Author Topic: Lady Aeryn and The Azshdagka (PG-13)  (Read 583 times)

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Lady Aeryn and The Azshdagka (PG-13)
« on: June 10, 2016, 10:53:18 AM »
Lady Aeryn and The Azshdagka

* * * * *

Rating:  PG-13, for a small amount of gruesomeness at the very end. 
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  I have not made any profit off this little tale … with the possible exception of having a ton of fun writing it.   
Time Frame:  Sometime relatively soon after Different Destinations. 
Test Driver:  I was running late, so I abandoned good sense and posted this without running it past a betareader.  This is always a bad idea, and I suspect I will live to regret it.  I apologize in advance for the pitiful level of proofreading, as well as for what I suspect is highly questionable physics. 

Note to the reader:  This story was written specifically for the Terra Firma Renfaire (brought to us by Cyberlobster Productions).  But it is, ultimately, Farscape.  Keep that in mind when you reach the ending. 

          * * * * *

Markin the Storyteller ran his fingers through his beard several times.  It was an affectation he had picked up over the last cycle -- one he employed whenever he needed some time to think.  Today he was trying to decide how to begin this cycle’s festival narration.  In the front row, the youngest children sat packed shoulder-to-shoulder, eager eyes fixed on Markin.  The back row consisted of parents, and the oldsters who gathered each cycle to hear the telling of the tale because they had been there on the day it had happened and wanted to relive the excitement.  The adults stood with very little movement, occasionally ducking their heads to whisper to whoever was standing next to them, or shifting slightly to get a better view of their children.  The space in between the front and back rows was filled with the older children:  those who had taken part in the celebration before, and knew what would follow Markin’s recitation.  That segment of his audience was in constant movement, bodies bouncing and fidgeting with excitement. 

“What is today?” Markin asked after several moments of contemplation.  It was the standard beginning.  No reason to alter this portion, he decided.  They would be disappointed if the call and answer did not start as expected. 

“The first day of the Festival of Aeryn!” shouted several dozen young voices. 

“What do we celebrate?”

“Freedom!” the entire crowd, children and adults alike, yelled back.

Freedom from what?” he cried to the crowd. 

“Hunger, terror, and death!”

“Who do we thank for our freedom?”  Markin pointed to one of the smallest children in the front row. 

“Lady Aeryn!” the child’s clear, high voice answered. 

“And who else?”  He pointed to one of the children in the middle section of the crowd. 

The boy struck a pose, as though he were wielding a two-handed sword against a much larger opponent.  “Her servant, the valiant knight, D’Argo!”

“And who else?”  Markin chose a teenager who was old enough to know the correct answer. 

“Even the cowardly squire, Crichton, was called upon to play his part in the battle,” she called back in a rhythmic cadence.

“Very good.  Well done.” 

The packed hall fell silent.  Markin sipped from the cup someone had set down beside him, cleared his throat, and began the tale. 

“And so it was, four plus twenty cycles ago, that the Lady Aeryn, a woman as fierce as she was beautiful, having been cast out of her rightful kingdom and set to wandering in search of new lands, did come to our small village in search of a few days’ peace and restoration.  With her traveled two souls equally lost and dispossessed as the Lady Aeryn, the last remnants of her once magnificent royal entourage:  a brave and honorable knight bound to the lady not only by his oath to protect and serve her family but by a love for the lady that he kept well-hidden; and one lowly servant cringing and scraping in the hopes that he might continue to benefit from her generosity.”


          * * * * *


“This isn’t working the way I had hoped.”  Aeryn ran a disillusioned eye across the rain-soaked village, taking in the damp villagers, the sodden banners hanging limply from their support poles, and the steadily expanding puddles.  “We might as well leave.” 

“Perhaps John just needs more time,” D’Argo said.  “Pilot swears the rain will stop within the next arn or two.  He says the weather patterns are shifting.” 

“Any more time and we’ll have to carry him back to the transport pod.”  Aeryn ducked from beneath one set of dripping eaves, traversed the slimy expanse of street to the next building, and stepped back under cover.  If anything, the rain had increased in intensity since they had landed.  Despite Pilot’s assurances, it showed no sign of letting up. 

D’Argo arrived beside her at a run.  The building shook as he slammed into the wall.  “I hate rain,” he said, finishing with an annoyed hiss.  “And that wasn’t what I meant.” 

Aeryn didn’t bother to answer.  She knew what D’Argo meant.  He was referring to more than the few arns they had planned to spend on this under-developed, primarily agrarian planet.  He was talking about Crichton, and the fact that John was taking far longer to recover from the tragic deaths of the nurses on Jocacea than anyone aboard Moya ever would have predicted.  Even after allowing for the way John always wallowed in guilt over events that he could not have prevented, his depression this time was more severe than anything Aeryn had ever witnessed. 

“He still feels guilty,” D’Argo said.

Aeryn shook her head.  “It’s more than that, D’Argo.  He no longer trusts his own values, let alone his judgment.  He is questioning everything that makes John who he is, and it is tearing him apart.” 

“And how exactly was this” -- D’Argo waved a hand at the rain-drenched landscape -- “supposed to help?” 

“I have already explained that.  Twice,” Aeryn said. 

