Cinderqueen

Summary: A heavy metal band seemingly unleashes a supernatural threat, as the line between themselves and their stage personas blurs.

Proclamations from the Ash-Crown

The four bestrode the stage like conquering titans of antiquity. Behind them towered the stage's scaffolding, naked metal trusses looming like a skeletal castle. A phalanx of pine trees surrounded the clearing, which cast long shadows on the assembled crowd. The autumnal smell of dying leaves came over the concert, intermingling with alcohol and body odor. The fans surrounded the stage like a barbarian horde awaiting battle. They did not wait long.

Each band member stood as a black silhouette before the setting sun. The largest of them stepped forth, a heavyset man encased in phalanx armor old when the Alexandrine conquests were new. He carried a hammer behind his shield and struck them together which each step. He set his arms before a drum-set that could fit a cyclops. He grasped a drumstick in his thick hands, which looked mighty enough to smash through the walls of Troy. Ajax the Annihilator crossed his drumsticks, and stuck the nearest of cymbals, which resounded like a temple gong.

A piping like that of benthic behemoths sounded from the opposite side of the stage. A soft blue floodlight fell on Sigmund Skald-Tongue, as though placing him at the bottom of an arctic sea. He stood at a keyboard decorated with runic characters, as his pale fingers glided across the keys like Norse longships over whitecaps. His fingertips evoked crashing storms from the wall of speakers behind him, and then the metallic clangor of battle. He ceased playing for a moment, and then drew an axe in hand. He hurled it at a post behind him, striking the exact center of a wooden target.

The wailing of an electric guitar heralded the next band member's appearance. His fingers danced across guitar strings with an archer's dexterity. His ruddy skin and black hair were covered by a leather jacket and pants, simultaneously evocative of both an ancient nomad and modern biker. The Conquering Khagan strummed a melody with the gallop of a cavalry charge, and the loudness of a Mongol army. His solo rose like a mounted warrior above the din of the crowd, capturing their attentions and imagination. As he concluded, he extended his hands as though to embrace the concertgoers. They cheered as he took his position near the edge of the stage.

A few quick strings of a bass sounded from the stage like crackling embers, sending the crowd into hysterics. She strode forth with a bass guitar slung across her chest like an ammunition bandoleer, and a sickle-like sword hung from her belt. Her fingers danced across the strings like a lissome dancer. A euphoric wave erupted across the crowd, as lighters and illuminated cellphones rose like a pyre of millions. She drew the khopesh, and she stepped towards the edge of the stage. As she stood before the waning sun, her ebony skin lent her the resemblance of an obsidian pillar. When she raised her sword above her head, her blade appeared to catch the last light of the dying day. She stepped before the microphone, like a sovereign preparing to address her subjects. The others on the band turned to her, awaiting her to speak. Without a doubt, Cinderqueen Ash herself loomed on the stage like a mythic eidolon.

"We return to return where our reign began!" Ash shouted. "Are you ready for battle?"

Ash tilted the mike towards the elated crowd, which turned into a sea of raised, pumping fists. She turned behind her, seeing her band grasping their instruments. Adrenaline overcame her. Like a warrior queen preparing for a long campaign, she steeled her body for the trials ahead. She rose her voice in volume, shouting louder than before.

"Prepare, Ashlanders, for a song from our new album, Proclamations from the Ash-Crown!"

Ash moved her hands turned her hands to the bass, and she cleared her throat. Her twofold task was to play the bass and primary vocals. The others' motions quickened, and the familiar tempo arise behind her. Like the war-cant of a marching army, she tapped her foot to the rhythm. Sweat formed on her shaved head and ran down her black shirt. She waited for the voiceover to start, which would lead-in to their song.

On cue, a booming voice issued from the loudspeakers. "In the twilight of the mythic eon, the survivors of Atlantis and Lemuria stood before the demon host in the desert lands of Quat."

She wailed into the microphone, like the priestess of a dying god. Behind her, the played a slow, elegiac tune.

"All remaining turn to Cinderqueen of the Ashlands, as the final battle begins."

The band exploded into a frantic power metal medley. Ash shifted back and forth on her feet, readying her vocal chords for the opening stanza. She inhaled deeply and hummed as she performed her mental checklist for her vocals. Just above her hips, her fingers plucked the strings of her bass guitar, moving as fast as embers flying from a great conflagration. She sang words she'd memorized long before, extracted from an ancient text. Just as the first stanza left her lips, a high-pitched electronic shriek erupted from the speakers behind them. She turned behind her, being met only by the shrugs of her bandmates.

"A rousing way to wake from a slumber of eons," rumbled a deep, bellowing voice from the speakers. Ash immediately ceased her song, and she stared around seeking the unseen interloper. Her bandmembers similarly ceased playing, but their last note still resonated eerily in the speakers. The audience members stared up in rapt attention, as another taught echoed.

"Ah, my unwitting summoners," the voice said, now mocking them. "I really must thank you."

Acting on inexplicable instincts, Ash grabbed her sword with a duelist's reflexes. Behind her, she heard the sounds of instruments clattering to the stage floor as her bandmates approached. As though coordinated by an unseen general, they took position around her. Ajax held his Hammer above his head, as if fending off a diving dragon. Sigmund held an axe in each hand, as a confident, ruthless grin crossed his face. Even the Conquering Khagan took the ornamental bow he wore and readied a strangely sharp arrow in his grip. Before them, the audience began to scream. Ash followed the audience's upward glances and immediately understood the reason for the terrified glances.

"Such an unworthy assemblage."

Ash saw the thing hovering above the stage, as though suspended on cables. It was wreathed with an otherworldly light in a pallid, sickly shade of green. It hovered motionless in the air directly above them, with a night-black cloak billowing behind it. It wore a vaguely humanoid form, although she could not see its entire body. Its legs protruded from a lightless area beneath is robes and terminated in ornate metal boots of an ebony alloy. Its arms similarly protruded from voids underneath its garments, and were covered by long gauntlets of similar obsidian-colored material to its boots. She was unsure if they were its armor, or its skin.

"Before I depart, I shall rectify this."

Ash was temporarily enthralled by its face. It was a mask of similar material to its limbs, but the cheeks and forehead were covered by yellow runes that glistened like polished brass. The mask was set deep within a hood, but even a cursory glance confirmed something unnatural was afoot. The cast of the mask was too narrow to fit over a human head. From darkened eye sockets, pinpricks of white light glowed like demonic suns.

"The thousand realms of the underworld descend upon you!"

Ash barely saw it disappear, as something invaded her peripheral view. It clawed itself up from the side of the stage, forelimbs raised in a display of primal savagery. Its saliva sprayed onto the stage, like the drool of a rabid dog. Its skeletal form was wrapped in sagging, pallid skin. Its skull-like face terminated in an inhuman mouth that opened into a bifurcated lower jaw. The sharpened teeth of its three jaws clattered together rhythmically, like an insane machine. Its eyes glowed like the thing above. Its feet resembled hands, complete with an opposable digit where the big toe would be. Each digit terminated in a yellowing talon, which all pointed towards her.

Ash heard the fans scream and flee, but her attention was elsewhere. An unseen hand guided the sword in hand, empowering the prop with energy that was almost tangible. Beside her, her companions held their weapons with similar expertise. A metallic clangor caused her to look up, as another creature leapt down from the metal scaffolding. It circled them like a hungry wolf, ready to rend them limb from limb. Another climbed up from the stage behind them, and then another appeared from the opposite side of the stage. Ash pressed against her foes as they charged. Trusting her peculiarly steadied hand, she swung her sword to meet them.