This is the first in which I hope will be a series of short stories and flash fiction pieces featuring characters and ideas to be found in Hell Ship. These are creatures from other universes; strange, marvellous, and sometimes terrible. And what follows is a story told by the great warrior of Maxolu – Sharrock!
Sharrock and the Ghost of Pethgore
I woke that morning and discovered that the icy ledge had started to melt beneath me. I stood up and the ledge cracked and fell a thousand barats or more. I was left dangling from the ropes which I had, the night before, secured to the rock face.
I shook the sleep out of my brain and swung myself towards the rock and crashed against the sheer mountain face. The claws on the tips of my gloves gouged hard into the ice. I extended the spikes on my boots to further secure my embrace of the towering cliff. Then I continued upwards, like a pantathecon using its claws to climb a tree.
A shalia bird hovered close to me for most of my morning’s climb, caught in updrafts, curiously eyeing me; no doubt calculating how much meat there was on my bones. Once it tried to perch on my shoulders and I brushed it off.
The free-climbing was tiring, and the going was treacherous. Lichen grew in the ice, weakening it perilously; the winds shook my body relentlessly.
I surmounted the crag and found myself on a vast glacier that led to the next mountain peak. I leaped a huge crevasse in the ice and landed badly, but managed not to fall. Then I saw before me, as white upon whiteness, a carpet of bones; the intact skeletons of former climbers. All that was left of them after being eaten (whether alive or dead I did not know) by the shalia birds. These birds could eat flesh and leather and even backpacks. And a flock of them hovered now in the air above me; and, emboldened, plunged down upon me screeching and pecking at me with their scimitar-jaws.
But I drew my blade and I hacked at their feathers and flesh in the swiftest of rhythms; and every slash hit its mark, and blood rained down upon me. And when the flock became too dense I switch on my forceshield, and reversed the energy flow. And then the flesh of ths shalias burned and the air blackened, and the remainder of the flock fled in despair.
These creatures posed no real danger to a Maxolun warrior. Something else, I concluded, had killed these climbers. And then, once their forceshields had finally ebbed, had the shalia birds dined.
I crossed the glacier and commenced a new climb up sheer ice and rock. But then just for a moment, I looked back, and down, and saw how far I would fall, if I were to release my grip for just a moment.
Normally heights do not perturb me. But on this occasion I felt a pang of anxiety; and perhaps even fear. But I stemmed my doubts, and carried on upwards.
My food and water implants sustained me during the long ascent; and when I reached the summit of this highest peak I felt a surge of joy.
The joy did not last. There were more skeletons at the summit. Mountains of bones atop the mountain of ice. I saw also a clutter of discarded sunfire guns and ropes and tents, left by those destroyed by the Ghost of Pethgore.
I shook the stiffness out of my limbs, and admired the view. Pethgore was a planet of mist and ice and swamps; but the sun’s rays cut through it all, like laughter in a child.
I sensed rather than saw the ghost, and I swiftly turned and pointed at it, as if accusing. My fingers were too stiff to fire a weapon, but I had sunfire blasters built into the arms of my body armour, to be triggered by a murmured command.
But the ghost could not be seen. It swirled around me. It made my hearts contract in fear; it made my ice-cold bones even colder.
I fired both arms – first the right and then the left, and then the right again – and a scream of pain rent my eardrums. But the scream turned to a laugh; I had missed.
Rage enveloped me and I screamed too. Never had I felt such hate – not since my father – never since –
I howled like an animal. And I wept. And I could feel the creature’s hate in my soul now; hate gnawing me like jaws upon a bone And I marvelled at this, as my bowels snarled up and piss flooded out of me. My fists flailed wildly, and chunks of ice were blasted off the neighbouring peaks by my wild sunfire blasts. My rage grew and -
And then I realised what was happening.
No one had ever survived an encounter with the ghost of Pethgore; I now knew why.
So I turned my hate inwards; and I stifled it. I lowered my arms.
And I allowed love to enter my soul.
The ghost responded with surprise, alarm, then delight.
I could see the creature now; it hovered before me, like balls of lightning seen through gauze. An energy being of some kind; an empath. It would respond to hate with hate, love with love.
I had no desire to slay the ghost of Pethgore; the experience of knowing it was all that I sought.
And now I allowed the deepest awe to fill my soul, as I stood on the summit of this great ice-mountain and looked down at the astonishing vista of Pethgore. Below me rain began to fall softly on the suppurating swamps; a rainbow spanned the horizon, and I saw within it colours I had never seen before.
The ghost encircled me; it enfolded me; it supped of my emotions – my awe, my joy, my zest for life.
And for a few precious moments, I and the ghost of Pethgore were as one.
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