02 February, 2012

Sky's End

I submitted this in the 2011 Writer's Digest Short Story Competition in the Horror catagory.  It did not win anything, which is a bummer.  But I am glad I wrote it.

I was trying to capture a sort or surreal quality, where the main character doesn't really know what is going on or how much time is passing.

The original idea sprung from the desire to write a zombie story from the perspective of a zombie.

Therefore, the main character is dead and has been reanimated as a zombie.  Hence the surrealism.  And not a 'I'm the undead, I am invinsible like a Vampire' sort of dead guy.  Really dead, mostly mindless, just floating along, doing as he is commanded.  The conflict comes when he starts to fight it.

Let me know what you think! E.T.

Sky's End

He no longer slept as he remembered once doing.  Now he laid back and watched the sky, the endless stars.

He sat up slowly, stiff.  Light snow fell off him in clouds of white.  It must be bitterly cold; the snow was dry like sand.  He stood and bent to pick up his helmet.

His phalanx commander was shouting to form ranks.  Kain-Ashur took a breath of the sharp air.  There was the scent of fir and pitch.  Smoke and horses.  Unwashed men, dirt, rot.

“Get moving!”

Kain-Ashur drew on his helmet.  The eye-slit was narrow.  He didn’t like fighting in a helmet.  He hadn’t learned this way; he found it confining and restricting.

How long had he been doing this?  How many early morning battles, men beating their hands together to keep their fingers loose to be able to grip their weapons?  Though he could see the horses’ breaths rising in great plumes, he didn’t feel cold now.  He didn’t feel anything.

Kain-Ashur frowned as he found his place at the edge of his phalanx.  It was hard to remember.  There were too many memories at the beginning, a blur of color and sound.  Then there were gaps, times of nothingness.  A hundred years?  Five hundred?

For how many of those years had he been dead?

Kain-Ashur looked across the snow-field.  He could see shadowy forms slipping over the ground, darting amidst the scrubby trees.

He looked down to his side.  A sword hung there.  He drew it.  He fought with a sword now?  Ah, yes, he remembered.  That had been some time ago, the shift from spears to keen, double-edged blades.  He preferred the spear, but that tactic only worked if the every soldier knew how to use them, how to move, think, even breathe as one.

He cast a critical eye over his comrades.  He would not have stood with such men once.  He would have been insulted to have been listed on the same roll as many of them.  Now…what did it matter?

They could not lose, as they could not die.


Kain-Ashur marched forward, lifting his eyes to look at the morning sky.  It was clearing a little, the high clouds blown away by the steady wind.

There was a hiss.  Why did he hate that sound?  The man next to him staggered, falling back.  Kain-Ashur turned.  The man climbed back to his feet.  He lifted his hand and snapped off the arrow that had burrowed into his chest, tossing the shaft aside and resuming his forward pace.

Arrows.  Now Kain-Ashur remembered why he wore the restricting helmet.  He frowned as he caught sight of a man a few rows away from him.  The man wore not only what looked like a bucket on his head, but his entire body was encased in metal.  What was the point?  How could the man move quickly, dodge and thrust, run if needed, hide, then leap out to finish the kill?

A muted roar distracted him.  Kain-Ashur looked toward the sound.  Another cohort was already engaged with a seething mass of men.  Their attackers outnumbered them twenty to one.  But the phalanx moved steadily forward, pushing them back.

The arrows fell thick now, a snarling rain that set his helmet ringing.  Then they were in the trees.  His unit was damaged by the relentless barrage, but they simply closed ranks and pressed on.

Kain-Ashur, at the leading edge, was one of the first to tangle with an enemy.  The man jumped out at him, daggers raised. Kain stepped aside easily, bringing his blade around with a double twist.

The man screamed and fell to the earth, writhing until he bled out.  Kain-Ashur peered down at him.  The man was too old to be on the battlefield.  Thin, white hair showed beneath a rough cap of some kind, woven from wool.  The knives were rusted, etched with wear and age.

Kain-Ashur lurched back, a heavy blow sending him off balance.  He grimaced and gripped the arrow shaft tightly.  Its arrowhead was not barbed and came out of his chest easily.  Kain-Ashur paused before throwing it aside.  It was a well-made weapon, the fletching fine and even.  The sort one would use to hunt deer, so as not to damage the meat too much.


Kain-Ashur dropped the arrow.  He sank his sword into the belly of the man lying at his feet, just to be sure he was dead, then stepped over him.

“Are you damaged?”

Kain-Ashur turned to look at who had spoken.  A slender man stood behind him, wrapped in a flowing robe.

