by Colum Coleman
Birth unknown; Death a certainty
Land is not given. It is not bought. It is not sold. It is held and it is taken and it is lost. That, that is how it works here. It matters not what right you have to claim it – only with what strength you can keep it. And how much of it that strength can keep at once. Mons Cavernas was held in this manner. As has everything else for the past decade or more.
Mons Cavernas, as the name implies, is in fact a hollow mountain. A compact cave system whose large halls of hollow earth are no less exceeding in wonder than the most vast and most magnificent system of tunnels nature ever molded in her own clay. Often, they are offset by small crags each of which lead into their own chamber-rooms. The main chamber is made main by virtue of being the largest of the halls and by being, of those halls, the one which lies nearest the sole entrance to Mons Cavernas. Found in the foothills of the mountain it is for the most part filled deep with the perpetual black waters that first did carve the whole of the complex. Erected atop this are floating gardens of soil bobbing upon woodworks whose crops rise in their natural cycles in a lifegiving and eerily depressing blue light.
But such things are not the purpose for which Mons Cavernas was first inhabited by man and given a name, though this hall is host to the symbols and signs of much of that as well. Mons Cavernas is a fortress, and, most lately, a tomb. Here the permanent smell of the burning of powder of guns lays thick and makes the clear air everlastingly smoky. Spent cartridges from a dozen different rounds stamped permanently in the floor give the entry into the mountain keep the crunching drumroll of marching across beetles’ backs.
Here, too, behind these and down a little ways, at a point before the water line rises out of the dark, cast in the shadow of that blue eeriness, lies many rows of long, narrow stone carvings. How thick the rows were, how long each went, how many there are in total cannot be precisely said. Suffice it to say that there was one of these ill lit stone blocks for each of those who had died a denizen of Mons Cavernas. Their carvings were, by many means, elaborate and the skill with which their mason had made them great. Each one had, in a manner not dissimilar to the Egyptian sarcophagus, by means of a lid a carved statue of the likeness of a person melted halfway into its stone slab. Each bore its own entablature to encircle it. Some were wreaths of vines or flowers, others scenes with a breath taken from life. No two were the same; or for that matter, in any way matched. Each was as unique as the individual depicted above and contained within.
Though Mons Cavernas has not ever once been sacked those who would defend her, always few, have dwindled until at last their number reached but only one. It is this man who is named Chol Vero. It is this man who, with no other to aid him, held Mons Cavernas time and again against both bands of small number and armies of a vast and sweeping size. It is this man who first designed the fortifications which now surround good Mons Cavernas and have made possible such defense. It is this man, also, who, being the last, did bury each of his comrades and family and friends in the splendid granite manner of the mausoleums which bear their stone- faced images atop their laid-out corpses.
For all the living breath with which those stone portraits resonated the face of Chol Vero himself was one of featureless marble. The face of Chol Vero was, in fact, never seen – it was always covered by a black mask. It is this mask which gave the only indication of the face of Chol Vero and thus leant its own featurelessness to him. A smooth, curved pane of ebony whose only indication of resemblance to the image of a human face were holes of eyes, an outline of a nose, and a slit for a mouth.
Stocky in build and average in height he hid himself beneath darkly colored clothes wrapped around him in layers so thick they practically functioned as body armor – a fact to which the various tears and burns that had partially eaten through them could attest. Scattered across this motley shadow were in places – many places – spattered leakings of crimson; much of it his own, much of it of others. Tin capped his head. Tightly bound and covered over with layers of wire mesh and torn cloth the press of the armor gave his head a sleek and featureless appearance.
Throughout his body were empty holsters, vacant bandoliers, and broken straps. Testaments to the more sophisticated weaponry that had come before. Gone were the armaments that had come before. The guns had long fallen silent, the rifles rusted, the pistol hilts shattered from their days as clubs. At his side now hung, loosely dangling, a hatchets’ open blade. Tied to him only by a strip of his attire which happened to have hung down there also it swayed with his walking as with the wind.
Strapped upon his back, roped to him in manifold ways, were packs and bags of frayed cloth whose contents, maybe more worn than their containers, held all that one needed to live in the wilderness here for several days. Mounted over this was a broad rectangular shield. Heavy in its iron cast steel he nonetheless wielded it smoothly, almost with some form of grace, sweeping it from its perch upon his shoulders over his arm and back again. Bullet proof and battle hardened it was dented and scarred but not damaged. Originally a stoic black it had been painted over a streaked red, a rather common pigment these days.
Down and out past the sprawling slope side of Mons Cavernas he has gone this day. Past the metal grate of a door stitched into an awning like gap in the living rock of the mountain. Past the low fence of metal beams, the scar of a trench that artificially magnified its height, and all the fire hardened wood stakes between them. Past the checkerboard maze of vast rectangular ditches lined with barbs and knife points and fish hooks for catching human feet. Past even the spotted randomness of the field of lily pad pits whose spiked bottoms could engulf a man or more whole. Beyond all his labors, all the protections Mons Cavernas could offer him, he had gone.
Gone to search the woods about his mountain and the shattered cliffs of the others around. He did this, though he could not tell you the word mountain. He could not give you the word for the grass or the trees or the wind. Among these things also were much of those things that were the things he had himself made and remade and worked slowly into the slopes outside Mons Cavernas. Yet he moved among them still. Understood them still – in some strange sense of meaning. He had not made use of such words since perhaps even before he was the last.
