Wednesday, November 16, 2011


By Jon-Paul Stracco

Edward watched the glow of the torch fade into the black mouth of the cave from a hundred paces back with his men.

He closed his eyes and prayed a single familiar line, “mighty Rhagen help us.”

It was a request to the god and protector of their city for the safe return of his soldier, James. He didn’t feel the prickly heat upon his neck that signified Rhagen was close and wondered if it was because they were too high in the mountains. It worried him.

Two days ago the unit had been escorting their king and queen at a meeting of alliance with their neighbors to the south, the Wunsons. A new treaty had been signed. While marching home the men had sang victory songs at the top of their lungs until the last segment of forest before the fields, when huge clouds of smoke had filled the sky above the trees. Edward had called for a full sprint.

In the fields they had slowed to a walk, then halted altogether. Some had tripped over their own feet and fell. Their beloved fortress city had been reduced to a pile of smashed stone, bent metal and glowing embers.

The king and queen, still high off the success of the conference had stumbled out of their coach and collapsed. The king had died from shock. The queen had crawled back into the coach and locked the door, refusing to speak or take nourishment. The soldiers had circled the city three times, calling out for survivors.

There had been a few, huddled in the rubble, their eyes still brimming with fear. Others had crept out of the forest staring at the sky, startling at the slightest odd sound. They had spoken of a starless night, fire from the sky, screams upon screams, the shattering of iron and stone and a trembling earth. They had whispered about a huge mouth, filled with teeth bigger than a man that took their loved ones away.

Edward had climbed through the smoking ruins to the remains of his house and recovered the bodies of his wife and children, crushed under its broken walls. He had buried them in the woods, sat by their graves and felt his love for them burn in his chest like a hot iron. He had prayed to Rhagen to help him exact revenge.

The men had not mourned for long. After burying the few dead they could recover, and without speaking more than a few words, they had gathered a herd of cattle from the fields, and ten carts of grain from the silos. It was enough food for a month. They had fallen into formation, five hundred strong clad in the finest chain mail and leather armor, with supplies at the rear and Edward at the lead. Some of the survivors had begged them to stay, said it was madness to proceed, but they had been ignored.

A trail of broken trees, smeared with blood and ash, had led them through the forest. With axes and long iron levers the men had cleared a path for the cattle and carts. In only two days they had made it past the tree line to the cave in the mountains. Hundreds of boulders, each the size of a horse cart, had littered the valley under its mouth. Some had steamed as a light mist fell upon them.

Edward had asked the men about the cave. One man had claimed that not two years ago he had stood in this exact spot while prospecting for copper and there had been no cave. Others, mostly goat hunters, had agreed.

As Edward awaited James’s return, he controlled the urge to think about what lay in the darkness. He knew better than to try to imagine the unknown, it would only bolster the spirits of fear, that swirled around him.

Instead he did what he always did when the world seemed to press against him, push him into the dark corner. He drew his sword. It was a simple sword with no ornate carvings or etchings. It didn’t have a special name. What was remarkable was how big it was, almost equal in height as some of the smaller men, with a two handed grip. Edward ran his finger along the blade checking for chips or nicks. He had to be careful, it was sharp enough to shave with.

Most men in the region called Edward the greatest warrior alive, the real reason that a city as small as Sangine had been able to retain its sovereignty for so long. Edward didn’t deny it. He had never encountered an equal in battle. Men fell before his tall sinewy frame like leaves off a dying tree, and he knew why. It was because Rhagen favored him. He gave him his strength, his speed, his luck. He put ideas in his head during the midst of battle which never failed. The men he killed by the thousands had always been invaders, hungry for land, for gold, for women, for destruction. They had been hated by Rhagen and at the end of every battle the grasses had drank their blood and the trees and ferns had feasted on their bodies.

When Edward was satisfied that his sword bore no defects, he sheathed it over his back, just as James appeared. His torch and sword were gone, but he appeared unhurt. He jogged up to Edward, his eyes wide, his forehead covered in sweat, but his lips did not tremble. There was something almost serene about his composure. The men leaned in, formed a circle around him.

“It’s a monster,” he said. “I didn’t get a good look at its face, but it’s at least as big as five houses stuck together end to end. Its belly was swollen and covered in scales each the size of a man’s leg. It spoke to me.”

Edward clenched his fists, and felt the prickly heat of Rhagen upon his neck. He was with him now.

“It said it was done feeding, and soon the cave would collapse and it would sleep for more than a thousand years before feeding again. It said that if we attack, it will kill us all, to the last man. When it spoke heat came from its mouth, and I once caught a glimpse of fire.”

Edward patted James on the shoulder. He stepped away and climbed the side of the mountain, turned and faced the men. He had heard stories about creatures such as this, and having seen the wake of its destruction it was easy to believe James. The question was what to do. First he repeated for the men what James had said, then he opened the group to suggestions.