“You, there.”  The man snapped impatiently.  “Are you damaged?”

Kain-Ashur looked down at himself.  “Yes.”

“Hold still.”

Kain-Ashur watched in bemusement as the man waved his hands, babbling like a fool.  What was he doing?

Kain-Ashur gasped, the stench of blood and smoke flooding his lungs.  He staggered as sharp flashes of unexpected pain burst all over him.  The bones in his arm set with a series of cracks.  The wounds from the arrows closed, leaving nothing but holes in his heavy tunic.

“Go back to the camp.” The slender man ordered.  Kain-Ashur snarled at him.  How dare this little nothing of a man command him, Optio of the Fourth-

The little man’s eyes narrowed and he muttered quickly.

Kain-Ashur lifted his head.  The woods around him were dark, drifted with snow.  Why was he walking here, in the dead of winter?

The pale light gleamed off the metal of his sword.  That was right.  He had been in a battle.  What was he to do?

Go back to camp.

Yes, back to camp.

Kain-Ashur looked through the trees until he saw the fire, a mass of men standing by it.  That must be his camp.  He sheathed his sword and made for it, stepping down the hillside with care.  Bodies littered the ground, the snow mixed into crimson mud.

A hand closed around his ankle.  He spun, his sword once again catching twilight before the blade sank into the man’s chest.

“Finish it!”

Kain-Ashur leapt back, leaving his sword embedded in the soldier’s torso.

The man reached out and dragged himself forward, his fingers biting into the frozen dirt.

“Finish it!” he snarled.  “You know how!  Do it, child of the devil!”

Kain-Ashur watched in horror as the man pushed himself away from the ground with one hand.  His only hand.  His only arm.  The other Kain-Ashur could see lying behind him, with the man’s severed legs.

“Do it!”  The man growled.  He flipped over and threw a knife to Kain-Ashur’s feet.

Kain-Ashur looked at the blade.  He knew how.  How to end it, for eternity.

“Please!” the man begged, choking, weeping without tears.  Please, kill me.  End this torment!”

Kain-Ashur hesitated.  It was forbidden.  If they discovered he had released one of them…

“Are you damaged?”

The man on the ground flinched, turning his face away.  A woman stepped through the trees, clad is a flowing cloak of red.  She bent over the damaged man.

“Answer me!” she commanded.  “Are you damaged?”

“Yes,” the man hissed through gritted teeth.

Kain-Ashur could not look away as she went and picked up the man’s limbs, dragging the legs along the ground.  She arranged them in position, working with brisk, efficient motions.

The man’s screams grew hoarse, echoing from the silent woods.  That was wrong.  A battle-field was never silent.

“Go back to the camp.” The woman said.  The man had risen to his feet, his limbs reattached.

“Yes.” He said dully.

“You, too.” She tossed over her shoulder at Kain-Ashur.  “Go!”

The sky had cleared completely, leaving nothing but the glimmering stars above.  The air was so clear and cold, Kain-Ashur felt he could reach up and touch the sparkling gems.

He could see the faint glow of the large fire burning through the trees in a clearing.  He stood with the other soldiers some distance away.

They were perfectly still, most staring dully ahead of them.  Kain-Ashur wondered what occupied their thoughts.  Did they think of their homes?

He did, sometimes.  When he could remember.  It was long ago.  Had the smiling woman been his mother?  Or his sister?  Maybe his wife?  There were children, laughing, teasing children.  His?

Kain-Ashur sensed something move close, a shift in the men around him.  A hand closed over his shoulder.  His voice was low, seething with hate.

“I will not forget, heathen.”  The man vowed.  His hand tightened and Kain-Ashur felt a snap in his shoulder.  His collar bone; his hand went limp, his arm unresponsive.  “And neither will you.”  The man left, his steps noiseless.

Kain-Ashur looked up at the stars, wondering what made them move.


Kain-Ashur jerked from his stare at the horizon.  What made the sun rise?  They said, if one sailed far enough, you would fall off the edge of the earth.  If it ended, did the sky also?  Did they meet or, after the earth fell away into nothing, did the stars continue on infinitely?

Again arrows fell thick.  Kain-Ashur drew the ones that had hit him out of his body, tossing them aside.  They were trampled under the boots of the men behind him.

He gripped his sword with his off-hand, disgusted that his right arm refused his commands.  He disliked fighting with his left hand.  It was slower, better for a shield or short knife.

The battle was over quickly.  He had escaped serious injuries this day, other than his broken shoulder.  Should he wait here or go back to the camp?

