Dying a second time was only slightly different than the first. Of course, when Jayko’s soul and mind had become unmoored from his body then, he had immediately filled a new vessel, making his acquaintance with death quite brief, but still no less terrifying. This time, he felt the whirling chaos of fear and confusion clouding his every thought, ripping away his voice, stealing what little control he had over Aerimon’s body, casting him into an abyss. Just as it had before. Only now, it was lasting far longer.
He attempted to scream; nothing came of his efforts. His mind ran rampant through his memories, touching on each one momentarily, mashing many together, shredding others, perverting them to create a gross spectacle of his life. He saw himself suckling his mother’s nipple as a babe, then was suddenly twenty seven years of age. He watched as he dismantled a man strapped to a wall by all manner of leather straps and chains, then took the man’s place as another began to carve into him. He revolted as he made love to Helena, only for Aerimon to appear and guide her mouth toward his manhood, which she joyously accepted.
Death was a cruel master.
Something snagged him from the vortex of grotesquerie, a fisherman’s net he, swimming through the river of the damned, had been lucky enough to become ensnared in. It pulled him from the current, then dumped him onto cold hard ground. He flopped from his knees to his side, the smooth, cold stone beneath him battering his skull. A verdant, dark green glow crept across the black ground and walls, a light too weak to battle the darkness, or too inclined to accept the latter as a welcome companion.
Jayko groaned as he adjusted to this life after death, recalling the final moments of his pseudo-life as he survived as a parasite upon Aerimon. Somehow Aerimon had expelled Jayko, and the latter only hoped that the former had died an agonizing death in doing so. Before that, though–
“Rise, my hand,” came a savage voice. Each word escaped the fire blasted throat of a mountain, it seemed. Hissing and rumbling, the words continued, “You have served well.”
“Saren!” Jayko rejoiced as he dragged himself to his knees. Before him, half submerged in a pool of water glowing with that rich green light and bubbling as though a flame burned hot beneath the surface, was Saren. The god sported gouges all across his body that seeped the same green fluorescence. His face was twisted in perpetual agony, eyes like green suns opening on to his pain, his face drawn in a soundless scream. His human body, riddled with wounds, gave way to a bald head rimmed by a crown of spikes lodged deep into his skull.
“Prove to me your worth and you will be reborn. Take my power, and kill the steel one.”
The water below the god churned fiercely and became a whirlpool that rose up. It snatched Jayko as he rose to his feet but he felt no liquid. Just the heat of power filling his being.
Then, all was quiet, and he was standing in the light of the sun on a cool day, the breeze playing across his face and bare arms. This, was not Makdiar, or Dargon. He was upon a world entirely new.
“You’re standing on my broccoli.” Jayko spun to find the source of the irate voice. As he pivoted, the plant beneath his heel crunched and snapped, the large head coming free of the rest of the plant.
A man stood before him, a sliver of steel snaking from beneath the sleeve of his shirt and to his hand where it formed a serrated knife. A head of broccoli was grasped in his hand, a few more lying in a basket near his foot. The knuckles of his hand were white with barely controlled anger. A goatee sprouted from his chin, roughly a knuckle in length, while above full lips sat a wide-bridged nose, grey-blue eyes set deep to either side, dark brown bangs fell before his prominent brow.
“My name is Jayko. Saren told me to kill you,” Jayko said as though he were speaking about the weather.
“Then Saren is an idiot god. And I can promise you this won’t end well for either of you.”
Steel erupted from beneath the man’s shirt, flooding up his arms, neck, and down his legs. Liquid metal coalesced, took shape, and hardened in an immaculate display. Before Jayko there now stood a monster of steel, wearing the metal as a second skin, blades extending from his hands gleaming brilliantly in the sunlight.
“Impressive. But none of that will make a difference.” Jayko reached out with the power Saren had bestowed upon him, claws of magic closing on Phalax’s heart to stop it in a cold, crushing embrace. Unlike before, Jayko felt not an iota of the negative effects casting magic normally brought. His potential had been unleashed so he could inflict suffering upon others without enduring any himself. He smiled as he waited for the man before him to flounder and die.
