Friday, July 25, 2008

"The Elephant Crusade" -- Act IV


"The Elephant Crusade"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT IV: Balori Quests for the Stars

A TREE GROWS FIRST ITS ROOTS: Wherein Balori Shongoyo Visits Taliesin; Young Cordelia Plots Against the Weasel King; Aniabas Gambles in Desperation to Usurp Raiju Yu; Akadia Visits the Eternal Empress and Bears Witness to the Results of the Elephant Crusade



Long had Aileas been quiet, trapped within the shaft of the Spear of Sorrows. It was as though she slept, resting for the first time since her death and turn into a Bean Nighe. Xiao-tep had planted her into the ground at the base of Taliesin, far from the open fields, intent on never using her again. Aelis was pleased by this. Each new day brought to her the warmth of the sun and a smile. Indeed, so long had she sat, the spear's four eternally sharp blades pointed skyward, that small vines began to grow where the shaft entered the ground. She was as a tree in a forest with no sorrows nor cares. She lived for the sun and nothing more. Taliesin was paradise.

Xiao-tep had continued to work the fields and gardens of Taliesin. He made for himself a sickle with which to harvest and trim using flint from the mountain and a broken branch from a cherry willow. His fins would shift into arms with hands as he grasped the sickle. he arms had grown strong with the daily work. Most of all, his face had grown a happy, content smile. He came to love Taliesin as he had never known love before. Taliesin was paradise.

Each night he would pack fruits and roots into a small basket he had woven from dried leaves of elephant grass that grew on the base of the mountain. He would then take the basket of foods to the peak of Taliesin and share a meal with his friends Aglina the Dove and Zingtai the Butterfly. Every night they would talk lightly and enjoy each others' company, but Xiao-tep knew, could sense the despair in Zingtai. Each night he would watch the fallen butterfly, her wing wounded and torn with a hole where the missing jewel had been, as she stole a peak at Kalavata flying overhead. Though she had not mentioned matters for a long time, he knew she desired returning to the nighttime sky. But her broken wing kept her grounded. So she quietly despaired and ate and talked with her friends.

Then one day, while working the fields late into the day, Xiao-tep came across Oti the Firefly who had flown to Taliesin looking for a mate who had playfully lead him on a chase.

Xiao-tep gazed in amazement at Oti's ability to spark light like fire. "How can you do this?" he asked. "Know you the ways of mysticism?"

Oti chuckled, "Oh, no, no, no. It is a natural thing. All us fireflies can light up the night." Then Oti added with some small embarrassment, "We do it to attract mates."

Xiao-tep laughed at this. "Well, it is a beautiful thing. It reminds me of the stars. I can only imagine what many more of your kind would be like."

"If you allow my friends to live here," said Oti, "we would be most happy to light up the night for you."

Xiao-tep thought this would be a wonderful present for his friends on Taliesin. He invited Oti to bring more friends to Taliesin and soon the night was lit up like the nighttime heavens used to be under Zingtai's wings.

Xiao-tep flew to the side of Zingtai and Aglina and pointed out the massive fields below sparkling with the firefly light. "It's as the stars!" he claiemd.

Aglina glowered at Xiao-tep, ,angry he might offend Zingtai. She drew the butterfly closer under her wing. But Zingtai, though she did feel some sadness in seeing the lights below, found also beauty and wonder in them. She thought Xiao-tep had done a wonderful thing to bring such beauty to Taliesin and told him so.

"I can only hope seeing them does not hurt you," Xiao-tep said softly.

Zingtai admitted they did. "But that is no fault of yours. It is the fault of the one who stole my jewel."

Their friendship affirmed, Xiao-tep carried on with his work each day and picnicked with Aglina and Zingtai each night as they watched the field of sparkling bugs below.

This was how Balori Shongoyo, the Towering Elephant, found Taliesin when he came to it.



Balori came at dusk, riding atop his cloud and following rumors about Zingtai. He had heard the tale of how she fell. He then heard Taliesin was the closest to the Heavens than any other place in all the world. He came and he saw the evening slowly light with the bugs' twinkling.

"I've found them!" he cried out, landing in a well-kept field amidst all the bugs. "I've found the stars!"

His heart welled with hope as he gazed at the beauty around him.

"I'm afraid you've not found the stars," said Xiao-tep. He had seen Balori come to Taliesin and approached cautiously and without notice as the elephant was busy staring at the bugs. Xiao-tep, seeing the immense size of Balori, grew to his height.

Balori backed away, quickly arming himself.

Xiao-tep raised a hand to stay Balori's attack, putting the sickle down on the ground next to him. "I am not your enemy. I am the caretaker here. I am Xiao-tep the Ankh-fish of One Hundred Thousand Sorrows and Beauty, son of Hapi the River God and Lei-zi the Goddess of Thunder. Welcome to Taliesin." Xiao-tep bowed deeply in a sign of respect.

Seeing Xiao-tep meant not to attack, Balori put his weapons away in a belt he had obtained as a gift from an old woman asking him to return the stars to the sky for her grandchildren. The belt was blue silk and glowed with a soft sheen and edged with golden puffs that dangled gracefully against his skin. He then snorted the cloud into his trunk, saying, "I am Balori Shongoyo of the Elephants of Ife." Balori did not return Xiao-tep's bow with one of his own, instead flapping his ears in nervous fidgets.

Xiao-tep felt the slight, but said nothing of it.

Balori eyed Xiao-tep and thought of Fei Li Mi, the loyal servant to the Eternal Empress. Balori asked, "I've known a fish like you once before. A brown catfish. Have you known this fish?"

Xiao-tep was shocked to hear of another fish like him. Awe filled his heart. "I know of none other than myself," confessed Xiao-tep. "Is he a son of Hapi?"

Balori shook his head, his big ears swaying as he did so. "I know little of him except he serves the woman I serve. She has sent me on a quest. I've come looking for the stars."

"There are no stars here," said Xiao-tep.

Balori was uncertain about this fish before him now, saying, "But what are these?" His swept a hand over the field to indicate the bugs.

"They are fireflies, mere bugs. I asked them to come here to replicate the stars, but they are not the stars themselves."

Balori, defeated and angry, said, "I've come chasing fables about a butterfly and find bugs."

"Zingtai is here," Xiao-tep confirmed. "She is the Nighttime Birdwing. Once she was the stars on the Heavens, but no more."

"Why not? Let me see her!" Balori demanded.

Xiao-tep nodded. "I was about to gather some foods and visit her myself. You are welcome to come along."

Balori helped Xiao-tep gather fruits, using his long trunk to reach high into trees to pick fruits, and they went picnicking with Aglina and Zingtai. Xiao-tep introduced him and Balori could not believe the size of Zingtai. "You are so small," he said. "How can one so small have commanded all the stars of Heaven? I've been told they reached on forever."

Zingtai sighed and nodded. "They did, but when my wing was whole, I could grow to immense size. I cannot do that now."

And so Zingtai told her tale of how she lost her jewel and how the stars fell from the Heavens as they ate.

Balori said, "I must find this tentacled man that stole your jewel. Know you why he would want such a thing?"

"My jewels have the power of granting one with immortality," explained Zingtai.

Balori nodded. "Men are weak and fear their weakness. In that fear they do desperate things, even if their actions cost others beauty and comfort. I will find this tentacled man and I will crush him."

Zingtai shook her head. "No, please, don't kill him. If you could return the jewel, I would be most happy, but death for my sake would not do."

Balori harrumphed at this. "This man deserves death and nothing less. I will squish his head beneath my foot."

This made Zingtai cry and Xiao-tep asked Balori if he would leave their side. Aglina tended to Zingtai.

Balori and Xiao-tep descended the mountain into the fields. It was late in the night and the fireflies were slowly going to bed. Xiao-tep said, "Some do not like the thought of death. Zingtai is one of them."

"But this man deserves no less," retorted Balori.

"I did not say that I argue with you, but I can see Zingtai's side of the matter, as well. Killing is no kind business."

Balori looked at the fish-god. "Am I to assume you've killed before?"

Xiao-tep lowered his head. "Not in a long time. And it is no easy matter."

Balori harrumphed. "I, too, have killed and I relished it. The bastard deserved it."

"Perhaps he did," Xiao-tep allowed, "but the course of things forever changes with a death."

Balori thought on this for a while.

Xiao-tep told Balori he could stay in Taliesin for a while, but suggested he stay away from Zingtai. Balori gladly accepted. he spent three days with Xiao-tep, helping him tend to the gardens and enjoying the sun and sharing each others' stories.

"I can understand your love for Taliesin," said balori. "It is beautiful here."

Xiao-tep nodded. He smiled and was happy to see the elephant, so filled with anger, return the smile. He was happy, too, that others could see the beauty of Taliesin.

On the third day, Balori said, "I must go after the day's work."

Xiao-tep nodded. "Yours is a blessed quest."

As they worked the fields, planting rice in a paddy, Balori using both hands and his trunk to plant the rice, he said to Xiao-tep, "Friend, come with me to find the stars."

Xiao-tep straightened, looking at Balori. He frowned, shaking his head, "I cannot."

"Why?" asked Balori. "Surely you enjoyed the stars, too. And Zingtai is your friend, you should help her. And, if the tales you tell of your father and the demon Ketsueki Sato be true, you are a skilled fighter. I could use your help. the whole world could use your help now."

Xiao-tep's frown grew longer. He shook his head again. "I fear your quest will be filled with blood. I've said before, though I have taken lives, I cannot ever again. Or, in the very least, I must avoid it. I have been cursed to feel each death I cause. When I came to Taliesin, I gave up that life. I cannot go back to it. I will not go back to it."

Balori planted a few more times before saying, "That death I told you of, the man called Ghalib... I murdered him. I have no doubt it was a deserved death nor do I regret having killed him, but I felt it. Long before killing him I had become sad. Long before killing him I lost the joy of playing, of slapping the grasses on my knees before eating my meals, of prancing with the other elephants and working. But when I killed him, I killed that child in me that enjoyed those things, that could enjoy those things again. The closest I've come to that child is being here with you, working in the fields. This is the closest I've been to happiness since that man's death, since the death of my friend Tafari.

"I understand why you would not go with me, why you would want to stay here. Working and having a place where you're needed - where you're meant to be - fills one with happiness and accomplishment. But there are many people out there besides my elephants that are in trouble because of this tentacled man. They are in pain from the loss of the stars. They are being subjected to wicked things I cannot imagine, I refuse to imagine."

Kalavata began to pass overhead. The fireflies came out, dancing and sparkling in their mating rituals. Xiao-tep and Balori were surrounded by a sea of darkness and tiny counterfeit stars. Balori looked at the tiny lightning bugs and said, "I cannot allow it to go on. At some point one has to ask when it's right to take time for themselves and when it's wrong to do the same. I must help these people. I must help my people. And I must help Zingtai. Pain has entered the world like never before, it's creeping into everyone and everything. I cannot stand here in this paddy forever. Come, Xiao-tep. Come and fight with me. Come and help me return the stars to teh world."

Xiao-tep, afraid Balori spoke the truth about pain entering the world, slowly shook his head. "I cannot. Taliesin needs me."

This angered Balori. "To the hells with Taliesin! And to the hells with you! You are a god! I am a mere elephant, fashioned into a Gifted One. I am no god! I haven't the powers or abilities you do, yet I take up the weapons of war, of change and of righteousness! Any god that is beaten or bears witness to beatings and does nothing in response is no god at all! He is a coward!"

Balori trumpeted angrily. His cloud sprung from his trunk and he mounted it. He threw the three remaining plants he had in his hands into the paddy. He then drew his three weapons, glowered at Xiao-tep, saying, "That other fish. His name is Fei Li Mi. And I didn't care for him, either!" and left Taliesin.



Cordelia had not left the castle since the day her and her brother Roct had been made servants to the Weasel King named Raiju Yu. But, after night had come and all within the castle were asleep, drunk with sex and wine and opium, she stole away into the streets of the town. She did this three nights in a row before she met the man calling himself Urien the Leper, but otherwise known by select few as King Aniabas. She came before him in a back alley where he stood with a hulking man at his side. She did not know the other man to be Vitor, but he was. She saw only another leper, suspecting he may not be.

"Child, I've been told you are quite close to the Weasel King Raiju Yu. Is this true?" Aniabas asked.

Cordelia, afraid of the man's ugly, scarred face, nodded. "My brother and I are his personal servants."

"Why would you seek me out?" asked Aniabas.

"He hurts my brother," she answered.

"He hurts many people," said Aniabas.

Cordelia shook her head. "Not like my brother. He has taken him as his lover."

Aniabas gasped at this. "That wretched fiend!"

Cordelia nodded.

Aniabas looked her over. "Child, how old are you?"

"Next summer I will be a woman of fourteen," she said with some pride.

Aniabas smiled at her. It was an ugly smile on the surface, but Cordelia felt its warmth and decided then she liked the former king.

"Who are your parents?" asked Aniabas.

"They are both dead. Killed in the raid by Raiju Yu when he took the throne."

He then frowned. "Child, should the opportunity present itself, you should take it."

Cordelia answered, "I know not what you mean."

Aniabas wanted to explain, but was uncertain how to tell a child to commit murder. He only said, "Never mind, child. The time will come when I regain the throne and when I do I will care for you as if you were my own."

She smiled and ran off, returning to the castle and her bed. She fell asleep hoping the day they would be free from the Weasel King came soon.

