Photo by Bim Peacock

Simmering, waiting, watching for its next victim.

“Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning…”

The sky rose with bloody light as the flames of the future ignited the land.  The trees shook and creaked, shuddering as they foresaw death on the horizon.  Yet humanity did as humanity does, and began the new day.

They came, whatever they were.  Blue and twisted beings, markings of pain and wickedness tainting their flesh.  Hair as pale and lifeless as the souls within them.  They trembled and convulsed with corruption as they dashed across the plains and knolls, leaves and beasts rotting in their wake.

The boy watched as they burned the fields and livestock.  He watched as they razed the land; dwellings, forests, beasts, and birds falling to their twisted, marked hands.  He watched as their pale unseeing eyes killed without remorse, and he watched as they dragged him away sobbing, his village burning with azure ethereal flame.

Across the hills again they fled, their dead, leathery hands towing him behind.  The beings dragged him back across their razed and dead path, once lush and green land scalded into bare rock and blue flame.  Nothing moved on the horizon.  No birds sang.  Nothing breathed.

The voices he heard them utter were snarls and groans of deep inner agony, the wails of dying souls.  Anguished and miserable, they cast a shadow over the heart as if the world had frozen.  The last sounds their souls released before warping…

Into their burrow he went, a cavern in the mightiest of mountains.  The peak was once such a proud sentinel, now wrecked and hollowed into a lair for sacrifice.  His eyes flooded with the visions of his future.  Such cold, such utter darkness of the end…

No, death was not in their eyes, but something far worse.

They heaved him into a chamber within the bowls of their sanctuary, the light of an azure flame dimly spilling light into the room.  The marks of the beings covered the walls: serpents and skulls, twisted bones, malicious ancient runes.   He howled and thrashed as they bound him to a granite slab within the center, desperate to escape their grasp.

The creatures approached him, whispering and moaning with a thousand voices.  They chanted with a language far before his time, heads flinging back to gaze at the heavens.  The ethereal flames blazed with sudden life, ancient hatred flowing as a river of fire.  He wailed as the inferno leapt onto his flesh, searing the skin from head to toe.  Tattoos etched their way into his skin, his blood, his mind.  Their markings became his.  No, their pain became his.  He was becoming one of them.

“No,” he murmured.

The blaze paused.  Invisible ears turned to him.

“No,” he repeated, his words calm, yet cold enough to freeze the air.

And suddenly, rage flooded his blood.  A pure berserker leapt from the bowls of his soul.  Before their growls and their moans could fill his throat, a roar exploded forth.  The chains around his body ripped like fine silk, and the flames shrank away like a dejected beast.

As the creatures hurled their forms at him, he whispered with all the strength of humanity, “You gave me your flames.  Now burn in them.”

His markings suddenly glowed with cobalt light as their fire ignited within him.  It was his now, mutated to listen to his command.  Every pore in his once fear stricken form surged with energy, and the flames at last erupted from his skin, spiraling into a deadly inferno.  The demonic beings stood no chance as the blaze smoldered them into ashes.

*             *             *

Hours later,

An eternity later,

Maybe even minutes later,

He knelt before what may have once been a lake.  Blackened water stretched as far as his sad eyes could see, the water as cold and dead as the scorched land.  But the lifeless water held none of his attention. The only vision filling those eyes was the reflection in the murk.

Where a boy may have once been, a tattered man gazed back—hair wild and unkempt, eyes mournful and desolate, face creased with age and weariness, but worst of all was his skin.

A cobalt serpent bared its teeth from it tattooed position on his face, jaws stretching from his forehead around to his chin.  Its long neck stretched down his own, ending in azure flames at his shoulder.  On his opposite cheek, three unreadable runes formed a wicked triumvirate.  The markings enveloped his entire body: vipers outreaching across his arms and legs, runes and flames covering his torso.

What can I do?  Where can I go?  Corruption has branded me, branded me a monster like the terrorizers who stole my life. The people, they will hate me for my image.  What future could I have?

A thought struck him.

But I’m not one of them.  I’m not one of those creatures.  I have fought them.  I… I beat them.

He remembered the soul that grew within him, pure and resilient, dowsing the flames of living hell that threatened his existence.  The soul that fought the beasts and led him away from their burrows.

He finally stood, confidence flowing through his veins.  I have been branded with the markings of the demons themselves, and if that means I’ll never lead a normal life, then let glory find me for fighting for my people in my darkest hour.

To the west, the sun was dropping to the underworld, rays of ruby and rose radiating across the world.  At last, he smiled.

Red sky at night, sailors delight…