ATOM Chapters 1 – 4: A Novel Preview

Novels take a long time to write, and as such come with a substantial delay before the gratification that we artists so desperately covet.  Likewise, it can be hard for fans to endure the wait.  To soften this unavoidable downside of what is otherwise a wonderful art form, Horror Flora shall post excerpts from some of the novels I have been writing now and again.  Of course, given that these novels haven’t been finished yet, the excerpts previewed here may change between now and when the full work is published, so bear in mind that what you are reading may differ from the final product.

Today’s excerpt comes from The Atomic Time of Monsters, a kaiju story that is the subject for one of Horror Flora‘s most popular menageries, the ATOM Kaiju Files.  Collected here are the first four chapters of the novel, which on their own constitute a short story, albeit one with an open end and a lot of hanging question.  I think it will thrill you.  It may shock you.  It might even horrify you.  So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, well, don’t look under the cut.  For the rest of you, please, enjoy!

The Atomic Time of Monsters: Chapters 1-4

Ty Budsie

Chapter 1: The Superquake of 54

The world, vast as it may seem, is but a flyspeck in the grand sea of infinity.  Even time and space are little more than a pair of strings that weave together the vast tapestry of reality; and, in truth, our time and our space are only one pair in an endless web.  There are other times and other spaces: alternate universes stretch on from here to infinite.

Being infinite in number, one can presume that any and all realities we can conceive of can and do exist.  Some, perhaps, would be just as startling for their similarities to our own as they are for their differences.  Consider a reality virtually identical to our own, with its own Milky Way, sun, earth, and moon.  On this alternate earth, life evolves, taking a route virtually identical to that of our own.

Then, a curveball: in one reality, during the dawn of the Mesozoic era, the ancestors of birds inherit the earth, populating it with strange and beautiful creatures.  In another, with a shift as subtle as the flapping of a butterfly’s wing, a close relative of the humble crocodile diversifies instead.  The bird line continues to some extent, but the rulers of the Mesozoic now come from scalier stock.  In our reality, it is the Age of Dinosaurs.  In this splinter timeline, reptiles rule in the Age of Retrosaurs.

Both ages end with catastrophe and near extinction of the dominant clade.  Both end with primitive ancestors of our modern birds and mammals set to take the stage.  Ice Ages follow, as does the dawn of Man.  Despite the change in rulers, each different Mesozoic yields roughly the same result, and human history takes on similar paths in each.  We, as inheritors of the Earth once ruled by prehistoric birds, may scoff at the improbability of this.  Yet there, in the universe once ruled by crocodiles, an alternate humanity shares the same disbelief in the possibility of our reality.

Let us turn our thoughts to this distant yet uncannily similar world – a world that holds more preposterous secrets than just a clade of diverse and monstrous prehistoric crocodiles.  For just as dinosaurs survived in our world today as birds, the retrosaurs of this foreign universe also escaped their own extinction; albeit with a much more dramatic method…

~ ~ ~

Deep beneath the Earth’s crust, far from humanity’s prying eyes, stretched a system of caverns and tunnels that defied conventional understanding of the world.  Each chamber of these veins and arteries in the flesh of the planet was hundreds if not thousands of feet high, and the largest stretched on for many miles.  Yet the impossible size of this undiscovered subterranean network was not its most improbable feature; for these tunnels also contained life.

A shriek loud enough to shatter glass echoed off the walls with such force that its sound waves sent loose stones tumbling from the ceiling to the ground below.  The flapping of leathery wings long and wide enough to flatten a house followed after, and a deep, furious bellow pursued them from behind.  One great shadow soared through the chamber into the gloom of a neighboring tunnel, while the owner of the bellow stepped into the illumination of the cavern’s many strange, glowing crystals.

The victorious beast stood proud and fierce, its green scales glinting in the bright shine of minerals that served as its artificial sun.  Its long, serpentine tail, clad in thick crocodilian armor, lashed from side to side with lingering agitation, knocking boulders around on the floor below.  A reptilian hiss seeped between the giant’s curved teeth, each as sharp and thick as a lethal stalactite.  The monster’s yellow eyes glared menacingly around its territory as it searched for its enemy in the shadows on the far reaches of the subterranean battleground.  It was all in vain, however; the beast’s foe had fled.  With a weary grunt the monster’s rage subsided, and its titanic body slumped to the ground to rest.  Terrible and massive as the creature was, it had more than enough excitement for the day.

Unfortunately, fate had different plans.  A faint convulsion spread through the soil mere seconds after the green beast lay on the ground.  The monster’s eyes widened as it felt the vibrations crescendo into a great rumbling tremor, shaking the walls of the cavern.  The glowing crystals on the ceiling, whose brightness was usually just shy of the afternoon sun, suddenly released a blinding flash of light.  A painful howl split the monster’s scaly lips but was deafened by the cacophony of falling rocks and ruptured stone as the earth tore in two.  The apocalyptic scene struck terror into the monster’s heart for the first time in countless centuries, and even its dull, primitive mind could not help but wonder what force could possibly cause such calamity.

It took four minutes for the great earthquake to end, though in the beast’s terror stricken heart it may as well have been four lifetimes.  To the reptile’s relief, its home seemed relatively unscathed.  A few rocks had fallen loose and there were marginally less stalactites on the ceiling, but otherwise the chamber was just as it had been before, and the crystals had gone back to producing their normal level of radiance.  Only one change truly caught the monsters attention: one of the tunnels that led out of the cavern, which before had ended in inky darkness, now held a small bead of light at its distant end.  Curiosity preyed on the reptile’s mind.  Light at the end of the tunnel meant something new had opened up, and the monster wondered what it might find on the other side.

~ ~ ~

The news had yet to find a good name for the event, but many were settling for an accurate if somewhat obvious moniker: the Superquake of 1954.  It was a seismic event unlike any experienced in human history, with conservative estimates rating the quake’s magnitude at an unprecedented 10.2; some measurements went even higher.  Most readings were, improbably, even higher, and the highest estimate, magnitude 12, was utterly impossible, since it required a fault line larger than the earth itself.

Explanations for the earthquake were few, and satisfactory ones even rarer.  Some theorized that it was a freak occurrence of multiple fault lines coincidentally reacting at the same time with disastrous results.  A year prior, scientists would have called such an event highly improbable at best, yet with the West coast of North America and the East coast of Asia all experiencing devastating seismic activity around the same time, few other explanations seemed to make any sense.  Something this far reaching couldn’t help crossing multiple fault lines, whatever it was.

The death toll was high, though less so than many feared from a catastrophe so global in scope.  Of all the cities hit, San Francisco took it the hardest, with an estimate of roughly 4,000 lives lost.  It was tragic of course, but initial estimates were much higher.  Part of this came from how hard the land took the quake.  The common image of the ground splitting and engulfing everything on the surface is normally an inaccurate portrayal of an earthquake, yet this one fit it to a T.  Great chasms had opened all over the countryside of North America and Asia, some stretching down for miles and miles.  Even great mountain ranges were affected, with one mountain out in Montana experiencing a particularly dramatic shift: it had been split in almost perfect halves, revealing an enormous cave system in its interior that had previously been completely hidden from the outside world.

Despite the tragedy and devastation, many were already fascinated by the newly proclaimed Hollow Mountain.  Visitors had started arriving less than two weeks after the quake.  They were a trickle at first, but soon the sleepy little town outside the mountain was experiencing completely unprecedented tourism.  Figuring the fascination could help raise money for the disaster relief effort, the town government of Generiton, Montana quickly worked on setting up official tours of the mountain – for a nominal fee of course.

Some study was required before they could declare the mountain open to the public, as there could be parts of the Hollow Mountain’s interior that were still unstable from the recent split.  To that end, the Mayor had petitioned a nearby college to lend them a geologist or two to make an official survey of the Hollow Mountain, making sure the college knew that the quicker it was done, the quicker they would get a substantial bit of grant money.

~ ~ ~

An ancient skull sat on the table.  Four feet long with steak-knife shaped fangs, the largest of which measured six inches, the prehistoric cranium belonged to the largest predator ever to walk the earth.  “Or perhaps just the largest humanity ever discovered,” mused the woman examining the fossil.  She carefully examined the dead predator’s jaws, trying to discern which cracks came from its dangerous life as the Mesozoic’s greatest killing machine, and which were merely the result of millions of years of enduring the wear and tear of the earth’s natural geological processes.

Much like the skull of this long dead predator, Mina Lerna was viewed as something of an oddity by society at large.  She was the first female student in Hausen University’s prestigious paleontology program, having been handpicked by the department head, Dr. Harold Bradbury.  It was a controversial choice, and many of the professors scoffed at the idea of a woman entering their field.  Though more and more women were studying science these days, it was still considered unusual by most, and many tried to talk her out of her chosen profession.  “You’re still young, dear!” they would say, “And such a pretty thing.  Why, with a little makeup and some styling, you’d have the boys eating out of your hands!”  Lerna didn’t care about makeup or styling.  Her red hair, which was a striking shade, was unkempt and unruly.  Her skin was so pale it bordered on anemic, and her green eyes – also a striking shade – had dark bags under them from countless nights spent studying too hard and sleeping too little.  She was thin and, while not necessarily tall, far from short.  The young scientist didn’t know if could really be the beautiful trophy everyone wanted her to be, mainly because she couldn’t be made to care one way or another.