The following day she could not find her brother despite all her efforts. At last, before she had to serve supper to the Weasel King, she heard from another servant that Roct was in the king's personal infirmary within the castle. She rushed to his side.

He lay on a bed, bundled in wool blankets and asleep. She knelt beside the small boy and caressed his head.

A nurse, a witch by some standards, named Daireen approached. She had long, curly black hair and was thin. She was pretty and not old, though not entirely young. Cordelia knew her as a woman of many fine skills, including the making of poultices and of healing. The witch placed a hand softly on Cordelia's shoulder and said, "He is weak. He may not wake for many days. If the gods are watching over him, he will never awaken."

"No!" screamed Cordelia.

Daireen removed her hand from the girl. She knelt beside her. "He has lost a lot of blood. The Weasel King did many great, unspeakable things to your brother to fulfill his own pleasures. His wounds are deep. The damned king even bit him in the arms and chest. For his spirit to let go of his body would be merciful."

Recognizing the truth in the witch's words, Cordelia wailed and leaned into her, crying for her brother. She cried out to the gods, wishing them dead for not saving her brother. She cried out for her brother, wishing him dead and his misery at an end. At last she cried out for Raiju Yu's blood and then she knew what the former-king-turned-leper had meant. She wanted desperately to kill Raiju Yu and told Daireen so.

"I know, dear," consoled Daireen. She held the Cordelia close to her breast and said softly, "You are not alone in that."

Soon the two were plotting Raiju Yu's demise.

"I can get the help of Aniabas," confessed Cordelia.

"He still lives?" asked Daireen, awed.

Cardelia nodded. "He told me to kill Raiju Yu should I get the chance, but I do not wish to do so until I have alerted Aniabas so he and his followers will be ready to take control of the castle."

Daireen nodded. "His help would be welcomed. Adn we could deal out the Weasel King's death thusly: you have access to his foods, do you not?"

Cordelia nodded.

"Good. I can make you a poison to slip in his food as you serve it to him. Then, with well-timed efforts, Aniabas can assault the gates of the castle - which I could open them from the inside - and we would leave the rest to him and his men."

Cordelia thought this a good plan and said so.

That night, after Raiju Yu had been served his meal and Roct had been visited once more, Cordelia slipped out into the town, found Aniabas and told him of the plan.

"Can this witch woman be trusted?" asked Aniabas.

"She hates the king as much as anyone," Cordelia vouched for her.

Aniabas then asked, "How many are within the walls? How many soldiers does Raiju Yu have?"

But Cordelia did not know such things. "I'm sorry," she said.

Aniabas shook his head. "It is forgiven. You have done well by your king."

Knowing Raiju Yu took his meals every evening at dusk, the following night was chosen to execute the plan.

After Cordelia had left, Vitor confessed, "I do not like this. We do not know this Daireen. I think she came with many of the other beggars and vagrants when Raiju Yu took power. And to put you faith in a child, my lord, with respects, is insanity at its best."

Aniabas sighed. "Your words are true, but I feel my words to that young girl were also true: should the opportunity present itself, take it."



Daireen went to Raiju Yu's side. He was happily playing with Kama, Gala and Jian - the three weasels he could summon to his side. He lay across a plush bed of red silks with the weasels.

"What is it you want, witch?" he grumbled, thinking she had come to reprimand him for harming the boy Roct.

"I've come to tell you plots are being set forth against you," she answered.

Without looking at her, without pausing in his playful slapping of the smaller weasels, Raiju Yu said, "Of course there are. I rule with fear, but my rule yet to be tested. Once the remaining rebels attempt whatever it is they wish to attempt and I quash it, the fear will grow stronger and I will never need worry again about blades pointed to my back."

"But these blades that I speak of are quite close to you," she said.

Raiju Yu finally looked at Daireen. She was a handsome woman, but he did not desire her. "Oh? Know you the designers of these plots?"

Daireen breathed deep. "Indeed, I do. It is the girl. She has made contact with none other than Aniabas himself."

Raiju Yu leapt from the bed. His sudden motion left the other weasels skittering for cover under the bed. "Where is he?" he demanded.

"In the town, amongst the people, disguised as a leper," Daireen told him.

Raiju Yu salivated at the thought of the kill. "I'll hunt him then."

"But this plot against you, my lord, I have a hand in it," Baireen confessed.

Raiju Yu's eyes narrowed. "You plot against me?"

Daireen shook her head. "I help deliver Aniabas to you. Tomorrow when you are fed, I will have given Cordelia a vial of poison to slip into your food, but no poison will truly be therein. It will be harmless water. At the same time as your meal, when the sun goes down, Aniabas and his followers will assault the castle. I have relayed to Aniabas through the girl that I will have opened the gates from the inside, allowing him access. I will not do this, however. You will merely have to dispatch some of your soldiers to round up and slaughter the betrayers as they stand at the gates, wondering what happened."

Raiju Yu sat on the bed again, considering the plan. "I enjoy your mind," he confessed. "But you will alter the plan in one way."

"How is that, my lord?"

"You will open the gates. If my men attack them outside the walls, there would be chance for escape, at least by some. But if we allow them within our walls and allow them to think their plan is succeeding, they will run blindly into our awaiting blades. Yes, outside many could escape, but within the walls there can be none. Outside the walls there would be a great fight, but inside the walls we would introduce unto them a great slaughter. It would as if we had lead them to the butcher and pushed them into the meat grinder. Perhaps you could provide my soldiers with additional cover with your witchery."

"That I could. I could create a fog through which the attackers could not see, but if your men remained stationed and knowing of each others' whereabouts, they could attack the oncoming rebels without fear of being properly counterattacked," suggest Daireen.

Raiju Yu further considered this, further salivating at the thoughts of the copious amounts of blood that would certainly be spilled. "Yes, this handling of the matter will suit me just fine."



Roct awoke to find his sister at his side.

"Oh, brother!" she cried out and kissed him repeatedly on the forehead.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"In the king's personal infirmary, but do not fret. You will be better soon enough. In fact, all things will be better soon enough," she told him.

"I'm hungry," said Roct.

"Good, that means you're on the mend. Soon you will be up and about."

"How is our king?" Roct asked.

Cordelia frowned. She had already decided not to tell her brother anything about her plans with Aniabas lest he attempt to send word to the king. Instead, she said, "Overseeing the kingdom as usual."

"Good," Roct moaned with some pain. "I'm hungry."

Cordelia went to the kitchen to retrieve for him a bowl of soup. Along with it, she returned with a small but sharp and pointed knife. She handed the knife over to her brother.

"What's this for? I cannot possibly cut soup. You are silly, sister," said Roct and giggled, then moaned in pain.

"It's not for the soup, brother. I want you to keep it in the chance you might need it tonight or any other night."

Roct looked at his sister, "Does someone plot against us?"

"You know well people plot against our king and as we are his servants they may very well plot against us," she half-lied. She hoped, in truth, that he would not need it in the oncoming assault when the gates were opened and Aniabas' men flooded into the castle. She feared some of them may seek vengeance against his servants, thus she had given her brother the knife.

"Take it back," said Roct. "If someone plots against us I would prefer you have its protection."

"I have one of my own," she revealed a similar knife in her bodice.

He accepted the knife, hiding it under his pillow.



Aniabas sheathed his falcata on his belt. He donned his spangenhelm which he had hidden within the burial mounds outside of town. He spoke to Vitor, "How many men have we?"

"It is difficult to take a head count under such circumstances, but I would say near a thousand," answered Vitor.

"That's nearly a third of the town," Aniabas commented.

"Many hate the Weasel King," explained Vitor. He added, "When first we attack tonight, at dusk as we had planned, we should take only two hundred. A thousand within the halls of the castle would only serve to intensify the chaos."

Aniabas thought this was well, "But we know not how many men he has inside the walls."

Vitor added, "Perhaps we should have the rest attack an hour later, should the fighting within the castle still be carrying on. Or, more likely, if he finds out about the attack. I trust no one within that castle, not even the little girl. Let the dastardly weasel think us small in numbers and weak, then when our main force hits the castle his forces will most certainly scatter in fear and confusion."

Aniabas nodded. "You make a fine general, Vitor."

Vitor thanked his liege for the compliment, then went forth to give the orders.



That night Daireen handed Cordelia a vial of clear water.

That night Cordelia slipped the assumed poison into the food of the Weasel King, mixing it well.

That night Raiju Yu enjoyed his supper, watching Cordelia standing by patiently in case he needed anything further.

That night, as Raiju Yu ate, Cordelia wondered how long it took for poison to work.

At dusk Aniabas lead two hundred of his men into the opened gates of the castle, halls filling with mystic fog created by Daireen. His men were impaled one by one, unseen hands slipping sharp blades into their throats, chests and bellies. Blood flowed, filling the hallways of the castle ankle-deep in some parts. Raiju Yu's men did not simply murder the rebels, they dismembered them. Limbs and heads were separated from bodies to be later impaled upon wooden shafts and placed outside the gates of the castle as a warning. Ears, noses and fingers were taken as momentos. Jewelry was removed and worn or sold.

Hearing the commotion within the castle, Roct sat up and struggled out of his bed in the infirmary. He started to walk away when he turned and retrieved the knife his sister had brought him from under his pillow. He placed it under his loose garment and held it to his side as though holding a pain. Slowly, painstakingly, he made his way through the castle filled with fog and death.

In the end, nearly all two hundred men lay dead.

In the end, only Aniabas, Vitor and nearly fifty others were captured for torture and entertainment or to be sent to Yaska Selith's men on the Plain of Adoration to be used as sex slaves.

In the end, Raiju Yu belched after his last gulp of food, turned to Cordelia and said, "You are a whore and your king is as good as dead."

He then lead her into the throne room where he donned a cape of deep red line with rabbit's fur. He donned the crown of gold that was once Aniabas'. He then sat on his throne, his three weasel friends appearing. Kama sat on top of the throne's back. Gala sat on the left arm of the throne, Raiju Yu gently stroking him. Lastly, Jian took up a spot at Raiju Yu's feet.

Cordelia, made to stand next to the throne, nearly jumped with fright as Raiju Yu's men brought Aniabas and Vitor before the Weasel King. Both men had been stripped naked and badly beaten. The young girl wanted to run, but stood instead silently fighting tears.

Roct then appeared in the throne room, crying out, "My lord! Are you all right?"

Raiju Yu smiled as a father smiles with pride at a son. "Yes, dear boy. Come to my side."

Roct did as he was told, though with great effort as his wounds were yet to heal. He looked at the two naked men, both of whom he recognized. "You caught the traitors," Roct said as he leaned against the throne.

Raiju Yu placed a loving hand on Roct's back, "That I did indeed and in part thanks to your sister and to our dear Daireen."

Cordelia could not help but gasp at this moment.

Vitor spat and one of the soldiers punch him in the stomach, doubling him over.

"Sister?" asked Roct. "You lent aide to our king?"

Cordelia said nothing.

"Oh, she was most helpful," said Raiju Yu. "She told me everything. At least, she told Daireen and Daireen told me. But it was your sister who designed the attack tonight on the castle which flushed out the traitors in our midst. She is a most wicked general."

Cordelia could not maintain her composure. She began to cry, sobbing.

Roct, knowing his sister's desire to be free from Raiju Yu, said, "No, she helped create a revolt," at this he turned to the Weasel king and asked, "Didn't she?"

"Well, that was her plan," said Raiju Yu. "But it worked out in my favor nonetheless."

Roct turned to his crying sister, "How could you? Remaining loyal to Raiju Yu would have assured our future. I may be younger, but I think you're far stupider."

"Tut-tut," Raiju Yu scolded the boy. "Don't be so harsh. It is not her fault she is so weak. Come here, dear girl. All is forgiven."

Afraid, not knowing what else to do, Cordelia approached the king on his throne. Here eyes overflowed with tears, her arms crossed at her chest.

Raiju Yu placed two clawed fingers on her small face. He soothed her, "All is well, my child. I cannot blame you for your immature desires. I do not hate you, child. In fact, I love you all the more for your wickedness. However, I cannot allow you to stay here."

Roct asked, "Where would you send her?"

Raiju Yu smiled an ugly little, bestial smile. He ignored Roct's question, instead answering as though Cordelia had made the inquiry. "You will make a fine little whore for Yaska Selith's men."

"Don't you dare touch her!" Aniabas cried out.

"Shut your mouth, traitor!" Raiju Yu yelled back. Then, his attention on the girl once more, he said, "Fare you well on teh Plain of Adoration, young one."

One of the soldiers approached, intent on taking her away. The words of Aniabas returned to Cordelia as she stood before the Weasel King. She knew then there would be no better opportunity. She drew the knife she had taken from the kitchen from her bodice, she gripped it hard until her knuckles went white, she lunged, slamming the blade all the way to the handle, slipping it deep into Raiju Yu's chest. The Weasel King gasped. Blood appeared on his mouth as he coughed. His eyes widened with the sudden sting of thrusting pain. He shook so violently the crown fell from his head, making loud clunking noises as it hit the floor of the throne room.

"No!" Roct cried. He let go the knife at his side, letting it slide down his body and catching it with his hand. He, too, lunged, digging the blade deep into his sister's ribs. Her mouth sputtered. Blood trickled from her nose. She turned to look at her brother, her eyes wide and sad. Her face contorted into several different emotions, all of the sorrowful. Her eyes welled with more tears. She whispered laboriously, "Brother?" before she collapsed at her brother's feet and died.

