My Travels Through The Kingdom of Walsh

 

My travels through the Kingdom of Walsh were rough to say the least. Clusters of buildings were few and far between. The absence of trees in the grasslands of southern Walsh have led to the populace finding… Other ways of making their homes. The majority of houses and structures seemed to be constructed of a simple thatched roof with smooth stone blocks cemented together with livestock manure! This gave the villages a rather distinct odor. However, the Walsh people are some of the most hospitable I have ever encountered. Upon arrival I was welcomed into the pungent home of one Aeron Tiller. He was quick to offer me his seat at the head of the table. Though rather plain from the outside, the interior of his home was adorned with various hides and trinkets. Each of them with a story to tell, as I found out when the family gathered around the fireplace taking turns detailing the events behind acquiring their favorite possessions.

Before first light I accompanied Aeron Tiller to the center of town at his request. The men of the village had gathered with spears and after some brief words from the elder we set out into the tall grass beyond the fields. Every Walsh man is a hunter. At least at the beginning of the day before they tending to their crops. All game caught in these morning hours is put into a communal stew. The pelts are saved for the walls of skilled hunters. I was offered a bowl and was surprised to find it bursting with flavor. The edible roots of the prairie make for wonderful spices! These people were some of the friendliest I had ever encountered, and I was truly sad to say goodbye.

The vast fields of grain at the outskirts of settlements were periodically broken by mounds of solid rock protruding from the ground. Further north the flatlands gave way to sharp, splintering rock. This is where the relatively straight roads began to wind erratically up the cliff faces. The most popular way of travel to the City of Walsh is via the Ninevah River. And I strongly suggest this method of travel. Bandits lie in wait along the road for unsuspecting travellers.

At first I was excited to see trees poking out from behind the rocks. A few miles later, I found myself in the middle of a dense forest. Taking cover behind large ferns and bushes, a gang of outlaws forced me to the ground. Thankfully one of them was relatively well read and recognized me. I left with my life and my dignity after parting with my coin and promising to ‘immortalize them in ink’. Hugart. Groven. Norden. Darge.

By the time the City of Walsh came into view I was quite literally jumping with joy. Here the wilderness has been relatively tamed. The outskirts of the city were dotted with ranches and military checkpoints which quickly give way to wooden townhouses. I stayed at an inn right outside the city gates after being denied entrance. Thankfully the innkeep recognized me and I was able to open a line of credit. Again my popularity saved my skin. There is a five day quarantine period before travellers are allowed access. I found this a bit excessive after being inspected for signs of wither several times at the numerous checkpoints along the road. It was no matter though. It gave me a chance to mingle with the locals. The people here were boisterous and simply a joy to be around. I recall a young lad by the name of Barin who bought round after round for the tavern folk. Halfway through the night the innkeep demanded payment. Poor Barin was unable to pay and with a cheeky grin, made a mad dash for the door. I don’t remember the rest of the encounter that night, though it must have been worthy of telling. I woke in a ditch covered in the piss of passersby. Barin helped me to my feet and treated me to breakfast. While attempting to teach me the art of skimping on an open tab, three men armed with axes began circling the table. A well dressed gentleman opened a scroll and read charges aloud. Turns out Barin has been wanted for outstanding debts for some time. The men pulled him away, whelping and dragging his boots as he went out the door. I finished my sausage, amused at the eruption of entertainment. Needless to say, the remainder of my quarantine stay was comparably dull. But the thrill that coursed my veins at my admittance through the city gates was definitely worth the wait.

My initial impression of the City of Walsh was one of smooth stone bricks and ivy. Very much a city bustling with life. A quick trip to the bank to access my account and pay my debts was necessary before heading to the market. Thank the Gods those highwaymen did not make off with my identification.

The market place was colorful and filled with exotic good from far off lands. Perhaps an adventure for another time. Through the sea of merchants and whores, a curious invention caught my eye. A man naming himself ‘Remi the Magnificent’ dressed in patterned silk called attention to bone whistles piled into mounds in his stall. Intricate runes had been carved deeply yet intricately, promoting everything from virility to luck. On top of this, Remi claimed that the whistles command the will of all manner of beasts. My curiosity got the better of me and I purchased a dozen of these trinkets for thirty sol. I was sad to find that they did not work as intended. But if nothing more than a keepsake, I kept them on my person.

By evening, I was at the doorstep of Hammershank Manor at the invitation of Lord Jon Hammershank himself! The aristocracy held a party in honor of my safe arrival. They huddled close at my end of the table to hear the tales of my travels. They did not even divert their attention at the arrival of cornucopias adorned with squash and poultry. It surprised me how a well travelled man living humbly can command the attention of the room of noblemen. Once I had finished, the feasting began. Though the taste of the meat lacked the savory fullness of the spiced game of southern Walsh, the food made up for its inferior quality in its sheer quantity. To admit, I felt guilty for my gluttony afterwards. But months on the road unleashed a feral state inside of me. Encouraging dissenting looks from the noblemen around the table at every smack and gulp.

At the end of the event, Lord Hammershank encouraged me to join him on the balcony where he took a serious tone. He asked me of my thoughts on the likelihood of war in the coming years.

“Drawing from a lifetime of experience in Estuaria, the King and aristocracy do not want a war. But they are tragically out of touch with reality. Refugees flock to the city from the far reaches of the empire. There are shortages of meat, grain, and clean water. The human waste in parts of the lower city reaches the ankle. The people are getting sick, starving. Above all, they are fed up with living in squalor. The King faces revolt at the hand of his subjects and war may become a necessity. For two reasons. The fields of southern Walsh and the death of enough of his own subjects for that alone to sustain them. The masses of Brigdania are desperate, and that is what makes war inevitable.”

After speaking my piece, Lord Hammershank bid me farewell. He said he may call on me for advice on the matter in the future, though I wished for that day to never come.

I spent a night at the dockside inn before setting off across the river. Back to Estuaria to publish my tales.

