Fields of Rust excerpt
Solaz and Nezantes
Deep under the dark matter wastelands, a lone ship still sailed the sub-cosmic rivers. It spanned the length of several worlds and it had navigated the mad currents of unreal space since the true sky had been full of stars. Now it was old and decrepit, falling apart piece by piece, its super science metals slowly succumbing to rust and ruin. To those who dwelt in the artificial landscape of the ship, it was known only as the World.
As the evening gathered on this clear day, the cold metal walls of the World stretched into the sparse clouds, vaulting the sky with ancient Pillars of brass and iron. At the base of one of the Pillars, which counted many leagues as its circumference, an old man sat, cloaked only in his threadbare robe.
He held his calloused hands in front of him with their palms raised towards the many suns that ran the length of the Roof of the World. His back almost touched an outcropping of rust on the nearest buttress of the heavenly Pillar. His face was hidden behind a mask of hard-etched wrinkles. He looked slowly left and right and considered the Pillars of the World receding in each direction, a corridor stretching seemingly forever into the haze of distance.
He looked up and saw among the rafters small gray clouds moving languidly, sometimes blocking what little illumination the suns provided. They had burned for many millennia, pseudo-stars aspiring to solar greatness, never realizing how their infernal light and heat were dwarfed by the true stars outside the World.
The old man then looked down at the fungus grass that covered most of the Floor of the World. It dug into the solid metal as it sought purchase everywhere, spawning stalks and trees with its sickly green-gray growth. Only the Pillars and the Walls remained untouched by the unending profusion of fungus. But they were not free of the rust which ate away at them like all else. The old man’s gaze then followed the maze of fungus wilderness away from the Pillars and towards the center of the World. That far landscape was shrouded in gray mist, a perpetual rain of rust descending from the ceiling leagues above—mote by mote drifting down on artificial winds.
Between the two rows of Pillars that framed the Corridor of the World countless leagues lay. Over the course of the eons that the World had sailed the currents of the rivers under the cosmos, the Floor had warped and bent under the strains of the constant tides. Of these depressions, many rivers and valleys were formed.
Down in one such lazy valley, a column of heavily armed men and women marched under plasma banners, harsh light forced into crests bearing a burning flower, all the more visible in the dusk of the early evening. The columniers, clad in shining hyper iron armor, stood out against the putrid wilderness. Diminutive trails of smoke rose from several of the older, less well-maintained units. Their mechanically aided steps were heavy, crushing the growth underneath their massive boots. Their bodies were festooned with weapons of various sizes and origins. Their progress was methodical and sure. Few words drifted among them as they marched.
Solaz was a large, muscular young man with long dark hair falling out from under his helmet and down the back of his armor. His eyes of silver seemed to shine even in the shade of his raised visor. His armor, though ancient like that of all his fellow columniers, was polished and recently mended. He marched with a steady measured pace and the overall effect was of parade ground spotlessness.
To his right marched Vergoz. He was Solaz’s counterpart in almost every way. His hair was cut close to his scalp; his face already showed wrinkles around his hard set eyes. His armor, while not in disrepair and bearing a pale luster, could only be described as beautiful in terms of utility. There was little decoration on it save appropriately spaced pouches, tools, and weapons configured for the easiest reach whether in battle or on the march.
"This marching never ends does it?" Vergoz said.
"It’ll end once we find that column again." Solaz scanned the horizon from his position on the outside file of the column.
"I doubt that. The duke and our honored captain are dancers," Vergoz said.
Their column had indeed danced with one of the columns of the Iron Duke of the Fifth Pillar for many days, each trying to outmarch the other for better position on the battlefield.
"We’ll send out skirmishers and then start maneuvers again,” Vergoz continued. “Never mind that there isn’t a single village within leagues of here. No spoils from battle, no spoils from the locals. I doubt I’ll even pay for the fuel I’ve burned this season."
Vergoz pounded his armored hand against the brass breastplate embossed with a triple headed snake. The clang of his iron hand was answered by the uneven hum of the motors and actuators that moved his armor with pseudo life.
Solaz smiled under the visor of his helmet. "No, the duke wants to end this. He’ll meet us when he thinks it’s in his hand. It’ll be all worth it then, scores of far rifles firing together as the front rankers charge. Always worth it."
"Hurr. I always knew you were a glory hound. Just don’t volunteer us for the forlorn hope if we ever storm the duke’s fortress."
