The Wind's Dirge
The sky the ground and everything that claimed to lie in between the two opposing forces of heaven and earth, blended together into a seamless gradient of hopeless, frigid blue. The only disruption to the frigid Nordic landscape was the hull of an airship, the flames protruding from the interior leaving a tragic black mark against an otherwise pure sky. Inside the wreckage, civilization, any hope of returning to it, its structure, order and whatever hope it promised, disappeared into that black mark. It may have been a personal mark of the apocalypse.
I sat a safe distance from the fire and watched helplessly, near enough to be coloured orange in its glow. Shock had been passed, and I was now caught in the grips of despair. At first, I had considered joining my comrades in their bath of embers, before turning instead to my rifle. These courses of action failed to come to fruition; what my rational mind had accepted, my subconscious, animalistic one, had yet to observe. I could not end my own life, not yet. And thus, I now survived solely on hope, solely on this happenchance that divine intervention may bring me salvation.
The wind was an unholy racket as I sat in my solitude, attempting to concoct some plan of action. Any sense of direction had been lost in the hellfire that had preceded the demise of our ship. Maps were not given to lowly frontsman such as myself, and any of the inaccurate scribbles were burning alongside food and ammunition that may have helped me survive. Leaning against my rifle, I grumbled with frustration.
Here I would die. A young man with no name, no legacy. Just another young corpse left to die in the north. What a waste. What a waste all of this was! I began to wonder of the Republican dogs who revolted against their king back home did not at least have one valid point in that this entire expedition was made with poor foresight.
A sound, the soft crunch of a footstep in the snow.
Weapon ready, I spun around. All noise as equipment chirped and chimed against each other with the violence of my movement.
A child, dressed in the local attire, a fur hat, long felt jacket and pants to match, completed with fur boots and gloves. He made hilariously poor attempt to hide himself in the snow, which he contrasted strikingly in his read garments. Not that I faulted the child; the landscape provided few places to hide oneself.
A pang of hope ran down my spine, and it took a great deal of self-control not to rush towards the boy in the search of directions towards the nearest native settlement. Calming myself, I slung my rifle around my shoulder and slowly, calmly approached the child. He shivered in fear, and screamed, petrified as I drew nearer.
“I don’t meant to hurt you, I…” the child was crying now. Remembering my rations, I untied my pail from my ruck sack and opened it. A half-eaten chocolate bar, the poor quality ones we were given once a week, caught my attention. Deciding my survival was more important than my love for sweets, I begrudgingly offered it to the child.
His terror slowly morphed into confusion, before slowly blending into that unique form of curiosity only children possess. He stared at the bar, and then at me, back and forth, not sure how to respond to my offer.
“Take it.” I said, resting the wax paper-wrapped delicacy in my hand, “I assure you, it’s very good.” Realising that the bar was likely an oddity to the child, I broke a piece from the bar, a small piece so that the majority remained for the young boy, and indulged, making it as visible as possible that I enjoyed what I was consuming.
With the speed and grace of a large rock crashing into a lake, he grabbed the bar with his fur gloves and scarfed it down into his small, wind chapped mouth. His eyes, in there inspiring green glory, came alive, and he smiled for the first time in our brief relationship.
“Are we friends now?” I said, somewhat impatiently now. A cold was beginning to set on my toes, and finding warmth that did not involve my burning comrades was my main goal.
As if he forgotten through the power of sugar, the boy suddenly became aware of me once again. Instead of cowering in fear, he ran. “Hold on now! I gave you my chocolate. We should be friends!”
The pace of the small boy was shocking. His nimble, lithe body easily navigated the snow that ran nearly as high as my knee. Cursing my lack of experience, I cried in vain for the child to slow down, to show me the way, and yet he disappeared in the swirling snow. My shouts were lost in the malevolent machinations of the wind.
Hope lost, I began to walk aimlessly. An insidiously cold dusk was giving way to what was nothing short of a hellish night, not even the moon or the planet's rings visible in the sky. Snow clung to me, desperate to bury me in the landscape. I would have cried, if the wind did not freeze my eyes which I struggled to squint through.
I collapsed in exhaustion and rage, but found an odd comfort in the snow. It was warmer now, safer perhaps. My mind deliberated on whether I should continue on the off chance that I may find the boy and his village, or if I should wait here, embrace the inevitable, and be buried along my dead comrades in the endless winter. Too weak to continue, I chose the latter.
A warmth, angelic in its nature, set afire my consciousness. It kindled at first, rolling softly and growing in in form and shape, until finally all five senses began to fall into place. Fur, the smell of warm wood, the sound of a slow rolling fire and, finally a view; a small room in what seemed to be a hut. Taste failed to materialise, but I could not care less, as I was safe inside of a warm shelter. I nearly laughed at how easily satisfied I was.
Testing the integrity of my body, I rolled out of the bed upon which my saviour had placed me, and stepped onto the floor. At the center of the room was a large animal pelt that stretched almost to the walls of the hut, draped in felt. A collection of whatever else happened to be soft and available filled in the space between the makeshift carpet and the walls, which rolled and buckled, ever so slightly, under the pressure of the wind.
