Short Stories

Crusader

The cricket’s nocturnal song was the only familiar sound giving them a hint of comfort as they waded through the swamp, cutting down the overgrown leaves and protruding roots upon their path. The moon’s bluish-grey glow made the foreign land seem more exotic than they had imagined, yet the sight of skeletons reaching out from the ground for help dispelled any notion that they were holidaying.

“How much further?” one of them, Mika, asked while he cleared a path for them.

“The signal came from the village. After the swamp, we’ll turn left, head down the Giant’s Steps and into the forest. We’ll cross a clearing with a water pump. That will be a landmark. After that, a bit more forest, and we’ll see some steps leading to the village,” another one, the one they fondly called Map, explained, his green hologram map glowing on top of his palm.

“And what did they say, exactly?” Greta, their airship captain asked, walking carefully behind them. Map took out the device and played the transmission:

“Base: we have succeeded in convincing the locals to surrender. We may need additional support.”

“They needed more people here,” Map said, “the locals had surrendered and seemed eager to learn of our culture.”

“In exchange for their lives,” Mika commented.

“Well, yes. But most importantly, it’s about them leaving that backward religion of theirs.”

“You mean the one that defined their way of life for millennia?” Greta asked, prompting Map to turn around.

‘“Look, it’s high time the Kikeero got on board. We’ve been patient enough with them. They have their homes, their way of life, but they cannot go back to that religion.”

“I get that it’s a destructive one, but it’s theirs,” Greta went on, unyielding. “How would you feel if someone flew up to Monali and forced you to abandon your way of life?”

“We have a duty to our fellow man, Greta. If you saw your neighbour jump off a cliff in the name of tradition, would you encourage it? Of course not! Besides, we cannot risk them…”

“We get it, Map,” Mika groaned, “they have to be stopped.”

Finally, they got to solid ground, after which Map stepped in front of Mika to lead the way while Greta walked up to Mika.

“Something feels weird about this,” she whispered.

“What does?”

“Why were we called? To spread the good news?’ What about the other expeditions sent here? My friends went on some of them weeks ago.”

“Nah, that’s the Kikeero for you. They’re fighters, so the more of us they see, the more inclined they will be to stand down.”

“Hmm, you’re probably right.”

“You haven’t been to this part of the world, have you?”

“No, I can’t say I have.”

“Over here!” Map screamed, pointing to a flight of stairs. They walked down about ten steps before Map stopped and pointed to his left.

“Can you imagine living with them here?” he asked. They gawked at the massive rectangular step that stood before them.

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“I’m really grateful we don’t live in those times,” Greta said.

“And if we get to those people in time, we won’t have to,” Map said. Mika was taken aback by this and placed his hand on Map’s heavily sweater-clad chest.

“What do you mean by that? I thought we were here to teach people stuff.”

“We are. If they want to be Outpost Citizens of Monali, they have to learn our way of lif”

“Now get to the truth,” Mika interrupted, his brow furrowed. Map sighed, took a seat and explained.

“These people are descendants of the first generation of men that lived here. They may not know exactly how, but they are versed in certain practices that were used to conjure up, well, otherworldly creatures.”

“Otherw… Come again?” Mika asked, his voice a pitch higher than usual.

“Greta, you know of this, don’t you?” Map asked her.

“I had heard of it, but since when has that ever been true?” she replied.

“It’s believed that those practices are what caused the Age of Man. And much as we are grateful for that, there was an entire race of people wiped out from the existence.”

“I know, the Musoli. Sad for them, but what about these creatures? I wasn’t told about that!”

“Of course, not. If I did, you wouldn’t have accompanied me and Greta on this trip. Anyway, there had been rumours that they had begun dabbling in those arts again, and we’re here to put an end to it, once and for all. We tried war, but they’re too fierce for us, so we tried diplomacy.”

“Deplete their resources to the point of starvation and preach to them with bread in your hands,” Greta quipped.

“Greta, I know you have your concerns…”

“My concerns are with people being killed slowly for minding their own business,” she went on, facing a seated Map.

“What you people are doing to them is wrong, and you know it. They were given the right to practise their faith freely, and here we are infringing on that very right. See, this is the problem I have with you snobs at the Council: believe what you want, as long as what you believe is what we want.”

“It’s a hard price to pay, but we are the leaders of these worlds for a reason. We can’t allow destructive cultures to reign.”

“Destructive!” Greta snapped, her hands on her head in disbelief.

“Who are they hurting, Map? Who?” 

“You don’t understand…”

“You haven’t finished. Otherworldly creatures?” Mika asked.

“It’s not who they’re hurting. It’s who they want to hurt us with,” Map stated solemnly as Greta and Mika looked at each other in confusion.

“What do you mean?” they asked in unison. Before Map could answer them, they saw a cloaked figure run up the steps. Mika stood at the ready, gun in hand as the others looked on.

“There you are!” the figure said as it lowered its hood and extended one of its hands to Mika. 

“Oh, my – Manda!” Greta squealed with delight as she hugged her friend.

“Captain, it’s good to see you,” Map said, shaking his hand.