Solaz was about to respond, but Vergoz pointed ahead. As the column crested a small hill of gray-white fungus grass, they saw a brutish man step from the shadow of a tall, lichen-covered defunct hyper capacitor. The capacitor was at least several dozen meters high and leaned to one side, slightly providing shade for the well-muscled man.
Unlike the heavily armored columniers, this man wore nothing but long gray and tattered trousers; his wide chest was bare and his hair shaven. He was unarmed except for his hands which had been replaced by quasi brass mechanics adorned in etched mandalic patterns, their lines extending, tracing about each other in haphazard ways that spoke of a higher pattern. His face had a somber, almost sad look about it. His eyes were all red without trace of white, like embers in a dying fire.
The man stood directly in the path of the column which halted as the captain raised his fist in the air. Somewhat incredulous that a local peasant would demonstrate such foolish bravery, he stepped forward to meet the bare-chested man instead of ordering the front rank to fire a volley as was customary on the march.
"In the name of the One King under the Roof of the World, stand aside or be returned to the Rust." The captain spoke, savoring the customary greeting and threat. He spoke in the common language of the Corridor as was usually done in diplomacy.
"I am Nezantes. Have you no name of your own to speak?" the man answered in the same tongue.
"I am Yerlas, Captain of the Column of the Burning Blossom," the captain said, pulling a short halberd from his back. Its power cores hummed to life and it grew jagged red teeth from the fey surface of the blade. "And know that this name will cost you your life. None may keep a column of the True King on their march to war."
With that, his armor engines growling, enveloping him in transparent auras of protection and augmenting his muscles, Captain Yerlas advanced methodically at the man before him as if he had resumed his march. The man lunged, his brass hands becoming engulfed in blinding star-like fire; he knocked aside the captain’s first blow with the standard burst of light common to instances when weapons of the high energies met.
With this flash, the back of the column instantly knew that their captain had engaged in combat. Trained to expect the worst, the outer columniers spread out, pulling ornate far rifles from their backs and torsos; they scanned the horizon for potential ambushes while awaiting word from the front of the column.
Nezantes, holding his plasma-enveloped hands in front of him, now stood on his back foot in a defensive stance, ready for the mammoth armored man to charge again. He moved his arms gracefully in circular patterns to block the blows of the captain. As the captain continued to strike, Nezantes seemed caught off balance for a brief moment, and Yerlas seized the perceived opportunity and swung too quickly, overcommitting to his broad swing. Nezantes recovered instantly. When the captain’s blow had carried his halberd too far to block any attack, Nezantes struck many times at his exposed flank, causing flashes brighter and brighter as the fire of his fists exploded against the energies of the captain’s aura. The aura was strong and blessed by many mystics in the court of the king, but it fell in only several blows.
Nezantes then gathered his fists before his face and struck with both at once. The captain tried to parry this blow, but the fire generated by the man’s brass hands now raged like small suns, blinding to behold. His hands parted Yerlas’s halberd like a bright sun piercing storm clouds. A moment later, his hands punctured Yerlas’s chest, their light hidden for a moment deep within the armor.
The captain in all his useless armor fell heavily to the ground. He lay there still as Nezantes jumped into the air above the column, dropping on the shoulders of one columnier after another. He struck quickly, burning through aura, armor, flesh, and bone as if the warriors were mere training posts. They fought back but where the bare-chested man did not block their axes, swords, and knives, he gracefully knelt below them, spun around them, or redirected them at each other. He moved and attacked like no mortal man could have, using empty air as stepping stones, twisting and turning as if all the limbs of his body worked independently, and then leaping high like a missile overhead only to fall fists-first into two columniers, ripping their precious armors apart as if they were woven from strands of cloth.
In the rear of the column, the battle signals got confused and it was assumed that they were under attack by a sizable force. The sergeants started spreading their files, ordering the columniers to power their auras and break out the heavy weapons. The flashes in the dark of the coming night continued to grow closer, and all the columniers drew their weapons with the quickened pace of battle. They assembled their heavy, ornate far rifles, suspended by gravity bipods and rivaling battle standards in length. They loaded them with ammunition hand crafted and inscribed with many prayers and sigils. They powered up fey blades and axes—weapons lined with an edge of darkness, opening small doors to the River of Hell, a place outside of the World from which Rakshas and other things foul would extend their teeth and claws, if only for a few moments, to feast on mortal flesh. They deployed personal spirit guardians, mobile automata lovingly crafted in the shapes of birds, insects or local gods, sometimes armed with minor weapons, sometimes bearing only sensory apparatus.