“I was hoping it would make more sense this time.”  D’Argo edged past her to lead the way.

Aeryn fell in behind him, automatically following in his footsteps while her thoughts drifted through the events of the last few solar days.  When Pilot had summoned her to the Den in order to show her the insignificant, sparsely populated planet orbiting a nondescript yellow star, she had hoped that the similarity to Earth might rekindle the enthusiasm John had once shown whenever they stumbled across anything that resembled his home.  She was searching for a way to remind John that his values were not as out of place in the Uncharted Territories as he had recently come to believe. 

A hasty reconnaissance had revealed that while the inhabitants were not technologically advanced, they did know of space travel and were not afraid of visitors from other planets.  Pilot had suggested a landmass that was transitioning from colder weather into warmer, which was less likely to cause a problem for her sebacean physiology, she and D’Argo had selected one of the villages at random, and then they had bullied John into joining them for a one day excursion.

They had emerged from the transport pod into the middle of a celebration.  Every township within several hundreds metras was rejoicing the end of winter and the impending start of the planting season.  Gaily colored flags and pennants flew from every rooftop and flag pole; musicians wandered along the packed-earth streets setting the villagers to dancing wherever they went.  There were games for adults and children, food vendors and providers of refreshments had set up shop out in the open, and a significant portion of the inhabitants were engaged in sporting events and contests. 

“Working off the winter ya-ya’s,” Crichton had said when they came across a group of men engaged in a mock battle.  “Blowing off steam after being cooped up for too long.” 

Microts later, Aeryn’s scheme had suffered its first setback.  John had spotted a brewer’s stall, taken the shortest route to the counter, and plonked himself down on one of the wooden seats.  Half an arn after that, the weather had shifted from weak, cloud-filtered sunshine to steady rain.  In the arns since then, John had spent every microt drinking and the village had turned into a quagmire. 

“Let’s collect John and get out of here,” Aeryn said to D’Argo.  “We’re wasting our time.” 

D’Argo let a breath out through his nose, sounding both amused and disgusted.  “We could wait an arn or two longer.  It would be interesting to learn how much of the local brew he can consume before falling off his seat.” 

Aeryn bounded over a small river coursing down the street, taking care not to slip in the mud on the far side, and stepped up onto a covered footway in front of a row of buildings.  “Do you really want to spend another arn in this place, D’Argo?” 

D’Argo surveyed their surroundings.  Aeryn followed the direction of his gaze, trying to see the landscape the way he might view it.  The revelry had not slackened despite the steady rain.  Villagers wandered from one spot to the next, most of them liberally spattered in mud to their knees or higher.  Children dashed about, dodging between the adults, slipping and falling frequently enough that most of them were coated from head to foot.  Fires fizzled and sputtered, food stuffs were either covered by sheets of waterproofed cloths or were afloat in their containers, all of the different varieties of cloth goods for sale looked similarly beaten down by the rain, and the penned livestock looked wetly depressed. 

D’Argo shook his head, flicking his own personal rain shower loose from his tanktas.  “I would rather unclog Moya’s amnexus system than stay here another microt.  Where is Crichton?”

“The last time I saw him, he was over there, talking with some of the locals.”  Aeryn pointed toward a refreshment stand that at least had a canopy over it.  While a good portion of the customers were standing out in the rain, a majority had managed to jam in under cover.  The thought of forcing her way into that crush of bodies summoned up an imagined bedlam of too many voices talking at once, the unique stench of close packed bodies dressed in damp clothing, and a sense of being trapped. 

“Comm him,” D’Argo said. 

“You’re assuming he’s still conscious.” 

“It’s better than trying to find him in … that.”  D’Argo gestured toward the crowd beneath the tent.

He had a good point.  Aeryn ducked down toward her comms and said, “John!” loudly.  There was no answer.  “Crichton!” she tried next. 

“Senseless,” D’Argo said. 

“All the time,” Aeryn said, allowing a small fraction of her irritation to leak into her response.  “Today he is also drunk.  Let’s go find him.” 

Before they could take a step, a deafening clang sounded from one of the nearby buildings.  The noise was loud enough to drown out every other sound in the marketplace.  Aeryn clapped her hands over her ears.  It didn’t help.  There was a moment of silence, followed by another of the reverberating clangs, and then another, quickly settling down into the rhythmic gong of a large bell.  All around them, the townspeople dropped whatever they were doing and started to run. 

Aeryn grabbed at one of the fleeing citizens.  “What is it?” she yelled over the clamor of the alarm.  “What --”

The man tore loose, leaving half his sleeve in her fist, and disappeared into the sheets of rain. 

“What the frell is happening?” D’Argo bellowed beside her.  He grabbed another male, this one younger and slighter than the one Aeryn had tried to stop.  “What is it?  Why is everyone running?” 

“The azshdagka wakes!” the man screamed.  “It is early!  The azshdagka comes!  You must run!  Run!”  He hammered at D’Argo’s grip with his free hand, yanked his arm free, and bolted in the same direction as the rest of the mob. 

Aeryn was scanning the streets for signs of an attack, her pulse pistol at the ready.  “What’s an azshdagka?  Did that translate for you?”