The men quickly offered their thoughts. They believed that the beast was bluffing, that its stomach was too stuffed with their people and it was vulnerable. Edward agreed. A plan formed to smoke the monster out of the cave, shoot it with a giant crossbow and attack from all sides. Edward took a vote and everyone raised their hand.

At that very moment the door to the coach flew open, and the queen came forth, ragged and wild haired as anyone had seen. She stood before them, swaying, then her body stiffened and her reddened eyes grew wide.

“Kill it!” she screamed in a raspy voice and raised her hands above her head.

The men burst into cheers.

Edward set camp a half mile from the cave, behind a ridge. Some of the men went down into the forest to fell trees, while others hauled them into piles with the help of the two huge horses from the royal coach. At the top of the ridge, just out of sight from the cave, fifty men built the frame of a crossbow as big as a house. A select few went into the forest to gather just the right fibrous plants to build its massive, elastic string. The cattle were kept in a large glade half way down the mountain, and slaughtered in groups of five. Barrels of grain were made into bread daily by ten men with bakery experience. The queen, cleaned herself up, took regular meals, put on her crown and wandered the camp inspecting things and giving advice. Some of the men made her a throne and sometimes she sat in it and seemed content.

Edward kept busy coordinating tasks between the different units, often lending his muscles to help free a jammed log or twist a vine into rope. Once in a while he found himself sitting on a stump and thinking about his wife and two kids and life in the city. Sometimes he questioned why Rhagen had allowed their deaths. Had they done something wrong? He always pushed this question from his mind and remembered that the ways of Rhagen were beyond him.

In one week the giant crossbow was finished, mounted on wheels. The queen conducted a small ceremony over the machine, praying to Rhagen, and carving the city’s symbol into its side, a hawk and a sword. The men loaded a giant arrow, made from a perfectly straight tree as long as two men end to end and almost a forearm in diameter.

The machine fired with a great snapping noise, and the arrow cracked a large boulder in half. The queen clapped her hands, and the men, bright eyed and big grinned, roared with approval. Edward felt something rise up in his chest, something light and wonderful, like when his children were born or he first fell in love.

That night Edward dreamt he was in a lush valley in a new land. The men were there, building houses. There were huge trees full of fruits and nuts, fields flush with crops, and venison drying in the sun. There were women, and little children. He talked with James about the five pound trout he had caught earlier in the day in the lake near the village. He woke with a smile on his face, but it faded before he had thrown off his blanket.

Two days later, on the eve of their attack, the group leaders gathered in a circle around Edward and reviewed their plan. At dawn they would set up the crossbow twenty paces from the entrance of the cave, off to the right. Men had been crawling down the slope every night, removing stones, patting down the ground to make a path for the machine. The bulk of the soldiers would take positions to the left and right of the cave, with directions to spread out when the monster showed itself. The horses would pull a pile of dried wood, lashed together with ropes, down the slope to the mouth of the cave.

To hide their scent, the men dipped their clothes and armor in a solution made from boiled pine needles and bark. Edward paced around the camp, holding his sword in front of him, sharpening the blade with a stone. The queen took to her throne and gave a rousing speech about honor, the dignity of their people, and their will to survive no matter the odds.

This last part of the speech struck Edward as strange because the monster was asleep. Men had been hearing its loud snoring for the past three days. For a moment he remembered his wonderful dream, and almost burst out with it, but instead toasted his men with a cup of special elixir to help quiet his nerves, drank from it, went to his tent and fell fast asleep.

Edward heard light rain falling on his tent walls when he woke and smiled. It meant no shadows, due to the clouds, and plenty of cover noise, due to the rain. The burn pile, covered by a blanket of soldiers’ capes, would still be dry.

Without Edward saying a word the men carried out their plan. First the crossbow was wheeled into position. The path the men had constructed was as smooth as a flat rock, and the wheels had been greased well. It made no sound. Next the men crept down to their places. Not one tripped, coughed or dislodged a single stone. Edward quietly drew his sword as the horses approached with the burn pile.

With every hoofed step Edward felt his heart beat a little faster. One of the horses neighed and Edward swallowed hard, but the rattling snore of the monster did not stop. The horses became nervous near the entrance and their handlers had to lead them with great care and skill.

“Mighty Rhagen help us now,” Edward prayed.

The burn pile dropped quietly into place. The blanket was ripped away and a small torch thrown into its center. Clouds of black smoke drifted into the cave. The horses galloped back to the top of the ridge where the queen sat in her throne, holding a golden bow. Edward’s chest swelled, despite not feeling the prickly heat upon his neck. His men had achieved perfection.

The morning passed. The rain stopped and the clouds broke up. Sun poured down, and their armor sparkled. The fire was nearly out. Edward looked up, worried somehow they had been tricked.

At that moment a cloud of smoke wafted from the cave and with it, came the beast. It was as tall at the shoulder as the walls of their former city, and built like a heavily muscled, short legged bear. Its head resembled that of a massive fish.

