Hellvetica, Pollen-Borcan Borderlands
Winter 2596 AD
The blizzard battered the pass.
Crawling on the valley floor like a lonely insect, the mammoth lumbered onward. From the fur on its legs and belly hung icicles the length and breadth of daggers, lancing down in the direction of the prevailing wind. They jingled as they hung, buffeted by the storm. The animal lowed objectionably to its forced march through the whitening madness, trunk tucked under its chin.
Higher up on the houdah, the ragged group of humans travelling upon the pachyderm had clung to whatever shelter they could find, tucking their heads into cloths and face masks, and huddling together for shared body heat. The small space tilted back and forth as the animal trudged forward, a lamp swinging from the rafters overhead, sending shadows swinging over the creaking boards in silent, treacherous pendulums. Snow was finding its way through cracks in the awnings, collecting in small piles where the air swirled to a standstill. A single passenger sat apart from the rest of the travellers, leaning with crossed legs outstretched against the edge of the platform, and wrapped deeply in a cowl.
One of the younger group members lifted his head and looked in the direction of the loner.
“You are not cold?” he enquired in a Balkhan accent, raising his voice over the creaking and the wind. The lone man said nothing, eyes remaining impassive under the hood. The Balkhaner blew warmth into his hands, rubbing them vigorously.
“Hey! I’m talking to you, man. What’s wrong with you?”
“Be quiet, Sergei” an older man growled.
“Why? He sits there for two days now saying nothing, it’s very strange.” Sergei turned back to the traveller, “Why are you not sitting with us, keeping warm?”
Again no reply, but the cowl’s hood flickered up to take in the speaker, as if registering the young man’s profile. Then it fell back again into a pensive meditation.
The wind continued its incessant howling. The houdah listed back and forth like a tiny ship, its contents afloat in the cold void of the gale.
“You have any Burn?” asked Sergei.
A woman’s voice spoke up.
“Do shut up, Sergei.”
The young man sat up insistently, staring intently at the stranger.
There was a pause. A gloved hand rose up, as if to uncover a face mask.
“You should listen to your parents.” The voice was strangely calm and deliberate, as if reaching the listener’s ears with ease over the tempest. The hand sank down again.
Sergei replied angrily.
“They are not my parents,” he blurted, “they are from my uncle’s clan. I do not know them.”
“They seem to know you,” the voice from under the hood responded.
“He is a young fool who only managed to survive by fleeing when Chernobog’s army caught his clan by surprise,” snapped the old man, his voice rising in annoyance, “And if he had not arrived at our door, we would not be fleeing for our lives right now either.”
“Don’t talk about my family that way, you old cunt. We both know if you hadn’t left your lands, Davos, your whole family would have died. At least we saved what we could this way, that’s a good thing if you ask me.”
The old man lifted his hands to the sky.
“My herds are gone, the land of my ancestors ravaged, we’re running with our tails between our legs to some mutant infested marsh of a crater, and you tell me this is a fucking good situation?”
They fell into a rapid bickering in Balkhan, the sharp consonants falling over one anothers words in a staccato escalation. A baby began to cry. What must have been the aunt’s voice cut in.
“Would you two stop this? We’re here now. There’s nothing we can do about Chernobog or any of that. It’s too cold for all this arguing.”
She rocked the baby, nuzzling its cheeks and mewling softly. After some time, it gradually receded to sleep. The mammoth grumbled, and a rumble rose from deep within the gargantuan gut the humans rested upon. It had taken them from Prizrak Crossing all the way up here across a wilderness of barren heathland and windswept foothills, a journey of what should have been only a couple of days, but was now stretching into a week, the mahout clansman sitting up exposed to the elements throughout the entire trip. Born in the mountains, he had laughed casually with the clanners during a stop for watering the mammoth, but when his shirt slipped open they saw a glimpse of fine red hairs on his chest, in a circle. Bion might have raised a good price during the winter for the traders, but no one wanted a Leperos driving as a mahout.
The reality of the situation was beginning to dawn upon some of the group that they were stranded on the animal, this biological life raft afloat in a barren sea, wading ever deeper into the snows in an effort to reach one of the most remote places on earth, in what was turning into possibly the worst winter in a generation. What had been the remainder of the clan had stayed to join the resistance efforts, led by that clown of a Borgermeister Javnikov, turning his back on his Voivodate allies and throwing his army at Chernobog’s in a desperate, last-ditch ambush effort to save Praha Republika. One hundred thousand men had died that day. For the refugees, the recent past since then had been filled with very short, intense spells of acute panic and terror punctuated by longer periods of achingly dull drudgery and hopelessness following the consensus to flee the carnage of the invasion.
Only Fortuna held the promise of a new life now, beckoning them into its lonely cradle high in the mountains.
Silently, the mammoth was being hunted.
As large as ponies, the mountain cats blended into the snow like ghosts, white streaks of streamlined, striped fur covering rippling musculature honed by instinct. A driving hunger gnawed in their bellies, eyes transfixed on their prey. Criss-cross patterns of scars covered their flanks, displaying the harsh evolutionary landscape they inhabited.