“You won’t be young forever, you know,” some people warned her.  “You don’t want to be some lonely old spinster, do you?”  Lerna agreed on that point.  She didn’t want to be a lonely spinster.  No, she wanted to be a respected and accomplished spinster, with esteemed colleagues and a list of discoveries that could fill a whole book.  She wanted to be a valued and perhaps even beloved mentor to generations of new paleontologists.  Lerna wanted to be far more than just a spinster; she just didn’t want to be a housewife.  Perhaps that ostracism was partly responsible for her obsession with extinct lifeforms – a Paleo Tyrant like Manospondylus gigas wouldn’t have to care for what people thought of it.  Any resistance could simply be torn apart by its bone crushing fangs.  Lerna wished she had that sort of freedom.

The laboratory phone rang, snapping Lerna out of her thoughts.  The young woman reluctantly left her work and picked up the phone.  “Dr. Bradbury’s office, this is Wilhelmina Lerna speaking.  I’m a student of his.  Uh huh.  Uh huh.  I’ll check.”  Lerna pulled the phone away from her ear and called out, “Dr. Bradbury, can you come to the phone?  It sounds important.”

A short, balding old man shuffled into the room.  Significantly older than his protégé, Dr. Bradbury had a bounty of wisdom at his disposal, and though he didn’t cut the most impressive silhouette, his voice rang with authority.  He nodded appreciatively to Lerna as he picked up the phone.  “Dr. Bradbury speaking.  Yes.  Hmm.  I see.  Well, it sounds like a marvelous opportunity for all involved.  I’ll be taking my apprentice as well.  Yes.  Mmhmm.  We’ll be in town tomorrow.  Good day to you.”  The old professor put the phone down and smiled at Lerna, his eyes glinting almost mischievously behind his thick rimmed glasses.  “How would you like to do some field work tomorrow?”

Though she was often very reserved, in that moment Lerna’s grin spread from ear to ear. The following day, March 16th, 1954, nearly a month after the Superquake occurred, Mina Lerna and Dr. Harold Bradbury departed from their college and set out for Generiton, Montanna, with the goal of investigating its new natural wonder: the Hollow Mountain.

“How much longer, Dr. Bradbury?” Lerna asked her mentor as the Dr.’s car plunged along the rough country road.  Generiton was both small and out of the way of, well, anything really, though perhaps that would change now that it had a bona fide tourist attraction.  A pity, really; Lerna was growing to like the uncivilized landscape.

“A few miles, Ms. Lerna,” Dr. Bradbury said.  He’d always referred to her as Ms. Lerna, even when she was a freshman at the college.  He was the first person to ever talk to her that way, which is to say, as though she was an adult.  It was strange at the time, as Lerna didn’t feel like an adult then, but now, five years later, she had finally grown into it.

“I know we’re just doing a geological survey,” Lerna said, “But what are the chances you think we’ll find some fossils?”  Dr. Bradbury’s respect wasn’t the only thing that drew Lerna to study under him; like the doctor, Lerna was also fascinated with prehistoric life.

Bradbury considered this for a moment before a twinkle came to his old gray eyes.  His gaze never left the road, but Lerna could recognize that expression even at a sideways glance.  “Well,” Dr. Bradbury said, “What do you think our chances are?”

“Hard to guess,” Lerna said, her brow furrowing ever so slightly as her mind went into an even more analytical mode than usual.  “Sometimes mountain ranges have fossil beds, but they’re usually pushed up onto the surface, not nestled inside them.  However, we aren’t that far from Hell Creek, which has an abundance of fossils, so it certainly isn’t impossible.”

“Good reasoning,” Dr. Bradbury said, nodding his wrinkled head in approval.  “If we have time at the end of this trip, remind me to stop at Hell Creek.  We could do some good field work there.  You need more field experience.”

Lerna’s eyes sparkled with immense gratitude.  “Thank you Dr. Bradbury!  I’ll definitely remind you.”

“If we do find something here, though,” Dr. Bradbury went on after noting his student’s enthusiasm, “I feel it’s going to be something big.  We’re going to be looking at sections of the Earth no one would ever normally see.  Who knows what secrets we’ll find?”  The old man smiled with the utter delight of a small child.  “Even if we don’t find any fossils, we’re going to the site of an unprecedented geological phenomena.  What an education for you, eh, Ms. Lerna?”

“Absolutely, Dr. Bradbury,” Lerna said.  The small smile that drew across her face was as warm as another person’s beaming grin.  She downplayed her emotions to the best of her ability, but Lerna’s feelings were always painted clearly on her face for those who truly knew her.

The town was coming into sight now, though it was far from the most interesting sight on the horizon.  A small cluster of buildings with some scattered houses here and there paled in comparison to the rolling hills behind it, which in turn were little more than an appetizer for the main event: the Hollow Mountain, a great protrusion of stone cracked in two like some enormous egg.  Even from miles away, Lerna could make out the entrance to the mountain’s mysterious interior.  From the looks of it, the cave was at least a few hundred feet tall, and while she couldn’t make an exact estimate at a glance, it was far, far deeper than it was high.

Dr. Bradbury’s car slowed down as they reached the city limits, allowing Lerna to take in the sights of Generiton, little though they may be.  The rural town was, depending on one’s perspective, either quaint or ridiculously underdeveloped.  Its shopping district was small; a grocery, a department store, a few greasy spoon diners, one or two small specialty stores scattered here and there, and a gas station that was the only building in sight that looked even remotely modern.  Beyond it were the public buildings, which were similarly utilitarian.  There were two schools, one elementary and one for both middle and high school students, both small.  There was a joint police and fire department, with a small hospital nearby.  Finally, there was the Town Hall, which was the closest a building came to being impressive in Generiton.  The Town Hall contained, among other things, the city’s rather limited library, and, more importantly, the mayor’s office, which was the pair’s first destination.

“We’ll have to pick up the permits from the mayor himself before we can start,” Bradbury explained as he parked the car.  “Take care, Ms. Lerna.  I’ve heard he’s something of a personality.”

The interior of the Town Hall was well maintained, with warm oak walls and glossy marble floors.  A reedy stork of a woman sat at a large desk in the center of the room.  To her left was the library, to the right the town records, and behind her was a door with the word “MAYOR” engraved on its window.  “May I help you sir?” the woman squawked, her glinting eyes focused solely on Dr. Bradbury.

“We’re here to see the mayor, ma’am,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “I am Dr. Harrold Bradbury, and my protégé here is Mina Lerna.”

The woman cast her beakish nose down as she rifled through some papers on her desk.  “Let me see,” she grunted, “Ah, here it is.  Oh!  You’re the people from the college.  Yes, he’s been expecting you all day.”  She quickly stood up and thrust her gangly legs out in a hurried rush to the mayor’s door.  “Sir,” she said as she opened the door just far enough to get her head in the crack, “The geologist and his assistant are here for you.”

There was barely enough time for the woman to flutter back to her desk before the Mayor’s door burst open as its rotund resident exploded into the hall.  “Dr. Bradbury!” the politician practically barked as he wheeled out of the office at a speed that was frankly extraordinary considering how much weight he was carrying.  “Delighted to have, you sir!  Delighted!”  The mayor’s short fingers wrapped around Dr. Bradbury’s right hand and gave the old man a rigorous shake.  “Marvelous of you to come down here, sir!  Simply marvelous!”

“Th-thank you!” Dr. Bradbury said, trying and failing to keep his composure as the politician shook his arm.  Lerna began to worry that the mayor might snap her mentor’s arm off.

Something even more dreadful happened instead, as the mayor’s eyes quickly turned to her.  “And who is this ravishing creature?” the portly man leered as he finally released Dr. Bradbury’s arm.  “Your daughter?”  Without warning the mayor grabbed Lerna’s hand and gave it a wet kiss, his bushy mustache tickling her a little in the process.

“My assistant, actually,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “Ms. Lerna is the most gifted student I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching.”

“Ohoho, a woman scientist!” the mayor boomed.  His barrel chest shook with short, barking laughter.   “Yes, well, I suppose anything’s possible these days!”  The mayor’s piggish eyes turned to the woman at the desk.  “Mildred, get the permits, won’t you dear?”

A dull look glazed over the woman’s eyes as she reluctantly turned back to the mess of papers on her desk.  “Of course, of course,” she grumbled.  “The permits.  Right.”

As Mildred hastily scoured her workspace for the permits, the mayor beamed at Dr. Bradbury.  “Now everything should be in order Doctor, though there is one order of business we should discuss.”

Lerna watched as one of Dr. Bradbury’s bushy white eyebrows rose up on his forehead.  The man had one of the best skeptical expressions Lerna had ever seen.  “What would that be?” Dr. Bradbury asked.

The thick walrus smile on the mayor’s face drooped into a nervous frown.  “Yes, well, the town government and I have agreed that you will need a police escort.”

