Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
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The Grind

by Gordon Sun

The warriors of old always faced tremendous odds, ever worsening as they approached the seat of darkest power. But there was always a sinister mastermind waiting patiently at journey’s end, an evil overlord that would explain its foul, twisted reasoning to the heroes before being defeated in a climactic battle to set things right. There was always enough time to plan ahead, always enough time to rise to the challenge and end the latest cycle of despair. Sixteen generations of legends could never be wrong—

It was not supposed to end like this.

As Corbin’s party stood spellbound and mute, the murky red orb shattered. In an instant, memories of the last three years flooded their minds.

The flame-haired Corbin of “Skills-Builder” notoriety, kneeling before King Jacques of Montnuage to accept his assignment to eradicate the Obsidian, the cult responsible for razing the town of Landries and brutally executing its citizens. Corbin recruiting best friend and beast whisperer Lowell, then Shaalyn the mystical, waiflike cleric, then finally the cheerful kunoichi Kano. All adventurers with the best of intentions—

Convincing the Magicians’ Alliance to resist the Obsidian’s treachery—and failing. Escaping imprisonment from the Ochre Mountain. Suppressing an insurrection in Kano’s allied kingdom of Miraju.

Falling in love.

Learning that Montnuage’s capital had fallen in their absence, the king dead, his subjects and even their domesticated animals twisted into mindless, vicious brutes. The survivors staggering erratically from town to town, babbling madly about hellish shadows that endlessly haunted their victims, even in sleep; horrific monstrosities suffused with the stench of sulfur and putrefaction; indescribable things that defied the laws of nature and magic—

Searching for answers. Finding the long-lost Hermit in the Black Box, ensconced in a strangely anachronistic structure of steel and glass, waited upon by mechanical men who spoke in grunts and tweets. Preparing battle plans. Training. Treasure hunting. Fighting. Artifact gathering. Fighting. Growing in ability and power. Fighting. So much fighting. So much time passing—

—finally turning north to face the countless waves of cultists and their monstrous servants. So much fighting, and death. Thousands, tens of thousands, of the Obsidian’s minions falling to the blades and spells of the Crimson Four—

Returning to windswept Landries. Not a creature in sight—a ghost town.

—no one responding to communication spells—

—cold, gray sky, the tundra barren, scrubbed of life—

—the looming Dark Arch, the enemy citadel. Nothing. Like the nightmares never happened, like the Obsidian’s insane followers never reemerged from their decades-long slumber to wreak havoc upon the world.

The misty central chamber, and the two crystalline globes upon their pedestals of polished black marble—

The pale-yellow orb exploded. And Corbin and his companions saw, in a single moment, what the Obsidian wrought.

Four figures shrouded in inky black robes, leading an infernal ceremony witnessed by thousands. Mass sacrifices of the innocent on desecrated altars. The summoning of the ageless pale green dragon Kronoroc, the grotesquely dysmorphic demon of a hundred unspeakable names, the hideous Circle of Six whose mere presence reduced the hardiest of men to gibbering wrecks.

Corbin’s team pushing forward on one front—the cult spreading havoc elsewhere, pillaging, corrupting, slaughtering—

The Obsidian leaders suddenly entering the fray themselves, while Corbin and his mates were occupied in Miraju. Inexplicable change in strategy—terrifying new vision. No longer simply murdering innocent townspeople—now massacring everything in sight, allied or not, while driving their own followers deeper into madness, compelling them to turn on each other.

Fighting. Growing in ability and power like their Crimson Four counterparts. Fighting. So much fighting. So much—

Finally, dominating the forces of the dark dimensional portal. Disintegrating Kronoroc in his lair. Banishing the demon and the Circle of Six to the Abyss, where light is nonexistent and time is meaningless—

All the while, with each act of mayhem, absorbing their victims’ powers into themselves—

The four leaders of the Obsidian, the last survivors of a genocidal, suicidal sect—

—initiating the forbidden five-day enchantment, in an attempt to bind their blackened souls to—

Corbin escaped his paralysis first, grimacing painfully as he shielded himself from the relentless maelstrom of unfathomable energies released by the destroyed spheres. We were patient. We were prepared. We sought out everything, everyone, every advantage. But we took too long—

Corbin fell to his knees in agony. Shaalyn was already lost, teleporting into herself after misspeaking the words of destination and simply ceasing to exist. Unable to break free of the magical transfixion, Lowell was forcibly ripped from the ground by the mind-storm and disappeared in a flash of light, screaming.

Kano suddenly flickered in front of Corbin as he crouched on the ground, placing her radiant fingertips together around an imaginary ball. “Teishi jikan.” With a deep rumble, the kaleidoscopic tempest around them suddenly slowed, yet failed to completely stop.

“Even temporal magic...cannot break this,” Corbin whispered. “Unbelievable.”

“It will just give us a few more moments.” The storm was already beginning to pick up speed. “I wish—”

“I know, Kano. We—I have so much to say—”

The kunoichi put a finger to his lips. “You will figure it out. You always have.” The howling of the magical vortex churning around them grew louder.

“But not without you. Not without—”

“You will have to. You will have to.” Kano took Corbin’s face gently in her hands, touching foreheads.

“I love—”

“Mugen shīru,” Kano cried, weaving her fingers together just as her time-stop spell came undone and they were slammed by the fully renewed force of the tempest. Corbin could only look on in horror as his lover’s body, now glowing completely, hovered in mid-air as the awesome powers released by the crystalline orbs spiraled chaotically into her. Moments later it was over, the kunoichi having sealed away the mind-storm and vanished into the ether forever.

Now alone, the bloodied Corbin dragged himself upright, leaning heavily against a marble pedestal.

All those years spent...

He sobbed.

2019 Gordon Sun

Gordon Sun is an otolaryngologist and medical writer based in Arcadia, California. His first short fiction story was published in Ars Medica in 2018.

Find more by Gordon Sun in the Author Index.

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