They circled the lumbering mammal on the edge of vision, stalking with the practised patience of apex predators. Hunkering in the lee of an outcrop of rocks, the wind carrying their scent away, they waited for the perfect opportunity as night fell.
“I saw him,” said the stranger.
All eyes in the group turned to face him. The floorboards creaked again as the houdah thudded, the mammoth treading over something large on the path.
“W-w-what did you say?” asked one of them, a middle aged man with a ragged beard and one eye, teeth chattering.
The strangers cowl tilted up slightly as he talked, exposing his chin to the slowly swinging light.
“I saw Chernobog.”
Eyes widened. One of the group let out a gasp.
“You saw Chernobog?” asked Davos.
The stranger lifted a cigarette to his lips, lighting it with a match. His face lit up briefly, revealing goggles of an unfamiliar construction, before the halflight swallowed the cowl once more.
Sergei began laughing, mockingly.
“Hah! A likely story,” he scoffed. “How is it you are still alive?”
The cigarette tip glowed, snaking blue trails up into the rafters.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well tell us then, stranger, we’re on the edge of our fucking seats over here!” he exclaimed, suddenly losing his patience.
“Does it matter what I tell you? You don’t seem like the type of boy who would believe me, do you now?”
Sergei started to respond, opening his mouth, but before he could reply the stuttering man cut over him.
“Ignore him. T-tell us. What did you see?”
A hand waved dismissively.
“There wasn’t all that much to see. I was in Praha after the fall. The clans had stripped the depots bare and were looting the warehouses. I remember watching from the second floor of some burned out hovel. It was crazy, the clans were pillaging and rampaging. I saw…distressing things.”
Another pull on the cigarette.
“Anyway, he was there. At the end of the street. Standing with his bodyguard, or whatever. Tall, strange clothes. He walked around, sniffing the air. Some black machines came and hovered into place around the street. Then he made hand signs, like this, moving his fingers around in patterns in the air. The atmosphere grew heavier, charged somehow. I felt my ears pop, and the blood dripped down my jaw onto the floor. My head was pounding for me to scream and beg for it to stop. None of his people seemed to feel it. They were moving their arms in the air to some kind of rhythm, as if to ward something away. Bits of glass lying around began levitating and spinning in place. I didn’t know what happened, I tried with all my strength to stay hidden and out of sight. Finally it stopped. When I looked out again there was someone kneeling in front of him. Hands were bound. Chernobog leaned down and said something to him.”
The group gawped.
“Then what?” the woman asked.
“Then he ate him. Opened his mouth and closed his jaws over the guys head. Teeth were like knives, all jagged and shiny. Whole thing came off with a -snap-, like that. Swallowed it in one go. Body starts flopping around everywhere, spilling this… liquid… all over the place. Telling you, it wasn’t normal.”
The silence stretched for a moment, the audience transfixed. Sergei chimed in.
“And… that’s it?”
“Then I waited, and they left.”
“So you saw ‘terrible things’, like a man’s head being eaten who had some strange blood or something by some big person who walked around who you think looked like Chernobog.”
The stranger laughed drily.
“Yeah, then he took a giant steaming turd down his neck.”
Sergei stood up, annoyed.
“Alright, listen here you Burner scumfuck, I’ve had enough of your shit. Tell us what’s going on or we’ll report you to the fucking Hellvetics. Better yet, why don’t we just throw you out into the blizzard to freeze?”
He stepped towards the stranger.
At that instant there was a thud as something impacted the mammoth, and then a loud trumpeting. The animal bellowed, and the houdah lurched violently. The passengers cried out.
There was a brief instant of calm as the platform began to fall. The light swung across the stranger’s face.
“I’m not a Burner,” he said.
Then all hell broke loose.
Making sure her adolescent cubs were visible, the alpha female pounced down upon the pachyderm, landing squarely on its rump. Long claws rended into the hide, digging in. The bigger mammal screamed in pain and surprise, its eyes suddenly flaring wide. It reared up, trumpeting, waving its tusks in the air.
The attacking feline clung on as the mammoth sank back and began to whirl around.
The mahout was thrown from the saddle. Without warning he was pinwheeled backwards in midair like a ragdoll as the mammoth bucked, breaking his neck cleanly as he landed.
Two more felines charged, encircling the mammoth, trying to flank round away from the tusks.
The houdah erupted into chaos. The humans began screaming as the structure leaned over, sending baggage and supplies flying. Some of the passengers were sent sliding towards the flimsy hides that lined the sides, crying out to their companions as they grasped for a handhold.
Sergei lost his footing, sent sprawling towards the back of the cabin as the mammoth reared, his face a mask of surprise as it slammed into the wooden panelling. A set of enormous claws tore through the hide above and sliced down savagely, digging into the wood. A primeval scream of predatory frustration sounded, deafening the disarrayed and terrified passengers.