Now Dr. Bradbury’s bushy eyebrows were furrowed in concern.  “Why exactly would we need that?  Unless your police are trained in spelunking-”

“No, no, it’s not about the mountain,” the mayor blustered, “It’s… look, I don’t want to frighten you off, but we’ve had a couple of grisly accidents the past couple of days.”

The politician’s coded explanation didn’t seem to make much sense to either Lerna or Dr. Bradbury.  “What sort of accidents?” Lerna asked.

Concern spread over the mayor’s pudgy features.  “The details aren’t for delicate sensibilities, my dear,” he said.  “Let’s just say that a few cars have been found in a state of disrepair, and the owners of said cars, well, haven’t.”

“Haven’t what?” asked Dr. Bradbury.

“Haven’t been found,” the mayor said.  “Now, personally, I think it’s just people being careless on the roads, but the police department seems certain that there’s foul play involved.  So, in the interest of safety and caution, we’ve arranged for one of our deputies to accompany you into the mountain.”

Suddenly Mildred emerged from the chaos of her paperwork with her prize in hand.  “Here we are,” she crowed, “Two permits.  Just need your signatures and dates.”

Lerna and Dr. Bradbury hesitantly signed the papers.  “Why do the police suspect foul play?” Dr. Bradbury pressed as he finished up his John Hancock.

“Search me,” the mayor barked.  “As far as I can tell it’s an open and shut case of human stupidity with a side of scavenging wildlife.  It’s an unusual number of car wrecks in quick succession to be sure, but a coincidence doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some sort of murderer about.”  A mischievous gleam came into the mayor’s eyes.  “If you ask me, our trusted boys in blue are just a little bored and want to play detective for a few weeks.”  The door behind them opened, and the mayor immediately puffed out his chest, gripped the sides of his jacket with his pudgy fingers, and beamed his walrus grin.  “Well, speak of the devil!  Deputy Collins, good to see you!”

A lean yet muscular man strode towards the group.  He had a slightly chiseled look about him, a little more cowboy than modern cop.  “Evening little lady,” he said while blatantly looking Lerna up and down. The cop turned his gaze to Dr. Bradbury, then to the mayor.  “Is this the egghead?”

“The esteemed geologist, yes,” the mayor grunted with just the slightest bit of irritation.  “You will be civil with them, Deputy.  They’re doing our city a great service.”

“They?” Deputy Collins said as his eyes scanned the room.  “Your eyes going funny, sir?”

“The girl is the Doctor’s assistant,” the mayor said, placing his arm on Lerna’s shoulder in a show of solidarity.  “The most gifted pupil he’s ever worked with, if I remember correctly.”

“Aw hell,” Deputy Collins spat, “It’s bad enough I’ve got to cart around some poindexter, but a girl too?  I knew they were letting dames into that mess, lord knows why, but saddling me with-”

“These two are guests of our town and will be treated with respect!” the mayor barked.  “Do I make myself clear, Mr. Collins?”

The scowl faded from the officer’s face, but did not wholly leave.  “Crystal, sir,” Deputy Collins said, shooting Lerna a skeptical glance.  “Alright, you city slickers, let’s get this glorified babysitting gig over with.”

The mayor harrumphed in agitation behind them, but made no further admonishments to the young policeman.  Lerna could hear the politician grumbling under his breath, though.  It was clear the town was putting a lot of stock in their mission going well, even if their escort was less than enthused about it.

“Take what you need from your car and hop in my jeep,” Deputy Collins said as they left the town hall.  “I don’t want my safety resting on whatever sort of jalopies you drive out there in civilization.”

Lerna and Dr. Bradbury reached into their car for bags containing brushes, picks, and other materials for their rather delicate work.  “The mayor mentioned that there have been some disappearances,” Dr. Bradbury said as he loaded the tools into Collins’s jeep.

“Ayup,” Collins half said, half yawned.

“And your department believes foul play is involved?” Dr. Bradbury continued.

“That’s why I’m here,” Collins said, his eyes gazing out towards the town with disinterest.

Unamused by the officer’s exaggerated display of boredom, Dr. Bradbury pressed on.  “And why exactly do they think that?”

Deputy Collins smirked.  “What’s the worst car accident you’ve ever seen?”

Dr. Bradbury frowned.  “A fender bender,” he admitted.

“Well, this ain’t no fender bender,” Deputy Collins sneered.  “We’ve found three cars over the last four nights torn to shreds.”

“That’s gruesome, but not unheard of,” Lerna said.  The deputy’s eyes flickered in her direction.

“Naw, see, it is unheard of,” Collins said.  “Cars can get wrecked, sure, but there has to be a collision.  Another car, a tree, a boulder, something to hit the car.  At the very least the car has to flip when it runs off the road, and even then it’d be unlikely there’d be this kind of damage.”  Spotting the confusion in his audience, Collins voice dropped an octave as he spoke more seriously.  “When I say the cars were torn to shreds, I mean it literally.  Something ripped the roofs, doors, and guts off of these vehicles.  Two of the damn things still had the parking brake on, for God’s sake.”

“And the third?” Lerna asked.

Collins looked at her, horror filling his eyes.  He rubbed his face and stared off into the distance before answering.  “We found it in pieces strewn out on a hill.  A lot of parts were missing.  It took us a while to realize it was another car.  I’ve never seen a car mangled like that.  It looked like… like it was chewed up.”

Both Lerna and Dr. Bradbury looked pale.  “That is rather unusual,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“Yeah, unusual,” Collins scoffed.  “It takes an unusual sort of lunatic to do something like this, that’s for sure.  Bet you get that type all the time up there in the city, though, right?”

“Not in my experience,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“Hmph,” Collins grunted.  “C’mon, get in the car.  The sooner we start, the sooner I get back to my job.”

Lerna and Dr. Bradbury exchanged knowing glance.  Neither one of them was particularly keen on sitting next to Deputy Collins, but eventually the doctor did the gentlemanly thing and sat up front.  Relief flood Lerna as she sat down in the backseat, until her eyes noticed something lying on the other side.

“Why is this car filled with dynamite?” she asked with muffled alarm.

“For the gee-logical survey thing,” Deputy Collins said.

“Why on earth would we need dynamite?” Dr. Bradbury asked.

“To seal up any unstable tunnels,” Deputy Collins said.  “You’re here to make the tourist trap safe, right?”

“We’re here to inspect the mountain, not destroy it!” Lerna said.

“That’s not how the mayor pitched it,” Collins said.  “The mayor said we were gonna make it nice and safe for people to take tours and crap.  So if we find any caves that are unstable, we seal off the entrance.”

“I sincerely doubt we’ll need to do any of that!” Dr. Bradbury huffed.  “It could cause untold damage to the cave.”

“Orders are orders,” Collins said.  “If you don’t think we need it, fine, but I’ve gotta take it along anyway.”  The policeman turned his key, making the jeep roar to life in turn.  The car slowly backed up before peeling out of the parking lot and roaring down the road out of town and into the countryside.

Lerna watched as they reached the city limits and once again entered the wild countryside.  Perhaps to some the landscape would have seemed desolate and barren, but Lerna found it captivating.  The patches of thick, wild shrubs, the grayish green grass, and even the long stretches of loose soil and stones all called out to her in their primal splendor.  She saw a world of savage opportunity; a harsh environment, yes, but one that was still teeming with life if one knew where to look.  It wasn’t too dissimilar from the environments the object of her study were believed to have lived, in fact.

“So you two study rocks, huh?” asked Deputy Collins, snapping Lerna out of her idle thoughts.

“To a point,” Dr. Bradbury responded.  “We’re actually a bit of a specialized hybrid.  You ever hear of paleontology?”

“Nah, that word’s got too many syllables,” Collins said.

“It’s the study of prehistoric life,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“Prehistoric?” Collins said, perking up a bit.  “You mean like those big lizards, those whatchamacallits-”

“Retrosaurs,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“Retrosaurs!  That’s it!” Collins hooted.  “Man, I had a book of those as a kid.  Never could get their names right though.  What was the big one – y’know, the one with the sharp teeth?”

“A lot of retrosaurs fit that description,” Lerna said.

“Naw, I mean the biggest one with the sharpest teeth!  You know, the real mean one, always fighting the one with the horns?” Collins was smiling now, fondly remembering the monsters of his youth.

“Ah, you mean Dynamosaurus imperiosis,” Dr. Bradbury said, “The largest known member of the Paleo Tyrant family.  Though some hypothesize that it may be the same creature as Manospondylus gigas, in which case that name takes precedent.”

It took a few seconds for Deputy Collins to figure out exactly what Dr. Bradbury had said.  “Naw,” he finally grunted, “Dynamosaurus is a way better name.  I mean, I can actually say it, first of all.  That other one’s just a mouthful.  ‘Sides, monster like that needs a name you can shout.  ‘DYNAMOSAURUS!’  Way better than Manosplodolos or whatever.”  He looked at Dr. Bradbury with a childish grin.  “You think we’re gonna find some big lizards up there, doc?”

