The Red Planet
By Rett Weissenfels
This story is part of Issue 003.
Eochagan bounded through the Valley Ursa with inhuman speed. With every step he felt the ushering of the earth’s tacit power welling up in the balls of his feet, springing him forward with ever-growing strength. His father’s immortal blood crashed through his veins, animating his muscles with rainbow life and roaring primal power in the back of his mind.
His father’s words from hours past still reverberated in his ears, cutting through the thunder in his veins. “Fly now, child. Rest not ’til the Atlas is secure.” And fly he did. Down the mountainside from his father’s — Erza’s — secret home, through the verdant valley’s expanse toward the Riverlands and the quicksilver spire that loomed taller with every step.
“Bëodur knows not toward what doom he rides.” Erza recounted the malcontent ealdorman invading his home, demanding the Atlas, and cursing Erza’s patronage. When the Atlas was not forthcoming, Bëodur smote Erza and seized it with great strength of arms.
Through racked and bloodied breaths, Erza warned Eochagan. “He’s restless. Willful. The perfect vessel for the Red One’s . . . infection. The baleful whispers of dark beings grow ever louder through the blackness of space. And in the darkest hours of the night, I fear he whispers back.”
The eastern horizon now ripened with impending dawn, ready to birth light into a new day. The shimmering blanket of stars fought for every vestige of sky as darkness retreated to the west. Hung just next to the Morning Star was the Pilgrim – Hercolubus, his father called it. It grew larger by the day, carried through the sky on wings of fire and sunlight. Some named it an ill omen. It was Red One’s poison stallion, and its shadow was death.
His destination now loomed before him. A column of glittering quicksilver so tall it seemed to pour forth from the heavens to be swallowed by the shadowed darkness of predawn below. The tower is where Bëodur would go, Erza was certain.
“The Atlas is the key,” Erza had told him. “The tower is the door – the infinite door. The Red One burns for its opening.”
The weight of his father’s words wrought doubt in his heart. Though time had distilled Erza’s life into a powerful spirit – stories, the spectre of his deeds, still cast a long shadow under which Eochagan had lived but a few short centuries.
Doubtless or not, Eochagan’s tireless flight carried him to the Riverlands far faster than anticipated. He begged the many nameless gods that he find Bëodur bound, in the custody of the border guard. But when he glimpsed the first of many crumpled shapes, he knew no gods would spare him the darkness ahead.
Littered in Bëodur’s wake was a crimson and stinking graveyard, a grisly trail of maimed and disfigured corpses. Not only the border guard, but anyone who had dared stand in his way. The scene painted a story he’d never forget. Some perished right where they stood. Others scrabbled away to die cowering, coveting whatever sense of safety was at hand.
Just above the next stand of trees rose the tower, silent as a graveyard rook, and narrow as a redwood with no end to its height. Of what metal it was composed, he could not say, but its surface gleamed silver and was smooth as oiled glass. As he approached, the trees began to clear and he could glimpse the base of the spire. From his vantage, he could see where the ground seemed to end, and the tower was set flush into the face of the cliff. He couldn’t discern how far it fell, but a rush of wind warned him of its considerable drop.
In the clearing, Eochagan spotted Bëodur moving like a wolf at bay. Even at his age, Bëodur always cut an imposing figure, but here his visage was horrible. Through a thick layer of blood, the whites of his eyes burned. Though his hair was kept long, blood slicked it from his face. And the many weeping scores upon his skin told the story of his missing gambeson which had been cut utterly free of his body, exposing his heaving chest.
He squared off perfectly in step with three Riverlanders as they attempted to encircle him. In one hand, he clutched the slender red shape of the Atlas in white knuckles. From across the way, it resembled something like a boar’s gory tusk, but its true shape was far more geometric; a sylphlike obelisk. With the other hand, he clung to a ravenous axe. Its blade ran with scarlet, the tip rising and falling as if it sought to catch its breath.
Eochagan called out, but it was too late. Like a scorpion’s tail, the first clansman plunged his spear at Bëodur’s heart. But the axe was faster – it took a single, vicious bite from the spearman’s neck and dropped him to the ground.
From there, Bëodur’s reprisal was swift. They raised their steel meagerly and were destroyed. He leapt and lashed, and rebounded like a ball of lightning, cleaving savagely through flesh and bone, rending digits and limbs and exorcising the souls from their bodies.