“Fools,” the monster grumbled, and Edward felt the ground vibrate.

“Fire!” Edward screamed.

There was a tremendous crack, like the splitting of a tree down the middle, as the arrow hit the beast in its bulging side just behind the top of the front leg. It penetrated almost fully, a perfect shot. The monster closed its eyes and groaned.

The men whooped and charged. A stream of flame shot over Edward’s head, and he felt the heat through his armor. Agonizing screams came from behind him, as he bore down on the beast’s front leg, sword in hand, heart pounding. He struck with his full power, his long frame snapping the huge sword forward like a whip. A small piece chipped off the leg sized scale. He swung again, but the beast shifted its leg and he hit the rocky ground, the impact rocking his arms and shoulders. He swung again, but only managed to chip off another small corner of the scale.

The rest of the men swarmed around the legs and pried at the scales with pikes and spears, cut between its toes with swords and axes, and fired arrows into its underside. The beast kept moving, knocking the men down, and crushing them underfoot. Its legs were wider than the oldest trees in the forest.

Edward felt something cold rise up in his chest and over his neck and saw his hands were trembling. One of the men called out. The beast side stepped and the man disappeared under its heavy foot. They had been tricked. This was not meant to be a fight, Edward realized. It was a rout, a punishment. Even with the great arrow in its side the monster was still ten times their equal.

The thoughts came fast, in a flash of knowing. Rhagen had used Edward and his soldiers to punish bad men for years, but now it was they who were being slaughtered like cattle. Maybe Rhagen had not just abandoned them and let the creature destroy their city. Maybe Rhagen had summoned this horrible monster. Or perhaps, Edward thought, his mind racing, the creature was Rhagen himself!

Edward fell to his knees. It was over. Rhagen’s will was Rhagen’s will. He started to bow his head, but caught sight of James crawling towards him, his legs broken, blood gushing out of his mouth. Good old James, Edward thought.

Reaching out, Edward caught hold of his hand and held it as he saw the light go out of his eyes. He thought of the bodies of his family, disfigured and wide eyed. It wasn’t right, Edward thought, that Rhagen should be so fickle, so quick to destroy such good people, and so sadistic in his methods. Something stirred inside him. He stood up.

A burning feeling rose up in his guts, spread into his chest and outwards into his arms and legs. It pulsed with hatred for Rhagen. A thought came into his head of a single crow dive bombing a large blood tailed hawk, going for the neck, driving it away from its nest. He knew it was not one of Rhagen’s supplanted ideas, but his thought alone.

Edward sheathed his sword, and placed his hand upon the beast’s scales. They felt cold and hard like stone, and were ridged at their bottoms, making excellent hand and foot holds. Soon he found himself on the beast’s shoulders. He saw flames shooting everywhere, the catapult on fire, and many of his men on the ground, their armor blackened.

Laying on the top of the beast’s head, Edward drove his blade into its cow sized eyes. The monster let out a horrible wail and began to stomp and kick its feet. Men were kicked against the side of the mountain and broken apart.

Edward crawled backwards to the base of the neck. He stood up and struck downwards, smashing the scales apart like they were made of dried clay, making two shallow slits. He stuck his feet in the holes. Anchored, he chopped between his legs into the white flesh, until there was a seam deeper than his blade could reach. He sliced parallel to the seam, hauled out the large slab of tissue, and jumped down into the bloody pit.

The monster slowed, its breathing labored, its muscles shaking. Edward’s legs burned, his arms trembled. The creature shook its head, but Edward was in too deep.

“Vengeance upon you Rhagen,” he screamed, slashing at the vertebrae. Bone chips the size of human skulls flew in all directions. The beast swayed. Edward plunged his sword down into the core of the spine and felt it snap.

The beast slowly went to its knees without a sound, then gently toppled onto its side. Edward’s legs gave out when he hit the ground. He lay panting, bathed in sweat, next to the monster whose blood flowed freely from its mouth, eyes, nose and a thousand wounds covering its body. His men had done well.

Anger lifted Edward to his feet. He did not raise his hands over his head and whoop the way he usually did when the battle was won, a shrill, high pitched cry like that of the blood tailed hawk. Instead he bellowed, “Rhagen is dead!”

No one answered. He screamed again. There was silence. He ran behind the monster and started to yell, but the sound died in his throat. His men littered the ground like fallen acorns; torn apart, crushed, and burned. Nothing moved. The fire smoldered in the cave. A tiny trail of smoke drifted into the blue sky. He turned and looked up at the throne on the ridge. It was knocked over, the queen’s body next to it, under a small boulder. He dropped his sword and searched among the boulders, but found only dead bodies.

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Jon-Paul loves living in the hills of Vermont with his wife, infant daughter and two dogs. He enjoys wandering the woods, going on adventures, running barefoot and making up stories. His work recently appeared in Pulp Empire: Volume Five.


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