Dr. Bradbury smiled.  Collins might have had his rough edges, but Dr. Bradbury could never resist kindling a passion for the prehistoric in others when he found it.  “Well, not alive, certainly, and they’re technically closer to crocodiles than lizards, but yes, there is a strong possibility we could find some retrosaur fossils in the mountain.  We are rather close to one of the larger bonebeds in the state after all.”

“No foolin’!” Deputy Collins said, his grin getting wider by the minute.  “My nephew would just about flip if it turned out we had a…,” Collins trailed off, looking to Dr. Bradbury for confirmation when he said, “Dynamosaurus?  Right, a Dynamosaurus in our back yard.  Kids, they love these retrosaur things.  Cute kid, my nephew.”  Coppola glanced at Lerna in his rearview mirror.  “What about you, toots?  You got any cute nephews or nieces?”

Lerna’s glare was a bit more withering than she intended it to be.  “Nope, no siblings,” she replied.

“Shame,” Collins said, undaunted.  “Must be kinda lonesome at family reunions.  You should fix that.”

Lerna wanted to ask exactly what the man was implying, but that would be taking the bait, so she kept her mouth shut.  She watched from behind as Deputy Collins’s lecherous grin slowly twitched and grew more uncomfortable as he realized his attempt at flirting had fallen flat.  That gave Lerna a little satisfaction at least.

Sadly, the man was undaunted, faking a cough before trying again.  “So, a woman in the sciences, huh?  Y’know, my daddy predicted that.”  Collins smiled wide.  “Yessir, he said ‘Give the women the vote, and the next thing you’ll get is women scientists.’”

“Is that right?” Lerna said, watching from the corner of her eye as Deputy Collins struggled to figure out whether this new tactic had worked.  It was a puzzle that was a tad too large for him.

The gears shifted in Collins’s mind once more as he tried yet another avenue of attack.  “So, you got a first name, sweetie?”

“Mina,” Lerna said.

“Well Mina, what got you into the whole science thing?” Collins asked.

That worked.  Lerna’s whole body picked up, and for the first time she actually focused on Collins instead of trying to blend into the upholstery.   “Well, I’ve been fascinated by biology since I was a child,” Lerna said, her green eyes sparkling with enthusiasm as she spoke at a near breathless pace.  “Herpetology in particular, at least at first, but I was ultimately drawn to prehistoric life because of the mystery behind it.  This world was so radically different at one point – there were titans of flesh and scale walking the earth the likes of which we’ll never get to see.  I’ve always wanted to learn more about them, so paleontology was a natural pursuit.”

Dr. Bradbury, who had heard Lerna gush many times before, smiled knowingly as she declared her interest.  Deputy Collins, on the other hand, didn’t know what to do with the sea of words issuing out of the woman’s mouth.  “Yeah, yeah, sounds swell,” he said, trying to rerail the conversation into something he could discuss, “But it must be kind of time consuming, right?  Not a lot of time to start a family.”

As if a switch had been flipped, Lerna went from attentive and energetic to cold and disinterested again.  “I suppose that’s true.”

Deputy Collins could tell he has said something wrong, but no matter how he wracked his brain and went over his words, he could not figure out what exactly it had been.  A few seconds of quiet as he tried to puzzle this out turned into a few minutes, eventually lingering into a long and dreadfully awkward silence that held through the rest of the drive to the mountain.

Thankfully, awe at the strange sight that loomed larger and larger before them quickly took their minds off the ill mood that had killed the conversation.  The Hollow Mountain was even stranger to behold up close.  Lerna saw where soil that had covered its stones was slowly seeping through the newly made crack in its surface.  Shrubs and other plants that had once rested comfortably on its surface were now struggling to keep purchase in the dirt.  Strangest of all was the open interior of the mountain – hundreds of feet of newly exposed stone, open to the world for the first time in millennia, if ever at all.

There were a number of caves in the newly exposed surface of the structure, but the clear winner, the one that tourists would flock to, lay almost dead center in the mountain: an enormous tunnel roughly four hundred feet high at its mouth.  Stalactites and stalagmites clustered at its opening, making it resemble the gaping maw of some giant monster.  Lerna loved it.

A path had already been cleared to the mouth of the great cave, allowing its three human visitors to park right outside their destination.  “Here it is,” Deputy Collins said with as much pomp as he could muster, “The Hollow Mountain.”

5 Hollow Earth captionless.png

Chapter 2: The Hollow Mountain

Most of Lerna’s field research had taken place in pre-discovered bone beds out in the open air, so the young woman couldn’t help feeling a rush of excitement as she took her first steps in the cave.  There wasn’t a high likelihood they’d find anything of interest, but stepping into the dark mouth of the mountain filled her with wonder all the same.  How strange and wonderful would it be to discover some new fossil lodged in the wall of this ancient rock?

“Hey, lady, don’t you want a flashlight?” Deputy Collins called to her, snapping Lerna out of her daydream.  “It’s pretty dark further in, y’know?

Lerna turned around and smiled sheepishly.  “Sorry, got lost in the moment,” she said as she graciously took a flashlight from his hand.  Dr. Bradbury was shuffling behind them with two bags of equipment.  The old man pulled out a clipboard and pen, then offered them to Lerna.

“We both need to take notes,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “I’m going to write down the more detailed findings this time.  I’d like you to put things in layman’s terms for the mayor’s sake.  Will that be alright, Ms. Lerna?”

“Yes, Dr. Bradbury,” Lerna said.

“I’m also entrusting you with drawing the first map,” Dr. Bradbury said, winking when he added, “You’re better at sketching these things than I am anyway.”

“Of course, Dr. Bradbury,” Lerna said with a faint smile.  Her hands wrapped around the clipboard as she turned her flashlight on and aimed it at the wall, casting a brilliant ray of illumination on the long untouched stone.

“You two lead the way,” Deputy Collins said as he cast his own light towards the cave floor to look for signs of activity.  “Tell me if anything looks unstable, and I’ll tell you if it looks like we’re not alone.”

They proceeded methodically from there, at least at first.  Dr. Bradbury would select a notable spot of the cave to serve as a station, eyeball a measurement of distance between it and the last station, then tell the rough measurement to Lerna so she could update their working math.  Both scientists would periodically stop to collect samples of the rocks from the cave, occasionally mumbling comments with words like “sedimentary”, “luster”, and “cleavage.”    Deputy Collins, being far less interested in the local minerals, kept his eyes peeled for any unusually disturbed dirt, misplaced mud, or, the Holy Grail, footprints.  While he wasn’t certain the killer he was after was hiding in this cave, everyone in his department agreed the Hollow Mountain was the most ideal hiding place.

Light grew scarce the deeper they plunged into the cave, yet it never disappeared completely, even without the glow of their flashlights.  Deputy Collins didn’t know to comment on that; he wasn’t much of a spelunker.  Lerna and Dr. Bradbury, however, eventually took notice, and started looking for the source of the very dim illumination.  They looked in all directions, eventually looking upwards to the ceiling of the cave.  There, hundreds of feet above their heads, hung thousands of tiny, dimly glowing green lights, looking for all the world like viridian stars.

“What are those, Dr. Bradbury?” Lerna asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor admitted.  “I’ve never seen anything like them before.”

Deputy Collins looked up.  “Well I’ll be,” he muttered, “Glowing rocks.”

Since the ceiling was still hundreds of feet above their heads, neither Lerna nor Dr. Bradbury could collect a sample, and so the team move on.  Luckily, the strange glowing stones didn’t dwindle as they traveled further through the cave.  Instead, their number slowly increased, and eventually their size did as well.  Twenty minutes and a good deal of walking later, the team could clearly make out the shape of some of the larger crystals, which hung down like giant dagger shaped stalactites.  The more crystals there were, the more light filled the cave, and eventually they were clustered together so thickly that the team didn’t need their flashlights to see where they were going any more.

“Y’know, I may not be a rock scientist,” Deputy Collins said, “But I’m thinking this sort of thing isn’t normal.”

“No, it isn’t,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “I’ve never encountered a cave system with its own internal light source.  This is something new.”

The wonder of the scene took particular hold of Lerna, whose eyes scanned the room dreamily as they traveled from crystal to crystal before settling on some oddly pale rocks in the corner of the room.  For a split second she didn’t understand why her gaze was focusing on them, but slowly she recognized something familiar in the incongruous stones.  “Dr. Bradbury, look!” Lerna said, “Fossils!”

Both scientists darted off towards the white stones.  Even at a glance the paleontologists could tell they were the bones of a retrosaur.  “It looks like a member of the Paleo Tyrant clade,” Lerna said excitedly as they stooped to examine the ancient carcass.  “Look at the size difference between the forelimbs and the hind legs!”

Dr. Bradbury was looking, but he didn’t look excited as Lerna expected.  Instead his bushy eyebrows were furrowing in frustration.  “Lerna,” he said, “Do you notice something odd?”

Lerna looked closely at the bones.  “They’re free,” she said, “They’re not attached to the earth.”

Her mentor stooped down and picked up one of the carcass’s femurs.  It was heavy, but not nearly as heavy as a rock that size should have been.  “This isn’t a fossil,” he said.  “This is real bone.”

