Steven Montano: Crown of Ash

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Steven Montano Crown of Ash
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    Crown of Ash
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    sf_postapocalyptic / на английском языке
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Steven Montano

Crown of Ash

He looks out from the void.

He is nothing. A ghost presence. A phantom.

Trapped in a land of whispering voices.

He ha s been t here for so very long.

The world is saturated in darkness. It slither s down the trees like rain.

Years have passed since he first arrived in that dismal place. His face is leathery and r ough, and he wears a thick beard. His hair is long and unkempt. His skin has gone dark, saturated by the soot atmosphere. His lips are dry and his eyes sting from the dark grit that constantly lashes the landscape.

Everything is black and cold. The land, the trees, even the other inhabitants of that cloying realm are suffused with shadow. It drips from every pore.

The sky is a frozen sl ate of perpetual dusk. L ight shines from just over the horizon and drenches everything in an eye-numbing glaze. The freezing wind smells of rot.

He ’ s come to know this land of torn red mud and black ooze. There are few cities, all of them in ruin s. He travels past briny pools of black water and dark trees with branches weighed down by deathly pale fruit. He avoids reptiles that breath e caustic slime and carnivorous plants that fan and pulsate like living organs. H e circumvents blood swamps and fields of mo ldered bones.

He isn’ t the only human in th at dominion of shade. He spies natives in the distance, primitive and murderous people who roam the land in small bands. They ride on the backs of shaggy mammoth beasts with scorpion tails.

He sees phasing fliers, unstable bats the size of whales. They soar low through the undine fog and howl at the ground as they search for prey. T heir riders are horned humanoids with staffs of dark fire and cloaks of mirrored scale s.

He is a stranger there, a refugee. He walks and walks and dreams of escape, but he has been there for so long he’ s almost given up hope. The shadow world ha s him, and it will never let hi m go. He tries to remember the world he once belonged to. It was a scarred world, damaged beyond measure, but it was his home. He’d protected it from danger more times than he could remember. N ever before had he appreciated it as much as he does now.

The worst times for him are when he looks into the water. He hugs himself tight in his cloak to shield his body against the freezing wind a s he stands over clear pools of ice and salt. There are only a few of those pools, derelict bodies of steaming cold liquid so utterly pale they are like liquid suns on the face of the ebon landscape. They stare like white eyes up to the darkness of the sky.

When he stands near them he see s into the world he used to call home. The visions are always random fla shes that last just a few moments, but he finds himself staring into them more and more as the years go by.

After a time, he seeks the pools out. H e evades shadowy pack beasts with knife-teeth and lumbering humanoid walkers with limbs like bladed poles. He braves those creatures in exchange for glimpsing snapshots of a place from his past.

H e sees his sister’s grave. He sees faces of people he once knew and cared for, just as they’d been before his actions brought about their deaths. The fact that he can’t remember their names means little.

He drink s filthy fluid from the ground, something like blood and brine. He lives off of fibrous plants and small game, shadow-drenched creatures with cold eyes and black blood. He doesn’t actually need food in that world of darkness, but the memory of eating is with him, and he nourishes it.

He is alone. His spirit is long gone, exiled to some other realm, if indeed she even still exists. Sometimes h e talks to himself as he wanders th e wastelands.

The pools seem to follow him, or else they anticipate hi s movement. He wonders if they need him as much as he needs them.

Every time they appear they grant him longer and longer visions. He looks through to the adjacent reality. The realm he is trapped in just a reflection. The Black once melded and conjoined the damaged remains of disparate worlds, but not all of those joining s were complete.

He is stuck in a drift zone filled with the detritus of places left shattered by The Black. It is a home of the forgotten.

He watches, and sometimes he sees friends he used to k now. He recognizes their faces. He knows they risked and lost much to try and help him, but it was all for nothing. He isn’ t there with them. He is n’t anywhere.

He sees his friends, and he knows they’ re in danger. It’ s difficult to make sense of it all because he can ’ t determine the order of events. He sees a n old lover in peril; a forward vampire patrol; a cadre of cruel mages; a city surrounded by black stakes; a broken boundary; a n obelisk of glass skulls.

Fear grips his heart, but there’ s nothing he can do except wander the black wastelands, exiled and lost.



Year 25 A.B. (After the Black)

She dreamed of silk sheets and soft pillows, golden sunlight and ochre clouds. She dreamed of a warm woman in her bed, and birdsong outside the window. She dreamed of sandstone pillars and the smells of cinnamon and hyacinth.

But when Danica Black woke, she found none of those things. She was still in the dirty sheets in a hotel in Blacksand, where she star ed through gritty yellow air filled with blood flies and dust. Everything was moist and damp and tasted like the inside of an engine.

Danica stared up from a bed in a small concrete room. Gashes and graffiti littered the walls. Greasy drops of water seeped out of cracks in the faded stone and pooled on a floor covered in rags and discarded clothing. Danica’s gear was on a small table near the door, all except for her guns and knives, which were secure in their harnesses on the metal headboard of the bed, just beneath the small window.

Mystic chants and the groan of industrial machines sounded outside. The smell of fish and fuel and roasting meat wafted through the windows.

Danica groaned. Four black guavas was at least three too many, but once she and Kane got going it was sometimes difficult for them to stop. Pain flared behind her eyes, so deep it was like someone had driven needles there. Her back and neck were sore and stiff. S he rose and stretched, and h er muscles popped and realigned.

Her spirit hovered over her like a burning sheet. She felt his angst at having been cooped up with her for so long. They’d been in Blacksand for roughly three weeks, and they rarely got out in the open. She called him down and let him swim through her fingers like warm oil. He phased through her body like a wave of heat and evaporated the alcohol from her system. She held him in check — if he did his work too quickly she’d end up vomiting all over the place, and one of the fringe benefits of being a mage was that she could drink as much as she wanted without having to go through all of th at.

Danica pulled on her tank-top and loose black pants and fastened on her combat boots. While there was little need to wander around their temporary hideout in full body armor, she’d have been remiss if she didn’t keep a firearm and a bla de handy. F or all intents and purposes they were in hostile territory.

Blacksand was a criminal port-city located near the southern edge of the continent, several hundred miles outside of Southern Claw territory. While the criminal controlled town wasn’ t considered an enemy of the Southern Claw, the general state of lawlessness and prolific illegal activ ity kept everyone on their toes, especially since some one had been a sking questions about the team — and specifically about Danica — for the past several days.

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