Age of Iron
All was dark and silent.
He felt nothing but something soft under his body, soft and gritty. The silence began to give way to the soft, lapping noise of waves upon a shore. The noise was soothing, calming. He tried to open his eyes and lift his head, but he could not move. He lay on the sand, listening to the waves, and wondered. How did he get here?
As if some other being was controlling him, his eyes suddenly opened and he heaved himself upwards, taking in the sight of golden sand dunes and blue waves topped with white froth, carrying seaweed and shells onto the beach. The stallion looked up at the blue sky, where white clouds floated carelessly by. His nostrils flared, and suddenly it struck him.
Where was his armor? His bodily prison which kept the infection to himself? The armor which covered his horrid scars, and the helmet which clothed his nose-less face. In a panic, he turned his head and rolled his eyes. He did not see sparkling steel and iron, or black rubber-ish material embracing his barrel, neck and the back of his legs. Instead his eyes were met with the gleam of a bay coat, splashed with white tobiano markings on his shoulder and rump. His tail, his real tail, not that serpentine thing, billowed and buffed in the wind. His mane, oh, his beloved mane, it whipped against his face in the salty air.
Yet, in this strange moment, none of this surprised him.
His ears swiveled, catching a noise on the wind. His great, roman-nosed head turned as his eyes picked out a dark blotch on the horizon. He watched the spot with interest, and as it grew closer it became obvious that it was a herd, a great herd of animals. Deer, horses, wolves, cats, and many more kinds all walked together in peace. It did not surprise him.
Each one was embroidered in some sort of armor, as he was supposed to have. Colored bits shone in the light, catching his eyes, steel and iron glinted brightly. As they came closer, they began to pick up speed and trot. Then, his eyes widened. As they came closer, the armor they wielded began to fall from their bodies, crashing into the sad, sending showers of the golden grit in every direction. Their scars and hairless patches of skin, their flawed bodies on parade as they came ever closer.
They began to come at him faster, as they ran, their hair and pelts began to flake away, fur and hair was picked up by the wind and carried away into the ocean. In a macabre second, their skins left as well, flying off their bodies like blankets, blood splattering onto one another. Their muscles and ligaments were visible now, clean and rippling like the waves. Yet they appeared to feel no pain, still bounding towards him. He felt frozen, unable to move.
In one last eye-widening spectacle, their muscles tore away in a sickening noise, and skeletons now thundered towards him, almost upon him now. With extreme effort, he was able to rear up and wheel around, but just as he was about to run, he slid to a stop.
His eyes widened in horror, his eyes locked on what lay before him. Avalon, the Arabian filly, of whom he was charged to care for, stood before him, her perfect white and chestnut coat beginning to flake away. Large blue eyes stared up at him in glee, and her head began to tilt. Frozen in shock and horror, the stallion watched as her muscles were revealed and in turn began to fall away. Behind her, a putrid, green fog flooded over the peaks of the mountains, killing everything in its wake. She tilted her head ever more, until once with a sickening crack it was perpendicular with her neck. As her facial muscles began to flake away, she opened her mouth, a grin upon her face, and shrieked out;
The maroon-and-silver armor-clad gelding huffed a sigh of annoyance and he heard his voice echo only to the dying ears of the earth. Another day, another search for his team Captain. Typical.
He leaped off the small knoll he had been perched upon, his armor making a squeak or two. He needed to go in and have it oiled. Setting off at a brisk canter, he craned his neck left and right, looking for his wandering Captain. Of course Steampunk would pick this day of all the days to wander off. Well, it’s not like he hadn’t wandered off before. Captain of the Infantry had a reputation for doing his duties and then taking walks. Very long walks.
The scout lifted his eyes to gaze upon the pale red mountains, stripped of their trees and grass, now down to bare dirt. What had once been a forest of proud Aspens and Pines was just a graveyard of rotting stumps. Just then, he caught a glint of light in the corner of his optics. He turned himself in the direction of the flash, his hooves thundering as he broke into a long-strided gallop over the small hills and dips in the valley. Dull-colored, dying blades of grass flew out from beneath his hooves as he heaved over a hill, where he was met with a large, decaying log directly in his path, its respective stump still rooted in the grass.
