EP 8: DUEL AT SUNOUT


“Opaline, the sun exploded.”

“And what does that mean?” I slid back from the oncoming saber strike.

The tiny dragon on my shoulder said, “There are about 8 minutes until this world is incinerated from radiation.” Peridot sounded far too calm for the subject matter.

I flipped away from another strike and parried with my saber. I drew my spear with my tail and caught my breath. “The one planet that has a real, nuclear sun, and it decides to blow up while we’re here?”

We dueled on a skybridge which connected two floating cities by magnetic rail and floated a kilometer above the world’s surface. The deep navy sky was being devoured by the ever-growing red fireball in the distance.

I felt as if I fought beneath a grand mural. If it weren’t for the wails of wind and the sheer magnificence in the air, I wouldn’t have believed it to be real at all.

But there are times when simply being in a certain kind of place stamps into your being—in your soul. And this duel etched itself into my being from the moment that sun was unleashed.

“Peridot, any way you can stop it?” I said.

“What are you babbling about,” Lady Marrigold hissed. She was far from merry, and draped in black. What took me a dodge and a backflip was a single forward stride for the oversized humanoid. She drove her flail so fast the air screamed across its blades.

BOOM.

The flail struck the bridge in front of me. Metal coiled and shrieked as she yanked it free.

I barely dodged that.

Peridot also either ignored me, or had no interest in answering.

“Yes, Lady Marrigold!” cheered her single remaining follower. Chestler was his name, which I only heard from Marrigold’s wicked lashings in his direction. “Go master, slay the Ratman!”

“You know, I’m not a rat,” I said.

Chestler attempted a retort. Marrigold slapped him quite hard, and repeated exactly what he said as if she’d said it first, “Ratty rodent scum!” It was not an exceptionally inventive insult, I’ll say that, but poor Chestler didn’t seem capable of much better.

He scuttled behind his mistress, baggy pants and enormous goggles shielding him from the world and all its truths. He was not a turtle-man, but he certainly resembled one.

Lady Marrigold towered over me. A vicious shadow who walked like a fracture in the majestic sun-eaten sky. Her black cloak trailed behind like fingers come to pick at her meal.

The cloak fingers were no metaphor.

They actually tried.

The fringes of her cloak came alive as serrated black tentacles and slithered in for a grapple. Exhausted, and holding my stonefire in case of an emergency, I frenzied with spear and saber. My tail spun my spear in rapid circles—making a shield of its speed. My paw went numb with ache. I slid along the bridge ground out of the clutches and with my free paw, I withdrew my crystalline buckler. With a tap of the switch, the buckler’s crystal edges tapered into razor spines.

Amidst the dark blue sky, fringes of orange clouds shone with the incoming sun. Missiles of nuclear fire rained through the sky. The clouds were no more—evaporated into fleeting steam by the heat. The brilliance of solar annihilation threaded the sky in marbling murderous hues.

Many beings, worlds or situations I have faced have humbled me. But the wrath of a dying star, unleashing all of its hate and malice in a final effort to expand, shook me to my core. The fur across my body stood straight up.

I turned off every switch of fear, and emotion, and doubt I knew how. I focused on my single goal—finish off Marrigold.

Lady Marrigold eyed the sun, but I couldn’t see an expression beneath her long black skull mask. The animal of the skull? Perhaps Porbiyo would know. All I knew was that staring at that star was the first glimpse of fear I saw in her posture.

An advantage.

Before my move, a thought crossed my mind: would I blip out in time?

Perhaps I would have to endure the end of this world and be swallowed by the sun’s final breath. Would I feel it. . . would I be obliterated? Nothing had killed me so far in Peridot’s curse. But a sun was, well, a damn sun.

At least I had a few minutes to figure that out.

Lady Marrigold’s tendril skirt stretched and warped until four wicked wings—like a skirt of an octopus—formed around her body. She rose effortlessly into the air with cackles. She left Chestler to scramble behind a lamppost to hide.

She certainly noticed the sun. . .

But was ignorant of the situation.

For a second—only a second—I debated in warning her of the imminent destruction of all she ever knew and loved. She was trying to kill me. Then again, I couldn’t blame her—I’d informed her entire cult that she was not, in fact, the “one true goddess empress of all and everything,” and was really just a necrotic witch with a taste for the dramatic.

Chestler still believed in her. Poor bastard.

Maybe I could warn him, at least.

“See that?” I yelled across the howling winds of the sky bridge. The sun expanded and, like the glutinous jaws of an interstellar colossus, devoured the horizon in full. Brilliant white sunspots screeched like hundreds of violent eyes. “Your sun is dying, Marrigold. Your entire world is going to burn in the blink of an eye. Truce?”

Marrigold chuckled ominously. The kind of laugh both natural and cultivated. She knew her laugh was evil, and decades of ruling a cult merely refined her ability.

Chestler mimicked her laugh. She swatted him like a hound to a squeak toy.

