This cover was drawn by the author.
This episode is PART ONE of THREE.
I peered through the spyglass across the wastes. Orange, cracked soil stretched below crawling fumes and fog. Trees murdered by malnourishment or bullet fire stretched up from their sun-bleached roots in a final, desperate hunger for rain, or sunshine, or anything that wasn’t smog.
“Any sign?” called Lieutenant Loom. His deep voice faded at the ends of his words like wheezing breaths.
“No,” I said, turning the spyglass gently over the far off fumes. Midday, even the sun could barely come down through the machine exhaust and smoke in the air. A fire burned somewhere between two dead trees. It seemed to be a vehicle—a medic truck of some kind.
Then, a dark shadow. Swift, silent, stealthy. The huge shaded form disappeared as the fog rolled over.
“I saw one around one hundred meters out,” I took my eye from the spyglass. Lieutenant Loom towered over me. The meter and half tall Fran wore a decorated orange coat to blend into the rock of the desert, though it couldn’t hide the blue reptile’s features. His nostrils flared and his eardrums vibrated with an angry, fanged snarl.
“A hundred meters? Scouts are closing in.” he tapped a cord running along the trench line, which vibrated, sending the signal down to another officer. Dozens of other blue scaled, reptilian fran manned their stations in the trench behind him. They reloaded rifles, sharpened bayonets, and some hung patiently in wait of broken silence.
“How dare they come so close.” Loom took to the trench-mounted spyglass. The metallic contraption shrieked as he rotated the visor. “This is not the time for such invasions.”
“Wasn’t there just a firefight last night?” I said, confused, as I had only just come to this world the night before, and ran towards the wild gunfire once I heard it. That is when I met the blue scaled fran, and explained I was here to help.
Strangely, they accepted my help—a sure sign of desperation.
“Last night, yes,” Loom said, “but we are at the Eve of Eremas. I would not have advanced my troops today.” He eyed the dozens of Fran in the trenches who hung on his word, “I would not have commanded their readiness if it weren’t for these sightings. Did you see one in full, Stone-breather?”
To show my strength, I had demonstrated my stonefire sorcery for the fran army behind the trench lines. My name was now Stone-breather to the rock-dwelling reptiles.
I shook my head, “Only a shadow. I didn’t see it in full.”
“You are lucky, stranger, for the emu are horrifying beasts of feather and fang, talon and terror. Eyes like bullets and screams like bombs. You will envy your ignorance once you look upon one in the light.”
Emus were birds which recurred across the Garden—sort of like cattle, or chickens, or dogs, or spiders. Most animals or beasts were templates, Peridot once told me, “Created by Loche and given to the Dragons to build their worlds by.” Hence why so many beasts were familiar to me no matter the world I arrived at. Hence why humanity was the most common sentient race—they were, anecdotally, modeled after Loche’s original mortal creations.
Emu were familiar, though ferocious, malicious, war bands of emu were new to me. I’d never encountered anything like this before.
“I have seen emu,” I said, “though I expect your variety to be different.”
The differing concepts and linguistic translations of animals always intrigued me; the Dicerians have chickens fifty feet long, scaled head to toe, which run ninety kilometers per hour and have maws of a hundred teeth. Chickens on my homeworld were buses for us mice—barely larger than a housecat.
I deduced these emu may have been similar in such a distinction.
“Different they are,” Loom took the rifle on his shoulder and ran his tongue along the bayonet, “I shall taste the blood of Goyath this day. If he will run his army across No Fran’s Land into our trenches, then we will open fire. Eremas is tomorrow, but I suppose we will desecrate our holiday to survive.”
The air over the past few hours grew colder. The wave of war-fumes was backed up by a grey haze of clouds above. The desert attuned to an unnatural chill.
Lieutenant Loom remained silent for half an hour. I knelt by his side in the depths of the trenches, watching dozens of Fran soldiers run about into position. They all left me, alone, for a time, as they prepared farther sections of the trench. And I sat alone, holding my knees, pondering the nature of the battle ahead.
Would this be another victory on my life where I had aided one side, or a stain of failure? How much could my cosmonaut power help these people? I hoped a great deal, for it seemed to me that Loom and his fran soldiers were the right side to have chosen.
I hoped they were. I truly did. And that was all I could think of this entire time in solitude: I made the decision to choose sides—to always choose sides—but sometimes you make the wrong choice. Sometimes you side with the maniacs.