I approached the fire, which sat in the center of the hut under a small hole in the roof, and embraced its warmth, a dumb smile on my face. Despite the oddity of the situation I could not care less who had saved me or how they had found me; I was alive, and only divine forces could have ensured such a feat.
As if temporarily gifted with a sixth sense, I felt a chill on my spine. I spun around to face whatever had caused the sickening feeling, only to see the boy, sitting curiously still in the corner of the room by the bed. It was only now that I noticed his face, its thinness, the way its cheeks were inverted, the heavy circles under his eyes and a morbid paleness. I would have thought him dead if it were not for the occasional blink or bob of his small Adam’s apple.
“Thank you.” I rose to my feet and slowly made my way towards the child. He hissed, and crawled quickly over to the other side of the tent. I shrugged, “Strange that you would save me and not trust me, but you are free to make that decision I suppose.”
I returned to the fire. Beginning to overheat, I removed my pale blue imperial Campaigner jacket, its belt marked by the green wreath of the Crown Prince, and embraced the warmth. Still, finding the silence between us odd, I attempted to engage the boy in idle chat. “Thank the creator Barmhartigheid himself that you saved me. He himself said, through the profit Oudea, that the ‘key to immortality is a name that deserves such a gift’. All this time I thought being a Campaigner, a soldier of the Crown Prince’s Army, would give me that. It’s a promise recruiter’s make, but I’m not sure dying a useless death up here would guarantee immortality. No offence to you or your countrymen.” I glanced up from the flame at the child. Through soulless eyes, the child watched.
More uncomfortable still, I continued speaking to calm myself. “Thanks to you, I’ll have another shot. Pun not intended. Not that I’m sure I care for killing the rebels up here, I’m not sure I believe you are all that bad a lot anymore. You can thank yourself for that realisation. No, instead I’d like to have a go at the rebels back in my homeland. Arcea, have you ever heard of it?” With no reaction from the child, I chose to continue, “Yeah, those damn rebels, going on about freedom, equality for all… I can accept you natives up here, in your ignorance, not embracing Barmhartigheid; but fellow Arceans? Rejecting their king and the creator he serves? Madness! I say the only way to set things right is a bayonet in the gut and a bullet in the corrupted, black heart of every one of those traitors.”
The boy remained silent.
“I suppose I could take you back with me. I could prove back to the people of Nikea, the capitol of my homeland, that you people of the north are noble savages. Hardly a people in need of our support. I assure you, it would be most beneficial for both of us. The wonders you will see, chocolate isn’t the half of it!” My stomach growled. Remembering my rations pail, I stood up, quickly scanning the hut for my rucksack. It was in the corner, frayed and torn, more than I remembered. My mind, which swung between paranoia and pure, undeniable fear, tried to rationalised this; it was as a case of ice sticking to its fabric in the cold, a common enough occurrence that I need not lie to myself to believe it.
The pail was rusted dented and scratched, and I struggled to decide if this was the fault of mistreatment and lighting. I pried open the thin metal container. I was taken aback by the repugnant odor which erupted from pail. I spilled the spoiled contents onto the floor and stared at the indistinguishable brown mush in horror.
After a few moments, I managed to calm myself, “Sorry for that.” I forced a laugh as I slipped on my firing gloves and piled the spoiled food into the container. “Don’t suppose you could direct me towards any food. Not that you’d understand me…”
As if suddenly fluent in all the particulars of my language, the boy rose, and walked out of the hut. Both surprised and concerned, I grabbed my coat and followed him out of the hut.
Mouth ajar, I immediately stopped behind the young child. The town was in ruins. The few permanent buildings, what was left of them, were in pieces; some of them still ablaze from fighting. Huts, those which hadn’t already exhausted the flames which slowly turned them to grey and black ashes, were burning alongside makeshift eating and meeting halls. “My comrades, other campaignmen, must have been here recently…” Hope once again rose in my chest. Before it could fully rise, the boy led me forward, deeper into the chaos.
“These towns… villages, of yours, all seem so similar,” I remarked as we trudged through a night illuminated in murderous flame. “These huts, the organization of the cairns, even the dolmens, for all of the natural variable that may influence their appearance, the similarities are striking. Having been in one village would be enough experience to navigate them all. Not to insinuate that your villages do not possess their own individual nuances, but…”
We paused at a large dolmen, a structure made of large slabs of stone leaning against each other, its mouth nearly covered entirely in a large snow drift. The child stared at first into its bleak, interior, coloured an impenetrable black and then back at me impatiently. I was confused by this, before realising I had the tools to light the way.
“Is there food in here?” I combed through the pockets of my jacket for an electric torch as I spoke, buttoning it all the while to protect myself against the wind.
The boy remained quiet as we entered the dolmen, and I inspected the curious red markings on the wall as we walked. As we went deeper in the ground, below the outside structure, the darkness became invasive, desperate in its attempt to quell the resilient light of my torch. My mind began to speculate as to what this boy was aiming to achieve, and the number of positive answers that it settled upon were few and far between. A sweat, not induced by heat, as there was none, but by fear, the cold sweat of tension, began to percolate from my neck.
