From the bones and loam in a remote elephant graveyard the Black Orophant rose as prophesized.
Young Edu, just five years old and one thousand pounds, his new white tusks gleaming in the light of the half moon, watched as another star fell from the sky. A shiver ran from the tip of his trunk to the soft padded bottom of his round foot. As his mother had told him, and as her mother had told her before – the Black Orophant would come to lead the herds when the stars forming the little gazelle in the sky cried fire.
It was the hour of need, Kula, the herd's matriarch, had said. Strange creatures, demons she called them, fell from the sky and crawled from the caldera lakes. She had dispatched Edu and the other young ones to the graveyards to await a sign from the Black Orophant.
Standing in the circular clearing in the trees among the curved rib cages and bleached bones half buried in the ground, Edu heard a sound – a powerful trumpet both dark and hopeful, the battle call of no elephant, yet the cry of every elephant at once. Then a rustling in the darkness. Slow, sure steps. Above, another silent shooting star crossed the sky. A hulking form, more massive than the largest male Edu had ever seen, stepped out of the dark into moonlight. Tall as a giraffe's shoulder; skin, tusks, toes, and eyes black as a starless sky; the Black Orophant, paying no mind to Edu, nudged the bones at the edge of the clearing.
Where dark tusk touched bone, a faint shimmer lingered. Flesh sprang from dust, forming muscle and skin around the ancient skeletons. In the shadows where the great black one first emerged, rough elephantine forms now lumbered.
The Black Orophant turned to Edu. A line of bumpy ridges like a croc's ran up his back and covered his head. Edu felt a tingle of fear in his spine. The Black Orophant smelt heavily of mulch and kind of like an elephant, but the elephants behind him smelt like nothing at all and this made Edu afraid.
"Do not fear us, though the time to be afraid has come," the Black Orophant said in a combination of gesture, breath and grunts.
"Who are they?" Edu asked, stepping away. Locusts crawled all over the Orophant's back.
"They are the elders of herds long gone."
"That doesn't make sense," Edu said.
"You are going to see much that doesn't make sense, young one, but I need you to go now. Tell the herds the Black Orophant has come. Azilba, Lord of Lions, must know I am here and our plan is ready. Tell her that Phoenix is coming. I must stay to wake the rest of our warriors from slumber."
Edu doubted Azilba of the Lions could be real, but here he stood in the presence of the Black Orophant and his herd. Things didn't make sense, but still he felt inspired.
The Black Orophant touched a bleached bone with his long curved tusks and another elephant rose as Edu ran from the graveyard.
Edu did not stop running as the morning sun burned away the night and the long shadows of the banyan trees that peppered the dry plains. A group of impala trotted towards a nearby watering hole. Small songbirds flitted by, filling the air with color and music.
"It would be nice to stop by the water," he thought, but he was almost to where the herd waited – the edge of their world, near the south barrier wall. It towered over the tallest of trees, an endless monolith of gray and white stretching out to the horizon.
Kula had taught him that men built the barrier wall long ago to keep the herds and the animals isolated and safe.
Edu stopped in his tracks. The breeze brought the smell of men and something oily to him. The impala bounded away, white undersides of their flicking tails revealed in warning. The songbirds went silent and landed in the trees. A tall white stork in the upper branches of a big banyan turned its slender neck, looking for danger. Edu walked up a grassy hill to look.
A creature like none he had seen before scuttled across the brush towards the stork resting in the big tree. Its diamond-shaped, crystalline body, perched atop four spidery legs, turned and rotated while it crawled. Gracefully balanced on the tapered tips of its legs, it moved over the dry brush and low grass noiselessly.
"This must be a demon," Edu thought. "This is what Kula warned me of."
The stork took flight with a disturbed squawk. Edu noticed three men hiding behind the big tree. In Edu's language there were no words for the body armor, big weapons, and power cells the men wore; but as he gazed upon them burdened with these things, he knew they looked bigger and bulkier than other men.
