Recently, Brian’s short fiction has appeared in Analog (March/April 2018), Fantasy & Science Fiction (May/June 2018 and September/October 2018), Galaxy’s Edge (May/June 2018), and Terraform (September 2018).
By the Moon Unblessed
by Brian Trent
It was Thursday. The giant millipede uncoiled from the depths of Mount Thegtheg and scuttled into the castle courtyard on Thursdays.
Most of the other kids liked watching its arrival. They would gather along the battlement between the two northward towers and gaze out to the green countryside where Mount Thegtheg rose in the distance. Waiting for the millipede.
Eduardo never joined them. He’d seen it once, and that had been enough. The sight of the immense, segmented body rushing at the castle on its many legs made him sick with terror, and he had fled back into the castle to hide under his bed. He imagined the creature crawling up the castle walls, sticking its head into his window, trying to grab him with its mandibles.
So he always stayed in his room, away from the window, and played with his toys until the creature returned to the mountain. The king’s toymaker had given him little dinosaurs that walked and growled, and Eduardo sat cross-legged, safely surrounded by a reptilian phalanx. He liked the dimetrodons.
His bedroom door suddenly swung open. Aran, his older brother, came striding in and grabbed him by the arm. “Come on,” he said. “Put your shoes on. We’re going outside.”
Eduardo stiffened. “I don’t want to!”
“Too bad. You need to show everyone you aren’t afraid of it.”
“But I am afraid!”
Aran scattered the Triassic Era with a kick. “Put your shoes on, or I’ll haul you up there barefoot.”
Tears sprouted from Eduardo’s eyes. “Aran, please…”
“Babies cry. Are you a baby?”
“I’m not a baby!”
“Then put your shoes on right now.” Aran hesitated. “This is not like before, okay?”
Before was their codeword for the days before they came to the castle. Before was when he and Aran used to sleep in a watery Caracas basement, and how there were bugs down there, scuttling along the cracked and moldy walls. That included millipedes. Long reddish millipedes with yellow legs, and they would bite without provocation. You could be fast asleep against the basement’s walls, and awaken to a burning feeling on your neck, and a millipede was hanging there like some grotesque necklace.
Aran bent, wheezing and coughing, to help him tie his shoes. “This millipede won’t hurt you. I promise.”
Eduardo muttered, remembering old wounds.
His brother seized his chin and lifted his face until their gazes met. “Did you hear me? I won’t ever let anything hurt you or make you sick. Nothing will hurt you or make you sick ever again. Understand?”
He followed Aran into the stone corridor, and up the winding stairs to the battlement where the other kids were.
The older kids weren’t so interested in the arrival of the millipede anymore—it’s unflagging appearance was old hat now. Instead, they pointed to the dark forests where smoke curled like ghoulish fingers from enemy campsites. The hideous, giant Maricoxi had taken the northern woodlands and were breathing down on the Enchanted Valley. That was bad. There used to be a herd of pegasi in those woods, and it was fun watching them fly about… until the Maricoxi swept over the defensive forts and now the pegasi weren’t seen anymore. Eduardo had liked watching the pegasi spread their foreleg wings against the sky. Liked the way they landed together with a gentle thump of many hooves to drink from the streams crisscrossing the castle’s valley.
Something appeared at the cave at Mount Thegtheg. An enormous head, followed by a lengthy body borne by numerous orange legs.
Eduardo reached for his brother’s hand. Aran pulled it away.
The insect’s hideous length emerged and then it was scuttling along strawberry fields, skirting by the Grand Lagoon. It disappeared a moment as it entered the deep woods of King’s Forest, but Eduardo knew it was still coming.
“Here it comes!” sang the girl named Patricia, and she gave a cruel, taunting grin to Eduardo.
“It won’t hurt us,” Eduardo forced himself to say.
Patricia glanced to Aran, saw that he had joined the older boys’ discussion on the Maricoxi advance, and she mouthed:
It eats little boys. Tonight when you’re sleeping, it’ll crawl up the stairs to your room and—
There was a blur, and Patricia was suddenly on her back, her nose gushing blood.
Aran had moved so fast that it was like he had teleported. “You were saying something, Ratty Patty?”
She glared, dark fluid streaming messily over her face.
Eduardo waited for the counterattack. But Patty only stood, holding her bleeding nose, coughing and wheezing. Over the battlements, the millipede emerged from the woods and scampered onto Royal Road, through the courtyard gates to make its delivery.
