Ajak Articles; Ajak Rising — by Shastikiver
Chapter One: Into the Dragon’s Mouth
Ajak investigated the Chubb-Zantium dwelling with great disgust, but greater was his curiosity, pushing him onward through this habitat hewn from solid rock and fashioned to accommodate something many times his size. Vile things littered the dank, trodden dirt floor. Shadows leapt from wall-mounted torches over gleams of armor and animal carcass exuding pungent odors. It would seem this abysmal abode was everything a Hiron dwelling was not. The half-eaten animal remnants were particularly repulsive to a vegan such as Ajak and these claustrophobic confines were the antithesis of his Pellifore home where sparkling botanical purity flourished.
As intimately familiar as he was with the botanical richness of his homeland forests, Ajak was yet to discover that Pellifore was not simply verdant. It was organically endowed with a symbiotic richness and synchronicity rare in the universe.
But there, in the Zantium Desert in the bowels of the Chubb-Zantium City of Poge, southwest of the Great Korbon Wall, everything appeared... burnt, dusty and void of life. A series of caves it was, one after the other, lining the walls of the canyon. Some caves next to each other, some on top of each other and others wherever they could be excavated. Ceilings were unnaturally high to accommodate unnaturally tall bodies with unnaturally huge heads and what passed for creature comfort, was bludgeoned from rock and earth.
Ajak came to a large, flat rock over which animal skin had been drawn tight. He shuddered and moved on. He then came to a bulky stone platform and lifting himself up he examined its contents. There, scattered across the top, he saw what appeared to be Chubb weapons and stone implements for eating and drinking. He saw a stone bowl half-full of thick green liquid which emanated an odor much like rotting leaves. And to one side, chewed meat dangled from animal bones, their tattered shreds dancing with busy insects devouring the last nasty morsels. Then, his eyes fell upon the object of his quest… There it was, lying there still where he had discovered it on his last adventure over the Korbon Wall. The creature which lived in this place could not have made this object; it was tiny and polished, gray and oval it was with one flat side, the size of Ajak’s hand, much too precise for Chubb fingers. His eye's grew wide with excitement and his heart pounded, as he lifted the curious object, rolling it over in his hands. So smooth and finished it was. He had never seen the likes of this strange work before. Its artisan must have been foremost among his colleagues, he thought.
As Ajak marveled at it, turning it over in his hands, he discovered a series of tiny notches upon the side and traced his fingers along their elegant contours. The object suddenly lit up and he recoiled, sucking in a breath and glancing about. When he had confirmed he had not yet been discovered he returned his attention to the object. The strange device shimmered as if tiny keesy bugs had crawled into its skin. Then, another series of buttons with strange luminous symbols presented themselves. There, in the shadows of the cave, it occurred to him that he had somehow seen these symbols before. Somewhere, in some distant past, he had become associated with their meaning. His lips took shape, urged by a deep, hidden recollection.
“One, two, tree,” he whispered. And again, “One, two, tree,” he repeated. Then, something awakened from hidden memory, a memory long buried beneath the years. His skin tingled as he took a stick from the platform and with quick little strokes he scratched the symbols into the soft wall of the dwelling… one, two, tree. He stared at his own scrawling in amazement. Somehow he recognized these symbols, but what did they mean? He poked again at the buttons on the object with new wonder. Suddenly, the object began blinking wildly and uttering a soft beeping.
From the distant recesses of a nearby corridor the scuffling of immense feet broke the still atmosphere. Ajak fumbled feverishly with the object but was unable to stop it from beeping. In hast, he whisked it back to its former resting place. Though it had stopped beeping, it was still blinking. He leaped from the platform to the floor and over to where he had entered and stood for an instant, glancing back at his dusty footprints… no time to mask them.
He reached for his peeler vine at his side and stroked the living vegetation with his palms, gauging its vitality, assessing its strength. Then he began humming. A low musical tone floated gently upon the air and then another tone from his throat, this one crossed with the first and in the true Hiron way, the tones came together, creating a third oscillation, the center tone, the tone to which all Pelliforian botanical life responded. The vine trembled and then shot upward, fastening itself to the air hole in the top of the cave. The other end of the vine clutched Ajak's middle and hoisted him up through the air hole and he vanished like a dusty ghost.
