The Sheltering Bones

Kal burst into waking, a scream caught behind his clenched teeth. His body lurched into a crouch, hands clutching at the cold ground and his eyes darting about the shadowy space. There were no slow, gradual wakings for him anymore, nor for anyone else; not since the God Wars had started. Slowly, agonisingly, his heartbeat slowed, his breathing calmed. The thickness of the silence and the darkness reassured him that he was alone. He sank into a sitting position, his arms wrapped round his knees, pulling them close to his chest. His breath frosted in the cold air as he waited for the light of dawn.

***

They had come from the distant stars, falling onto the world in the thousands. Some had hailed them as gods come to punish the sins of the world, others said they sought only to conquer, claim this world for their own, but soon enough the truth became clear; they had no interest in this world, or its tiny inhabitants. It was just another battlefield. They were huge and mighty and full of wrath, and they brought their own war with them. They were unknown gods fighting an unknown war, they fought and died across the world for two years until it was a shattered wasteland and then, at last, they moved on. They left behind a broken world littered with the bodies of their fallen, and the few remnants of humanity that had survived hoped desperately that they would not return.

When the god-giants had come, Kal had been living with his parents and his sister, Effy, in a city. In those shattering first days it quickly became clear that staying the cities was foolish and likely fatal, and so they had gathered what they could and left. Kal’s father had led them, hiding his own despair and terror beneath a quiet confidence, swearing each night that they would survive. And together they had done, for a two months. The destruction of the world that was took so little time; as each city was crushed it seemed mankind lost something of what it had gained over thousands of years. No one was safe, and people grouped together for survival. Kal’s parents had gone scavenging but had not returned. Hiding Effy and telling her to stay put, no matter what, Kal had gone to look for them.

He’d found his parents not far from their shelter. His father’s torso was sliced from shoulder to waist, the snow blood red beneath him. His mother lay on her back, most of the blade of her husband’s long dagger buried in her chest. The handle, with perhaps 6 inches of broken blade, lay in a clean patch of snow between them. Kal could not say how long he had stood above them, staring at them. Finally he reached down and took up his father’s broken blade, and went to find his sister.

***

The cold light of morning at last arrived, and Kal shook himself to stem the flow of memory. He stood slowly, stretching his cold, aching body. He looked once about the cave that had been his home for the night, and then unblocked the entrance. The sun was just above the horizon, and a bitterly cold wind cut straight through Kal’s clothes. He got some dried meat and oatcakes from his bag for breakfast, and then turned to the west. He took the first bite as he began to walk.

He saw the god-giant around mid-morning. The day was becoming bright and clear, and as he looked ahead to see the cliffs he’d expected, but also something more. Soon after he was certain, could even make out some details. The thing had been enormous, one of the largest Kal had seen. It wore some pieces of armour, dented and damaged, and a strange thing that might have been some kind of gun lay shattered on the ground beside it. The thing sat at the base of the cliffs, back resting against them, legs stretched out. A giant sword had been driven through its chest, pinning it down even had it wanted to move. But the thing was long, long dead. Such a specimen would be ripe for scavengers, and so Kal squinted, trying to see more detail of the god-giant. They’d take what they could of cloth and metal and flesh and bone, picking at the bodies till nothing was left. But this body looked intact… Soon enough Kal could make out tiny shapes moving all over the giant corpse.

“So this is what we’ve come to,” Kal murmured, watching perhaps twenty of his fellow humans clambering over the dead, frozen body, salvaging what they could whilst the light was bright, before the Slithers emerged from their burrows. Thinking of those strange creatures, the parasites the nameless giants had brought with them, Kal shuddered. Insects they were, but as large as a man and five times as strong. To meet one was to face almost certain death, as he knew only too well… Kal closed his eyes tight, trying to shut out the memory before it could overwhelm him, but he knew it was futile…

***

The God Wars lasted perhaps a year, no more. But at the end of that year the world was a shattered husk, thrust into a new ice age by the destruction caused by the god-giants. At the end of the year they moved on, leaving only their dead. And the parasites that fed on them.

Kal had cared for his sister, had protected her as best he could. But she was only a child in a world of ice and monsters. Fear and hunger and loss took their toll, and one night Kal had lain beside her, holding her close to share his warmth as the two clouds of their breathing became one. He cried then, where he had not cried for his parents; he had no reason to hide it any more. He wept, and held his sister close, and as his tears froze sleep finally claimed him…

Shaking woke him, confused and exhausted, he realised Effy was shaking him, her hands gripping his shirt… But she was gone, he knew that, couldn’t deny it, and so what then was… An insectoid hiss and clicking noise pulled Kal violently awake, and he sat up, looking at the body that had been his sister. Effy’s body was shuddering and twitching because something was devouring her. The creature, large and insectoid and purple-grey, had burrowed into Effy’s side and started to feast even as Kal had held her tight. He choked out a sound, part horror and part rage, and the creature stopped moving. Slowly the head withdrew from his sister’s torso and faced him, stained crimson and dripping with thick, cold blood. A Slither, not fully grown, but still it was a thing out of a nightmare, fangs and mandibles and purple-grey chitin.

Blindly Kal’s hands sought his father’s broken sword, and he brought the blade up just as the nightmare thing lunged…

***

It was mid-afternoon when Kal reached the corpse. He could see no more scavengers, and was relieved. He did not get on so well with people any more, seeking solitude rather than companionship. In the new world, that might perhaps be the path to oblivion, but he felt it was the right path.

He did not know where he was aiming for until he stood on the huge knee, looking up at the head. The eye sockets were dark, a cracked metal helm sat on the skull… And Kal realised he had been looking for this corpse, this giant for a long time. Nodding to himself he began to climb.

As he scaled the massive body, Kal saw that the giant had been picked clean, every scrap of useful material seemed to be gone. This could well mean that few scavengers would be back this way, which would suit his purposes. Finally Kal stood in the eye socket, looking into the dark recess of the fallen giant’s skull. He pulled his torch from his back and shone it into the darkness. With a cry of fear Kal leapt back, just stopping himself from tumbling over the edge to escape the nightmare, when he realised it was not moving…

It was a Slither, much larger and very different from the others he had seen. Heart pounding, Kal realised he held his two knives at the ready, but the creature was clearly already dead. He sheathed his father’s blade, but held the second knife, the one he had made from the fangs of the creature that had devoured Effy, he held ready, just in case. Cautiously he approached the nightmarish head, but it did not move. He tapped it once with his chitin dagger, and the head of the Slither tumbled from the body. It was truly long dead.

Stepping further into the cavern of the giant’s skull, Kal shone his torch about the space. It was… empty. There was no other way to describe it, the skull was almost entirely empty. The strange Slither had been some parasite, living in the corpse, devouring its brain till there was no more to eat…

Kal wondered if he should move on from here. There could be more Slithers about the corpse, and yet… He knew, somehow, that there were no more threats hiding in this giant. He’d paid his price, lost his life in war, lost his mind and memory to parasites…
“He’s paid his price.”

And with the words came a sense of kinship with this dead warrior, and following that an idea formed in Kal’s mind. Perhaps it was the thing he had always been looking for, or perhaps it was new, he could not say. The cavernous skull could be a shelter. The chitin of the dead Slither would make tools. The sun would rise and shine on him through the giants eyes each morning…

Dark was beginning to fall as Kal knew at last that the time for running from the past was done. He shrugged out of his pack, light a small fire for warmth, and settled himself for the night. He thought of his mother and father, of Effy who he had tried to save…
“I paid my price,” he whispered.

And so, curled within the mind of dead, frozen god, Kal slept.

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