“That a problem?” Deputy Collins said with feigned interest.

“Yes,” Dr. Bradbury said, “Because these bones could only belong to a retrosaur, and the last retrosaur died sixty five million years ago.”

Lerna couldn’t believe it.  She picked up the corpse’s skull to make sure, and, true to her mentor’s words, it was unusually light.  The texture and weight didn’t lie: this was bone.  Old bone, perhaps, but bone nonetheless.  Examining the head also showed it was clearly from the retrosaur family, as the number and arrangement of the fenestrae on its cranium could only come from that particular clade.  “Do you think it’s a hoax?” she asked Dr. Bradbury.

“If so, it’s an impressive one,” the doctor said.  “This feels just like real bone, and there wasn’t a lot of time for a person to set this up.”

“Ain’t it kinda small to be a retrosaur, though?” Deputy Collins said, finally focusing on the pair’s discovery.  “I mean, that thing looks about ten feet long, which is big, sure, but those things were supposed to be as big as houses, weren’t they?”

“Not all retrosaurs were giants,” Lerna said, “But you’re right, it would be unusually small for its clade.”  She looked at the skull’s eye sockets before turning to Dr. Bradbury.  “Maybe it’s a juvenile?”

The doctor looked over the skull as well.  “Large eyes… yes, perhaps,” he said before looking pensively at the glowing crystals on the ceiling, “Though that may have been an adaptation to deal with this dim light source.”

Deputy Collins scratched his head, spit, and glanced at the carcass.  His casual interest turned to fear as he noticed the creatures large, sharp teeth.  “So you’re telling me some ancient lizard was living in this cave recently enough to leave behind fresh bones?”

“Possibly,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“Well, then ain’t it possible there could be more?”

Lerna and Dr. Bradbury shot each other frightened looks.  “That is possible,” Lerna said, her voice trembling ever so slightly.

Deputy Collins nodded grimly and released the safety on his pistol.  He strode ahead of the two scientists with his right hand hovering close to the holster on his hip.  “Let’s keep moving then.”

As the policeman moved on ahead of them, Lerna turned to Dr. Bradbury and asked, “How could this skeleton be real?  Everything in the fossil record indicates the retrosaurs died out sixty five million years ago!”

“True, but the fossil record is incomplete,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “Fossilization is an extremely complicated process that requires a lot of specific circumstances.  You know this, Ms. Lerna.”

“Of course,” Lerna said, her eyes still flickering back to the skeleton as they finally followed after Deputy Collins.  “But sixty five million years of a creature that size completely evading notice?  No ancestors were preserved?  It boggles the mind!”

“What was that famous line from Hamlet?” Dr. Bradbury asked idly.  “Ah yes, ’There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’  Our science is young, Ms. Lerna.  We have to be open to new ideas, no matter how strange.”

Lerna couldn’t help scoffing, “Can’t that be taken to dangerous extremes?”

“Undoubtedly,” Dr. Bradbury replied.  “We live in the Age of the Atom.  Dangerous extremes are the way of our profession these days; all the more reason to do our jobs right, eh, Ms. Lerna?”

“It’s just,” Lerna fumbled to find the right words, “…difficult to fathom.”

Dr. Bradbury nodded.  “Do you remember my colleague, Dr. Tomoyuki Yamane?” he asked.

“Yes, you’ve mentioned him often,” Lerna said warmly.  Her mentor held few people in as high regard as his Japanese associate, and many of Bradbury’s lessons were built off of theories the two had developed together.

“Dr. Yamane is one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “He traveled across oceans in his youth just to attend our university, and his fresh outlook on the field of paleontology was endlessly helpful.  Here was someone who cared nothing for the rivalry of Marsh and Cope, or any other petty politics in our current crop of experts.  He was simply fascinated by the bones themselves.”  The old man smiled as he was swept up in a sea of fond memories.  “I can’t tell you how often his open eyes saw what my narrow vision blinded me to.”

It took a moment before Dr. Bradbury realized that he had trailed off, leaving Lerna alone to watch as he remembered better days.  “Yamane took a vested interest in cryptozoology – the science of those kooks who hunt yetis, lake monsters, that sort of thing.  He wasn’t necessarily convinced these creatures existed, you understand, but he was open to the possibility of their existence.  A scientist must always be open to the possibility of things that have not yet been proven false, no matter how bizarre or unlikely they may seem.  Occam’s razor applies, of course, but sometimes the truth is far-fetched.”

Lerna nodded in understanding, but another question now gnawed at her.  “Dr. Bradbury,” she said, hesitating as she knew she was about to broach a very serious topic, “You’ve never told me what happened to Dr. Yamane.  Why isn’t he at the college with you?”

A gloomy look fell over Dr. Bradbury’s face.  “He had left to reconnect with his family in Hiroshima a few months before the Pearl Harbor attacks,” the old man said, “And had trouble coming back afterwards for reasons that should be fairly obvious.”  Dr. Bradbury’s thoughts turned inward, and when he spoke again Lerna knew it was more to himself than to Lerna.  “The academic community scrubbed his name off of all our work.  I argued against it, but they didn’t listen.  It’s always rubbed me raw that he’ll never get credit for his work.  The war stole his life and his legacy.”

A palpable silence was about to descend on them, but Dr. Bradbury nipped the emotional weight in the bud by grunting, “Well, now, let’s catch up to our daring boy in blue.  Come along, Ms. Lerna.”

Something strange was in the air when the pair of scientists rejoined Deputy Collins.  “You smell that?” the policeman asked them as they came up to his side.  “That’s fresh water.  Listen – you can hear it too.”  They listened, and indeed there was the faint babbling of a moving stream.

“Your hypothesis is getting more and more credible,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“My what now?” asked Deputy Collins.

“You thought that the corpse we found might have living relatives,” Lerna clarified.  “Water makes that more of a possibility.”

“Ah, ok,” Deputy Collins said, before muttering under his breath, “Crazy city slickers with their four dollar words.”

The sound of running water grew louder the further they traveled into the cave.  Stranger still, they could see more light coming from the other side.  Whatever chamber the path they were travelling led to must have had even more of those strange crystals inside it.

None of them could have imagined what they found at the end of the tunnel.  The room on the other side was massive and deep, stretching down far below the base of the Hollow Mountain and into the belly of the earth.  Despite this, the size of the chamber was far from its most notable feature.  Its ceiling was filled with the glowing green crystals, some of which looked larger than houses.  Below them was a sight so bizarre and surreal that the trio of humans starting at it could not believe their eyes: an entire forest of ancient trees the size of skyscrapers filled the chamber, fed by artificial sunlight produced by the crystals and sated by the three streams of underground water that ran through the chamber.

The trio gaped at the sight in absolute wonder.  Deputy Collins, with reverence in his voice, asked, “You ever see anything like this doc?”

“No,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “This is impossible.”

“It’s like something out of Jules Verne,” Lerna said in awe.  “Look at the trees.  They’re all cycads.”

“What’s a cycad?” asked Deputy Collins.

“A type of tree that was far more common in the Mesozoic era than it is now,” Lerna said.

“Are they normally the size of buildings?” Collins asked while looking at the forest beneath them.  “Because that seems a lot more interesting to me.”

“No,” Dr. Bradbury answered.  “No, these trees are far larger than anything I’ve ever heard of before.  Even sequoias don’t get this high.”

“This shouldn’t be possible,” Lerna said.  “These plants need sunlight and nutrients and a steady water supply.  Even with the illumination of those strange crystals, and even if we imagine some of the river water hits their roots, there can’t be enough to sustain plants of this size.”

“And age,” Dr. Bradbury added.  “To grow this large, these plants would have to be hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years old.  How could such an ecosystem last?”  The old man scanned the room with his eyes, eventually realizing the ledge they were on connected to a slope that led further into the chamber.  “Let’s make a trek down, shall we?  I want to get a closer look if I can.”

Descending on the slope was a lot easier than expected.  The path was at least fifty feet wide and fairly flat, almost as if it had been paved for use.  It followed the cave wall all the way to the bottom of the chamber, and the trio couldn’t help marveling as they got closer to the enormous forest.  The trees were positively looming over them when they got to the halfway point of the slop, blotting the ceiling of the chamber from their sight.

A horrific shriek tore shattered the air with such force that Lerna, Dr. Bradbury, and Deputy Collins couldn’t help reeling in pain and clutching at their throbbing ears.  It was followed by a monstrous wind that screamed through the treetops, knocking all three humans off balance.  Dr. Bradbury and Deputy Collins fell backwards towards the cliff wall.  Lerna, however, doubled over in the other direction, plunging off the side of the slope.

Despite their pain and confusion, both Dr. Bradbury and Deputy Collins saw Lerna’s fall.  The old man tried to rush to her aid, but the wind was too strong and knocked him into the dirt.  Collins had a bit more luck, half walking and half crawling to the ledge just in time to see Lerna’s form hit a stream below with a large splash.  “She hit the water!” the policeman said.

“Oh God!” screamed Dr. Bradbury.

“She hit the water, doc!” Deputy Collins said.  “There’s a chance she made it!  We just gotta get down there!”

