This story is PART 1 OF 4, and will be CONTINUED over the next 4 WEEKS.
“Peridot?” I called out. No answer. “Peridot?” Once more, nothing.
A thick black sand blanketed the beach and swallowed my paws with each step from the water. I knelt and took a handful. The granules were nearer gravel than sand.
Shear white cliffs flanked either side of the beach. The walls stood as a warning. I shouldn’t be there.
And yet I was summoned.
I turned back to the boat. A petite grey man took his anchor from the sand and tossed it aboard his vessel. His white hair and beard were a puffy circle—to the point I couldn’t tell which was the beard and which the hair. Noseless, his mouth engulfed his face and left just enough room for two beady eyes.
I called, “You said there were only a few beaches, right? Is that because of the cliffs?”
He grunted, “Yes. Big cliffs block little boats. Whole island is like table on the sea.”
The island’s surface rose above the water like an enormous coin sliced from perfectly white stone. Towering thirty meter cliffsides gave unwelcome visitors a simple solution—turn around. My eyes twitched from the bright white rock clashing with the black sand. Orange light burned from above. Sulfur lie heavy in my nostrils. Without my stonefire blood, I may have suffocated.
A path cut through the orange haze, as white stone carved in waves towards the black sand beach. The path rose twenty meters between a set of flanking cliffs. An entrance.
There was a calling from that beach. I’d felt it when I first blipped to that world. In my dreams, there was the White Island. And after weeks at port, and asking of my dreams, I found a man to take me there.
His town had been empty. All of the greyfolk were “Taken,” he told me. “Taken by the Island of Lights.” My captain and an innkeeper were all who remained in a town of several hundred buildings. I spent my time sifting through the abandoned architecture and meditating in an attempt to contact Peridot.
But nothing. Only dreams of the island.
Like a hunger, or passion, I had to come to this island. I turned to the captain, and asked, “Island of Lights?”
Yes. We were here.
But where was Peridot? Why was I so drawn to this place?
“Goodbye,” my grey captain pushed his boat into the tides, “Good luck.” He jumped in and gave me a kind salute in departure.
I called for any advice. He responded, “Get in, get out.” He gestured to his ship.
I assured my staying.
“Beware the Goldmen. . . beware their fury,” he said, and then he rowed off into the reaching calm sea. When I peered up the path, three hulking humanoids stood at the highest rise where the beach swept into the rock.
Three yellow, muscular forms, sent shadows down the black beach.
For a brief second, they seemed to back in fear.
Then three became seven.
Then seven became nine.
They didn’t seem so scared anymore.
I dove into the water and rummaged through my Boundless bag. Crystal. I grabbed my crystalline buckler and tapped the secondary switch. The shield gems clicked into place and into a wall in front of me. Water splashed through my whiskers. The wall was taller and wider than me—clear as glass.
Bright crossbow bolts whistled past. They struck my shield and soared by, missing my flesh by centimeters.
I ascended the shore slowly. Each step was a calculated move through the washing tides and bolts. By the time I invaded beach, half of the yellow hulks were dressed in technologically inclined armor. Uniform bodysuits for three meter tall aliens.
I held my shield close and tried to get a clear view through the crystal. These hulks didn’t seem to have any eyes. Slits protruded from above their jagged jaws, but were nostrils not eyes.
No eyes. Perhaps they used telepathic sight, or infrared vision.
They hadn’t hit me yet. So maybe they were blind.
A crossbow bolt sheared into my left arm. Word of advice—save the joking thoughts until after you violently subdue an opponent.
I was alone, ashore, on a planet so radiant with magic I could taste it. . . no Peridot—which worried me—no Porbiyo, no sign of any other members of our cursed party.
Something was off about this place. . .
So on that beach I had to make a decision: use my stonefire and deplete my energy, or hold that power and use my tools instead.
Nine hulking aliens was a lot. But instinct foreboded this world was far greater a threat than this squadron alone.
I’d settle for explosives, and save the sorcery.
Injured arm was my shield arm. Good. I could still hold the wall in front of me fine, even if it hurt. The other arm needed to be free.
Three of the nine hulks sprouted green wings from their backs and swept into the orange haze above us.
Crossbow bolts barreled into my shield. I grabbed my injured arm and tried to rip the bolt out.
Nothing was there.
The bolts weren’t metal. They were light.