The claws of his spell grasped nothing but emptiness. Jayko found that his magic failed to target the man as he slipped away from it as though he were a wet fish plucked from the sea by Jayko’s bare hands.
Jayko smiled wickedly as he realized this would be far more difficult, and thus far more painful for both sides, than he believed. He was glad for it. Just then, a young girl strode from the backdoor of the house behind the steel beast. She, stopped cold when her eyes came upon Jayko.
“Your pain will be great,” he said, looking at the girl, speaking to them both.
The man realized his daughter, or so Jayko assumed, was in danger a moment before Jayko turned his torturous power on her. He reached out to grind her heart to a painful halt, knowing the man before him didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching him in time.
Phalax’s stomach leapt into his throat when Jayko averted his eyes and hissed, “Your pain will be great.”
Before he even turned, he knew his stepdaughter would be standing at the backdoor of their home. Sure enough, she was there, eyes wide with terror staring at Jayko. The amulet Phalax wore beneath his steel armor, given to him by Edmund, shielded him from being the direct target of Jayko’s spells, but his stepdaughter wouldn’t be so lucky. Whatever malicious spell he was seconds away from casting would sink its teeth into her, likely killing her instantly.
Phalax thought of the love he had for her, of their special relationship and how it had healed him, of how desperately and fiercely he would fight to protect her, fueling his power.
He turned back to Jayko, growling as the blades in his hands melted. He tossed the globs of steel one after the other and they left his hands with the speed or an arrow. Moments before impact, they solidified into razor sharp spikes that sliced into the flesh of his neck and chest, lodging deep in bone.
“Get inside!” Phalax screamed at his stepdaughter as he burst forward. Jayko staggered backward, eyes wide in surprise as blood gushed from his wounds. With a thought, the spikes of steel ripped free of Jayko and shot back to meld into Phalax’s armor as blades sprouted from his hands again.
Phalax thrust his blades at Jayko’s stomach. A knuckle length separated the tip of the blades from flesh when time seemed to reverse. An aura of dark purple, crackling energy exploded from Jayko and crashed into Phalax with the force of a wave. He kept his feet beneath him, sliding backward across the soil, extreme pressure making his entire body ache all over.
Jayko was then standing before Phalax whole once more, not a scratch or scar to commemorate the wounds that were there mere moments ago. Where before Jayko had been a lithe man with a pale complexion and parted hair that fell to either side of his eyes, now he was a beast of a man.
As the dust settled from the blast of energy he’d conjured, Jayko’s transformation became clear. His hair had vanished, replaced by a net of thorns that writhed atop his skull, drawing a horrendous amount of blood that incessantly dripped from his brow and jaw. The whites of his eyes were now replaced by a deep, verdant green luminescence that nearly masked the black spheres nested within completely. Fangs stuck out from beneath his lips in neat perfection.
Phalax had dealt with worse before, or so he told himself. He’d slayed demons, gods even. Certainly Jayko couldn’t be worse than that.
Jayko screeched then burst forward, faster than Phalax had expected. The latter was caught off guard and could manage nothing more than to interpose the shield he’d conjured in that brief moment between him and Jayko. The latter crashed into with horrendous force, battering it away with a clawed hand. Phalax recovered quickly, ducking beneath a swipe of Jayko’s hand as he did so, black talons raking the air above his head.
As Phalax slid out of Jayko’s range, he thrust his sword at the beast’s midsection. The blade lengthened to a spear and the tip plunged deep into Jayko’s side. Suddenly, Phalax found his weapon being pulled deeper into his enemy’s body. He pulled against it, found it futile, then cut the spear in two with a thought, allowing his steel to be devoured by Jayko’s body. Blood gushed from the wound as the steel penetrated deeper, eliciting a roar from Jayko. Then, it disappeared within his body along with the wound.