With a push and a grunt, he was sailing over the log, his silky black tail streamed out behind him. He landed with a shock on the other side, his head jerking as he struggled to keep his balance on the downhill slide. As he skidded to a halt at the base of the hill, he was relieved to see his Captain standing on the trail that had once led to a small village. Rusted barbed wire nailed to small logs had been used as a fence, stretching as far as the eye could see. An aged, black and yellow sign, riddled with rust was nailed to the cross rail and read:
VIOLATORS RISK SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH AND WILL BE PROSECUTED
“Well, this is a cheery place for a walk.” The maroon-and-silver gelding mumbled, trotting up to the worn, dusty trail which was becoming overtaken by ravenous weeds. He stood next to his captain, of whom was a whole hand taller than himself. His comrade was clad in silver armor, some pieces gave of sort of a very light rosy coloration, although the Captain would never admit to it. Steampunk was a very intimidating sight to behold; soulless black optics made him appear to be more machine than equine, his brows fixed in an ever-present scowl. His helmet was somewhat like the scout’s, although his was red, and not lined with sharp, carnivore-like teeth all the way to the cheekbones.
Steampunk had a long, serpentine tail, whose tip twitched every so often. A small tuft of mane was visible at his withers, and it danced in the gentle wind that breathed across the valley. Steampunk shifted his weight from one armored leg to another, cocking one back limb in relaxation. The black orbs of the Captain looked out over the dying land, past the rolling hills and dead brush, past the mountains, to someplace unknown. He inhaled deeply, causing the silicone-like material that embraced his barrel to stretch and squeak before exhaling. He had been deep in thought, wondering about the disturbing dream he had had the previous night.
“What do you want, Rayzorblade.”
The deep, grating, robotic voice caused the daydreaming scout to jump. Gathering himself, he cleared his throat. “Ah… Layla sent me. She is wondering if you ‘forgot’ about Avalon again.” This incited a scoffing laugh from Steampunk’s throat. “Forgot? Of course not. How could I forget about something that is worse than the virus?” He spat, grimacing all the more, turning on his heels to make his way back down the path. Rayzorblade turned up his eyebrows in a worried expression, his much softer voice replying, “That’s a little harsh…” He turned to follow his captain, steel-clad hooves sprinkled with fine dust that the path offered. They eventually wandered from the path, back towards their home.
It was silent. No birds chirped, now crickets hummed in the grass. The only sound was the crunch of parched grass beneath their feet. It hadn’t rained in nearly a month, and the valley was really beginning to show it. They rounded a hill, and were presented with what was known to them as the ‘safe fence.’ It was a ten foot tall concrete wall, riddled with cracks and dead vines reaching like witch’s fingers up the surface. The wall stretched for three miles in every direction, embracing the safe area in false security. Inside, it held a few of the uninfected, or rather, immune. Their immunity to the virus was a mystery to the human researchers, who were conducting test after test to try and find the source.
About 50 feet from the fence, Steampunk unexpectedly exploded into a gallop. Realizing what he was going to attempt, Rayzorbalde called out to him. “There is a gate, you know!” Steampunk merely ignored his comrade’s meaningless squawking and with the bunching of his muscles and the power within his armor, he was soaring over the wall, clearing it almost effortlessly, leaving Rayzorblade behind. “Alright. I’ll go through the gate then.” Rayzorblade huffed, turning and walking sullenly in the direction of the gates, which lay more than a mile down the wall.
Ever-present scowl on his face, Steampunk trotted along, seeing out the Arabian filly. Avalon was supposedly a full-blooded Arabian, however her pearly coat was splashed with a chestnut appaloosa blanket, a total mystery to geneticists, since her sire was a bay and her dam was grey, and neither had a spot on them.
The stallion eventually slowed to a walk, trudging through the tall grass which reached for the sky as if begging for rain. Twigs crunched beneath his steel hooves, the whistle and hiss of his armor repeating with every step. To him, it didn’t feel like it was him that was controlling his legs. After the lower portion of each of his legs had to be amputated, they outfitted him with intelligent robotic limbs. These artificial limbs gave him more speed and strength, but he would have traded them any day just to feel his legs once again.
Steampunk lopped his ears, sighing heavily, feeling the rubber constrict around his belly and the metal glide over his skin as he walked. He was beginning to grow hungry, but he shunned the feeling with a snort of disgust. The gruel-like mash that the humans fed him had lost its flavor long ago. How he longed to feel the sweet freshness of grass, and the dry bittersweet hay between his teeth. How he hated—
A high-pitched, joyous voice knifed into his ears, and he pinned his aching auricles to his head, scowling ever harder. Speak of the devil.