The fran soldiers returned. I manned the spyglass. Several shadows were spotted. Time passed, and the air’s chill increased. Loom raised his hands, and caught a snowflake. I raised an eyebrow, and he explained, “Eremas is the day of rest, Stone-breather. The sun hides behind the clouds, and the great Sualk brings cool to the stone wastes, and snow to the ground. The gift of cold rolls in.”
I nodded, feeling a hint of relief. My mammalian ancestry imparted a preference of cold over heat. I’d always preferred snuggling in a pile in the snow to trudging alone in the heat.
“You are a warrior?” Loom said, “Like my soldiers? Strange, Stone-breather, that you come as an emissary of our victory with so little explanation.”
“I have been a soldier, a vagabond, and a commander. . . a king,” I drew my star spear. The white illuminated lance shined brilliant in Loom’s reptilian eyes. He admired the weapon. I said, “I understand your position—protecting your men, needing to advance but wishing to remain calm. The need to collect bodies out there but the fear of more soldiers being shot. . .” I remembered how many battles I had taken part in, and then how many I had commanded. All of it flashed before my eyes in a sea of red. When I opened by eyes, snowflakes fell from above, the white wall washed away the crimson memories. I said, “If you worry for my competence, don’t. I have fought opponents beyond your comprehension, I have led 100,000 gremlins against a horde of kr—,” I caught myself on jargon this Lieutenant would not understand. I continued, “You have seen my stonefire breath. Wait until you see my fighting.”
“Bullets will rain on you.”
I pulled out my crystal shield, and the separate gemstones shifted into place to form a tower shield. I stuck the shield into the trench mud.
“Let them rain,” I said, expecting a shower.
Loom grinned, “I wanted to make sure you were not some magician, here to play hero. That is all.” He took out a pack of some sort of drug, and lit a small white stick. He smoked the stick and lie against the inside of the trench.
“When will you strike?” I asked, feeling anxious. The other fran had been prepared for the better part of an hour.
“When Goyath calls across No Fran’s Land, and shrieks so shrill that none can mistake him.”
I peered above the trench brim—considered an idiotic move due to the opposing side’s ability to fire at your head, but I wanted a clear look.
Eerie snowfall clung to the desert floor, piling over bodies, dead trees, everything.
“Eremas is the great gift of the desert. All year we wait for this time of gifts,” Loom said. “For if the gods gift us these coolest of days, then all us fran gift as well. It is a great exchange.” Loom dusted off his back and led me through the trenches. Soldiers remained at the ready, though the Lieutenant relaxed himself, perhaps in denial of the emu-force’s prospective attacks on a sacred holiday. The trenches were designed with a large front line, then halls fifty to a hundred meters long leading back to camps built into trenches. These labyrinthian designs helped keep the fighting soldiers on rotation, and the resting troops and commanders away from bullet fire and emu talons. The design also allowed for there to be some semblance of normal life, as the trenches were wider as we moved towards the back of the line, and I passed leather sporting balls, bats, tables with cards and such. Briefly, I thought of Patchwork, and teaching these people to play, but our time was bound to the inevitability of battle.
The snow which fell into the trenches quickly became mud from lizard fran claws marching to and fro. I was not a fan of the march back, but what Loom showed me was well worth it.
Standing tall in the center of a barrack-trench, high above the tench line where anyone could see for kilometers, stood a cactus of enormous size decorated with every kind of jewelry one could find. Rings, earrings, nose piercings, scale piercings—something common amongst the fran, and bracelets, necklaces, and on. The needles of the upside-down pyramid-shaped cactus stuck out perfectly perpendicular, and so the jewelry hung down like hanging lights from each needle.
Underneath the cactus were piles of journals, letters, wooden carvings, and scraps of clothes.
“For Eremas?” I said, walking towards the celebratory display.
“Yes. Home, gifts would be more. . . extravagant. But here, on the front, the men will give their last favorite thing to their fellow soldier. A prized diary, their favorite gloves. . . generosity at its finest. We were supposed to sing today. To celebrate.” He growled.
“They haven’t struck yet. That Goyath you mentioned hasn’t called. Perhaps they don’t want to do this, either.”
Loom glared, and he pulled a monocle from his coat. He handed the monocle to me, and said, “You say you have fought many monsters? That you have led wars? Look upon this fiend, Goyath, and tell me if he is the kind to pay reverence to tradition.”
In the lense I saw a vision of a wicked battlefield—a desert scarred by blood and feathers. Scaled corpses lined the ground, eardrums bouncing to the step of a titan behind them. A bird four meters tall thundered as he walked, with black feathers streaked with desert dust and the blood of his victims. A hundred meter-tall emus marched behind him. This creature commanded the very ground upon which he strode.