“That won’t work!” Jayko screeched, his voice a hissed yell that slithered through the air and sent pinpricks down Phalax’s spine.
“Then I’ll cut your fucking head off!” Phalax seethed.
The shield fixed to his hand suddenly seemed to melt into a liquid state of its own accord. Quickly, Phalax realized it was rusting and falling to pieces, no more capable at protecting him than paper mache diced into fine pieces then scattered across the wind.
Jayko slashed the air with his claws and a black specter in their very shape reached out and caught Phalax across his chest as he stood dumbfounded at the destruction of his invincible armor. Lightning arced through his torso as the dark blades sliced through his armor and body as though they were nothing more than air, replaced by the very heart of winter itself. Phalax staggered backward, expecting to find his chest ripped open and his insides spilling to the dirt where his cabbage sat, albeit in a trampled mess.
Instead, he found nothing but his armored torso, understanding then that the blades had been incorporeal, stealing his soul rather than his life blood. He glanced at his arm, now bare up to the elbow, and willed steel to cover it, horror striking through him as the blade he held shortened to compensate.
His supply of steel was not inexhaustible.
Phalax looked back to Jayko as the latter growled and shot forward again. He tried to spin to the side, ready to impale Jayko before he took another strike from his physical or ghostly claws but found himself rooted in place. The supreme cold that frosted his insides numbed his mind slightly, and his body couldn’t understand what the other asked of it. He stood inert other than his shaking, watching in terror as Jayko advanced, his claws ready to run Phalax through.
The imminent future played in Phalax’s mind. He felt Jayko’s claws rot his armor then pierce his stomach and infect him, breaking him down with one fell swoop until he perished. Then he saw the demon, or whatever it was, tear through his house, gouging the walls with his claws as he went, turning his new home into a replica of his first before slaughtering his family.
Already, he’d lived through the destruction of one family. He wouldn’t let that happen again. Ever. He’d found a new power in his love, and he intended to use it.
As Jayko cleared the final three steps to him, a maelstrom seemed to build in Phalax’s throat, nearly splitting it open a dozen times. He held the power in check right behind his teeth, growling from the effort. Two steps. His eyes felt as though they’d burst from his head from the pressure building. His teeth vibrated, surely going to shatter any moment. One step. His entire body trembled. His throat felt seared raw from fire.
Jayko pulled back his arm and thrust it toward Phalax’s stomach. Phalax opened his mouth and power poured from between his teeth, a roar that shook mountains and sent ripples across the oceans ripping from his throat. Jayko’s maniacal face folded in, bones shattering and compressing, brain spilling from the cracks in his skull, as he took flight and careened backward through the air several hundred feet.
Phalax staggered forward finally as Jayko came to a halt, a massive gouge in the earth that had ruined his garden and cratered the ground a hundred feet out at his toes. He breathed deeply, his breath leaving him as though from a bellows. He felt the steel inside Jayko’s body quiver as he reached out to it, still held prisoner. Jayko stood up as Phalax realized he must still be alive, his body, again, whole.
“Shit,” Phalax cursed as Jayko roared and burst forward, his feet a yard above the ground.
As Jayko closed, an idea came to Phalax. He waited until the very last moment and ducked beneath Jayko’s claws, cleaving him nearly in two with a massive sword. Before he finished cutting the man in half, however, he commanded the steel to sever and it did, Jayko’s body quickly absorbing it.
Ice cut into Phalax’s back, nearly shattering his ribs, stopping his heart for a few moments. Before he fell, he imagined the faces of his loved ones, and banished the paralysis that came as Jayko’s ghostly claws cut through him. He rolled to the side, the air behind him vibrated as Jayko sped through it.
Phalax surged to his feet as Jayko changed direction and attempted another pass. He faked to the side then leapt upward, a bar of steel extending from his foot propelling him to a height far higher than he could normally achieve. The bar dissolved as a half-moon shaped blade sprouted from his other heel. He kicked forward and the blade carved through Jayko’s skull, again breaking off and sinking into Jayko’s body.