The three winged hulks fired from above, but hadn’t gone above me yet. The beach was a long stretch between two cliffs. I had a moment to fend them off.
Lasers. . . winged hulks. . . orange air. . . some kind of arcane elemental force was at work. What kind of planet was this?
I fumbled through my pocket and tapped Beep. She manifested in front of me and zipped to the three airborne aliens.
She stung one in the chest, leapt from his skin and her stinger went through another’s skull. She buzzed backwards and jabbed the last one three times in the back—only a few meters from my shield.
They crashed from the sky into the black sand. Venom moved through their veins like puppeteer strings, jerking, twisting and twitching their flesh to a choir of agonized screams.
It wasn’t pretty. But they shot first.
“Good Beep!” I cheered. As she continued stinging the three downed hulks, I evaded a series of shots from the opponents up the path. I shuffled through the depths of my Boundless Bag until my paw recognized the dangerous touch of a cardboard cylinder.
She zoomed over to grab the dynamite sticks and I lit them with a sorcery. Like a pint-sized yellow bomber she soared up the beach, over the stone path, and made a drop for her cargo.
She couldn’t get close enough. They fired too many bolts.
Terrified the dynamite would destroy her, I let down my shield and attempted to distract them. I danced—at least a maladroit attempt at dance—which only worked for a split second. Thankfully all Beep needed was a second.
Three sticks of dynamite. Six soldiers. Half the pathway exploded. I drew my starspear. Only one of the hulks survived the explosion. My spear was through his breastplate before he could stand.
Beep scouted the island ahead. I inspected the corpses. Magical. . . intensely magical. Yellow skin, big black horns, huge claws and lizard-like legs. They were twice the height of a human at three and half meters or more. Huge, muscled, and from what I could sense—ancient.
A cautious sweep of the beach gave me the conclusion of luck. Those soldiers were half clothed, and when I hiked up the path, I found the rest of their armor and weaponry behind the white boulders.
They were relaxing. . . probably swimming. Must have caught my approach in the boat, and sprinted uphill for cover.
That was luck to kill all nine so fast. Beep’s stinger wouldn’t have pierced the outer-plate armor that was hung up on the land. I grabbed a few sets and stuffed them into my Boundless Bag.
You never know when you’ll need an oversized suit of armor. And this kind of technology was rare.
Beep returned after half an hour. I couldn’t directly speak with her. But with the old songs, I could understand her Intent.
She said there was a caravan ahead. I climbed up the remainder of the path. Two white walls flanked either side of me. I felt like I’d stepped into a gate to a new world. Orange air swirled ahead, and I tiptoed onto an entirely white plain of rock.
My paws grazed the surface. Stone didn’t have this burnished touch. Water polished stone with time, but this texture was extraordinary. How could an entire plain have the slippy grain of river stones? Perhaps because it wasn’t stone at all.
I glanced back to the beach. . . those cliffs were concrete as well.
The entire island was cement.
But far ahead, through the cracked plains littered by invasive ivy, a titanic monolith stretched across my vision. A kilometer long, a quarter that in height, violent bright windows scorched through the orange smog like doors to hell.
My fur stood straight up.
I audibly said, “What. . .?” and scanned the horizon. The fog blocked everything, yet the ship was so enormous it demanded to be seen.
The vague silhouettes of more vessels littered my peripheral vision. Peeking bright windows shined through the haze. Jagged concrete steppes shot from the ground like mauled craters and alien plants crawled from the cracks. It was as if the land itself reached to be free of the island, fracturing itself as a chance to be closer to the sky.
Through the varying boulders and steppes, a moving caravan made way as a dark shadow. Beep buzzed. I tapped her scroll and she vanished into her painting.
The caravan followed a winding path towards us. I slid behind a couple of broken ground plates and stuck to the shadows. A few moments later and three metal cars covered in locked doors arrived.
From the look of their shadows, each cart was pulled by a large bovine. Oversized horns hung down rather than up. I couldn’t get a great view. The closer they came, the better I saw them.
And I realized quite quickly I wished I’d never seen them.
The “horns” were not horns at all. Arms sprouted from the cows’ shoulders. From a distance they seemed to be horns. But no—humanoid arms.
Their bovine bodies were muscled and chunky hooves banged against the concrete like weights smashing stone. Whatever horns they once had were sawn off stubs draped in jewelry.