-Cornwell Davies, the Travelling Scholar

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Disillusionment

I was but a bright eyed boy when my dear mother passed. Her throat slit while she slept. My father was sent to prison under suspicion of her death where he eventually fell ill and expired. Of course, he was entirely innocent of the crime.

It was a drifter that came to our door that day. He was soaked through his heavy wool coat. Bones rattling to a deathly rhythm, one that had shook the life from his eyes. I distinctly remember a dark presence burdening him, radiating like black steam. I begged my mother not to take pity. But she was a foolish woman. Too kind for her own good.

When the man had finished with her he rooted through our kitchen and stormed out the back. Not before giving a patronizing pat to the back of my head. It was at his touch that the darkness began to take root. The feeling was that of a hand crushing my skull, fingernails digging ever deeper into the depths of my mind. A madness that to this day has failed to cease.

Perhaps I should have stayed. With my testimony, my father surely would have avoided his unjust sentence. Instead he came home to a dead wife and policemen welcoming him with shackles in hand. The only witness had slipped out the door.

On the road life was less than pleasant. Every passing day was a testament to will and desperation.

Travelers would occasionally stop and offer whatever help they could. Though never enough to loosen the grip on my head. Once you have seen evil it becomes a part of you. A part that if not properly drowned, will pound electrifying spasms of torment into the chest. I think that is why I kept walking. Each step staved off the darkness, I knew nothing else.

I woke this morning unable to make it to my feet. Three weeks of hunger and exhaustion had taken its toll. I fear death will take me soon. But more than that, I fear the thoughts that encroach while I lay here.

Before it all goes black I will see true darkness.

Gunner

As the Black Hawk touched down the marines sounded off down the line and hopped into a field of tall crab grass rippling from the sweeping force of the rotor blades. They bolted from the LZ and within seconds disappeared into the thick Bosnian wood. I gave the signal that we were clear and chopper lifted off to return to base. We were about 20 feet and rising when I spotted an armed teenager laying low in the brush. He couldn’t have been older than 16. There was a worn AK-47 in his hands and a bright red bandanna over his mouth. I called it in.

“Base, this is Blackjack. We have an armed fighting-age male in hiding near the LZ. Requesting permission to waste this sucker.”

Silence

I kept the red bandanna in my sights. There was nowhere to run for this bastard.

“Blackjack this is Base, are you taking fire?”

“Negative”

Silence

“Request denied. This is a blacklisted operation. No unnecessary fire.”

The kid scrambled out of the thicket and made for the wood. No doubt to relay our movements to his friends. By the time our boys made it to their destination they’d find nothing but an empty house and a pile of mutilated Bosnian women. I had heard the stories, seen the pictures, time and time again they beat us to the punch.

I turned to the rest of the crew. “Well, this op’s a bust”

“Cool it Russ.” Mike turned away from the controls for a second to shoot me a meaningful stare. “We’re just here to serve our time and go home. Don’t look for trouble.”

“I feel like it’s a waste of a flying metal death machine if we don’t waste some Serbs!”

Rico chimed in from the other door-gun. “You were born too late man. This ain’t Vietnam.”

“Trigger happy bastard.” Mike chuckled to himself. “I swear sometimes you forget who the damn pilot is.”

It was sundown when we landed back at base. A shanty town of tents and sandbags overlooking the Lašva Valley. I collapsed into my bunk without dinner. In the distance the morbid lullaby of small arms fire ushered me to sleep.

After briefing the following morning, I assumed my station on the right door. Mike fired up the engines. The blades began to whir, whisking away the faint morning mist. In the valley below the haze had settled into a sea of dense fog. The tips of buildings just barely poking through.

The peace was broken by the clamor of boots on metal. French soldiers brandishing baby blue UN helmets scrambled into their seats then promptly burst into song. A cacophony of guttural French noises. They acted like they owned the place. Cocky bastards.

We took off into the damp Bosnian air and proceeded along the route to Sarajevo. It was a three-hour trip there and back so I got comfortable. I leaned back in my seat and captivated myself in the crashing waves of white below. The small islands breaking the fog changed from carefully spaced geometric rooftops to intertwining rugged treetops. I was so mesmerized that it took me while to notice that familiar Bosnian song coming from below.

Small arms fire.

The reverberating pops were impossible to place in the sprawling thicket. One thing was for sure. People were dying. I looked deep into the fog for several minutes, searching for any signs of life. A dull red flash flared up at the base of a nearby hill. My heart raced.

“Mike, we got activity down there. Red flare at 3 o’clock. Could be civilians asking for help.”

“Dammit Russ. What makes you so sure they’re trying to signal us?”

“Because they’re lighting more.” The lights multiplied and danced around.

“I think we’d better check it out.” Rico interjected.

The singing died down and the French soldiers chatted amongst themselves. Their tone was low, secretive almost. As we brought the chopper down, the fog rolled back layer by layer. The scene unfolding before us was harrowing. I fought to keep down an acrid metallic taste down in my throat.

The dancing lights weren’t flares. They were people.

The lower we got, the more bloodcurdling their screams and pleads for mercy became. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was one of the French soldiers. He tossed off his baby blue UN helmet before speaking.

“We have seen this before. It is the Serbs. Whatever you decide to do, know we are behind you.”

I let that sit for a while. What could I do? I hesitated to contemplate the potential backlash before continuing.

“Base, this is Blackjack. Calling in an illegal war crime in progress by the Serbs at the Southwest end of the Lašva Valley. Requesting orders.”

“What kind of war crimes? Please specify.”

“They.. They’re burning them alive.”

Silence

“Are you taking fire?”

“Negative.”

Silence

“I repeat. Are you taking fire?

“Negative.”

Silence

“You may defend yourselves utilizing lethal force. I will not authorize an attack. I ask again. Are you taking fire?

“Neg-Affirmative. Yes we are taking fire.”

The man on the other end let out a static-filled chuckled.

“You are clear to engage. Waste those suckers.”

I shouldered my gun. Ahead of us the Serbs leisurely walked back into the thick wood. I let off a burst to their side, catching one in the leg. The rest broke into a sprint for the cover of the tall pines.