D’Argo had pulled his qualta blade from the scabbard and was converting it into a rifle.  “No, it didn’t.  How do you want to handle this?” 

“Reconnaissance, I think.  Very careful reconnaissance.  Whatever is causing this reaction, everyone is afraid of it.” 

The entire town was emptying in a hurry.  Doors bashed and slammed as residents gathered armfuls of belongings, and followed the crowds into the forest.  A small child stood in the middle of the square, abandoned, and screamed.  An old man hobbled out of an alley, scooped up the bawling youngster, gave Aeryn and D’Argo one wild-eyed look, and disappeared from sight.  Half a dozen men appeared towing a cart loaded with barrels.  With every bump and jostle, water sloshed out of the tops.  They bogged down in the mud for several moments, heaved hard, and broke free. 

“Drinking water,” D’Argo said softly into the silence.  “They expect to be gone for more than a day or two.” 

“Let’s get to the transport pod.”

“What about Crichton?”

Aeryn spun in a circle, scanning for any sign of John.  “He’s either passed out somewhere, or he went with everyone else.  We can’t wait.  Whatever is scaring these people is over there.”  She gestured in the direction of the recently plowed fields.

“That’s where we left the transport pod,” D’Argo said. 

“At the very least, we need to move it.  If there is no immediate danger, we can come back and find John.”

“And if there is immediate danger?” D’Argo asked.  “Are you saying you would abandon John here?” 

“No!  Of course not!  But we have a better chance of surviving whatever is frightening the villagers if we aren’t carrying John at the same time.  We don’t have time for this!  We need to find out what we are up against.  We need to come up with a plan.”  Aeryn shrugged her shoulders, loosening tense muscles, and then stepped down off the wooden sidewalk into the mud, headed toward the mysterious source of the widespread panic. 

D’Argo sloshed into the muck as well.  “I hate when you use that word.”

They passed between several of the buildings, emerged onto a rough packed-earth roadway just beyond the town, and headed toward where they had left the transport pod, scanning for anything unusual as they went along.  There was no sign of impending disaster, no invading hoard preparing to slaughter everything in its path, no voracious creatures stalking anything that moved.  As far as they could see, there was nothing unusual happening.  The scenery on either side of the roadway shifted from smaller gardens bounded by waist-high fences, presumably where families grew their vegetables, into the expansive fields where the town grew most of their grains.  Nothing happened. 

They were within sight of the transport pod before D’Argo drew to a halt.  “There is nothing here.  Nothing, Aeryn.” 

“Orbital attack?” she said, posing another possibility. 

They both looked up.  Aside from the dense moisture-laden clouds and the unending rain, there was nothing to see. 

“Aeryn!” John yelled from behind them.  “Move it!  Don’t stop.  Get to the transport pod!”  He arrived on the run, panting. 

“Where have you been?” 

“An old lady fell.  I was helping her.  Move it!  Keep moving.”  He was trying to herd her toward the transport pod. 

“Stop that!” she said, stepping away from him.  “There is nothing here.  You are drunk.”  She looked him over more closely.  His eyes were clear and he was steady on his feet.  There was nothing to suggest that he had spent the better part of the afternoon consuming alcohol.  “Why aren’t you drunk?” 

“I had a couple of beers, Aeryn!  That’s it.  These people brew beer.  I got to suck down my first Bud in three years, and until a few minutes ago, I had a nice little beer buzz going.  If you want proof, the breathalyzer test will have to wait.  Whatever is scaring the locals is underground.  We could be standing right on top of them.”  John pointed toward their feet.  “Can we run now and discuss this later?” 

“How do you know this?” Aeryn and D’Argo asked at the same time. 

“If you want to get to know the locals, you hang out at the nearest watering hole.”  He glanced at Aeryn’s and then D’Argo’s facial expressions and tried again.  “The village bar, for god’s sake!  No one likes to talk like bar flies.  They were practically falling over each other fighting to be the first to tell me about the critters that come out every spring once the rain softens the ground.  The rains were early this year.  A lot early.  This wasn’t supposed to happen yet.  Whatever is buried down there, they must be hibernating.  The people here haven’t figured that out, but it’s the only explanation.  They never got around to describing what a dashiki looks like --”

“Azshdagka!” Aeryn and D’Argo said together.

“Whatever!” John shouted.  “It has to be some kind of reptile or lizard that becomes dormant through the dry and cold seasons, and then emerges when the ground softens in the spring and food is available.  Can we please go now?  Or do you want to stick around to find out what kind of food it likes?” 

“There is no sign of --” Aeryn began.

“Aeryn!  Run now, argue later!”  John gave her small shove in the direction of the transport pod. 

“Too late,” D’Argo said.  He had his qualta rifle aimed in the general direction of the fields.   

The ground had begun to undulate.  For twenty motras ahead of them and to either side, the recently plowed and rain-soaked earth was heaving in erratic waves.  The roadway beneath their feet began to rock.  Pebbles ran sideways, came to a halt, and raced back again.  Fence posts toppled in every direction.  Small shrubs were migrating, and the sod areas running between the road and the fields were developing black loamy fissures. 

“Oh crap!”  Crichton began backing away.  “There must be hundreds of critters under there.” 