The demon neared the tree. Dozens of thin, fleshy, almost transparent tendrils snaked out of its crystalline body and waved in the air. Red flashes of light arced from their sparking tips, and sped to the banyan tree. The red light passed through the thick trunks as if they weren't there and engulfed the crouching men behind in flame. They slumped forward against the tree and the wind carried the stink of burnt flesh to Edu.
From behind him, another group of men appeared and fired on the demon. Crackling blue beams, like focused lightning, cracked over Edu and bounced off the demon's crystal body. Electricity crackled down its long legs, dissipating into the ground.
Legs planted, it rotated the top of its body. Red light raced at Edu from its tendril tips. He braced for pain but felt nothing as the beams passed through him. The firing from the men stopped and he turned to look. Gray and red smoke wafted from their slumped-over, lifeless forms.
"The red fire only hurts men. It passes right through trees and elephants," Edu thought.
The spidery demon scuttled halfway up the hill, then stopped a few yards from Edu. It had no eyes he could see, but he felt it watched him. The Black Orophant's voice echoed in Edu's head along with Kula's. "The time of need has come." Seeing this creature for himself gave meaning to the warning.
More writhing tendrils slithered from the crystalline body. Edu's heart raced and his bowels emptied. He looked around, but there was nowhere to run. Too young to vie for a bride, Edu had never fought before, only jousts and sparring with his brothers and cousins. Red beams filled the air again, passing through him harmlessly. The demon rotated its top, tendrils waving frantically. Edu decided he would fight. He would not fight for the fallen men, but for his herd and the message he carried for the Black Orophant.
The demon lifted its front leg menacingly. Not waiting for an attack, not thinking, Edu rushed down the hill. His tusk hit the crystal body with a scraping sound. I'm too young to have a broken tusk, he thought.
The raised arm's sharp tip sliced his side. Pain spread across his skin like dried cracking mud worn too long.
Edu backed up and charged again. His forehead hit solid crystal and his vision blurred. Sliding his head down the demon's angled side, his tusk found the opening where its leg protruded from its body. Edu pushed and his tusk pierced something soft.
The demon scuttled back and raised another leg. Knowing the sharp leg tips would find him, Edu charged but stopped just before impact. As the demon raked him, Edu snaked his trunk around its back leg and pulled. The thing toppled. Tendrils flayed madly, and red fire sprayed in a frightening but harmless display. Edu's tusk found the soft spot again. He jerked his head harder, this time ripping something. As Edu stomped on the fallen thing, the last tendril sputtered red sparks and slumped to the ground. Heart racing, Edu shuffled away.
An hour later, Edu moved into the outskirts of the circle of big males guarding the herd. Comforted by the closeness of so many elephants, many his uncles and cousins, he allowed himself to trumpet a wailing cry.
His young cousins followed in a line as he passed the young, the old, and his many aunts on his way to see Kula, the herd's matriarch. Kula stood tall and regal, surrounded by old wise females. She watched him approach, her eyes bright and alert.
Edu grunted and traced patterns in the air with his tusks which meant, "The Black Orophant has appeared. I bring his message to the herd."
More elephants gathered round. Edu's aunt Zheve touched her trunk to the scrapes in his side.
"Edu, is this true? There is no time for foolishness," the old matriarch said.
"I saw him myself," Edu responded. "I promised I would tell the herds and Azilba of the Lions that he is here and that Phoenix is coming."
"This is the Black Orophant's message? Azilba is just a tale to scare young elephants so they will not stray when lions are about."
Before Edu could answer, a big male sounded a warning call. Edu's young cousins moved close to their aunts' sides. Even they could smell lions on the wind.
Bellies low to the ground, a dozen lions crawled down the hill Edu had passed only moments earlier. The big males trumpeted again, asking for instruction from their matriarch. Old Kula's eyes looked to the sky, as she did when contemplating where to graze next or the proper time to visit the graveyards.
