The convoy slowly makes its way across the wasteland.
The edge of the contaminated zone is just a few hundred meters away. There, wispy fumes rise up from the black, cracked ground, reflecting the fuzzy starlight. A few crooked, leafless trees dot the slopes of the hills, here and there. Small critters flit from one to the next, hiding in their roots and peering furtively in our direction, their small eyes glowing brightly in the darkness. Every now and then, the wind rattles the carriage’s windows, and airborne sand scrapes against the walls and roof.
Since any normal animal would quickly die in the Frontline’s environment, an earth golem pulls the carriage instead. A rhythmic, regular pounding shakes the floor and resonates with a dull thud each time it takes a slow, ponderous step. The sound of the golem’s footsteps is the only thing breaking the silence inside the carriage, apart from the quiet breathing of its occupants.
So deep into the night, most of the passengers are sleeping, but even then, the atmosphere is filled with tension. Everyone here knows that an attack could come at any moment, so people can only sleep very lightly, nerves tight and ready.
As for me, I’m still awake, reclining deep into my seat, my gaze idly roving over the blasted landscape beyond the sealed, airtight window.
…Most people find the Frontline ugly, or even terrifying.
And most people are right, as it happens.
It is a bleak, dusty, dead place where countless monsters roam.
Maybe someone like Akasha would like it, but for the rest of us who aren’t quite as crazy, it isn’t a very nice vacation spot, to say the least.
When everything goes well about it, crossing the Frontline can actually be quite boring. Since the air itself is poisoned, exiting the carriage is forbidden, and the only distraction is watching the landscape go by or counting the footsteps of the golems. There really isn’t much to do. There is not enough room aboard to hope for privacy, so it’s not even possible to find a pretty girl and spend the length of the trip having fun together.
Only sometimes, one of the mutated monsters that wander around this devastated wasteland gets too close to the convoy and triggers the golems’ defensive orders, and the boredom is abruptly relieved.
Even then, it rarely goes beyond a simple skirmish, because the golems are pretty strong bastards and the worst monsters live deeper into the Frontline, toward pockets of heavier radiation than that of the channel the convoys go through.
And yet, danger is still present, despite that. If the carriage is somehow breached or its life-support magic formations – air purifiers and such – are damaged, there is a good chance that the people inside will die if their cultivation rank is too low or their bodies are unable to resist the outside conditions. Even if they don’t die on the spot, by the time the victims can be rescued by the rest of the caravan, the radiation will have seeped into their bodies, and by then, their fates will pretty much be sealed.
But the number one thing making travel such a chore, is that not just animals change and transform unpredictably.
The landscape itself will sometimes change. Although the example might be a bit exaggerated, it is said that on the Frontline, a cliff today could have been a sea yesterday and could be a desert tomorrow. The convoy does its best to only take relatively stable paths, where the radiation is at its weakest and mutations will rarely occur, but it sometimes happens that the way will suddenly be blocked by a steep mountain that very much wasn’t there last year or something like that.
Additionally, it’s pretty much impossible to keep any sort of schedule. Simply judging by the size of the geographical area the Frontline covers, a trip through it should take a little less than a week, but in practice, it’s almost never the case, and the timetable varies wildly. The whole journey could seem to last only a few hours, subjectively, but upon arriving in majin territory, one could actually find that a few months have already passed since one’s departure from Lamos.
All in all, one does not simply walk into the Frontline.
There, reality warps and twists unpredictably.
Extensive preparations and a very competent and experienced crew are necessary for a safe – safer, at least – journey.
Which resources our current expedition fortunately enjoys…
It wasn’t difficult for me to sneak into one of the human cities bordering the Frontline, and then, using some of my old contacts in Lamos, it was just as trivial to get myself a spot in a caravan embarking for majin territory, even taking into account the more stringent security checks put in place by the humans after that enormous explosion incinerated half their country. Since there is never a whole lot of traffic going on between the continents, even at the best of times, I had to wait a while for a caravan to come up, but it eventually came, and off I went, and here I am now, waiting passively for us to arrive at our destination…
I let out a sigh and turn my gaze to the sleeping passengers sharing this carriage with me. I know there are a few humans in the other carriages, but everyone in this one is a majin. Almost all are oni, except for one tenjin, who keeps complaining that the seats aren’t accommodating enough for people with wings on their backs, and me, who everyone believes to be an elf.
From what I gleaned by eavesdropping on their conversations, a few of these people are employees of a human merchant riding on one of the other carriages and are supposed to act as intermediaries to ease his business with the local majin on the other side of the Frontline, who might not necessarily be well disposed toward trade with humans. The other passengers are simple civilians scared off by rumors of war and quickly returning to a more welcoming territory before the frontiers end up completely closed off. Some of them had already built stable lives in human territory, but have nonetheless decided that surviving was more urgent than keeping their worldly possessions, for which decision I can hardly fault them.
Still, those sorts of circumstances did make for quite the dreary mood when the passengers recounted them to each other during the early days of the journey…
I turn back to my window and look pensively at the overcast sky.
