This cover was drawn by the author.
This episode is PART TWO of THREE.
“Isn’t this a battlefield?” Peridot said as she formed on my shoulder. I eyed the emu and fran below, who enjoyed beverages in the light of their fire and sang jolly songs in celebration of their holiday. From the watchtower, I saw Lieutenant Loom marching in the trenches below. His appearance alone parted the soldiers in his way.
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s supposed to be.”
The tiny Dragon fluttered down the ladder shaft and I followed. She hovered in the chilly air amongst the snowflakes, divine butterfly-like wings mimicking the crystalline beauty of ice crystals. She pointed, “He doesn’t look exceptionally jovial. Wasn’t he only just telling you how he wished for the holiday to be pure? No fighting?”
“I’m not entirely sure this was what he had in mind.” I rose an eyebrow, “You’ve been here the whole time? Why didn’t you say hello?”
“You should know better than most that sometimes it’s better to watch in silence than join in on the fun. You should probably follow him.”
Indeed I should have, and so I did.
Loom marched swiftly through the front-line trenches, and catching up to his head start through the packed trenches was more irritating than I expected. Being around half the frans’ height helped, as I weaved between the blue lizards easier than if they’d been my height. There was an advantage to being to scale with typical sentient races, but also small enough to be discreet. I could still utilize my mouse-hood, even if only when required.
When I caught Loom, the Lieutenant was high on a set of wooden stairs which led up to No Fran’s Land. The desert waste was cloaked in white snow. The fran leader spied through a long spyglass. He grunted quite a few times. The lower-level commanders beneath him cowered in silence.
“Who gave this order? Who made the first move?” Loom growled.
“There was no order given, Lieutenant,” said a shorter, stockier-built fran. His chin plates were on the sharper side. “A letter was sent by some of my marksman across the line. No permission was given. A letter was received from the emu forces, and the two groups of soldiers met mid-field in celebration of Eremas.”
Loom’s scaled brow furrowed. He cracked the spyglass in his claws. “Goyath sets his trap! This invitation is no venture into merriment, but a play on our weakest troop’s desire for festivities. Stop this at once. Grab your best marksman. Kill the emus.”
“Shoot. Them.” Loom growled.
The slick sliver of loading rounds tickled the distant melody of Eremas carols. Two fran soldiers prepared their weapons.
“Lieutenant!” A courier sprinted up. “Lieutenant!”
The message was simple, and it’s delivery clear: a shadow was spotted a hundred meters out. An opening in the fog showed a great menace, malevolent of stride and stature, who made way over the fields towards the jocund celebration.
Loom uttered a single name, “Goyath.”
There was no hesitation from there. For the mistake of desired celebration could not be rectified. Loom’s soldiers, in wishing for the same sanctity he desired for the Eve of Eremas, had opened invitation to the opposition. Open the door in the night and all the beasts can come walking through.
The Lieutenant saw his men out there in the open and took matters into his own hands. He slung the rifle on his back into his claws and charged up the trench ladder with bayonet pointed to the enemy. Several fran took positions around him, prepared to fire should any emu attack their leader.
Peridot grabbed onto my shoulder.
I followed Loom.
Blankets of snow covered the desert clay. Beneath my paws I could feel the hard desert soul refusing to absorb any moistures. The ground was frozen in the cold just as it was in the heat—dry, and cracked, and jagged.
Through a split, bullet-riddled tree trunk, the carolers sat in celebration. Emu troops sat nested as birds do, while the fran lounged about lizard-like. The two peoples passed drink in general comradeship.
Loom marched quick yet cautious in the snow. The unfamiliar terrain certainly took its toll on his speed. The confidence I’d seen before faded just a bit with every step towards the camp.
“What will you do?” I called to Loom.
He turned, surprised to see me behind him, and said, “Goyath’s trap will not work. We will end the demon here.”
Loom raised his rifle. He aimed at the emu sitting beside his troop. But he did not take the shot. He stared for what felt like minutes, weapon raised but idle, and couldn’t pull the trigger. He released his finger and lowered the gun.
Peridot spoke to me, as no one else could hear her if she desired, “He won’t do it. They’ve fought too long to ruin something so miraculous.”
“Lieutenant?” I said.
But in Loom’s hesitation came consequence. On the far end of the field, through the white haze of magical snowfall, a titanic shadow marched towards the jolly celebrations.
I drew my saber and charged my Aura—ready to throw any sorcery I could muster. I ran past Loom, and around the singing soldiers, and slid through the icy desert ground until I was cast in the shadow of him.
Alone in the snow covered desert, sky darkened by precipitation, two deep red eyes pierced through the fog towards me. He was four times an emu’s height, plated in bayonet blades which had consumed his feathers, and a wicked crown of blades rose from his head.
