindrical pit. Pulses of violet light streamed out from it; coming from vein-like growths that ran up and down it’s sides. Apluma stood on the edge of it frozen in shock. From somewhere far below came a deep resonant hum that shook his teeth.
The tarp slipped from his grip and fell into the pit. He watched as it gently floated down deeper and deeper. How deep was it? It was hard to see the bottom through the violet glow but it must be at least a hundred feet down. Apluma felt a wave of vertigo and stumbled back from the edge.
“Skist! It’s still getting deeper,” said Bly. “It must have found another source of power.”
Apluma fell to his knees and stared at glowing pit in awe. Song above! The pulses of light had a strong rhythm and he could he feel the pit throbbing with an unknown energy. Whatever this was it could certainly save Ellomyr. He was sure of it.
“What is this?”
Apluma could hear the smile in Bly’s voice as she responded.
“This Apluma? This is a well of power. How do you feel about letting it loose against the margr?”
Part 5: A Hero of Ellomyr Saves the City
Apluma looked out through the holes of the mask at the margr horde. Past the city walls it was a sea of horns and fur. Wave after wave of the murderous beasts surged across the fields surrounding the city and beat themselves against the walls. So far they held. So far.
Apluma stood on the roof of the schoolhouse. Down below him and about two blocks away was Ellomyr’s southern gate. It shook in it’s moorings as the margr hammered on it from the other side. The citizens of Ellomyr capable of fighting stood behind the ramparts on top of the wall and fired arrow after arrow into the endless enemy host. More volunteers stood ready behind barricades in the streets, ready should the margr break through. A crowd of city guardsmen worked to brace the gate with whatever they could lay their hands on; tables, troughs, chairs.
They all looked so small to Apluma.
“Boy! Another one,” Bly yelled at him. “On the east hill.”
He turned. Yes, he could just make out a figure on the hill she referred to.
Closer, he thought. Instantly the mask’s far-sight activated. He got a clear view of hilltop, as if he looked at it through a spyglass. It was one of the many enhancements to the mask that Bly had walked him through the process of creating over the course of the past two days.
He saw what she was talking about. On the hill, about a field’s-length from the wall, a tall lanky margr was raising a giant metallic spear to the sky. Wisps of light had begun to coalesce and spin around its length. Apluma couldn’t hear the abhuman but it looked like they were chanting. That couldn’t be good.
Apluma raised his hand and pointed it in the direction of the hill. Wrapped around his forearm was a heavy, synth bracer covered in shards of glowing violet glass. It was another device Bly had instructed him to make and it was what she claimed could help him save Ellomyr.
Apluma focused on the hill; pictured it in his mind. His arm shook. Across the city, underneath the remains of the Black Nest, he felt the drone of the pit. His hair stood on end as he once again felt it’s energy rise up through him.
Burn, he thought.
The energy fled his body in an instant and with a dreadful roar a pillar of violet flame burst forth from the top of the hill. The incandescent blaze engulfed the margr and soared into the evening sky illuminating the whole battlefield with it’s purple light. For an instant it’s roar drowned out the even the din of battle.
As quickly as it appeared it was gone. Bly checked on the hilltop to make sure the fire had done its job. The margr with the spear and another dozen of its nearby brethren were all burning. The violet fire did not behave naturally. It’s flames moved like tendrils, hungrily clinging and grasping at flesh. As Apluma watched the flames on the spear margr burrowed into its chest and burned its ribcage from the inside. The margr’s writhing soon ceased and it collapsed.
Apluma coughed. The smoke from below scratched at his throat. He’d sent out countless pillars of fire into the horde. The fields outside the south gate were dotted with circles of ash. Bly had suggested they target the margr mutants. Many of them seemed to have abilities that could breach the walls. He had immolated scores of them. He had watched dozens of them flailing in agony as they burned alive.
He knew these creatures were monsters. If he didn’t kill them here they would come into the city and do horrible, horrible things to those he loved. Each one he killed was another Ellomyrian life saved. He was doing the right thing. He knew that. He kept telling himself he knew that.
Through the mask’s far-sight he watched as a clump of the violet flame leapt off the corpse of the spear margr and onto one of its comrades. It latched onto it’s head and started to hungrily burn it. The wretched creature clawed at it’s dissolving face. Apluma’s stomach churned.
Was this how the Ellomyr heroes of old felt when they had saved the city years before? Often times the stories spoke of them leaping into the fray with their hearts full of glory and the winds of destiny guiding their blades. Apluma didn’t feel any of that. He was just numb.
Bly on the other hand was more excited than Apluma had ever heard her before. “Ha! You don’t see that often, boy! Skist! We got ‘em good! Didn’t you bastards learn the first time! DON’T MESS WITH ELLOMYR!”
“You’re yelling in my ear.” Apluma said softly.
A Margr the size of a small building emerged from the horde and advanced towards the defenders. It’s footsteps shook the ground as it walked. Vertical cuts on its back oozed luminous orange fluids. Through the far-sight Apluma could see the volunteers on the wall firing bolts into the behemoth as it drew near. The giant didn’t even flinch.
The twelve year-old boy focused on the beast and sent the energy forward.
Another violet inferno skewered through middle of the colossal beast. It’s screams echoed through the city, then trailed off into a pained gurgle as the flames ate holes in it’s windpipe and–
Apluma felt the bile rise in his throat. He pulled the mask off and vomited onto the ground.
