The King in Hell


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This is a book set in the distant future, in a world left scarred by a terrible nuclear war and a few other things I'll get to later. Most of the characters are normal people, but they find themselves in an extraordinary and unforgiving time, and that forces them to make some extraordinary, unforgiving, and often downright immoral decisions. This being fantasy there are obviously going to be some heroes and villains, and as I don't have anything like George R. R. Martin's imagination they will for the most part be fairly clear cut.

    I already have most of the story figured out, but it will require at least a couple of hundred thousand words of writing to complete (of which I've only completed 17000), and that will take quite some time. There will be a bit of editing as I go, mainly rearranging chapter orders if the timeline stops making sense, but I will try and update chapters when I finish writing them properly. However, if at any time you think that something is out of order, contradictory, or simply ridiculous, you are probably correct. I will try and fix this when it happens, but I make no promises.

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The Storm

In the 943rd year of our Lord Braedon, Emperor of Greater Texas and the Central Plains, a world breaker brewed off the Southern Gulf, spreading panic among the many communities along America’s fertile eastern coast. Families fortunate enough to live within the empire’s larger cities received a week of warning, ancient telephones springing into life in every town hall to deliver dire warnings from the north, as freezing winds sped down from the ice wastes to clash with humid tropical southerlies and break the long drought. Those who heard the warnings were soon packing their most treasured possessions and fleeing for the relative safety of the Border Ranges - the unlucky ones in their isolated hamlets and fishing villages had time for no such luxuries, many running west with nothing but the clothes on their backs. By the time the first cumulo-nimbus clouds had arisen off-shore the entire coastline was deserted, even the birds and beasts disappearing inland at the first breath of that terrible northerly.

    The first of the hurricanes struck on September 12, howling winds preceding a colossal storm surge as waves swept miles inland to reclaim their ancient beaches. Countless tornadoes and waterspouts roared into life as low pressure systems clashed, chaotic winds swirling in all directions and ripping the land to shreds, competing tempests buffeting the storm-front inland at hundreds of miles an hour. Free from the coastal northerly, the front grew exponentially as it slammed into the Border Ranges, its howling gales screaming divine fury at the townsfolk huddling terrified in their ancient bunkers and caves cut into the rock. On the second evening the lightning began, supercharged bolts hammering the earth with the relentless fury of a spurned god. Those youths lucky enough to survive that initial onslaught soon came to appreciate the truth in the name “world breaker” as the lightning and wind-driven hail began grinding down barren hillsides, triggering violent rock-slides and even cracking sheer cliff faces. Many were the unfortunates who perished as rock falls tore through their shelters and ceaseless rain flooded poorly sealed bunkers.

    With its progress inland checked by those crumbling hills, the storm spread back north, spilling across into the glass desert. A hundred miles from the nearest human eye it was soon providing the greatest light show on Earth, constant bolts of lightning flashing electric white against the jet black sky. Where those bolts struck the ground they exploded in multicolored brilliance, crackling outwards across the irregular ridges of dirty glass and puddled metal which covered the thousand mile wasteland. Any living thing foolish enough to venture into that pitiless land would have been killed a hundred times over, as thousands upon thousands of strikes superheated and liquified the glass, sending it running across the desert’s barren surface in waves of deadly silica. The larger metal masses were soon so charged with power that lightning began to shoot back up into the sky and across the desert surface, occasionally colliding in monstrous discharges of electrical energy.

    Eventually the lack of surface moisture started to dim the world breaker’s fury, and the storm began to dissipate as it reached the northern border of the glass desert. The lightning ceased and the last of the deadly vortexes dissipated, leaving the remaining wind to bring sweeping rains to the northern wilds. Flash floods roared across parched lands, the year’s first rains bringing almost as much destruction as the searing heat of recent months. The few tribes still clinging to this perilous land were well used to such dangers, however, and rejoiced at the return of the life-giving water. Their stone and steel houses were built on high ground well above the newly flooded valleys and plains, and the flowing silt would soon provide good soil for the next harvest. Until then they would endure, as they always had, fighting through winter’s bitter cold and the savages it would bring down from the icy wastes.

