We are happy to share with you the 10th place story in the Becoming Writer Anniversary Contest.
Logan Hammonds is from a small town in northeastern Texas. He is an IT professional working for TexarkanaIT. He has loved fantasy and science fiction ever since he was a small boy, and has been writing and drawing for as long as he can remember. When he is not writing, working or reading, he is generally illustrating concept art for his first novel or playing role-playing or strategy games. Find more of Logan’s writing at chroniclesofnoram.blogspot.com.
Lightning cracked in the heavens with a terribly wrong pitch as an icy wind howled across the blighted wasteland, carrying ash along with it in a blinding flurry. The land was burned, cursed and blackened, ash covered all. Ruined spires stood defiantly against the onslaught, though they were a mere shadow of their former selves, once part of a great metropolis from a time long ago. The roadways were buried beneath meters of ash, and the canals were clogged with a toxic sludge that seemed to glow against the darkness around.
A man solemnly wandered through the wasteland, in search of something forgotten millennia ago. He trudged through the ruined city, following a perceived road beneath the ash. He looked into the ancient buildings as he passed them. Though they were empty, he could hear the whispers of the dead, a maddening chorus. He sighed and looked to his left. Where there was nothing, he saw an old friend walking beside him.
“You’re here again,” Sahren said in a deep, gravelly voice to the spirit.
He did not reply. He could not, and Sahren understood that. He looked away as his old friend turned his attention to him.
“Away from me, my friend…” Sahren muttered. He ducked his head and continued walking, finding his way into the corrupted heart of the ancient city. When he would look up from the ground, he would see an uncountable number of forlorn spirits walking around, and the grim harvesters floating amongst them, shepherding and corrupting them. Looking at a harvester was like looking into a void, pure black, with a distorted shimmer around their adopted forms. They ignored him only because he was ashbound, rendering him practically invisible to most.
A dim light caught his attention; it came from inside one of the ancient spires. He stood atop a dune of ash, looking down into the old space before he slid down its entirety, landing on the ruined floor. The building around him protested to the sudden impact of his landing. He ignored the sound as he walked across the dark room, where nothing alive had strode in far too long.
What he found was a mirror, tarnished and covered in ash. He reached out to wipe the filth away and saw his reflection for the first time in recent memory. He wore a tattered shawl and cloak, so badly destroyed that they were barely recognizable, and his face was shrouded by both a hood and a layer of linen wrap. The plate armour that he wore beneath the ruined cloth had rusted and otherwise had adopted a colour of grey similar to that of the wasteland that he wandered. A black leather satchel filled with empty books, writing utensils and essential supplies, hung at his waist, suspended by a rotting strap that was attached by corroded silver hooks.
He tore the bandages from his face and a stranger stared back at him. His face was gaunt, his eyes sunken, his skin was a deep brown, but had lost the vibrancy of life long ago, and the colour of his eyes had faded away, leaving them a pale yellow. The left side of his face was covered in dimly glowing glyphs, a curse etched in flesh.
What have I become? he thought with a sigh. He stared deeply into the mirror as memories that he had thought forgotten resurfaced. He vaguely remembered the book that he had been writing when everything fell apart. He remembered his study, with its comforting scent of ink and smoke from his fireplace. He could see it in the mirror and he somberly smiled. That was so long ago, he thought as he turned away from the mirror. He took a single step forward before he was halted in his tracks by an all too familiar voice.
“Do you have to leave again so soon?” asked his daughter, her voice echoing around him.
He felt his heart drop in his chest and he stood motionless, with his eyes closed, listening to the howl of the wind against the frame of the building.
“You aren’t real,” he said with a quivering voice.
He felt a small hand touch his and he winced with tears in his eyes. “You aren’t real,” he insisted, his hands balled into fists.
“Daddy… you’re scaring me.”
“By the light of the stars, you aren’t real!” he shouted, mustering the courage to spin around. His mouth was left hanging agape when he saw not himself, nor his daughter, but his wife in the mirror.
“What are you going on about? … Telling Masha one of your stories again?” she asked.
He shook his head and turned away again. “The two of you are gone… Why do I see you now?”
“You’re going to scare her again, like last time. Do you remember?”
He chuckled quietly and sadly. “I remember…” he replied. “But she’s dead, and so are you… You both died a very long time ago,” he quietly assured himself.
All was silent behind him except for the howl of the wind again. After a quiet moment he turned, looking to the mirror once again. His wife still stood within, smiling as she always did. He curiously took a step towards her, towards the mirror, and reached out to touch it and when his hand pressed against the cold glass, she was gone and the mirror shattered.
He stared at the glass at his feet, with tears in his eyes as he heard the maddening whispers of the dead and of the dark ones all around him. They had tormented him before, made him question his sanity, but this time they had struck a chord of sorrow in his ancient heart.
“Silence!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, the word given form by steam in the cold.
All was silent and he was left alone again. He slumped against the wall, resting his chin on one of his knees and staring at nothing particular. It’s my fault, he thought. All of this is my fault.
In the months preceding the day that all of this happened, the day that the lush forests, farmlands and great magical spires of the heartland of the Sarxiis empire were rendered into ash by a single madman, he had been researching terrible magics, evil sorceries and dark rituals for a story. It was innocent, at first. He had always thought outside of the normalcies and ethics of the society that he had belonged to, but he meant harm to nobody. As he delved deeper into the unknown, though, it began to twist his mind. He distanced himself from his family, the wife and daughter that he had formerly cherished so much, instead locking himself away in his study. The isolation only caused him to descend further into madness. He would stay up long into the night, frantically reading and scrawling text upon the fine walls of his study in red ink.
One day, he went too far–he had danced too closely to the fire for too long and he finally slipped into it. He couldn’t remember what he had done and the last thing that he remembered from those days was penning one final, demented journal entry before his memory failed. He had unleashed some terrible power that he did not fully grasp–this he knew–but the next thing he recalled was looking out from his ruined tower study, across a dead city as ashes slowly drifted down from above and seeing the burnt and lifeless corpses of his family. Whatever he had done had destroyed everything in a thousand kilometers, everything that he had ever known and everything that he had ever cherished, but that was so very long ago. He was a very different person now, and to his sorrow, mostly sane.
Why did I return? There is nothing here for me, he questioned himself as tears ran down his ashen cheeks. He quietly sobbed for longer than any man would care to admit before the dark ones came again. He heard the dreadful haunting cries of the lurchers from miles away and knew that it was time to move on, time to continue his hollow search.
And so, Sahren Nahkriin wandered away, further into the ruined city that he had destroyed so long ago, in search of absolution for his past sins. Yet, there is no such mercy for one damned as he. The ashbound each carried a terrible burden, and this was his: to search the wasteland that he had created for a lost part of himself that he would never find. He would, however, write again, scrawl stories of his journey on rotting paper; a fictionalized, no, fantasized journal of sorts, to be read by nobody. It was the only thing left that he could do to keep his meager grasp on the last remaining thread of his sanity.