Short Story: Wrath of a Universe

A low smoke lay over the sprawling field in the pre-dawn hours. With it were blazing bonfires from bodies piled three-men high, alight to give illumination for those that still lived. The crackle of their flesh and cloth-padding beneath their chain-mail was hidden by the sounds of clanging metal. Thousands of swords from men in both red and blue cloth flashed and shined in the light of the smoking plain.

Behind the Blues a way, the closed draw-bridge of a newly erected castle from the English King gave protection to the royal, inner-guard just inside. The archers atop its walls nocked their arrows together, fired volleys into the Reds’ rear-flanks that had yet reach the swordsmen. A few, Blue knights, their armor blood-stained and their horses fatigued, cut swaths through Red and Blue swords alike to gallop in a charge for the Red Knights that rallied within the chaos.

The charge was met with war-cries from the Red Knights, their immense broadswords heaved overhead ready to smite the would-be invaders. One Knight shouted something about no quarter, but it was lost in the blood-bath beneath him. Not long after, his horse was taken by a Red’s arrow. He tumbled forward, end-over-end atop the horse. He landed either dead or unconscious, beneath the horse, his face pressed into the muck stirred up by the days-long siege on the castle.

The plain was a swamp of bodies, blood, and mud, the pervasive stench of rotting and burning flesh as much meant to burn the dead as to stagger the enemy. The Reds had grown used to the smell by now, but the Blues had been too comfortable in their fresh, clean castle to experience the stench first hand. At that, many of the Blue’s front ranks met the Reds only to wretch and heave out their decadent, pre-battle meals. Most died by the sword, taken advantage of in their moment of humanly weakness.

A second volley of arrows was aimed further inward, fired just as the Knights met one another in the center of the field. Their blades clashed, clamored for anywhere they might draw blood. Instead, they bounced helplessly off thick plate-armor. Most were equally winded by the blows, but fought onward with a breathless, valiant effort. The hail-storm of arrows descended with the prompt of nearby screams and thuds from the dying and dead. A few Knights were caught unawares, saved only by their plating.

Third and fourth volleys were nocked, arced upward through the smoke that strained the archers’ vision for their targets. Each man made a kill, but whether it was an enemy or ally, none could truly be certain. Such was the chaos from atop the ramparts and behind the turrets’ loopholes, that a man could only be certain of his kill by measuring the breadth of the wave that fell as the arrows rained down. If there were a break in the wave at that man’s position, he knew he’d failed.

The morning came with ease, the Reds’ tactic for attacking in the night near impossible to miss by now. Though the cliff’s-edge the English King’s castle sat upon was unscalable, impenetrable from beneath, it was a Western outlook. When the sun began to peer over the hills and mountains of the East, the archers were blinded, as were most of the swordsmen. Their orientation gave them the full glare of sunlight in their eyes, forced them to fight half-blind. They could only listen to the clank of their swords against armored parts to know they were on-target. Otherwise, they were helpless to know whom their opponent might be.

The tide turned in the Reds’ favor. The Blues were pushed back toward the closed draw-bridge and the deep moat carved into the Earth in a half-moon around the castle’s entrance. The blinded archers were forced to fire with lessened accuracy, their waves broken, no longer uniform.

It was then that a streak of fire, as if cast downward from a merlin-esque figure in the heavens, hurtled toward the Earth. Most of the men didn’t notice, but the Blues’ archers were forced to. It was all they could see even through the smog and sunlight. The cowardly and brave alike fled at once, terrified that the Reds had developed some great catapult to rain destruction upon them. But soon even the Reds began to take notice.

The object was ablaze with a firey tail, its trajectory on course to strike the battle-field. Whether friend or foe, the men fled together. The battle waned with only a few that took advantage of the precious distraction to soak their blades or arrows with blood. Soon, even they were drawn toward the figure above. A distant sound like the crackling fires of the dead began to engulf the area. Men of both sides stood to watch in fright, their necks and faces caned upward to see the frantic destruction ready to strike.

At once, the battle ended. It was still chaos, but now arms were cast aside. Bodies formed a sea that surged with erratic movements. Some men shouted about the wrath of God, others cried for their enemy to be slain by him. The rest simply ran, as if compelled to by little more than instinct. Those that chose the latter shed armor, weapons, padding until near-on full-nude to flee more quickly for the trees and distant hills in the East.