"Let the lions come," Kula responded.
The males trumpeted again, this time in protest.
"Let the lions come to me."
The big males parted, opening an unobstructed path to Kula. The lions cautiously entered the circle, heads moving back and forth, watchful eyes scanning elephant feet and the fascinated faces of the tusk-less little ones.
A lioness strained her head up to look into Kula's eyes.
"Azilba, Lord of Lions, wishes your permission to speak with the herds of the Black Orophant," she said, a guttural sound rolling from her throat.
"How is it that I can understand you? Elephants can not speak with lions."
"It is the hour of need," the lioness responded. "Times are strange; strange things gather behind the barrier wall, and Azilba has returned to us."
High on the monolithic, gray barrier wall, Edu watched a spider thing wave its tentacles and scuttle away.
"If Azilba is real, I will see her," Kula said.
The lioness roared and as if on cue hundreds of lionesses crested the hill.
One big cat stood in front the rest, golden fur glowing in the hot orange sun.
Walking unguarded and holding her belly high, the big cat strode into the circle of elephants.
"Azilba," the lioness proclaimed. She and the other lionesses backed up and stood side by side with the encircling elephants as Azilba approached.
Azilba, tall as a zebra, humbly stopped before Kula. Her eyes met Edu's.
"This little one is brave and a great benefit to your herd," Azilba said, gesturing to Edu with her head. "I watched him kill a demon unaided."
"You know of these things?" Kula asked.
Azilba turned her head to the barrier wall. Kula looked just in time to see another spidery form disappear over the wall.
"They come from the fires falling from in the sky. The world outside the barrier wall has changed. They hunt the last of men, as men once hunted us."
"How can a lion know this?" Kula asked.
"I am more than lion just as the Black Orophant is more than elephant."
This seemed to satisfy Kula, but not Edu.
"Isn't the enemy of men our friend?" Edu asked.
"You are brave," Azilba said, "but remember you are little and the world is big. Since the building of the barrier wall, men have let the herds and the prides flourish in peace. They were close to fulfilling their duty as caretakers."
Kula glanced sternly at Edu.
"His reluctance is important to address," Azilba continued. "The barrier wall encloses much of the land that was once called Africa by the men. Outside men once lived in homes they called cities." She nodded to a shimmering area of air high above the trees.
"There, that is where the last of the cities will appear. It is a city called Phoenix from a place once known as Arizona. War with the demons reduced the world of men and their homes to rubble. With great effort, the men ripped one of their cities from the earth, and hid in time to escape destruction."
Edu did not fully understand the meaning of 'time'. He knew he would grow tall and his tusks would lengthen and curve. That was time.
"Why do they fight? Surely they do not vie for each other's brides?" Edu asked.
"I do not know how the war started, young one, but perhaps men roused the demons' anger. Perhaps the demons pursue the men for reasons that make no sense. Now it is only important how this will end."
"I still don't see why we should fight for them," Kula said.
"You remember much in the tales and stories you pass to your children. Would you have your children know men only in stories like the rhino and the leopard?"
Kula shuffled in place. Edu recognized the thoughtful far away look in her eyes.
"You owe men nothing," Azilba said. "But would you make the same mistakes as they almost did and stand idle in the face of a threat when you could render aid?"
Kula squinted and looked at the shimmering air. "How can this be? Men don't have wings. These cities don't just appear. Do they?"
"The Black Orophant said I would see things that don't make sense," Edu said.
"The young one is right. What matters now is that the demons have come for the city. We must be ready to help the Black Orophant in the coming battle."
"The Black Orophant will fight for the men?" Kula asked.
"The Black Orophant will fight, but more importantly he has something for the men of Phoenix. We fight so he may reach them." Azilba turned to Edu. "You have seen the Orophant, young one. What did he tell you?"
The herd, Kula, and the thirteen lions listened raptly. A shiver ran through Edu as he lifted his trunk to speak.