Above them, something horrible shrieked again.

~ ~ ~

Night had fallen outside the Hollow Mountain.  The sky was clear, allowing all the locals to get a good look at the bright stars hanging in the otherwise pitch black night.  Beautiful as the stars were, the light they provided was scant, and thus few saw the colossal shape that silently soared out of the entrance to the Hollow Mountain and, with a flap of its enormous leathery wings, sailed high into the sky.

The town had been alerted to the possibility of danger by the police, but few citizens had changed their routine.  Most shared the mayor’s doubts, believing that the car wrecks, while grisly in their details, were mundane; the result careless driving mixing with poorly paved country roads.  The adolescent populace was particularly skeptical, which is why two teens were now parked on one of Generiton’s many hills that had been informally titled “Makeout Point.”

“Nice night, huh Judy?” said the male of the pair, a muscular member of the high school’s football team.  His hair was cut short and he had a jaw the shape and size of a brick.  Like any notable jock, he wore a letterman’s jacket that he kept in pristine condition.  The boy nonchalantly stretched one of his gorilla arms over to the back of Judy’s car seat before smiling lasciviously.

“Definitely, Archie,” said the girl.  She was blonde, thin, and entirely too perky: the stereotypical cheerleader, and just the sort of girl guys like Archie went for.  “Look at the stars!”

“There’s only one star I care about, Judy,” Archie said as he looked at his date.  His eyes drooped down at first, but eventually they rose to eye level.

Judy caught Archie’s gaze and smiled sheepishly.  “Oh, Archie!”

“I’d give every star in the sky to be with you,” Archie continued despite not being entirely sure what he was actually saying.  The words didn’t matter all that much as long as they sounded steamy enough to work.

“Oh, Archie!” Judy exclaimed again, almost lost in the shallow romance of the moment.  However, a passing shadow in the sky above was curious enough to draw her out of the haze.  “What was that?”

“What was what?” asked Archie, annoyed at being drawn off script.

“Something blotted out the stars for a minute,” Judy said.

“It’s probably just an airplane,” Archie told her.

“Must have been flying low,” Judy said.

“Sure,” Archie said as he clumsily tried to sit closer to her.  “Anyway…”

“Awful low, considering how close we are to the mountains,” Judy said.  “Do you think they’re in trouble?”

“I dunno!” Archie snapped.  “Look, Judy, let’s get back-”

A hideous screech interrupted the boy,  and was so loud and shrill in pitch that the car’s windows shattered and burst at the noise.  Archie and Judy both screamed as shards of glass rained into the car, throwing their arms up to cover their faces.  Both had their eyes shut and blocked, preventing them from seeing what was happening, but their ringing eardrums still picked up the sounds of something massive landing on the earth with a mighty thud behind them.  Then the car rose above the earth while its metal shell groaned and squealed in protest at some horrid pressure that was mounting on every side of its surface.  The roof and doors caved in as gleaming, yellow-white spikes at least four feet in length punctured its chassis.  The teens let out one last scream in unison, only to be cut off suddenly by a sickening crunch.

Seconds later, the mangled wreck of the car was spat out.  Ten foot long black talons peeled the broken wreck open, exposing the core of pulped meat within the inedible metal shell.  The mighty predator slowly pecked at the car’s interior until most if not all of the delicious red paste was consumed, then rose up into the sky once more to continue the night’s hunt.

~ ~ ~

Choking and spluttering, Lerna emerged from the stream with her whole body wailing in protest.  Her dress was soaked, her legs battered and bruised, and her lungs full of far more water than she was comfortable with.  The poor woman hacked and coughed as much water up as she could before lying down on the beach to catch her breath.

“Holy hell,” Lerna moaned as she lay on the dirt.  “What on earth was that?”

Bright green light filtered through the trees that loomed high above her, warming her soaked skin.  It was a beautiful if strange sight, particularly from this view.  Never had she felt this small, and never had she felt so happy at being so dwarfish.  Lerna was inspired by how microscopic she seemed in the scope of the peculiar forest.  The world was far bigger than her problems, and that was oddly comforting.

After a few relaxing minutes, Lerna’s senses returned to her.  With them came a dreadful realization: “I’m stuck at the bottom of the mountain,” Lerna told herself, “Dr. Bradbury and the policeman may not know I survived, and even if they do, they don’t know where I washed up.  I am alone in a strange ecosystem that may be harboring a large predator.”  The redheaded woman stood up and clenched her fists in determination.  “I need to get out of here.”

Facts flew through her mind in a fast yet orderly manner, guided by the logic and reasoning Lerna had used to effectively run her life thus far.  “I fell into the stream and was carried here,” she thought aloud, “So if I follow the stream in the opposite direction of the current I can find the ledge.  From there I can follow the ledge to where it meets the floor, and then climb my way up and out of the mountain.”  Lerna smiled at her own brilliance.  “Easy.”

Something nagged her from the back of her mind.  She remembered white fangs gleaming from a reptilian skull.  “I might need protection,” Lerna told herself as she searched the shoreline for something thick and heavy.  Eventually she found a piece of driftwood; it was big enough to be a branch, but in shape looked more like a splinter.  It was light enough for her to carry, but big and heavy enough to pack a wallop.  In other words, it was a good weapon.

“I’ve got my plan and I’ve got my stick,” Lerna told herself.  “Let’s get out of this mess.”

While terror and residual pain from the fall still gripped her, Lerna’s wonder slowly rose in her again as she walked alongside the stream and the ridiculously immense forest.  She felt like an ant in a prehistoric jungle, with ancient cycads stretching up above her as far as the eye could see.  It was as exciting as it was humbling, and at times Lerna almost felt as though she were walking in a dream.

Then she tripped over a vine.  Or, rather, a vine tripped her.  The redhead fell to the ground again, though thankfully much softer this time, and felt something tugging at her ankle.  Lerna spun around on the floor to see one vine wrapped around her left leg, and three more slithering over towards her.  A less creative person might compare their movements to snakes, but no animal moved as jerkily and strangely as these creeping tendrils of foliage.  Lerna kicked furiously, but she could not stop the vines from wrapping around her and slowly dragging her towards the forest.  Soon she saw an immense shape in the gloom, looking like some cross between a venus fly trap and a pitcher plant.  Its wide pod opened up expectantly as the vines drew Lerna closer to its gaping mouth.

Tightening her grip, Lerna swung her stick high into the air and brought it crashing down on the vines.  Two suffered horrendous gashes and snapped apart when they tried to pull her further, while the other pair remained strong.  Another blow snapped a third vine and crippled the last, allowing Lerna to tear free.  The plant was undaunted, however, and more vines crept out of the shadows towards the woman.

A large, jagged rock nearby caught Lerna’s eye.   With a quick leap she dodged the advancing vines and landed near the stone.  Lerna hefted the sharp mineral over her head and tossed it at the plant’s central pod.  The rock struck true, smacking into the carnivorous plant’s bulky form and breaking through its tough outer wall.  Digestive enzymes leaked out of the ruptured pod as the plant’s vines retracted in apparent agony.

Lerna wasted no time in escaping, running back to the shore as fast as her bruised and weary legs could carry her.  Her plan was all but forgotten as a pressing urge to get as far from the forest as possible.  Panic continued to hold her in its sway until she finally ran headfirst into a large rocky wall on the edge of the stream.  Even then, she didn’t stop for long, scaling the surface without taking time to absorb the details.  The strange fact that there was suddenly some tall ledge of stone in the middle of the beach didn’t hit her, nor did the fact that said stone was predominantly green in color.  While the surface she was climbing up was certainly sturdy and solid, a more cognizant person might have noticed that the “rocks” were a bit more flexible and pliable than is normal, and that their texture was oddly smooth.  They may have noticed the comparative warmth, or the fact that the rocks were moving ever so slightly.  Lerna, however, was so scared that she noticed none of these things till she reached the farthest edge of the ledge – and even then, she only noticed when the ledge’s eyes opened beneath her.

Tyrantis and Lerna.png

Chapter 3: Kingdom of the Giant

Something was crawling on the beast’s back.  The scaly titan barely noticed at first; the thing, whatever it was, weighed almost nothing, to the point where the beast could only barely feel it through his thick scales and sinews.  He only noticed the creature when it crawled down the back of his skull, past his horned eyebrows, and onto the smaller of his two nasal horns.  It was a strange little thing, blue bodied with pale extremities and a small tuft of orange fur on its tiny little head.  The beast’s eyes focused on it with a degree of curiosity.  He had never seen anything like it before.

“Oh Christ!” the little thing squeaked as it noticed the beast’s gaze upon it.  Its limbs shook and wiggled in panic as it scrambled along his nasal horn.  “Oh God in heaven!”

What a curious thing it was, making so many strange, distinct noises.  It had the beast’s attention, so much so that he decided to quit his long nap to inspect the creature.  Without thinking, the monster stood up to its full height, a staggering one hundred feet.  The thing on his nose was terrified, just as any other creature would be if they were suddenly lifted a hundred feet off the ground.  For his part, the beast was amused by his visitor’s panic.