All these weapons had served them on countless battles spanning the Corridor of the World. They had engaged and defeated many other columns and this experience showed in the precision of their preparation. None panicked as the column disappeared in front of them in flashes of light and explosions of weapons. Columniers armed with close combat weapons charged into the growing smoke and fire pouring from ruined engines of the armors of their brethren, while others aimed their weapons, searching for targets amidst the chaos.
The bare-chested man continued to tear through the column, his hands now lesser stars ablaze, killing and maiming as he moved. And all fell before him. Men and women hardened by hard life and harder war, who had trained for countless hours and had killed many themselves, now gathered together, forming a defensive circle. They braced themselves knowing that they faced the homecoming of all warriors. They did not embrace each other or utter parting words, saving every moment to fire another shot or strike another blow at this implacable enemy.
Then there was only one left standing. It was Solaz, who stood grasping defiantly to the column standard with one arm as he drew his last entropic knife from its sheath. His armor was dented, leaking oils and black smoke from where he had been struck faster than he could even notice.
"Last one. You are Solaz, son of Faraz, son of Menlaz. I have been looking for you. I am Nezantes and you have what I need."
Solaz looked over at the ruined bodies of his fellow columniers. In the growing dark of the oncoming night, lit only by plasma from broken standards and shattered engines, he saw smoke pouring from their smashed armors, their faces covered in blood, their limbs lying far from their torsos, their weapons broken and burning where plasma spilled forth. The air hung with smoke and a few buzzing spirit guardians that still functioned. Solaz thought of his own spirit guardian. It was a brass miniature figure of a woman in flowing robes and diaphanous wings hovering before him. It seemed like she was trying to guide him away, pulling at his armor with tiny mechanical arms. Solaz ignored her as he usually did. He looked at the man with plasma-covered hands, devoid of empathy, coming towards him, and saw now that his eyes burned a deep red.
Solaz lunged at the man with his entropic knife. Nezantes stepped aside slowly and struck at the armor covering Solaz’s arm. The ancient armor burst at several seams from the blow, spewing oils and steam. Solaz dropped his entropic knife. It began eating away at the gray fungus covering the ground and the layers of hardened rust of the valley before its power source gave out. His courage gone, Solaz could only think to hold on to the plasma banner with both his hands as the murderous man approached.
Nezantes struck one final blow, slicing through the armor around Solaz’s left shoulder, through the muscles, sinews, and bones. Solaz’s arm hung in the air before slipping slowly to the ground, and he collapsed.
Solaz lay there bleeding to death, the smell of metal and blood bringing on waves of nausea. Something about the smell reminded him of the last time he had lain with Lazika. Their bed furs covered in their sweat, she lay with her head on his broad chest, listening.
"Why do you have to go to war?" she asked.
"Why do you make tapestries?"
"I make things and you break them."
"I swore an oath."
"So my mother reminds me. She swears she will spend my dowry on a new stove if you don’t take me by next season."
"I mean to the king."
"Have you ever met the king?"
"If I break my oath to the king, why would I keep my word to you?"
"So it was only a word," she rolled off his chest.
"Another season in the column and I’ll have enough to afford a nice home in First Wall. Think how much your mother will be able to brag then."
Lazika stood up naked and walked to the pitcher of water next to the wall. Solaz looked at her naked back, following the seductive curve of her spine. The pitcher rose from its resting place, sensing her approach, and poured its golden liquid into a cup suspended in midair. Lazika grabbed the cup and looked back at him, her blonde hair flowing.
Then all he could see was the flesh being stripped from his dismembered arm as Nezantes burned away everything around its bones, until all that was left were several bones in the man’s hand. Nezantes picked one of the bones from Solaz’s forearm and discarded the rest. The bone started to shine and glow with runes. Nezantes let the bone float up from his palm and hover in the air in front of him, reading the runes as the bone slowly turned. He then grasped it and placed it in a pocket which folded the bone along dimensional lines. The last thing that Solaz saw, before he passed out from the pain, was the bare-chested man kneeling among the smoking remnants of the column to recite the proper prayers for fallen enemies.