A man stepped out of the brush.  Kain-Ashur lifted his sword reflexively, then relaxed.  It was one of his men, the strange close fitting helmet hiding his face.

The man lifted a hand and drew it off, throwing it to the dirt. Kain-Ashur stiffened.  It was him, the man from the yesterday.  Or was it the day before that?  How long had they marched through the snow, chasing the trail that wound through the rugged wilderness?  How many sunrises?

Before Kain-Ashur could speak, the man jumped forward.  Kain-Ashur’s sword went spinning away, his hand with it.

“Now, heathen.” The man snarled.  “Let’s hear how you beg.”

Kain-Ashur stood slowly, trembling.  His body ached with pain, phantoms setting his limbs quivering.

“I don’t know how you can be so clumsy.” The man who had repaired him said, wiping his hands in distaste.  “I healed you the last time, too, at the bridge.”

Kain-Ashur did not remember.  It was hard to think, his few scattered memories submerged in a haze of agony.  He wished he could feel the cold, hunger, thirst.  Anything but this pain, made sharper by its isolation.

“Go back to the camp.”

No.  No, he would not.  But his legs turned him and carried him along the empty street.  He didn’t want to go back, couldn’t face him again.

Kain-Ashur slowed, his feet dragging.  He sank to his knees, still shuddering with pain.

How many times?  Ten?  A hundred?  A thousand?  How many times had he been ‘damaged’ by Kiarad?  Left in pieces on the battlefield, waiting.  Just waiting, knowing what was coming, knowing soon one of them would arrive and ‘heal’ him, all the pain he could not feel when wounded crashing down on him.

How many times would he endure it before he could take no more?  And then what?  He could not die.  He was already dead.  Had been dead for centuries for all he knew.  The weapons and armor he faced were strange, these people unlike any he had fought with his legion.

He couldn’t end it himself.  He had tried, many times, the shining tip of his dagger hovering before his eye.  Then, a command so powerful, so thunderous it consumed him, pressed him to the earth.


Kain-Ashur cowered just from the memory of the last attempt he had made to end his life.  His torture.  What was he?  By all that was holy, what had happened to him, what devil possessed him?  Was he a demon or was this hell, eternal payment for his sins?

Kain-Ashur went still as the wind shifted, carrying with it the sound of steps.  Steps off of stone.  There were buildings around him, not trees or grasses.  They had fought in a city.  Kiarad?  No, Kiarad moved silently, coming close before Kain-Ashur could escape back to the safety of the camp.

This man was staggering, floundering down the narrow street.  Kain-Ashur stood and slid back into the shadows.

It was a young man, dressed in a dull gray uniform like Kain-Ashur’s.  The man lurched into a wall, scrabbling at the bricks to hold himself upright.  He was panting, hoarse, hollow breaths.  He blinked constantly, the muscles in his face twitching.

Recently dead.  Kain-Ashur wasn’t sure how he knew, but he was certain this man had died recently, newly conscripted.  Maybe even today.  His body was fighting death.  Breathing was unnecessary, something Kain-Ashur only did now to scent the wind or speak.  Odd, how he had forgotten.  This man’s body was still trying to support itself, pushing useless air in and out, searching for something it no longer required.

Kain-Ashur waited until the man passed by.  He glanced up the street, then turned away and followed the man.  Where was he going?  Some tried to return home, another habit.  Had this man lived in this city?  Would his family kill him?

Bright, searing hope flared in Kain-Ashur’s chest.

Would they kill him, too?

Kain-Ashur kept his distance, watching the city carefully.  Kiarad might be out here still.  If Kain-Ashur ever caught the man unawares, he was going to chop him into pieces and scatter them so widely no one would ever find them.

The man he was following fell to the ground.  He lay moaning, writhing, crying incoherently.  Kain-Ashur sneered, disgusted.  It was one thing to be afraid.  It was another to show it.

Finally, the man regained enough control to stumble to his feet.  He set off once more, muttering to himself, gesturing wildly, his motions jerky and uncoordinated.

Kain-Ashur didn’t remember being that way when he had been conscripted.  But then, he had been dead for several hours before the man, a tall, thin man with huge, luminous eyes, had woken him.


Kain-Ashur went still at the whispered command.

The dead man before him staggered forward.  “It’s me!  It’s Ilmari!”  He groped blindly forward, sobbing brokenly.  “Please, help me!”

Three forms stepped out of the deepening shadows, all cloaked heavily.  This Ilmari fell before them, pleading with them.

They ignored him, murmuring to each other.  Kain-Ashur slipped closer, trying to hear.