As the fireball drew nearer, the low-rumble and crackle of its blazing tail shook the ground and scorched the air. The air atop the trees in the hills caught fire. It spread through the pines and evergreens as if dry kindling. The men there choked, coughed, writhed in pain on the ground from their innards being flash-cooked. The men’s terrified fleeing had stolen away their breath even in those with the best stamina, but the lesser men were already dead. When the others fell to the ground, they writhed long enough to see the last moments of the battlefield itself.

The fireball landed with a bright flash and a tremendous quaking of Earth. There was no-one left to watch from the inside, but from the outer edges of an eagle’s view the destruction was unmistakably total. The great fireball had leveled the castle, the men, and the field, left only a smoking, orange-edged crater. The impact scattered dirt and debris for countless distances, halved the cliff’s-edge so that not a mark of either side’s presence remained.

It was later said the English King had incurred God’s wrath and spite, brought destruction upon both sides equally. As the ages of monarchs gave way to that of reasoned men and their fields of science, mathematics, and astronomy, the theory was changed. However guilty the men had been of immorality– the King among them– their deaths were coincidence. While some outright argued it was not evidence against God’s wrath, others mirrored the sentiment more poetically. It was, they reasoned, a firebolt of anger from the Universe itself mean to dispel man’s wrath, overcome him with humility at his smallness. Whether poetic, true, or not, none at the battle would disagree. Were they not centuries dead, it was certain each of them knew would remark upon their smallness having been witnessed first hand to the wrath of a great, vast universe. Not even the most foolish fools among them would disagree they were much smaller after the battle than at its start.

Short Story: A Hero

If he knew nothing else in the whole world, at least he knew that today was a fine day to die. Alexander Ortiz was hardly the picture of genius or perfection, but even he knew of the nobility of self-sacrifice. As a matter of fact, that was the only thing that had compelled him forward, into the fire.

He’d kicked in a couple doors with year-old sneakers, was pretty sure at least a couple toes were broken. It hadn’t mattered then, and mattered even less now, half a decade later. He’d rushed through the small, two-bedroom apartment, heard the young girl’s frantic whimpers from a side bedroom. He made it to her with a vault over a couch, used the momentum to land, spring through an open doorway behind it.

She wasn’t more than twelve at the time her mother and father had been fighting out in the hallway of the apartment building. She’d moused out to see the commotion when her father barked something lewd at her. Her mother huffed as she skittered back inside. Alex made it to his front-door, sensed from the sound of the distant, unaided slam that she’d bolted back inside and into hiding.

In a way, he had always sympathized with her. Alex’s own parents had been the same, short-sighted type to marry out of lust. When that fiery passion flickered, it found new breath in the exhalation of rage and fury. Even so, it wasn’t what compelled him to scoop her up in his arms that day. That feat was achieved from adrenaline and what was right alone. She didn’t deserve to die, least of all so tragically.

She was a whimpering, sobbing mess of terror and smoke-induced hacking coughs when he carried her from the building. The firetrucks had just rolled up, but even he was certain it would have been too late for her by then. He dropped the tailgate of a truck, helped her to sit on it as she gasped for air through smoke-tarred lungs and tearful mucus.

Alex didn’t leave her side the whole time the fire truck fought the blaze and the paramedics ran their tests. He wasn’t sure she’d have let him had he tried: She was clearly terrified of everything– probably her own shadow too. Having her own personal hero beside her was the only way she contended with the IVs and oxygen mask that day.

Alex never felt like a hero, but that’s the funny thing about heroes; the real ones never feel that way. Even now, as he lay dying in the street from yet another “heroic” act, he didn’t feel like one. He’d once more done what was right, protected that young girl who’d now aged enough to be considered a teenager.

Alex had watched Amy blossom from a slim, pretty blonde girl to a full-grown young woman. Presently, her face hovered just above his, her blonde hair framing an angelic face of subtle angles and still-forming curves. She was still too shocked to cry, but her brown eyes glistened with water all the same. Her mouth moved in that same, almost caricatured way it did when she sang choral warm-ups.

Amy’s mouth had always opened a hair larger than normal, as if it needed the extra room to echo the depths within. It was an instantly endearing quality. Most of the younger girls would’ve called her a big mouth, but never had time for the timid loner that she turned out to be. Or at least, as she had been when Alex had first, formally met her and her mother.