“You too, sir. I can’t tell you how long we’ve waited for you guys,” he went on, smiling from ear to ear.

“Where are the others?” Mika asked, still unsure of the stranger before him.

“They’re resting. They gave enough blood for the sacrifice,” he spoke. The others stared at him in shock and disbelief right before he started laughing.

“Don’t joke about that,” Map said, holding his chest.

“Why are you dressed like that? Have you joined in their weird customs, too?” Greta asked while laughing.

“Oh, yes. In fact, I’m the visiting priest, here to conduct the ceremony,” he joked as they headed down the steps. Mika couldn’t help but stare at the larger ones on their left, imagining what it must have been like.

‘Thank you, Monaa, for saving us,’ he quietly said as they got off the steps and into a large clearing. Before them was a towering mountain that disappeared into the partly cloudy skies, at the foot of which people danced around a blazing bonfire.

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Image by Smim Bipi from Pixabay | FOR REPRESENTATION PURPOSES ONLY

“There we are,” Manda said, rushing to them.

“Wait, I thought we were headed for the village first,” Greta said.

“I thought so too,” Map added.

“Don’t you want to eat first?” he asked them, practically jogging there. Except for Map, the others kept up with him well enough to the scene of half-naked dancers gyrating about the fire, covered in golden tattoos from head to toe. Directly in front of them, on the other side of the flames was an old man, leaning on his crane for support.

“What is this?” Map asked, out of breath as he caught up to them. 

“The feast, of course,” Manda said. The dancers went on their merry-making ways as Map went to the elder.

“Sir, do you understand what I am saying?” he asked the man, whose wrinkled face looked up to Map and simply nodded. 

 Mika gently pulled Greta aside and whispered in her ear:

‘Seriously, where is everyone?’

‘Good question,’ she replied and went over to Manda, who seemed lost in his own thoughts.

“Manda, I think I want to see the others. Catch up with them,” she said, but he didn’t answer. Instead, he eerily fixed his gaze on Greta, smiling mechanically as he said.

“You’ll see them soon.”

Mika noticed the female dancers move closer to the fire as the male ones backed away, going around them consistently. 

“Manda, seriously, where is everyone?” Greta asked again, shaking her friend. He kept smiling at her, his eyes widening with every passing second before he spoke ominously.

“They needed strength.”

“What?”

“Wait, what did you say?” Map asked him. Manda’s gaze was enough for Mika to place his hand on his weapon. He couldn’t help but notice the dancer’s eyes lingering at him with every pass they made, almost as if they were examining him.

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“What do you mean by that?” Map went on. He turned to the elder, whose grey eyes were fixed on his own, now noticing that he had been tapping his cane on the ground. Mika on the other hand, nerves on edge and heart beating rapidly, simply stood with his hand on the gun. 

“Who needed strength?” Map demanded. “What do you mean by that? Who needed it?” 

Greta backed away from her seemingly catatonic friend to Mika, who simply said: “Something’s wrong.”

“Who needed it?” Map barked. Suddenly, the drumming stopped and the dancers stood still, much to everyone’s surprise. In an eerie fashion, they all looked at Mika first, then at Greta, then Map, and finally the old man, who was not standing, hunched over.

“Manda, what is going on?” Greta asked him. A tear escaped his wide eye, rolling down his plastic grin as he spoke.

“They ambushed us. All of them were captured, I didn’t have a choice.”

“What are you saying?” Mika asked, walking towards him, but the men took a step forward in unison, forcing him still. Manda then reached into the cloak, pulling out a beeping device.

“You sent the s -” Greta started, before realizing what he had done.

“I hope you can forgive me,” Manda said, the tears rolling freely now.

“They needed strength. It’s their time.”

“Oh, God. He lured us here,” Greta said, standing next to Mika.

“Map, get over here,” Mika said as Map went over to him. 

“It can’t be right.”

“What?”

“It seems too familiar. The dancers, the one to call them, the man who taps his cane…it can’t be.”

“Could you stop speaking in parables?”

“Sacrificial dance. For the ones underneath the earth, who lie in wait. Blood bound them, only blood will release them.”

“Release who?” Mika asked. Just then, all of them looked up. 

“What is happening?” Mika asked. 

“M – Mika,” Greta struggled to say as she pointed up. Mika looked in horror as the pair of glowing eyes stared down at them, hair flowing down the slopes of the mountain. It tilted its head from side to side, examining the trio before Manda pointed to it, saying: “They needed strength.”

Before he could fire a single shot, Mika was grabbed by the giant and split in half, the sound bones crunching in her teeth, making Map faint. Greta tried running away, but she was pinned down by the dancers. The giant quietly picked Map and swallowed him whole before peering down at Greta, its breath lashing like strong winds in her face.

“Please, Manda! Don’t…” she began, right before its finger landed on her head, crushing it and silencing her permanently before she was gobbled up. The old man then turned to Manda, who had sworn never to look it in the eye after he gave up all his friends to save his life.

“Just a few more, and they will be strong enough to rise again.”

“I understand,” Manda said, fidgeting on the device before sending out yet another signal:

“Base: we have succeeded in convincing the locals to surrender. We may need additional support.”

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