“It worked,” one muttered.  Their accents were thick, hard to follow.

“Somewhat,” he was answered gruffly.  The one in the middle poked at Ilmari with his boot.  “Keep quiet!” he snarled as Ilmari wailed.

“Take it off!” Ilmari gasped.  “I’ll do anything!  Please, make it stop!  End it!”

They regarded him from inside their deep hoods.

“You agreed, Ilmari.”

“But I didn’t know!” Ilmari protested.  “You can’t understand!”

“You volunteered, Ilmari.”  The gruff man said, turning away.  “You couldn’t face the headman, you sniveling coward.”

Kain-Ashur wondered at this.  Was the man a criminal?  Did they send their lawbreakers to be cursed?  That made no sense, feeding the armies they were fighting.

“Tell us what you know.”

Kain-Ashur frowned.  It was a woman, the person under the third cloak.  “Ilmari, tell us what you know.”

Ilmari was cowering at her feet, clutching at the swirling hem of her voluminous wrap.  She stepped back, jerking free.  “Now, Ilmari.  My patience is wearing thin.  Who commands you?”

“A man!” Ilmari said weakly.  “A magician.  Elmas, they call him.  He…he…”  Ilmari’s mouth worked, his voice dropping to a hoarse whisper.  “He speaks in my mind!  I can hear him, commanding me, burning me!  No!  No! I will not!”  Ilmari gripped his hair, falling to his face.

Was it the same voice Kain-Ashur heard, telling him to fight, to not destroy himself?  The man who had pulled him back from death to serve him time and again?

Hate, raw, coursing, bitter hate, surged through him.  Even now he could hear a faint beckoning to return home, return to his masters.  This Elmas, calling in his dogs, his slaves.  Kain-Ashur was no man’s slave, not for any price, not even for eternal life.

“Dare we risk sending him back?” the first man asked as Ilmari whimpered.

“You, Ilmari,” the gruff man snapped.  “Is this Elmas at the camp?”

“Yes!” Ilmari said.  His breathing had slowed, his body giving up.  “Yes, he rides behind them.  I heard them talking, say he needs to be close to replenish the magic.”

If he could get far enough away, would the curse fade?  How far could he get before the temptation to return, to listen to that command overcame him?  Then what?  Back to Kiarad and endless torture?  But he was fighting it even now, resisting.  How much could he stand?

Ilmari gasped suddenly, his mouth wide with horror.

“They are coming,” he whispered.

“Ilmari,” the woman said firmly.  “You will return.  You will try to kill this Elmas.  Do you understand?”

Ilmari cringed.  “No!  No, I cannot!  No, stop!  Please!”

“No doubt this Elmas has worked his spell so the men he curses can’t harm him.”  One of the men muttered.  He spat at Ilmari.  “Alright, dog, how do we kill you?”

Kain-Ashur could feel them coming, too.  They were calling for them, searching, moving closer.  Ilmari was lying limp, overwhelmed by the summons.

“We have to get out of here.” The woman said.  “We’ll have to try again.”

The men both laughed mirthlessly.  “And who do you think to send, Cwene?  Not many murders done when this is the punishment.”  The gruff man gestured to Ilmari.

“We have to try!” the woman insisted angrily.  “We have to do something!  They will chase us across the sea!  We have to stop them here!”

“This was our last hope,” one said desperately.  “We must flee, run-“

“No!  There has to be a way to kill them.  Ilmari, get up!”

“He’s lost,” the man said grimly.  His boot swung out, slamming into this Ilmari’s chest.  “We should take him and burn him.  He’ll betray us.  Warn this pig, Elmas.”


“Cwene,” the other man said softly.

“I will not run!  I will find another.”

“Who?” the second man asked simply.  “Who will you send?  Which of us will you condemn to eternal damnation?”

The silence was absolute, even Ilmari’s breathing finally stopped.

The searchers were close now.  Kain-Ashur made his decision.  He stepped out of the shadows onto the path.

“Send me.”  He stepped over Ilmari’s limp body, not slowing as a four daggers buried in his chest.

“Who are you, demon?”

“I was a man, a soldier, serving under the Emperor Valens.” Kain-Ashur said quickly.  “ My name is Kain-Ashur.  You don’t have much time; they are close.  I will kill this Elmas.”

“How can we trust-”

Kain-Ashur jerked one of the knives free and bent over Ilmari.  The man’s glassy eyes stared up at him, blank and senseless.  With two quick thrusts, he killed the man, truly killed him.

