Short Story — Bodies in Revolution

Surprise update!  I put together a story for a writing prompt at io9 the other night, and thought I’d share.  The prompt was a concept painting by an artist named YONG, whose work can be found at his personal gallery.  This is the image:

Stone Hand, by YONG

And now my piece inspired by it, called…

Bodies in Revolution

 

They left it here to remind us.

A monstrous hand arcs up and over me, an oppressive monument built of soil and stone, conjured from the ground using technology beyond our understanding. We call it a Grip of Five, and it’s the standing embodiment of their raw power; their unsullied hatred; and most of all, their absolute dominion over our civilization.

When they tossed us aside, the invaders left the hand and a thousand replicas scattered across our world, a promise and a threat undying, an inescapable reminder of who precisely is at our throats. That hand makes sure we can never forget one simple fact: that all we are, and whatever meager belongings we may cling to… all of it belongs to them.

My name is Lietta Daoken, and I’m now entering my 17th spring. Our world—called Haier-Lis—has just reemerged from winter’s shadow. During those several long months, the dimstar hides behind Vosta, a titanic sphere of swirling red and orange which fills the vault of heaven.

Not that my people often see the dimstar or Great Vosta Allmother through the ever present clouds, especially in spring when they begin to roil and writhe. The cloud-cover hides us from Vosta’s grace in our shame and depravity, and hardly anyone looks to the skies with hope anymore. Anyone other than me…

Today, though, even I might prefer not to look up. The clouds scatter the dimstar’s light and reveal the Grip of Five in wet and ghastly whiteness. The faded monument haunts us, and especially this day, I can feel its fingers closing in.

I’m aboard a ship sailing north along the river Azod, away from the Shevsai Wetland where I was raised.  From the age of 4 onward, I farmed the endless nara-grain paddies there, an indentured serf born into servitude with no status or possessions. There was at least some dignity to the work, though.

That won’t be the case where I’m going. There’s no dignity in this sort of end.

Ahead of us lies the Lighthouse of Leksandr; one of their installations, where the priestesses of our faith sing the Hymn of Ancient Surrender up into the shrouded sky. We’ve not seen the invaders in a millennium, but it’s said only the Most High Mother’s holy pleading keeps them at bay.

Frankly, I doubt anything keeps these beings at bay save their own apathy. No prayer alone could stand before creatures capable of such cruelty and invention.

Driven by gusty winds, the ship carries us swiftly into Leksandr’s port and we soon approach the dock. I hear rusted shackles rattle all around me as the fifty other prisoners begin to panic. They’re chained, skittish, and aching to escape, trapped just as surely as I am in the stone hand’s choking embrace.

I hear a wooden clack and the bark of a dozen ship’s guards. These are the degenerate males of my people–bucks, we call them–bred only for fighting and no more intelligent than a voxenhound. They slaver after us and growl like animals, and more than anything, I pity them. I feel pity for this monster the invaders bid them become. I feel pity for their ancient precursors, proud and wise, whose memory survives only in whispered myth.

Within minutes, a Sexton Priestess arrives and sings commands to the guards, then the hulking beasts howl and flex their muscles, making their red scales glint in the dimstar’s limp light. Barely containing their need to defile us, they herd us off the ship in a ringing, clanging procession.

Barefoot, cold, and hungry, we shuffle down the gangplank while the Sexton Priestess waits along the pier. She waves us on with her slender-arms–the thin, bony appendages which grow from around our shoulder blades–and we prisoners hurry along.

Like every serf, my own slender-arms are but stumps. They regrow constantly and must be shaved down every winter in a ritual that’s both bloody and painful. The Priestocracy tells us, though, that it’s only a small price to pay against the horrible weight of our sin.

The males have only one such appendage by nature, called a farrion, which is thicker and more muscular than our own, covered in shining armor and tipped with bone-blades. Where the second would grow, they have only a hard lump no more useful than my tiny mutilated things.

The guards jab their farrions at the air, and terrible sounds rumble in the animals’ dark throats. They lead me and the other prisoners into the wrought-iron gates of Castle Leksandr, beneath the high and glimmering lighthouse hewn of hatred and pearl.

Fires burn in the courtyard, coughing out black smoke that billows up into the air. Several hundred of the more intelligent bucks line the arcade and these are the knights, elite hounds of the Priestocracy who wait here chafing at their collars, licking their talons and bristling for the hunt.