Much of the earthworks had fallen into damage and disrepair. Their use was constant and though their death toll had been undeniably catastrophic the wear took its toll. Stakes broke in two. Soft earth filled in trenches. Wire meshes warped and their blades snapped or dulled beneath human feet. Pragmatism demanded he fix them, as many as he could, and the rest replace. But one man alone cannot keep pace with such rampant violence and widespread destruction as the world now held and no supply is infinite. So, he set forth from the safety of his beloved fortress-home also to gather what there was to gather and scavenge what could be scavenged from whatever was left out there to find.
Returning from this excursion with little worth carrying back he saw a thing upright and on two legs poking its way around the edges of the defenses. He wasn’t really sure what they were but so many of them had come, always in violence, that he had been forced to give them some kind of name – any kind of name to recall what they were, what they did, what they were always trying to do. Mortii. He called them the Mortii. An old word, synonymous with death.
This one was smarter than most had been – prodding the path in front of it with a long wooden rod most likely hewn from a tree. Attempting to quietly find a way that was safe. Not that it would make a difference in its fate. Not with Chol Vero on the outside of his fortress keep.
It found the way it wanted – a section of pits and trenchworks by invaders and rainy earth that cut its way like a scar through the lower reaches of Mons Cavernas’ defenses. It started forward. Chol slipped after it. The racking of a gun came from his right. Instinctively Chol spun his back to it and knelt. The shotgun blast was nearly enough to flip him over. All four of his limbs sunk into the relatively soft earth. The shield had held – with shards of buckshot wedged in a dozen tiny new proofs.
Chol rose and spun; slipping his shield seamlessly from its mounting atop his back over his left arm. He saw the second Mortii, an older one, cock the barrel only a few short feet away. He charged it, swinging his shield like a door he knocked the weapon wide. A brutal kick to the midriff sent it sprawling. Chol unhooked the hatchet from his side.
There was the noise of brush underfoot and a flash of metallic light from the furthest periphery of his eye. Chol ducked and leaned outward. His shield bit the earth; only barely allowing him to remain upright. His hatchet swung upward on an awkwardly curved arc – somehow catching the glinting machete between the ax head and hilt.
Banking off his newly grounded shield Chol yanked the machete forward. Pulling himself to his feet and causing his assailant – a third Mortii – to stumble and teeter off balance. His footing securely under him again Chol punched with the side rim of his shield. A blow that shattered the creatures’ elbow; the bone protruding out the other side. Naturally, it shrieked. Deafeningly. Without its hand to hold onto it the machete was carried away by the sweep of the hatchet and flung somewhere further afield.
The second Mortii realigned its shotgun; choosing to fire from the ground. Chol noticed at only the last instant. His eyes may have actually, visibly widened behind his inhuman mask. He swung his broad shield back round to cover himself with only partial success. The gun fired. The blast slammed into him. Somehow afterwards he was still on his feet.
Some of the shot burrowed into his shield. Some actually flew past him. But several cut into him. Slicing through his arm some only burned him. A few blazing by merely drew blood along his skin. But one, if not more, burrowed into the limb beneath his shoulder and passed out the other side. Chol Vero screamed into the sky. The scream of an animal…when you make it angry.
The broadside of his hatchet swung round into the face of the third Mortii. Though the blow had been lessened by the force of the bullets’ impact it was enough to break its skin, crack its bone, and send it flat onto the ground. He turned his body with the blow so that by its end he stood square over the second one. His scream stopped and he fell upon it. Doubled over hacking red fountain sprays some two feet or further high.
At this point the first Mortii, much forgotten about by Chol, leapt atop his bent back and, slipping its staff beneath his chin, proceeded to strangle him. Chol jerked upright marionette- style. His ax flailing about he stumbled backward time and again able only to make contact with the baggage train he carried on his back. Rasping, the colors around him grew muted. The Mortii tugged tighter, harder, its yellow teeth sharply grinning.
Then Chol turned. With his back facing a mostly intact stretch of Mons Cavernas defenses he leapt and fell. Dropping into a broad hollow patch filled by a grid of repurposed fish hooks, metal points, and glass shards. Chols’ body slammed into his baggage, his baggage slammed into the Mortii, and the Mortii into the pointed ground. Its grip relaxed as it sputtered behind him. For a few long moments Chol simply tried to breathe again while the Mortii leaked out its life beneath him.
At last he sat up. Using his shield as a makeshift bridge – though it behaved far more frustratingly like a slide – he scurried out of his own deathtrap. Remounting it he assessed the days’ carnage. The Mortii which had shot him was excessively dead. The one in the shallow pit would join it shortly. The third one lay on the ground almost blacked out from the pain brought on by its injuries.
He picked up its leg and proceeded to drag it off to the foul, stinking place he put the dead ones. A scattering of downtrodden bones and a mound of decaying flesh. It spat broken sounds out of its broken mouth. For a moment, it almost seemed to mimic an echo of “no…please”. Chol shook his head to clear it as he left the thing there and went back for the next one.
With the sun nearly gone Chol hid himself away within Mons Cavernas once more. He sat down and picked over his wounds. Nothing too major unless infection came. Tomorrow he would repair what he could of the defenses though his arm would slow him even further now and hope that no more of the Mortii would come. As he waited he wondered where all the people had gone. He and the tomb around him were proof enough that such things once had wandered here.