“Both eyes,” Kain-Ashur explained softly.  “That is why we wear the helmets.  Cutting off the head won’t work.  It has to be both eyes, quickly.”

The three of them were staring at Ilmari.  One of the men made a strange motion over his chest, muttering what sounded like a prayer.

“You will kill Elmas?” the woman asked.

“I will try,” Kain-Ashur promised.  “But this is not the only army, the only magician.”

She hesitated, then lifted her hands and drew back her hood.  She was a young woman, her dark hair coiled on her head.

“Thank you, Kain-Ashur.”

He nodded to her and turned away.  When he glanced back, they and the body were gone.

He met the searchers at an intersection.  They were men like him, dead.

“Return to camp,” one said dully.  Kain-Ashur went without a struggle.  He went back to the camp and slipped in among his fellows.

The next battle was another city.  It was warmer here, by the tender green of the grasses just sprouting up through the paving stones.  Kain-Ashur left the fighting behind, weaving far from the noise.  He waited, sword in hand.

Kiarad was not long in finding him.  The man’s pale face twisted in a gruesome smile.

“So today you fight me?” he asked, his voice pulsing with hate.

“No.” Kain-Ashur said coolly.  “Today, I have an offer.”

“An offer?  It is too late, little man.”

Kain-Ashur brought his sword up and stopped Kiarad’s thrust.

“I need your help,” Kain-Ashur said.

“I won’t kill you,” Kiarad snarled.  “You will beg for eternity!”

Kain-Ashur pushed him away.  “I know how to end this.  For everyone.”

Kiarad’s cloudy eyes widened.  “What do you mean?”

Kain-Ashur dropped his sword to the ground.  “Will you hear me?”

Kiarad, watched him warily, glancing to all sides.

“We are alone.” Kain-Ashur assured him.  “And we will only have one chance.”

The night was very still.  The dead soldiers were grouped by their companies, stuffed down alleys, well away from the fires of the living men and women that commanded them.

Kain-Ashur was amused.  Were they so terrified of their own creations?  How much control did they really have over them?  Not enough to stop him or Kiarad from ending this torment.

Two of the living men were dead, dumped in an empty building.  Their strange clothing now covered him and Kiarad.  Kain-Ashur strode purposefully through the open square, feeling for this Elmas creature.  He was the source, the focus, the reason.

Kiarad, just behind him, plucked at his sleeve.  “There.”

Yes.  Kain-Ashur could feel him now.  Part of him trembled.  The other stiffened with resolve.

Two living guards stood outside the door.  It was easy to slip by them down the dark street.  They were loud, breathing noisily, shivering so their armor rattled.  Kain-Ashur felt along the wall until he found an opening, a window.  He drew his knife and quickly worked the latch.  It fell open.  He tapped Kiarad’s shoulder and climbed inside.

They wove through the darkness, up the shallow stairs.  The wooden floor creaked under their weight.  Light shone from under a closed door.

Pressing down his inner wailing, cringing terror, Kain-Ashur stepped inside.

The man looked up from a desk, frowning.  “I am not to be disturbed!” He snapped.  “What is it?”

His hands were ink stained, papers lying everywhere covered in swirling characters.  Kain-Ashur glanced over the small room, the wooden furniture.

“Should we burn it?” Kiarad asked.

“A wise idea,” Kain-Ashur answered.

Elmas jerked to his feet.  “Who are you?  Guards, come!”

Kain-Ashur was disappointed.  He had been expecting a man who radiated power, a great conjurer, a leader.  A warrior.  This man peered at them myopically, scowling.  Had he expected the commands alone to deter them?  They were so powerful, Kain-Ashur could feel them tearing at his mind, ripping it to shreds.

Kiarad grabbed the candle from the table and tossed it into the mass of papers on the floor.  They flashed brightly as they ignited.  At once, screams broke the night, the screams of men in pain.  The dead soldiers.

Elmas’ eyes gleamed, the only warning Kain-Ashur had.  He lunged forward and gripped the man’s hand that was already pulsing with energy.  The bones snapped easily under his grip.  Kain-Ashur dragged his knife though the man’s throat, stopping any screams or spells.  The guards were shouting in alarm.  The room was already filling with smoke. 

Kiarad came up beside him.  He lifted his weapon to match Kain-Ashur’s, hovering before the magician’s paling face.  Kain-Ashur could feel it, so close; release, freedom.  Rest.

“Thank you,” Kiarad said simply.

Kain-Ashur took a deep breath - he prayed it was his last - and with all his strength, drove his blade to the hilt into Elmas’ wide, terrified eye.