The center of the nearest field bellied upward.  A small hill formed.  Soft dirt avalanches tumbled down its sides.  The upthrust gained momentum.  The crest of the hill broke open, and something began to emerge.  It was the color of the earth -- dark browns and black intermingled with streaks of green -- and like the wooded hillsides it resembled, it was covered with slender growths jutting out in every direction.  The protuberances were alive; they wriggled and squirmed, reaching out, searching blindly.  There were several knobs near the summit that might have been eyes, a wide gash of a mouth, and six nostrils spaced out across the front of what she realized was a head.  Aeryn had an impression that there were more than four legs working in concert to free its bulk from the earth.  Any other details were masked by the thick layers of dirt clinging to its body.  It was a miniature mountain on the move, carrying with it any plants that had escaped the spring plowing and whatever subterranean denizens had been living in the ground above its nest. 

One massive forefoot broke clear.  It slammed down, creating a localized earthquake. 

“You said critters, not critter!” Aeryn yelled over the rumble.  “You never said anything about it being a single creature this big!  Did you not think it would be good for us to know that there was a creature that large” -- she gestured toward the emerging azshdagka -- “hiding nearby?”

“I thought they were talking about something the size of an elephant, Aeryn!” John yelled back.  “I figured it would take one shot, two at the most!  Blim blam, and you’ve got haunch of heffalump turning on the spit.  No one said anything about it being an azshdagkasaurus or about how it was the size of a B52!  Nobody said anything about it being one enormous monster!” 

“Who cares?” D’Argo shouted.  “It is coming this way.  I think we should run!” 

“No!  No, it isn’t.  Look!”  John grabbed D’Argo’s sleeve with one hand while pointing with the other.  “It’s headed straight for the livestock.  It’s hungry.  It just woke up from a long winter’s nap.” 

“Good.”  Aeryn began moving away from the village.  “We should be able to get to the transport pod and get out of here while it is focused on the animals.”   

“What about the townspeople, Aeryn?  This thing kills all their livestock each year, and destroys half the buildings.  They’re terrified of it.” 

“Then they should move … or kill it.” 

“They can’t move.  According to my good buddies at the bar, dashiki --”

“Azshdagka!” Aeryn and D’Argo said together.

“-- are indigenous to this area.  Every village has the same problem.  This thing shows up every spring and eats them out of house and home.  They don’t have the weapon or technology to kill something that big.” 

“May I point out that neither do we?” D’Argo said.  “Aeryn, can the Prowler’s weapons destroy that creature?” 

“I doubt it.  Wound it, yes.  Kill it?”  She gazed at the bulk of the azshdagka, trying to calculate how much firepower would be needed it order to damage it.  “Questionable.” 

“How about a shaped charge?” John asked. 

“Shaped charge?” Aeryn repeated, trying to decipher the term.  “Do you mean a targeted charge?”

She looked toward the town.  The lumbering azshdagka had reached the livestock pens.  Stout wooden fencing snapped like twigs beneath its weight, giving off gunshot-loud cracks.  The terrified animals bunched up in a corner, bleating out their terror.  One broke free, darting toward the opening.  A moment later, the rest followed, bolting toward what looked like freedom.  The azshdagka roared, driving back more than half, and then swept its head through the remaining stampedes.  The protruding whiskers turned out to be tentacles.  The azshdagka’s head came up, carrying with it ten of the wooly herd animals, each one tightly snared in a monster’s tentacle.  They were tossed into the creature’s maw one by one, after which the azshdagka went back for more. 

“Lots of explosive packed inside something made out of metal so all the force goes up into the belly of the monster,” John said, illustrating what he was describing with his hands.  “We set the charge up in the field, lure Godzilla over there on top of it, and then set it off.  If we do it right, we’ll blow a hole through its innards.” 

Aeryn stepped closer to him.  “Another of your causes, John?  Is this another of your plans to save everyone?” 

It jolted him.  She could see the abrupt shift in John’s eyes.  He went from having complete faith that his idea would work to questioning his judgment in the space of a single microt.  He looked toward the village and then toward the transport pod squatting in the distance. 

“You think we should leave,” he said after a moment’s contemplation. 

“I think we should leave while we’re all still alive,” she said.  “Attempting to blow up an azshdagka does not seem like the best way to do that.” 

John glanced back at the village.  Aeryn didn’t need to turn her head to know what was happening.  From the sounds drifting in their direction, she knew that the beast had finished with the first collection of livestock, and had moved on to the next set of pens.  A lengthier crashing and smashing of timber suggested that it was battering its way through a building in the process. 

“I thought your solution to most problems was to shoot something,” he said.

“Only when shooting will do any good,” she said.

John’s shoulders slumped.  “All right, Aeryn.  We’ll leave.”  He turned his back on the village and took a step in the direction of the transport pod.  “But I don’t want to have to listen to any more of your stories about how Peacekeepers used to defend the weak or helpless ever again.  You just proved that those days are gone forever.” 

The comment struck deep, lancing into a wound she hadn’t realized existed.  An emotional pain that she thought had died the moment they left orbit around Jocacea sprang back to life.  Guilt launched an attack on good sense.  What was fast shaping up to be a difficult decision for Aeryn was cut short before it had a chance to turn into a full out moral dilemma. 