    By late September the last rains of the giant storm had almost been exhausted, the front fragmenting into scattered showers along the coast. Following the last of these showers into the wild and deserted north, one would have come across an awe-inspiring sight - on a large island just off the coast, a series of giant, hollow metal pillars rose above the endless red of the autumn forest, some hundreds of feet tall, others ending shorter in turrets of jagged, melted slag. A last, fitful gust of wind pushed through this decaying stand of metal monoliths, swirling around massive steel girders and support beams, straining crumbling concrete floors and sending small showers of debris tumbling down to the rugged earth below. At the top of one of the tallest remaining towers an ancient window finally gave way, the glass fragmenting into tiny shards and collapsing inwards with a desultory crash, allowing the interior of the ancient structure it’s first breath of fresh air in a thousand years.

    That gust of wind pushed through the opening, tugging at moth-eaten curtains and disturbing the rotten mattress of a decaying king-sized bed. The frame, rotted through by centuries of condensation and insect activity, collapsed under this final strain, its ruined mattress hitting the floor with a muffled thud. A skeleton rolled off and clattered to the threadbare carpet floor.

    It would have been difficult to tell from a distance, but there was movement amongst those pathetic remnants, a figure struggling to stand amidst the wreckage. At first, the body was invisible, covered in a shroud of cobwebs built up by generations of spiders over the last millennium. Weak hands clawed at the entangling strands, moving in jerky slow motion. It took some time for the being to break free and begin to make some sense of its surroundings. It’s ancient bed-clothes had rotted through, falling away with the cobwebs to leave a tall, unshaven white man standing naked in the ruins of a penthouse apartment. At first glance it was difficult to put an age on him - although horribly gaunt, his face looked quite young beneath plentiful stubble and sunken eyes, and his skeletal frame showed signs of some former muscle.

    The being stood motionless for quite some time, vision blurred and ears ringing as he tried to make sense of his surroundings. Colored lights flashed behind his eyes in a dizzying mirage, and bolts of pain shot through his head, obliterating any chance of a thought, a memory, even a concept of being breaking through that horrible fugue. Abruptly, the man staggered forwards, feeling his way towards the fresh air around the broken window, instinctively seeking a clearer view of the world around him. Sight was beginning to return, an impression of light in front of him, the barest glimpse granted of threadbare carpet at his feet and mould on the plasterboard above. Near the edge of the precipice he began staggering to a stop, feeling as much as seeing the huge drop in front of him, but broken glass had cut his feet unnoticed. He slipped forward on the bloody tiles by the shattered window, and, with a horrified shriek, disappeared over the ledge, dropping hundreds of feet to the unforgiving ground below.

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Sari crouched patiently beneath the ancient ruin, finally pulling the bowstring free from her belt pouch now that she had found shelter from the fitful rain. The northerly wind carried with it the unpleasant taste of salt and seared metal, itching at her nostrils when she forgot to breathe through her mouth. She felt a tickle at the back of her throat and coughed quietly, bringing up a small amount of blood. Worrying, but not unusual over the last year or so.

    Sari had been taught since infancy to avoid taking shelter within the crumbling ruins of the old times, for fear of disturbing the spirits of the restless dead, or worse, the deadly machines they had left behind. Having experienced enough pain and fear from natural sources to last a lifetime she tended to ignore such cautionary tales, and this ruin seemed stable enough that she would not be in any immediate danger from falling glass and crete stone. Furthermore, she could see the deer emerging from the sparse forest, huddled together and moving briskly through the chill wind.

    Sari counted fifteen of the animals, a herd of unusual size for the island. She suspected that they must have swum across from the mainland at low tide, probably to escape the wild men on the far shore. There had been sightings from across the waterway in recent days; savage, bearded men in stitched animal skins fleeing north ahead of the approaching storm. The mainland tribes claimed that the storm winds were cursed, bringing sickness with them from the south, and the savages would travel as far as the ice wastes to avoid the contaminated air.

    Most of the deer seemed to be in good health, although there were some deformities, as you would expect in animals from the far shore. A sightless third eye sprouted from the forehead of one doe, and a young buck dragged a useless fifth leg behind him as he limped along. Sari took her time choosing - an opportunity this good came once a month if that, and a good kill would bring her many friends in the village. Game was always scarce on the island, and the long drought had hardly helped matters. Eventually, she settled on a mature doe, a plump and healthy beast not quite so large that she wouldn’t be able to drag it back home single-handed.