Aran tugged at his brother’s arm. “Come on,” he said. “Amulet time.”
“Eduardo? Can you come with me, please?”
Eduardo blinked at the bearded, dark-skinned man who had intercepted him on the landing. The other kids continued down from the battlements, heading to the workshop and strapping their masks over their mouths—masks of wolf snouts, serpent fangs, oversized ruby lips… each one was different. Aran’s mask was the best—shark teeth set in glistening pink gums. Eduardo looked to his brother, but he quickly disappeared into the castle workshop, eager to make the magical weapons the kingdom needed to repel the murderous Maricoxi.
He looked back in astonishment to the man who addressed him. The Grand Vizier was addressing him! Him! “Sir?”
The vizier’s tall, lank frame was sunk in scintillating blue robes with little stars and half-moons on them. He smiled kindly. “Eduardo? Please, come with me.”
Eduardo’s heart thundered in his small chest. This was not how Thursdays usually went.
“Sir?” he managed. “I have to make amulets now.”
The vizier shook his head. “You can join the kids later.”
“But the Maricoxi are in the woodlands…”
“Please come with me.”
Eduardo swallowed his protests and followed the vizier along the castle’s main corridor. He was actually relieved not to be making amulets today. It was always long work and it made his fingers burn and tingle and hurt. Still, he was afraid.
This had to be about Aran. It was against the king’s law to assault a fellow citizen of the kingdom, and Patty and Aran were constantly arguing. They’d never come to blows before, though. This was bad.
Eduardo’s palms began to sweat.
He trailed the Grand Vizier to the great man’s study. It was dark within, mighty bookcases half-glimpsed by the buttery, scented light of candelabras dangling in circles from the ceiling. Eduardo gaped at the chamber, mind racing. The air was spiced with aged parchment and wax.
“My brother is a good worker!” he blurted out.
The vizier gave a puzzled look. “Yes, yes he is. He’s going through his transformation very soon, isn’t he?”
“That’s wonderful! You should be so happy!”
“I am. My brother is the best. When we lived on the street, this one time, he used—”
Before he could continue, the door opened and Paladin Rosangela strode in. She looked magnificent in her silver armor, a griffin emblazoned on her breastplate. She exchanged a meaningful glance with the vizier, then stooped to one knee in front of Eduardo. Her greaves squealed with the movement.
“Eduardo, is it?”
His heart pounded again. “Paladin,” he breathed in awe, bowing.
She lifted his face, and her brown eyes were large and kind. The candlelight gleamed off her armor, the steel so highly polished that Eduardo could almost see his reflection—a small, blurry shadow replicated along the metallic scales.
“The vizier tells me you have never ridden on a pegasus.”
Eduardo’s mind went blank. “Paladin?”
“Do you want to go riding with me?”
He hesitated. Old street instinct stirred, warning him to be cautious when people promised him nice things. The perverts in the street alleys did that, and so did some of the ones who drove around Caracas, looking for guttersnipes to entice with food or water into their cars.
The paladin’s smile was radiant, but strangely, her voice sounded impatient. “Eduardo? Did you hear me? Don’t you like the pegasi?”
“I like the pegasi.”
“I’m going for a ride. I was hoping you would come with me. No amulets today. Let’s go riding, okay?”
She wants me away from the castle, he thought. They’re going to send Aran back to Caracas!
His eyes filled up.
“Please don’t exile my brother!” he cried.
“Exile your brother?” Paladin Rosangela’s smile burned on her beautiful face. “What the hell are you talking about? Your brother is… Aran, right? He’s not getting exiled. Why would he get exiled?”
Idiot! You stupid idiot!
So no one knew about the fight after all. He was going to get his brother in trouble because he was a stupid idiot!
The tears fell. He couldn’t help it.
Paladin Rosangela sighed. “Eduardo, we’re not exiling your brother. Now do you want to go riding, yes or no? Last chance.” She glanced to the Grand Vizier. “Maybe this isn’t the kid we want.”
“I want to go!” Eduardo blurted out. “I want to ride a pegasus!”
Seen up-close, the pegasus was huge, hairy, and a little frightening. It was a tawny brown beast with short bristly fur covering its body. The immense feathery wings were brown too, growing off the forelegs like speckled sails, and they snapped up as Paladin Rosangela approached; Eduardo felt the breeze of their movement. The bridle was avocado green.