John had stopped.  “I don’t want to ruin your day, but Godzilla is tired of the appetizers.  He’s decided to move on to the main course.”

“Us?” D’Argo said. 

“No.  It looks like he’s developed a craving from something a little heartier than flesh and bones.  He’s headed for the transport pod.” 

“Frell!”

The three crewmates stared at the lumbering behemoth headed in the direction of the parked transport pod. 

“It will take Moya half a cycle to grow a new one,” Aeryn said.  Losing the craft would not be a full-out disaster, but it would be a severe inconvenience.  “Why would a living creature want to eat a metal ship?” 

“Suffering from low iron and fresh out of Geritol, maybe?” John said.  “What do you say?  Is this worth trying to kill that thing, or do you want to comm Guido and Chiana and explain why one of them has to come get us in the other pod?” 

Aeryn did not want to take on a creature of this size -- not with John at her side.  D’Argo she trusted.  John got reckless when he was depressed.  There was a tiny knot of discomfort in the pit of her stomach that was connected to the fear that he would somehow try to make up for the mistakes he had made recently:  first by trusting Neeyala and then on Jocacea.  She was afraid that John would, on some subconscious level, consider his life a fair trade for the safety of the villagers, compensating for the lives his decisions had cost over the past quarter cycle. 

“Death wish?” she asked him quietly. 

His head snapped around.  He stared at her for several microts, his expression unreadable at first, followed by a gradual shift toward comprehension.  “I have the only reason I need to want to live, Aeryn, and it’s pretty damned close to me right now.” 

It was enough to banish her concern.  “Right.  What’s your plan?  A pulse chamber overload won’t be enough.” 

“Diversion first.”  He turned toward D’Argo.  “Big D!  You’re on.  See if you can distract that thing.  Draw it away from the transport without getting turned into Luxan MacNuggets.  While you’re doing that, we’re gonna rustle us up the biggest landmine known to mankind.” 

“Distract it?” D’Argo said.  “How do you suggest I distract something that large?  I might as well try to distract a mountain.” 

“I don’t know.  Think of something!  Run around behind it until you find the ass end of the critter, and then kick it in the miv --”

“Try the livestock,” Aeryn said before John could finish.  “There are more animals penned up in the marketplace.  Turn them loose.  It might prefer fresh meat over biomechanoid plating.”

D’Argo let out a hissing snarl, slammed his qualta blade into its sheath, and then set off toward the town at a run.

“What about us?” Aeryn asked. 

“We’re going to bag us some fireworks,” John said.  Motioning for Aeryn to follow him, he vaulted over a fence and began weaving through the smaller vegetable plots, headed for a spot just outside the village center, beyond the houses.  “The folks here were planning fireworks as part of their celebration.  Even if they’re basic black powder jobs, they should pack enough bang to do the job if we set it up right.” 

Off to their left, the qualta rifle fired several times.  A microt later, she could hear more of the distressed bleating of the livestock and D’Argo bellowing at the animals.  Aeryn spun around to check on the azshdagka.  It had come to a stop.  Its head was swinging from side to side, as if in indecision.  After several moments like that, it wheeled and headed toward the sounds of the animals. 

“D’Argo, it’s working,” she commed.  “It’s headed toward you.” 

She received an angry sounding luxan growl in response, followed by, “Have you ever walked through a livestock pen?  Do you have any idea what is on the ground here?”

“Remember to wipe your feet,” John said.  He came to a stop beside a section of ground that had been cleared of vegetation.  More than thirty cloth-wrapped packages were laid out in orderly rows.  “Perfect.  And they left a cart to carry them.” 

“We will need a casing of some sort,” Aeryn said.   

John maneuvered a small, two-wheeled handcart closer to the arrangement of fireworks, tossed two of the bundles into the wooden bed of the cart, and then gestured toward the remainder.  “I’ve already thought of that.  I know where we can find something the right size and shape.  Start loading these while I go get it.” 

“What are you going to use?”  Aeryn picked up one of the bundles, hefted it several times, and then placed it gently next to the two already in the cart.  “Will these explode?” 

“Shouldn’t.  Not without a spark.  If I’m wrong, you’ll be the first to know.”  He grinned at her, carelessly tossed one more firework into the cart, and then sprinted out of sight. 

“He’s having too much fun,” Aeryn whispered to herself.  She was bothered by John’s enthusiasm.  He was too pleased with his plan, too certain that it would work, too intent on his goal without demonstrating any of the caution or respect that a creature as large and dangerous as the azshdagka should have demanded.  Each time John became this single-minded, it normally ended in disaster. 

“I’m finished,” she commed, dusting off her hands.  “Now what?” 

“If you can move the cart, head back toward the fields.  If it’s too heavy, I’ll be there in a hundred microts.” 

“What are you doing?”  Aeryn could not remember seeing any object in any of the shops or visible from the town’s marketplace that would serve as a casing for the explosives.  The words were barely out of her lips when she got her answer.  There were six fast shots from a pulse weapon, followed by a metallic clamor that went on for ten full microts.  The noise was unmistakable.  John had shot down the town’s alarm bell. 