A moaning sound. I stopped, immediately fiddling with the straps of my sidearm, which I aimed helplessly into the wall of darkness. “Okay boy. Games up.” The child continued, soon disappearing into the void. I ran to catch up to him, down this tight, downwards stairway, but found nothing but more of the wall and its odd, illegible markings. “Good oil following that brat was.”
Just I was beginning to surrender to my paranoia, just as I was about to turn around and return to the cold night above, a piercing red light began to glow from the depths of the void. Cautiously, I began to step towards it, my weapon still readied. I nearly screamed in horror at what then appeared before me.
A glowing red head, nailed to what appeared to be a door. A tortured face stared at me from eyes that glowed like the rest of the thing. Caught in a morbid fascination, I was nearly knocked over as the door was forced open. I fired wildly in my fear, and when I finally came to my senses, what I saw made me feel no better. Corpses, the preserved ancient bodies of those lost to the cold, lined the walls of the room.
The taste of blood caught my attention. I looked down. The boy had been on the receiving end of several of my rounds, and a large chunk of his head and been rendered pulverised meat.
Panic. Pure, unabated panic. The sort only possible with an unhealthy dose of adrenaline. “Time I rack of!” I ran as fast as my legs could manage. Moans began to accompany my footsteps, and they only drew closer with each crack of my boots against the stone. I glimpsed over my shoulder, catching a glimpse of figures quickly approaching.
I fired wildly as I burst out of the dolmen and into the winter air. A blizzard was beginning to intensify, but I hardly cared. A desperation drove me, one I had never experienced, and it carried me at top speed. Not that I knew where I aimed to go, but distance was only I demanded.
Eventually, the physical world began to make demands. My lungs burned, my throat was burned by the merciless winter cold, but I pushed none the less. Fear was a far more demanding matron. After what seemed like several minutes of running, my legs finally gave way, and I collapsed into the snow.
I attempted to gain some bearing on my position. I was lost. Helplessly so. My ears beginning to pain me, and my fingers not too far behind, I pushed myself to, at the very least, walk, in the hope that I may just find salvation.
My heart fluttered when I saw an orange glow in the distance. Any hope of deciphering what was causing it was impossible in this weather. I began to consider whether or not I should venture towards it. I could not ascertain how far I had managed to run from the town, and I feared that walking in that direction would assure my death. The alternative was that it was the burning remains of the airship.
The cold only getting worse, I decided to walk towards it; hoping that it may be another airship that had crashed, and this time with at least a working radio.
Drawing closer, I sighed in relief when it proved to be an airship. At the very least whatever had chased me from the bowels of the dolmen would not be there, and I would live at least a few precious moments longer.
I approached the ship with apprehension. This anxiety slowly became disappointment, a far more friendly sensation as I realised it was my ship. In my painfully cold state, I decided that I could at least warm myself near the burning fuel, ammunition corpses. It was there, standing beside the hull of the ship, where the fire was approachable around the radar tower, that I began to wonder at the oddity of this. An airship, which had largely expended its ammunition, had managed to burn for at least a day without any wood to sustain it.
Ignoring this, I began to contemplate a new plan. Perhaps, when the fire did finally calm itself, I could rummage through the remains. If I was lucky, the command room, which was resistant to higher caliber shells, much less fire, would largely be intact. No doubt they had a radio in there, and I could call for help. If the fire was long in the tooth to go out, I could use the snow as water to sustain myself. Maybe shoot the odd Allerod Cannid, they were common enough.
Then the cold returned, halting my train of thoughts with very much the same method and results an airship might use the ground. It was an internal one, one that, no matter how close I came to the fire, seemed to go away. I decided to try and reposition myself, blaming the wind for this.
As I turned the airship, I saw it in is full and horrid form.
A black creature, standing well over nine feet tall, stood before me. A head, hand here, a leg sprouting from a side, it appeared to be made of pieces from corpses. All of them were a featureless black, even the heads had little more than the proper protrusions and indentations to identify them.
I emptied every round of ammunition I had, but it only absorbed the lead. Finally, I threw my hand gun and ran around to the other end of the airship, in the hope that a rifle, or anything more useful than my hands may have survived the crash. Desperate, I fell to my knees and hectically searched the snow with my hands. Frostbite attacked, and the slow poison that water was in such weather, began to cripple my abused fingers.
Once again it was only a few precious meters away from me, drawing closer with each second. I stared up in horror as the beast began to moan, its cries low and guttural. With each breath, I only grew colder. As it drew closer, the paralysis only became more real.
“Stay back!” I screamed. The beast did not yield. I began to shiver uncontrollably.
I clambered, attempting to back away, but any sensation in my hands or feet had now been lost. My breaths grew shorter. My vision blurred.
“Don’t come any closer!” It showed little regard for my command. “Damn it! Stay away. I’m freezing to death!”
The moan only grew louder, becoming almost defining.
I could hardly breathe, the frozen condensation clogging my nostrils.
The fire. Its warmth could be my only respite.
The beasts moans chilled me to the bone. I couldn't breath.
I rolled into the embrace of the beautiful orange flame.