He took a step towards me, and fully in his shadow I was. I knew, then, that this Goyath was not some regular bird-person. There comes a time when you are powerful enough to know power—to feel it’s very presence. And in Goyath I sensed a magicality none of the fran could have comprehended.
Whatever foul being stood before me, he was no emu. Not anymore.
I prepared to play defensive. No reason to run up to an opponent and go wild. Caution is important when unaware of another’s power.
“He is dripping with divinity,” Peridot whispered, “he has made some kind of deal, or pact, with a greater being, perhaps? Or perhaps the fear of him has manifested in a physical response.”
She’d confirmed what I already knew. The story of taking the name Goyath in defiance of the tranquility god was no exaggeration. He’d become as mighty as other demi-gods and half-gods I had faced down.
Luckily, I’d killed quite a large number of those.
He never struck. His red eyes watched me, studied me, inspected me. He did not attack. And I saw in his eyes the same senses I had. Power recognizes power.
Goyath sensed my magic. He may not have known the extent of my ability, or what exactly I was, but he knew I was different.
Goyath stepped past me. He moved to the singing soldiers, whose opposing sides of emu and fran darted eyes between Goyath and the approaching Loom.
Goyath stood beside the fire, and nodded to Loom. Eventually, he sat, and Lieutenant Loom made way towards the group, he too took a seat. From both sides of the trenches, troops from each other’s opposition came into the silent firelight. Many stayed behind—many. But many came into the battle-torn lands between the trenches. And after several minutes of shuffling, and discomfort, and confusion, Lieutenant Loom sang aloud, alone, and with every word sung another voice joined in, until by the chorus the snowflakes trembles in the voices of solemn singing soldiers,
The lonely gun strides to the sun,
Feet tired and trodden and broke.
Head low, soul lower.
He sharpened the blade, rests in the glade,
He dreams of dew, and dancing, til he woke,
Trembling and tired.
So he make way,
He make way to the bridge,
Where many have gone.
So he make way,
He make way to the crossing,
Where many have lost.
Oh he’ll make way,
But he won’t go home.
Oh he’ll make way,
But he ain’t going home.
While the carols reached out into the evening, and eventually the night, I found myself insatiably intrigued: this was no trap, so why was this menacing Goyath so calm?
If Goyath was the destroyer that Loom told of, why was the giant steel-plated bird relaxing between his own soldiers and the enemy, silently swaying his neck to the rhythm?
Peridot on my shoulder, I moved in the shadows of the sitting soldiers. Goyath nested on the far side. The massive emu appeared like a great monolith. I came near, and his head picked up. Two burning red eyes sat beneath wicked long eyelashes.
“Goyath,” I said. There were not many others in the vicinity, as it seemed even his own troops kept their distance.
“Stranger,” he said, voice smooth and masculine—the kind of commandment only found in the most successful politicians. “You have eyed me since my arrival. Do you wish to duel, and disrupt this peace?”
“I heard you are not one for peace.”
“No, but my emus require boosted hope. Best to sit across from the enemy, share a drink, and a laugh, before the battle is over. Brotherhood is not always in blood, for brothers wrestle, and fight, and play, and yet they share experience and life. War is the greatest brotherhood. Tremendous battle, insurmountable pain, and impossible betrayal of life itself.”
I sat beside the emu-lord. “I do not wish to duel. Not yet.”
“What is this war?” I asked, snowflakes landing on my nose. The singing of the soldiers echoed out into the night. “Why do you fight the fran?”
“These lands were ours, once. Great prairies upon which our emu kingdom stretched. But the lizards came in their blue-scaled skins, and they decided feathers did not own this land. Some five decades ago, now, the first culling occurred. The fran did not expect us to be so ferocious. For we do not wear clothes, or carry guns, or drive their vehicles,” Goyath shook his steel-feathered head, “but we speak language, and know battle. Societies so advanced as the fran forget the value and might of our ‘primitive’ peoples. I am one for peace, stranger, but they offer me the wrong kind.”
“I’ve led similar fights. Against larger, oppressive regimes. I understand that pain of being discounted. But I also understand the might of cultural flames—and how quickly they burn when war ignites.”
“Burn they do.” Goyath eyed me, “You are not of this world.”
“I have met others like you. A strange fleshy girl mage, who said she walked between worlds. And my people have stories of great birds in the sky who danced between the stars.” Goyath scratched a rune in the snow, “I once destroyed a mighty mage who claimed to have seen a great storm of elements, so massive there is no end—an eternal elemental maelstrom. He was mad.”
“The Elemental Belt,” I said.
“You have seen this place of madness?”
“Yes. Several times. Though I imagine this is a long, long time from where I saw it. The Elemental Belt is always enduring—no matter where, or when, I travel, the vast realm is always there.” I set my jaw, “That is where I learned of war. That is where I learned of the price I’d pay to walk worlds.”
“You have been to many worlds?”