“John, I don’t know what you’re doing over there,” D’Argo said over the comms, “but you have drawn the attention of the azshdagka.  It’s heading for the buildings.” 

Another pulse weapon blast was followed by a dull metallic clatter.  “Scratch one clapper,” John said.  “That should help.”

“John, the azshdagka is headed in your direction,” D’Argo commed again. 

“Well, shoot it!  Or feed it!  Or sing it love songs, but get it away from the village.  Aeryn and I are going to need some time and some space.” 

“Feed it, he says,” D’Argo grumbled.  “Why don’t you come pat it?  Or better yet, offer yourself up as a snack!” 

“That comes next,” John called back.  “Aeryn, where are you?” 

“Almost back to the field.  John, you need to get out of there.  It has reached the buildings.”  The azshdagka tromped through the vegetable gardens, leaving a trail of smashed fencing in its wake, and slammed into the first of the houses.  It backed away, swung its head from side to side several times, and then forged forward.  One wall buckled midway up.  The azshdagka hit it again.  Another wall leaned outward.  The roof tilted to one side, poised there for several microts, and then the entire structure came crashing down.  The beast nosed at the heap of debris, found nothing there to interest it, and began wading through the wreckage of some family’s life. 

John appeared from between two of the buildings pulling another of the wooden handcarts, throwing all of his weight against the hand grips in order to keep the heavily laden cart moving.   “Good news is, it may be ugly and smell bad, but at least it’s slow,” he said over the comms. 

“Watch out!” Aeryn yelled.  There was no time for anything else.  She was too far away to do anything other than watch helplessly and hope that John would look in the correct direction.  One hundred motras away, the azshdagka turned with a speed it had not shown up to this point, and struck unerringly toward John.  The creature’s snout slammed into the ground less than a motra to one side of the cart bearing the bell.  A miniature black-clad figure threw itself to one side, narrowly missing the strike, and then scrambled beneath the questionable protection of the flimsy wooden cart.  The azshdagka’s head reared back, every one of its tentacles thrashing in a wild frenzy, preparing for another attack.

“D’ARGO!” John shouted over the comms.  “Get this thing off me!” 

In the distance, the qualta rifle fired.  Small pinpricks of light walked up the azshdagka’s backside, moving along its spine toward the back of its head.  The monster swung toward the irritation, made one abortive attempt swipe at where John was curled up beneath the cart, and then turned toward the fields and the sounds of the qualta rifle. 

Aeryn discovered that she was holding her breath.  When she saw John pop up into view unharmed, she started breathing again.  “Hurry!” she yelled across the distance between them. 

“Use the comms,” John transmitted in an almost-whisper.  “I have a hunch it’s following sounds.  Sound, touch, and smell.  I think it’s blind, Aeryn.”  He was grunting and panting, throwing all of his effort and body weight into keeping the heavily laden cart moving.  Aeryn ran to help him.  Together, they were able to accelerate to a run. 

“So all we have to do is be quiet and it will go away?”  The qualta rifle stopped firing.  D’Argo sounded furious.  “Why did you not suggest this sooner?” 

Beside her, John shook his head.  “Smell, big guy!  I said sound, touch, and smell.  The transport pod is biomechanoid like Moya.  It must smell like a snack, just like us.  Whoa!  Whoa, Aeryn!”  They skidded to a stop beside the cart full of fireworks.  “Heavy D, we’re going to need a couple hundred microts to get this set up.  Can you keep it off us for that long without getting gobbled up?” 

“I found more livestock,” D’Argo said.  “That should keep it busy for a while.” 

John muscled the bell out of the cart, and heaved it in on top of the fireworks.  “Chakan oil cartridges,” he said to Aeryn.  “Got any spares?” 

“No.  Just the one in my pulse pistol.” 

“Keep it.”  John dug in the pouch attached to his belt and came up with four.  “How far away can you hit one of these things … on the first try?  Absolutely for sure, no misses?”

“Twenty motras.  Fifteen would be better.” 

John wiped sweat away from his eyebrows with a thumb, and took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Chakan oil cartridges are the fuse.  Line them up end to end, pile the fireworks on top, cap them with the bell.  We lure Godzilla so he’s standing on top of them, and you shoot.”  He punctuated his description with both hands, illustrating the brief description with gestures.   

“That is insane!” Aeryn said.  “Do you know how many different things are wrong with that plan?” 

John ticked the items off on his fingers.  “We don’t know if the explosives will ignite.  We don’t know if the force of the explosion will go up, down, or get smothered by the bell.  We have no idea what the bell is made of, so it could just vaporize or turn into shrapnel, neither of which will help us.  Maneuvering Godzilla into the right place at the right time will be pure luck, and for all we know there could be another of those things underground just waiting for a wake up call, in which case we’ll be dealing with two of those monstrosities instead of one, doubling our fun.  Did I miss anything?” 

“The part about how you are out of your mind?” she said. 

“That’s a given, not an unknown.  Come on.” 

Everything seemed to move very quickly after that.  The fields were too soft for them to pull the cart to where John wanted to set up what he had begun to call a booby trap, so they began ferrying the fireworks out into the middle of the neatly plowed furrows one armful at a time.  John stomped a section of ground flat while Aeryn ran back and forth, and then arranged the chakan oil cartridge fuse and began building a pyramid of the cloth-wrapped bundles.  Half a metra away, the azshdagka was making quick work of the panicked livestock that D’Argo had set loose. 