It was a banquet-style dinner, with a ceremony from the mayor’s office to award Alex’s heroism. He figured most people would have been humbled, felt as if nobility, but the experience was too surreal for him. He merely ate dinner with the young girl and her mother, Sara, the location just a little more lavish than the burnt-out husk of their apartments, or the identical dingy hotel rooms they’d been assigned by the insurance company.

Alex took the stage with Amy and Sara in tow, was given the opportunity to say something. He began with a thank you, then cleared his throat to attempt formality. He deepened his voice for the podium microphone, managed a few words, “I-uh… was just in the right time and place, and did what I expect anyone would do.”

That was it. That was his speech. He ended with another thank you, re-took his seat to enjoy the dessert course with the two ladies that had accompanied him, and shook hands with a few civic leaders afterward.

Two things came of that day, tangentially related but equally as pointless as he lay in the hot street with pain in his guts and fading vision. The first was a series of job offers from every, local tech company in the region. The comp-sci grad suspected most of the companies just wanted “the Hero” on their payroll, regardless of his skill. It seemed all the more apt after the offers doubled from an interview released by the Associated Press that detailed most of his life’s story, and therefore his qualifications.

He eventually took a job in the metro-area to stay close to Amy and her mother. Despite the obvious age-gap, and what on-lookers would call perversion at a glance, the two grew to become close friends. Sara allowed it, if only for that fact that it seemed to keep her ex-husband, Grant, away. The custody battle that took place nearly immediately following the fire was tumultuous at best. Were it not for Alex, Sara eventually asserted, Amy would have likely gone through worse than she already had.

As it was, Amy rode out the next couple of years with ease. Thanks to the aid of her hero, and her mother’s growing attraction to him. It seemed inevitable the two would be forever inseparable. Apart from his obvious affection for Sara, Alex agreed with the assessment. He’d have liked nothing more than to protect Amy, watch her grow old, independent, confident. As it was, all good things had to end, Alex’s life included.

In his final moments, he was never quite sure what had happened save that his last act was surely of selflessness. In truth, Sara’s ex had never worked through the divorce’s effects. Where Grant’s ex-wife and daughter were moving on, living their lives, he wallowed in self-pity and the bottom of the every bottle on-hand. He’d attempted to force himself into their lives time and again, was finally stopped for good by a pair of restraining orders. The court kept his drunken abuse out of Amy and Sara’s lives, but steeped his rage in the frothing pity-party.

It was almost without warning that he’d appeared in front of the trio’s new home, ready to ruin their lives once more. Sara was already at the front-door of the house when Grant pulled up, stumbled drunkenly from the door of his junker. He raged and shouted, compelled Sara in to call the police while Alex hoped to defuse the situation. Amy followed, as much unwilling to leave her hero alone as she was to be without him.

Grant’s slurred anger manifested in a one-sided screaming match before it climaxed. Amy, in her way, quipped back with her learned, quick wits. It only further infuriated her would-be father. Alex’s even-toned request that Amy go inside sparked that spewing temper that raged within Grant. In a swift motion, he pulled a thirty-eight on his daughter.

A shot rang out through the day-light. The next moments were a series of flashes before Amy found herself hovering over Alex as he lay on the ground. Blood soaked her hands, hot beneath the pressure she instinctively applied to his gut. In the background, sirens screamed toward them over the sprint-stumble of her father’s drunken fleeing.

Alex managed a few, confused words before his head fell back against the pavement, the life drained from his eyes. In his final breath, he’d managed to piece together what had happened, but all the same, the breath left his lungs and the life left his eyes.

The eulogy given by the young woman was short, punctuated by the constant stream of silent tears that made their way down her face. “He always said he wasn’t a hero, that he had never been one. But he saved my life twice, and… and gave me a reason to live in between… everyday. He showed me love I’d been denied, simply because he knew what it felt like. Alex wasn’t a hero because he saved my life. He was a hero because he lived the way hero’s do; by being what they want to see in the world. By making it as it should be, and not accepting how it is. He was my hero most of all, but in a small way, he was a hero to all of us. He made the world that much more special, and safe, and loving than it was.”

Beneath the dates of birth and death, two lines are etched forever into stone, “Alexander Ortiz, A Hero.”