In awe and shock from the pain and sudden attack, Raiju Yu stood, threw off his cape and ran for the nearest window. He jumped out, landing on the castle ground far below. His three weasels quicly joined him.

Vitor quickly attacked, wresting a weapon from a nearby soldier and killing him. Aniabas followed suit. As more of Raiju Yu's men came towards them, an alarm was sent up. The second wave of attacks, the main force of of those loyal to Aniabas, was flooding into the castle.

Leaderless, Raiju Yu's forces fled or were killed or captured.

Roct ran to teh window after Raiju Yu, calling out to him but afraid he would not survive the jump himself. Realizing he had been left alone, Roct turned on Aniabas and Vitor. "You killed my lord and master!" he cried. He charged, swinging the small knife wildly at Aniabas.

Vitor's swiftness was deft as he plunged his weapon into the boy-child's chest.

"Vitor! No!" Aniabas cried out, but it was too late. Roct fell from Vitor's bloody blade.

Aniabas reprimanded his general. "He was just a child!"

"He was a Raiju Yu loyalist, defended Vitor.

"He was just a child!" cried Aniabas again.

"He was an enemy and was attempting an attack on my liege," Vitor defended again.

In softer tones, as Aniabas looked to the two dead children laying near his throne, he said, "They were just children."

Vitor, this time, said nothing.

As Aniabas' men poured into the throne room, the former-king-now-king-once-more was clothed and newly armed. Vitor then picked up and placed the crown upon Aniabas' head. He was now and would forever be known as Aniabas, the Ugly King.

Vitor then sent forth ten ment to search for Raiju Yu. Three returned shortly after carrying a fourth man. The fourth man was bloody and one leg was nearly chewed off. The three others reported that Raiju Yu's weasels had attacked them killing six and badly wounding this other man.

Aniabas, still in shock from the deaths of the two children yet knowing he was needed, said, "We cannot waste time. We must assume retaliation from Raiju Yu and his demonic liege Yaska Selith."

Vitor nodded and set himself about the difficult task of raising an army over night.



Raiju Yu presented himself to the demon dog Yaska Selith immediately upon his return. The weasel's return did not please Yaska Selith and Raiju Yu was claimed a failure. He was, however, accepted back amongst the demon dog's numbers. Yaska Selith remained in a foul mood until, later the next day, some men arrived on the Plain of Adoration saying they had been sent by Sinvergüenza. They produced and presented to Yaska Selith a giant emerald, stating that Sinvergüenza sent it as a sign of his loyalty. These men further told Yaska Selith, much to his delight, that Sinvergüenza was busily raising an army for him.

Yaska Seltih then said to Neboshazzar, "I am glad for Sinvergüenza. Soon we will have an army we can use to expunge this king to the south. We will leave no survivors."

Neboshazzar listened attentively and screeched in joy.



Akadian Dorn left the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar to visit the people of Bizo not so much for the reasons Negkendra had suggested, but, as he had explained to his friend Macia Thrace, "I deserve a break from my work and I should meet this employer of mine in person."

And so Akadia came to visit the Eternal Empress and found her to be courteous, beautiful though frail, charming and well-loved. He adored her children who went fishing with him three times during his stay down at the river. While at the river their faces would often grow forlorn. When he inquired as to why the river made them sad, the children lied and said they were not sad, afraid of telling unhappy tales to their guest and upsetting him.

The Eternal Empress washed Akadia with accolades for his work and gave him a large bonus in the form of a chest filled with coins and farmland outside the city should he ever want to retire there. Akadia liked the food and spirits of the Bizo and loved the people even more. He had a wondrous time during his stay.

On the last day of his visit, as his things were being packed for him and the chest of coins being lifted onto an elaborately decorated carriage - also a gift from the Empress to show her appreciation - he decided he should witness the elephants he worked so hard to caravan to the Bizoan people, to see the work they did here.

As he mounted a hill, the very hill Albert had once stood upon, he saw the things the dead alchemist had once seen: elephants being beaten into submission, some with gashes and wounds and infections secreting yellow pus, many with eyes so wary they knew not where they were nor what they were doing. Akadia saw mahouts beating the poor animals even when they did their work properly. As Akadia stood atop the hill, watching the elephants mindlessly, obediently building the ever-growing tower in honor of the Eternal Empress' dead husband, his heart was touched by sorrow.

And as Albert had once stood atop the hill, bearing witness to the tragedy of the Elephant Crusade, whispering words of disbelief, so too did Akadia whisper the very words Albert once spoke, "By the gods... what have we done?"


Thanks for reading, folks. Be sure to check back next Friday when I post the fifth and final act (this time I promise!) of "The Elephant Crusade".

Friday, July 18, 2008

"The Elephant Crusade" -- Act III

First, a quick note: As I was finishing up the third act of "The Elephant Crusade" I realized three acts simply was not going to suffice, that am additional fourth act was necessary. That means today's post, originally intended to be the final act, will not be the finale of "The Elephant Crusade".

I'll be posting the fourth and final act next week.

Thanks and, as always, enjoy!


"The Elephant Crusade"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT III: Balori Leaves the Bizo

SOFT SNOWS AND WICKED STRENGTHS: Wherein Balori Receives Training; Negkendra Confronts Akadia Dorn; The Weasel King Learns of Plots Against His Throne



Akadia Dorn's facial hair extended down from the tips of his mustache and a thin goatee into three cords. Each end was braided unto itself and then all three braided together below the chin as a rope of hair. As was his mustache and beard, so too was the hair atop his head. Three large cornrows had been made and braided to hang as a rope down the middle of his back. His hair was dark, though lightening with the slightest onset of middle-age.

He wore a thawb of deep green embroidered with scenes of mahouts herding elephants. He carried with him a crop, though he never used it. He provided elephants to the Eternal Empress to the far east, but never had he trained one. The crop was a signature of his station and nothing more. The crop was an ornament, a piece of jewelry sent forth by the Eternal Empress, an expression of her gratitude for his services and loyalty. It was finely made with leather. the handle had been wrapped with a silver encasing hand-carved with elephants trumpeting in a long parade, much like the Elephant Crusade he commanded from the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar. The end was tipped with incredibly short gold chains, perhaps three or four links each, and weighted with solid gold globes. It was a fine treasure, a treasure many secretly lusted after.

Akadia Dorn's task was simple. He managed the mahouts and organized the business matters of the Elephant Crusade from the bazaar. Prior to the Elephant crusade, he had made his way through the world by many means. He had been a mercenary, a bounty hunter, a handler of horses, a stable hand, a sailor for a brief time until he discovered the roiling seas made him ill, a cook, a mule, hired guard, and an exporter of fruits. He came to manage the Elephant Crusade through a friend called Macia Thrace who had once known him as an exporter in a port. Macia recognized Akadia's mind for business and numbers. "You are much too smart for thuggish work," he had said to Akadia, "one day you'll learn to work with your mind and rest your back."

Akadia enjoyed the work he did for the Eternal Empress, a woman whom he had never met nor did he need to. He was happy to work hard without using himself physically, noting his friend had been right to suggest such work. The pay was the best he had ever received, plus he occasionally took a little extra for himself. He dared not do this often, for he feared being found out and forced from the position. Plus, with the pay and enjoyment he got commanding the mahouts, most of whom he found amiable, he slowly came to realize he was growing quite loyal to the Empress and her cause.

In time the sailor and mercenary Macia Thrace - once the friend to Zahir the Indomitable - departed from the ship Baqir and duty to Captain Faraj. they parted well and as friends and colleagues. Macia felt himself getting old with work and, however, and several years before had begun to amass a small fortune and investing it, mainly in the port near the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar.

When he parted from the Baqir, Macia cashed out all his monies and invested them into the Elephant Crusade, making him a small partner in the matter and relieving the Empress and the few other investors from the financial strain of the effort. Macia's main reason to invest in the Elephant Crusade was his faith in his friend Akadia.

Once the money was invested, Macia paid a visit to the manager. Together they smiled and regaled one another with tall tales and bold lies of adventures. Akadia was happy to have Macia invested with his business. They drank all through the night and enjoyed themselves with women and each others' company.

The next day when Akadia went about tending to the elephants and mahouts and general daily business, Macia asked if he could somehow help in matters. Akadia asked Macia to be his assistant. "It is not a position of glamorous adventures," Akadia warned.

"I care not for that, but I've been at sea a long time and working as a hired warrior for many years before that. I cannot foresee myself sitting around all day. Anything to keep my hands busy will suffice," Macia explained.

Akadia was correct in his warning. The tasks set to Macia were rarely little more than pedestrian, but Macia enjoyed them in comparison to the demanding life at sea.

It was not long, however, that Macia was offered the chance to own a small sloop. "I know you need my assistance," said Macia to Akadia, "but it would seem I cannot purge waterborne life from my blood. I expect to merely ferry people up the river and back a few days each week. the rest of the time I could work here with you."

Akadia laughed and slapped his friend on the back, "Do not fear offending me! You are a partner in matters now and can do as you wish. i am not your captain, you are at last your a captain of your own. Buy the sloop and be happy. If you still wish to help here, I would like the company!"

And so the two friends became neighbors, businessmen and respected members of the community. Together they forged a life of prosperity and health and happiness.

Once, after the day's work was completed by both men and they little else to do besides spend their time luxuriously, they entered the main street of the bazaar to find a place to share a lunch and take in the sights. As they passed a jeweler, Akadia's eye was caught by an enormous emerald flanked by three young and strapping guards. "By the gods!" he exclaimed. "That must be big as a small man!"

The jeweler agreed. "I've just received it. It is said it was once the jewel of Zingtai and was sold here before, but as all grand luxuries must be sold, it had returned, this time to me. Would you care to purchase it?"

Akadia was tempted, but knew the price would surely set him back a fortune.

Macia shook his head, afraid, and told his friend, "Do not even think it, friend. Once I had troubles with an enchanted jewel and what I tell you be true: a good friend died from it."

The jeweler nodded. "Great prizes breed jealousy and greed. This is why I have these young men guarding the jewel."

Again Macia shook his head. "This was not mere greed that took my friend. Indeed, I and my old mates gave up the jewel to rid ourselves of it. Such thing are often cursed!"

Unknowing, the man called Sinvergüenza - loyal servant to none other than the demon dog Yaska Selith - stood nearby, listening. He looked to his men, now eight strong, before approaching the jeweler. "How much do you ask for such a fine item?" he asked.

The jeweler smiled, hoping the two interested men would start a bidding war. "A tawdry ten-thousand would convince me to part with such finery."

"Ten-thousand!" Akadia scoffed. It was far more than he had expected. And though he scoffed, he secretly desired the jewel.

Thinking the matter was settled, Macia said, "Friend, let us leave from here. I am hungry."

Akadia, at first, did not move away from the jeweler. But when he saw Sinvergüenza produce the money from a large satchel at his back - money he had robbed from people all over the world in his travels towards the Peony Tea House - Akadia reluctantly turned away. His desire for the jewel, however, persisted.

Akadia, as he was ushered away by his friend, saw Sinvergüenza take the jewel and wrapped it in a large cloth. He then heard this purchaser of the jewel send his men along their way with instructions to deliver the jewel to someone at the Plain of Adoration as an offering of his loyalty. He then was whisked away amidst a crowd and lost sight of the jewel, the man who had purchased it, and his desires were soon forgotten.

Sinvergüenza followed his men outside the bazaar, watching as his men dipped beyond the horizon. He then turned, proceeding alone the rest of the way to the Peony Tea House.



As Balori left the palace of the Eternal Empress he thought her request possibly impossible. In stead of continuing on in his quest, he stopped at the site of the tower. There he found the abusive mahout known as Ghalib. The workers and even the elephants stopped their labors as Balori walked into their midst. He approached Ghalib. Lashing out his trunk, he grabbed the mahout about the neck. Ghalib coughed, choking as air escaped from him.

Balori cried out, tears of rage in his eyes. He thought of the bloody forehead of his cousin, half-brother and friend Tafari as he impaled himself against the edge of a massive stone. He thought of his desires to see homelands he had never seen. He thought of his own childhood foolishness, thinking stupidly his training was playing. He cried out in rage and horror as the head and face of Ghalib turned fist red, then purple and at last blue.

A spearman's shout caught his attention. Balori looked to see the spearman with a javelin to Masozi's ear. "Let him go!" cried the spearman.

With great reluctance and little care, Balori unraveled his trunk from about Ghalib's neck. The mahout fell to the ground with a thud. Gasping, coughing, Ghalib yelled out, "Kill her!"

The spearman did as he was commanded. He drove the javelin deep into Masozi's ear.

With a gurgle and horribly loud death rattle, Masozi toppled.

With great force and another cry Balori picked up Ghalib once more, strangling the mahout with his trunk. He threw the dead body to the ground. He then pressed his heavy foot against the mahout's head. The weight was much too much for the small man's skull to resist. It spattered, liquefying into crimson viscous gore.

Balori stood, eying the rest of the mahouts and his fellow elephants, the body of Ghalib lying motionless up against his foot and the ugly spatter sprayed out under his foot. He went to his mother, dead and lying motionless. He approached her.

Balori squatted near her, the mahouts nearby afraid to attack. He caressed her trunk with his own, rubbing his massive ear against her side. he removed the javelin from her ear with his trunk. He whispered softly to her. "I'm so sorry, mother. I've failed you. I'm so sorry we're here. But I will make things right once more. I'll free all our people and you'll be so very proud of me. I promise you this." He cried out in pain and anguish.