“Go, go!” he said when Aeryn dumped the last of the oversized explosive cartridges next to his creation.  “You get ready to shoot.  I’ll finish.”   

“Be quick.  D’Argo is almost out of bait.”  Aeryn slogged her way through the mucky loam, headed for the roadway.  In quick snatches of conversations, they had agreed that the firmer footing there would provide the best chance at a hasty retreat if the azshdagka did not cooperate with their plan by straddling the explosives.  If John’s plan didn’t work, they would head join the villagers in the hills until either Rygel or Chiana came to rescue them. 

Just as she stumbled onto the packed surface, two things happened at once.  A small portion of the terrified herd that D’Argo had set loose stampeded toward where John had finished stacking the last of the fireworks; and John dropped the bell.  It let out one enormous clang as it landed.     

The azshdagka, already in pursuit of the animals, swerved to one side and headed straight for John. 

“Run!” Aeryn yelled. 

John slapped the bell into place, bent down long enough to dust some dirt off the one chakan oil cartridge that was visible, then put his head down, and sprinted away from the behemoth bearing down on him.  He chose to run between two of the furrows, moving parallel to the neatly spaced ridges of earth.  He could move faster that way, but he was in Aeryn’s line of fire.  She couldn’t shoot. 

“Go right!” Aeryn shouted.  “Your right!” 

He bounded across the long heaps of soil, tripped, scrambled up, and kept moving.  The azshdagka veered with him.  It was going to miss their makeshift demolitions.  Aeryn fired at the beast, hoping to draw it back.  It let out a roar that shook the ground, and continue to pursue John.  The qualta rifle was firing now.  Insignificant specks of light picked at the azshdagka’s side.  It slowed, hesitated, and then went after the fleeing Crichton again. 

John looked over his shoulder, saw that the creature was going to miss the explosives, and cut to his left. 

“No!” Aeryn yelled.  John’s route would draw the azshdagka directly across the bell poised in the middle of the field, but it also meant that he was shortening the distance between him and the monster.  Blind or not, the azshdagka seemed to sense that its prey had made a fatal mistake.  It accelerated, bearing down on John like a living avalanche. 

“Shoot!” John yelled over the comms. 

“You’re in the way!” 

“Shoot!”

“You’re too close!”  The azshdagka was two massive steps away from the bell, but it was too close to John.  It was almost on top of him. 

“For god’s sake, shoot, Aeryn!  SHOOT!” 

Aeryn fired.  For one brief moment -- less than a fraction of a microt -- she thought she had missed.  The pulse blast flew true; it passed behind the fast-moving black blur that was John, arrowed in beneath the azshdagka’s belly, and hit the ground at the base of the bell.  For a single instant in time, nothing happened.  Then there was a rippling, multiple concussion, the result of several charges going off in quick succession, and the bell simply disappeared.  Aeryn didn’t see what happened to it.  One microt it was there; the next it was gone. 

The azshdagka didn’t stop.  It lunged at John, who had changed directions and was headed toward Aeryn again.  The snout slammed into the soft dirt behind his heels.  A tentacle lashed out, caught John’s ankle.  He tore free, stumbled, and hit the ground rolling.  He came back up in a flurry of dirt, dodged to his right, and kept running.  The mountain of azshdagka went after him.  Aeryn began firing, aiming at anything on its head that looked sensitive.  A steady barrage from the qualta rifle was coming from her right.  None of it made any difference. 

“John, to your left.  Come this way!”  He was tiring.  She could see it in the way that it was taking more effort for him to wade through the soft, wet loam, and the way that his boots were barely clearing the soil with each successive step.  If he couldn’t put some distance between him and the azshdagka in the next few microts, there was only one way this could possibly end. 

The azshdagka slowed.  John tripped.  This time he went skidding face first into the dirt.  The monster was almost on top of him.  Aeryn kept firing.  She concentrated her attack on the knobs on its head that at one time might have been eyes.  The azshdagka lumbered to a stop.  It stood still, looking confused, less than three motras from where John lay sprawled in the soft earth.  Aeryn stopped firing.  She was concerned that if she drew the creature toward her, it would crush John.  She waited, pulse pistol at the ready, not certain what more she could do.  The azshdagka stood motionless in the middle of the field.  The only thing unusual about the creature’s behavior, other than its lack of interest in either John or the remaining livestock running around, was that its head was hanging close to the ground, and the bristling tentacles around its mouth weren’t moving. 

“Aeryn, what should we do?” D’Argo whispered over the comms.

“I don’t know.  Wait, I think.”  All she could see of John were his shoulders, which were heaving up and down as he tried to catch his breath; and his hands, which were clasped over his head.  He was face down between two furrows, no more than two azshdagka steps away from being trampled to death or eaten. 

The azshdagka stirred.  Small tendrils of smoke puffed out from between its lips; they curled lazily around its head.  It stretched its neck out to the full extent of its length, wheezed several times, and then belched out flames, smoke and sparks.  It hiccupped.  Belched again.  Black smoke laced with red, blue, green, and yellow fire flared out from between its lips.  The azshdagka sneezed several times, sending wild flurries of colorful fizzing explosions racing across the field, and then it blew up. 

