The Air Smelled of the Coming Storm

The Air Smelled of the Coming Storm

The air smelled of the coming storm. From the ridge above he could almost taste it. The acrid tang of blood, sweat and black powder. The heavy ping of the blacksmith’s hammer honing steel formed its own thunder, the cadence of drums to which the soldiers would march.

The first light of dawn set the underside of the clouds on fire. If they released their burden, the soldiers would no doubt march through the mud. Hatred was an unstoppable force here, whipping like a frenzied wind through each man’s mind. There would be blood spilled before the sun set again.

“A sorry sight, isn’t it?”

The soft voice made him freeze, tension curling through every muscle in his body. Perhaps she would pass and leave him to his reverie. But he had no such luck today. With a rustle of leather and the soft clatter of plated armor, she stopped beside him, frowning at the camps spread on opposite ends of the valley below, like waves ready to crash in the center.

“Isn’t it why you’ve come?” he countered, keeping his voice low, as if that might hide its familiar tenor.

Her eyes narrowed. He turned his head but he wasn’t fast enough. She caught his shoulder and forced him to turn, placing herself between him and easy exit. The wind disturbed his dark hair, momentarily obscuring her face. Not that it mattered. She’d never be able to look at him without acid again.

“Endryn?” She snorted. “I should have guessed. You flit like a vulture from battlefield to battlefield, picking your spoils from the aftermath. Aren’t you a little early this time?”

“What do you know of it, Astra? You’re dressed for war yourself.” He brushed his long hair away from his face, meeting her eyes for the first time. She recoiled, hissing softly, no doubt shocked by the slight glow of his ice blue eyes as the dim light struck them.

“I didn’t want to believe it.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “The stories are true then. You have become some kind of monster.”

He gazed at his black gloved hands, forming the right into a fist before he swung them both out of view at his sides. “Shouldn’t you be down there?” He flicked a wrist toward the military camps below. “Preparing your men for the day’s march?”

“We’re leaving.” Astra spit at his feet. Endryn couldn’t tell if the insult was meant for him or for the soldiers about to slaughter each other on the battlefield. “You know as well as I do there’s a better solution than slaughter. I’ve heard the arguments of both sides. We aren’t the only mercenaries pulling out.”

A shame. The more bodies on the battlefield, the better the chance of success. But he couldn’t find it in himself to despair Astra’s departure. A small spark of hope left over from an older time, a younger version of himself whose priorities had been different.

“You started this, didn’t you?” Her fists were clenched at her sides, her metallic bracers vibrating with the tension of repressing her anger. “Tell me it’s not true, Endryn. Look me in the eyes and tell me it’s just a coincidence.”

He met her gaze but he said nothing. The brighter the day grew, the more she could see the marks on him. The ashen grey of his skin, the fading luster of his hair. Only his eyes remained bright, but much less than human.

“A shadow,” her voice cracked, “with ice crystals for eyes. That’s how they described you.”

Still he said nothing. He turned his ice-crystal eyes on the battlefield, where the soldiers in the glimmering armor had begun to form ranks.

Her hand seized his arm again. “It’s not too late to stop this. You have the power. Use it.”

It was hard to say if she was talking about the war or his transformation. Perhaps she meant both. She’d grown harder since they parted, and softer, in differing ways. Endryn wondered why she didn’t put a sword through his abdomen. She didn’t seem the sort to hesitate with her blade. But perhaps she knew it would do little good.

He met her gaze again, acid and ice, and shook his head. Her hand slid from his arm, clattering noisily against her chest plate.

“You’re a monster.” Her voice dripped contempt like he had never heard before, as if he had just now clawed his way from the foulest depths of an ancient bog.

“That was inevitable,” he replied softly, calmly.

Her face blazed red. “You think this is what she wanted? You were a good man once!”

“That man is dead. He died the same night she did. And you would be wise to remember it.”

She gazed at him a moment longer and he couldn’t quite tell if it was a desire to slay him or unshed tears that swam in her eyes. Finally she snorted, spit at his feet and made her way back down the steep incline. Endryn watched her go but she never once looked back.

All for the better. His sharp ears caught the clatter and clang of steel against steel far below. The storm had begun.

* * * * * *

A storm of his own making. The first of what he expected to be many. It had been a fearsome whirlwind, punctuated with the lightning flashes of explosions and the occasional bolt of magic. Neither side had enough healers to sustain their force in the face of their losses and both had turned tail to retreat, licking their wounds in sullen silence.

Even the rain pouring over his head, pounding his shoulders, couldn’t wash the blood from the valley where the fallen still lay. No one would brave the weather to recover the bodies. He wondered how many the mud would swallow.

He sidestepped the bodies, splashing through the growing puddles until he reached roughly the center of the battlefield where the dead lay in heaps, discarded swords pointing in every direction like traps waiting for the hapless to approach. Heedless of the blood staining his fine silken clothing, Endryn knelt. He lifted his right hand and drew the leather glove free with his teeth. Careful not to glance at the marks on his palm, he set it against the moist ground.

The reaction was immediate. He no longer needed to prod the presence to awaken it and that disturbed him more than anything else. Its hunger was like a tsunami, its pleasure twice as powerful. It rushed free of him, invisible tendrils sinking into the earth, surrounding the battlefield, penetrating it, absorbing it.

The day’s events filled him like rainwater filling a bucket. Mad flashes of generals barking orders, of men meeting their end, of the wounded struggling to reach safety. But these were pale images, shadows on the edge of his knowledge. What the entity really wanted was the agony, the sorrow, the death. It fed on the remains of the battle like a vampire drains the blood from its victims.

Endryn had never allowed it access to so great a graveyard before. He had unleashed it when he came upon the remains of skirmishes, of thieves slain by the sides of the road, of mercenaries dispatching a band of raiders. It fed often on single deaths, occasionally on a dozen or two. The heady sensation of granting it access to hundreds nearly overwhelmed him. It was only by sheer force of will that he clung to consciousness through the great flood of recent death knells and the entity’s answering ecstasy.

It ended as quickly as it began. His hand slid free of the mud, clean, if damp. He slid the leather glove back in place, trying not to let the sensation of power distract him. It flowed through him, filling him to the brim. He felt as though he could exhale and rule the whole of the world.

He stood and tromped back the way he had come, leaving behind him only blood stains and empty husks. And he prayed, if any dark god would listen to his pleas any more, that the power he gained here would finally be enough.

Please take a look at what my writing partner did with this week’s prompt!

And if you’d like to participate leave a link to your response in the comments and I’ll feature it next week ;)

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