Ballad of Behemoths

Alfhild’s grumble was not subtle as her ancient form crashed heavily into the ground. Whelps flitted around her, with two very pointedly sitting to her left and right, staring poignantly at the trembling egg in the center of the cave. Alfhild laid her head down carefully between to the two siblings and peered down at the younger one, who looked at her anxiously.

“Your mother has hatched two babes into this world. I cannot fathom why she called upon the council so soon,” there was nothing but kindness on her breath, “There is nothing to fear little one, your next sibling is neither ahead, nor behind.”

There was smoke on the sigh that had been building up in the chest of the tiny creature. The dragon next to him, his senior by many more than 10,000 years, chuckled. Smoke meant more colors would begin to appear on his chest in the next fifty years or so–one of the earliest signs of maturity. His elder knew why the two were worried–their mother didn’t hide her fear so well. When she laid a clutch of four eggs two years ago, she held out for the possibility that two may survive to hatching; three children was considered bad luck at best and often a disgrace if the wrong council members showed up to your home. At the sound of bickering, in a language specific to the council, Alfhild’s head shot up. Her neck craned around and she stared down her fellow members, all younger than her.

One or two scoffed at her gaze upon their backs, but the ones forced to make eye contact whimpered and dropped their opinions. She had made herself clear on the flight over: at a birthing led by her, she would not tolerate the whispers or the abuse.

She felt a small set of claws rest themselves against one of her toes and she looked away from the insufferable younglings she had to bring with her. The older of the two siblings was now looking up with wide eyes. They held a special place in Alfhild’s heart; their sire was her son, and she had the unique honor of leading the child’s hatching, despite her closeness to the situation. There was a slight tremble in the pressure on her claw and Alfhild’s heart ached for the little ones at her feet. Anything that might be bad in the coming years would be blamed on their mother and they would be made fun of by the other whelps their age. She laid her head back down and bade them sit in front of her.

“Shh,” she began, “This is for you two only.”

Their fear was not lost, but they both looked much more excited at the prospect of a new secret.

***

There lived another world, that lies beneath the feet and dirt of this current one; the land of the Behemoths was certainly a sight to behold. Everything seemed to glow, even the buildings, and it was considered a paradise constructed by the wisest and benevolent of beings. It’s a wonder that the destruction that took place could level such spires and walls, but that’ll come later.

We’ll start in the capital city–there was only one in the whole world–where a king paced back and forth. His mate breathed heavily in the corner, locked in a heavy trance. As the breathing quickened, the monarch’s stopped in the grips of fear. The laboring Behemoth’s eyes flashed open suddenly and, with great urgency, she struggled to get up. The monarch faltered in his pacing, reaching out timidly toward his lover, knowing they could not touch until the ceremony was complete. With a few incantations, the queen struggled to create shadows with her hands, manipulating the physical forms of each. The king counted out three. Migz took shape first, followed by Eikthe. K’thaugz would take the longest, their shape remaining hazy when the other two were becoming sharp.

The figures slowly come into being. The king waited until the tops of their heads were a supple gray, black hair falling from each, before he took his leave of the room. He burst into the throne room, where his court was waiting. His wife’s journey had been far longer than normal and he knew they were anxious for the report.

“My queen has brought three Behemoths into this world; after a year-long journey in the Underworld, our queen has returned healthy.”

Their sigh of relief would be too soon.

The king, unable to place his emotions after not speaking to his wife in over a year, was losing touch with his ability to handle follow-up inquiries from the people in the room. He puts up a hand after only one or two and bowed silently to his advisors before leaving the room. His return to the chambers would not be quick enough to say goodbye to his wife before she passed back, eternally, into the Underworld. The small spirits, standing in the middle of the room, expected this and were already mourning her as she turned her beautiful smile on them for the first time and the breath ceased to enter her chest.

The three spirits were crowded around the bed, the smallest with tears in their eyes, when the king re-entered the room. He immediately went over to the bed and laid by his bride, running his hands over her cooling shoulders.

“She was gone too long,” his voice was that of disappointment, not tragedy, “What happened down there? Why was she gone so long?”

The largest of the figures looked at their new father solemnly, “I would not leave without the other two.”

There was pain in their voice, but not enough to satisfy the king. It wasn’t a good enough excuse. He called for an attendant, who would quickly break the news of the queen’s death, to take away the children. They would be placed in a school outside the capital’s walls, somewhere the king would never visit. It wasn’t taken lightly that these three souls were brought to the world by the queen herself, so they still received tutoring from the best minds in the world. The king feigned the symptoms of bittersweetness, but anyone close to him knew that he was crumbling with anger and sorrow.

The icy hand of death, given strength by the absence of the queen, took over the furthest reaches of the land. In a time long before winter set in, the crops were already dying or refusing to grow. Farmers and merchants began to panic as their barns and coffers grew an unhealthy layer of dust. As the first person died from starvation since the king took rule, he cursed the three children sitting with their tutor.

The world entered a subdued state, the one society experiences as though panic is water in a too-small cup, but the seal has yet to break. The children’s backs were soon misshapen and bent, with each new death hanging heavy on their shoulders. The tutors and teachers didn’t know what to make of their disfigurement, with no physical catalyst for their ailment. These same tutors did stumble upon a strange pattern, proceeding each new, invisible weight added upon the backs of the children.