The people were flung around the houdah, struggling to find a purchase for their hands as gravity rearranged itself. Pots and pans fell from the ceiling, and more baggage became dislodged as the houdah’s tethering began to slide around under the animal’s belly.
Davos cried out.
“It’s falling! Get clear!”
As soon as the mammoth had bellowed the prone man was on his feet with a sudden motive leap. Judging the shift in balance expertly, he grabbed a railing and vaulted up to catch a rafter, as Sergei flew backwards bodily into the rear of the cabin.
Hanging in a prehensile manner he hefted his legs up to crouch upside down, reaching inside his cloak.
A tiger’s body burst through the houdah, snarling ferociously. Powerful front limbs clawed at the wreckage, trying to pull the upper body inside as the rear legs were tossed around by the mammoth’s struggles. She smelled the terror from the panic-stricken people, now within striking distance, but her footing was awkward.
Fangs bared, she flung a clawed paw furiously at Sergei, the speed of the attack taking the man by surprise. With a sickening wet shucking noise, his jaw was sliced off along with most of his face. A huge spray of blood flew up the wall and ceiling. What little was left of his gullet began to gurgle and froth as the body sank to the floor. It rolled to the side into a pile.
The family screamed, trying desperately to scramble to the edges away from the huge predator.
The cat heaved itself inside, enraged. She bunched her haunches to pounce on a victim, opening her mouth-
– as a figure dropped smoothly onto her back.
The man landed on the cat, shawl enveloping the feline’s head. Davos, gripping the hand of his wife, glimpsed what was happening. It was difficult to make out the ensuing struggle through the chaos, but an instant later the animal’s face suddenly froze, contorted into a rictus of confusion. A blade emerged through its chin, then withdrew again. Its legs buckled and it collapsed, the cowled stranger alighting on his feet. It was over within seconds.
The houdah tipped over.
The man swung his body up to the side (what was now ‘up’), and as the houdah crashed to the snow in a clatter of equipment, wreckage and screaming occupants, some of whom were half scrambling free, pirouetted his legs through and up, gaining momentum to step on a broken plank and fling a hand onto a tuft of hair on the mammoth.
His foot dislodged the lamp which fell with a smash. The oil ignited.
The structure had dragged the immense bulk of the mammoth off balance. The cubs leapt at the ancient beast, claws and teeth bared. With one side immobilised, the animal had no way of defending itself other that to swing its head desperately, shaking its tusks violently. The left legs waved in the air, trying to swing itself to its feet.
One of the cubs clawed up the flank, grasping its way to the top to sink its fangs into the neck of the mammoth, but was thrown to the side in a shower of hair and blood where it regained its feet, snarling.
Another at the rear mauled the hind quarters, dragging furiously with all its might. It received a kick to its face for good measure, but it dodged with an effortless grace, spine rolling fluidly as it bucked out of reach. It lunged back in for a hold on the wounded flank again, a deep gash rupturing the mammoth’s belly. Steam vomited from the wound, blood pouring over the snow.
The man rose up tentatively on the back of the rolling mammoth and looked to both sides. The houdah was ablaze, flames growing with every passing second. The tortured shrieking of those still trapped inside under the mammoths weight was reaching an unholy, feverish pitch. Meanwhile the trio of predators had cornered the floundering mount. The mammoth was still imprisoned within the harness of the travelling platform, and without a way to right itself it would surely succumb to the onslaught. It dawned on him that the fight was over, and that all that was left was for the assailants was to wear the beast down until it succumbed.
Crouching, he surveyed his options. To the rear, one cat was busy gnawing at the sinews of the flank. To the fore, another was swiping at the trunk, still whiplashing dangerously.
The fire caught the mammoth’s hide, flames licking upwards as they spread over the flank. A tremendous, moaning lamentation of torture and terror began to issue from the mammoth’s throat.
The man turned, ready to slide to the ground when from out of the darkness beyond the flames hurtled a nightmarish visage of a pouncing cat, lips curled back in a savage snarl, claws extended, a dart of primal fury aimed at his throat. Time slowed down to nanoseconds.
Moving with a focus of practised purpose, he arched backwards gracefully like a trapeze artist and leaped underneath as the predator passed inches from his face, paws swiping at his eyes. A claw caught his cape and the pair went tumbling into the ground, rolling over until they separated several yards apart.
The feline jerked to its feet swiftly, roaring its fury, but the man was already standing. He stood statue still, leveling a revolver at the mouth of the animal.
At the same time the cat pounced, the man fired twice.
Goggles lit by the blaze, the stranger squatted. The mammoth carcass was burning intensely now, fat reserves dripping and hissing like tallow on a candle. The houdah and its occupants were a remnant, crushed and burnt to ashes.
Someone will see the fire, he realised.
He walked over to where his glove had been torn off and picked it up. His left hand, missing its fourth finger, pushed its way into the cavity, feeling the reassuring pressure of what was lodged inside. He turned to the body of the animal that had recently attempted to eat his jugular, still snarling in rigor mortis.
Long walk to the rim.
Taking a knife from his belt, he began to work on the hide.