Several javelins bit at his skin. Balori stood, fighting back and killing another three men, but in the end there were too many attackers for him to defend against.

Afraid, reluctant, unknowing of where to go or how to start his task of restoring the stars to the nighttime sky or if the Eternal Empress would even honor her word after the deaths he had caused, Balori left the land of the Bizo.



It took many days before Aniabas' wounds healed enough they did not sting, but they truly made him unrecognizable. His face was minced severely into ugliness. It did, however, provide him with a great mask with which to hide within the town renamed Yutown in honor of the Weasel King, as the kingdom had been renamed Raijudon also in his honor.

After several days of searching and frightfully hiding and carefully stepping through shadows, Aniabas had amassed a network of subjects loyal to him - or in the very least people who hated the tyranny of Raiju Yu. Many were pleased to hear of his survival and longed for his return to the throne.

One such person was a young boy named Roct, a child far from being a man and not yet capable of surviving on his own. He had caught the favor of Raiju Yu as he allowed the Weasel King to sodomize him whenever he desired. In return, Raiju Yu allowed Roct and his older sister Cordelia to live in the castle. Cordelia was a personal servant to Raiju Yu, as well, bringing him foods and the like. Their parents had been killed in the overthrow. They were all the family they each had.

But Roct came to Aniabas as a smuggler of goods outlawed by Raiju Yu. Aniabas had been looking for weapons to arm his loyalists, but Raiju Yu had taken all the weapons away from the townsfolk. Roct, however, knew people that could get weapons and other contraband to him outside the town. As a favored subject of Raiju Yu, Roct could pass in and out of the town with little notice to himself and without being inspected or hassled by Raiju Yu's guards.

Roct brought to Aniabas a beautiful falcata. "I doubt you could hide it on your person," Roct told him as he collected his money for delivering the sword to the former king.

"I'll not need to when the time comes," hinted Aniabas. He thanked the boy and they parted ways for a time.

That night as brother and sister bedded down for the night together as they often did for security and warmth, Roct said he thought someone might be planning a coup against the Weasel King.

"Why do you think this?" asked Cordelia.

"Today, when I was doing my usual business in town, I sold a disfigured man a rather large sword. There would be no way he could carry it without notice and I told him so. He said he hoped he would soon not have to," the boy explained.

Cordelia thought on this. She hugged her brother and said, "Should anything ever happen in this castle, we must hide and let things take their course. We should never be involved in such matters."

Roct said, "But sister, we are fortunate ones. Every day I travel into the town I see people turned out of their homes and living as beggars and whores. Raiju Yu has been kind and given us a safe place to live. We barely do anything for him in return. Should we not be good to him in return?"

"When first Raiju Yu fouled you, you came to me in tears and pain. You were quite bloody and afraid. Do you remember this?" Cordelia asked.

Roct nodded, shivering with memory.

"This is what he does to the people in the town. Every day he hurts them. They have been turned out of their homes by Raiju Yu. He is an evil creature, a creature of hate." Again she said, "Should anything ever happen within the castle, we must hide and allow things to take their course. If Raiju Yu is overthrown, we will surely be freed. If he remains in power after an attempted coup, our lives would not be changed. Things could only be made worse if we were to involve ourselves in such matters and the person we did not help, indeed the person we worked against were to take power. We must hide and do nothing more."

"But now, when the Weasel King does what he does to me, I do not feel the pain as I did once before. All I must do is lie still and allow him to do as he needs. Is that so bad? Why be in pain when one only has to remain still momentarily?" asked the little boy.

Cordelia shook her head and sighed. "I fear I cannot explain things any better."

Roct fell asleep that night thinking of coups and the homeless people he knew of in the streets.

Early the next morning, he was called to Raiju Yu's side. He went as he always did and presented himself fully nude before the Weasel King.

"How are you, my young one?" asked Raiju Yu.

"Well, sire," Roct yawned. He turned around and bent over.

Raiju Yu mounted the boy.

When Raiju yu was finished, as Rot was dressing himself, the new king called him to his bed. Roct obeyed. He lay beside the king. Raiju Yu then called for Cordelia to bring him some fruits and wine to eat and drink.

"How sweet you are," Raiju Yu nearly cooed, stroking the boy's fine hair. "If ever I were to lose power of my throne, you would surely be a missed thing. It is good, then, my power is unchallenged, is it not?"

Roct thought on these words, thought about how nice his life appeared compared to those suffering in the town and how it was all because Raiju Yu was his benefactor. He felt a certain loyalty to the weasel.

Cordelia brought the fruits and wine.

"Your highness," said Roct. "I've something I must tell you."

Raiju Yu poured the young boy some wine before pouring himself some. "What is it, my sweet lad?"

Suspecting her brother's words, Cordelia, who stood nearby in case Raiju Yu needed anything further, said, "Roct! There's no need to bother the king with matters!"

Raiju Yu's curiosity perked, he asked, "Matters? What matters?"

Cordelia shook her head vigorously at Roct.

Roct said, "But sister, we owe Raiju Yu everything. We must tell him."

Growing impatient, Raiju Yu demanded, "What is it you desire to tell me but not your sister?"

"It is a matter of which we cannot be sure of," Cordelia said swiftly.

"Hush, girl," Raiju Yu commanded. He then turned to Roct, "What is it, boy?"

Roct said simply, "There are traitors in our midst."



Negkendra knew nothing of Ghalib's death for he had left the Bizoans long before Balori had. He wandered many countrysides without aim. He begged for his food more than once. His clothes fell to tatters and his spirit followed. Not a single day passed without his thoughts turning toward the elephants he had witnessed abuse and driven to near-death.

Unknowing where else to go, he at last returned to the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar where he was hired as a souk's assistant, sweeping floors and carrying out trash. Once a trusted and respected member of the bazaar, he returned to his humble origins of nameless shopkeeper's hireling.

Every day he heard whispers of the Elephant Crusade. it seemed to him to have become the single largest business in all the bazaar, second only to textiles and incense. Whenever these whispers came to his ears, he would turn his head away, burying himself amidst work and going deaf to the world. At last, on a night he was allowed some freedom from his duties, he decided to visit the other areas of the bazaar. Perhaps unwilling to admit to himself, he found the center of the business for the Elephant Crusade. He entered as they were closing the doors. Some assistants tried to turn him away, but her remained determined in seeing Akadia Dorn.

Akadia Dorn obliged this stranger, thinking he may be a customer or future employee.

"Let him in," commanded Akadia Dorn.

The souk had a large foyer. its walls were wood as were two pillars in its center. Every inch was hand-carved with elephant motifs and the thin carvings were inlaid with gold. The eyes of the carved elephants sparkled with various jewels. Negkendra knew then the business he had helped start was now immensely profitable and this only served to make him fill with more sorrow.

"How may I help you, friend?" asked Akadia.

"If you be Akadia Dorn," Negkendra said timidly, "I ask you with all humbleness to end your career with the Elephant Crusade. Indeed, I ask you to end the Elephant Crusade all together."

Akadia and his men laughed uproariously. Surely, thought they, this man jested. But seeing his face now somber, sad and serious, Akadia Dorn approached him. "Why would you ask such a thing? What matter is it of yours that I carrying on in my business?"

Negkendra bowed his head, half in shame and half in respect to Akadia Dorn, and introduced himself. "I am Negkendra, the first mahout to have helped Shabar, aide to the Eternal Empress, start the Elephant Crusade."

Akadia's brow creased with curiosity and confusion. "Then you should know the healthy life I command. Why would you ask me to give all this up?"

"Because," explained Negkendra, "they torture the elephants, sometimes to death."

Akadia chuckled, wanting to laugh but afraid for some reason to offend this man. "Who are you really?"

"Sir, I tell you the truth of my identity."

"If you are truly who you say, then why are you here in rags and not living a life larger than I at the side of the Eternal Empress?" Akadia asked.

Negkendra sighed. "Once I did, but one day I saw another mahout beat an elephant to death and beyond, not ceasing in the beating until I stopped his hand."

Akadia cocked his head, still confused. "What does it matter if a mahout kills a rebellious and therefore useless elephant? They are dumb animals, not men or gods or gifted ones."

Negkendra could not think of a response, but knew any response he would give would most likely not change Akadia Dorn's stance. He most likely loved his life of abundance too much to give it up. But then, as Negkendra thought, he himself has once had enjoyed such a life and he had given it all up. Perhaps, thought negkendra, this man would, too. The thing that had changed his mind over a life of abundance had been bearing witness to the atrocities against the elephants.

"Please, sir," Negkendra said at last, "I think it in your best interests to visit the Eternal Empress one day and see witness the work she does, the work she needs the elephants for."

Akadia grew wary of Negkendra's words. "You dare suggest more how I should conduct my business?" he raged. "I live a good life! I hurt no one! I make no wars! I murder no one with my hands! And you dare suggest I change my life? To give up my very livelihood?"

"With apologies," Negkendra said as he made for the door.

"And what has become of you? What has become of the glorious First Mahout of the Elephant Crusade you can make such demands of me?"

Negkendra stopped at the door, looked back and said, "I sweep the floors of a souk."

Akadia Dorn and his men laughed riotously as Negkendra left their presence.



Balori first came into a village along a river. The people there were in awwe of him, regarding him as a god. They fed him and told him of their gods. He felt respected and loved by the people and loved them in return. He felt he owed the people the truth and confessed he was not a god at all, but once was a normal elephant and that he had been made to help free his people.

The village's headman, hearing this, came to Balori saying he should visit the old man that lived in the mountains nearby. "His name is Nahum of the Snows. He lives high in the mountain where it always snows. He has been our spiritual guide in times of crisis for hundreds of years. Go to him, Balori. See him and feel his wisdom."

Trusting the headman, Balori did as he was instructed. It took him several days to climb up the mountain called Bai Baldric. On the way he passed a pleasant man descending the mountain on a tired old mule.

"Have you seen the old man of the snows?" asked Balori.

The pleasant man cackled and nodded. "And he knows you are approaching!"

Balori thanked the man and continued on his way, struggling to find cliffs and crags large enough to serve as foot- and hand-holds. At last, in the wintry forever winters of Bai Baldric. He hated the snow and the cold as it made his skin crack and stretch thin as though shrinking and the snows numbed him toes and feet.

Looking around, Balori found a large cave. He entered, hoping at least to escape the torrential winds that bit at him if not actually discover the lair of Nahum of the Snows.

The cave opened onto a cavern even larger than its mouth. Balori found he did not have to duck or struggle to get inside. Stalagmites and stalactites spotted the cavern that sparkled in a fire's glow. Looking to the fire, Balori found the pleasant man he had passed on the mountain sitting beside it, stoking the flames.

"Sir," said Balori as he drew near the warm and comforting fire. "How did you get back here? When we passed one another you were descending the mountain. Now you are here and not once did I see you pass me on the way up. Is there some other entrance to this cavern?"

The pleasant man laughed. "Oh, no. There is no other ingress or egress than that which brought you here."

"Then how did you get here without me seeing you?" Balori asked.

Again the man laughed. "Why, this is my home. I can come and go as I please. Now come closer and enjoy the fire with me."

Content on warming himself, Balori sat on the hard rocky floor of the cavern next to the man and let the fire warm him.

The pleasant man offered him food in the form of ginger cakes he professed to making himself from vegetation from the mountainside.

"I saw little vegetation near here," said Balori as he gratefully accepted one.

"This is my home," explained the man. "I can harvest as I need."

Balori nodded and enjoyed his fill of the ginger cakes. Balori then asked, "Old man, when first we passed you said I could find Nahum of the Snows here on the mountain. Where would he live?"

The pleasant man giggled, "Why, right here. This is the only spot he could live." He then added, "This is my home, I am the Nahum you seek."

"What? But why didn't you tell me that when first we passed? You could have saved me quite the effort and rescued me from these incredible frosts so high on the mountain!"

Nahum cackled. "Why, you never asked my name. Had you done so, I would have told you and you would have saved yourself all those troubles!"

Balori growled angrily.

"Tell me," said Nahum. "What has brought you here?"

Angry, wanting to do harm to the old man, but seeking guidance to fulfill his quest for the Eternal Empress and free his people, Balori said, "The headman of the village below sent me. I come seeking answers as to how to restore the stars to the nighttime sky."

"Oh!" gasped Nahum. "That is quite the task."

"Could you help me?"

Nahum did not laugh. He instead shook his head, "I know not what has caused their fall."

Balori's face grew long with defeat.

"However," said Nahum, "Know I perhaps where you could begin. First, you will need to know how to fly. Know you such a skill?"

Balori looked at Nahum confusedly. "Do I appear to have wings as the bird? I am helplessly grounded."

Nahum nodded, thinking. His own face grew long. He feared asking the next question, for what he thought Balori might need was something against his whole nature. "Know you how to fight?"

Balori said, "I can strangle a man easily with my trunk. Or crush him underfoot."

"No one would doubt you've the strength, but have you been trained in fighting arts?"

Balori shook his head. He admitted, "I've not been in this form long. I am most likely a whelp in most ways of the mortal world except where elephants are concerned."

Balori's candor made Nahum chuckle again. "I cannot help you learn fighting. I will send you to my brother for that."

Nahum got up and stepped outside, instructing Balori to follow.

"Must I?" Balori wrapped his arms about himself, peering out into the vast whiteness of the snowy mountaintop.