Paladin Rosangela hoisted him into the saddle. Eduardo, with his short legs, could barely fit his feet into the stirrups, despite the paladin having adjusted the straps to try accommodating him. The animal’s powerful, knobby muscles flexed beneath him.
The paladin settled in behind him, and her arms came around him to take up the reins.
He swallowed hard and nodded.
She gave two kicks and the creature trotted forward, then broke into an outright gallop that made Eduardo squeal in fear and excitement. The windows of the castle were burnished copper in the morning sun as they raced past. The wings beat furiously, and Eduardo found himself grinning in their breeze, and then…
…then they were airborne.
His stomach lurched as the courtyard dropped away, and then he was clinging to the beast’s neck as they climbed higher into the sky, the wings a mirage-like blur around him. Soon the castle was far below him, like one of his toys. He could see Mountain Thegtheg like a termite mound, and the searing orange dots of Maricoxi campsites in the woodlands.
Paladin Rosangela’s voice was in his ear. “Are you happy in the kingdom, Eduardo?”
He was surprised by the question. “Yes!”
“You know, some kids aren’t all that happy. They make trouble.”
Eduardo stiffened. So this was about his brother after all.
“You like being here?”
“Is there anything you don’t like?”
Eduardo had to think about that. In truth, he didn’t really like the long hours making amulets. It was boring, and tiring, and his fingers were stiff and wet afterwards. You had to make sure the magic gemstones and runes were arranged just so, screwed into place and snapped into their little boxes. You passed your work to the old kids, who worked with magic potions that washed the amulets, while you turned your attention to the next amulet. And the next. And the next.
It was tedious, yes, but it was the only way the kingdom could be protected. And besides, it was better than starving in the streets. Better than running from scary gangs. Better than that moldy, abandoned basement. Better than waking up to see Aran stabbing another boy to death for the few scraps of food he had.
“Eduardo? Are you going to answer me?”
“The millipede,” he said at last. “It scares me sometimes.”
She seemed surprised by that. “Oh.” She took a breath. “Eduardo, someone from outside the kingdom wants to talk to you. They want to ask you about life here.”
“Well, they’re going to be talking to a handful of kids. The vizier and I thought you might be a good choice.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No.” A hesitation. “And your brother won’t get in trouble, either. You don’t want him to be in trouble, right? What he did… that could get you both in trouble. Do you want that?”
Eduardo’s heart fell. They knew.
His voice was barely a whisper above the pegasus’ beating wings. “No.”
“Then talk to this person, and answer her questions. Be honest about how happy you are. Be honest about how good the food is, and how you get clean water. We treat you well, right?”
“Look there,” the paladin said, pointing. “In the lagoon! There’s a pirate battle below us!”
He had to twist in the saddle to see. Far below, the lagoon looked a puddle in a street gutter; two wooden brigantines were exchanging broadsides in a flurry of smoke, fire, and thunder.
Eduardo gasped and giggled.
He liked pirates.
He liked the moon too.
Later that night, he lay awake in bed, heart still pounding with excitement whenever he thought about the Pegasus ride from that morning. The moon floated beyond his window, a pale crescent spilling silver puddles onto the floor. His toy dinosaurs sat in pools of their own freakish shadows.
“Aran?” he whispered to his brother in the top bunk. “Are you awake?”
His brother didn’t answer right away, because he was coughing again. A wet, deep sound, like trying to dislodge bilge-water from pipes.
Eduardo looked back to the window. “Aran? I rode a pegasus today.”
“You already told me,” his brother said at last.
“We flew really high.”
Eduardo reached to the ceiling of his bunk, as if trying to touch his brother through the mattress springs. “Maybe I could ride the pegasus up to the moon when you go there?”
Aran sighed. “They can’t fly that high.”
“We flew really high.”
“The moon is higher. When I go… I’ll be far away.”
A pang of terror filled Eduardo’s heart. “I want to go to the moon with you!”
“You don’t get to go to the moon until you’re older.”
“But you’re going!”
“How long until I’m older?”
Aran let loose another series of hacking coughs. “I don’t know. It’s not about how old you are.”
“You just said it was how old you are!”
“It’s about how many amulets you make. If you make enough amulets, you start to change. That’s why I’m coughing, and that’s why I’m going to change. And when you change… you fly up to the moon. Like a balloon at Noon.” He was quoting the song that all the kids had been taught on their first day in the kingdom—a cartoon rabbit had sung about the rules of the kingdom, what their duties were, what they could do on Free Time adventures, and finally, about the transformation they would all go through if they worked hard enough.