I had seen some horrifying amalgamations in my time, but these cows were amongst the foulest. They weren’t overtly horrifying—nothing like a demon of gluttony or a flesh golem entirely comprised of eyes and hands—but I had seen plenty of worlds with strange animals.
Cows with arms were not amongst them.
The arms were grey. They were most certainly from the race of the captain who had sailed me to the island. Either a wizard stitched the arms onto the cows, or they bred these creatures with the appendages attached. I was willing to bet some kind of sewing, stitching, or other magical attachment.
The island exuded an impious aura. The sight of mutant cows solidified this.
But only when the cows spoke did I really begin to question staying ashore. The first cow said, “Damn. All these Goldmen are dead. You told me they’d be swimming by now.” The arm-cow unlatched himself from his cart and inspected the bodies Beep had bombed. “We needed these. . .”
Two other cows unlatched their carts and marched forward. Their helmets were goggled, and horn stubs were dressed in dangling chains of teeth. In either of their grey arms each cow carried a pike which reflected a crimson stain. Blood.
The second cow said, “Corpses will work. The meat will never be wasted.”
“We needed labor, not meat! They must fulfill their debt before death!”
Screams from the locked cart. Screeching, yelling.
“Damn creatures,” one cow muttered at the yelling. He said, “I am starving, indeed. Meat it will be!”
The cow took a bite out of a Goldman corpse that Beep stabbed. The cow fell to the ground, infected with venom. Another cow slammed the doors of his cart and yelled, “SHUT IT.”
I didn’t need to see anymore. I needed answers.
I drew my saber, slid along the ground and beheaded two cows. As his friends’ heads slumped to the white concrete, the third cow screamed. He mooed and tried to gallop away. Uninterested in a chase, I let him go.
I thought briefly on mercy, but I here screams from a cart and I think slaves. I see slaves, I think oppressors. I’m not kind to oppressors.
A quick search showed that a road lead to my right, which was north, and another road ran south. The cows dragged their carts from the west—where the starship yard loomed.
I would avoid west for now.
Before I truly moved inland I wanted to check the shore. There had to be a port somewhere. My captain told me there were a half dozen beaches and that was all. I could investigate those before following the cows’ trail towards whatever civilization existed inside.
“Peridot?” I called. I focused hard on her soul. No answer.
I pulled out my top and tossed it in the air.
My top never fell.
The trinket spun, and spun, and kept on spinning. The rotation became so bright I couldn’t look directly at it. Minutes went by. I couldn’t believe it. I had to pull the top out of the air for it to stop.
That’s when a sick feeling took hold.
Peridot had never ignored me for days on end. Never. She was in trouble. And if a cosmic time cursed god Dragon was in trouble, then how could a mouse possibly help her?
I didn’t think this in a fearful, questioning way. My friend needed help? I would be there. I meant it in a literal way. How could I approach this kind of situation? By asking questions—the right questions.
What did I know so far?
Dreams of an island? Hulking techno soldiers? Starships? Mutant cows with slave carts? I couldn’t come up with any answers for them isolated. Patched together, and I could see a thread forming.
But first, I had to question the slaves.
“Hello?” I said, and knocked on the first cart. The metal was thick. The locks were touch verified. More advanced tech. “Hello?” I said again.
A furtive, “Hello,” whispered through the fine grate.
I wanted to ask about where I was, and what was going on, but took a glance at the fleeing cow in the shadow of that titan starship and said, “You are locked away, why?”
“For doing our job.”
“Shepherd of the aunikai. Each of us are shepherd of the aunikai.” The aunikai were the cows, it seemed. I sent a jolt of sorcery into the touch lock and fried the circuits, then busted it open with my crystal buckler. Inside, a scrawny grey woman curled in the fetal position. She had tiny black eyes and a huge mouth, and wore a blue and yellow uniform drenched in blood and dirt. The same race as the captain who sailed me here.
I asked the woman why they were imprisoned, and also what the aunikai were, to which she responded, “The aunikai are the work beasts of the Eldest Oldes. Both fodder and slaves to the Goldmen who serve the Oldes.” After a pause, she said, “We are the slaves of the Goldmen, but shepherds to the aunikai. We are just above the animals. . . and not yet worthy minds.”
“These Goldmen. . . you are their slaves?”