Never had Eochagan witnessed such a frenzied assault. With no weapons of his own, the bud of doubt he carried came to full bloom. Bëodur had just cut down three fighting men like firewood, slaughtered an entire border party, and somehow bested Erza’s immortal strength . . . He would have turned and fled – if Bëodur’s gaze hadn’t just fixed him in place.
Fighting him was madness. But the cost of failure was too high. His father’s words peeled through his mind and ignited a secret strength.
His voice felt thin, but he let loose his words with surprising authority:
“Give me the Atlas, Bëodur,” he said as he stepped into the clearing. The weight of his command impressed itself upon Bëodur, and for a moment, Eochagan let himself believe words might suffice.
Bëodur threw the Atlas to the ground, sticking it into the bloodied earth like a knife, and let swell a tense silence.
“Erza was a fool,” he bit. “I’d expect no less of his whelp,” he said, and bounded to Eochagan in a breath.
Only by providence did Eochagan resist the assault, dodging two-handed blows by a hair’s breadth. The onslaught was so sudden, so fierce, it was all he could do to stay alive. Keeping his footing was not an option. With a sudden, decisive motion, Bëodur took him to the ground and pressed his blade toward victory. Staying the axe became the whole of Eochagan’s existence.
There was naught but him and the blade and the elemental violence that drove it.
Inexorably, it clawed toward his flesh. And under such incredible siege, Eochagan’s will unraveled.
The power brought to bear against him was supernatural. It wasn’t Bëodur. It was . . .
Like Erza had warned – the whispers in the dark – Bëodur carried a black presence.
“Save the act,” Bëodur chided through clenched teeth. “You aren’t the only favored son. The Elders heard my prayers.”
The Red One’s infection, Erza called it. If Bëodur had made bargains with Elder Beings, even the lowest of them, Eochagan had little hope.
But he’d promised his father, he’d sworn upon his name and power, to recover the Atlas – to keep the infinite door locked.
Gathering what scraps of will yet survived the assault, Eochagan heaved himself free from Bëodur’s strength and drove to his feet. In a blur of steel, Bëodur pressed his attack, redoubling his efforts. His axe arced overhead, then across, and back again, over and over. He wove a gleaming web of steel, drawing the threads tighter with every swing.
Sensing an opening, Eochagan stepped inside a miscalculated lunge, and with sudden, bestial strength he heaved against the haft of the axe, hurling it over the cliff’s edge. But he’d mistaken Bëodur’s strength yet again. In a breath, he was taken down with a hidden blade between his ribs.
The pain was instant and blinding.
When Bëodur removed the blade, a wet tide of blood followed. Reeling, Eochagan aborted a second strike just above his heart, seizing Bëodur’s wrist while the blade licked at his skin. Heat flushed his muscles, animating him, flooding his body with renewed strength. Through his grip, Eochagan sensed Bëodur’s power pumping just beneath his skin – black and cold. But within himself, stirred something primal – something colorful and hot.
It began to burn. Flushing his eyes, his lungs, his muscles; even his bones burned with new life.
Beneath his iron grip, Eochagan felt Bëodur’s bones begin to give way. But the knife’s tip didn’t waver. Bëodur was undeterred and instead brought his head down like a boulder, crunching Eochagan’s nose and face with a nauseating squelch. Through swollen sockets, Eochagan saw the first seed of fear take root; for where Bëodur hoped to find the measure of his work, he instead found Eochagan replaced by a snapping beast.
Eochagan surrendered to the tornado within and felt his father’s power crash through him. His shape changed in a wash of agony. He assumed his father’s ursine visage and his teeth became razors. In an instant of shock, Eochagan captured another opening, leaned up, and bit Bëodur’s face, parting his skin like paper and scraping on the bones beneath.
Bëodur’s blood tasted black. Sour.
The knife no longer plunged toward his heart, but Eochagan refused to cede Bëodur’s wrist. His fangs ripped into Bëodur’s face and caught on his jawbones, locking them together in a frenzy of blood and marrow. Bëodur thrashed at Eochagan’s grip and pounded at the knife wound in his ribs, but it was like fighting granite.