A white streak came barreling over the hill, bounding towards him with childlike glee. Avalon’s legs were still a bit long for her body, causing her to look gangly and awkward. She stumbled suddenly, her long limbs entangling with one another. At the last moment she caught herself, lifting her icy blue eyes once again towards Steampunk. At last, she reached him, rearing up on her hind legs and planting her front knees on his side with a giggle.
“You’re late!” She squeaked, letting herself fall from her rearing position in response to the death-glare she received from the stallion. “You’re implying that I had to be here at a certain time. Which I didn’t.” Steampunk growled, beginning to move off at a walk. Avalon struggled up from the grass, setting off behind him, following the swing of his tail with her head. “Layla said you were supposed to be here at high noon!” She piped up, but Steampunk simply ignored her.
“I don’t see why I have to babysit you.” He growled, more to himself than to her. “You’ve got those two other brats to see to you. Where are they?” He asked, finally turning his head ever so slightly to glare down at her, his black and yellow eyes ever so dead. “Morgrim and Fae? They’re at the pond.” She answered, flicking her short bushy tail.
“Why aren’t you with them?”
“Because I was waiting for you!”
“Because you’re lonely!”
“I am not lonely.”
“Ye-es you are, Steamy.”
“Stop calling me that.”
They traveled up over the hills, Avalon talking all the way. Steampunk merely ignored her, as he usually did. She talked about how dry the grass was, and asked silly questions such as ‘Labyrinth said the sky was blue once. Was it really?’ Steampunk sighed, his ears still pinned in hopes of blocking out her voice from his head.
“Steamy-punk,” Avalon began again, racing to the front of the stallion, blocking his way. Steampunk snarled, opening his mouth to growl at her, but she began speaking before he had that chance. “Will you run with me today?” The hefty stallion rolled his eyes, annoyed. She asked this question every day. Every day for a year she asked it. His patience was wearing thin. He did not answer her and pushed her aside to continue towards the pond.
But of course, Avalon was not so easily swayed. She was determined to race the stallion. “Please! Please, please, please? Please Steamy! Please? Please…”
Boiling annoyance and anger swelled into his chant as her chant continued, and after several minutes he couldn’t listen to her for a second longer. He wheeled around, his tail almost knocking her over, startling her and causing her to fall on her haunches. His front hooves handed inches in front of her, the movement causing grass to fly.
“NO!” he roared down at her, eyes full of anger. “Shut up, you obnoxious little prick! I’ll throw you into the furnace myself, and watch you melt away with the utmost satisfaction. All you have done since you arrived was talk and talk and talk, you never shut your trap! You’re like a cancer, I think you’re gone and then you just show up again! Hell on high! What does it take to get you to-“
His rant ended abruptly, his breathing angry and labored. Avalon was staring up to him in disbelief, her eyes large and frightened as they began to water and sting. Her lip began to quiver as she fought to maintain her composure in front of the raging stallion. A tear escaped against her will and wet the fur around her eye. Slowly, she got up, head low to the dying earth. “I…I’m sorry.” She mumbled, barely audible through the rustle of the grass as she began to walk away.
Steampunk watched her move away as the angry fire died down in his chest. He heaved a disgruntled breath, about to continue towards the pond when he was suddenly swept over by a feeling that he had not felt in a long while.
He turned his head, halting, watching as Avalon trudged slowly through the tall grasses, her head and tail low. His ears swiveled, catching the sound of soft sniffling. He let out a sigh, ears moving back to their original place. Nice one, idiot. Yelling at a little filly and threatening her with the furnace. Nice. He drew himself up, pushing aside his pride. Just for the moment.
* * *
Avalon’s eyes and throat stung badly. Steamy had never yelled at her like that before. Sure, he’d yelled, but she’d never seen him that angry. She supposed she brought it upon herself. She shouldn't have annoyed him like that. But she just wanted to play. . .
She sniffed again, halting for a second to wipe her eyes on her forelegs, leaving wet smears on her dark grey knees. She shakily sighed, continuing on away from the stallion towards the barn. She just wanted to sleep in her soft bed of hay and straw now, and forget about this whole ordeal. Suddenly the ground began to thunder, and her head flew up. In fear of Steampunk coming to extract his revenge, she bolted into a blind gallop, tail tucked and eyes wide.