She shook her head, “We serve the Eldest Oldes but are not worthy of their Songs. And so we listen to the words of the Goldmen. They command us for the gods they serve. Until the aunikai—our herds for both food and labor—rebelled.”
I knelt beside the armed cow. Such a strange creature. I ran my paw across its hide and obviously sewn on arms, “These were workers? What kind of work.”
She pointed to the huge starship in the background. The sight, once again, gave me chills. “Completion of the Eldest Oldes’ armies. Training, feeding, building of vehicles and vessels.”
“The cows are intelligent, then? These three spoke when I found them.”
She shook her head, “Followed our orders, that was all. They could not speak. Not until two weeks ago. Since speaking, the aunikai rebelled against all of us shepherds. They locked us away and forced us to work. . . began eating our flesh as we once ate theirs. Even caught Goldmen when they could. The Goldmen did not try to stop it. The Eldest Oldes have completed their work. . .”
“. . . and you are not needed anymore.” I set my jaw. “Are there others still alive like you all in these carts?”
“In the old Meat Factory.”
A path traveled north upon the concrete plains. The sea extended beyond sight to my right side and smacked the white cliffs in relentless torture. The land was broken and ancient, but somehow the cement remained pristine as snow.
I followed the faded wheel lines carved into the road. At the end, the grey woman—called Zeb—informed me the Meat Factory stood.
I rounded the vast circular island. More of the enormous starships lurked in my left peripheral, burning bright through the orange haze and shattered concrete plains. Some were smaller than the first, but one was particularly grand. I’d estimate several kilometers long.
Zeb said these were, “Worlds which moved.”
I did not doubt her assessment.
I passed several forested areas. Leave a developed area to itself, and nature always reverted the patch back to its natural state. On an island so unnatural and wrong, the trees and weeded beds which grew between the concrete gave me hope. Perhaps this place wasn’t so bad as it already seemed.
“Eldest Oldes,” Zeb had called her gods.
Those words disturbed me. Something about the magical taste of the Goldmen, and the Eldest Oldes, and these starships. . . I had heard stories of such unimaginable powers, but never witnessed anything in truth.
Peridot was a powerful and ancient deity. She’d seen more universes than I could comprehend. But she never talked about it. During That Time, I’d studied cosmic beings, and met scholars of the great vastness. But being a scholar did not make one an expert. And even experts only know what is revealed to them. The universe always holds her cards close.
I prayed that these Eldest Oldes and their starships were nothing but regular old deities. Perhaps they’d grown tired of their worlds, and wished to convene? That could explain the incredible magics I felt, and why the Goldmen were so magically ancient.
I’d soon discover they were not regular deities. And I’d soon come to learn that everything I had ever known was but a fraction of truth. My capability for understanding was limited by what I had seen.
That capacity would be tested.
The road I began on that Island of Light would, one day, lead me to this very recitation. Back then, I couldn’t have known what lie ahead. Fear drove me as it does all youths.
“Peridot?” I called again as I approached the Meat Factory.
Before I could get to her, and rescue her from whatever, whoever, or wherever had trapped her, I needed an in on this world. Perhaps this Meat Factory drama could lead me in the right direction.
A small, “Main Street” style town, surrounded by vats, scaffolding, and dozens of large machines rose from the concrete. No roof to cover the supplies. Like a massive, inside out factory, the machines and mechanisms were all fitted to the outside of the buildings.
Several of the arm cows, or aunikai, guarded an archway set between two buildings. Being the only obvious entrance, I marched to the archway and drew my saber.
“Aunikai!” I called, and strutted straight to the door. The cows readied spears and smashed their hooves like bulls at charge. “I ask for dialogue with your leader! I believe in the cause,” I did not, “And I wish to pledge aid!” which I wouldn’t.
Sometimes you just have to spew nonsense in a genuine tone, and things work out.
Then, a pair of boots clucked across the archway. A bright red coat swallowed a green one beneath it. His sunhat waved in the toxic orange smog. And his mask spoke a lifeless expression in contest with his vivacious voice, “Oh, look what we have!” His cows bowed to him as he passed.
Porbiyo opened his hands and laughed, “I guess this island is calling everybody these days. You like my army? They’re all very excited! Welcome to the revolution, Ratman!”
I cursed in six languages. Then I cursed again.
But at the very least, I wasn’t alone.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .