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about the author…
I am a novelist, screenwriter, producer, poet, actor, and freethinker who supports both imagination and rationalism. I am an advocate for film and the written word and possibility.
I am a recent (2013) winner in the Writers of the Future contest and have since had work accepted in Escape Pod (“The Nightmare Lights of Mars”), Daily Science Fiction, Apex (winning the 2013 Story of the Year Reader’s Poll), Clarkesworld, COSMOS, Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Electric Velocipede.
about the narrator…
Jeff Ronner is a voice actor, audio engineer, and sound designer. His work has appeared in radio and TV spots, non-commercial narrations, and on those annoying in-store supermarket PA systems. Cleverly disguised as a mild-mannered hospital IT manager during the day, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jeff last read for us in EP439: Cradle and Ume
People of the Shell
by Brian Trent
Egypt’s rolling ice-dunes were suddenly peppered by a new ashstorm, as if a bowl of soot had overturned in the heavens. King Cyrus held up his fist and the war drummer ceased his rhythmic pounding, the oarsmen relaxed, and the sandship ground to a halt in the slush. The ash sprinkled Cyrus’ cloak and collected in his beard. He leaned against the deck rails and stared.
“Do you see that?” Cyrus asked his daughter, lowering his facemask around his smile. “Look!”
The girl squinted. “Are those the pyramids, father?”
“As I promised you.”
Three fires danced high in the darkness. In a world of never-ending night, the Egyptians alone had devised a brilliant defiance. The Giza pyramids were like magical lighthouses, capstones removed, their vast bodies filled with pitch, and red fires lit to smolder like desperate offerings to the vanished sun.
Standing on the sandship deck alongside his king, the Magus Jamshid said, “May they welcome us warmly. We are in no condition to fight.”
“I did not need a fight to take Babylon,” Cyrus reminded him.
“That was before the Hammerstrike, my lord.”
But the king waved his hand dismissively. “I will go to them and look in their eyes, and speak to them as friends, and trust that generosity has not perished with the trees.”
The withered magus grunted derisively. He was bearded and ancient, his skin like the patina of old scrolls. Jamshid wore a dark blue turban, facemask, and a scintillating black robe the same color as his pitched eyebrows. His gaze smoked like hot iron.
The royal sandship stood at the head of the royal Persian fleet. It sounded majestic, Cyrus thought, but only four sandships – with a meager two hundred starving Persians – remained. The men resembled skeletons in their rags. Their leather armor was reduced to chewed twines that the men fisted in their hands, to nibble on in want of food. When the last of the leather was eaten, little trace would remain that animals had ever existed on the Earth.
Cyrus turned to their dirtied ranks. “I give you Egypt!” he bellowed. “It is still here, as I promised!”
Hunger, not hope, blazed in their eyes as they beheld the pyramid fires.
Jamshid touched his arm. “Sire! The runner is returning!”
Cyrus followed the magus’ gnarled brown hand. He saw only falling ash and smoky miasma curling from the ice.
A moment later, the scout emerged into the fleet’s amber lamplight. The man saw the royal sandship and dug his spiked boots into the ice to stop hard. The archers relaxed their bows.
“Sandship, my lord!” the young man cried. “Approaching dark and fast from the southeast!”
“Banner?” Cyrus asked.
“I have not set eyes on it. They run dark.”
“They have seen our lamps,” the magus guessed.
Cyrus stooped to his daughter. She was such a tiny thing, like a miniature of his wife, with an oval brown face and her hair pulled back in the royal style. “Go into the cabin, my dear.”
She nodded and bit her lip. “Are you going to kill people, father?”
“I hope not.”
“Are they going to kill us?”
“Not while I live.”
He gave her a gentle push towards the sandship cabin, a tiny structure in which the king and his daughter slept. Once she was out of sight, he drew his sword and steeled himself for whatever was to come.
To think that man should end his final hours like this, fighting to the death in the ash-heap of history. Cyrus glanced at the sky. The sun appeared in that very moment: a little phantom circle. Then the black-bellied clouds slammed shut across it and it was gone.
A sandship was indeed approaching.
The distinctive grinding thunder of its wheels filled the night. The smoke parted. The vehicle lurched forward on immense spiked wheels. Its deck was crammed with men. They spotted Cyrus’ flagship and a shout of panic rang out. The vehicle veered off and slid to a halt.
Jamshid struck one arm to the sky, and one he leveled at the strangers. “Stand down in the presence of Lord Cyrus! Your lives are now his to spare or take!”
“Lord Cyrus?” A dozen whispers rustled from bearded mouths. Their deck swarmed with men eager to see the legendary warrior-king.
Cyrus stepped into view of the deck’s lamps. Fat fueled the steady light. The king could smell it cooking in the glass lamp. He removed his cowl to display his distinctive bright gold-and-blue headscarf.
“I am Cyrus of Persia,” he projected, striking the delicate balance between chummy salutation and quiet threat. “Who are you and what is your business on the dunes?”
A living skeleton shuffled to the foreign vessel’s bow. Cyrus noted the man’s fine purple cloth, and the gold rings on his fingers… pretty trinkets that had lost their value the instant of the Hammerstrike.
“Mardonios is my name,” the skeleton said. “These men are under my command. We hail from Melos.”
Cyrus made no effort to hide his astonishment. “Melos? The island near Sparta? What are you doing here?”
“The ocean swallowed Melos after the Hammerstrike. We were away when it came to pass.”
Cyrus considered this, feeling Jamshid’s suspicion even where he stood. The Hammerstrike fell in India, of that everyone was agreed. The impact sent trees, fields, and mountains into the sky, and the sky replied with fire and ash. Slowly, slowly, it was all raining down as funerary soot.
And yet… there were rumors. The world was full of rumors. Cyrus had heard that a second Hammerstrike had hit the Aegean Sea as well.
How many times has Angra Mainyu savaged our beautiful world?
Jamshid jerked his head toward the squint-eyed men on Mardonios’ ship. “Answer my lord’s question! What are doing out here?”
“We are hunting.”
“Hunting?!” The magus’ outrage was a caustic blast. “For the invader Croesus, yes? For his relentless cannibal fleets!”
Mardonios blinked in the falling ash. “We do not serve King Croesus. Indeed we are quite indifferent to the enmity between Lydia and Persia, and I fear not to say that your war is from another time, from the days before the Hammerstrike.”
Cyrus bristled at the irreverent tone but didn’t allow his feelings to sway him. Indeed, he laughed. “The Hammerstrike changed nothing for King Croesus, except to replace his appetite for gold with human flesh!”
“We do not consume two-legged mutton,” the stranger said, choosing the common phrase. “As I said, we are merely trying to survive.”
Jamshid cursed. “So the Lydians would pledge! What are you hunting in a world without beasts, if not men?”
Mardonios pointed past the magus’ shoulder, towards the distant fires of Egypt.
“You are hunting the Egyptians?” Jamshid cried. “You cannibal devils!”
“We do not eat the flesh of men!”
“But you wish to rob them of their grain?”
Cyrus stayed his magus and said, “What business do you have with Egypt? They have no food to part with, and the Hammerstrike killed off all beasts along the Nile.”
Mardonios pointed once again to the pyramids. “And in doing so, it delivered a new one.”
The Persian king followed the outstretched finger. This time Cyrus saw what his mind had flatly rejected before. In the steady burn of the pyramid flames, an armored mountain seemed to walk. In the firelight, Cyrus could see multiple appendages – he dared not call them legs – pushing a vast bulk forward through the slush. It was a living thing covered by a pale shell as a nautilus or tortoise might possess. Six, then eight, then ten appendages were revealed, and each was a pylon of muscle as large as the pyramids themselves.
“That is what we hunt,” Mardonios explained in a whisper. “The devilbeast.”
The monster lumbered past the pyramids, shaking the ground as it passed back into blackness.
It was Cyrus’ conviction that the glorious god Ahura Mazda would not permit the human race to end its days as cannibals chasing one another in the dark.
As the sandship fleet resumed its crawl towards Egypt, the Persian king clutched to this belief as if it was the only warmth he needed in a cold and punished world. Before the Hammerstrike fell fifteen years ago, Cyrus had risen to power in a land of sunlight and blood. Persia had been the battleground for a hundred belligerent tribes. Cyrus had looked upon this horizon and understood that the hundred must be united into a single empire if there was ever to be peace. And Ahura Mazda smiled upon peace, being a god of all things bright and beautiful.
Yet there was another god in heaven, and his name was Angra Mainyu, and he was lord of darkness and cold and suffering and evil. The Hammerstrike was clearly his doing. It had hit the Earth just when Cyrus’ empire promised order to all men: an empire where weapons could be cast aside in favor of a child’s fearless smile.
Mardonios the merchant stood beside Cyrus on the royal flagship as they pushed to the flaming pyramids. His ship trailed behind, the diplomatic arrangement being that a Persian garrison was now aboard and in charge.
“We all curse the name of King Croesus,” the merchant insisted. “His sandships are feared and resented, with their evil men and dark appetites.”
Cyrus was still struggling to make sense of what he had seen. He gripped the deck rails, replaying the last few minutes in his mind.
“Is it true,” Mardonions persisted, “that at the time of the Hammerstrike, King Croesus had invaded your empire?”
“It is true,” said the king absently.
“I tell my youngest men that Croesus invaded because he lusted for Persian gold. They do not believe me. They cannot understand that gold was ever a thing to fight over! For them, gold will not fill a starving belly or keep a loved one warm. They have been born into a different world, eh?”
Cyrus nodded, thinking of his daughter in the cabin.
The pyramids loomed to the fleet’s portside. An agora appeared, framed by torchlight, and Cyrus observed a hundred kneeling people, most as famished as his own crew. An Egyptian priest gesticulated wildly and pointed to the sky.
“The Egyptians,” Mardonios shook his head. “They burn their last belongings in the hope that Ra will reappear.”
The king turned to his guest with incredulity. “It seems we should discuss more important matters, no?”
The merchant blinked in confusion.
“The monster,” Cyrus prompted.
“Ah! Yes, sire! What do you wish to know?”
Mardonios was happy to oblige him. Fifteen years ago Mardonios had been a wealthy merchant, facilitating trade among the Hellenes, Persians, and Lydians. When the first sandships began appearing in the wake of the Hammerstrike, he was able to procure one for himself, having the foresight to realize these converted triremes would be necessary in crossing the new deserts of ash and snow.
“Then,” he spoke eagerly, “One month ago, we were seeking food and clean water, when we came across a devilbeast.”
“That is what we call it, sire. It was moving through the snow when our sandship happened upon it. We killed it with our spears and cooked its flesh.”
Jamshid roared his outrage. “Lies! A thousand spears could not bring down the abomination we saw!”
“Let him speak,” Cyrus admonished.
Mardonios shrank from the magus’ accusing stare. “We killed a devilbeast with fifty spears, not a thousand. It was a young one. Perhaps a pup… or maggot. The Hellenes will have to invent a new word to describe these creatures and their offspring!”
Cyrus felt his mind reel again. “There is more than one?”
“We have encountered three, my Lord. Two were young, twice the size of our sandship. The third is what you saw.”
“Then the wizard’s observation stands: How do you expect to bring down such a monster?”
Mardonios said, “They are dull creatures, Lord Cyrus. In my youth in Pasargadae, I once witnessed a starving tiger bring down an elephant. The elephant kept knocking the cat away with its trunk, but the cat was relentless. It slashed and clawed the elephant’s back. Eventually, the animal collapsed in a bloody heap. The tiger ate well.”
“And you expect this tactic will work on something taller than the pyramids?”
Mardonios held out his hands helplessly. “It has worked with the young ones. What other choice do we have?”
They were within bowshot of Giza’s walls now. Cyrus lifted a gilded ram’s horn and blew a lengthy, resonating song. An answering trumpet came from the city – four staccato notes.
“They’re warning us off,” the merchant guessed.
Cyrus answered with another blast, repeating his request that the fleet arrive peaceably. The same response replied.
The king felt a flash of fear, knowing that his starving band of men could no longer be denied the end to their hunger. A trade route with Egypt had replenished their supplies in the past, giving salted meats and bricks of millet, jugs of wine and combs of honey. The memories of those precious treats caused Cyrus’ own hunger to unfurl its claws and scrabble at his resolve.
Mardonios scratched his beard. “They likely have no more food to share. It matters not. The devilbeast – ”
“—is taller than a mountain.”
His guest shrugged. “They can be killed.”
“I will not risk my men in battle with a creature of that size!”
Mardonios flushed angrily. “Then you will die, and one more empire shall perish from the Earth!”
Cyrus’ hand went to his sword-hilt, but in that moment his daughter shambled out from the cabin.
She wandered in a daze as the pyramids flew by, her shadow rotating around her feet like the hand on a sundial. She blinked glassily. Her eyes tried to focus on her father.
“Parma!” Cyrus snapped. “Go back to the cabin!”
She didn’t seem to hear him. She stood like a tiny bell Cyrus had once seen in the Temple of Zoroaster, delicate and beautiful.
But now she wasn’t listening to him. Cyrus didn’t dare turn his back on Mardonios when he said, “Parma, listen to me! It is not safe right now! I need you to…”
Something was wrong with her face.
His initial thought was that it was a trick of the wheeling shadows. Now he perceived the dark smears around her mouth, dribbling down her chin. Blood fell in a grisly rain from one of her ragged hands.
Ahura Mazda! My little girl is EATING HERSELF!!
Cyrus dashed to the girl and pulled her into the lamplight.
Parma smiled weakly and touched his face with sticky, mutilated fingers, ribbons of flesh trailing around exposed bone.
Some men below decks had been reduced to this horror. It started with a gnawing of the hands and wrists. Then like dogs they could chew at bone, salivating helplessly, and would die upon red-stained planks…
Cyrus lifted his waterskin to her gore-encrusted mouth. The water, melted from the dirtied snowfields, trickled into her mouth.
“My little girl is hungry?” he asked, as Jamshid wrapped the gnawed hand in a sheaf of his robe. “Your father is going to bring you a feast like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
He rose and went to the ornate lever on the foredeck. He pulled it starboard, and the vehicle lurched in that direction. Behind them, the rest of the fleet jerked to follow, lamps dangling off the hulls. Egypt faded, a glowing island denied them.
Cyrus looked at Mardonios. “We will hunt the devilbeast.”
Then he blew a series of notes into the ram’s horn to convey this news to the rest of the fleet.
The monster’s trail was more ash than ice, unearthing the oldest layers of the Hammerstrike’s soot. The sandship fleet broke into this wake and immediately gained new traction, the likes of which hadn’t been felt since leaving the high Syrian plateaus. The wind was in all their faces.
“We shall catch up to it in no time!” Mardonios cried jubilantly.
Cyrus held his daughter. “God’s blood, I believe it knows we’re stalking it. We should have caught it by now.”
“Is it a lion?” Parma asked.
“It is bigger than a lion. Now hush.” To the merchant, Cyrus demanded, “Tell me of the young one you found. Did it have eyes? A heart? Where were its vulnerable places?”
The merchant moved his hands as he spoke as if to draw the monster in the air. “They are armored beasts. We saw no eyes, although the mouth is like a great shovel against the ground, as if they strain the soil for whatever food is to their appetite. To kill them, we climbed upon their backs. Armored plating grows there, but we hacked at the soft places. It took a day of merciless assault, but it finally bled to death.”
Thunder sounded from the sky.
Jamshid looked unhappily to heaven. “The rains will come.” Rain after the Hammerstrike was greasy and dark, and it turned linens black and the deserts into clogging slush. “We must reach the beast soon.”
“The men cannot be strained past their limits,” Cyrus said, but he gripped the deck anxiously and peered into the gloom.
Lightning split the sky. Cyrus gave a cry, staggering back, as for a moment the dreadful night was dispelled and he was able to see plainly what lay ahead.
The devilbeast was not far off now, like a retreating mound of earth. It did seem to be increasing its flight, as if aware that tiny killers chased it. And yet the creature was foolish enough to be heading straight into a dead-end. The biggest mountain Cyrus had ever seen stood in the devilbeast’s way – a mountain that touched the clouds.
Yet what made Cyrus cry out was something else the lightning had revealed. A foreign sandship fleet lay ahead of them. He glimpsed the angular, Ionic design of its vehicles, the archers on deck, and the Lydian banner with its bearded image of King Croesus the Cannibal.
Cyrus blew into his horn, commanding his fleet to veer sharply to port. Then he grabbed the lever and pulled.
A hail of arrows whistled around him. The lightning returned in stuttering flashes, and he saw Jamshid, an arrow through his skull, twitching on the deck. Mardonios had been lanced in his back, and he craned his neck and howled at the sky.
An arrow hit Cyrus squarely in the chest but snapped off his bronze armor. He tackled his daughter to the deck. Rain began to dance around them.
“Jamshid!” Cyrus shouted his old friend’s name in anguish.
“Father!” Parma screamed.
The cloud-topping mountain loomed forward in the storm. The sandship struck its low hills and nearly upended, wood splintering beneath them, the great wheels squealing in protest. Then the vessel righted itself and discovered hard new traction. They shot past freakish, bony spires.
Cyrus lifted his ram’s horn to blast the halt order. His lips found the greasy mouthpiece.
The lightning gave one final flash.
In the sharp glare, Cyrus saw his daughter’s horrified face.
Then there was an impact which sounded like the end of the world.
King Cyrus of Persia awoke to agony.
He was lying down in a cave of painted walls, with a campfire dancing in a ring of stones. Hands moved around him, applying wet rags and rancid bandages. People were singing somewhere deeper in the cave.
His first thought was that he and his men had been captured by King Croesus. His caretakers chattered amongst themselves in a medley of languages, and Cyrus picked out some musical Hellenic words mixed throughout Persian, Egyptian, and tongues he did not recognize.
He sat up, batting away hands and cries of protest.
“Where am I?” he demanded.
An ebony-skinned woman placed her hands on his chest. “You are in the Chamber of Healing, Lord Cyrus. My name is Eyonga, and I am Mother Priestess of the Western Flank.”
Cyrus rose despite her strong resistance. One of his arms was in a sling, and his neck felt lanced by unyielding pins.
“You know who I am?” he said.
Eyonga nodded. She was a woman on the cusp of her last child-bearing days. More handsome than beautiful, with the ritualized scars etching spiral-patterns on her cheeks, forehead, and neck like tendrils of coral.
Nubian. Cyrus had received many emissaries from their courts, back in the days of the sun.
“Where are my men?” he asked.
“The ones who survived are being fed. Your strange chariot was obliterated. We have collected its wood and cargo as payment for –”
“Where is my daughter?!”
Eyonga was silent for a moment. “There was one young girl among the wreckage of your ship.”
Before the woman could continue, the sound of racing footsteps filled the chamber. Parma appeared from an oddly-shaped corridor and threw herself into her father’s good arm.
“We are eating, father!” Parma whispered into his ear. She tugged at him to follow her into the corridor.
As it turned out, only half his men had survived the horrendous crash. The final shards of the Persian Empire huddled in a circle, eating and drinking with aplomb.
Eyonga held a copper bowl out to him filled with some kind of viscous, black porridge. A cloying odor hit his face unlike anything he had ever smelled. Cyrus dipped his fingers into the offered bowl, pinched a thin slice of meat from its thick syrup, and lifted it, dripping, to the lamplight.
He felt his skin prickle.
“This is meat of the devilbeast,” he muttered.
Eyonga bristled. “We dislike that name. Your men call it food now, and it returns life to their emaciated bodies.”
And certainly, if his men had been weary of the dubious meal while he was asleep, that was no longer true. Their faces were greasy with inky fluid, as they grinned and laughed and slurped. The laughter was a welcome sound.
“We were pursuing the devilbeast when our ship hit the foothills of the mountain,” he said, trying to reconstruct what had happened. “King Croesus was there…”
His daughter merrily slurped the porridge, humming a royal court song.
Cyrus’ gaze was sharp as he regarded Eyonga. “Where is Croesus?”
The priestess’ eyes were hooded. “His ships landed elsewhere.”
“Who brought down the devilbeast?”
“The youngling is safe as far as we know.”
“Then where did you food come from?” he demanded.
“From the parent.”
But suddenly he understood. The colossal mountain ahead of their fleet, revealed in the flashes of storm. A mountain in Egypt where no mountain should be!
In as steady a voice as he could manage, Cyrus asked, “We are… beneath the shell of a… a devilb…”
“Of the Provider,” she said quickly, with the air of a mother impatient with blasphemy. “We have taken up residence beneath the mighty shell of its body.”
Eyonga beckoned him to follow her. The interior of the caves reminded him of nautiloid armor, pearlescent, undulating, sloping into makeshift corridors and spacious, inhabited, pockets. Cyrus passed families living in the bone-white confines of the devilbeast’s carapace. There were blankets, vases, amphorae, scrolls, plates and pots, wooden game-boards of Senet and Fox-and-Jackal. Curious faces watched him from misshapen crannies, fissures, and pits.
Many of the caves had been lavishly painted. Crude renderings of blue skies and frilly clouds and the benevolent sun. Coastlines and riverside docks. Bygone markets. Memories of yesteryear brushed into permanence, before they became myth.
“How long have your people lived here?” the king asked.
Eyonga marched ahead of him, her cloaked figure reminding him of Jamshid. “Three seasons of molting.”
“This beast… your Provider… it grows?”
“They all do. The youngling you pursued will be as large as this in a few years.”
The cave system was staggering in its labyrinthine breadth. Without her to guide him, he might wander helplessly. She seemed to have the outline fixed in her mind – he certainly saw her consult no map – when she suddenly veered into a low chamber with a jagged ceiling. Lanterns spilled buttery light over a dozen kneeling men. They were chanting, raising their hands and lowering them palm-down, over and over again. Chisels and spades lay at their sides.
Cyrus watched them. The ground here was softer beneath his sandals. The air exuded the cloying tang of an animal’s musk.
It took him a moment to realize that he was standing on flesh.
They had reached the place where the devilbeast’s mortal body sprouted its mighty shell. Blue-black flesh lay exposed in this vast crevice. Cyrus gaped at the cruel wounds where it had been gouged by shovel and pick. Alien meat was slapped into buckets by the men, and inky fluid ran from the pitted floor.
“We harvest His flesh,” Eyonga said proudly.
The king bent to the ground and touched. The wounds were very dark and sticky, like old honey.
“I used to pick fleas off my treasured Arabian,” the king said distantly, “Back before he died for want of oats and hay. I gave him a royal funeral in Ecbatana. A send-off for the last steed on Earth.”
The droning men had developed a ritual to this grisly harvest. Every three or four refrains of their wordless song would see them stop, lift the tool of their choice, and hack into the floor, popping chunks of wet flesh free and plunking it into fresh buckets, as children bore away the ones already filled.
Cyrus hissed. “Since Ahura Mazda breathed life into this world, men have used chisel and axe to build mighty cities. Now we use them to peel skin off a monster?!”
“Is it any worse than what you intended?” Eyonga demanded without fear. “You were hunting a Provider. We live upon it.”
“And the wounds?”
“There are many harvesting fields. We rotate our use of them. They scab and heal quickly. They provide.”
“Who are you people?”
“We are the ones who will survive. We are those spared the fire and the flood.” Eyonga stood proudly. “We are the People of the Shell.”
When she returned him to his men, Cyrus could not look at them. The stench of the harvesting field had cleared from his nose as he traversed the drafty corridors, but it remained stamped on his brain. His men stuffed themselves, guzzling blood from goblets.
His stomach curled at the vision.
To his guide, he asked, “How did your people come to live here, Eyonga?”
“I found one of them, downriver from my village. I saw it hatching from the rock.”
She nodded solemnly. “A huge rock that fell from heaven. It had cracked open like a flaming egg. The Providers crawled out of these blistering wombs and threw themselves onto our ashen world. Now they grow and provide.”
The Persian king thought of apples filled with maggots.
“Our village started following it,” she said, gaining the unblinking attention of Cyrus’ men. “We believed it would take us to a place of food and water. We followed it through a world of death, always death, always bodies in the ash. The Provider grew larger. It eats the ash, did you know that? Some men of the village started talking about cannibalism. I pointed to the Provider and said the solution to hunger lay before us.”
“You crawled onto its back… and into its shell?”
She smiled, showing yellow, crooked teeth. “While the rest of the world dies, we survive. We are the People of the Shell.”
Cyrus looked at his daughter slurping from a bowl. She hummed merrily to herself. He wanted to grab her by the arm and slap the bowl from her hands.
But she needed to eat. They all did.
Following his gaze, Eyonga said, “Your daughter will live now. She likes to sing, I notice.”
“Ahura Mazda’s gift to her. I thought she might one day best the talented bards of my court.”
“She will live, Lord Cyrus, now that takes the Provider’s flesh inside her.” Eyonga looked sidelong at him. “You disapprove of our lives.”
“It is new to me,” the king answered carefully.
“It is the way things must be.”
She frowned. “The old world is dead.”
Cyrus laughed warmly, and at the sound his men shook themselves as if from a trance. “I have seen dead worlds spring back to life before. Villages swept away by floods! Fields devoured to useless stumps by locusts. Each time, the people rebuilt. The old world returned.”
Anger kindled in Eyonga’s eyes, like flames behind a tin mask. “I remember the old world,” she said in a wintry, flat voice. “Oh yes. I remember laboring all day for the pleasure of tyrants! I remember being raped by a drunken nobleman who caught me on the road. I remember tax collectors entering my hut and taking whatever they wished.”
A man wearing a strange, bony carapace emerged from a passageway. Eyonga excused herself to speak with him. Cyrus glanced at his odd style of dress, which suggested some kind of specialized honor.
When she returned, she had that hooded look to her eyes again.
“Will you make prayer with us at the summit on the morrow?” she asked.
“To what god?”
“To the Provider who has welcomed us.”
Cyrus smiled. “I am glad to.”
There was no telling day or night, wind or rain, within the devilbeast’s shell. Sleep overtook the men quickly after they had eaten. Cyrus was concerned about their sudden lethargy, but then he recalled the last time they had eaten well. On a visit to the Egyptians, he was given grain and honey to distribute to his men. With good food in their bellies, they had slept quickly, sated and happy.
Cyrus held Parma on his lap. The girl pressed herself to his chest, content.
Mardonios helped himself to another swig of the devilblood and offered it to the king.
“No,” Cyrus said. “But finish it. Then we will select men to take watch along the corridors. I want every point of ingress covered.”
The merchant regarded him in surprise.
“Do you think Croesus has vanished?” Cyrus whispered. “Eyonga said that he had landed somewhere else on this monstrosity. We do not know how many of his men survived.”
Parma stirred sleepily. “Father, how many leagues of passages are here?”
Cyrus kissed her forehead. “A very good question,” he said. He signaled one of the locals. The man, decked in the same style of bony carapace as Cyrus had noted earlier, drew near.
“Do you have a map of the Provider’s body?”
The man only stared at him.
“A map?” Cyrus repeated. “A drawing of the passageways, showing distance and arrangement of chambers?”
The man shrugged. “Our runners know the way.”
“Good for them. I wish to know the way.”
“You are not a runner.”
Cyrus’ first instinct was to draw his sword and lop the man’s head into the dust. He was not given to fits of rage, but the oddness of everything was setting his nerves alight.
He dismissed the man.
“We’ll draw our own maps,” he told Mardonios.
The merchant was silent for a time. Parma’s rhythmic breathing told him she was deeply asleep, and Cyrus kissed her forehead again. Then he kissed the gnaw-marks on her hand.
“She is now safe,” Mardonios said.
Cyrus shook his head. “It is not the destiny of men to live as fleas on an animal. Our souls must rise to the sun, almighty Ahura Mazda. Our eyes must be lit by the stars. Someday, the world will be reborn and we must be there to see it.” He stroked his beard. “Come, let us appoint our guards.”
He did not sleep, although his body craved it. Several times he felt his head lolling against his daughter, but then he would startle awake at nightmarish fears and recent memories. He remembered Jamshid, pierced by arrow through his skull. He remembered his daughter’s bloody mouth.
Finally, he slipped into a twilight state in which he remained aware of his surroundings. His body was a dead weight. When the lambent glow of approaching torches licked the corridor across from him, he came to full consciousness and was on his feet in an instant.
Eyonga emerged with a retinue of carapace-wearing men and women.
“Lord Cyrus,” she bowed in a way that was somehow obscenely flattering. “It is time for the morning prayers.”
The morning prayers were held at the summit. Outside, atop the body of the Provider.
In his youth, Cyrus had once climbed a mountain overlooking the valley of his future empire. He remembered the thin air, the ragged wind, the clarity of the stars, as if the altitude had shorn away a layer of the sky.
Now, as he was led out of the shell and onto the devilbeast’s thorny head, Cyrus was reminded of the crisp, thin air from those bygone childhood hikes. There were no stars now, however, and he craned his neck to regard the soot-colored heavens. A red blotch, like a plague sore, suggested the presence of the sun on the horizon directly ahead. Cyrus bowed his head in its direction.
He noted that other people were already gathered on the summit. Men stood in the shadow of the monster’s spires. One of the men was a plump, bearded entity.
Cyrus marveled at this. When was the last time he had seen someone who wasn’t a living skeleton? How could anyone be fat in a world like this? He strode towards the gathering.
And halted abruptly.
The fat man was Croesus the Cannibal.
His enemy stood in a ring of bodyguards. They wore the fair Lydian colors, and were bedecked in stolen loot.
Outnumbered though he was, Cyrus drew his sword and advanced.
Croesus was clearly as stunned as Cyrus by this unexpected encounter. His bodyguards blinked stupidly at the lean, famished, wild-eyed warrior striding towards their king.
“Croesus, you dog!” Cyrus cried.
The Lydian’s eyes went wide with surprise, and he hastily fumbled with his own sword.
Eyonga began to laugh.
The shrill, cruel sound stopped every man in their tracks. They turned their bearded faces to regard her in wonder.
“Two fools still arguing over who rules the world!” she cried in a blistery tone.
Cyrus blushed. “It was he who began the war!”
The Lydian king spat. “It was your empire which threatened my borders!”
Eyonga’s stabbing laugh silenced them again. Her own people fanned out behind her in a show of bony headdresses and odd, alien armor.
“Persia and Lydia!” she cackled. “Did we ever give title to ash heaps, before?”
Cyrus didn’t turn his sword away from his enemy, but he shot a glare in the woman’s direction as threatening as any weapon.
“You expect us to share morning prayers together? Croesus and myself?”
“We have already said our morning prayers,” Eyonga roared. “Within the body of the Provider, my people have given thanks. We never offer prayers outside. We never pretend to have lordship our mighty savior.”
“Then you conspired to…”
“To show the People of the Shell what the old world is all about!” she shrieked in delight. “To let them see firsthand how the rulers of the old world behaved!”
