Author's Note: Something different from my usual style…please let me know what you think.
He watched the slow acquiescence of the sun over the horizon, its amber rays receding with the reluctance of a child fighting sleep. He laid one hand on the hard stone wall of the last stronghold that had fallen, a magnificent domed structure spanning several acres across an elevated plateau. Below, the silent city sparkled with dimming fires and swirls of the strange iridescent dust found in abundance on this world.
His eyes lingered on the intricate carvings embellishing every inch of the ancient walls, silent histories told in an indecipherable language that would soon be lost to universal history, which had no memory. A gentle draft brushed the bare skin of his back as he moved away from the stone pillar. He took one step down the wide marble stair that led down to the barren city. Another step, and another.
This world was a dwarf among the myriad planets he had seen in his life. The horizon was fixed much lower than on other worlds, and now that the battle lust had left him, the slow crawl of dizziness had spread over his senses. He could feel his body tilt off balance with each step. Each descending movement seemed to draw him too close to that hazy line in the distance. He stumbled, pitching forward. He caught himself in time and took to the air. Flying seemed to lessen the vertigo in his head.
This world had fallen. Across its vast stretches of green fields and ancient cities, all had succumbed to a permanent sleep. Now only he was awake to watch its sun sink slowly into that distant line, casting hues of rouge and bronze in a desolate farewell to its children whose blood reddened the earth.
Having finished the assignment early, he had spent the past several hours gazing into the depths of this world, its oceans and mountains like endless, unblinking eyes inviting him to stay even in its desolation. It had accepted his intruding presence, the destructive power in his veins, without anger, without fear or hate. In doing so, it had accepted the sudden, final stroke of its fate.
There was no world like this in the known universe, that acquiesced as easily as a sun sinking on a low horizon. There was no race like this, that succumbed to extinction without struggle. This world was unrivaled in natural beauty, and the enigma of its people was unmatched.
He knew it was time to leave, to stop tarrying and return to base as ordered.
Yet he flew on, past the city, over the shoreline, and then could see only the ocean below him, golden sunrays dancing a sarabande across its surface. He relaxed and let the strong winds lift him higher, his body now effortlessly gliding over a seemingly endless sea.
Time seemed to flow around him and through him in a circle, like the winding drafts of air carrying him over the water. All sense of mission and consequence slipped away like sand blown off a smooth surface, leaving behind a feeling he could not name, a feeling that had long resided within him as a shadow under a veil. In rare moments like this when that veil was lifted, he saw the shadow as an integral part of his self, but what part he did not know. It carried no tones of bloodlust or deep-seated bitterness and fury at having lost his throne and people. Those traits, after all, made up the core of what he was…or so he believed.
The shadow inside told him differently.
It was unnamable, indecipherable as the language of this dying world. But somehow, when he looked upon it as he looked within himself, he knew this formless shadow was the clearest truth of what he was.
He flew on toward the sunset, putting ever more distance between him and the ship that would take him off this world. He wished to see how long he could fly before the receding sun won the victory in this race. One man against a dying planet. The destroyer against the object of destruction.
A spot of black appeared on the horizon and grew slowly in size until it detached from the glowing sunset and revealed itself as an island in the middle of a vast ocean. He slowed and stopped before it, contemplating it with mild curiosity. It was the only body of land as far as he could see.
He tilted forward once again as he descended, a sense of falling passing briefly through his consciousness. He landed on its pebbled shore, shallow water lapping gently at his boots. The island was an outcropping of rocks with a pavilion hewn from stone rising from its center. He looked up at this latest magnificent work of architecture he had discovered on this planet. He could see the inside of the domed roof, a circle at the center with rays extending outward, a primitive depiction of a sun. Its pillars stood in a perfectly symmetrical ring around a raised dais.
Against the incessant sound of the waves against the shore, he heard a voice singing.
The wind carried the faint, somber melody down to him. It was soft and slow, like the tendrils of a sad memory before it is forgotten. A woman's lilting voice, alone, drifting in its inflections and turns, steady in the unnamable way of the veiled shadow within him.
He began to climb the steep rock face, slowly so as to hear the voice sing without the sound of his own breath to interrupt it. He could not understand the words, the last he would ever hear of this ancient flowing tongue.
He was now close enough to hear her breathe between the long phrases of her song, confirming that she indeed was real, a being of flesh and blood, not a figment of his imagination. With hesitation, he climbed the last meter and set foot on the outside rim of the pavilion. Silently he moved behind one massive pillar, concealing himself from view. The voice sang on. He had not been seen.
The shadow within him stirred with each note she sang. The melody was haunting, a wistful tale painted in a minor key, threading through the ocean air like a line of yarn disappearing as it wove through some invisible fabric. He could not tell if it was raveling or unraveling.
