Cards and Edges
Bright young men came back missing a part of themselves that they will never gain back, no matter how much fussing and mothering and caressing is given, no matter how much consolation and comfort and consideration is bouncing off them; they left part of themselves behind with the shells and rubble and trenches, the smoke and blindness and deafness, the bits and pieces of broken machinery, weapons, possessions, and bodies scattered all over the landscape, painting it an eternal monochromatic shade of grey.
It makes no difference to those who sold their youth and souls to the devils on the battlefields whether or not civilian life exists - where exactly is the line between the dogmatic laws of society and the onslaughts of enemies attacking you with blades and gas and shells?
There are three types of men who come back from The War: those who move on and blend in seamlessly into the folds of the community, those who struggle and strain and succumb to the suffocating smoke that clouds their minds, and those who seek retribution and feed on hate in order to direct their anger towards an enemy, unable to move on and make peace with their demons.
Pietro Wischt was of the last category.
The empty eyeballs stared through the normals and saw only husks and skin and flesh moving about. They zoomed unto the empty shack on the corner of the street, an inconspicuous crippled hut seeming to hunch over permanently.
Maybe it was the ominous loom of shadows resting over the doorposts and framework of the crippled wooden shack, or the two messy bleached lines that painted something like a cross on the top of the door, or the putrid stink of permanent human waste and urine and rotting mutts and critters that warned him, that today was not the day to come back.
It was curious, how he noticed the little things first, such as the absence of Mabel’s coddling of her children, and of the little babe that had barely started to walk and knock over the pitcher, the stool, the oil lamp (empty, thank the Good Lord), the humble warmth the cooking fire offered to those living within that cramped wardrobe of a house. Any moment now, the little toddlers might come out and surprise him, shouting, “Did we frighten you, Mister? Did we, did we, did we? Did we scare you, mister?” And then giggle and jump outside to frolic in the bushes right over there, beyond the smog and clutter and filth, beyond the grey and choking stench of rotting city stones, beyond him. She would be there standing with her hands on her mighty waists, looking down at him with that mischievous glint in her eye that she retained from childhood, and give shine one of her smiles. By golly, her smile full of crooked decaying teeth outshone all the pounds and treasures those rich folks flaunted day and night, her character worthy of the royal bloody crown, if only he could take that blasted gold hefty junk from bloody monarch and stick it there on her coffee locks. Lord knows she deserves it. Abel was the luckiest man in the world to have her heart.
He was, until he died of Mordant plague after coming back from the wars.
He didn’t even have time to come back and greet his precious Mabel and the little imps, he died in the filthy, swarmy tents in encampment, just a few more miles until the capital. He was there drinking and eating like a horse, and the next hour he was choking and hacking and scratching at his arms, tearing the skin, gasping at air and fingers digging into his flesh. Pietro visited him the next few days, watching in slow-creeping horror as Abel’s flesh grew paler and paler, becoming like porcelain, until on the third day, when he touched at the parts where red scratch rashes were etched, it didn’t just look like porcelain.
The skin over his arms were a sickly white, and was hardened like clay baked over a fire. Arms were immobilised, and slowly, like a ripple, the white ate away at him, to the shoulders, to the collarbones, down the thin torso crawling past the ribs, down the legs unto the knobbly knees, invading the toes. His face was pure white, making Abel seem as if he had become one of those dolls in toy shops his daughter would have loved to have - immaculate, blemish less, the outline of his lips and nose and eyelids barely recognisable - a mask had been placed upon his face. Abel, during this entire period of time, was constantly raving and punching at the air, kicking and screaming until his throat bled, and scratching at every area of his body possible, at least until his arm was numb and dead. Pietro could only watch as his friend cursed and laughed and raved and cursed - he could do nothing.
And then the flesh-eating creatures erupted from Abel’s skin.
They were a horrid specimen, tiny little red leeches, probably pumping full of fresh blood, emerging from the skin as if chicks hatching from their shells that cracked and gave way and flaked away. No matter what the surgeons did, no matter how many critters they pulled off his arms and legs, they always returned, drilling more holes into his body, leaving behind sunken holes in his flesh. Rather than a porcelain doll, Abel looked more like a bleached rag doll then, abandoned by the owner and left to nature to work its way to decomposing it bit by bit.
Curiously, they never moved from the place where they emerged from. But more and more of them showed up, and just like how the whiteness spread throughout the whole body, the leeches started to emerge in a similar pattern as well. What looked like red scratches and welts and rashes were living critters, feeding off on a paralysed human, slowly breaking down the clay skin around it, disintegrating the once living man.
When Abel died, there was nothing left of the body except his white dirty bones, which the government took away for ‘scientific examination’. The bloody people wouldn’t even give a soldier his proper burial. The country couldn’t bear to honor a human being who fought to keep them safe but was taken by some freak disease no physician had ever seen. There were no words enough to describe his anger, his fury at those who did not help Abel, and left him to wilt away, taking his remains and destroying the last of his dignity. What he did not want to see was that he was also helpless in helping Abel through any of the painful seizures and periods of mad ravings. His mind was shattered every time Abel opened his mouth - the rantings of a mad man - the cursing and swearing felt as if it was all directed at him because he did nothing to relieve the pain for Abel, and the crying was of a newborn babe that was suffering from malnutrition and hunger and torture, raw and uncontrolled.