“You are no better, Eyonga!” Cyrus said. “You have found shelter and food and I salute you for that. But I have seen the fever in your eyes! You would have our entire race reduced to worms!” To Croesus, he said, “And you! Grown fat on the flesh of men!”
Croesus’ hand twitched on his sword-hilt. “We did what we need to! We took no pleasure in it.”
Cyrus felt an acidic rebuke welling in his throat, but he caught the words before they could fly. The blotchy sunrise provided enough of a molten hue that he could see other colossi crawling alongside them, their shovel-like mouths devouring the very earth. It was like being in a demented chariot race in the bowels of hell. The monsters’ faces were devoid of visible eyes. Curling, bony tusks protruded around their maws.
The Persian king lowered his blade. “Our situation has changed. Take a look, Croesus! See the creatures which have infected our world!”
“I have seen,” the Lydian muttered.
“We are standing astride a monster as a pair of fleas upon a horse. By God, there is no stranger tent for a parley!”
Cyrus smiled tightly, his composure overtaking the impulse to murder. “Yes, a parley! Unless you would prefer a battle to the death. We are all that remains of our ash heaps. Do we parley, or do we fight?”
“We parley,” said Croesus quickly. “But only if you will grant that it was not bloodlust that turned us cannibal. The beasts and crops are dead, Cyrus! I did what I deemed necessary for survival!”
Croesus hesitated. “Those days are behind us now. I had my men swear an oath to that effect. We shall never again eat the flesh of our fellow man. It is no longer necessary, now that we have this creature – ” he stamped the bony ground with one boot – “upon which to feast.”
“Feast? I would say survive.”
“It produces the same result.”
“It does not.” Cyrus sheathed his sword. “Whether heaven-sent or hell-derived, these creatures are an affront to the gods.”
Croesus’ face was inscrutable.
“We shall eat them, as you say. But look, Croesus! The sun claws at the soot! Every day the sky empties of the Hammerstrike! The forests no longer burn. One day, crops will grow anew and we shall see rebirth of the world we knew.”
“Forests, again. Young and green, with fruit and game!” He squinted at his enemy. “We must be here to see it.”
“What do you mean?”
“If we dwell within this beast, our children’s children will forget there was ever a sky and the light of Ahura Mazda.”
“I do not believe in your god.”
“Then call Him Apollo. Do you see?” Cyrus pointed to the earth-shaking monsters alongside them. “They consume the world and all in their path. If we do nothing, one day our cities will be gone. Our temples! The pyramids! Every sign that this world once belonged to men!”
“We – ”
“They are eating our world!”
This stopped the Lydian king. He winced at the image his enemy had implanted.
“We must kill them,” decreed Cyrus.
“We are small enough to tunnel into their bodies. We can dig deeper and hack their organs to pulp.”
“And then what? We inhabit a house of rotting meat?”
“We reduce their numbers to a single creature. We live within that lone devil, eating and drinking as we must. But each day, we come out here to see the sky! We remind each other that we once ruled this world and will again. And one day,” Cyrus stepped closer to the Lydian, “We will step outside to find that the blue skies have returned, and that forests grow once again, and then…” Croesus nodded. “Then we can retake the world. We can rebuild the kingdoms.”
Cyrus grinned. “Now you understand my parley?”
His enemy grinned back. “I do.” Croesus walked to the edge of the massive beast and looked at the adjacent creatures which dwindled into the distance. He turned back to his men and said, “We shall do as Cyrus asks! We shall stuff our bellies with these devils, and sing to our children of the day when…”
The Lydian stared beyond Cyrus’ shoulder.
Cyrus spun around. He had nearly forgotten about Eyonga and her people. They had formed a merciless row with their bodies. Strange, bony implements were in their hands.
Eyonga’s eyes bulged with hate and ecstasy as she cried, “The Provider have them!”
A hail of arrows fell among the rulers of the old world.
Parma was finger-painting on the tunnel walls when Eyonga found her.
“Look!” the girl said cheerfully.
Eyonga smiled and patted her head, viewing the shapeless, flame-like image the young girl had drawn in ochre. “Very nice, Parma. What is it?”
“The sun, I think,” the girl said, and she giggled. “Father would sometimes point it out for me in the sky. He has better eyes than me. I never could see it clearly. Does it look like this?”
“There is no sun.”
The girl looked at her curiously.
“There is only the Provider,” Eyonga told her, and she stroked Parma’s hair. “I noticed you singing earlier. Do you like to sing?”
“Come along, then. Let me teach you our songs.”