“You funny little rat!” With a bat of her wings she tore open the the fabric of reality. Three slits opened on either side of her body, and fleshy purple golems crawled through. Her legion slopped onto the bridge and formed in loose, animalistic formations. “You shall be fed to my Ascended!”

Those sloppy, flesh golems?

They were her cultists. What was left, anyway.

“I’d rather not be fed to anything,” I said, paw reaching into my Boundless Bag. The pocket dimension took a moment to ruffle through—but eventually my claws touched the cardboard promise of victory: dynamite.

I’d used three sticks on the Island of Light against the Goldmen, but I had a few left. Needing time to spin my top and check the time, I charged a little flame sorcery in my mouth and lit all three sticks.

“Go my kin!” Chestler sang. “Those blessed to a holy death for the Lady!”

One, two, three throws later, and BOOM, BOOM, BOOM went the bridge.

The flesh golems ran headfirst into my explosion. They flailed into a messy spread of irreverent goop.

I also put a ten meter hole in the bridge—an exciting if not unintended consequence.

Metal screeched in demise. The hover magnets which kept the structure afloat fell from their sockets. The middle of the bridge buckled. The structure collapsed directly between where we dueled.

Steel and concrete burst in successive shots. Debris fired like shrapnel from the immense pressure.

The bridge split like the ground were vacuuming the steel. Lady Marrigold rose into the air above the hole. I scampered up the falling frame, trying my best to dodge the freed lampposts and hang onto the snaking, whipping railway line.

A hundred kilo magnet smashed me off the rail.

I tumbled through the air, and smashed into debris. I managed to settle myself and look upwards. My scarf fluttered past my face like a farewell wave to the swallowed fire sky.

Lady Marrigold hovered in the hole of the bridge, red sun blazing behind her wicked tendril wings. Her skirt opened in shadow to the growing maw of solar hell in pursuit. Tendrils flew after me.

I’d fallen from heights a few times. Once, I even shattered both my legs from an impact. This wasn’t going to be one of those times. Marrigold would grab me first.

I hated the idea of that lunatic grappling me. Without knowing how strong her tendrils were, I couldn’t figure out a way to escape. I had stonefire sorcery stored in my Aura. . . but I couldn’t waste it yet.

If the sun exploded, and I didn’t blip away from the planet, I needed that sorcery to shield myself. Time to play conservative.

Marrigold’s cloak stretched nearer. . .

I tapped the drawing in my pocket, and my bee-sheep, Beep, formed in the air above me. I missed her and kept falling.

Beep was simply a ball of bumblebee fluff, winged with a stinger, and a sheep’s head with giant eyes. No legs. What was I supposed to grab if she didn’t have legs?

She was the best idea I had and I only had a few seconds left.

“Beep!” I screamed.

She buzzed a little, “Beep, beep!” And soared like a rocket to me.

My paw couldn’t grab her fluff. So I grasped the loop of my bag and held on tight. Beep threaded her stinger through the loop and swept up, holding me like a package.

Being heavy caused Beep to glide towards the ground. I used a lighter sorcery and took in a big breath. Blowing up on her wings with a wind sorcery helped her sail higher.

Lady Marrigold’s tendrils slashed at us.

Paws occupied in holding onto my bag, my tail had to take over the defense. Saber or starspear? There wasn’t a lot of time to decide. The starspear had a greater reach, and with my tail I could better defend all around myself.

Spear it was.

We ascended the blazing sky and landed on the bridge’s shattered edge. I fended off Marrigold’s assault. Exhausted, I jumped onto the edge of the sky-bridge which still floated, and drew my saber.

Sorcery would really have helped. . .

But I had to save it.

For a brief moment, Lady Marrigold retracted her tendrils. Normally I’d give an opponent a moment to catch her breath, as I’d expect the same respect. But beneath an exploding sun, decency was out.

I lined a shot, made a run, and with a snap of my hips and crack of the arm I launched my starspear. The brilliant white lance sliced through the haze of solar decimation and skewered Marrigold’s mask.

Her voice screeched like a hundred wraiths at once. Her tendrils collapsed and all her shadowy form glitched. She crumbled to the bridge and held her face in her hands.

A humanoid woman, chalk white of skin and black of dress, was left in Marrigold’s wicked wake. Her black mask—the unknown animal skull—shattered at her feet like fresh skinned armor.

I stepped forward.

Chestler tiptoed out from behind the lamppost. With maladroit shuffles he made way across the edge of the broken bridge to his master.

She yelled, “Go Chestler! This is your moment!” She still hid her face. “A blessed death, finish this rat and be brought to the heavens alongside me!”

Chestler charged me. No weapon. No training. No real threat. . . His goggled eyes fixed on me. I knew then I couldn’t put him down. He was a zealot, but more a victim of Marrigold’s charismatic facade than any active participant.

Chestler fell.