Eduardo thought about his morning ride. “You never rode a pegasus. You don’t know how high they can go.”
“Go to sleep,” Aran snapped, his legs sliding over the side of the bed. He climbed slowly down and hobbled to the bathroom, wheezing and holding his stomach. He went to the bathroom a lot now.
Eduardo closed his eyes. He wasn’t tired, but he didn’t want Aran to see him crying, because only babies cried.
She said her name was Meredith, and that she was a reporter.
“For a newspaper,” she added. “A very big newspaper.”
Eduardo said nothing. He still remembered the smell of newspapers in the moldy basement. Wet stock and ink, or dry as desiccated feathers that they used to stuff into the windows to keep out the colder nights.
But they weren’t in the basement anymore. They were in the castle courtyard, in the daylight. The pegasus was there, too, munching from a bucket of hay tethered to a post, and some of the newest, youngest kids—just arrived from Caracas or the surrounding cities—were petting it. They had let Eduardo feed the pegasus that morning. He had giggled at the touch of the creature’s nose when it nuzzled him.
Meredith had long black hair and the kind of clothing Eduardo remembered from before. She wore black-framed glasses and a sparkly necklace. Paladin Rosangela and the Grand Vizier stood behind her, wearing smiles.
The woman gazed at Eduardo and it seemed that she didn’t like what she was seeing. “Eduardo, is it?”
He nodded, heart pounding again.
“Eduardo, how old are you?”
He held up his hands, ticked off his fingers. “Seven.”
Meredith scowled. “Seven? Is that right?”
“Can you tell me what you do here? When you get up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do?”
“I brush my teeth.”
“Mmm-hmm. What else?”
“We have breakfast.”
Paladin Rosangela said, “Every day they have breakfast. And lunch and dinner. Three meals a day. And fresh water.”
Ignoring this, Meredith said, “What do you do after breakfast?”
“We make amulets.”
She blinked behind her glasses. “What kind of amulets?”
“Magic amulets. Some of them shoot ice, and um, some shoot fire. And one makes tornadoes!”
“And how many do you make?”
“Lots. Until it says zero.”
The Grand Vizier cleared his throat. “We have a caseload management tool that is adjusted by age group.”
“What do you do when the queue reaches zero?”
Eduardo hesitated, trying to think. “Sometimes we visit the dinosaurs in the park. Sometimes we go to the strawberry fields and the enchanted cave. Sometimes we fight pirates!”
There was a strain in Meredith’s voice. “Eduardo, do you remember what you did before coming to the kingdom?”
Paladin Rosangela said, “I’ve already shown you his file. He lived on the streets. He was starving. On average, they die before puberty.”
Meredith’s eyes went cold and she glared at the paladin. “And working with the chemicals here to make the latest and greatest smart-toys? How long do—”
Her mouth kept moving, but Eduardo couldn’t hear her voice anymore. And Paladin Rosangela’s lips were moving too, and she was getting red in the face, and Grand Vizier was talking, but it was all in silence. Adults in the kingdom did that when they wanted to have private conversations. Eduardo watched them for a while, the knotted cords in the reporter’s neck, the anger in the paladin’s face. He looked away and back to the pegasus. He waved to it. Maybe it would come over and nuzzle him. He liked that.
Someone touched his hand.
“Eduardo?” Meredith said sternly. “How is your brother doing?”
“Aran? He’s a good worker. He doesn’t get in trouble.” He swallowed hard. “And he’s changing.”
“When you make enough amulets, you turn into an angel and go to the moon.”
The wrath in Meredith’s face was terrifying. “You turn into an angel?” She gave a caustic glower at the vizier. “Is that what you tell them? Do you even hear yourself?”
“We take care of them.”
“Like nineteenth century plantation owners took care of—”
The door flung open, and two paladins in glittering armor barged in.
Meredith grabbed Eduardo by the shirt and drew him to her face. “Do you know what Augmented Reality is Eduardo? Do you remember a surgery they performed on your eyes and ears when you first got here?”
Eduardo looked down to her necklace.
To the reflection in the necklace.
The guards yanked the reporter backwards, and Eduardo’s shirt tore from the violence, buttons flying and scattering across the table and floor. The woman was being carried away, and she was shouting at them, but it was in silence again.