“Do you always act? Do you always take your place amongst the peoples you encounter?”
“I always choose. Whether that is a side of a conflict, or a dialogue to have, or a person to help—I do not stay idle.”
“I can respect this choice. You learned of war in this Elemental Belt? I learned of war here, in the desert, when the fran cut the throat of my brothers and burned my family alive in the brushfires. . .” he paused, “the greatest lessons cause us the most pain, and gift us the thickest scars. You appear youthful for whatever creature you are, but your eyes. . . they have great age. So many colors.”
“Sorcery,” I said. “My magic—sorcery—can warp eye colors. It can warp a lot of things, but over time, the iris can start to shift. Mine have gone through ah, maybe a dozen different hues? Always changing.” I looked to his eyes, “Why red?”
“Stained,” was all he said on that.
Silence hung for several minutes. I broke it. “The bayonets? Why?”
“The very blade intended to pierce me shall be the shield against my foes, and be the beacon for my purpose. Each one of these was taken from a fran I gutted and devoured. They are a part of me, now. The land they try to rip away from us will be covered in their corpses passed from my gut.”
I assumed he meant feces.
“You are called?”
“As the luster of the stone?”
“I was born beneath the opal stone star sign. To my people, these signs and their names are very sacred. Where I come from, Opaline is a frustratingly common name.”
“Yet now it echoes across worlds, eh?” He chuckled. “Well, Opaline, how do you choose your next step? I have never left these lands I was born upon. I have spent my existence defending them. If I were to leave, I would not even march upon the fran capital to destroy them—I would not reciprocate the genocide they commit. I suppose my choice would be difficult, seeing as I know nothing else.”
“I don’t choose. I’m cursed,” as I said this, I could feel Peridot shrink upon my shoulder. “I move upon the waves between worlds.”
“You are thrown into strange lands and realms—I’d think this difficult.”
“You’d think correctly.”
“And so you are pushed into places against your will, and yet you interfere? Why not be idle and watch the natives? Though I would imagine this is even more difficult than the situation itself. You wield power. And with power comes the void which follows. It consumes like a stomach of sorrow until the yearning gives way, and you fill the space with action—action you must convince yourself is worthwhile.” Goyath’s enormous head shifted, and cracked his neck. He said, “I destroy those foreigners who’d claim my land as their own and slaughter my people to take it. I have the power to obliterate all these enemies know and love. And I use that power accordingly.”
“I see. Thus, you’d understand I cannot be idle.”
“Thus, you’d understand I cannot.”
“Yet you take this moment of peace? You sit beside your troop as they sing songs with the enemy?”
“A fleeting moment, which history will, someday, see as a tragedy. The ‘Tranquil Night Tragedy,’ or some variant of the name. I see the fran writing books on the ferocious emus turning on them when the singing was done, and I see my people passing stories down of the fran betraying our trust after the songs went silent. Fleeting moment. A lesson in both humility, and hubris.”
“Then tomorrow, war begins again?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps the day after Eremas. When the snow thaws.”
In the carols of the soldiers and the shadows of the firelight, Goyath’s bayonet crown shimmered like the headdress of a great priest. The haunting red eyes of the warlord rested on the soldiers.
“What of a duel?” I said. “You and I. Alone. The victor proposes the solution.”
“Funny little fur-rat, that you would think either side would accept such a deal. Just as the fran believe they have a right to this land, you believe you have any right to our stakes? You are an invader, Opaline, and no matter what you tell yourself—you are nothing more than that.” Goyath glared to me, “And I? I am a killer. No matter why I do it. . . I’m not so sure purpose matters in light of passion.”
There was a pause, and Peridot fluttered in front of my eyes, stretching her wings and shining lustrous purple in the firelight. Invisible to Goyath and the soldiers, I thought of the significance of their proximity to such a mighty being, and how they’d never know how magical this moment was.
“And so you killed before the fran invasion?” I said.
“I’d united thirteen clans of emu. Tens of thousands. I’d slaughtered hundreds to take what was mine. And now our unification provides a wall against the fran.” He hissed, “We will duel, WorldWalker, though for no stakes other than this—I wish to taste the flesh of a wizened mind, and hardened skin, and eyes which have seen countless wonders. I wish to kill you merely to prove my power, and revel in it’s magnificence. But I ask you this—when we meet upon this field, why do you march to me? Why do you kill me, should you be victorious?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, unable to admit the truth: that my actions and choices were all which kept me from madness, and even the killing of an adversary was nothing but a way to find purpose I’d lost.
“What tragedy that is,” Goyath said. “What tragedy indeed.”
Little could Goyath know that my tragedy would pale in comparison to his. For our duel came upon the next night, and the outcome could never have been prophesied. He was correct. The truce at the trenches would never last--it was nothing but a fleeting moment.
To be continued. . .