"Come!" instructed Nahum.

Balori did as he was told and soon Nahum was plucking a piece from a hanging cloud and placing it above the ground before Balori. "Sit upon it," instructed Nahum as he smiled.

Balori said, "I cannot! It's thinness won't support anything!"

Nahum raised a reprimanding finger to Balori. "The weakest thing has its strengths. Sit upon it, cross-legged."

Balori tested the cloud piece with his hand. As his hand went throug, he cried out, "I will fall! You instruct me in foolishness!"

Nahum's voice grew with great, deep commanding tones. "Sit upon it! Sit now!"

Balori thought the man to be quite bold in his attempt to command a creature more than twice his size. "Very well. I will do as you say and when I fall into the snow, making a fool of myself, I will murder you as though you were a wicked mahout!"

Balori turned, his back to the cloud, and leaned backward.

Much to his surprised, the cloud, which he could barely feel as a comforting, ethereal mist, held his weight.

Nahum laughed amiably and showed Balori how to sit on the cloud in the lotus position. "It is only from this position you will be able to command the cloud," said Nahum.

With some small practice, Balori was quickly able to fly atop the floating cloud to great heights.

"Now go to the mountain called Bai Mot. It is nearby and you will be able to fly there. There you will find my brother, the Dark Ram. He will teach you in the ways of fighting."

Balori thanked Nahum of the Snows whose laugh echoed off the Bai Baldric. Balori and Nahum waved to one another as the elephant flew away atop his cloud.

Balori then came to Bai Mot, a mountain so dark its stony surface, some parts of it peaking out from beneath a cover of snow, appeared black as Kalavata's wings. There, upon a peak, Balori spied a black ram charging and butting the mountain, shaping it again and again with his thrusting head. Seeing the ram thrusting his head into stone reminded him of Tafari and for a moment his heart welled with sadness and loss. He fought back a single tear as he flew closer.

When the ram saw Balori, he called, "Who disturbs my exercise?"

Balori floated nearer, shivering from the cold. "I am Balori Shongoyo and I have been sent by Nahum of the Snows to find his brother, one named Dark Ram."

The ram then changed into the shape of an old man with a face vastly decorated with ta moko in the shape of ram's horns around the nose and mouth. His ears were pierced with small ram's horns. "I am Dark Ram. Why would my weakling brother send you to me?"

"He seems to think I need to learn the ways of fighting," Balori drew closer still, so close in fact that he stepped off the cloud and stood next to the man. With a quick snort, Balori sucked the cloud up into his trunk where he stored it for later use.

"And why would you need to know how to fight?" asked the old man.

"I wish to free my people - the elephants of Ife - from the Eternal Empress, but to do so I must fulfill a task for her. I must restore the stars to the nighttime sky," Balori explained.

The old man considered this. "I could not begin to tell you how to do such a thing, but my brother may be correct in his suspicions that you will need to know how to fight."

"Your brother?" asked Balori.

"Indeed, I am Dark Ram, the brother of Nahum that you seek. And if he and I suspect correctly, there may be wickedness behind the fallen stars, which would mean you will need to know fighting skills." Dark Ram eyed Balori who was shivering in the cold and rocking back and forth on his feet, giving each foot temporary relief from the freezing snows.

"I may enjoy teaching one as weak as you," Dark Ram said.

"Weak? You dare call me weak?" Balori raged. "I could crush your head beneath my foot!"

"Oh, there is strength and there is strength," replied Dark Ram cryptically. "But if you are so strong, why do you dance in the snows? Do the little flakes hurt you?"

Balori, angry and feeling the slight, said, "It is cold! Surely every creature feels cold and heat!"

"Then why do I not shiver as you?" asked Dark Ram.

Balori then noticed the old man, seemingly feeble, did not appear concerned with the freezing snows. "You are a mystic," Balori explained more to himself than Dark Ram, "I saw with my own eyes your changing. You cast spells to be warm, doing tricks to assuage the effects of the snow."

"The only trick," explained Dark Ram, "is not minding."

Dark Ram lead Balori into a massive cavern, much like the one he had found Nahum in, and began his training. "You will learn testa," said Dark Ram. "It is an ancient art and few know it."

Balori began sparing, learning katas and punches and kicks and knees; he was taught how to gouge eyes and rake backs with his new hands; Dark Ram showed him how to utilize his long, long tusks as spears; he received blows to the chest from Dark Ram in his ram form to strengthen condition him to pain; he sat outside in the torrential snows for hours on end; at last he learned to deliver devastating headbutts to targets. Each time he practiced his headbutt, Balori screamed with sorrowful thoughts of Tafari, but his thoughts soon turned to grunts of effort and, indeed, concentrating on the memory of his dead friend allowed him to channel so much energy into a single headbutt that soon he was able to break stalagmites with one blow, causing them to explode into a rain of pebbles and powdery dust.

Between training, in the quiet moments after meals and sleep, Dark Ram further taught Balori lessons against pain by heating black stones in fires and then inserting them under the elephant's skin along the ridge of his brow. At first the pain was excruciating to Balori, but by the time Dark Ram neared completion of the design, Balori sat unmoving and unnerved. The final design gave Balori a line of raised black skin arching over each eye and extending almost to each ear.

In another effort to subdue pain, Dark Ram decorated Balori's forehead with ta moko above the line of stones. For this, he crushed the outer shells of bugs to make a red dye. He tattooed parallel lines sweeping from the center of Balori's forehead out to the ears. Dark Ram then ground a luminescent moss into a dye that he used to tattoo small dots throughout Balori's ears. Balori found this painful as his ears were thin and sensitive, but managed not to pull away. When completed, each of Balori's ears appeared as a tapestry of glinting, glowing stars.

Dark Ram next produced an iron rod and heated it in the fire. With it's sharp tip and burning heat he carved six black bands in the middle of each of Balori's tusks. Below these bands, towards the tips of the tusks and on the outer side, Dark Ram burn-carved first a snowflake in the left tusk then a ram's head in the right. "These represent you teachers," explained Dark Ram, "my borther and I."

After this Dark Ram instructed Balori to head to the far side of the mountain and dig in the snows there. "A few years ago," he explained, "when the stars fell from the Heavens, one such star broke lose and came to rest on the other side of Bai Mot. I've been meaning to retrieve it, but have as yet not done so. Go, Balori, find it and return it here and with it we will make you proper weapons."

Balori did as he had been instructed. He snorted out the cloud from his tusk, mounted it and flew to teh other side of Bai Mot. He dug and dug for many days until, at last, he found a large hunk of black stone, a stone unlike any other stone on the mountain. It had a slight sheen and was heavier than any other rock of its size would have been. Balori lifted the stone, mounted his piece of cloud again, and returned to the side of Dark Ram, presenting to him the odd stone.

"Good," Dark Ram said.

"It was quite heavy," Balori commented.

"Because it is no mere stone. It is made of Star Iron, the strongest iron one could hope for," explained Dark Ram.

Together they set about the task of making for Balori three weapons. Balori worked at stoking the fire, making it as hot as it would go. So hot did the fire become that much of the snow outside the cavern's entrance melted away. Dark Ram then showed Balori how to work the iron with a hammer and tools. Balori grew strong, his shoulders broadening, his arms thickening, his chest rippling from the work. One after another Balori was made to forge his own weapons.

At last Balori held all three weapons, finished and polished and ready. In his left hand he wielded a battle axe, its blade elongated to appear as an elephant's ear and nearly as big; in his right hand he held a massive kopesh; and in his trunk he gripped a tri-bladed mambele throwing knife. Each weapon glowed with a sheen. Each weapon was sharpened to fine edges. Each weapon gleamed deadly and wicked.

"Thank you," Balori told Dark Ram.

"It was my pleasure. You made a fine student. Now you must go and find your destiny. Return the stars to the nighttime sky and to the people all over the world," Dark Ram said with a smile, a rare thing for Dark Ram.

Balori again thanked him. He trumpeted, flinging forth his cloud, sat upon it and flew off the mountain called Bai Mot.


That's it for this week, folks. Remember to look for the fourth and final act next Friday!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Music to Write By... With Pictures!

About this time last year I posted a wuxia tale in 5 acts called "The Children of Gods". Since April of this year I have been expanding upon that world here on my blog with a series of stories. Along with these stories, I have been posting errata explaining influences and other various notes concerning the stories. It occurred to me recently that I should also post a list of the music I generally have been listening to while writing these heroic martial arts tales. Here is that list:

"The Children of Gods" and "At the Peony Tea House"
The soundtrack to Jet Li's Hero; composer: Tan Dun

"The Theft of Heaven"
Global Spirit by Karunesh, especially track 7: Earthsong;

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Music from the Park

"The Ruby Bug"
Theme to the HBO drama Rome;

Super Taranta (album) by Gogol Bordello, especially track 14: Super Taranta!

"The Elephant Crusade"
Live at Montreux by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

I'll be finishing up "The Elephant Crusade" this Friday. Sometime thereafter I will be posting Act 1 of "Song of Momoki". Be sure to watch for it!

Friday, July 11, 2008

"The Elephant Crusade" - Act II


"The Elephant Crusade"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT II: Balori Shongoyo, the Towering Elephant

THAT LONG, LONESOME ROAD: Wherein Shabar Visits the Elephant Homelands Called Ife; King Aniabas is Overthrown; The Elephant Crusade Begins; Balori is Tasked with the Stars



In the lands called Ife lived great and many beasts known to the world as elephants. Ife was their happy homeland. They loved its rolling hills, open plains and grasslands. It was a wild sort of country where men rarely ventured except by boats down rivirs. To the south of Ife was the mass expanse of a desert and to its north, over large and long hilly country, was the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar where men and Gifted Ones drew together to buy and sell all kinds of merchandise.

It was to the bazaar that Shabar, faithful servant to Sulia Laree the Eternal Empress of the Bizo, was sent to find a mahout or some other with expertise in elephants. It was at the bazaar he met Nagkendra, a mahout of popular skill, sitting at a table and having tea in a small cafe. Nagkendra was a waif of a man, though young. He wore deep green robes of light material, sandals made of thin leather straps and a scarf to block sand from his mouth when he ventured with elephants.

"My Empress sends me to find elephants. Our people build a tower to be used as a library, perhaps the tallest of its kind in all the world in all of Stork's recorded histories. In order to complete such a grand task, we need large animals such as the elephant to haul stones. Can you help us?"

Nagkendra agreed. "I can direct you to sellers of tamed elephants, though some small commission may be necessary and paid by you for my services."

"Money is no matter here," said Shabar. "Only my desires of my Empress matter."

"You say this will be the tallest tower in all the world?" Nagkendra asked.

Shabar nodded and showed Nagkendra the specifications for the plans. Nagkendra agreed the tower would be immense. "A mere elephant will not do. You will need many and I will most likely need to send you to more than one tamer," explained Nagkendra.

"To inflate your commission?" Shabar challenged.

"Forgive me, my hearing is ill, it would seem. Thought I that you had said money is not a matter in place of your empress' desires," Nagkendra smiled triumphantly.

Shabar huffed. "You heard well, but thriftiness should never be ignored nonetheless. How many elephants might I need?"

Nagkendra thought on this and looked over the plans once more. "Perhaps," he said, "thirty would suffice."

"Thirty?" Shabar raged. "That seems quite a lot. I have heard these beasts grow larger than ten or twenty men. Have I heard wrong?"

"Not at all," Nagkendra said. "You have heard correctly. But your empress' plans are also immense. I can assume the tower would take many years to build, as well. If that be true, then after the first few years of construction you will need more elephants. Some will perish due to accident or illness, it is only natural. Others will refuse to work or grow tired or old. You will need many, many more elephants in the years to come."

"Certainly I cannot come to these lands again and again every few years for a decade or more while the tower is being constructed," reasoned Shabar. "No, I will need to take more than thirty, then. Perhaps I will need to breed them in my homeland and raise them for the work." He looked at Nagkendra and considered him and matters for some time. Nagkendra drank his tea and ordered more, this time enough for himself and his guest, Shabar. While finishing their second cup of the fresh tea, Shabar said, "Will you help me train these creatures for the work I need? Will you be a mahout for the Eternal Empress? I can assure all your needs would be tended to."

Nagkendra thought a moment before saying, "Ife and the bazaar are my home and have been since I was orphaned here in the streets of Tenhar. My love for this place is strong," Shabar thought his question was dismissed until Nagkendra added, "but if the gods have placed you before me with such a generous offer, who am I to refuse?"

Nagkendra and Shabar laughed and drank their tea and, later while eating a full meal, shared their stories together and became friends. The tea was traded first for palm wine, then as the night drew on it the palm wine was abandoned for whiskey.

Negkendra shared his small hovel on the outskirts of town that night with Shabar. The following day they set out to speak with different merchants and mahouts at the bazaar. They found no one with an available elephant or two, let alone thirty. The only elephant it seemed anyone had was the property of Tenhar and used exclusively by the sheriff to punish the most diabolical criminals. They were not allowed even to see this elephant, however, as the sheriff was frightened of vengeance against the creature by families of those that had been crushed.

"It would seem we are cursed not to find one," said Nagkendra.

Shabar sighed, wondering if these creatures, these beasts called elephants truly existed and thinking Negkendra may be playing him for a fool in hopes of swindling out of him some coins. "What would you suggest now?" asked Shabar.

"We should hire another mahout and some spearmen to accompany us tomorrow to find and capture elephants in the wild."