The other prisoners avert their eyes, but I do not. I stand defiant, staring rage back at the knights and their blank, idiot gaze. I rage because I know what fate has in store for them. Though they can’t understand, I do… I’ve listened closely to the Hushed Hymns, and heard the truth within their melody. I know exactly what these bastards will be commanded to do, and degenerate or not, I cannot pity them. I can only rage, and I will do precisely that until my twin hearts catch flame.

We’re taken through the courtyard quickly before the knights can detect our scent, then are ushered into a large chamber with a high vaulted ceiling. Columns surround us adorned with shackles like those around our ankles, and the whole vile place is lit by braziers full of crackling coals. The smell is a mixture of musk, smoke, and the numberless legions of dead and sacrificed whose gore lies smeared across our history.

The Sexton Priestess steps onto a raised altar, covered in the wan light of a towering glass window. A furious storm gathers in the distance behind her, flashing bolts of eager lightning to bridge the swelling clouds.

She paces back and forth across her stage, dressed in the blue robes and crisscrossing straps of her station. She looks out across our weary ranks, weighing and measuring us as dispassionately as a rancher might a fresh pack of gunderbeasts.

When her calculations are complete, she strides to the altar’s head and begins her invocation. Chanting out in the invaders’ speech, she produces a black and halting cadence which seems clumsy and ill-fitted to our gentle mouths. I understand precious little of it, but I nevertheless hear echoes of the invaders’ evil in every twisted syllable.

Guards walk among us, watching for signs of unrest with slow and lazy eyes. They’re as sharp as old river stones, so mindless that I can easily keep tabs on all of them without attracting attention. Their movements are practiced, regular, and carefully drilled. They never pause or falter, only march ahead and turn. The Sexton Priestess all the while continues her singing, producing a loud and penetrating voice that soaks into every corner of the long hall.

Her song finally ends and she addresses us in common speak. “Welcome, ye who have been chosen by our Celestial Lords. You who will be the mothers of eternity, giving birth to those who may yet repay our sin. Welcome, and be sanctified through this simple act of grace.”

I look around at the others, stripped naked and showing young green scales like my own, but all of us have hints of gold near our breast. Very soon, the incubation sacks along our flanks will be in full bloom, then no force in the world will be able to stop the knights from infecting us with their spores.

We are the blessed few who are fertile this season, and the thousand young implanted by those knights will devour us throughout the summer until finally wriggling free in the fall. Our precious gift is to be our death sentence, our bodies sacrificed to feed the next generation of cursed children, and I must find some way to escape.

I watch the priestess carefully, methodically, measuring the way she moves… the directions she glances… the curved sword on her hip. She’s lean and older but not yet old. Her movements are soft, graceful, and well choreographed, and she wears a long gown that cascades behind her like mountain cataracts in startling sapphire blue.

She nods her head and frowns, and I recognize the face of someone finishing a distasteful task. It’s the frown one gives when cleaning a toilet for the third time in a night. When I realize this, I know I will rage until my fire consumes me… until it swallows this damned world whole.

There is no one left alive who can save me, so I will save myself.

Guards form a line down the center of the chamber, then bend down and start fiddling with the locks. It takes them just over six beats to get the job done, then the two groups of prisoners are split in half and driven to either side.

The beasts begin to corner individual women, chaining them to columns first before unlatching the old shackles. Again, the movement is exactly the same, telegraphed clearly by their clumsy, overgrown arms. Six beats, just as regular as invader-built clockwork.

When a guard comes waddling for me, I portray terror and obedience. I flinch and hide at the beast’s every movement, then allow it to push me against the cool stone. My breaths race, I can taste metal in my blood, and both my hearts race faster in opposing rhythm. I will only have the smallest opportunity.

He crouches down, lifts up the metal cuff with both hands, and reaches toward my leg. His farrion waves briefly to the side, and my opportunity is here.

I grab the top of his head with both hands and drive my knee through his face. Bones crack. Scales fly away and amber blood splashes. The guard falls with a broken whimper, while I snatch the copper key from his hand.

There is no space for error. I flip the key around, jam it into the lock, and replay the guard’s movements exactly over six long beats. Then the shackle pops open with a click and I’m free.

I can’t think about this next part. It’s a dire but necessary decision, a sacrifice I simply must make to survive; the knights will follow my scent to the ends of the world if my reproductive organs are allowed to bloom. I must do this, and I must do it quickly.

I reach into a brazier with both hands, lift out burning pieces of coal, and do the unthinkable to myself.