    The herd was still about a hundred yards distant, the deer stopping occasionally to graze as they made their way closer. It would not do to hurry her shot. At twelve years of age Sari could not draw a proper bow, and would need a clean strike through the eye or heart to guarantee a kill. One false move and the herd would be gone, and if she was lucky that would just mean another couple of hours stalking them through the ruined city. Even still, her impatience grew as the animals dawdled closer, and she couldn’t avoid letting her mind wander. If Sari could provide her uncle with a good meal, Aran might not notice or object if she avoided their cramped house for the night. She might be able to stay with her friend Jaymon’s family; they had always been nice to her, and even Aran wouldn’t dare mess with Garth, Jaymon’s father.

    Pushing those useless thoughts away, Sari knocked an arrow and slowly drew as the herd finally wandered into range. Luck was on her side; her chosen doe wandered right alongside the ancient ruin to graze. If it got any closer, she wouldn’t even have to shoot, just stab it with the arrow. She almost giggled at the thought, and pinched herself to stop it. If she started laughing now the game would be up, and she would have no choice but to return home empty-handed to face Aran’s displeasure.

    So focused was Sari on her task that at first she didn’t even notice the new noise, subconsciously dismissing it as the howl of a stronger gust of wind. As it grew rapidly she glanced up, head swiveling to the top of an adjacent ruin. The metal pillar rose so high that it took her almost a second to comprehend what she was seeing - a screaming body hurtling down from the very top, arms outstretched and flailing as if in a vain attempt to fly.

    The deer suddenly bolted, panicked by the screaming stranger about to land in their midst. Sari loosed anyway, but it was a second late and she knew it, shouting a vicious curse word that drowned out the sickening thump of the body hitting the ground. She was certain that she’d missed the eye in her distraction, and now the stupid deer were running away, maybe even leaving the island if they were scared enough. The herd galloped off into the distance, her target lagging somewhat behind the rest, but still far too quick for Sari’s young legs.

    Biting her lip in dismay, Sari clambered quickly out from her hidden hollow, but she was far too late to try a second shot. For a moment she was almost ready to cry in frustration, but she pinched herself again and that soon stopped as well. Crying was stupid, something for babies to do because they were too little and weak to help themselves. Well, Sari was twelve, and she didn’t need anybody’s help with those idiot deer, especially not the screaming man who’d just ruined her hunt. Crying would not bring the deer back - she would have to do it herself, although that might be easier said than done.

    As her breathing calmed, Sari’s disappointment quickly gave way to a kind of morbid fascination, and she picked her way across the open grass towards the body. Meadows on the island were always dangerous to the unwary, growing atop lumps of sharp black ash stone which could cause a nasty gash to an unwary foot or roll the ankle of a running child - as she knew from painful experience. Whoever this person was, Sari doubted that they were a member of the village. Nobody she knew would be stupid enough to go climbing that high on any monument of the ancient ones, particularly not this one. The tallest of the island’s ruins, the Devil’s Tooth was rumored to house the tortured spirits of dead sorcerers. They were trapped up there, waiting for an unwary mortal to enter so that they could steal a body and return to the world below. Even the surrounding ruins shrank down before it, ending in melted metal and burned crete less than ten yards from the ground.

    Approaching the imposing tower, Sari almost stumbled over the fallen man, lying in a depression in the long grass. His body was ruined and blood, some still flowing, almost filled the small hole it’s landing had created. Many of the bones were obviously splintered, arms and legs bent at weird angles. Amazingly, the head and torso appeared to be intact, although it was hard to see much through the blood. The figure had obviously been a man, and from his stature, Kari thought it unlikely he came from one of the mainland tribes - they tended to be short, squat, and tanned, the men bearded beneath long, shaggy brown hair. This man was huge - Sari guessed he must be even taller than Garth, and despite the black hair his skin was deathly pale (that which wasn’t covered in sticky blood, at any rate). He was also completely naked, so there was no way to identify him by his clothes or belongings.