“Easy big guy!” the thing squeaked as loudly as it was able, which wasn’t very loud at all, “Easy big green!”

Big Green took things easy, despite not understanding the tiny creature’s words.  His senses were on alert now, and he noticed the strong scent of his guest.  Only a few other animals were that pungent; the hairy kind, specifically, which tended to have a great deal of oil beneath their thick fur.  Big Green hadn’t seen many of them in his long, long life underground, but the few that he had met tended to be a little odd.  It seemed having a lot of hair made creatures kind of twitchy and erratic.  Hairy creatures didn’t seem to know how to take their time and scope things out like others did.

He had never seen a hairy creature as small as this one, though, and it was strange in other respects too.  Most of its body was actually hairless, and its limbs were partially covered by a strange, brightly colored flap of skin that hung loosely on its body.  The skin flap, which was blue, was so loose that it almost looked like it was separate from the thing’s body, like how some of the leggy creatures would climb into different shells.  Its squawking was also oddly complex, though it was so faint that sometimes Big Green wondered if he was only imagining differences.

Whatever the strange creature was, it looked scared.  Empathy stirred in Big Green’s heart.  He didn’t want to frighten the poor thing to death, and so he tried to console it.  A great rumbling hiss burbled in his throat, the kind his mother had used to calm him when he was a hatchling centuries ago.  Sadly, the intended effect was lost on the little creature, who curled up into a ball and whimpered instead of relaxing.

This wouldn’t do at all.  Big Green’s primitive brain boiled and belched as he tried to think of a solution to the conundrum.  He could just shake the little thing off, but he was fairly certain that would kill it, and the poor little critter didn’t deserve to die just because it crawled onto his nose.  It wasn’t calmed down by his parental gurgle, which meant his limited means of communication had been exhausted.  How could he get the thing off of him and to safety?  What could be safe for one so small?

Big Green thought and thought until finally it hit him.  Herds!  Small things, rare as they were in his home, tended to move in herds.  One could compensate for smallness by having a lot of friends.  While he had never seen something as small as the creature on his nose, Big Green bet it had come from a herd of some sort.  He was sure that if the little critter saw its family below, it would know he meant no harm all along, and would rejoin its herd and go on to live a safe and tiny life free of worry or fear.

Confident that he had found the perfect solution, Big Green took a great and mighty sniff of the air.  All the pleasant aromas of his current home filled his nostrils: the scent of fresh water, the earthy tones of the trees, the pleasing stink of raw meat and spilt blood, until finally he found the one strange, new stench.  It was nearly identical to that exuded by the thing on his nose, although obviously far more distant.  A second sniff helped him pinpoint its approximate location, and with a pleased snort Big Green turned in its direction.  The earth shook at his first foot fall while his legs, which were thicker than the average tree trunk and more powerful than a locomotive, thrust the hundreds of tons of reptilian flesh that made the behemoth’s body forward through the world.

On the monster’s nose, Lerna could only watch as the leviathan barreled through the landscape.  Even after everything she had experienced earlier this day, she could not believe what was happening.  She was riding on the snout of a Paleo Tyrant – a member of the most fearsome retrosaur clade, the largest predators to walk the earth.  This beast in particular, however, positively dwarfed every paleo tyrant in the fossil record.  Even the largest, Dynamosaurus, would look miniscule in comparison – this monster could eat it in two bites!

Yet for a predator of unimagined size and power, the creature was acting incredibly gentle.  Its body, a mountain of densely packed muscle wrapped in armored scales, was maneuvering around the gargantuan trees of the cavern with surprising grace and delicacy.  While the giant’s every move made the earth tremble with its weight, Lerna sensed no malice or destructive intent in the creature’s actions, and though it had clearly noticed Lerna’s presence, it made no efforts to harm her at all.

Perhaps she was too small to register as food in the reptile’s mind.  The scientist took a moment to examine exactly how miniscule she was in comparison to the giant.  Three horns stood on top of each of the retrosaur’s eyebrow.  The smallest of these horns still had a few inches of height on Lerna.  Likewise, the shortest of the long, curved fangs that protruded from the monster’s upper jaw were only a foot shorter than Lerna herself, and larger in terms of overall mass, while its largest fangs could easily be seven feet long.  The beast’s eye was so large that she could fit comfortably in its pupil, and overall its skull was roughly the size of a house.  She was little more than a crumb to a creature this size, and probably cost more energy to catch than she would give when digested.

Still, wouldn’t the monster want to get her off its snout?  Most creatures tried to scratch off any small invasive animal on their skin.  While the behemoth’s arms were proportionally small, as was often the case for Paleo Tyrants, Lerna knew it could have at least grind its snout against the ground to rub her off, or shake its head to dislodge her.  She’d seen lizards do as much in captivity.  Instead the beast had just looked at her, gurgled, and started tromping through the woods.

Lerna thought about the gurgle.  It was loud and terrifying at the time, but she felt it was a familiar noise.  Did some alligators make similar sounds to communicate with each other?  The noise was somewhere between the hissing bellow of a male crocodilian looking for a mate, and the plaintive squeaking of a baby crocodilian in distress.  A parental noise, perhaps?  Did the monster have offspring nearby?  Was it carrying her towards the offspring to feed them?  That was a terrifying thought, and Lerna tried her best to strike it from her mind.  There wasn’t anything she could do about it if it was the case anyway; she was completely at the monster’s mercy.

Big Green was so happy that he let out a joyful reptilian groan from deep within his belly.  His little friend was probably having the time of its life right now.  The leviathan kept trying to think what it must be like to be that small.  Had the little creature ever been up this high in its life before?  He doubted it.  The creature must have marveled at the view.  He wondered if it was smart enough to know how lucky it was.  Out of all the little things there were in the world, it was probably the only one who would ever get to feel as big as he was, even if only for a minute.

It must have felt safe, too.  Big Green smiled.  A little thing like that must have been in peril its whole life.  The world was so large, and Big Green was far from the only large living thing in it.  All those large things would make life pretty scary for a small little critter!  How lucky this tiny creature was that it found a kind soul like him to shepherd it back to its family.  Maybe the tiny thing wouldn’t even want to leave!

That thought turned sour quick.  Big Green hoped the creature wouldn’t abandon its family.  Sure, it’d be fun to pal around with a giant like him, but family was important.  The leviathan knew that all too well; he’d been trying to start one unsuccessfully for a while now.  He might be able to find the little creature’s herd, but his own kind were far more scarce.  He hoped the little creature valued what it had, for what it lacked in size, it made up for in company.

A basic need flared up in Big Green’s reptilian brain: thirst.  Surely the little creature wouldn’t mind if he stopped for a drink.  Big Green suddenly turned and stomped back to the river, crouching slightly slower than normal to make sure he didn’t drop his passenger by mistake.  He paused near the bank for a full minute; his eyes carefully scanning the water to make sure no other creatures were nearby.  Patience like this was a vital survival skill, as hasty drinkers often got dragged down to the depths by the beasts that hide beneath the waves.  When he was confident the coast was clear, Big Green lowered his head to the stream, opened his deadly jaws, and peacefully lapped water into his dry throat.

For a brief moment, Lerna was terrified that the monster was going to try to wash her off its snout, but thankfully it had stopped long before she could reach the water.  She guessed there were about twenty feet between her and the stream as the retrosaur took gulp after gulp of water into its leviathan gullet.  Its breath reeked of raw, rotting, and, oddly enough, charred meat, the later scent far exceeding the former two.  Though unpleasant, the stench was far weaker than Lerna would have imagined.

She wondered whether she should try to jump for it.  There was a chance she might get sucked into one of its gulps, but Lerna was a fairly strong swimmer, and the monster would probably lose interest if she dove deep enough into the stream.  With few other options before her, Lerna tensed up and prepared to jump.

Big Green noticed his passenger was looking at the stream and tensing up.  Was it going to leap into the waves?  That was a terrible idea!  It might never find its family if it left him now.  He could make the distance in a few minutes, but a creature as small as the little thing would have to travel much longer!  The reptile hastily drew its head up from the waters and stormed off to keep his tiny friend from doing something foolish.  Though his thirst was not fully sated, he knew he could always drink again later.

“What the hell?” Lerna shouted at the monster as it thundered back into the forest.  The creature had thwarted her on purpose!  The rational part of her brain told her that was ridiculous, that she was anthropomorphizing a reptile, but the big green lug had looked directly at her with is massive yellow eyes before suddenly jerking its head out of the water.  How else could she interpret that?  It had deliberately kept her from jumping into the stream.

Uncannily, the reptile emitted a low, rumbling moan in apparent response to her shout.  Its tongue clicked against the roof of its mouth a few times as its yellow eyes turned up to look at her again.  She was right.  It was still focused on her, and was reacting to what she was doing on its snout.  Why was it preventing her from leaving?

While logic told her that panic was still the best response, Lerna settled down on one of the retrosaur’s two nasal horns and tried to puzzle things out.  The giant wanted her to stay on its nose for some reason, and gurgled and grunted at her on two occasions while looking directly at her.  The “feeding its kid” hypothesis could possibly account for this, but how often did predators talk to their prey?  How often did reptiles communicate with other species at all?