Bëodur heaved as if fighting to free himself from a bear trap, and Eochagan felt himself scraping through the dirt. Straining again and again, slithering their tangled mass to the cliff’s edge, Bëodur pitted his resolve against Eochagan’s; both now were men possessed. Even as he felt a familiar wind whip up from beneath the cliff’s edge, Eochagan dared not surrender his grapple now — he could taste Bëodur’s desperation burgeoning, and it thrilled him.
With a final surge of will, they arrived at the earth’s end. Bëodur snapped Eochagan’s head back over the edge, using his free arm to wrench and pry his face free from Eochagan’s jaws. His meat stretched and unraveled until it finally came free with a wet snap, and Eochagan was left with a mouth full of flapping face-meat.
Snapping and snarling like a hungry jackal, Eochagan tried desperately to reclaim his purchase, but Bëodur reached for victory, using his free hand to pummel Eochagan’s head, snapping it over the edge. With every blow, Eochagan fought for purchase on the cliff. With every blow, he felt his bones fracture and his spine reel as pain erupted through his nerves.
If Bëodur was going to throw him to his death, then Eochagan would never let go. His grip was a shackle. He’d take Bëodur down with him. They’d find the Atlas eventually, hopefully long after the red shadow had passed overhead and the Pilgrim left their skies for good.
But Bëodur was not going to yield total victory, no matter the cost. So, he pulled. With all his inhuman might, he pulled, and where his arm was bound by Eochagan, it began to tear and slip apart like rotten, black rags, until he stood over Eochagan with only a bloody stump.
“This body is but a vessel for the Red One’s blessing.” He stood tall and proud, but the words came garbled through his masticated jowls. Where meat hung off his mangled body, oil-black flesh writhed and wriggled like maggots and began to stitch back together. “Erza’s whelp has led us astray for too—” he was stunned as Eochagan reached from the ground and swung his severed arm across his mouth like a hammer.
From the ground, Eochagan brought his foot to bear and heaved. In his mind’s eye, he conjured the power of the earth welling beneath him – boiling, building, rising through him to coalesce at the end of his leg as he kicked Bëodur.
Where his foot touched, Bëodur broke.
Bones. Tissues. Spirit.
It all shattered as he was driven off his feet and heaved into the air.
For a moment suspended in time, Eochagan wondered if the Red One’s boons would save Bëodur — if that sickly, black flesh could grow into a pair of raven’s wings. But over the cliff, he fell. And he didn’t return.
Panting, Eochagan scrabbled away from the cliff and collected himself for a moment before peering over the edge. He shielded his eyes from catching a cool updraft, but a thousand feet below he saw the many red and black shapes that were once Bëodur; they were easy to make out against the color of the stone.
He tossed Bëodur’s severed arm down after him and pawed gingerly at the knife wound in his ribs. He was surprised to find the blood had staunched on its own, and the wound was hot, itchy; already, the beginnings of a new scar.
With the battle over, he felt the fire in his blood begin to cool and evaporate through his skin. His features softened, and though his face was tender and broken, he could already see more clearly through his swollen eyes — no doubt, the power of his father’s blood at work.
Eochagan collected the Atlas as it thrummed with dizzying rainbow life, and all at once he felt connected to it — alive with a purpose he’d never known. In his mind he could see limitless stories unfolding across countless worlds, entire fleets sailing across the stars, empires reaching unimaginable heights to then flicker and fade like a candle at the end of its wick. In his hand it called to the tower, it yearned to be home. There came an ache that seeped deep into his bones. The infinite door begged to be opened . . .
Then, like waking from a dream, it was gone. The Atlas lay silent and asleep in his hand, now just a benign red rod. But the way was made clear; the promise was there if he had the will to seize it.
For now, the Red One’s shadow would pass, and that was enough. If never again its fell whispers spoiled the heart of his people — or anyone — it would be enough. Then he could spend his days ringing the morning bell at his father’s temple, and restoring the peace that Bëodur and his patron had so easily shattered.
If only it was enough . . .
About the Author:
Rett Weissenfels (he/him) is a writer and musician from the pacific northwest. By day, he produces videos with Craft Computing, penning hilarious ads, and cutting the latest tech reviews. By night, he plays Dungeons and Dragons on the Inn at the End podcast, and makes computer games with Game Dev’s Quest. His fiction has appeared in Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery. Follow along at rettisawesome.com.