The bridge broke out underneath him. Marrigold and I remained fine but Chestler’s feet cracked a magnet. He slipped free of the bridge. He tumbled, smashed his head off a beam, and kept on falling.

I whistled. Beep pursued.

As Beep collected the cultist, I confronted Lady Marrigold. The sun had taken all the sky by then. Heat boiled the nightly winds. My fur singed.

“You lose, and force your follower to try one last attack?” I tapped my foot, “Pathetic. That poor man may die if my Beep can’t save him.”

“He knows his place.”

I shrugged, “If he knew his place, he’d have left your service a long time ago.” Kneeling, she was as tall as I. I reached my paw under her hand and tried to peek at her face. All I saw were black, dead eye sockets. I cringed and said, “Your planet is about to die. How would you like to go out? My doing or the sun’s.”

“Finish me off. . . a worthy death.”

“Sun it is.” I patted her head. She tried to grasp me, I cut off her hand. Rotten blood spewed across the bridge. That confirmed my assumption that she was, in fact, some category of undead. The mask most definitely bequeathed her magic. Without it, she seemed more like a beaten corpse than a cult-leader-farce-god.

The radiation blared. I tossed my top in the air. The instrument twirled for a few seconds and tumbled into my palm. I had time, but the world didn’t.

I tasted the sun. My fur filled with the electric charge that sizzled the very air. My spine tingled. Opening my mouth to speak made me want to vomit. It was as if existence were burning away.

The mouth of the sun blazed so white my eyes were scarred. Like rippling teeth to lips of red-hot flame, the jaws readied with undisputed avarice. There was no negotiation, no logic. Only an impossible, absolute hunger behind the thousands of bright solar-flare eyes.

I fell into a trance, almost, unable to look away. The sheer might branded the image in my mind. . .

There were forces which wielded suns, created suns, transformed suns like children sculpted castles of sand and dirt. The Dragons and their Syndels. Genesar.

How very small I was, in the shade of that star, and how very small that star was in the shade of Loche and his Dragons. . .

Unfathomable.

Peridot fluttered into view. The Dragon’s little moth wings sparkled as she spoke, “Only a minute or two. . .”

“You can’t do anything?”

“I can’t risk any of Them noticing my soul. I’m sorry.”

“I have a solution, I hope. Where’s Beep?”

As I said her name, my companion came over the side of the bridge and tossed Chestler to the ground. His goggles were cracked and broken. His head bled from the impact when he’d fallen.

A tap of the drawing in my pocket, and Beep returned to her two dimensional form.

Using stonefire, I breathed hot sorcery in circles around the ground. The breath accumulated into layers. A minute later and I built a crude dome bunker out of the stonefire. Before the sun rained down, I crawled outside and pulled Chestler in.

Lady Marrigold was incinerated.

As the door shut, the bridge beneath us, and the sky under which we lived, and even the planet to which we were tied, were demolished into fuel for the white hot fury of the star. Only magic could combat something so colossal.

For the better part of half an hour I used stonefire to construct a bunker—which, for all intents and purposes, floated in the ever-expanding star’s radioactive mania. The thicker our bunker became, the more secure I felt. Magic was a wondrous gift.

Chestler woke up. He had no recollection of his location, his mission, or even his life. He lacked memory of Lady Marrigold and his time in a cult. Instead he spoke of a friend named Don who used to bring him peaches. He seemed to have reverted to a reflective child. Perhaps his head wound was a blessing.

We spent a week in that bunker, but the radiation slowly ate Chestler away. It took me a day, but I dug through my Boundless Bag and found a couple peach pits. With some sorcery I grew a tree, and Chestler seemed quite satisfied in my gift, even if they weren’t from his friend “Don.”

I blipped away at the end of the eighth day, just as the radiation began to seep into Chestler’s cells. Sometimes I wonder how long he survived. What did he think, when I disappeared? How long did the peaches last him? Was the spherical bunker a comfortable place to die? There was no way he survived long, seeing as the planet was destroyed.

If that world had been given more time before their sun died, maybe I could have freed Chestler. Perhaps he’d have an entirely new life. But his sun—the one constant outside darkness itself—went and destroyed itself. If even suns aren’t absolute, then what is?

Everyone loves a sun rise. Even more enjoy twilight, as sun down creeps in and the colors dye clouds impossible colors. But I, a little mouse from the orchards of Laska, endured as perhaps the only surviving witness to a true “sun out.”

I’d never felt so deeply disturbed, and yet utterly blessed. The humility of the moment would never leave me. To see even a sun destroy itself gave me enough hope for myself, and all else that endure out in the universes. If such power could destroy, then it could certainly mend itself, too.

The silver lining in Chestler’s demise comes as a whispering thought, which always slides in during my (all too often) sundown duels: that many worlds ago, after a duel at sun-out, the greatest worshipper of an abusive false god died with no remembrance she ever existed.


END