The song wound on, her voice showing no signs of strain, its clear, divine quality drawing him to it as the low horizon of this world. Though there was a stone wall against his back and solid ground beneath his feet, it was as if he were falling once again, having stumbled across the lone survivor of a fallen world and now unable to slow his descent into the depths of this unnamable feeling.
His fingers dug into the stone of the pillar as if to anchor him against the invisible force pulling him off balance. The haunting tune swirled in his ears, filling his mind as the shadow inside swelled and thinned at the same time. He hissed at the realization that the stranger's song was washing away the smoke, and would soon reveal something he had never seen—something he realized he did not want to see in its full clarity. In a split-second of fear he made his move.
He stepped out from behind the pillar, his fingers leaving shallow gouges in the stone. He beheld the source of the voice. Her eyes were on him, steady and unblinking. In one fleeting moment he felt a sense of the universe in its entirety wash through those eyes, a gaze that saw all, had seen through the stone of the pillar, and now saw through him as if his soul were a pane of glass.
In her the beauty of her world and her people was magnified ten times, as if she were a vessel of all the natural treasures of this fair planet. Her skin changed its tone with the sun's amber rays dancing across her oval face, and even seemed to fade to transparence when the wind brushed against her bare form. Her body was thin, graceful in its softness, but seemed to stand tall and strong without a skeletal structure to hold it up. Her long, flowing hair was as her skin, changing with the sun's hues and the ocean spray.
Only her eyes remained the same. They were a color he had never seen, and thus could not name. The sight defied logic, yet he passively accepted it as he had accepted the penetrating power of her song the moment he had stepped foot on this island.
He wondered for the first time if some ancient magic lived on this planet, perhaps providing the reason for the unparalleled behavior of its people and the existence of the unearthly being standing before him. She sang on, her lips moving but seemingly detached from the lilting tune that had transfixed him. It was ethereal, otherworldly. Perhaps it was only in his head.
The twin pools of her eyes told him her song was winding to an end. That despite the halt of time and reason in the midst of its transforming power, it would end, as is inevitable for all things.
The last note rang clear as the dawn breaking forth across the sea, as it had appeared when he had first arrived here half a day before…ages before. Behind her, the last rays of the sun faded into the haze of dusk.
The shadow lifted from that place deep inside him, and he saw for a brief moment the truth, unadulterated and terrible in its purity. Not bloodlust, bitterness, or fury…but a simple record of deeds that he had committed with his own hands in the name of those things he believed to be the core of his being. He had never kept count of the lives that had passed through his fingers like sifted wheat. Never asked for names, histories, faces. He had extinguished them without remorse.
He felt no remorse. But he felt the reminder of his deeds sing inside him in an answering echo to the lingering tone of her last song. And somehow, he knew that one day, far off in the future and nameless at the present time, there would be a reckoning.
The last note of her song faded. He moved then, forward, no longer falling, as lightning flashes before any sound of thunder.
He heard a sharp intake of breath and did not know if it was she who breathed, or if his own voice had turned traitor. Her cool, fathomless gaze finally left his face and turned slowly downward toward her heart, where his fist had entered her body. Trails of crimson flowed over his wrist, testifying one last time that she was indeed made of flesh and blood.
Amidst the drone of the waves in the background, her lips moved, framing words without sound. Her eyes met his once more, flickering in their unnamable color. He felt the cool fingers of her boneless hands on his arm, pulling, drawing her face closer to him and his fist deeper into her mortal wound.
He did not move, transfixed, as her lips met his. He accepted her last breath, pure and nameless, into his own body.
The end had come upon her—he had brought it upon her. Either way, it was the end.
He flew into the sky. He called his ship to him instead of returning to it, all the while gathering the ki for a powerful blast that would carve a hole through the center of the planet and destroy it from the inside out within hours.
His ship arrived. He stepped onto its open door, the platform from which he had obliterated countless worlds.
He would save this world. He would not allow it to be sold and colonized and planted with the weeds and poisons of imperial rule. He would not allow it to keep turning, to be reshaped into some decaying mass of industrial filth. He would not allow the memory of its people, sent to their deaths by his hand and lying in open graves across five continents, to be marred and distorted in fantastic tales by those who would soon arrive and mop up the seas of blood his hands had left behind.
Only he would know the truth. The beauty of its last sunset, amber rays receding from stone pillars and silent cities. The memory of its people, accepting the hand that had sealed their fate. And the tune of its last song, carrying over the shores of a lone island.
He sent the blast down into the ocean, and several seconds later the air shook with the impact of his life force meeting the earth.
The shadow was returning—slowly, surely, perhaps permanently. The veil that settled over it was laced with the lilting tune of a nameless song.