Muluk stared into shiny glass eyes in the four sockets of the two faced-wolf. The taxidermied beast stood on an altar. At nearly eye level with the mighty warlord, the lifeless animal's dual faces were perpetually contorted in a perpetual and silent growl brandishing rows of cerated teeth. Muluk's heart froze in his chest.
Did it just growl?
One can only speculate what Muluk Maratha's life might have been like had the world held itself together. However, the decay and devastation that had culled the world's human population so drastically had fostered an environment where Muluk absolutely flourished.
Intelligent, attractive, open-minded, and above all ruthless, Muluk had an intellect that matched his capacity for violence. It was why at just 24 years of age, he came to master the hearts of a growing multitude of people lost in the wreckage of a world that had died slowly and gruesomely.
Muluk was, by nature, a nomad and a conqueror. He was in perpetual motion. His army followed along on a current of blood that carried them across Eurasia and would one day, as Muluk vowed, bring them to the very ends of the Earth. However, before they reached that frontier, Muluk detoured when he heard about a massive structure quietly crumbling in a Slavic backwoods called Chernobyl.
By now, Muluk had commissioned countless portraits of himself standing in front of steel towers with summits hidden above the clouds or on the deck of city-sized ships slowly dissolving with the tides. It was more than just a macabre passion for surveying the spectral remains of the old and prosperous world whose places and names were steadily fading forever from human memory. The structure was rumored to harness the power of Uranium. Muluk had heard Uranium's name mentioned in other corners of his expanding empire, and it was a name always associated with great and otherworldly power.
Muluk doesn't chase rumors, though. It was only after he acquired the two-faced wolf did he learn about the land where creation was continuing its work and of the hermit taxidermist and her menagerie of aberrations. Muluk admired her work and suspected she had a connection to the forces that rearranged life itself.
Alyona was the very opposite of Muluk. Her work carried her name an astonishing distance. She had spent her whole life there. Now she shared it with her two sons and their families, along with her brother and his wife and children. The artist herself, though, had no plans of ever venturing much further than the razor wire outlining the borders of the family homestead.
She was 48 years old when Muluk arrived. Her husband had been dead for many years. She was solitary by nature. She was quiet with a gentle and caring nature that was buried under a cold Slavic demeanor. Her dark eyes gave a penetrating stare, and despite the effects of her steady transition into old age, it still gave an impression of the remarkable beauty she had been in her youth.
Alyona's workshop was in a small addition on the western side of the house. A single window channeled the high noon sun into a square pool, leaving the rest of the room covered in a shadow. In the right corner of the room nearest the door was a snarling bobcat with its body frozen mid lunge, its claws extending from the fingers of the monkey's paws. She kept in that corner because she enjoyed the reaction it got when first time guests saw it when they closed the door behind them. On the floor beside her workbench was a cycloptic boar bearing serrated tusks. Hanging on the back wall was the massive head stag head with sharped antlers tangled into a mass that resembled an enormous crown of thorns.
She was polishing the teeth of a raven when her oldest son Anton came into the room with a rifle over his shoulder. He informed her about the warlord waiting by the gate. Alyona lived in seclusion, but she wasn't oblivious. Muluk's arrival had been anticipated for some time. A steady stream of refugees had preceded his arrival. This wasn't the first heavily armed caravan Alyona had done business with, though. She knew if a man like Muluk thought it pertinent to show enough reverence for her home to stay out until explicitly invited in, then she had nothing to fear.
"Ok, bring him to the workshop," she instructed Anton before turning her attention back to the teeth. A few moments later, Anton returned.
"Momma," he said. Alayna looked up; standing behind her son was the long dark outline of Muluk.
Alayna stood up to greet him. She looked past Muluk for any advisors or an interpreter, but he was all alone. "Hello, I am Aloyan welcome to my home," she said, extending her hand.
Muluk smiled and took her hand. "I've heard much about you as I'm sure you've already heard much about me," he replied in flawless Russian.
Aloyana was caught off guard by the warlord's warm and glowing smile. He was tall and well built. He had neatly trimmed goatee jet black goatee that framed his pearly white smile. His uniform was loose and breezy but didn't hide his chiseled frame. For the first time in years, Aloyana felt an instant attraction. "Yes, your arrival has caused quite the stir," Aloyana said matter of factly.
Muluk looked around the room, and his smile widened. "So this is where the master does her work?"
That's right, mister-" she stopped herself. "I'm sorry, what should I call you?" she asked.
"Please just call me Muluk."
The taxidermist and tyrant chatted for some time. He had a seemingly endless number of questions to ask her about the area and about her work. He observed while she inserted the bird's teeth back into their dried flesh pockets. He hung on to her every word until Aloyna realized that was the most about herself she ever divulged to another person. She'd done it without a second thought. Face to face, it was surprisingly easy for her to separate him from the horrific stories she had heard. The masses of faceless dead were an abstraction, but he was real.
"Who taught you?" he asked while carefully studying the texture of the opposable thumbs that had grown on the paws of a bear.