“The pain is everything my god wants!” Jayko screamed as his head knit itself back together, thorns continuing their mad dance.
“Then he’ll be godsdamned ecstatic today.”
Steel flowed to Phalax’s palms as fast as he could feed it and he cast each handful at Jayko, four in quick succession turning into spikes and sinking into Jayko’s torso. Blood flowed, the steel sank deep then disappeared, Jayko let out a moan of pain that quickly turned into a twisted outburst of obscene pleasure.
Phalax broke into a sprint, his armor melting. The weightless steel pooled at his hands, transforming into a massive spear, its head nearly as thick as Phalax was around, six feet long. Jayko opened his eyes from his enraptured moment of bliss as the tip of the weapon struck his midsection. Immediately, it was sucked in deeper while Phalax pushed with all his might. Jayko screamed in agony until it disappeared completely, a final wisp of steel snaking from the disk in Phalax’s chest and to the butt of the spear as it left his hands.
Unarmored and without a single weapon, Phalax backpedaled as Jayko recovered. The massive hole in his torso closed with a sickening series of pops and tearing muscle. He staggered forward once he was healed once again, then looked up at Phalax with a pleased grin.
“You don’t have a weapon, and I’m going to make this hurt. A lot.”
“You’re right, I don’t. You have it. And I’m going to make this hurt. A whole hell of a lot.”
Phalax reached out to his steel with his mind as it sat within Jayko. He commanded it to shift and transform, and it obeyed. Dozens of thin blades suddenly exploded from all over Jayko’s body, neck, and head. Then, they spun with dazzling speed. Jayko’s eyes widened right before they were sliced to ribbons. His entire body erupted into a hundred pieces and tumbled into a sick pile of gore.
“Edmund, I need you here this instant,” he thought.
“God, that’s one hell of a bloody mess, Phalax,” came the old man’s voice. Although he didn’t look it, Edmund was several hundred years old, and, having seen him as a much older version of himself, Phalax couldn’t help but imagine him as an old geezer. “Hope you don’t plan on eating those carrots after this. Or maybe they’ll grow really well and be delicious. You’ll have to let me know.”
“I’ll feed them to the dog. You can ask him. Now, can we do something about this? I’m not sure if he’s dead.”
“Oh, he’s certainly dead. Done getting up and trying to take you with him? No. Is this no longer fun for you?”
“He outstayed his welcome when he tried to kill my daughter. How do we get rid of him?”
“Like so,” Edmund said as though it were common knowledge as he snapped his fingers. The many pieces of Jayko’s body suddenly arced up then swirled through the air in a gorey vortex of grace and horror. Blue flames erupted from the sky, spinning into the shape of a sphere and devoured the pieces of Jayko, leaving a pool of steel slowly writhing across the blood-covered ground and carrot leaves.
As Phalax called the steel back to him, it responding by swimming across the earth to him then snaking up his legs and across his torso and to the disk in his chest, Edmund said, “You know, I didn’t really need to snap. It’s just more fun that way.”
“You really should have met Arlukent,” Phalax retorted, smiling. “Thanks, Edmund.”
“My pleasure. Now, off to hunting the gods across the cosmos. Wanna come along?”
“Maybe later. I’ve still got some work to do in the garden.”
Edmund surveyed the mess and asked, “What garden?”
Phalax raised an eyebrow and lightly frowned. Edmund sighed, then disappeared, restoring the garden and wiping the earth of the blood that just a moment ago painted the ground. Well, most of it. A patch of crimson remained around a single carrot, and Phalax chuckled.
“Phalax,” came his wife’s shaky voice, her daughter held tightly to her thighs.
He darted through the fence and to them, embracing them both.
“All is well. I’ll never let anything hurt either of you, ever.” As he said this and stroked their heads, he knew he’d need to go back out into the cosmos again and proceed to hunt down the gods with Edmund. For now, though, he would enjoy his home, his garden, and, most of all, the love from his family.