"The Black Orophant said tell the herds that he has returned. He is coming with an army of the great leaders of the herds of old."
Edu looked at the silent and confused herd. His young cousin squeezed through two pairs of legs to get closer. He understood their confusion. When an elephant fell, they became bones and nothing more. He would not believe otherwise had he not seen the Black Orophant raising the fallen himself. Edu knew the herd wanted more, but he had no more to tell.
"What would the Black Orophant say now?" Edu thought. He looked at Azilba. She seemed to know what he would say next.
"My herd," Edu trumpeted. "The Black Orophant says not to fear."
Azilba and the lions retreated to defensive positions in the low hills. She instructed Kula and the herds to do the same.
Above the trees, the shimmering air where Phoenix was to appear spat a bolt of blue electricity. It fizzled to the ground like lightning as the sky exploded into a cloud of blue sparks. Edu watched Kula flick her tail nervously and he felt afraid.
"It is Phoenix," Edu grunted. "Just as Azilba told us."
The city of Phoenix, an island of rock and dirt, floated over the hills. A mass of buildings, tall silver shapes, crowded each other right to the edge. The overwhelming smell of exhaust and the waste of men wafted to the animals waiting below.
As if responding to a silent cue, the demons on the wall moved to attack. Hundreds of red beams of light raced to Phoenix but were absorbed by a shimmering blue cloud that surrounded the city at the last instant before they hit. Edu saw the city through the cloud, though hazily, like a reflection in water.
A smaller cloud of sparking blue appeared on the barrier wall. Six bulky men emerged, almost identical to the ones Edu saw earlier except they were silver from head to toe.
The demons atop the wall attacked. Their red beams reflected off the silver men as they fired back. A spray of blue from a silver man's weapon hit a demon and for an instant it froze, then it moved backwards in a perfect mirror of its approach, before simply vanishing.
Hundreds of demons crowded the wall, surrounding the men holding them off with their strange showers of blue. Then one demon floated up, like a spiderling caught in the wind and began to drift towards Phoenix. Three more, then hundreds of the spidery things silently took to the air, floating slowly but steadily to the city. Bolts of blue arced from the floating piece of Arizona, pushing the attackers backward before they vanished.
"Phoenix's weapons send them back in time," Azilba said to Edu.
"I don't understand."
"Just lead the young ones away if the fighting gets too rough."
Edu shuddered as another wave of demons took to the air. As the demons floated up, a crack spread across the wall beneath them. The crack opened into a fiery hole, collapsing the area where the silver men stood.
Spider demons and men alike toppled and were crushed by rubble. As the dust began to settle, a giant shape emerged from the smoking hole. It resembled a spider demon, but ten times as large. Shiny protrusions jutted from its segmented body.
Explosions tore more holes in the barrier wall and more giants crawled through. Azilba raced up and down the line of lions and elephants, calming and readying them. Edu feared they were too greatly outnumbered.
A giant spider thing spat an orange fireball that streaked past the floating demons and penetrated the shimmering cloud around Phoenix. Dirt and rock rained upon the herd.
Edu heard a growing rumble and a buzzing hum as a black cloud obscured the sun. The colored bolts flying back and forth glowed brighter in its shadow. The black cloud, a swarm of locusts, flew into the crossfire, protecting Phoenix by absorbing the demon's red blasts.
The locusts coated the floating demons and crawled into the soft places where their legs met their bodies. Demons dropped from the sky and crashed to the ground.
Azilba's ears stood straight up. The rumbling shook the dry earth. A cloud of dust moved towards the battle.
"The Black Orophant, the Black Orophant has arrived!" Edu cried. A line of gray elephants with the Black Orophant at their center stampeded towards the fight. Eyes black and trained forward, the Black Orophant's herd charged with no indication of fear or emotion Edu could see. He smelled nothing on the wind.
Azilba roared, sending the prides and herds to join the Black Orophant's attack. Tusks gored and trunks swept slender legs. Lions jumped atop the giants and ripped whatever they could.