“Bring her around for a strafing run Mike.”

The Black Hawk maneuvered into position. The French soldiers cheered and took up firing positions along the side doors. Their guttural chanting spurred my heart to a quick, lively beat.

As we charged, I got a steady bead on the Serb bastards fleeing for their lives. I savored the kick of the gun as I let loose on their asses. The smell, the justice, the sheer spectacle of it all. It was all so right.

“Trigger happy bastard.” Mike looked back at the crazed grin on my face and chuckled to himself.

 

The Bottle

“I’m a fucking loser. A failure.”

Those were the last words out of my mouth while I still drew breath laying in that dark, decrepit alleyway. I was a farmer by trade- used to be a farmer. I hated every moment of it. I took to the bottle a few years ago, threw everything away. I just drove away and left everything in the rearview mirror on a frosty Monday night. I had fantasized about it for decades, and was surprised at how easy it was to walk away from it all.

My wife and kids struggled to run the farm without me. They called in every favor they had but it wasn’t enough. The bank took the farm. My family was forced out onto the street to beg for their next meal.

Me? I wasn’t doing much better. My car broke down in Gardenwood. A shithole of a town in the backwoods of Colorado. I did some hard time for armed robbery. I was in and out of prison for much of the remainder of my life. I did what I had to. Three square meals a day beats starving to death in the cold.

I died with a bottle in my hand right outside Ridgeway’s Bar & Grill. Snow blanketed my body as I laid lifelessly on my side. It took two days for the authorities to find my body.

That wasn’t the end of my suffering. I never bought into all that shit about a life after death. And I am proof it doesn’t exist. I’m not alive, I just. Am. I can feel the difference.

This morning I looked into the mirror and instead of hating what I saw, I just stared blankly. I stared into an endless void searching for any bit of self-loathing, any emotion really. I just wanted to feel again. I wanted to feel shitty. I deserve to feel shitty. I thought I would suffer but death isn’t justice, it just is. It’s the absence of suffering. The absence of everything.

I wake up in the bathroom of Ridgeway’ Bar & Grill everyday to the sound of the owner locking up for the night. I’m not sure if I am trapped here, I’ve never tried to escape. All this time to think back on my life. To think about what I’ve done. And what could have been. But I don’t care. That’s the worst part. I can’t feel anything and it is slowly eroding away at my humanity.

It’s been seven days, but it feels like centuries. I am beginning to think that hell does exist and I am it’s sole occupant.

Being left alone with my thoughts. It’s not justice by any means. It’s just cruel.

Black Blood 146 B.C.

The screams of women and children echoed in the night as they ran for their lives through the puddles and narrow streets. They flooded past us into the dimly lit agora at the center of town. We stood our ground. Stands that once shelved aged wines and the finest silk lay in pieces strewn across the ground. We had stripped them to construct a small palisade there to shelter those unable to fight. We stood at the opening alongside a handful of the local militia as its only line of defense. Thunder boomed overhead. I could hear the vicious growls of the enemy as they approached us in the darkness. I grabbed the whistle around my neck and loosed its piercing shriek.

“Form up on me!”

My men moved into position in line with me at the gap in the wall. We lined up our tall red shields to plug the hole. There were only five of us left. Hopefully it would be enough to keep them from getting past. Behind us, the thin line of militia readied for battle. I could see the terror painted onto their faces. Most had never seen battle. It’s good we were here. Young children hastily ran down the line, distributing javelins and spears to them. I turned to Decimus, my second in command. His joyful face seemed out of place in the chaos that surrounded us.

“Hey Achaicus, if we die, I’m still going collect on those three denarii you owe me.” He joked, oblivious of the chaos around us.

“If we die, I’ll pay you back in Persian whores when we wake in Elysium.” I responded with a smile.

The wails of dying civilians grew louder. The enemy was close. I looked around at my men. Crassius and Marcus stood to my left. They were identical twins of large stature, they had been terrified by battle in the past but now they stood calm and collected. They had been calloused by our first encounter. Though their faces were void of expression, I could see a burning desire for revenge glimmering in their eyes.

Good, we’ll need that

Decimus and Quintus stood to my right. I had known Decimus for a long time and was honored to fight by his side. He possessed an indomitable spirit that had kept us sane this whole time. His confident grin assured me that there was a chance we might survive the night. Quintus was quite small for a Roman and extraordinarily meek in day to day life. But when backed in a corner, his energy and skill in battle were unmatched. Under his blood stained helmet he furrowed his brow and grit his teeth. He was ready for what was coming, and I trusted that he would fight with us to the death, should it come to that.

The screaming off in the distance suddenly and instantaneously ceased. Replaced by the curious patter of raindrops on steel. I unsheathed my sword and held it high above my head. The panicking civilians in the palisade went quiet. The militia raised their javelins, ready to hurl at my command. The only voice that could be heard was that of a lone infant crying among the refugees.

Moments later we could hear the unsettling mass of growls. A lone figure shambled into the light and stood still. His skin was grey. His open mouth, smothered with blood and overflowing with bubbling saliva. I recognized his mutilated face. I had killed him. The Greek breastplate he wore was punctured and stained with black blood. We had to be wary of his bite or embrace a frenzied existence after death. We had all seen it happen before. We called them the inferi. The dead.

A large group of corpses followed him into the light. A few wore the heavy steel armor of the Roman Army, they were crouched onto their hands from its weight and moved like four legged beasts. They barred their teeth and snarled furiously at us. It was disturbing to see our own transformed into such terrible creatures. If all went well, no more would be added to their ranks this night.

As the group continued to gather in front of us I sliced my sword forward through the air.

“Now!”

The militia unleashed a volley of javelins over our heads. Many struck home in the chests of the nonliving. They fell to the ground from the force of impact, only to rise moments later. Black blood pooled on the floor. Those impaled through the face went limp and collapsed. A sharp blow to the head seemed to be their only weakness.