    Sari considered poking the body, but decided that there would be no point. He was clearly dead, and it might be dangerous to touch a body that came from the Devil’s Tooth. He might have jumped to escape the sorcerers; there might even be a dead sorcerer’s spirit in his body, ready to eat her soul if she touched it. It was still only late morning, and Sari knew she had to try and find the deer again if she wanted to eat well that night. Even her carefully maintained vegetables had wilted in the summer sun, and stores within the village were running low - people had started to hoard their food, and Aran had always been too lazy or greedy to stockpile anything for them.

    Sari tracked the deer down the long, straight meadow, whistling to herself as she scanned the ground. One set of tracks was marked with spattered blood - it seemed her arrow hadn’t missed everything. The clustered, wavering footprints made it obvious that her prey could not have traveled far, and indeed after only 200 yards of walking, Sari heard the long, rasping breaths of an animal in serious pain. The deer had collapsed against an ancient pillar, blood bubbling from its mouth with every breath. The arrow had clearly pierced a lung, and the animal would be dead by sundown. It already lacked the strength to escape, even had it seen the wiry little girl as a threat.

    Sari briefly debated the wisdom of using her bow to put it out of its misery, but decided it was not worth risking another arrow, the first having snapped when the animal collapsed. Sari pulled out a small belt knife, unsure how to proceed. The knife was genuine steel and she kept it razor sharp, the one treasure left to her by her dead parents - or at least the one she had been smart enough to hide from greedy neighbors. That said, she had never had to kill with it. Sari had always been a gifted archer, and her first arrow rarely failed to do the job.

    Eventually she decided to try and copy what she had often seen from older hunters. Kneeling on the doe’s chest, she whipped her knife across it’s throat. It was harder than she thought - her slash wasn’t deep enough, nicking the windpipe and causing the panicked animal to gurgle and thrash around in pain. After a brief reconsideration, Sari reverted to her original plan and stabbed it through the eye.

    Somewhat sickened by the sticky blood and smell of death, Sari stood, wiping the knife on the animal’s coat, and backed away to contemplate her next move. The doe was larger than she had realized, and it would take a lot of effort to drag it back along the uneven meadow to the village, a little over two miles distant. Her churning stomach made the thought of dragging a heavy, bloody corpse for the next hour especially unappealing. Dealing with two bodies in half an hour was enough to give even the toughest adolescent girl pause.

    Although she didn’t want to share the reward for this hunt, Sari decided she would have to get help from the village. Perhaps if she could find Jaymon, she could talk him into letting her sleep over at their cottage. If they could bring the deer to Garth, she thought, he would have no problem finding her an extra pallet.

    Half-smiling at the prospect of a night safe from her thuggish uncle, Sari turned and almost walked straight into the figure standing directly behind her. Screaming in fear, she grabbed clumsily for her knife, slashing wildly at the huge man as she stumbled backwards over the fallen deer, tripping over her own feet and landing with a painful thump. There was no time to cry out, no time to pause. Scrambling upright once more, Sari was about to take off at a dead sprint when she realized that the figure was not moving. Cautiously, she backed away, keeping her knife out and the doe’s body between herself and the imposing figure.

    The man was still covered in his own blood, stained dark crimson up and down his naked body, with only his brilliant blue eyes showing through the crimson mask. There was no longer any sign, however, of the injuries which had caused this hemorrhaging. His previously twisted and misshapen limbs were straight, lacerations healed to nothing more than fading scars. His face was dead still, covered by what looked like a five day growth of black stubble, and the expression was frozen in a blank look of confusion and, Sari thought with a touch of surprise, fear.

    “What do you want?” she called out, emboldened by the man’s lack of movement.

    Sari thought the figure would ignore her, perhaps was not even able to understand her, but to her surprise comprehension flickered in his eyes. There was an attempt at a response, but all that came out was a faint, inaudible rasping.

    “What?” she repeated, daring to take a hesitant step towards the immobile man.

    “Help,” came the whispered reply, and Sari shuddered. The voice sounded like spiders rustling in an ancient tomb, so dry and quiet she could barely register the strange accent that came with the words.