It was a bold suggestion, but Shabar agreed. That night, using the excuse of other business that needed tending to, Shabar set out about the bazaar to inquire about elephants and the truth to their existence. To the best of his efforts, he could only find many people claiming elephants to be very real, but not one had evidence to that end. He feared Negkendra, though amiable, may suggest the next day to hire friends of his, friends to whom Shabar would have to spread the wealth.

Negkendra did that very thing that night. When Shabar returned to Negkendra's hovel the extra men were already collected - another mahout named Ghalib and three men with spears. Besides the extra men there were two mules and a cart with four small cages on it.

"Why would they need spears?" asked Shabar.

"In case the elephants resist," said Negkendra.

The next day, Shabar upon his horse and the others on rented camels, set out for the country known as Ife. Three other another mahout and three other men agreed to follow for a small wage. By day's end they were in the wild country. "Any time now, perhaps tonight as we rest or tomorrow as we search, we will find elephants. I will help you chose several pairs of mates."

They all slept well that night under a starless sky. All except Shabar. He remained awake, excited as a child might be to see fabled creatures, desiring not to miss a moment of contact with them. Albert had sent him here and for a time Shabar questioned whether elephants were real or imagined beasts that terrify people in the night as they dreamed. But having met these men, Negkendra and the others, these few men spoke so fondly of elephants that Shabar determined, whether the tales of the size and strength and unnatural strength of these beasts was true or exaggerated fantasy, the creatures themselves were surely real. He wondered all night, hoping, waiting, wishing Etain and the new day to dawn. Sleep slipped through him now and then, but largely Shabar remained awake and waiting.

When Etain came over the horizon, Shabar roused Negkendra and the others. They made quick meals to break the nightly fast and set out into a mass grassy plain to find the fabled elephants. After an hour's travel the mahout Ghalib found many prints and scat upon a hill. "There is a watering hole some small distance from here. I am sure they are headed there."

Shabar examined the print closely before they moved on. He placed his palm, fingers spread wide, into the impression. He said, "The length and girth of my hand does not match the size of these prints. These animals must surely be immense."

His second wind catching up with him and his faith renewed that the animal existed, Shabar urged the small party onward towards the watering hole Ghalib spoke of.

When Etain was high overhead, in the midst of day, the men looked out and saw far-off wavering gray forms standing by a small lake. "Could it be?" Shabar nearly shrieked. "Are those elephants?"

Negkendra nodded. "They are."

They drew close. Shabar sat back in his saddle, eying and admiring the bold, beautiful creatures prancing along the waters edge - some indeed in the water - and trumpeting loudly as if crying out joyfully. Shabar laughed, saying, "Albert, you crazy old alchemist, you have lead me well."

Negkendra asked, "Will these do the task you ask of them?"

"I do not doubt it," Shabar answered.

Negkendra smiled, nodded. "I do not doubt it," he repeated.

Each creature seemed as tall as two men and longer than three men lying on the ground. They were thick, especially at the shoulders, and many had bellies extended with great rotund curves. Each one, cows and bulls, all had a pair of enormous, implausible teeth so large their mouths, though also enormous, could not contain them. These teeth - tusks as Negkendra called them - curved out of their mouths as giant white horns. Between these extended long noses - again Negkendra was helping in naming them trunks. These trunks were not merely elongated features but nimble, prehensile limbs. Shabar gasped as he watched the creatures uproot tall grass with their trunks and beat them against their knees to knock off the dirt at the roots, thereby cleaning their food, before shoving them into their mouths. So much did he enjoy watching the elephants that Shabar laughed with glee.

But it was their ears, the incredible ears that struck Shabar the most with awe and wonderment. They were huge though thin, wide though frail. And the animals walked and tramped about with such ease, some as though they carried no more weight than a dove. They skin was thick and gray and had toenails larger than a man's head. Their legs were thick as the most solid oak. Shabar could only stare, a smile upon his face. "They are glorious," he spoke softly.

"There are three children," spoke Ghalib. "But there are fourteen adults. One of the adults is perhaps young enough for us to take and train, but the number of the older ones far outweighs our numbers."

Negkendra sighed. "I think we can get the three young ones if we could distract the rest."

Ghalib shook his head. "You want only the young? It would be easier to claim one or two older ones and then take the three young ones. Plus, with the older ones, we can start breeding them immediately to make more."

"Breed them? Immediately?" asked Shabar. "I know we'll have to breed them eventually, but we cannot breed them right away. It took me many months to get here from the side of my empress and I was alone without others to withhold my progress. With you five plus whatever number of elephants we take, it would take many more months. Do you suggest we breed them along the way?"

"The quicker we breed them, the quicker your empress will have more elephants," said Ghalib. "We should also train them along the way, then when we return you to your city they can begin working right away."

Negkendra added, "If my knowledge of where the Bizo people are located coupled with my knowledge of elephants and their training be true, I would say it will take nearly a year, perhaps more. By the time we get to your empress, we'll have a whole new generation of elephants ready to be born and tamed."

Shabar was quiet as he thought.

"Ah," exclaimed Ghalib. "There is a mother already pregnant amongst them. If we take an older one, I suggest we take her."



King Aniabas' men stood in formation facing north towards the Plain of Adoration. The raucous, rioting followers of the demon Yaska Selith danced about bonfires, seeming not to notice. The army waited, watching.

From the east came the good king's four best warships. he had three others, but they were small sloops best suited for privateering and improperly outfitted to engage in a battle on land. What he had sent forth were a corvette, a brig and a dhow.

General Vitor was beside his liege in full armor. The armor had been painted blue as a clear sky with hints of silver along the edging. The spangenhelm atop his head shone silver and bone yellow, giving him the appearance of an undead soldier. At his back was attached the red and blue banner with a lone white lion of his liege's command.

King Aniabas was similarly outfitted, except without the banner and wearing a galea with a feathery plume that had been dyed bright blue instead of a spangenhelm.

"Think you the ships will suffice?" asked Vitor.

Aniabas took his time to answer. "They'll have to. The corvette and the brig have the cannons that should reach the demon's encampment. The dhow's shallow draft should allow it closer access and higher maneuverability."

They sat upon their horses and waited.

As the three ships drew near the shore, their captains gave the command to open fire. Cannon shot after cannon shot rained down on the demon's people, blowing many of them apart. Men became piecemeal, women became minced meat. Vitor smiled at his king who smiled in return and said, "Soon our ships will have crippled the demon itself so that we may ride in and defeat teh unholy beast. Then we will finally be rid of the thing."

But as King Aniabas said this, the great demon was roused from his daily sleep to discover the attack. Yaska Selith turned on the ship, opened his third eye and shot forth a red beam of such destruction that all three ships were nearly cut in two. Their wooden structures burst into flames. Sailors jumped from the decks into the sea, some only to be pulled under by the roiling currents caused by their sinking ships. Others were boiled to death for, as the incredible red beam spat from Yaska Selith's forehead and hit the waters, it caused the ocean to boil and bubbled and steam with intense heat.

The desire to fight fled from all of King Aniabas' men.

"We could do nothing to it," spoke Vitor.

Some of the gathered soldiers broke and ran. Many of them stayed, though cowering in their suits of armor and hoping their king would call off the campaign.

King Aniabas sighed. "I fear we must retreat lest we all die this day. We will have to reconsider our plans."

The king and his men returned to their homes to the south of the Plain of Adoration.

That night, Yaska Selith determined his bone warrior army must soon grow and wrest control from the king to the south.



Shabar and his hired men left their horse and camels near a lone tree as they steered themselves around the elephants to a spot where stood a stand of trees. There, between two trees, they placed a large hemp net. One of the spearmen then set out to place himself directly across from this net, with the elephants in between. With a shout and great fuss, he scared the elephants into charging away from him, charging towards the net.

Negkendra, Ghalib and Shabar did their best to flank the elephants, to herd them with shouts and calls and a few thrown stones. They also caught the three baby elephants using gigantic, modified versions of man catchers that they then staked into the ground and tied the feet of the smaller creatures with rope. Shabar had the most difficulty, as he had never captured any kind of animal before.

"Luck is with us!" cried Negkendra as the pregnant cow ran towards the two trees with the net, heading towards their center. As she neared, two spearmen released counterweights tied to the net and hanging from the trees. The netting flew skyward, blocking the escaping cow. She trumpeted in fear at the last minute before running into the net and crashing to the ground, entangled.

A lone bull turned from his escape and headed for them in an angry headlong assault. One of the spearmen, the closest and therefore the first target of the attacking elephant, threw his javelin wildly before turning to run. The elephant caught him easily, first stepping on one of his legs and crushing it so badly the muscle within tore from the flesh and spattered across the ground. The elephant then lowered its head and, with its left tusk, skewered the spearman, trampling his other leg and trumpeting with trembling fury. The elephant lifted his head, the spearman stuck on the tusk, and whipped side to side until the dead, dismembered body flung itself away to land sickly in the mud beside the lake.

Shabar, who was next closest, ran as the elephant came hysterically after him.

One of the other spearmen cast his javelin into the air. It sailed, piercing the charging creature from ear-hole to ear-hole, the weapon jamming deep into the thick skull of the beast. The elephant ceased its pursuit of the screaming and fearful Shabar.

The elephant toppled toppled. He breathed laboriously three times before his breathing stopped all together. The men did not know, though the mahouts silently suspected, they had killed the mate of the cow and father to her child.

The sudden death of one of their own further frightened the rest of the elephants. They ran, scattering while Negkendra and Ghalib and the two spearmen rounded up the three baby elephants and the pregnant cow.

"We must hurry," called Negkendra to the rest. "We cannot allow the elephants to return lest we be crushed under their feet. We must hurry away with these four."

They caged the three small elephants easily, but the large mother refused to cooperate. The spearmen threw rope after rope around her legs until, at last, she could no longer refuse their efforts. They wound her entirely with the ropes, keeping her legs bound. They then dragged the elephant onto the cart which bowed beneath her inflated weight. As they did, she gave out a long, mournful cry.

"She calls for her mate," said Negkendra. "We must hurry."

As he checked the ropes tied to the cart, making sure they were secured, Shabar saw tears streaming from the cow's eyes. He frowned. "Is she hurt?" he asked.

"She is a dumb animal," said Ghalib. "At best she is frightened. She most likely she got dust in her eyes and, as we do, naturally formed the tears to wash the dust away."

Shabar heard the mahout's words, but as he looked at the captured cow once more, he was unsure. He laid a hand upon her forehead. He wanted to say an apology, but knew she would understand and he would most likely be mocked by Ghalib and the spearmen and, possibly, by his new friend Negkendra. He knew nothing of elephants and feared showing his ignorance. He said nothing instead.

"I do not think the two mules will have the strength," said Negkendra as he checked the cart.

Shabar gave up his horse and the other men gave up their camels. All the mounts were lashed to the cart and herded away quickly in the direction of the bazaar. As they left Ife, Negkendra looked back over his shoulder in fear of retaliation.

"Will they return?" asked Shabar.

"Perhaps," Negkendra said. "And perhaps with more numbers and all of them would be quite angry. We have stolen away with their children and one of their women. The cows rarely fight except in the case their child is in danger, but the bulls are quite aggressive, as you saw today. We are fortunate that this cow we captured did not fight more than she did. We all would have been crushed."

"How long before she gives birth?" Shabar asked.

"If I know my elephants, I would say she is due to give birth quite soon and because of that I think she feared harming her child if she fought us."

Shabar, still shaken, walked with them in silent contemplation.

Back at Negkendra's hovel it was decided another day was needed to rest and maintain the elephants and gather supplies for the long trip ahead. Each elephant was given a name. The three young ones were called Aberash, Jengo and Chipo. The pregnant cow was named Masozi. Shabar chose her name, a word he had heard since his arrival in this part of the world, a word that meant "tear".

Two days later another elephant was brought to the bazaar by a merchant and sold to Shabar and his men. As fortune would have it, this new elephant was a bull and was brother to the pregnant cow's mate, the uncle to the calf in Masozi's belly, though none but the elephants knew this. He was named Zuberi.

Three weeks later, after Shabar and the others had already set out to deliver the elephants to the Eternal Empress, Masozi gave birth to her child. She was unbound for the delivery. She gave no fight nor did she flee. Her only desire was to care for her child.

Shabar, so taken was he with Masozi, that he helped a great deal with the birth. He was in awe of the sight of a birthing elephant. He wondered at the beauty and ugliness of the event and helped in every effort.

"You are becoming quite the expert," Negkendra said of him.

Masozi was gifted a son. She caressed his head with her trunk and kissed him repeatedly. She looked to the south and west after the birth of her son, towards the lands called Ife, and trumpeted with pride that her son had been born and was quite healthy and strong. She hoped other elephants would hear.

The birth had been excruciating due to the calf's immense size, but both mother and son fared well. Ghalib commented, "He is large for a newborn. He will be incredibly strong and well-suited for the work you wish of him. He is a good calf in every respect."

The birth disrupted the journey for a few days as mother and son were nursed back to health. Shabar gave Masozi's son a name: Balori Shongoyo, the Towering Elephant. After a few days' rest, when Balori had learned to walk on his own, the trek was begun again. This time Masozi walked on her own as she showed no sign of further resistance.

Along the way Ghalib attempted to mate Zuberi and Masozi. With great effort he succeeded and soon Masozi was again pregnant.