The Greek soldier in front was impaled through the stomach, forcing him to stumble backwards. He paused for a moment before growling and sprinting straight for us, followed en mass by the horde. The Roman inferi resembled rabid wolves as they charged on all fours, mouths open with hunger and animalistic desire. We beat our swords against our shields in anticipation.

“Spears!”

The militia hastily picked up the bronze spears at their feet and rushed behind us forming two tightly packed rows of men. The first row crouched and stuck their spears through the gaps between our shields. The second stood and pointed their spears out at head level. It would be moments before they were upon us. I gritted my teeth.

“Brace for impact!”

As the inferi crashed into our line it took all of our strength to keep from staggering backwards. The Greek soldier had been stopped by a spear through his heart just a couple feet in front of my face. I could smell his wretched breath as he inched closer. Scraping his flesh along the wooden shaft of the spear, nothing seemed to distract him from the desire to sink his decaying teeth into my throat. I thrust my sword under his chin. Straight into the brain. The supernatural glow left his eyes as he went limp. I twisted my sword arm around in the internal mush of his skull for good measure before pulling it out. The spear he had been impaled upon kept him standing upright. I looked around to asses our situation.

Decimus was frantically kicking at a Roman corpse trying to gnaw at his exposed ankles. I came to his aid with a sharp kick to the corpse’s side. It flipped over and lay at Decimus’s feet. He brought his shield down swifly. The head was severed with ease and black blood squirted in every direction. Decimus shot me an appreciative grin. I smiled back and turned my attention to the other men.

Quintus was shielded from the rest of the inferi by a limp corpse that had been stabbed through the forehead in the initial charge. He slashed furiously at the husk of a body in vain.

Efutue!” He cursed. “It’s not fair Achaicus, this fellatrix is standing between me and the action!”

I nodded reassuringly. At least he was safe and holding the line. I looked to my left. Crassius and Marcus worked together like hunter and hound. Crassius kicked away the arms supporting a crawling Roman corpse. It quickly collapsed under the weight of its bulky steel armor. Without pause Marcus drove his sword home straight through the base of the neck. Three slain Roman inferi were piled at their feet.

I heard a loud snarl in front of me and turned my attention to my own share of the fight. A Roman corpse had attempted to crawl between the legs of suspended the Greek soldier and had gotten stuck just below the Greek’s groin. He snapped at me and I instinctively stabbed downward at the beast’s scalp. The blow merely glanced off his thick steel helmet. He moved his head wildly in an attempt to escape. I placed the bottom half of my shield under his chin and lifted his gaze upward. Once I could see the pure darkness in his eyes I stabbed again. This time the blade struck home between his eyes. His stare lost its urgency as black blood drained to the ground. I pulled my shield back to my body and he slunk to the blood stained floor under the Greek soldier.

We were starting to gain confidence that this night would end in victory until a deafening mass of growls gripped us with renewed fear. At least two full centuries of inferi stood at the edge of the light. Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires side by side. Decimus sliced a standing inferi across the chest as it charged toward him. It spun around and turned to its fellow undead, snarling for aid. They let out an unnervingly human cry and charged.

“Brace yourselves!”

They smashed into us with the force of a rolling wave. I was knocked back into the militia behind me. They struggled to keep the inferi at bay, but their strength failed in a matter of seconds and the dead rushed into the palisade. Welcomed by a cacophony of screams from the old, the women and the children. They eagerly leapt over us at the opportunity for easy prey. I looked up at the Greek corpse I had killed. Black blood dripped down from his chin and spattered onto my forehead. The sound of Quintus’s voice snapped me out of my daze.

“Achaicus! If we don’t get out of here right now we’ll be inferi chow!” Quintus struggled to push aside the plump corpse pinning him to the ground. “Let’s go!”

We all wiggled around to free ourselves from the immobilizing weight of the corpses. Marcus easily shrugged off two large Roman bodies and frantically grasped my hand to lift me up. He nervously glanced over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. I thanked him and scanned our surroundings to find a route of escape. To our rear, the militia scrambled out from under piles of corpses and ran to protect their loved ones. The refugees were being consumed in an inferi feeding frenzy. Thick spatters of blood and severed limbs flew through the air.

Their desperate screams as they were ripped apart shook my skull to its core.

Some of the militiamen realized the futility in fighting and simply fled out along the main road through town. Crassius and Marcus stared eagerly at the road. I could tell that they wanted to follow the militia through the most direct route through the city. My instincts urged me to run with the herd, but I knew that more inferni could be lying in wait. Breaking off from the main road was a narrow alleyway wedged between two extravagant villas.

“That way!” I pointed my sword its direction.

We bolted to the alleyway, careful not to give any more notice to the slaughter behind us. For the sake of our sanity we absolved ourselves of any responsibility for what had happened to the refugees at the hands of the inferni. When I reached the narrow alleyway I did look back once for good measure. The inferni were still occupied in the palisade and the bloodcurdling screams were ever present in the night. I disappeared into the darkness of the alleyway and my men followed suit.

By the time the sun was just beginning to crest over the craggy hills of the Greek landscape we had put significant distance between us and the doomed city. I sat down on a patch of grass underneath a large oak at the top of a hill and gestured for my men to join me. This was the first time we had stopped moving since our retreat from the city. The morning dew gave the ground a cool, seductive comfort. After a few silent minutes had passed I stood and urged my men forward. We needed to keep moving.

“We’ll head that way” I gestured to the West. “We should make progress towards camp. They need to hear our report before they send out any more-”

“And then what?” Marcus stood to face me. “Regroup with the legion? We fought a few hundred inferni back there, now you ask us to face thousands?”

“We need cohesion and discipline. Five men cannot survive on their own and I’m willing to bet the legion needs as many men as it can muster.”

“Achaicus! The legion is gone! All we know is that wherever there are people there are inferni! I say we go North along the coast, find a ship, and leave this forsaken place!”

“We have a duty to aid the Republic! I will not doom fellow Romans, MY men, to die! Not if I have yet to lend my aid! We can still win this war Marcus!”

“I don’t give a damn about your Republic or your precious war! I’m not looking to die! I’m going North! Anyone who wants to live can join me.”