Migz experienced the pain first, crying out and often falling, at this point. It was clearly a struggle for the largest to stand up after this. When the toll of the land finally overtook the school, the personal tutors of the trio could guess when someone had died based on Eikthe’s cries. When the larger two of the siblings experienced the pain, K’thaugz wasn’t far off. Their pain often occurred as a body was lowered into the ground. Bystanders would shoot dirty looks at the smallest child, angry that an outburst would occur at the most sacred of rites: a burial. Eventually, the trio stopped coming to their teacher’s funerals.

The king, during this wide-spread famine, had no solution. His thoughts were constantly upon his queen and their children, and he wished death upon himself. More out of choice than necessity, he stopped eating. He knew there was no solution to a world-wide famine. They had no contact with other worlds and the engine-like production that was indicative of his previously-happy reign could not work without fuel. He crumbled under the pressure and took to locking himself away, wasting in the dark recesses of the room he shared with his deceased wife.

Panic finally ensued when the inevitable happened and the king hadn’t left his room in a week. Fears were confirmed when, upon entering the room, attendants found a corpse. The survivors in the castle and surrounding lands took to tearing down the giant towers, searching for food, searching for a king and queen they couldn’t fathom could be dead. When they found nothing, they took their frustration out on any remaining buildings. Some jumped from crumbling spires, others willingly walked into burning homes. The population dwindled dangerously close to four digits, and then spiraled down to three, then two.

The children couldn’t leave bed at this point. They had never been weaker than they were in this moment. Their surviving tutors, staying alive on the energy of decades of tapping into magical currents, surrounded the three. A noblewoman, long forgotten to be of the sorcerer’s order, burst into the room. Her ribcage was visible and her cheeks sunken. At the sight of her, Migz yelped.

She looked sorrowfully at the children on the bed.

“Is it me next?”

One of the tutors looked her up and down, “I don’t think we needed the child to tell us that.”

“What’s it like, out there?” another asked her, “Is there any hope.”

“None at all. Whatever you’re going to try, try it now; don’t bother worrying about the consequences. I’d actually prefer you do whatever it is right now. I’m pretty tired of this.”

There was a collective nod amongst the sorcerers. As this decision was apparently made, Migz screamed. It was drawn-out and terrible. The other two children flinched at their sibling’s yell, drawn out of whatever trance they had been in. The three fell back asleep as Migz ran out of breath. A tower crumbled outside their window.

“We don’t have time to talk to them about this.”

“They’ll forgive us.”

“I don’t think they w-”

“It doesn’t matter, we’re doing it now.”

The four–five, now that the noblewoman joined them–raised their hands and spoke in an ancient language that was soon going to be dead. They pulled all of the energy from the lines below the surface of the earth, filling the room with the swirling energy when they could hold no more in their bodies. Simultaneously, they brought their hands down. The energy fled their bodies and joined the free energy in the room. It collectively broke through the roof and fled out of sight. In nearly less than a second, the five could see it in its descent, gaining momentum. They stepped away from the children and clasped each other, a final goodbye. It was short-lived.

The glow returned with a flash and a shockwave spread across the earth. The children’s bodies would be the start and return point of the wave, which only stopped when it reached them again. They would be revitalized by this, and ten times more magic than could be held by five sorcerers the size of mountains would find a home in their three bodies.

It would be hours, still, until the three awoke. They would be forced to survive in a wasteland. The endless forests were flattened in an instant, the tallest buildings had become unbuilt, mountains became piles of dirt, and they woke up not remembering an instant of what ruined it. They began their search for life immediately, thinking of their soon-to-be empty bellies first. It remained as desperate a search, even when the craving never came. They never gave up on their search. For thousands of years their pools of energy wouldn’t wane. K’thaugz’s unworldly memory of the past, even the past they could not have known, kept their drive. Eikthe kept them grounded in the now, though they knew–inherently–that there was no one alive in that moment. Migz would tell stories of people coming to rescue them, to bring life back into the ground; it kept them hopeful.

It would be a long wait, however, until this became true.

***

“Three has been unlucky ever since, especially in us, the guardians of time, the dragons,” Alfhild continued to whisper to the two. The dragonlings around her, aside from her small audience, were drifting. The day held almost too much excitement for them.

“However, my life has been extraordinarily good. I was from a brood of three–all the same age too. The size of my clutch was and continues to be unheard of. In a laying of five eggs, three survived to hatch. We still speak, from time to time, and they are doing well. When we reached our 10,000th year, together, we were welcome to the privilege of meeting a god of our choice. I chose Migz, as the oldest, my younger sister met with Eikthe, and my younger brother met with K’thaugz. They were pleased to meet us all together. They are the most kind of souls. If you face teasing as you become older, call to them for help–they will come.”

The two children had clearly drooping eyelids, they were not immune to exhaustion despite their excitement with the story. Alfhild warmed her chest as the night took over the cave and chilled the floor. She spread the warmth to her breath and heated the ground beneath the two children. They fell asleep and she fixed her gaze upon the egg. It would hatch within the night. She praised the gods of fate and closed her eyes to wait.

Click here to read the foreword to this story. Click here to read the endnotes.