A/N: thanks go out to Kairi Darkwolf and BlackCat Inc for reviewing the first version of this story and for giving me inspiration to continue this. Thanks again.
…ware the Madness of the Gift, for those afflicted will kill and kill until the Madness is spent and groaning and then it shall be no more, and they shall take their places as Chosen…but ware most of all the One. His madness will not abate; he will not be driven; he will not be forced and he will kill and kill and kill until the seas of Sanur glow red with Sanaran blood, and only the Tender Touch will save him then. Ware the Madness of the Gift, my children. Ware the Madness of the Gift.
Sanur glowed; a brilliant jewel in a sea of stars. The world was idyllic, covered in green forests and blue lakes under azure skies circled by brilliant rings that shone and glittered in the sun and blazed with cold fire as the moon's cold light bathed them, its blue flame reaching down as though the skies were burning as the Chosen ascended into the sky and drew its power into themselves, bright beacons of light against the spectacular starfields.
That was every child's dream, to be drawn up in glorious harmony to the skies and to bask in the power of the brilliant moon and the uncaring rings. It was every child's thought; will the sky burn for me tonight? For the Sky was fickle, and chose but rarely and her Choice echoed round the world as the moon's fire set the sky alight with the colour of the Chosen's Gift.
When a new Chosen was summoned by the Sky, Sanur celebrated. The vast airships would gather at the Heaven's Gate, a huge edifice of glittering crystal that blazed with the moon's fire and drew the Madness of the Gift up and offered it unto the limitless skies and the Chosen was found, and celebrations would ring out across the cities of Sanur and all the colonies of Sanura.
The gargantuan battleships, fish of the stars would gather amid the wonderful rings of the planet, and watch as the skies were set afire by the moon and the Sky herself, and take part in the Grand Dance as the Chosen ascended unto the brilliant sea of stars and offered themselves and their Madness at the Gate, and joined with the Sky in glorious union.
Sanur was a glowing jewel, its dayside glowing with lakes and seas, its nightside with cities in the sky, drifting patches of unearthly light.
Sanur the broken; Sanur the shattered, Sanur whose cities were blackened and torn down; Sanur whose sparkling lakes and rivers ran with thick scarlet, glowing sullenly under the bloodred skies. Sanur whose colonies were destroyed; Sanur whose battleships lay broken and blasted in orbit, a mournful ring high above the others, gilded by the crimson moon.
"What happened here…" were the first, awed words of those in the Terran science ship Rhapsody as they surveyed the devastation. The gas giants were stripped down to their cores, trailing vast nebulae of gas that glowed a sullen red, reflecting the still-burning fires on the shattered homeworld. The inner planets were battered, great craters and gashes torn across them, many glittering like glass. The sun of Sanur wobbled, throwing off vast coronal loops and great bursts of incandescent plasma; it glowed a bloody colour that bathed the system in scabrous light, a leprosian glow that seemed to seep from the gashes torn in the rotting planets and the defiled gases of the giants.
"My god…" murmured the captain as they sailed further in, towards the precarious star and its diseased light struck through the portholes to corrupt the science vessel.
"Sera, I have wreckage!"
Faint noises of keypads being pressed echoed through the deathly silent bridge. "No. I have heavy metals, high-energy residue, high radiation discharges throughout the wreckage rings, high concentrations of antimatter, monobonded carbon…sera, there's things here I can't even begin to understand! It looks like a gargantuan fleet was smashed to pieces…whatever's on that planet…oh my."
They had come into visual range of the once-idyllic world, and the devastation was terrible, even more so to the spaceborne observer. Rings of wreckage were interspersed with glittering rings of rock that caught the leprous light and reflected it back into the bloodred lakes of the blackened husk.
Huge fires tore across the barren landscape; plumes of incandescent lava fountained up as the world shook from the pressures racing across its surface. Livid gashes ripped across the continents and bloodred seas, sending plumes of smoke high into the sky. The moon that orbited the sphere of diseased rock was smashed open like an egg, its lifeblood bleeding out into cold space, as if a giant fist had punched its way through the vacuum-polished surface and torn out the moon's still-beating heart, leaving it to bleed amid the wreckage.