"You are an amazing mahout," praised Negkendra. "It takes some elephants many years to reproduce after birth, but here you have shown great influence over these creatures. You must be blessed by the gods with the ability."

Shabar added, "It would seem my Empress' money is well worth it. You have earned my respect."

Negkendra and Ghalib began training the elephants simple commands. All the elephants found them difficult except Balori who thought the training to be as playing with friends. How he loved picking up logs with his trunk on command or sitting when told!

But soon Shabar regretted his praise for Ghalib for, on a particular night before they bedded down for the night, Ghalib could not get Jengo to pay attention to his commands. Every time Ghalib told Jengo to sit, the small but quickly growing elephant would run off to eat nearby grass. When Ghalib told Jengo to lift a log, the elephant sat down and stared at the mahout. Jengo was completely uncooperative.

Ghalib brought forth his ankus and crop and so severely did he beat the small Jengo that he split the animal's thick skin along the back. Jengo cried out with such agony that Shabar could do nothing but look away.

Shabar tried to gauge the reactions of Negkendra, but found his friend only standing nearby, watching. He then looked to Zuberi who merely eyed the raging mahout. At last, his head turned away, Shabar felt the soft, gentle touch of a trunk as it caressed his back. When Shabar turned to look, he found Masozi gently soothing him with touch. He reached out and did the same for her, petting her trunk and shoulder behind her large ears.

As tears formed in little Jengo's eyes, his trumpeting cry for help, calling forth in anguish, so too did tears form in the eyes of Masozi and Shabar.

The next night, as Ghalib trained the elephants, Shabar pulled Negkendra aside to confront him about Ghalib's actions the night before.

"His hand is quite heavy," agreed Negkendra, "But his results are inarguable." Together they watched as Jengo obediently carried out the commands of Ghalib.

"But they are so large," said Shabar. "They could crush us at any moment. Why do they not rebel against such fury?"

Negkendra explained, "That is not the way of the elephant. They are larger, indeed, and stronger, but they do not have the maliciousness of men. Only in musth do they storm about aimlessly and then only the bulls. Our cruelty alone makes us superior, but it is all we need to tame the elephant. The fury of men is far larger than the largest beast. Demons alone are larger."

On went the travelers. Shabar occasionally sent forth a hired messenger to report their progress to Sulia Laree. Each time she received word, she shared the news with her people who cheered emphatically.

But storms and illness delayed the progress of the trekking elephants and their owners. "I fear we're losing time. Perhaps I should send one of our spearmen to Tenhar to find more mahouts and start a great passage of elephants from there to my Empress so that we are not alone in our travels. Every few months, perhaps, my Empress could send money to a trusted man in the bazaar and he, in turn, will purchase and send forth other mahouts with more elephants behind us. Then my Empress would only have to wait a few months for more elephants each time."

"There is wisdom in your words," agreed Negkendra.

This suggestion was sent to the Empress. She ardently agreed. Every few months new elephants were captured and sold to a man named Akadia Dorn in Tenhar. He then hired a mahout and a few other men to herd the elephants east to the Eternal Empress. The long line of elephants that developed became legendary. Everyone all along the path the elephants were taken would come out to see the great beasts, to wonder at them and speak highly and kindly of them and of the mahouts that commanded them. The long procession came to be known as the Elephant Crusade and Sulia Laree, the Eternal Empress, was hailed powerful and wealthy and was considered as having a touch of the exotic. Indeed, she came to be admired by people all over the world.



Thunder was a spirit that lived in the sky. A winged and awful creature was Thunder. It spit fire, spoke lightning and when it flapped it wings the Heavens shook.

But She Ku Kuei, the Opium-Eating Snake, also made her home in the sky and grew jealous of having to share the Heavens with Thunder. Soon She Ku Kuei plotted Thunder's demise.

So it came to pass that She Ku Kuei invited Thunder into her home for tea. There She enticed Thunder into trying opium laced with wormwood and absinthe. Thunder was slow to accept the offer, but feared offending his host.

The opium immediately caused Thunder to hallucinate. Frightened, Thunder attacked She Ku Kuei. So terrible was their battle that not only did it rage for three days and nights that the giant weasel god Raiju Yu shook loose from Thunder's belly button and fell from the sky.

The fight ended with She Ku Kuei escaping to the uppermost parts of Heaven where she could only be seen slithering across the night sky while Thunder lived, hidden from She Ku Kuei, amidst the clouds.

Raiju Yu fell and fell until he landed at the feet of Yaska Selith in the Plain of Adoration. Fearing an attack, the Bone Warriors assaulted Raiju Yu, but Raiju Yu summoned forth a triumvirate of weasels named Kama, Gala and Jian. So fierce was the bite and claws of the weasel god and three smaller weasels that the Bone Warriors stood in awe of their attacks.

Yaska Selith commanded his Bone Warriors to stop their fighting. "Weasel," said he. "What be your name?"

"I am Raiju Yu, son of Thunder, and these are my weasel servants. Kill one of these and I will summon more. I can always command three weasels at once."

Yaska Selith considered this. "Why are you here?" he asked.

"I was shaken free from my father's belly button while he was fighting. I simply fell here. But enough talking, send forth your warriors. I and my weasels shall kill them all!"

Yaska Selith gurgled laughter, looking down on the weasel god. "I do not wish any more fighting with you and my Bone Warriors. Instead, I suggest a companionship between us. So lustful are you for blood, it would seem, and here I am with need of a general for my army. What say you?"

Raiju Yu looked at the mortal army. "I seek blood, that much is true. I suppose whether the blood comes from killing your warriors or killing alongside them matters not. What is it you suggest?"

Yaska Selith said, "Recently the king to the south attacked my men from the sea. It can be assumed we will see more attacks from him. I wish you to take some of my Bone Warriors and usurp this baseborn king. Kill him and take the kingdom as your own, if you wish. As long as he no longer causes me or my men harm, I would be happy."

Raiju Yu considered this. "Give me your men. It will be done."

And the overthrow was soon complete. King Aniabas was not found nor killed, but was instead seen fleeing from the city. Raiju Yu sent forth hunters to track him, but they returned empty-handed.

Raiju Yu set his band of Bone Warriors to the barracks and police the town outside the castle while he took the throne. The weasel god became the Weasel King.



Shabar and the elephants came into the land of the Bizo in grand parades. Every person from every corner of the countryside came forth to take in the sights of the grand and glorious beasts that Shabar had traveled into unknown lands for, beasts that he had tamed, beasts that he had conquered in the name of his Empress. A festival was held, the first Festival of the Elephant. A chef in favor with Sulia Laree created especially for this festival a new dish, a new treat. It was large, flat fried bread dusted with sweet spices and called "The Elephant Ear" for it was the sweet treat had been made into the likeness of the creatures' ears.

Shabar was declared hero of all the Bizoans and of Sulia Laree, the Eternal Empress. The mahouts and spearmen were welcomed with glad arms.

As the festival commenced, Shabar entered the palace of the Eternal Empress. Adad and Alecto ran to him, cheering and hugging him as an older brother. Albert the Alchemist, too, embraced his old friend and said how good it was to see him again. Even Fei Li Mi gave him a respectful bow.

With the warm reception Shabar said, "My Empress, I must speak with you."

"Of course!" she said. "You must have wonderful tales to regale us with and we would be happy to hear them. We've all missed you so. The people write songs about you and speak your name as a living legend. We must hear it all, everything you have to say. Come, sit at my side and tell me everything."

Shabar sat beside his Empress. The children gathered close, as did Albert. With some trepidation, Shabar said, "I'm afraid I must resign my post as your servant."

"But why?" Empress Sulia exclaimed, shocked.

Shabar thought of telling her, of telling all of them, the horrors he had witnessed while returning with the elephants. but he feared her reaction. He feared her fury. He feared being made fun of, of being called a fool for his compassion for the "dumb animal". He feared most of all he was most like and elephant and less like a man.

He lied, "My travels were perilous. They took a great deal of energy from me. I feel older than I look. With respects, I feel I have earned time for myself, time to reflect and relax."

"Well of course!" said Empress Sulia. "You can have all the time you need! You will return whenever you wish."

Shabar hesitated. "And if I never wish to return?"

Empress Sulia considered this. "If that be your wish."

The children begged him not to leave. He tried to explain, "I must. I need my rest."

They cried. Fei Li Mi consoled them and eyed Shabar angrily.

"Please, My Empress, do not think this is a slight to you. My heart is still dedicated to you," said Shabar.

Empress Sulia shook her head. "We will always be friends. Do as you must, you've earned whatever your heart desires. But please, for the sake of the children, stay with us a few days more.

Shabar agreed.



The elephants were put to work immediately. Ghalib struck them into learning their role and their work. Negkendra was made supervisor. New elephants were brought into the city and put to task, as well. The spearmen became favored laborers. Soon the base of the tower was nearing completion.

Masozi had her second child. Negkendra sent word to Shabar, now living in the farmlands far outside the hub of the Bizoans, that the baby elephant was a healthy bull and asking if Shabar would like to name this one as he had with Masozi's other child. Shabar sent a letter to Negkendra wishing him well in the most courteous way and suggested the name of the new elephant should be called Tafari. Negkendra sent word that it was a proper name and that he missed his old friend. Shabar sent no reply.

The elephants worked diligently and without incident, though many grew tired and bored of the work and would have to be goaded back into their duty by Ghalib. Balori alone found the work enjoyable. He still considered it play. He became fast friends with Tafari, his cousin and half-brother. They grew together, worked together and when given the chance played together. But most of their days was given to working on hauling the enormous stones of the tower.

Tafari did not share Balori's enthusiasm for the work. he did, however, relish their scant time together for play. Once, while being walked one evening by Ghalib and Negkendra, Balori uprooted a small tree and whapped tafari over the head with it playfully. Crying out in odd elephant laughter, Tafari also uproot ed a small tree and the two were soon playing a makeshift game of tag, striking each other lightly and prancing about.

Ghalib took exception to this. He goaded the two elephants with his ankus and crop.

"Ghalib," said Negkendra, "they only play."

"But they have destroyed two of the Empress' trees and they may take to striking one another harder, risking harming one another," Ghalib explained. "This sort of foolish behavior cannot be tolerated."

Negkendra kept his silence and helped Ghalib remove the two elephants from one another's company. Tafari and Balori cried out after one another, sad their play was over.

Tafari soon grew weary with work. Each day Balori found himself gently patting Tafari on the back with his trunk to keep up his spirits. Each day Tafari became more distant with thought and sorrow.

Then one day Tafari, carrying a smaller stone, sat down, refusing to work any further. Ghalib goaded him, but to no end. Then Ghalib bit him with the crop, but Tafari merely cringed. Balori grabbed Tafari by the trunk with his own, pulling and urging Tafari back to work lest he be further beaten. All the elephants slowed to watch, but none stopped working completely.

Ghalib beat Balori, chasing him away from Tafari.

Ghalib then turned on Tafari. So badly did he beat the young elephant that Negkendra approached him and quietly suggested he stop, suggesting Tafari needed a half day's rest to recover from whatever ailed him.

Ghalib was stubborn and gave no way. He beat and beat at Tafari. The elephant's grey skin sliced open. Blood poured from his shoulders. Ghalib, frustrated, struck Tafari on the forehead with the ankus just above the trunk. Tafari cried out in pain and anger. Hatred bred in his eyes, but he could not bring himself to attack the offending mahout. Instead, Tafari stood and walked slowly, painfully towards an immense stone.

"What does he do?" asked Negkendra. "He cannot possibly carry such a large stone just yet. He is still young and much too small."

But carrying the stone was not Tafari's intention. Repeatedly, angrily, harshly Tafari rammed his head again and again into the corner of the stone. Blood sprayed and spattered across the stone and the ground. With each forward thrust Tafari gave out a trumpet of anger. Tears welled and fell from his large eyes. Each blow brought new, white hot pain. Each blow brought calming numbness. He rammed again and again until at last, his skull caved in and he collapsed at the foot of the stone.

Ghalib and Negkendra were in awe, as were the rest of the elephants. Every creature and man stopped to look at the young elephant, bloody from a mixture of his own attacks and those of Ghalib. He was covered almost entirely in blood. His skin shivered nervously. His tail whipped weakly. His trunk did not move.

Tafari gasped for air.

Ghalib approached, uncertain.

tafari peered through one bloodied and bloodshot eye at the mahout. His breathing labored, Tafari stared at him for a long time as if to say, "Use me now. I challenge you to use me now for whatever it is you make us build. Use me and kill me, that was your plan, but I brought forth the inevitable. I brought about my death without your satisfaction of my many years of work. Use me, I challenge you."

Anger infected Ghalib. He raised his crop and ankus together in one hand and brought them down on Tafari's trunk.

Balori cried out, trying to get to his dying friend. The two spearmen caught him and held him with ropes.

Negkendra yelled, "Ghalib! What do you do? The creature is dying!"

Ghalib turned on Negkendra. "He needs to be made an example of. He needs to be punished for his rebellion lest the others become tempted by desire for the same." Ghalib struck Tafari again.

Tafari did not grunt. He did not cry. He closed his eyes and took the beating. he was glad when his body went numb. he was glad when his mind slipped from that which was around him. he was glad when he saw images of the rolling plains of Ife, a land he was not born into, a land he did not know, the homeland of his people.

Tafari breathed deep and died.

Balori cried. His face stretched with a frown. It would be a long time before he smiled again. From that day forward he merely worked without hassle, without passion, without notice as his captors commanded.