“Skist! Watch it.”
“Sorry, I’m sorry.”
Apluma retched again. He tried to catch his breath. He froze as he saw the puddle of puke at his feet. It almost glowed with a deep indigo color. Wispy white strings trailed from his mouth to it. By the shard–!
“W-w-what’s happening to me!?”
“Huh? Oh. It’s a side effect of using the pit’s energy. Don’t worry, it’s not permanent.”
“That was inside me! This isn’t normal!”
“Of course it’s not normal!” Bly snapped. “You’re dealing with the science of worlds long dead! A skist-heap of weirdness is gonna happen.”
Something inside of Apluma broke. He stared into the distance blankly. What was he doing here? He wasn’t a hero. He was the small kid who ran away from bullies. When he woke up this morning he hadn’t killed anyone. Now he’d lost track.
He tried to listen for a rhythm, something to calm him but there was just cacophony. Screams, roars, chaos. There was no rhythm in this maelstrom. There was no rhythm anywhere anymore. All of time had been sucked into this waking nightmare and it would never end. He’d kill and kill forever and ever and ever and ever and–
He began to cry.
“Apluma.” For the first time Bly’s voice had some sympathy in it. “It’s overwhelming, I know, but you need to keep at it. They aren’t going to be able to hold the walls if you don’t take out the mutant margr.”
The idea of continuing to fight seemed so ludicrous to Apluma that he almost laughed. Did she see the same hell he saw? He shook his head. “I can’t do it. I can’t, I can’t, I—“
Something moved through the horde in front of the south gate. Apluma jerked his head up. It was close enough to his position that he didn’t need the far-sight to spot it. Bounding through the swarm outside with impossibly large leaps were three margr. They were all mutants with sparse patches of fur amidst their otherwise grey-scaled skin.
Apluma watched numbly as the trio of margr took one last soaring leap and landed on the wall’s ramparts. In an instant they began to slice away at the townsfolk around them with curved blades. They moved through the volunteers like liquid; Ellomyrians falling left and right, toppling onto the ground bleeding or letting out blood curdling screams as they went over the wall and into the snarling mob below.
The mutant margr massacred their way down the ramparts towards the gate. Apluma could see their plan. They’d drop down on the guardsmen that bolstered the gate and butcher them. The gate would be opened. The margr would pour into the city like water. Everyone would be too disorganized to hold them back. The city would fall. Ma Felis would scream as she watched them drive a spear down into his body again and again and–
No, he wouldn’t let them.
He pulled the mask back on and swung his hand out in front of him.
Foom! Foom! Foom!
In a staccato beat, three bolts of violet fire burst from his hand and flew towards the gate. The three margr had reached their destination above the guardsman. One brandished its blade and leapt off the rampart—
One of the bolts of fire struck its head in mid-air. His look of surprise was turned to char, then the flesh itself was ripped away entirely. A second later the margr’s blackened skull shattered as it’s lifeless body landed on the cobblestones. The two remaining mutant margr suffered a similar fate a moment later. The momentum from the remaining bolts of fire sent their headless bodies toppling back over the wall.
The guardsman and the volunteers behind the barricade cheered. A few of them had spotted where the fire had come from and pointed out the figure of Apluma on the rooftop. Apluma watched as several of them raised their weapons to him in a salute. What must he look like to them? With the mask and large glowing bracers he wore they must think he was some powerful nano, not a scared boy.
“Skist,” Bly said in awe. “That was the stuff of ballads.”
For a moment Apluma could find a small rhythm in the scattered cheers of the soldiers below, but they soon stopped and turned back to the fight. Several of the volunteers ran up onto the rampart to take the place of the fighters the three margr had killed.
Once again Apluma felt the avalanche of chaos and death threaten to crush him. The air itself was saturated with madness. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t remember how.
He needed a rhythm. Something to hold on to; keep him sane. Yet no matter where he looked there was nothing. Nothing! It was whirlpool of skist drowning him pulling him down and—
No, he knew better than that. It was like he was taught: there always was a rhythm. He just had to find it.
And there it was. Amidst the roar of battle it was faint but he heard it. The rapid beat of his pounding heart. He was the source of rhythm here in the chaos.
Fine, that was enough.
He let the beat of his heart guide him back into his body. He took a deep breath and let it out.
Ba-bump, Ba-bump, Ba-bump.
“To the west! In the gully!” Bly yelled.
A group of hunchbacked margr with wildly distorted maws that stretched from naval to nose waddled towards the wall. The violet fire made short work of them. Green slobber flew from their huge mouths as they writhed in the flames.
Apluma lifted up the mask and wiped the tears out of his eyes. He didn’t even notice the streaks of violet they left on his face.
“We make a great team Apluma!” Bly said, trying to encourage him for once. “You and me, we can do great things. Who knows maybe it’s our destiny to work together.”
“There’s no such thing as destiny.” Apluma said. “Just our actions and the consequences.”
Bly was quiet for a moment. Then she laughed bitterly. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth.”
The glow of violet flames flashed throughout the night as the hero of Ellomyr continued the terrible work of saving the city.
About Kurtis Theorin
Kurtis Theorin is a screenwriter and creative director at Something’s Awry Productions. He likes role-playing characters with fantasy names that are just a hair shy of being absurd.