Several corpses dared to move. The lips of the dying fran called to a god in futile prayer. These blue fran trembled in the emu’s shadow, and the great beast drew his talons—forged of steel—and ripped their chests open. He feasted on their hearts.
“He was called another name, in a language unknown to us,” said Loom as the vision went on, “but he heard our soldiers praying to the god of tranquility, Goya. He heard their prayers to Goya so often that he himself adopted the name Goyath—as our armies believe that the emu killed Goya with his mere existence, and Goyath, the embodiment of war and hate, has taken his stead.”
“He took the name of the very god his opponents prayed to?” I couldn’t help but feel some kind of respect for such a terrifying choice.
The vision faded to a prairie littered in brush patches. Several large trucks drove downroad with a dust cloud in their wake. An orange uniformed fran commander sat high on the truck, peering out with a spyglass. His soldiers pointed ready firearms out of the windows.
From the dust cloud roared a wicked wail, and the shriek was so powerful it burst into the back of the truck and flipped the vehicle onto the truck ahead. Both crashed.
Goyath charged from the cloud—using the vehicle’s own dust as cover—and leapt onto the truck. He tore the engine from the chassis and flapped his wings, trapping smoke beneath the vehicle. With sharp beak and talons he wrestled several soldiers out.
They shot him at least a dozen times. He did not flinch, and only then did I see that now his head was covered in steel feathers. He bit their heads off and swallowed them whole. The trucks caught on fire, lighting the emu warlord in a brilliant shimmering blaze.
A commander crawled from the truck. He accepted his fate. Goyath drove his steel talons through the fran’s heart. Green blood pooled. Goyath took the rifle from the commander’s back, carefully broke free the bayonet, and attached his trophy to his talon.
“He collects the bayonets of all he kills,” Loom said. “For special prizes, he places them on his talons. But for regular soldiers, Goyath has taken an even more evil path.”
The vision burned in the fire, and suddenly I saw the trenches—the front lines. The dead of night—nothing to see but the stars above. A hundred fran soldiers cowered with their rifles in the trench. They trembled, though their faces were stern and focused.
A shriek pierced the quiet and barreled down through the trench, sending a dozen soldiers flying meters into the air. Goyath charged from No Fran’s Land straight into the trenches. This time, his body was covered in steel feathers—each bayonets of his victims.
He charged through the trenches in merciless, malevolent, malicious slaughter. Gunfire sounded off but merely bounced off his metallic hide. Soldiers prodded with their bayonets but Goyath only stripped them of their heads and added their weapons to his body.
“A great spirit has given him this terrible power,” said Loom. He took the monocle from my eye, just as Goyath shredded another commander. “And we will stop the demon here, today, should he dare march against us.”
“Yes,” I said, flickering my eyes with sorcery. “I see now that this demon will not care for holidays or respect. He is nothing but a monster let loose from the cage.”
“Yes, yes he is.”
Horns sounded. In the blink of an eye, Loom was halfway across the glade making way back into the trenches. Shocked by the Lieutenant’s reflexive haste, I had to catch up quickly. We marched through the trenches to the front line, where a lower ranked officer said, “Lieutenant, we have a situation.”
“Goyath has struck! Let us unleash all our might upon—.”
“No, Lieutenant, not that.”
“Then we shot first? Which damned officer would go before my order—.”
“No, nobody shot first. Nobody has shot at all, in fact.”
“Then what was the horn sounded for?”
“Well, sir. . . a kilometer down the line. . . well, soldiers are singing.”
Loom eyed his other officers, then me, then the officer imparting this information, “I don’t understand. If they wish to sing, let them sing. We’re on the Eve of Eremas!”
“Oh spit it out, officer! What’s happened?”
The officer took a deep breath, “Look for yourself, sir.” He pointed to a watchtower—built of concrete and steel—and saluted.
Lieutenant Loom scaled that tower as quick as he left me by the cactus display. His reptilian claws and feet made him extraordinarily agile. At the top of the tower, he moved a scrawny soldier aside with a single swipe of his arm and peered through the spyglass.
After a minute of silence, he muttered, “In the name of. . . “ and he stomped away once again.
I eyed the spyglass myself, and on the other end, a kilometer down line, in the jurisdiction of a lower level officer, a squadron of fran troops sat around a fire in the middle of the snow-covered No Fran’s Land. You’d think this would be dangerous, except one tiny detail: emus sat with them.
To be continued. . .