Ruins on the surface of the battered world were clearly visible; some flaming beacons, others dark and blackened, gutted spires reaching upwards like pleading hands that rotted and died where they stood, tumbling down in diseased showers of masonry to nurture the next corrupted growth.
The largest was a groping forest of razor-spikes, once-magnificent towers now spires of razored metal and rock, weapon emplacements glowing brightly with impossible flame, stone bursting into long, flickering tongues of incandescent fire, metal glowing a painful white as it burned instead of melting. The city was a bastion of darkness; shrinking and retreating as the maladious flames ate away at its bulk, transitory glory before it collapsed into a pile of glowing embers.
"Set us down," ordered the captain.
"We must search for survivors. There may be someone still alive amid the wreckage." He said it without much hope, but it was his bounden duty to give aid and succour to worlds torn apart by war, impartially and equally.
The sleek Rhapsody slipped through the atmosphere, devoid of the thundering of air flowing over its heat shields for the atmosphere was thin, and the fires ate away voraciously at what remained.
Heavy supports slammed deep into the bedrock of an open space amid the shattered buildings, anchoring the Rhapsody to the planet itself. A long, clear tube extruded from the airlock, blindly seeking ground; an almost indestructible covering for the gangplank and the vulnerable humans that were the Ultimate Priority for computers. Finally, the doors hissed open, a silvered metal ramp slid out, sensors telescoping from the underside to taste of the planet. Three humans came down this ramp, slowly, carefully, as if unused to the gravity. Black suits covered them, suits that rippled and were fronted with a v-shaped slash of clear glass.
"The surface is still fine," reported one faceless figure. "It's a little warm, but we'll be fine. The atmosphere is a little different. It used to be oxygen; almost pure oxygen, no contaminants, no pollution, no nothing. Now…well, these fires are pumping all sorts of poisons into the atmosphere, and we can't breathe this stuff now."
"Spread out," ordered the central figure, bulking in the semiliquid black starsuit.
The rotten city loomed over them, around them, under them. Brittle blades of some plant crunched under a booted foot and in the distance there was a rumble of collapsing masonry as part of the city fell inward. Over it all was the hungry crackle of flames as they ate their malignant way into the darkened city. A lake shifted and rippled lazily in a tremor as blackened, twisted and ghoulish trees fell into it, the dark surface engulfing them with not so much as a splash. The science officer hurried over, the cover irising open. He dipped a long rod into the otiose mass, and then pulled it out hurriedly, looking sickened.
"Do not go near the lakes or any water at all," he said, breathing deeply of cool, clean air inside his starsuit and shutting off the sense-receptors. "Turn off the sense of smell, gentlemen. You don't want it; trust me." He shivered, the motion visible even through the suit.
"That bad?" asked the captain, sympathetically.
"The lakes aren't water. They're bright red and thick. Let's leave it at that."
The third member of the party called. They turned. "I have a lifesign! I repeat, I have a lifesign!"
"Where?" asked the captain, hope rising.
Keypads beeped, lights flashed. Thunder, dry and lifeless, rumbled overhead, clouds a brilliant crimson from the star's light, the bloody illuminations reflected in shattered spears of glass that littered the diseased ground.
"Central building," said the man, pointing towards a groping tower that reached for the corrupted skies.
The tower…towered, imposing in all its ruined glory, lancet-like windows glowing bloodred as they entered the main hall of the building, ever aware of the creaking, unsupported floors above that seemed to be rotting where they stood, marble drying up and fracturing, then blowing away in dust or thundering down to the ground.
The interior was a wreck. Great gashes, still bubbling and red, tore across the walls. The floor was twisted and glassy, giving off waves of heat and the slender columns had melted and ran like glass across the acres of already torn floor.
Masonry blocks filled most of one corner, melted together and flickering with smouldering fire as they consumed themselves, fanned by the faint stirrings of the dying air that swept through the broken-toothed mouth of the tower's eastern side, which had been torn out by some unimaginable force, leaving only the stumps of the wall behind.