Crassius stood behind his brother. Quintus and Decimus stood behind me and cautiously placed their hands over the hilts of their swords. I stared at Marcus. He was taken aback by the anger in my response.

“Come with us. We’re going West!”

Futete! Make me!” Marcus unsheathed his sword.

Everyone drew their weapons and raised their shields. The tension on the hill was amplified by a moment of silence.

“If you desert, I’m going to have to kill you.”

“You can try.”

Marcus threw a powerful swing at my head. I blocked the blow with my shield and thrust my blade at his chest with the intent to kill. Crassius parried my sword with his own and with a single kick, knocked me to the ground. Decimus and Quintus came to my aid. The distinct clamor of steel on steel echoed through the empty landscape. Quintus was a more than a match for Marcus, but Decimus struggled to fend off Crassius’s fury of blows. I scrambled to my feet. A stinging pain from my ribs was excruciating, but I managed to put it to the back of my mind. I held my shield high and charged Crassius. Decimus sensed my attack and sidestepped out of my way. Crassius’s face turned to shock as he instantly realized what was happening.

Just a moment too late my friend

I crashed into him, slamming him forcefully onto the ground. He gazed up at me with a dazed expression as I lifted the hilt of my sword and smashed it down onto his forehead. He flailed his arms against my armor. I did it over and over again, savagely beating the energy out of his large body. Blood poured off of his head and onto the dewy grass. Decimus watched in horror at the animal that had taken hold of me. His skull began to give way and the struggling ceased. Each successive blow resulted in a brittle snapping sound until my hilt had dug itself deep into his face. My attacks slowed as my rage began to fade. I looked down at my blood soaked hands. The pain returned to my ribcage. It felt good, like a twisted reward for a job well done.

Marcus, still fending off Quintus, was enraged by the death of his brother. His blows increased in frequency and strength. Quintus staggered back at every blocked attack. He soon found himself at the edge of a fairly steep portion of the hill. Decimus ran to Quintus’s aid. With both of them on the offensive, Marcus was quickly overwhelmed again. In an act of desperation, he cried out and slammed his body into Quintus. He screamed as he was thrown backward and down the steep edge of the hill. Decimus raised his sword to strike, but was dispatched by a swift kick from Marcus. He too was sent tumbling down the hill. Marcus breathed heavily and hit me with a smoldering glare.

“You killed my brother Achaicus.” He looked down at Quintus and Decimus. They were frantically climbing back up the hill. They would be here soon. “I’m going North. Don’t try to stop me. You kept one of us from leaving, I hope that pleases your damn Republic.”

I sat there, still on top of of Crassius’s lifeless body. I could see the burning rage in Marcus’s eyes. He spat at my feet and walked away. Quintus and Decimus finally made it to the top of the hill ready for a fight. Instead they found me standing, staring down at Crassius’s mutilated face. Was it worth it?

Decimus placed a firm hand on my shoulder.

“You know I’d follow you anywhere right?” The usual joyfulness in Decimus’s voice was replaced by a low, serious tone.

“I have trust in you Achaicus. You’ve kept us alive this long.” Quintus chimed in.

I flashed a weak smile at them. I pointed West with a blood soaked finger and began walking down the hill. Quintus and Decimus looked at each other with concern and then hurried to join me on the road back to camp.

Age of Kingdoms

In the fourth grade there was one thing that I loved more than anything else. I would get home from school, heat up a microwave burrito, lean back in a creaky old office chair, and boot up our family’s desktop computer. Age of Kingdoms was always in the disc tray because it was the only game I’d ever play. I was so consumed in tending to my fledgling civilization that hours would flash before my eyes. Every game started out the same, you start with a handful of pixelated villagers and a king. I’d promptly send the villagers to work cutting down trees and hunting for food, while the king sat behind the walls of his castle overseeing the fragile economy. If he died the game was over. I would lose. Eventually I would stockpile enough resources to build walls and armies to protect my people from the neighboring kingdom. Once I had built up enough I would strike at the heart of my AI opponent. Their cities would crumble under my military might, and a welcome tingle would roll down my spine. Bold white text would appear on the screen. YOU ARE VICTORIOUS.

As one of the scrawnier kids living in a small town, it gave me the chance to feel important. I was a friendless nobody in real life, but in the game I was a god. I really think it helped my self esteem growing up.

But like with most things, after a while the joy of pummeling a computer into the dust subsided. It was too easy. My dad had recently set up a DSL router. The internet was finally at my fingertips, and with it the excitement of a new challenge. After school on friday I practically ran home. I trembled in anticipation as I booted up the computer and moused over the Age of Kingdoms icon. In a couple minutes I had the multiplayer menu opened, searching for matches.

No game(s) found…

I frowned. This was not what I had expected. I restarted the game and still-

No game(s) found…

I was about to give up when a message popped up on my screen.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Eagerly, I replied.

Steven: Yeah lets get a game started.

Drudg3s74: OK you host.

I started up the match. It spawned me in the center of an island with a handful of villagers, my king and a castle. I sent my people to work, gathering wood and food from the surrounding countryside. I made more villagers and sent them to mine some gold I had spotted closer to the coast. I was losing myself in the game, it was a familiar cathartic feeling.

Drudg3s74: How r you?

Steven: I’m fine, how about you?

Drudg3s74: Good

Drudg3s74: Not many people play this game

Steven: My parents say its a waste of time

Drudg3s74: What do you say?

Steven: It makes me feel in control

Steven: I don’t get to feel that way very often

Drudg3s74: Same.

Our text exchange died down and I returned my focus to the game. The pixelated people worked like ants, gathering resources and depositing them at my stockpile. Back and forth they went. Storing massive amounts of gold and wood. My people threw out their rags for fine silk togas. They grew fat and rich. It was mesmerizing to watch the transformation.

“Steven! Time for bed!!” My mother yelled from the other room.

I glanced up at the clock. It was 8:30. My stomach grumbled, I had lost track of time and missed dinner. Probably why my mom was so irate.

