the ashlands

Mantra for a Dying World

 

All it takes is one bad day…

                Those words, whispers on her lips with the dawn. The last thought echoing through her head as dreams seek purchase. Meager distractions from whatever patch of ground made for last night's bed. She closes her eyes and thinks of better days, when all was green and she possessed everything she ever wanted… when she—what a fool!—was not satisfied with happiness and, in reaching for Godhood, destroyed the world. Now here she lies on a throne of dust, the Queen of Ashes.

                She stretches, onyx cloak shading her from what faint light signifies the morn. She yawns, and shadows genuflect around her. Long thin shades grasp at her, thwarted by the rising, flickering sun. A candle burned down to the nub, the beleaguered star provides heat enough, and brilliance enough, to allow at least one more reprieve from the dark.

                One… bad… day…

                She opens her eyes to see the ever-present cloud of soot hovering above her head: blackness obliterating a gray sky. Undulating, keening, the dim inorganic presence contains more life than she. She lies still a moment, lost in the embrace that teases her dreams night after night. Love's warmth, the joy she lost many lifetimes ago. How many innocents have crumbled away to nothing in her grasp since? Their faces, their names, were lost to her in the gusts of time, a tunnel that harkened back further than she chose to remember. Forgetting was far easier. Better to focus on the sins still to come than the ones already committed. Let the dead remain dead. The living join them soon enough. If only she could forget her smile, her eyes, green and wide and bright and focused on the Queen. If only…

                Then she becomes aware again of the cold, jolting her back into wakefulness and the ubiquitous wasteland. As far as she can see spreads death, the ossifying of a once vibrant planet. Before her hisses the desert. On the horizon, angry mountains belch smoke and bleed fire. In the middle distance, clouds that stretch from the heavens to the Earth block the landscape from view. But she knows what waits there for her, the same emptiness plaguing the rest of the world.  As always, when not teased by memories of her faceless love's prophetic death rattle—or nightmares of the fateful day when all was lost—the siren song of life, that divining rod, points her towards the last vestiges of light. Calls her forth to douse the hopes of a dying species, one she once called her own. For regret it or not, her path leads towards the end. A commitment not easily shirked. Only then, when the quiet in her soul settles on the Earth entire, will she rest.

                The Queen rises to her feet, and the cloud of soot descends upon her dark, fleshy husk, a soulless vessel of malevolent intent. She senses it questing within her, seeking life. Finding none, it turns its search outwards, listening for far-off heartbeats, for running water, for…

                Joy thrills through her from the haze, its eyes, and hers, alight on a river in the distance. There, in a nook by shore, hides a garden. Shriveled and sickly to be sure, but alive nonetheless. And where there is green, no matter how slight, there is sure to be… yes! Humankind. A small figure, cheeks stained with charcoal, picks its way through the twilight. The child, a young girl, heads towards her sanctuary. The Queen of Ashes clenches her jaw in anticipation, pleasure and hunger throbbing in her fists. Where there is a child, there is also civilization.

                Some atavistic slice of her brain recalls the phrase: It takes a village…

                She floats towards the river, towards the horizon where life awaits, begging to be broken. The child's path leads her one step closer to manifesting ruin.

                She will visit violence upon this village. They will learn the truth she cannot forget. The truth it is her sole remaining purpose to establish. A truth reflected in the final words of a woman whose face and whose name she can no longer remember. Only the warmth they felt for one another remains. That and her prescient final utterance. A fitting mantra for a dying world.

                All it takes is one bad day.

Ashes to Ashes

He sat in the saloon, on a dusty stool in a dingy room, holding a cold drink in gloved hands. Watching the world burn from hooded eyes. Earth slid after him into darkness. Every eye is upon him. The man of legends. King of Ashes. He who cannot be touched. Each man dreams of the bounty on his head. Each man fears death.

He dumps the brew down his throat, careful to ensure that no part of the glass touches his skin. Swallowing it all in one practiced gulp. A towering presence blocks his light. Its shadow belongs to a large mountain of a man who approaches where no others would dare.

"Are you the man myths claim you are?”

Emptying another glass, he squints up at the bulk: "I am he."

The mountain sits beside him and for a while they drink together and do not speak.

"E’er been down by old Atlante? Once was an outpost there..."

The man sighs. He knows where this is headed. He signals the barkeep for another drink, the prospect of death and the dealing of death was not one he relished sober. Another one of his many sins caught up to him. Another conflict comes, one with only the single possible conclusion.

"And what if I was?”

The mountain turns to face him, eyes simmering in rage.

“How'd you leave it, the town?"

Waiting for his drink, the King of Ashes winces and forces the difficult words out into the open, sealing both their fates.

"As I recall, there weren't much left."

He removes the glove from one hand, rests the other on the bar. The man, the tired, aggrieved man stares at the mountain a while as its face contorts with anger and grief. He watches, and imperceptibly, his stance softens. After a while of foisting off the desperate and the vengeful, one can begin to tell the difference between the two. Here sits a desperate man.

Finally, he whispers: "Who did I take from you?"

The mountain starts to weep. "M-my daughter[Ma1] ."

He stands and approaches the sobbing mountain, resting the still gloved hand on his shoulder. A futile gesture of comfort. He knows what else he offers is of greater worth to this lost cause.

"And... would you like to join her?"

Sniffling, eyes leaking, the large man doesn't answer. But he doesn’t reject the King either.

He removes the other glove. Both bare hands, weapons of mass destruction, at the ready.

"I can see it. Beyond the gate she sits and waits... for you. I, the keeper, can bring you there. The destination where all your suffering ends. Where you daughter lingers."

                Where he waits for me…

He shows the mountain his hands. His unassuming, yet most dangerous, hands.

"I can take you to her. I will, if you wish it."

The mountain thinks, then asks in a mousy tone belying his bulk: "Does it hurt?"

The now gloveless man shakes his head. "No, not for long.”

The mountain bows his head, answer enough. The King of Ashes touches skin to his skin.

"Sorry" He says, realizing that he too is crying, "I'm sorry."

It happens quickly. The transformation, the disintegration, begins in an instant. The mountain’s skin grays, grows flaky. His face convulses once, then crumbles away. Where once there was bulk, now lies only ash.

The bar’s patrons watch as the King dons his gloves, quaffs his beer and exits, never to return. None rise to pursue, despite the lion’s bounty on his head. As he leaves, it is not the mountain he sees—his most recent victim—but another, younger face. One that mirrors his own. One that cracks and tumbles away with the wind. As he leaves, quiet tears become loud sobs. Grief settles heavily upon him yet again.

"My son! Oh my son!"

He mourns in the desert, a speck in the distance wandering away from one more lost watering hole. As always, he is alone.