In that same moment a shadow loomed into the cave. One enormous club-like foot entered with a thoom! followed by another and then, yet a third limb. With a, Thoo Thoomm, Wellek, Chubb-Zantium Warrior, Third Level, entered his dwelling with a suspicious air. Like tree stumps, his three giant legs thrust his frame forward in uneven lurches, while about his middle, dangling folds of hardened plate-like skin clacked together with the sound of dry bones. His bulbous head, supported by an indiscernible neck passed just under the air vent which had spirited Ajak away. A pale intrusion of blue daylight illuminated the creature’s shiny skull, crowned with broad nostrils situated at the sides of his head. In his hand, he carried a long spear-like weapon and about his waist a leathery belt with many holsters containing weapons for stabbing, cutting and pounding.
Wellek was sure he had heard something, a bird? After a brief inspection, there seemed nothing unusual. He went to the rock platform and began sniffing for something to eat. Lifting a stone bowl, he sucked down its contents and tossed it to the floor. He then snatched the half-eaten animal and threw it down his throat, insects and all. Then, swiping the table clutter aside he heaved his weapon belt jangling and clanging across the platform. Wellek leaned back on his middle leg nurturing a spot of gas. As his mind slowly settled something occurred to him. In his sniffing, he seemed to have sniffed something odd, something thin, something sweet. It seemed a smell he had encountered before. Rocking himself on his middle leg, he pondered this smell, searching for meaning.
Ajak was as silent as a Hirocaster as he sped through the rocky tomb out to where he could breathe fresh air again.
In the corner of Wellek’s eye, a tiny blink came to his attention. Then, he discovered it, his prize, the one he had found... it had been moved!… again! This time he was sure of it! He jumped up on all threes and clutched the little prize in his meaty palms, the red light steadily flashing. With a forceful grunt, he searched his dwelling with new commitment. He found the writing on the wall and then footprints. He sniffed them, tracing them to where they stopped under the air hole in the ceiling. That smell, a vague remembrance, something from long ago, which alarmed him. Wellek let out a loud guttural gargle and the scales on his neck popped out like fish gills. Hurrying over to the corner where the horn of a great beast hung from the ceiling, he wrapped his stiff lips around the mouthpiece and filled his lungs to capacity and blew… “BAAAOOOOO”, and again… BAAAOOOOO,” it rang out against the walls of the canyon. The City of Poge answered as Chubb-Zantium warriors spewed forth from every rocky orifice, barking, wailing in a flurry of torches with the raucous clanging of weapons singing above the din. Soon the place of meeting in the middle of the city called… ‘the Koch’ teemed with Chubb bodies trampling the hard-pan canyon floor. Somehow they managed to organize in rows, facing a tall rock-hewn platform at the west edge of the Koch... and they waited, restless and snorting, watching intently the cave near the Koch platform. An ominous dark figure emerged from a cave near the Koch. It stretched an authoritative stretch before lumbered out onto the platform. Amazzer, Sharr of the city of Poge stood before them. “Report!” he growled in the caustic Chubb-Zantium vernacular as he examined his troops.
Slapping his arms to his sides in warrior custom, Wellek dutifully reported, “Wellek, Chubb-Zantium Warrior, Third Level.” he announced. “Intruders! Sharr, Amazzer. They’ve entered the City as far as my dwelling, permission to approach Sharr?” “Approach!” granted the Sharr with a keen interest as to why and how an intruder breached the City of Poge.
Wellek approached and held out a fistful of dry dirt, explaining, “It stinks of intruder. I think this intruder is one of the Sky Ones.”
The Sharr extended a three fingered claw as Wellek sifted the dirt into his palm and then fell back in line. The Sharr, lifted the dirt and sucked it deeply into the nostrils at each side of his head. With a snort he then discharged the dirt, mixed with unspeakable Chubb fluids, from the sides of his head to the ground, where little mud cakes rolled in the powdered earth like dusty oysters. The Sharr’s eyelids widened exposing his beady red eyes buried deep in his skull. “Intruders!” he confirmed and in a hateful tone he added, “…the Sky Ones!”
Anger and blood-lust swelled among the ranks with a shouting and shrieking and stomping of feet.
The Sharr raised his beefy arms into the air and focused the troops energy. “Who will beat them?” he challenged.
Two Warriors stepped forward from the rest and presented themselves for the task. But but Wellek stepped in front of them and shoved them back, stealing their glory.
“I will beat them,” roared Wellek.
The two disrespected Warriors growled at Wellek’s back. Wellek jerked round to face them. The scales popped out at his neck as Wellek swelled up to full height, frightening in his presence. His challengers reluctantly returned to their positions spitting and snarling. And when Wellek saw that there were would be no others to take their place, he then turned to stand before the Sharr as the champion.