"My mother. The women of my family have been practicing our special form of taxidermy for many generations."
"So, are you from a dynasty?" Muluk asked.
Aloyana smirked, "Yeah, I suppose so."
"I hope to build one myself," Muluk said reflectively. "One, everything I conquered will belong to my children."
"Would it be out of line for me to ask," in a rare instance, Aloyana hesitated, "to ask about your profession?"
"I have no profession," Muluk said proudly. "Only a destiny."
Aloyana raised an eyebrow. "Destiny?"
"I am using my army to find everything I need to bring back the electric age," Muluk declared.
"I see," Aloyana replied flatly.
"Alana, I can't tell you how glad I am that you're this amicable. I am going to March my armies north until I've chained the Black Sea to the Baltic, so I will be around quite often, and I want you to reserve all your best pieces for me." You can still sell the others to whoever you like, but I want the best saved for me."
I, see," Aloyana repeated, slightly averting her eyes while she sipped from a glass of water."
Muluk seemed to detect her sudden discomfort and gently smiled. "Aloyana, the reason I didn't bring any Luetents, advisors, or a bodyguard is because there are times I'd like for people to be able to talk to me frankly and honestly."
"General Muluk, please understand I wish you a long life, good health, and success in all your endeavors, but what I make is priceless. That monkey pawed bobcat in the corner, do you know how many of those there are?"
Muluk shook his head.
"Well, that's the only one I've ever seen," Said Aloyana
"Right now, you can have and deserve the best," said Aloyana, "but who knows who the sun will shine on tomorrow."
There was a lingering silence interrupted by an urgent knock at the door.
"Come in!" Muluk and Aloyana called over each other.
Anton was followed in by a shorter man with a dark complexion in dirt-covered combat fatigues who ran up to Muluk and said something in an urgent tone, but in a language, Aloyana didn't understand.
Whatever the news had been, it left Muluk shaken. His eyes widened, and his lips trembled. He quickly regained his composure.
"Aloyana, I'm afraid I must end our meeting."
Muluk hurried outside. There was a group of men on kevlar-clad horses waiting for him. One of them jumped off his horse and gave it to Muluk, and they rode off into the dusky horizon. Aloyana watched him leave from her porch. As she turned to go back inside, her younger son's wife Maria called out her name. She was out of breath and had tears in her eyes.
"What's wrong?" asked Aloyana.
Maria tried to speak, but she couldn't control her sobbing. Aloyana grabbed her and pulled her close. "Maria," she whispered. "Calm down."
Maria caught her breath and tried to speak. "They-" she inhaled again.
Maria breathed out, "they blew open the sarcophagus.
Muluk and his men had ridden their horses to exhaustion. Now they could see the rusty metal wheel emerging from the silhouette of the moon-lit forest and the outline of the crumbling concrete towers. They rode a little bit further when suddenly the path became choked with bodies. Truluck's horse could barely step over the bodies. Everywhere the darkness was groaning, and Muluk felt a taste of iron in his mouth.
"Get me a light!" Muluk ordered.
A horseman turned on a battery-powered lantern and handed it to him. The light revealed burned and bloated faces. Their shedding hair was matted in the blood of their peeling and oozing scalps. The ones that were still alive weakly begged for help from their now impotent warlord.
"What could have done this?" Muluk wondered aloud.
"Water, please water," they begged before spewing out a pool of blood darkened with bile. The weary groans became frantic cries.
"You have to leave! You have to leave!"
Muluk tried to back up his horse, but it stumbled over a corpse, and Muluk fell from the saddle. The body he fell on smashed like ripe fruit under his weight. An instant later, Muluk could hear his guards snaps the reigns on their horses and take off into the night.
Muluk's army had been destroyed over an afternoon. He was in a strange country, and the only person he knew was Alyona. By the time he arrived at her homestead, he was vomiting blood too. His parched tongue was swelling, and his hair was falling out in clumps. His horse had laid down to die back a little ways, but Muluk had shambled forward.
He could see the farmhands leaving the house, each one of them loaded with as many possessions as they could carry. They kept their distance from Muluk when they saw his face.
"H-help," he pleaded, but they recoiled from his outstretched hand.
The door was open, and Muluk could hear flies buzzing around. "Alana?" he called. There was no answer. He staggered back to her workshop, only just managing to hold himself up on the wall shedding teeth as he went.
It took all his strength to open the door, and the first thing he saw was Aloyana, her body slumped back in a chair, blood splattered on the wall behind her pistol in her cold fingers. On the floor were the bodies of her two sons and their family. Anton, the eldest, was cradling a rifle with his toe on the trigger. He was surrounded by his wife and children and their uncle, aunt, and cousins, all face down in the blood draining from bullet punched holes in their brains.
Muluk had come to Chernobyl to harness its power. Still, the same forces the leaders of the old world could barely contain even with all their technology and resources were beyond the control of Muluk. The invisible death he and his army unleashed doomed them all, and now it was free to seep out and spread all over the world.