Steven: I have to go to bed

Drudg3s74Play tomorrow?

Steven: Yeah sure, I’ll save it. Night.

The next morning I woke up and devoured a bowl of cereal. I had to get back to that game. Today was saturday, meaning I had the entire weekend to play. When I got to the computer room my parents were huddled around the screen.

“I-I don’t understand, they just tripled overnight!” My father gasped.

“What does this mean honey?”

“I just made $300,000..”

The room was quiet for a brief moment before exploding with noise.

“OH MY GOD” My mother exclaimed.

“I’m taking you out tonight babe” My father beamed. “Anywhere you want. Steven’s old enough to stay without a sitter. All he ever does is play his game anyways.”

I felt sting of shame at the truth of my dad’s logic. My parents laughed with joy and embraced. They told me there were hot dogs in the fridge and to get to bed at a decent hour. Then giggled their way out the door. I waited a few minutes after the door slammed shut to boot up the game. Just a few moments to experience the bleak loneliness of real life before returning to my colorful fantasy. Immediately after the game started a message appeared on my screen.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Steven: Sure.

I loaded the game from where we had left off. My villagers continued to gather and multiply. I invented agriculture and gradually my farms spread through the deforested land. The invention of smelting meant better metals for tools and weapons. My small village grew to a town, then to a city. The clay huts my villagers resided in upgraded to hovels, then to towering apartment buildings. Soon I had a sprawling metropolis, streets flooded with workers and merchants. Soldiers in glistening blue armor guarded my castle and patrolled the lands in my domain. My opponent had been surprisingly quiet the entire time. For the first time in hours I looked up at the clock. 10:45. I needed to get off.

Steven: I have to go

After waiting for a couple minutes a chat message appeared.

Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?

Steven: You bet. See you tomorrow.

I woke up on Sunday morning to the sounds of heavy machinery whirring. I jumped out of bed to open the blinds and harsh light blinded me for a second. When my eyes adjusted all I saw for miles was construction site after construction site. My school was down the street. There were new classrooms and facilities being built by an army of workers. They seemed to have appeared overnight. Progress was already visible. The frames of new houses were being hoisted up. It was strange. The events of yesterday and today were seemingly random, but I felt a connection between them. All I knew for sure was that the excessive noise was annoying. I stumbled into the living room and poured myself a bowl of cereal. There was a note stapled to the box.

Steven, your dad and I have decided to vacation up at Tahoe. We’ll be back later this week. Hot dogs in the fridge. -xoxo Mom

I sighed. Another day to myself. My parents left on these kinds of trips often. Most of the time without bothering to let me know beforehand. After a lonely breakfast I booted up Age of Kingdoms.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Steven: Ok

I returned to my people. What to do next? I decided it was time to develop my coastline. A fleet of fishing ships left my harbor, scouring the uncharted seas for whatever it could provide. That’s when I spotted a ship with red sails. The enemy. The ship retreated back into uncharted waters and returned moments later with a fleet behind it. Hundreds of red sails dotted the screen. It was an attack, and I was utterly unprepared.

Drudg3s74: Ready or not here I come

The ships landed on the beaches of my island and soldiers with fierce red armor poured out into the countryside. There was nothing I could do. They torched the outlying farms and houses before making their way inward. I rallied my troops and sent them into battle. Red knights on horseback trampled through my lines and cut down every last one. Then they marched on the city, slaughtering every villager, reducing my great buildings to rubble. I realized my king was next and evacuated him to the other side of the island where more enemy soldiers lay in wait. Red crossbowmen loosed a volley of bolts at my king–

A sharp pain contorted my shoulder. I howled at the excruciating sensation. A large spot of warm blood pooled under my t-shirt. WHAT THE FUCK?!?

I looked back at the screen. A message was waiting for me.

Drudg3s74: I don’t want this game to end yet

Drudg3s74: Play tomorrow?

My king was wounded but not yet dead. The red troops had ceased their onslaught and retreated back to their ships. Then the screen went black. I sat there in that worn out office chair in shock, blood trickling down my side. I tried to process what had happened but the pain overtook me and my eyes shut.

When I opened them it was well into monday afternoon. The air was thick and harsh on the throat. I coughed uncontrollably as I lifted up my shirt to peer underneath. The wound had scabbed over, sticking like velcro to my white t-shirt. Careful not to jostle my shoulder, I slowly rose out of the office chair. If the blood on my shirt was real then-. I hurried to my bedroom window and ripped open the blinds.

There was nothing left but scorched earth and piles of rubble. The construction sites were silent. The heavy machinery and bodies of the workers were charred black. Down the road my school had been reduced to a mound of bricks. No class today. It seemed only my neighborhood had been spared the from a fiery doom. This was no game, this was real life.

I knew what I had to do.

I sat back down in my chair, still clutching my bloody shoulder and booted up the game for one last time.

Drudg3s74: Want 2 play??

Those words held a new meaning this time.

Steven: Let’s end this.

The game resumed. My city was in ruins. Like the aftermath of the fire that devastated my hometown, only my castle and a few buildings in the area around it were left unscathed. I moved my king back into the castle and rallied what remained of my villager population. Then I started to rebuild.

Things were slow at first, but I kept at it. Hours flew by in the blink of an eye. At 1 am on tuesday morning I had built my kingdom back to its former glory. My farms resown, my armies reformed. Once again my people moved from pitiful mud huts to luxurious condos. A great wall was erected around the city built upon it’s own ashes. The natural resources on the island were exhausted so I sailed to smaller islands off the coast to strip them of their wealth. From the plentiful forests of those islands a great fleet was constructed, but not of fishing ships. This time warships armed to the teeth ran patrols around my island fortress. I was at the height of my strength. Better yet, the fog had rolled in. Now was the time to strike.

Steven: You willing to try your luck a second time?

Drudg3s74: Here I come

Not a minute had passed before red sails once again appeared at the edges of my domain. They sailed straight for my undefended coastline.

The trap was sprung. I took a deep breath and continued.