“I go,” Wellek uttered, pounding his chest with each word.
Having watched the encounter approvingly, the Sharr confirmed. “You go!” he proclaimed and then added, “Select one troop, kill the intruder.” With that the Sharr trusted that vengeance would be served and returned to his cave.
Poge erupted again in the dustbowl, beating on each other’s backs and clanging their weapons. This went on for long moments before the assembly dispersed.
Silently leaping from one to the next, Ajak traversed the smooth burnt-ivory colored cave tops, glowing under the watchful eyes of the three moons of Pellifore, Portose, Feegis, and Ryly, staring down from their dark blue sockets in the night sky. He reached the edge of the cave city and dashed into the flat lands. Passing between the last of the tall stone pillars, a flock of kitzy birds, startled from their nesting places, exploded in a cloud of white, squawking in anger at the intrusion. Down to the edge of the sands sped Ajak, his sinewy legs racing for safety, a ballet of speed and youthful agility. There was nothing else for that moment. No sight, no sound save his nimble feet sounding out a sandy cadence into which his mind followed. It was the pure balance of purpose, chemistry and physical motion.
The time came when Ajak felt the safety of distance and allowed his mind to settle, analyzing the data. This time, on this little covert adventure, he had been careless. It would seem that he had become complacent, invading the creature’s territory. This surprised him. He had always felt so sure of himself. Maybe that was the problem, he thought.
Ajak finally reached the place where he had stashed a large walking mungus plant of Pelliforian origin known as a katalak. Uncovering the katalak plant from the sand, he stroked its waxy leaves and its six rootstocks, assessing the remainder of its life force. Although he sensed that there would not be enough life for the breadth of the Zantium Desert, its remaining energy could carry him as far as the Koobel Oasis.
Then surprise. Behind him, in the distance, excited Chubb-Zantium cries grew audible. He dusted off the katalak, hopped onto its spine and using his larynx, he formed two individual tones. For this technique, he had paid dearly with years upon years of Hiron training. As he hummed these tones, he adjusted them ever so slightly, creating the desired oscillation. The katalak responded, jumping up on its rootstocks and speeding out across the sand like a giant crab, throwing an arc of sand behind them.
The dry desert wind filtered through Ajak’s long yellow locks as the katalaks' legs puffed along, muted by the rolling dunes. The light of the three moons defined the rolling blue dunes and lit the way to the edge of Pellifore Forest to the northeast.
As Ajak grew more confident that he had left his pursuers behind, he hummed and at his chest a patch of his fieldcoat leafed open. He reached in and pulled out a piece of dried fruit to chew on. Humming again, the flap of living fibrous material closed over again and sealed shut, leaving no seam. After popping the fruit into his mouth, he unleashed a water-reed from his belt and broke open the top. The cool water trickled slowly into his mouth and down his throat as the horizon bobbed with the katalak’s undulations. Hirons never allow themselves to see the beauty of the desert, he thought. The desert was a fear-inspiring place to them. But the desert had never bothered Ajak and he wondered why. The Hirons sometimes called him a, ‘Human’ but he did not know what a ‘Human’ was.
The night birds challenge one another, falling without weight, then thrusting again up against the wind. The failing katalak stumbled and Ajak bounced to the edge of one of its leaves. Its balance now disturbed, the katalak toppled and sent Ajak sprawling forward. In mid-air-anticipation he clutched a leg of the katalak, tucked and rolled and kept right on rolling onto his feet and into a full run, pulling the spent katalak after him. The plant’s vitality had lasted longer than he had expected but he now faced the drudgery of carting it to the oasis. He would need it alive if he were to outrun his predators.
Ajak turned round, running backwards, searching. There were torches on the horizon. Chubbs could make good time on the desert. Their three stout legs, each equipped with flat-bottomed leathery feet were exceptional for trekking the sands. He faced forward again, picking up his pace as the treetops at Koobel Oasis came peeking over the dunes.
The Koobel was a small oasis with only a few tall palm-like trees. A thicket of underbrush extended from its middle out to a sandy perimeter and with circular depression of dark turf at its middle.
Ajak came upon the oasis and felt cooler sod under his feet. When he reached the grassy depression he paused to catch his breath, but only for an instant. He then grew still and began humming the Hiron song of the trees. A gentle swaying began to overtake the palms as if caressed by a breeze. One tall willowy palm bent downward toward the depression. It elastic, fibrous trunk bore down on the tough of grass. Then, another tree and yet another joined in, arching gracefully down along side of the first, applying pressure.