"It's getting stronger!" reported the officer eagerly now, pointing towards a fallen archway, the rotten marble deliquescing where it had fallen, angelic seraphim decaying into dust.
That was the first thing that struck them, after the furnace-like heat of the rest of the planet. Here, however, frosty flowers danced and shivered on the walls, growing in riotous profusion in the growing cracks through which the corrupted light of the star struck, spreading disease over the frozen floor.
They scrambled over tumbled rock, razor-sharp glass and slick floor, until they all arrived in a large, featureless hall, perfectly round and with a half-tumbled arching doorway set into the other side, metal gleaming around its surround.
The captain strode purposefully towards it, ignoring the swirling murals that were beginning to collapse, scabrous rot beginning to destroy the delicate friezes.
To his credit, the captain stopped immediately. He turned. "Ruko?"
"There's some sort of sensor and barrier there. You almost set it off!"
"So you'd have fried yourself, sera. However, the power source is only very weak; it won't last for more than a minute at the level it appears to be set at."
The captain heaved a marble block at the archway. Instantly, a brilliant blue shield snapped over it and swallowed the rock with barely a flicker.
A low hum started high above; a ring of brilliant light that contracted around a central point and then hurtled downwards, a man-thick bolt of incandescence that bounced off the perfect walls and left craters in the floor.
The captain and his officers ducked as the brilliant beam tore across the room above their heads.
"Bouncer beam, I think, sera. Duck!"
The beam earthed itself briefly in the ground, blowing a crater the size of the captain's head in the floor, before erupting skywards once more.
"It's designed to take care of large amounts of people quickly, ser-down!"
It shot by again, turned in the air like a leaping fish and dove once more for them, scattering the black starsuits like ninepins.
Another officer spoke up, from behind a tumbled pile of masonry. "How much power does the barrier have left now?"
"Thirty minutes unobstructed. Less if we…captain! Throw everything you can lay your hands on at the barrier!"
Soon, a steady barrage of marble blocks were making the barrier flare and crack, and then it fell entirely, and the Bouncer beam died, no more than a puff of warm air instead of a burning bolt of incandescent plasma. They all dove into the freezing passage beyond it, sprawling over the glassy slabs.
It was short and dark. No corruption had reached this deep tunnel, carved roughly and hastily out of the bedrock of the diseased planet itself. At the end was a small, rough-hewn chamber, and positioned in the centre was an ornate bier, encased in sparkling, blue-hued crystal that sent off waves of the deathly chill. Around it lay seven skeletons, collapsed and broken, and the floor of the chamber was obscured by a thick layer of bone-white dust.
One skeleton lay apart from the others, richly robed in brilliant blues, greens and reds that flashed blindingly in the dim light of the chamber.
As one of the officers reached out to the sarcophagus, it moved.
Instantly, they all leapt away. It raised its head – it was not a skeleton, but an ancient man whose high, aquiline face seemed regal and imposing despite its thinness. "No!" he rasped, and the voice echoed across the chamber. "Do not open…his sarcophagus. It took…all of us to bind him here. See…the price we paid? His Madness will engulf us all if he is released, and Sanur no…longer stands…against this. Our colonies shattered, the sun wrecked, Sanur itself corrupted and bled dry. Ware the Madness of the Gift, children…Ware the Madness of the Gift." He drew in a gasping, rattling breath. "Do not open…the sarcophagus. Leave…leave, and let him rot here!" His breath left him, and he slumped, his flesh shrivelling and evaporating into fine white ash as his skeleton slumped to the floor, joining the others in their death as the planet screamed and bucked around them.
The captain leaned over the crystal. What he saw chilled his blood. A tall, slim figure, draped in brilliant red robes, hardly more than a boy, lay peacefully in the crystalline sarcophagus, his long, black hair curling around his waist. His face was the same proud and aquiline one they had just watched crumble to dust, yet his teeth, long and slightly pointed, were a deep bloodred, and his lips were like a slash of scarlet on his bloodless face.
The captain shivered.
The boy opened his eyes. Deep, crimson eyes, full of madness.