Ships with majestic blue sails swiftly moved out of their hiding places amidst the thick fog. They attacked from both sides, taking the invading fleet by surprise. The exchange of fire arrow volleys on screen was a magnificent sight to behold. Red ships sank to the depths by the dozen, and with each of them a portion of the invading army.

My opponent saw my naval advantage and sent the remainder of his fleet to shore. Despite his significant losses at sea, red soldiers disembarked by the thousands. They fanned out into the farmlands, raiding and killing as they went. The remainder of their fleet, annihilated behind them. They were trapped on this island.

While the red army devastated the surrounding land, the next part of my plan went into action. A large contingent of my army stood outside the city walls. Ready to fend off the red invaders. The rest of my forces waited on the other side of the island, loading heavy siege equipment onto large transport ships. The ships sailed around the island, escorted by my fleet, and then moved into the now undefended red territory. As I neared the shore volleys of arrows rained down on the fleet. Maybe a little more defended than I had planned on. I sailed straight through the hail of fire and my men stormed the beach. After some vicious fighting, the arrows stopped. Now it was my turn. Large wooden catapults rolled onto the sand. I gave my men one standing order, to take the castle and bring back the enemy king’s head.

I got an alert from my city and moused back over to my island to see what was happening. The red army had formed up outside the city, outnumbering the defenders 3 to 1. The odds meant victory was impossible, but I just had to hold them off a while longer. The two armies smashed into each other. The screen was filled with red and blue soldiers fighting to the death. With swords and battered shields they fought on tirelessly and with ruthless efficiency.

Another alert turned my attention to the other island. There, my blue army had ransacked the enemy city. Now they moved on to the castle. Catapults hurled fireballs into it’s decorated stone masonry. Chipping it away little by little while my soldiers formed up to cut off any routes of escape. I left them to their work and focused on the battle on the fringes of my on city.

The defenders fought valiantly. But the overwhelming numbers of the red army proved too much. Every last one was slaughtered. Their blue bodies sprinkled the ground at the base of the city walls. The invaders let out a brief cry of victory before breaking out their ladders and grappling hooks. I didn’t have much time.

I wiped my palms off on my shirt. They left long yellow streaks of sweat over the dried blood. In a moment, the red army would be over my walls and the fire would rage on again in the real world. I sighed deeply and focused back in on the events unfolding in front of me.

The enemy castle was crumbling before my eyes. Arrows rained from the battlements sniping my troops down below. The square my spearmen had formed around the structure was breaking. Gaps in their wall were numerous and occupied by corpses filled with arrows.

Another alert from my island drew me away. The red army was storming the streets of my city. They razed every structure they came across to the ground. My villagers congested the streets rather than evacuate. The soldiers hacked and slashed their way through the sea of blue civilians. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Anything was worth buying my army a little more precious time.

Back on the enemy island the castle was on the verge of collapse. Every fiery boulder impacted with devastating effect. The regal sound of trumpets took me by surprise. The great metal gates of the castle flew open and the red king raced out on horseback. What remained of my spearmen chased after him. He rode east, into the woods.

“SHIT!” I screamed at my computer and threw my fist down on the table.

Drudg3s74: That was close

Drudg3s74: My turn

Red catapults set up around my castle and loosed their deadly payload. The walls of my house shook violently. The clock and countless framed pictures shattered face first onto the hardwood floor. My office chair swiveled around in circles and rolled to the other side of the room. A loud creaking noise turned my attention to the ceiling. In an instant the drywall collapsed, coating everything in a layer of white debris. The thick arm of a large oak tree followed, clipping my left hand as it crashed into the hardwood. I looked and my hand and screamed at the top of my lungs. My fingers were limp. Any attempt to move them resulted in an unimaginable spasm of pain. White bone protruded out of my forearm. My left hand was fucked.

Holding back tears, I dismounted my office chair and wiggled my way through the tangled branches between me and the game. Every contact with bark on my busted hand left me momentarily frozen in pain. Eventually I made my way through and stood in front of the computer. My right hand gripped the mouse. I had to end this NOW.

All fighting in the game had stopped. I looked to my castle, the fireballs being hurled by the red army’s catapults were frozen mid-flight. On the other island my men had the red king trapped in the thick forest. They had a him on his knees, a spear at his throat.

Drudg3s74: You said this game made you feel important

Drudg3s74: Why do you want it to end?

Drudg3s74: We can be gods, you and I

Drudg3s74: All you have to do is keep the game going..

Drudg3s74: forever

I looked around at the destruction around me. I took a shaky breath before replying.

Steven: lol nah

The game resumed. In 16-bit color, a spear slid through the red king’s neck. I felt nothing when the text appeared on screen.

YOU ARE VICTORIOUS

Bagpipes and Barbed Wire

As the sun set in the west, the constant pounding of artillery fire illuminated the borders of the night sky. We had received orders from the sergeant the previous morning; a night raid on the German lines would take place as soon as the mortars and howitzers ceased. He had given the order but Sarge knew there was no way he could force us to go out there again. He was not an especially authoritative man, nor was he inspirational. All of us on Hill 33 looked to the Scot to lead us into battle.

The Scot was a fierce fighting man with a full red beard. He went over the top when he pleased, discarding his uniform and weapons for traditional Scottish dress. We ignored the whistles and screams of the Sarge. Instead waiting for the somber, piercing cry of the Scot’s bagpipes. The music seemed to take control of our bodies, replacing fear with a feeling of boundless courage. Which is why that night, when the Sarge blew his whistle we paid him no mind.

“There will be no bagpipes tonight! That fucking Scotsman is trying to undermine me again!!” The Sarge screamed back at us in between whistles “Tonight you will execute my orders without question!”.

We looked around in confusion. Where was the Scot? We all stood paralyzed in silence and fear. Breaking the quiet was a voice in the darkness. A heavyset man stepped into the the moonlight. It was the Scot.

“Aye, I don’t think you lads should charge off this hill tonight. Jerry also has plans tonight, it won’t end well. I can feel it in me’ bones.”