Ajak hurled the katalak in the middle of the circle of grass and dropped to his knees, waiting for that familiar sound. And it came a moment later, swelling up from underground, as the grassy depression filled with the gurgling of water, moonlight waving from tiny ripples. Ajak crawled into the pool and sunk silently, face first, pulling the katalak under with him. Ajak’s body flashed with cool relief as the water penetrated his field-coat. Allowing himself only a moment of ecstasy, he stood up in the waist-deep pool, under the grandeur of a star-speckled sky. So beautiful, so much more expansive out here in the desert than in the forests of Pellifore, he thought again.
His mind returned to the present, calculating the katalak’s revival time or if it would be better to take to the desert now. But to Ajak’s dismay, this decision was made for him. The uneven three-footed thooming of the Chubbs sounded upon the night sand. They had made better time than expected.
Ajak reached out, clutched the crown of the largest palm tree and whistled. The community of palms swayed upright again to their former positions. There, from the topmost vantage point, Ajak’s sharp eyes discovered what he already knew to be true. It was a small troop of Chubbs, too near for his escape over sand with Human strides. Without the aid of the katalak they would capture him in the dunes. Somehow, he would have to survive until the katalak was replenished. He shimmied silently to the ground and melted into the underbrush between three tree trunks near the pool and the katalak. He sang a Hiron song and the surrounding foliage obeyed, grouping together, converging on every square inch of his body. He took a deep breath and poised himself.
“Front!” Wellek shouted in the gnarled Chubb language.
A trooper broke from the pack and labored ahead. Shuffling up through the weedy oasis he scouted the area, thrusting his strike-rod into bushes and trees as he passed. He progressed, pulling up shrubs and tossing them over his shoulder, Ajak could make out his smooth head in the cold blue moonlight. Finally, the Chubb waved in the rest of the troop. “Perimeter!” barked Wellek.
Several troopers took positions at the edges of the oasis as Wellek made his way to the circle of water. The smell of fresh water reached Wellek’s keen olfactory system well before his small inefficient Chubb eyes could actually see it. He lowering his massive head to the pool.
He sniffed, “Ug!...” he uttered.
Something sweet also road the air. Then, Wellek noticed something bobbing just below the water’s surface. He reached in and fished out the katalak. His face scrunched at the slippery vegetation. With distain he tossed it over his shoulder. A soggy splotch was heard as it flopped down just out of Ajak’s reach.
Wellek’s mind turned in that familiar slow burn. Something was different. The smell… it was coming to him. ‘He’ had been here, the Sky One had been here. His anger flared as he replayed the intrusion into his cave, the odd markings on the wall, the smells. The nerve of this brazened little insect!
Fumish, Wellek’s second in command, approached. “He’s gone to the forests. He is too far away. We’ll go back now?”
Wellek turned on Fumish in a rage. “I say when we go!” he roared and gripped Fumish by his solid shoulders.
Wellek charged forward, toppling Fumish with a resounding thud. And when the pupils of Fumish’s eyes focused again. Wellek breathed into his face.
“You afraid of forest? Then I give you forest,” Wellek spat. He rose up and barked orders to his subordinates. “Boondun, Fleesh, Stevenor, Beelee,” he commanded. Four of his troopers assemble before him and he turned to Fumish with an evil grin. “Go find intruder in the forest,” he ordered, in low determined tones.
Ajak could not understand Chubb-Zantium language but could only guess that the four had been dispatched to search for him. One Chubb would be frightful enough to deal with, but still, two remained. From what Ajak could see, the katalak had been removed from the water too early. That plant was his only hope of outrunning them on the sands. Somehow he would have to get it back into the water a while longer. He huddled… waiting.
After the Chubb troop departed for the forest, the remaining ones took up positions near the perimeters of the oasis. Wellek watched his troopers disappear into the dunes and then allowed himself a long luxurious drink of water.
Ajak recognized his moment. He crept imperceptibly forward under the leaves nearer the drooping katalak and hummed a pitch. One of the katalak’s sturdier leaves lifted a clump of dirt and tossed it across the oasis. With the clack of scales and ping of metal the troops jumped to their feet.
“On point!” screeched Wellek, yanking a trooper toward the noise and shoving another in the opposite direction. Stabbing and ripping with their iron strike-rods they went searching the bushes. Vines and leave thrust up into the air.
During the commotion Ajak altered his pitch and the katalak scurried, undetected back into the pool and sunk beneath the surface soaking in the replenishing liquid.