The demons shot red fire in all directions. A tusk-less one shuddered.
"Don't worry, their fire doesn't harm us," Edu said to him.
The fight erupted into a cry of snarls and trumpets as the red beams ripped into the lions and elephants. The tusk-less one next to Edu turned his head away.
"They burn us now," Edu thought as he gagged from the stink of flesh and locusts.
Edu wanted to fight, but did as he was told and ran back to the hill to move the group of young ones away. Edu looked up at Phoenix and saw a silver craft emerge from a small cave in the floating rock. It sped to the ground like a hunting bird. The Black Orophant veered toward it, a swirling cloud of locusts surrounding him.
"Why is the Black Orophant running?" Edu thought.
The Black Orophant stopped in Phoenix's shadow. Edu noticed a little man-child holding onto his back. The silver craft touched the ground and a door in its side slid open.
A fireball raced across the plains and slammed into the Black Orophant, sending the man-child flying off his back. The Black Orophant fell to his knees and rolled on the flattened grass. The orange fire burned him, and did not extinguish no matter how he writhed.
The man-child flattened to the ground, avoiding beams of red fire. Without thinking, Edu ran towards him. Another fireball exploded somewhere nearby. Edu felt its heat on his side. In Phoenix's shadow, Edu lifted the boy with his trunk and placed him into the waiting arms of a silver man. With the boy safely in the man's arms, the door closed and the craft sped back to Phoenix.
The demons fired at the ship. Edu thought for a second it might fall from the sky. When it disappeared into the rocky cave, Edu turned to the Black Orophant. He smacked at the flames with his trunk but they still burned. Edu felt sick as he recognized the look of resignation in the Orophant's dark eyes.
"What can I do?" Edu cried.
"What you were born to do," the Black Orophant answered, the flames running up his trunk.
"Who was the man-child?" Edu asked.
"All animals have their prophecies and leaders; even men."
The blue sparking cloud around Phoenix changed to silver and then the city of Phoenix faded and vanished with a pop and hiss of rushing air, just as quickly as it had appeared. The Black Orophant trumpeted a powerful cry, a sound both dark and hopeful.
"They are gone now," the Orophant said. "The last of men. The demons will go now."
With Phoenix gone the demons no longer fought. Edu thought they could have easily slaughtered the entire herd, but instead they crawled their way back to the breaches in the barrier wall.
Azilba ran to Edu and watched as the flames consumed the Black Orophant.
"What will happen?" Edu asked.
"The world will go on. With the men gone the demons will not return," Azilba said, with a mix of sadness and hope. She shook her head and turned to where the lions were licking their wounds.
Edu watched the Black Orophant roll until he moved no more. Upon the Black Orophant's last twitch, the herd of reborn elephants lumbered away, the fury of their stampede gone. Their lack of an odor and dullness in their eyes still made Edu's spine tingle.
Edu nudged the smoking mass that was the Orophant with his tusks.
"You are special, little one," he heard the Orophant say in his head.
Edu heard another voice, and then another and another. Thousands of voices, the thoughts of all the elephant leaders echoed in his head. At that instant he knew that the Black Orophant could never die – that the Black Orophant was reborn in him and would be reborn in another should he fall.
Edu felt himself growing larger and stronger. He knew Azilba was right.
The world would go on. It would be a world without men. A world of elephants and lions, living beyond the barrier wall.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Braum. All rights reserved.
About the author
Daniel Braum's fiction often blurs the lines between genres with exciting results. More of his stories can be found in Cemetery Dance #55, Electric Velocipede #8, Full Unit Hook Up #5 and #6, and online at Fortean Bureau #20, Abyss and Apex #16, and Dark Recesses #7.
At the time of this posting he recently returned from a three month
journey to Australia and is finishing the second draft of his novel, a
supernatural adventure set in Belize.
Visit him on the web at www.danielbraum.com and www.myspace.com/danielbraum.