Entertainingly Evil

The Crimson Sands of Huo Xing by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

O’er Tai Shan Station crimson dust clouds loom.
     A black force stills the tree of life within.
Hu Ling must face her long-forgotten past;
     A world will die in ice unless she wins.

Wind from the rising sandstorm howled and swirled around Hu Ling. A Guardian of the red desert such as Ling usually welcomed such storms. They scoured down all the uncertainties of life to two simple options: survive, or die. But the transmission from Tai Shan Station said the atmospheric plant was under attack. The Guardians were sworn to defend all those on the world of Huo Xing that called for assistance. How much more the technician-monks who by their secret art kept the fourth planet from the sun alive.

Ling’s words of power opened the station to her. The hall grew dark as the door slid shut behind her, lit only by a few spheres of bioluminescent algae. The silence was almost as deafening as the wind. The cavern should have been thrumming with the sounds of the devices that kept Huo Xing’s atmosphere breathable. Tai Shan Station was the heartbeat of Huo Xing. This silence was the silence of death.

Ling set off down the cavern for the mountain’s core. Her footsteps echoed oddly off the walls, making it sound like someone followed her. The bioluminescent globes cast faint shadows. Ling could not shake the feeling that there were shadows where no shadows should be.

The way twisted, following lava flows millennia gone. The cavern finally opened out to a chamber that would have housed the novices, the bacterial engineers and the tenders of atomic fires. Here Ling found the first bodies, none of them whole. The wounds unsettled Ling, but it took her a moment to realize why.

The wounds were explosions. The victims’ bodies had burst from the inside.

Ling unsheathed her sword, a metallic hiss ringing through the cavern. The sword blade swirled with characters in red and black, characters that changed as Ling watched them. This was Yaomo Chi, a cursed blade and closer to Ling than any lover.

Another locked door guarded the sanctum of Tai Shan Station. Ling entered the access code and the door slid open. Death welcomed her.

The room reeked of blood and vomit and shit. Ling swallowed down bile as she walked forward. Around her lay pieces of bodies and saffron scraps of robe. Something black and thick dripped from the multi-branched device in the center of the chamber, a stain on the silent world tree.

Ling closed her eyes to pray for the deceased. She heard a laugh. A deep, metallic laugh, like knives on slate. Her eyes snapped open. Something stared back at her from the pipe-branches of the world tree, its eyes a glowing pus green.

“You are late, Guardian. Or did you plan to catch me taking my after-dinner nap?”

The black substance flowed from the silent machinery, coalescing into a being perhaps twice a man’s height. It had no features other than its eyes and a vague semblance of a head.

“What are you?” Ling grimaced at the creature’s charnel smell.

Green eyes blinked out, reappeared at another part of the thing’s body. It laughed again, its entire mass shaking with mirth.

“You really do not recognize me. Die in your ignorance.”

Five tendrils of black ooze shot out at Ling. Ling pivoted to the left and swung her sword. Tentacles thick as Ling’s wrist wrapped around her left leg and arm. The smell of burning cloth filled the air. Her sword sliced through the other three tendrils, leaving the ends wriggling on the floor like giant worms. A keening scream rent the air.

“You dirty choubi!”

The tentacles around her pulled her to the floor. The ooze burned against her wrist. With a cry, Ling hacked off the tentacles. Sensing movement, she rolled just as another massive protuberance crashed into the spot she had been a moment before. Ling sprang to her feet.

The creature reared up, its mass turning on itself like a storm cloud. A score of tentacles shot out at Ling, jerking back as Yaomo Chi sliced through them. Ling was a blur as her blade fended off every attack. The lopped-off members leaked a grey fluid that ate into the stone under them.

A blow smashed into Ling’s chest, knocking her to the floor, sending her sword spinning away. The creature paused. Catching its breath or making sure Ling really was unarmed, Ling did not know. It seemed to have lost a third of its mass. A pool of grey ichor collected around its base.

Time froze for a moment. Then Ling crawled for her sword as the creature roiled and expanded. It launched itself at her in a great arch just as her fingertips touched Yaomo Chi. Then it enveloped her completely.

It burned. A foetid, gelatinous acid burning wherever it touched. A semi-liquid fire wrapped around her whole body. Ling felt it seeping into her nostrils, trying to burn its way into her eyes and mouth. The creature laughed its evil laugh. Ling’s whole body quivered with the sound.

“And so you die, never knowing your curse. And I—”

The voice cut off as Ling pulled Yaomo Chi into the creature’s body. The sword flared red, a red Ling could see even through closed eyes. The creature’s scream shook Ling’s teeth in her jaw. And then she fell to the floor.

She opened her eyes. Her robes were in tatters, eaten away. Her exposed skin felt rubbed raw. She touched her scalp. Her hair was gone. And so was the creature.

She looked down at the sword in her hand. The glow had faded, but the reds on the blade were deeper now, the blacks darker. If she closed her eyes, Ling seemed to hear a faint scream coming from the blade.

She shook off such fancies. She had an atmospheric plant to restart and a planet to save.

Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Another Dimension and the anthology Techno-Goth Cthulhu. Find him online at http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju.

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