The Grand Vizier took Eduardo by the hand. “Let’s have some pizza now, okay, Eduardo? Or… the pegasus. Do you want to ride the pegasus again?”
Eduardo bit back his sudden tears. He shook his head.
“You don’t want to ride the pegasus?”
“Really?” the vizier sounded surprised, but he recovered quickly enough. “So, cheese pizza?”
The door burst in again.
He thought it might be the bad woman again who had ripped his shirt, but it was one of the castle clerics, and she looked distressed.
“Eduardo?” she cried. “Please come with me.”
The vizier looked at her. “Is it a happy day?”
The woman nodded. “A very happy day. Eduardo, you should be very happy today.”
Eduardo sometimes remembered a graffiti artist on the street, a tripped-out mad genius who colored bridges and buildings and skywalks and streets. He boasted that he had once painted on a highway—going back and forth between midnight traffic like a spider laying strands of web. Aran insisted Eduardo not listen to his mad ravings, but Eduardo found the man mesmerizing and terrifying in equal measures. “We are beings of light, burning up inside! Seize that fever and madness! All change is delivered through fire and pain!”
Now, as Eduardo knelt beside his brother holding his feverishly hot hands, he thought of that artist and his lunatic drawings. His brother breathed hard and fast. A mask, like a jellyfish, clung to his face. The room stank of blood, too, but Eduardo couldn’t see any blood.
“You’re changing,” he whispered.
Aran nodded, breathing in and out, in and out, fast. So fast.
“I’m so happy for you brother!” Eduardo cried.
His brother’s body began to glow. Paladin Rosangela stepped forward, drew Eduardo back.
“You have to say goodbye now, Eduardo,” she said softly. “Say goodbye.”
“I want to go with him!”
“It’s not your time yet.”
“I don’t care!”
“Your brother is going to the moon.”
Eduardo tore from her grip and threw himself onto Aran’s body. Despite how bright it was glowing, he didn’t feel any heat. Didn’t feel like it might burn him. His brother, in fact, felt cool to the touch, and he wasn’t breathing so rapidly anymore, and…
Paladin Rosangela wrenched him back, and Eduardo struggled wildly in her grip.
And then—in an explosion of light—Aran became an angel.
He was like molten gold, outstretched wings and scales as shiny as newly-minted coins. He ascended slowly off the bed, like a balloon, the light so radiant it stung Eduardo’s eyes.
And then he kept ascending, right through the ceiling.
Eduardo rushed to the window. The moon was there like a massive pale eye. The firefly-like dot of Aran’s new form swam through dark tides to reach it.
“I love you brother! I love you forever!”
It was the next Thursday. The day of the millipede.
Eduardo didn’t bother watching it arrive, but not because he feared it any longer. There was nothing any insect could do to inflict more pain than the suffering that festered in his heart every day.
They said he didn’t have to make amulets for a while. He could ride the pegasus if he wanted to.
“I want to make amulets,” he said numbly.
“Really? No pegasus?”
Rather than answer, he shuffled towards the workroom, strapping his skeleton-teeth mask over his mouth.
No pegasus, he thought.
There’s no pegasus.
He hadn’t understood what the reporter woman had said to him when she grabbed his shirt and broke his buttons. He knew people, like that graffiti artist, who shouted nonsensical things. But he had seen her necklace. Had seen the reflections of the room around him in her necklace.
Had seen, in one of those reflective facets, the pegasus behind him.
It had looked like a mop, with a hideous rubber head. A man in black uniform held it, moving it when the kids got near. Nuzzling their arms with its fake rubber lips and stiff hair.
It was fake!
So Eduardo padded to the workshop and wriggled into place between other children. A partial amulet was placed in front of him, with individual pieces that had to be assembled.
I can’t take the pegasus up to the moon, he thought, because there are no pegasi anymore. They must have been killed off by the Maricoxi. The Grand Vizier doesn’t want the kids to know, so he was lying to them.
And that meant there was only one way to ever be with his brother again.
Eduardo worked on the amulet.
And then the next one.
And the next one.
And the ones that came after that.
He didn’t think of Free Time adventures, or of playing with dimetrodons. Those were stupid lies for stupid babies, and Eduardo wasn’t a baby. He worked and worked and worked, hoping for sickness and the moon.
Copyright 2019 by Brian Trent