Abel was merely the first of the Mordant plague. It quickly spread to other soldiers and they suffered the same fate - being cremated alive by the whiteness and having their body disintegrated by crimson leeches that burrowed from their own flesh and blood. Their faces and eyes would be covered in thick, red slimy critters, and chunks of chalk skin, gullets of blood and entire eyeballs were being dislodged when the physicians tried to scrape off the horrid creatures. Except, another would soon replace the one removed. Examining the bodies of those leeches yielded little result when looked at by simple army doctors who had no experience with these Amazonian-like parasites.
And soon, while the disease spread throughout the camp, people with any signs of it were confined in the doctor’s tent and ostracised. Yet still, the disease spread, just like a plague. There were some whom it didn’t stretch its invisible tendrils out to, so the more gullible people started claiming that it was God’s way of punishing them, that they were being purified and having their bodies taken away because they were sinful. Amulets and wards were passed around, masks were worn, everyone tried to isolate themselves for the remaining days till they reached the capital. People were advised not to eat meat or figs and to avoid activities that would open the pores to any miasma, including bathing, exercising and physical intimacy. Stranger recommendations circulated as well, including not sleeping during the daytime and avoiding sad thoughts about death and disease.
Pietro despised everything. He was not part of the victims, no matter how hard he wished it upon himself. He did not see a way to live in that depraved isolation, where the only interaction with live people were to grab their own set rations at the mess tent, and fill their water from the wells nearby. They could not move towards the capital faster because the soldiers were reluctant to move camp while being ravaged. One by one they died out, until the already dwindling numbers shrinked even further.
And so, when the days were finally over, and the time came for the remaining handful of soldiers to finally enter the capital, Pietro’s first action was to rush to Abel’s home. The house was empty. Nothing came from within its crumpled walls, no wind, no fire, no breath. Mabel and the kids were gone.
His legs lost strength when he reached the outside of the house, crumbling down and breaking down right there in the streets. Big, fat slops of tears came raining down, drenching his sweaty clothes, and his body wracked with the pain of hot tears and frustration after weeks of hardened resolve to not break while Abel was dying in front of him, and his comrades following after. He could not even respect Abel’s wish for his family to be taken care of - where were they? He could not think, he does not have the capacity.
Perhaps it had been hours, or even days he sat there, but nobody approached him. In his rush to get to the house, he did not notice the small amount of people he had passed by. During the day, wives were supposed to be out shopping or gossiping, children supposed to be running around and playing, and the hustle bustle of a community should be all around him. But no, there was nothing, as if he was in a deserted town. Finally, an old woman emerged near the crippled shack, came over to him and woke him from his trance.
“Sir, I can only offer you my condolences. I can see your family was taken away too…”
Ignoring the statement of his family, Pietro whipped around and gripped her shoulders, frightening the poor woman.
“Where are they? What happened while we were gone?”
Shaken, the old woman, recounted what had happened a week ago. Men dressed in heavy black trench coats started taking away people from the neighbourhoods, specifically, women and children of soldiers. Those who resisted were threatened and forced into the carriages, and the old woman could only watch on fearfully as the men drove away with a cartful of bound people, struggling against their bonds and mouthing at their gags. The one clue she could offer him was that they had the insignia of blue rose with a skull behind it on one of the amulets she saw them all wear.
Pietro recognised that - it was the symbol of the Palladians. His heart contracted and convulsed. They were a group working for the government, churning out deadly weapons and chemicals for the wars and battles and violence for the army to utilise. Hiding behind the government’s protection, they had been experimenting with countless unknown materials and samples, constantly adding to the victim numbers ‘for the country’, forcing people to participate in their endeavours.
Boiling rage rose in him. Fury blinded him. He didn’t know when he had left the street, or where he was heading, only knew that his anger was guiding him to who knows where. He had nothing to live with. He had no family - his only family being Abel Herolstone’s, who he cherished beyond his own life, has been taken away for experiments. What is his purpose now? His sole goal when he came back from the horrors was to reach Abel’s family, and guide them and support them as much as he could.
His purpose to live was lost - no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t known whether they had been altered or used by the Palladians yet, and they could still live. But, regardless of whether or not they lived, the seed of hatred watered with horror, fear, disgust, as well as injustice finally bloomed into an ugly flower of desire.
Revenge. It was the government that sent them to the battlefields, the government that threw their citizens to experiments and chemicals and weapons only to start more conflict, the government that stole Abel and his family away from him, the government was the reason that he was a broken man. Vengeance. His sole purpose in life was to right the wrong, and rectify the wrongdoings done unto him.
Life came back into his eyes, along with a tint of obsession - Pietro Wischt had now become a soldier obeying his anger.
Hello everyone, this is my first time posting anything on this platform, and I really hope that story wasn't too badly written...I hope I would be welcome here and continue to be in this community! Constructive criticism is very welcome, and it would be very helpful to leave a comment regarding anything!