The section of the field where the beast had been standing disappeared in an enormous cloud of dirt, dust, swirling colorful sparkles, and azshdagka bits. 

Aeryn’s knees buckled.  She grabbed at a fence post for support, and stared in disbelief at the roiling storm of debris still climbing upwards into the afternoon sky.  Numb fingers fumbled her pulse pistol into its holster, after which she took two uncertain steps across the grassy boundary next to the field.  D’Argo was suddenly beside her.  She did not remember him approaching.  At some point during the mayhem, it had stopped raining.  She had not noticed that either.  There were breaks in the clouds and blue sky overhead. 

“John?” he asked. 

“I don’t know.  He was … close,” she said.  “Too close, I think.” 

It began raining earth.  Dust, fine soil, and dirt clods of every dimension pattered down out of the sky.  Aeryn turned away, hunched over, shielding her eyes from the storm.  When she turned back, John was ambling toward them, appearing like a wraith from the heart of the earth-colored cloud, looking as if he was out for a relaxed stroll.  Aeryn turned away from him, put her back against a fence post, and slid down to the ground.  For the moment, sitting was safer than standing.  D’Argo collapsed beside her.  Ten microts later, John clambered over the fence, spent four microts ruffling dirt out of his hair, and then flopped down alongside his two companions. 

He was earth-colored from head to toe.  Every bit of skin and his clothes were coated with rich, nearly black soil.  The only breaks in the monotone were the whites of his eyes and the flash of his teeth when he grinned at them.   “I don’t know about the two of you, but I could use a beer.”


          * * * * *


“… which is how the valiant Lady Aeryn killed the azshdagka with a single shot from her mighty weapon,” Markin said, rolling into the final moments of his story, “thus saving the fleeing coward, Crichton.” 

He paused to take another drink, wetting his mouth for the finale.  “What did Lady Aeryn teach us on that historic day?” he said to the assembled children. 

“That the azshdagka can be killed,” the young ones shouted back.  “We do not have to be afraid!” 

“What did the valiant knight, D’Argo, teach us when he put himself in harm’s way to help his lady?” Markin asked. 

“Sacrifice will win the day!” came the chorus. 

“And what did we learn from Crichton?” he said, raising his voice to a strident cry. 

“That azshdagka are goooood eatin’!” everyone in the hall bellowed at the top of their lungs. 

“Excellent!”  Markin waved his hand at the huge double doors leading out into the marketplace.  “Go!  It is time for the festival to begin!” 

The children bounded to their feet and rushed the door, laughing and yelling with excitement.  The parents followed close behind, with the older adults trailing along in their wake.  Markin rose to his feet more slowly, giving his aging muscles time to adjust after sitting for so long.  He emerged into bright sunlight and cool air, perfect weather for the first day of the Festival of Aeryn and the strenuous activities that went with it.  Markin followed the crowd at his own pace, taking his time. There was no reason to hurry.  The celebration would not begin for at least half an arn. 

Lady Aeryn and her companions had taught them much more than the lessons of valor and freedom.  They had shown them that if they flooded the fields deliberately after the spring plowing by diverting water from a reservoir in the hills, that they could call forth the azshdagka at a time of their own choosing.  They could prepare in advance, fight it on their own terms.  Her servant, Crichton, while not much of a warrior, had taught them that the creature was nothing more than a very large cousin of the slithering water-and-earth creatures that the children liked to catch and turn into pets.  Understanding had banished fear. 

“Markin,” one of his peers greeted him as he arrived at the edge of the fields.  “How much longer, do you think?” 

“Four cycles, maybe five,” Markin said.  “There aren’t many left.” 

All that remained of the azshdagka were the eggs laid long ago by the queen that Lady Aeryn had destroyed.  With the matriarch gone, it was up to the hatchlings to fight their way to the surface in the pursuit of nourishment, instead of waiting for their mother to return to the nest bearing sustenance.  The first cycle had brought forth a dozen beasts near fully grown, three quarters the size of the creature that had terrorized the village for so many cycles.  The battle had been fearsome.  Many had died.  But at the end of the day, all the azshdagka lay slaughtered. 

They had spread the word to every village in the district, and from there across the entire landmass:  The azshdagka could be killed.  And in time, the tales of triumph eventually returned.  From one end of the continent to the other, with each cycle that passed, the azshdagka clawing their way out of the ground were becoming smaller.  Their days were numbered.     

“Here they come!” someone shouted. 

The azshdagka hatchlings began to emerge:  undersized, helpless, pitiful things mewling and squirming in the soft sunlight.  Limbless, without tentacles, barely half a motra in length, they were no longer the unstoppable enemy that Markin had faced in his younger days.  This was the last gasp of an entire species. 

The children of the village, laughing and screaming with excitement, ran into the fields and began beating the last of the azshdagka to death. 


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * 


Thank you for reading,

KernilCrash
:dk:
Purveyor of Hallucinations


Happiness is not a destination.  It is a method of life. -- Burton Hills
Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass.  It's about learning to dance in the rain. -- Vivian Greene