    “Help?” she repeated cautiously, not certain she had heard correctly. “What d’you need help with?”

    There was no reply for some time, as the man paused in thought, frowning to himself as he tried to formulate a response. “Help,” he rasped again, his voice stronger now, starting to sound less like a graveyard spirit.

    “That’s not very useful, is it?” Sari questioned. “How could I help you anyway. What d’you need?”

    The man paused again, but he seemed to be growing more confident in his abilities. For the first time, Sari saw him move, his right arm creeping up towards his face, pointing at his temple. “My ... my head. My head hurts. I need p... pana... I need panadeine.”

    “What’s a panadeine?” Sari asked, bemused. Fear was leaving her quickly, to be replaced by disappointment. Clearly this strange man was suffering from some sort of brain injury. She’d seen what happened to old Jaim after he fell and hit his head hunting a pigeon nest, sitting around mumbling and soiling himself for a year until his wife Jess got fed up and smothered him. “I can’t help your head.” Cautiously, she started inching around him, deciding that Garth could also deal with this simpleton when he came to collect the deer. “I have to go now,” she told the man, speaking slowly to make sure he understood. “I’ll come back with help.”

    He moved so quickly Sari didn’t even have time to blink. As she sidled around the carcass of the deer, he stepped forward, hand shooting out to catch her wrist so fast it blurred. Sari was so frightened she didn’t even think to scream.

    “No!” the man blurted out, an expression of fear and desperate yearning coming over his face. “You have to help. You help me!”

    Sari had dropped her knife as he attacked, and punching affected him no more than it would a rock. “Let go!” she screamed. “You’re breaking my wrist!” The man didn’t seem to comprehend, but his vice-like grip relaxed just enough for Sari to feel blood flowing back into her hand. “OK,” she said, trying to placate him. “I’ll help you find panadeine. I’ll take you to the med, he’ll have some for you.”

    There was a brief pause as the man seemed to consider her words, and then he nodded, a strange, jerky motion. “Good,” he said, “you get me panadeine.”

    He released her hand, and Sari stumbled away, picking her knife up as she did. As her terror faded away, Sari’s curiosity piqued. While he was slow, this man was clearly no simpleton - and he could be quite useful if she could figure out how to motivate him. Clearly she couldn’t magic any panadeine (whatever that was) out of thin air, but if she could find something else for him, she might be able to convince him to help her for further favors. A man of that size and strength in her debt... for a second Sari almost dared to dream of safety, a life without fear. She pinched herself.

    The man was standing impassively again, hands at his sides, clearly waiting for her to lead him onwards. Sari studied him warily, wondering how far she should to push her luck. “What’s your name?” she asked, talking slowly again, speaking as if to a temperamental child - a very large, dangerous child at that.

    “Name?” came the reply, a complete lack of comprehension showing on the man’s face.

    “Your name? Who are you?” Sari demanded.

    The man paused again, deep in internal thought. Sari considered fleeing, now that she had him distracted, but curiosity had the better of her common sense. Also, she doubted she would make it more than five steps if the speed of his previous reaction was anything to go by. “I don’t know,” the man finally replied, and gasped, throwing a hand to his head at an apparent spasm of pain. “You find panadeine, now.”

    Sari hesitated, sensing that she might now have the upper hand in this encounter. It was obvious that he was hurting badly, and he needed her a lot more than she needed him - or at least he thought he did, until he realized that she had no idea what panadeine was. “OK, we’ll go find the med, but if I’m going to help you, you need to help me too.” The man kept looking at her, expression blank, and she took this as acceptance. “Can you carry that doe?”

    A nod.

    “Alright, if you can take that with, we’ll go and find a panadeine.”

    There was no reply for a second, and then he moved forward so suddenly that Sari gasped and started back, ready to run again. But all he did was grab the deer and, with one hand, sling it over his shoulder, the weight seemingly of no concern to him. Although he was probably the tallest man she had ever seen, Sari could see that under the blood he was practically skin and bone - not malnourished, but certainly not strong enough to carry such a weight so effortlessly. Still, if he was in a helpful frame of mind, she was willing to accept the fact without question. “This way,” she said, indicating back down the treeless meadow. “We’ll find the med down here.”

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