Everyone here has a clear reason to head into majin territory.
Except for me.
I still have no idea what I should do. I don’t have a precise goal at all. All I want to do, is put some distance between me and anyone who might fancy the idea of putting me back in the Planar Prison.
But there isn’t really anyone who’d welcome my return among the majin, either. It’s not like I’ve got friends or family who might be waiting for me. I do know of a few people who might be very interested to hear I’ve escaped the Planar Prison, but they certainly wouldn’t qualify as friends, per se.
But even that was in the past…
Now, I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear they’re enemies.
There is no way I can go back to them, anyway.
I don’t want to die, just yet.
Should I really just retire to the countryside and lead a peaceful life?
Even then, I’d need to be careful. With my appearance, I’m bound to attract attention, no matter where I go or what I do, so I’d need to stay in a rather remote location, in order to avoid having the wrong ears catch wind of my existence.
Am I going to have to spend the rest of my life as a hermit?
Maybe I should have just followed Akasha. It would probably have been dangerous, but she would have drawn most of the fire to herself by simple virtue of having white hair and glowing red eyes. No one would have noticed the elf hiding in her shadow, and I might just have been able to scrape by like this.
Well, it’s a bit late to regret my decision, now…
I suppose I’ll just wander around for a while.
It won’t exactly be the first time I live so aimlessly, anyway.
Sighing once more, I close my eyes and force myself to discard my train of thoughts.
Soon, I drift off to sleep.
I’m woken up when the pounding footsteps of the golems suddenly become faster, my rest light enough to detect the change in their rhythm.
When I open my eyes, the scene that greets me through the window is that of a strange, malformed creature approaching the convoy, the rising sun illuminating its form as it skitters across the ground atop a dozen multi-jointed legs. It looks vaguely – very vaguely – like a lobster, crossed with a rat and an octopus, with a touch of centipede to round things up. It looks disgusting. Half a dozen eyes are looking in every direction from their vantage points on top of long, flexible stalks. Sharp pincers open and close, seemingly in anticipation of their next victim.
Three earth golems are moving to intercept, their feet stomping and shaking the ground, their arms swinging back and forth to help balance their large, cumbersome bodies.
After accompanying Akasha for three weeks, they look so clumsy to my eyes that I almost want to laugh out loud.
But I know I couldn’t win against them, either, even though they look slow and ponderous. I would be crushed into paste during the first exchange. Also, laughing in that kind of situation would make me look completely insane to my fellow passengers.
So I refrain.
The confrontation between the golems and the nameless, squirming, mutated monstrosity is brief and violent. Slimy tentacles entangle the golems, who simply power through with sheer momentum. The contenders collide, and pincers meet stone fists. Flecks of rock fly off the golems’ limbs as their ‘skin’ is torn. The lobster doesn’t appear to have been injured, but responding to the attacks of one golem allowed the other two to encircle it. One raises its heavy fists above its head, then brings them down onto the lobster’s back.
The impact is explosive and shakes the windows of the carriage, drawing breathless gasps and frightening squeals from the people around me. An oni with teary eyes is hugging her child, covering his ears so that he won’t hear the noise of the battle outside.
The lobster squirms painfully, half its body buried in the ground. I’m too far to estimate the damage its carapace received, but the foul beast has clearly been injured. Even as the golems continue pummeling it with all their strength, it seemingly realizes that the convoy isn’t the easy target it was hoping for and tries to escape. It scrambles around the thick legs of the golems, receiving a few more blows upon its back – those visibly break through its carapace – before it finally manages to escape.
When they see the monster disappear back into the distance with its tail between its legs, the passengers next to me cheer and smile.
I don’t share their enthusiasm.
I know for a fact that this ugly creature was one of the weakest things in the Frontline. I’ve seen others that could rip golems apart with a single swipe of whatever appendages they were equipped with.
My fellow travellers’ newfound confidence is unfortunately unjustified.
I close my eyes again and let the sounds of merriment lull me back to sleep.
This expedition ends up being one of the most successful I’ve seen.
Luck was really on our side.
After the lobster’s attack, there were no more incidents, and we reached Elphen – the Gate City, as it’s commonly called – after only a few more uneventful days of travel.
Upon disembarking, I take in a deep breath of fresh air and look around at the bustling crowd of majin around me and at the city itself. The architecture of majin cities can sometimes be a bit strange, since it’s rather difficult to cater to the needs of species with wildly different characteristics, but due its proximity to human territory, Elphen has been heavily influenced by human architecture and culture. Ignoring the people with horns and tails and wings and things walking in the streets, it could almost pass for a human city itself.
After another tedious round of inspections scarcely less stringent than those I was subjected to in Lamos, I’m finally free to go where I want.
So, with all appropriate haste, I separate from the convoy’s people and head into a bar, whereupon I flirt with the waitresses and get drunk enough that all the questions about what I should do with my life now finally fade into a haze.
October 5th, 2016:
Changelog after proofreading parts 1 + 2 + 3