I fume, grit my teeth, howl and finally throw the briquettes aside. The pain is a screaming anshi-raptor, a clawing horror that wracks my muscles and nerves, but my tired legs light up with strength and I charge into motion. Driven by fury, I flash over a cobblestone path and up the short stairs, just as I imagined mere moments ago, then dive into the waiting witch’s chest.

She sees it coming but freezes, red eyes wide with terror. I catch her off-guard and my ropy arms pound her, twist her, and cinch around her waist. She struggles but I’m better conditioned and more sinewy. I’m an unstoppable force.

We crash through the beautiful and unsettling window together, creating a glittering cacophony of spinning shards and daggers. We arc out into the driving rain while my work-hardened arms pin her below me.

With a thud, we strike down and her skull rattles against the sodden ground, but she’s alive. I drum out a hard beat on her face with both fists, only stopping when I see dizzy confusion in her eyes. She’s lost, wandering somewhere safe and quiet in her mind.

Then I draw her ceramic sword, stand up tall and neatly sever her head in a single clean stroke.

Lightning crashes and thunder roars. Tiny gems glitter in my new blade, while stains of amber blood begin to lightly fluoresce along its length.

As cold darkness returns to the land, I’m running with a swiftness I’ve never known. My cloven feet crunch in wet soil, while the brainless barks of countless guards ring out from the stone citadel’s halls.

I’m hurt, but the pain will be made to heel. I command it to, and it obeys. Then I press more strength into the ground and sprint on in search of a hossa to ride out of this infernal prison.

I won’t allow anything to stop me now. I am the wind, the clouds, and the lightning. I am the coming typhoon, and I will spread my terrible wrath across this land. I will conquer whatever stands before me, until all of Haier-Lis runs amber with blood.


 

Now for a little background…  Sometime in the past year, I jokingly spat out Blood Conqueror as a title for something, and I found the name so perfectly ludicrous that I just had to use it.  I instantly thought of adding The Blood Conqueror to Vengar’s Hyperbolic Age, leader of a band of wandering raiders who’re growing in number and notoriety.  The Blood Conqueror would essentially be Attila the Hun of the Stone Age, and his own stories would follow his march across the Thousand and One Kingdoms, on a quest to become lord of all the world… or something along those lines.

A few months later, I was rewatching John Carter (wonderful movie; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) and became just totally enamored with the Tharks.  I love stories with non-human characters, and I felt a sudden inspiration to take The Blood Conqueror in a new direction.  He’d be a character like Tars Tarkus, an alien chieftain of a disgraced tribe, marching across a distant world that’s never even heard of humans.

I thought the idea was cool, but had a number of other projects in my lap, so I shoved it in my pocket for later.

Later ended up being Thursday night, when I spotted a new writing prompt over at io9.  I’ve been wanting to participate for a while, but haven’t been terribly moved by the art they choose.  This image seemed a bit more intriguing, featuring something other than another boring spaceport (yawn).

My first impulse was to write a fantasy piece about earth-elementals… but that seemed kind of entirely too obvious, so  I started brainstorming and wrote down a few options.  The one that seemed most striking was to go sci-fi rather than fantasy.  Everything about the picture screams fantasy: medieval technology, a wizard’s tower, and a massive ancient sculpture.  Going against the grain opened up a lot more space for creativity.

But why would there be antiquated tech in science-fiction?  One possibility was that it took place on a totally alien world that hadn’t yet had its renaissance or enlightenment eras.  And once that idea popped into my head, I thought why not take a whack at Blood Conqueror?

As I sat down to write, I had a vague idea about the setting and the eventual direction (warlord cuts a bloody swath across the world!), but it still wasn’t fully formed.  What’s with the stone hand?  Why is this picture important to the story?  What the frack is going on here?

That’s when I stumbled on the last pieces: the lead would be a female prisoner in a harshly matriarchal society, long ago abandoned by nameless invaders who made the world what it is today.  Their planet is the moon of gas giant, trapped seemingly forever in a medieval dystopia.

I wrote the story during a 4-5 hour session, with an intentionally pulpy tone, harking back to the original concept from last year.  Several of the key plot points are kind of hackneyed (another female protagonist faced with rape… sorry about that), but I think the end result is still unusual, and sets the heroine on a fairly novel path.

So, that’s the start of Blood Conqueror.  Love it?  Hate it?  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

We’ll be back next week with more Earthian.  Hope you enjoyed a little diversion in the meantime!

~Chris

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