Though dead, Ghalib kept beating the young Tafari. Negkendra wrested the crop from Ghalib, saying, "He is dead. No further beatings will teach him a lesson, nor will any lesson be learned by those watching."

Ghalib spat at Negkendra then punched him and took the crop. "What would you do? Cuddle them into obeisance? They would turn on you."

Negkendra backed away, rubbing his face where he had been punched. He stared at Ghalib who said, "Go. You are not needed here any longer."

"That is for the Empress to say!"

"I will be responsible for your release," replied Ghalib. "Now go."

As negkendra left Ghalib, indeed as he left the country of the Bizo, Ghalib wished death upon him.

Leaving the lands of the Bizo, Negkendra thought of the words he had spoke to Shabar of demons and men. He reconsidered them.

Tafari dead, Ghalib ordered his small tusks removed and that the animal have a proper burial. The tusks were then taken to Albert the Alchemist who ground them into a fine powder to be used in his studies and to make healing salves for those ill with various disease.

Even in death, the elephant is giving.



Albert came to the farmlands outside the main city of the Bizo. There he visited his old friend Shabar.

Shabar's farm spread wide and his crops considerable. he had met and married a woman named Alia. She was pleasant and already with child. Albert looked on Shabar's home and lands and beautiful wife and smiled. "Life has been good to you," he said. "This pleases me."

Shabar thanked him and the alchemist was warmly welcome into their home for a long stay. After their first night's meal together, as the two friends sat watching Etain descend into the horizon and Kalavata chase after her, they chatted lightly. Albert then asked, "Shabar, old friend who is dear to us all, if I may so bold as to ask: why did you leave the side of our Eternal Empress?"

"I have given my reasons," said Shabar.

Albert shook his head. "Perhaps, but none that were sufficient. I suspect other reasons."

Shabar sighed. He did not want to answer with the truth. indeed, he had not thought of the Elephant Crusade for some time until Albert came for a visit. He feared he did not do the right thing by keeping the truth of the atrocities he had witnessed from the Empress and from Albert and the Bizoans. Instead of answering, Shabar asked, "How goes the building of the tower?"

"It goes well," answered Albert.

"Have you been to see the progress?"

Albert said no, "Though I hear the reports when they come to the Empress."

Shabar looked at his old friend. "Go," said he, "look around for yourself. See the construction with your own eyes. It is, perhaps, in the best interests of the Empress."

Albert considered this.

The rest of his stay with Shabar was excellent. They enjoyed each others' company and Albert even helped in the fields with the daily work. He found the work relaxing compared to his thought-filled studies, though he was quite old and starting to cripple.

When Albert left Shabar's side, it was a sublime moment filled with sorrow for needing to leave mixed with happiness of having spent time with old friends. Both men were nearly moved to tears and Alia, though she had just met Albert, did cry. She hugged him and kissed him and invited him to visit any time he desired.

Shabar rode on horseback some ways as he started back towards the city. He said, "Friedn Albert, remember you my words your first night here?"

"My mind is old," admited Albert, "but not so old I cannot remember you suggesting I have a look at the tower myself. It seems a shame I have not as yet of my own volition. I will do so as soon as I return and see the Empress. Do you have any words for her?"

Shabar shook his head. "Only that I am still loyal and that I am happy, though, if you would, please tell the children I miss them greatly."

Shabar watched as Albert rode away, looking back over his shoulder every so often to wave.

Albert returned to the Empress' side and reported all the good things he had seen at Shabar's farm. He told her of Shabar's professed loyalty. He told the children of Shabar's love for them. And on the next day he went forth to the site where the tower was being built.

There he saw elephants, many more than he could remember being ushered into the city. They worked intensely. All of them were weary with sad looks. The mahouts and other men that had been hired to help in the construction beat the elephants regularly. The elephants rarely gave a fuss over being beaten. They simply worked.

Some of the elephants were so worn and had been so beaten they worked even with open sores bleeding and leaking with puss. Dust clogged their massive eyes and trunks. They were slow, but they were strong and diligent.

As Albert looked at the wicked site before him, he knew the reasons behind Shabar's resignation. He whisper, "Old friend, I do not blame you. What have we done?"

The alchemist did not sleep for six nights and on the sixth night he stole into the compound where the elephants were caged at night. he brought with him two elixirs. he found the cage of an elephant, the largest elephant he could find. he knew none of them from the other, but the elephant he had chosen was the first elephant born into Bizoan captivity. He had unknowingly chosen Balori who had grown to immense size, larger even than any of the other elephants.

Frightened, Albert struggled to unwind the thick hemp ropes that tied the cage closed. Balori, also afraid, backed away into a corner of the cage. he did not know this man and his appearance at night was not a routine visit. He feared being beaten.

Albert opened the cage. He said softly, "Do not be afraid. I am Albert, a friend. I am not here to hurt you. I am here to help you."

Balori remained wary, but allowed the man to touch his ear. Soothing Nalori, Albert said, "Here, drink this first." He fed Balori a vial of Dancing Water. Balori enjoyed the taste of the elixir for he rarely was allowed enough water and was perpetually dehydrated. Balori was now a Gifted One, immortal and incapable of death except by the hands of another Gifted One or god.

The second elixir was some of the very elixir he had fed Fei Li Mi to give him intelligence. Balori grew, rattling his cage, to stand upon his hind legs as a man might. His Chest heaved and became muscular. His front legs became strong arms with hands like a man's, though cover with thick, gray skin. he also grew capable of speech. Afraid of the change, afraid of the new thing that was not a part of his daily routine, afraid that if the mahout called Ghalib found him he would be beaten severely, Balori cried out and ran into the night.

"No! Wait!" cried Albert after him, but he could not catch the large elephant. When he heard the mahouts rousing and awake, Albert ran for the safety of the Empress' palace and hid there the rest of the night.

Quite a commotion was given about the escaped elephant. The next day Ghalib put a price on Balori's head and many men, hunters and otherwise, set out to find the runaway elephant and claim the prize money.

Three more sleepless nights passed for Albert. he grew sick with worry. He did not teach the children in teh day and the Empress forgave him for his illness. She commanded he take a few days for himself to rest.

As the night set on the Bizoans, Albert wandered into nearby woods along the river. There he heard a sound and discovered it to be Balori, hiding and afraid. "Old man," called Balori. "What have you made of me?"

"Oh, Balori," said Albert softly as he approached. he now knew the elephants name due to the hunt. "How I've worried about you."

"Why did you do this? If the mahout finds me he will beat me."

"No," said Albert. "They seek to do worse. They now wish you dead."

"Why did you do this?" raged the elephant. Birds lifted into the air at the sound of his bellow. "It would seem I've not only acquired man's gift of speech but also his temper."

"I did this," explained Albert, "because I saw your people suffering so much. Though many speak highly of my wisdom, there are few things I can do. I mixed you two elixirs, one to make you immortal and the other to give you the gifts of man. I thought a hero was needed for your people and I cannot be that one. I hoped your new gifts would help you."

"I would rather not have them," growled Balori. "I would rather be safe in my cage."

"I'm sorry," apologized Albert.

"Now that I am like a man, what would you have me do?" asked balori.

"I do not know. I was hoping you may figure things out."

"You are an idiot," cursed the elephant.

Albert nodded. "Indeed, I am."

"I am no happier with the condition of my people than you. But what am I to do? I do not even know who does this to us but many men and one master called Ghalib."

"He is head of the mahouts, but not the master. the one who orders you your work is my empress, Sulia Laree."

Balori considered this. "Well, I now have the gift of speech. Perhaps I should simply ask her to cease this atrocity."

"No,no! You would be killed instantly! Men everywhere are looking for you!"

Balori stood, towering high over the small, old alchemist, towering even over the nearby trees of the woods. "Let them look. What can they do? I am stronger and now have their gifts, including their gift of hatred. I will crush anyone that crosses my path to your Empress."

"Please," begged Albert. "Too many have suffered. Reconsider things. I've an idea. I'll return with a rope and you can place it about your neck as though I've captured you. I will then lead you safely into the palace where you can speak with the Empress."

Balori grunted. "Very well."

And so it was done the following noonday. People whispered at the power Albert must possess to have wrangled the changed beast without harm to himself or the elephant.

Albert lead Balori before the Empress, who shook with fear at teh creature.

"Dear Empress," spoke Balori. "I am Balori Shongoyo, one of your elephants working to build you your tower. I come before you to beseech you to free my people. They are treated horribly and wish no harm to you or any creature."

"How did you become as this?" asked the Empress.

Baloir looked at Albert.

The Empress also looked at him. "Did you do this, Albert? Did you make his as you made Fei Li Mi?"

Albert nodded. "I saw the great pains the elephants were living with. I knew your heart to be too big to allow it to continue, but you could not know it was happening for, like I, you have never visited the construction site."

"Haven't I?" asked the Empress. "Perhaps I have. But no matter, would you suggest the life of a mere dumb creature weighs more heavily than the memory of my late husband, a man that all of Bizo still loves and speaks of often?"

Balori huffed at the insult. "We are not dumb animals!"

"Then why would you allow your capture?" retorted the Empress. "Because your hearts are so big? I mock that fable. You are stupid creatures and deserve no better than men, let alone equality. Now shut up, we are speaking." she turned to look at Albert.

Balori grunted angrily.

Fei Li Mi, who was standing nearby, lowered his guandao in warning.

"Attack me, fish." Balori challenged. "Attack and I'll snap you in half and fry you to feed my people." Balori could feel the power of hatred flowing through him. he so desperately wanted to fight the fish, the Empress, Ghalib and even Albert. But he remained silent as Albert spoke.

"Empress," said the alchemist, "you cannot tell me you advocate Ghalib and his ways. They are ugly ways."

"And you cannot place a beast before a man, even a dead one," challenged the Empress. "However, I wish to be known as a fair ruler. Creature, whatever your name be, my children have never known a world with stars. I will release your people from bondage if, and only if, you can restore the stars to nighttime sky."

"The what?" Balori asked. he did not know what she spoke of for he had been born into a world without the stars and had never heard them spoken of before.

The Empress laughed. "That is the agreement. Go, let this creature pass safely. call off Ghalib's hunt and prize. If this creature can restore the stars to the Heavens, his people can be released."

"I do not know of what you speak," said Balori, "but I will do whatever it takes to see my people freed from your abuse." he lifted the rope from his neck and walked from the palace.

Albert, disgusted, spat at the Empress. "You are an ugly woman," he said.

The Empress nodded to Fei Li Mi who charged, swiftly flying, his guandao extended and piercing the gut of the alchemist. He then pulled the blades sideways and sliced his stomach open, releasing his bowels, allowing them to fall onto the floor.

Albert fell dead.

Fei Li Mi then turned to the Empress. "Empress," he nearly hissed. "Why do you charge this beast with the stars? I am the protector of the children, I should therefore be the one to take on such a task."

The Empress sighed. "You are quite the jealous creature," she said. "If that is what you wish, very well then. I doubt this elephant could return the stars to us, but in the chance he could, then perhaps you should also be on the task. Return the stars to the Heaven before this elephant and I will not have to release his people. Return them for my children and I will wash you with praise and glory."

Fei Li Mi smiled as he flew from the palace of the Eternal Empress.



The kingdom to the south of the Plain of Adoration filled with prostitutes and opium dens. Women were captured and sold as pleasure slaves. Men were enticed into submission through narcotics. Anyone that challenged or spoke ill of the Weasel King was ferreted out and placed in cages hung high where the offender was starved to death before the eyes of the public. Those turning in anyone speaking ill of the Weasel King was paid handsomely in coin and opium and, if they wanted, women.

Raiju Yu sent forth his men and weasels for days on end to search for the former king called Aniabas, but they could find no trace of him.

Hidden deep within tumulus filled with an intricate maze of passages was the former king. The weasels had searched for him here, but so confusing was the underground tunnels that they could barely find their way out.

With Aniabas was his general, Vitor, and several of his men and loyal subjects.

"We must return to the town and fight for our king's rightful throne," demanded Vitor amidst a heated argument.

"No," said one of the other men, "we will all be killed, including the king. And his would not be an easy execution."

"We cannot reclaim the throne from the grave," said Vitor.

"We will not," said Aniabas. "We will reclaim it from a revolt in teh streets. Surely the people fear this Weasel King. The few men we have sent into the city tell us of his terrors."

"This is true," agreed one of the soldiers that had been sent to spy in teh streets.

"We must hide, but not here," said Aniabas. "We will hide in plain view. We will enter the streets as scoundrels and create a network of those loyal to me and, when the time is ripe, attack the castle and kill the Weasel King."

Vitor shook his head. "This all sounds quite impossible."

"Would you rather live to your dying days in this grave?" asked Aniabas.

Vitor said he would not. "But how would we disguise ourselves. Perhaps the rest could pass as simple peasants, but you and I would be recognized immediately."

"This is true. But our men have said the sick walk the streets with the rest of the people. That gives us our disguise. We must scar ourselves," explained the former king.

Aniabas commanded Vitor produce his knife and, with great care, the former general sliced at his king's face until he was nearly unrecognizable. When the wounds healed over, producing incredibly ugly welts and disfigurements so not their own mothers would recognize them, they donned the blankets of the sick, practiced their coughs and hoarse voices and entered into the town as lepers.


That's the end of Act 2. It was a long one! But I hope you enjoyed it. Check back next Friday, July 18th for the third and final act of "The Elephant Crusade"!