A flash of silver and black passed her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, half-skidding, half-falling to a halt. “You’d better start running, filly. This won’t happen again.” The grinding, mechanical voice of Steampunk faded with every word and was nearly drowned out by the thunder of hooves, causing Avalon to curiously open her eyes.
Steampunk was rocketing away down the prairie before her, grass flying from behind him. She got up in disbelief, exploding into a gallop in an attempt to catch up. She couldn’t believe her eyes! She lowered her head, picking up more speed. Whether it was the fact that she was fueled by joy, or that Steampunk had slowed to a canter, she didn’t care, because now she was flying over the ground next to him, a grin spreading over her face out of pure jubilation.
She chanced a glance to him out of the corner of her eye. What a sight to behold! The hiss and mechanical clicks that came with every step he took were drowned out by the pounding of their hooves. His head was slightly tucked into his armored neck (no doubt a product from his dressage roots), ears forward and alert, the power in his body evident with the thunder of his hooves. A strange feeling overtook the young two-year old as she looked at him. It was as if a hundred horses were galloping around in her belly, and her heart began to pound harder and harder with every second that passed.
With a sudden flying change of his feet, Steampunk was rocketing away to the left. A laugh tore from Avalon’s throat as she attempted to mimic his movement, and did so with little success. But she didn’t mind. She caught up with the stallion, whose breath was now coming in deep, ragged huffs. He slowed to a quick, springy trot, and wound down into a walk, steam wafting off his heated armor into the cool air. Avalon slowed as well, her mouth open as she begged for air, her ribs heaving.
To Steampunk’s surprise, Avalon did not say anything. Also to his surprise, he found that he had enjoyed their shared gallop across the field. Eventually they reached the pond, where the two other younglings, Morgrim and Fae were playing in the shallow water. Avalon trotted past Steampunk, glancing back at him with a smile before joining her friends. Morgrim was but 4 years of age, and Fae 3. Morgrim’s heavy draft build and mealy bay coloration was highly contrasted to that of Avalon’s and Fae’s. In the same way, Fae’s Gypsy Vanner lineage was plainly shown through the beautiful splashes of white and black.
“Ahoy there captain!” Morgrim called out to Steampunk, a sly grin on his young face. Fae flicked her wavy bi-colored mane from her eyes. “Hello Steampunk.” She said shyly, dragging herself from the water and shaking herself, causing an uproar of protest from both Avalon and Morgrim. “Sorry,” She peeped, lowering her head in embarrassment. Avalon plunged into the pond with a screech as the cold water touched her warm skin.
“Come on, let’s go.” Morgrim said, exiting the pond and shaking himself off, his short, erect mane flinging water in every direction. “Aww! But I just got here!” Avalon whined, leaping out of the pond none the less. “Well then you should have played with us instead of waiting for your boyfriend then.” Morgrim scoffed, tilting his head up in an aloof manner. He was then met by a hard slap of Steampunk’s tail against his side, causing him to tumble over in an angry, sputtering heap. The fillies laughed, trotting after Steampunk. Morgrim got up and followed, his pride more wounded that his bruised side.
* * *
Upon rounding a hill and seeing the small barn where the three younglings made their home, they all raced to the small building, bucking and kicking and laughing. Steampunk sighed heavily. He was beginning to regret that run. His muscles ached and burned and he had felt a scab rip open under his armor as they had ran. He shook off the feeling with a snort, heaving his large body up the hill to where the humble 6-stall barn was. The younglings were already yawning, and Morgrim had already gone into his open-air stall and bedded himself down in the straw.
Steampunk passed each stall, making sure all three of them were accounted for. When he reached Avalon’s, however, she was nowhere to be found. “Avalon?” He called out gruffly, and was met almost immediately with the feel of something warm pressing against his side. He turned his head and met eyes with the young Arabian, who was nuzzling him happily. She then ducked underneath his barrel and shimmied into her stall, plopping onto the straw.
As Steampunk turned to make his way into the coming night, she called out to him. “Steamy!” Steampunk turned and raised one eyebrow in question. “Good night.” Avalon chimed, smiling a childish grin before laying her head down in the straw. Steampunk merely grunted, descending the hill and setting off at a sore, limping canter. The sky was turning a purpleish maroon, and the pale, sickly moon rose overhead, slow and unsure. No stars sparkled in the sky, no crickets sang their sad lullabies, and as Avalon fell asleep in her warm stall, the fading sounds of Steampunk’s hooves lulled her softly to sleep.