To this day, Ajak had been able to outsmart the clumsy, slow minded Chubbs with ease. But this one, the one who had the object, in him Ajak sensed a troublesome determination. The rules of engagement were changing. This was no longer a game. For the first time, Ajak began to worry whether he could escape them. He readied himself as Wellek drew nearer, pummeling the underbrush.
Wellek choked back his repugnance for these sweet smelling bushed and greenery. But he would endure what he must to catch this vile little pest. This time he would catch the sweet stinky little intruder and peel the skin from his bones before the whole Koch assembly. Yes, he thought, the assembly. His thoughts began to turn on him, with the politics, the clever positioning of others. Every time he drew close to making Fourth Level something like this would happen. He truly felt that there was some cosmic god arranging the events of his life into a tragedy of errors for his own amusement. Resentment welled up in him, all the dedication, his training. Although many had tried, none had been able to defeat him in battle face to face. It was always politics, cowardly, behind-the-back politics. He grunted and swung down hard and leaves billowed into the air like feathers in the wind.
Ajak saw that he must either make his move or be discovered. Still as stone, he waiting as the Chubbs drew nearer. A light breeze swept the water where tiny bubbles broke the mirrored surface and dried the perspiration at Ajaks' neck. Then, Ajak knew he could wait no longer. He hummed low and the underbrush formed a small opening before him.
Wellek heard a rustle and cocked his head. “On point”, he bellowed.
Ajak dashed from the opening toward the pool. Wellek followed the peel of brush but in the moonlight his eyes saw only darkened outlines of something small, moving. Out of shear predator reflex he brought down his strike-rod. The rod grazed the side of a tree, sending a bolt of blue flame out into the desert. A hiss and then a ...Boom! Followed.
Ajak passed around Wellek and cut a straight line for the katalak. A trooper finally saw him and charged in from his right bringing his strike-rod down into Ajak’s path. Ajak dodged and tucked and rolled right between the Chubb’s stumpy legs. But the Chubb quickly turned and slashed down the strike-rod behind him. Ajak hit the rod with a metallic... “pop!” and was propelled backward onto the leafage.
Dazed, by the collision Ajak saw the trooper reached out and clutch him around his middle, lifting him up to his broad ruddy face. Wellek approached the trooper shouting something in Chubb. Ajak regained his senses to see Wellek coming, claws outstretched. Ajak reached for his field knife just as Wellek’s huge fingers enveloped him.
Wellek, at last, held his prey, the confounding, stinky little intruder. His ruddy cheeks wrinkled into what might be a grin. He sniffed the intruder and the grin widened, displaying rows of gnarly teeth in the pale moonlight. This was it? questioned Wellek, in his mind. Was this the intruder that had caused him all this grief? Assessing the size of his tiny opponent, he was disappointed. He gawked in disbelief at the tiny frail specimen as it stared back defiantly. Then… Wellek’s grin warped into a grimace. He screeched in pain and released the intruder. Wellek opened his paw to see a deep gash where Ajak had laid him open. Ajak hit the ground running, knife in hand and with three agile hops, dove under the surface of the pool.
Fuming, Wellek punched the nearby trooper in the chest and bolted after Ajak. Both Chubbs then leapt into the pool with a tremendous splash, throwing a crystalline curtain all about. The two Chubbs found themselves face down on the bottom, elbows sinking into mushy sod. They raised their gaze to see the intruder before them, perched atop a mungus katalak, humming a song. Wellek lunged for the katalak but it spewed wet weeds and mud as it dashed away. The Chubbs were clearing their eyes of debris as the slap of soggy katalak feet whisked up and over the top of the oasis and disappeared out into the desert.
Ajak hummed support for the katalak, infusing its sinewy fibers with urgency. Speed was more important than longevity now. The distance between he and the oasis grew, as did the frustrated wails of the Chubbs behind him. Ajak found his heart pounding and his breath heavy. This was not what he had planned. The last time they had given chase, he had them wandering in sandy circles, as he taunted them. He had become quite adept at escaping their languid efforts. But he recognized his lapse in judgment. These Chubbs had been sufficiently riled to commitment. He resolved not to make that same mistake.
Amid the moonlit dunes he saw the tracks of the four who had been sent ahead, shadows defining subtle gashes and pocks in desert skin. He adjusted his path to suite.
Toward morning, Ajak felt the katalak stumble for the last time and then collapse. He rolled with it, on up into a full run. This time he left the katalak behind. He knew it was finished. It had served him well. He could now see the outline of the forests of Pellifore cut black against the dark blue eastern sky. (story is copyrighted with the Library of Congress... 2001)