“And what would you have me do?” The Sarge barked “HQ wants us to lay the groundwork for the big offensive in two weeks time. We need to take Hill 34 and push the Jerries back! Not sit around and twiddle our thumbs while our boys die in the thousands because a fucking Scotsman couldn’t follow a single fucking order from his superior officer!!”

The Sarge’s face was red with anger we had never seen him before. He drew his shiny pearl handled revolver out of its holster and pressed it against the Scot’s freckled face. “I can shoot you now for insubordination!” A wiry smile crept onto his face “No. You’ll lead us as you seem to always do. WALK!!”

We looked at each other in amazement. I grabbed onto one of the wooden ladders in preparation. The Sarge shot me a quick glare.

“Don’t! The Scot likes to lead us, now let him.” He prodded the Scot’s head with the barrel of his revolver. “Over the top soldier.”

The Scot looked back at us with a peaceful face and turned to climb up the rickety trench wall. The silhouette as he stood atop Hill 33 still haunts me to this day.

“Good luck lads..” Were his last words as the lead from German machine guns ripped through his walking corpse.

Sarge blew his whistle as blood rained into the trench. Out of sheer instinctual fear we complied and charged into the terrible crackling of machine gun and rifle fire. I wiped the blood from my eyes and made my way up the trench wall alongside the rest of the first wave. Men fell to the ground limp and lifeless around me and joined us once again in our advance as they tumbled slowly down Hill 33.

Our march turned into a slide as dirt turned to mud and slabs of decomposing flesh. I lost balance and fell flat on my back. As I continued to slide, I looked up at the once peaceful night sky as bullets whizzed by and mud spat in my face. In an instant, a searing pain in my right leg caught me in my descent. As I jerked to a stop bright red flares illuminated the thin valley below. Jerry was there. The crack of rifle fire below opened up amidst the already chaotic sounds of battle.

As my friends slid into a hail of bullets, I could do nothing but watch blood fly and bits of bone splinter out of their squirming bodies.

“RETREAT!! FALL BACK TO THE TRENCH!!”

I glanced up to see the Sarge frantically clawing at the mud, trying desperately to climb up the slimy slopes of Hill 33. The gravity of the situation set in and I madly mangled my hands in an attempt to free myself from the rusty barbed wire. The tighter my grasp, the more blood oozed from my struggling hands, and the closer I found myself to freeing my leg. I shook my leg violently until it came free and flipped around to scale the hill.

Above me, Sarge continued his climb using bodies and discarded weapons as handholds. I thrust my bleeding palms into the mud and crawled after him. I felt a wave of anger rising from my gut to my skull. I moved one arm in front of the other, over and over again. I heard the bullets slap noisily into the mud and bodies around me. Slowly, my arms began to sink less and less as the mud gradually turned to loosened dirt. I raised my head for the first time to see the crown of the hill a mere few meters away. I fought through the exhaustion in my limbs until I had reached the familiar sandbags that signaled the end of No Man’s Land. I let out a sigh of relief as I pulled myself up and over. Into the relative safety of the trench.

“We got another one!” Another survivor of the failed attack ran to my aid. He looked down at the blood streaming down my arms and the multiple lacerations on my leg. “I need a stretcher ASAP! You got outta there just in time mate.”

“Why’s that?” I inquired. My arms and lungs still burned from the climb.

“HQ got a tip about the German troops in the valley. A few mustard gas canisters are converging on their position as we speak. If we can’t shoot ’em out we’ll gas ’em out.” The soldier grinned from ear to ear.

The canisters landed with a thud in the valley below. I peeked above the trench wall at the yellow gas creeping slowly up the hillside. The deafening screams of the soldiers below echoed through my brain. A single thought articulated in my head.

Gas is a terrible way to die. No one deserves such a fate. No one.

As the hollering of dying men began to fade, so did the crackle of gunfire. In the peace the gas had afforded us I heard a familiar voice.

“HELP! ANYONE!! MY EYES BURN!! OH!! IT HURTS! PLEASE HELP ME!!”

It was Sarge. He was lying face down in the dirt writhing in pain less a little ways down the hill. Less than 100 meters from the trench. His fingers scratching at his inflamed eye sockets.

Gas is a terrible way to die. No one deserves such a fate. No one.

As the men with the stretcher arrived, I leapt to my feet with newfound strength. I snatched the stretcher from their clammy hands and to their amazement, hopped up and over the safety of the trench wall. Into No Man’s Land once more. They stared at me in awe as I limped to the edge of the yellow gas. Dragging the stretcher along with me.

The further I got from the top of the hill the more my lungs burned with every breath. My vision blurred as I approached Sarge’s squirming body. The energy I had used thus far seemed to be sapping away in the yellow mist. A burning sensation overtook my senses, setting my nerves ablaze with pain. Sarge slowly stopped squirming and looked up to me, his eyes bloodshot and bruised.

“You gave it your best shot. That’s all I can ask of any of my boys.” His eyes squinted till they were nearly shut and his frantic breathing slowed to a crawl. “I tried to do the right thing. Turns out I was wrong.”

I collapsed to my knees and tried to catch my breath. Each one burned more than the last. With my last ounce of strength I grasped onto Sarge’s uniform and rolled him onto the stretcher. A strange feeling overtook me and I pushed through the pain. I started pulling the stretcher up the hill. With each step my knees buckled. With each breath my throat screamed for respite.

By the time I looked up the trenches were a few meters away. I just needed to go a little bit further. That’s when my legs gave out.

I slammed face first into the dirt. I was done for. My breaths were short and labored. In a last ditch effort I reached out in an attempt to drag myself further.

A hand met mine and hoisted me to my feet. The rest of the survivors banded around us and pulled us back to our lines. A pair of medics frantically rushed over and ran off with the stretcher. Once safe, I noticed the men staring at me once again in awe and silence.

To this day the men who served on Hill 33 swear that when I disappeared into that yellow cloud of gas they could hear the haunting, somber sound of bagpipes from the valley below.

Atomic Stories and Lovecraftian Writings.