The world rushed by Lerna as the monster stomped through the forest, though she imagined it seemed like a leisurely pace in the monster’s perspective.  With nothing better to do, she took stock of the sights.  Despite how impossibly tall the retrosaur was, the trees were even taller, though she was high up enough to see parts of the ceiling through the canopy.  Green light bathed the cavern from above, filtered through the equally green leaves to the shaded ground below.  It was a bizarre and humbling sight.  Beneath them were many strange and unusual plants, all of which seemed to be carnivorous and somewhat animate.  She saw tendrils and vines writhe and curl to escape her ride’s massive footfalls.  Though to her the plants were monstrous in size, they were mere wildflowers compared to the bulk of the behemoth she sat upon.  If she weren’t terrified, the experience would be rather thrilling.

~ ~ ~

Outside the Hollow Mountain, high in the endless sky, flew a terrible predator of tremendous size.  The air buffeted its enormous wings as it flew, caressing the long flaps of leathery skin as its powerful arms beat against the winds.  The monster’s red eyes closed in primeval contentment as it tasted the fresh air.  Though its entire long life underground, the savage killer knew on some instinctual level that it belonged here in the open air with a great wide world of food to plunder and pillage.

There were a few problems, of course.  Nothing was perfect.  Food was hard to catch here, as all the animals the monster had encountered were ridiculously small.  Some were even mostly inedible; there were things that looked like tiny beetles with hard shells that were painful to swallow.  The predator had learned quickly to tear them open instead and slurp down their sweet innards, which squirmed and squeaked at its approach.

The second problem was more of a curiosity.  A few days ago, when the creature first made an effort to truly explore this strange new world, it came across a place that glimmered beneath the night sky.  This didn’t seem odd at first, as there were plenty of places in the underground that disrupted the lovely shadows with pockets of green radiance.  When the monster got closer, however, it realized it was looking at something much different: a great hive or colony of insects, some of which climbed into those strange beetles to go to and fro.  It was a bizarre and disgusting sight: a city of living innards.  Of course, that also made it very appetizing, and only the creature’s fear of the unknown had kept it from setting down in the strange hive and treating it like a buffet.  Perhaps tonight it would be brave enough to give the city a taste.

Further inspection was needed first, so the monster swooped down lower to give the glowing hive another look.  Many of the tiny inhabitants were moving to and fro, for the night was still very young and there was still much to do.  The creature watched them for a while, internally debating whether or not it would be risky to land and slurp them up.  It flew in circles for a while as it sorted out its thoughts before ultimately deciding to head back to its home in the Hollow Mountain.  Exploration could wait for another night.

~ ~ ~

“Man eating plants!” Deputy Collins shouted in exasperation as he pulled Dr. Bradbury out of the broken wreckage of what was once a rather deadly carnivorous flower.  He’d just finished bashing the plant’s vines into green paste with a rock and then disemboweling its stem to release the good doctor and was more than a little irritable.  “First we find some monster skeleton, then that horrible wind or whatever it was, and now we’re dealing with man eating goddamn plants?”

“At least you weren’t in it,” Dr. Bradbury said in a voice as dry as his clothes were wet with digestive acid.

“Lucky for you,” Deputy Collins snapped, then added, “For both of us, actually, since I doubt your old bones could have cracked that thing open.”

The paleontologist made no audible reply, though he shot the deputy a scornful glance.  “Ms. Lerna still needs our help,” he finally said after raking a bit of digestive slime off his coat.  “Come along.”

“You still think she’s alive?” Collins asked as he drew his gun again.  “She could have survived the fall, sure, but a jungle full of man eating plants and who knows what else?  If she’s alive it’ll be a miracle, and even then she’ll probably be frightened out of her mind!”

Dr. Bradbury continued walking.  “Ms. Lerna is much stronger than you give her credit for.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s fared better than we have, in fact.”

“How much you want to bet?”

The ground shook beneath the pair.  Tree trunks in the distant gloom groaned and twisted as something pushed its way between them, while a small puddle of water near the two humans rippled with the vibrations of some distant and massive footfall.  Deputy Collins stifled a scream and raised his pistol while Dr. Bradbury merely waited and watched to see the source of the great noise.

A massive reptilian head emerged from the trees.  It was short and blocky like a lizard’s, with a snout covered in two thick, squat horns.  Each of its scaly eyebrows was tipped with more horns, those these were taller, thinner, and significantly less sturdy looking.  Its mouth, which was set in an alligator grin, had an overbite composed of dozens of massive, railroad-spike shaped fangs.  Two enormous yellow eyes stared out of its green face, each much larger than either of the two men before it, as it scanned the forest for prey.  Eventually the monster’s gaze fell upon the two men, and with a satisfied grunt it continued to walk towards them.

Deputy Collins unloaded his entire clip into the creature; however, despite being in close range, and despite his target being larger than a barn and actively moving towards them, not a single shot had any effect on it.  Either they all had missed, which was highly improbable, or they had failed to pass through the colossal reptile’s thick skin.

“Run old man!” Deputy Collins shouted, but Dr. Bradbury didn’t hear him.  Too many thoughts were going through the paleontologist’s head to acknowledge the impending doom.  It was understandable, of course.  What man in his profession wouldn’t be awestruck by the sight of a living retrosaur?  Up until now all the details of its living body were up to the imagination: the rich green coloration, the mix of lizard-like and crocodilian scales that covered its body, the fact that some of its armor was made of keratin while others were made of boney osteoderms, and of course the strange reptilian grace and precision of its movements.  Even its forearms, which were proportionally miniscule in comparison with the rest of its body, were fearsome parts of this prehistoric death machine, being incredibly muscular and sporting three long, defensive keratin spikes on the downward facing side to protect the creature’s belly and flank.  There was no safe way to attack this royal maneater.  It was an impenetrable juggernaut; the perfect prehistoric predator.

It also had something on its snout.

This last fact got Dr. Bradbury’s attention even as Deputy Collins ran away and left him in the monster’s path.  Something strangely familiar was clinging to the smaller of the reptile’s two nasal horns.  “Ms. Lerna!” Dr. Bradbury exclaimed.

The thing on the retrosaur’s nose turned and shouted back, “Dr. Bradbury!”

The retrosaur, almost defiantly, walked past the doctor.  Its tail, a massive cord of armored skin and muscle, swung around in an impressive arc, narrowly missing the nearby trees as it crashed into the ground well past the old man to cut off Deputy Collins’s escape.  As the policeman wet himself at his near fatal collision with the monster’s tail tip, the great reptile slowly lowered itself to the ground until its bottom jaw rested only a few feet away from Dr. Bradbury himself.

All four of them  – Lerna, Deputy Collins, Dr. Bradbury, and the monster – were still for a long, lingering moment.  While the humans were fearful and confused, the reptile had a rather simple minded grin on its scaly face, its lower eyelids rolling up in content as it breathed deeply and slowly.  Eventually Lerna, being the bravest of the three mammals that were present, stood up from her perch and slowly descended the retrosaur’s snout.  She started well at first, as the reptile’s scaly skin provided some decent hand holds, but slipped about halfway through the climb.  Dr. Bradbury shuffled as quickly as he could to catch her, but the collision was so strong that both were knocked to their feet.  As they lay on the ground, Deputy Collins threw his gun at the beast’s enormous face in a last ditch attempt to drive it away.  The reptile barely felt the impact, if at all, and didn’t register the intended threat.

When Lerna and Dr. Bradbury got to their feet, and Deputy Collins joined their side, the massive reptile stood back up and returned to the gloom of the forest.  It spared only one last parting glance as it left the humans, and a part of Lerna swore it saw the corners of the beast’s mouth curling upwards in a small smile.  Perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

“What the hell was that?” Deputy Collins asked.

“Judging by its distinctive overbite, I’d guess it’s a descendant of Dynamosaurus imperiosus,” Dr. Bradbury said cheekily.

“What?” Deputy Collins spluttered, wondering why the old man was speaking gibberish.  It took a few seconds for him to remember what that latin name meant.  “You mean that was a retrosaur?  A living retrosaur?  They got that big?”

“No,” Lerna said with a huff.  Her lungs were still dealing with the panic that had been coursing through her body all day, but the terror was turning to excitement now that she was apparently safe.  “No, the biggest paleo tyrant on record is less than half as tall as that creature was!  This is just… amazing!”  The woman gave a great whooping cry as she jumped into the air with glee, her normally stern and aloof persona shattered by the monumental discovery.  She hugged Dr. Bradbury and then pulled back, still gripping the old man’s shoulders as she said, “It’s incredible, isn’t it?  Not only a living retrosaur, but one so large that it defies our current understanding of the size and weight limits of terrestrial animals!  That thing’s large enough to eat a blue whale for God’s sake!”

Though he was stunned by the unimaginable weirdness of what had just happened, Dr. Bradbury couldn’t help catching Lerna’s infectious enthusiasm.  “Why yes, yes it is,” he said with a smile.  “Dear God, what a discovery!”  With the motor in his mind now running, the old man soon matched Lerna’s giddy excitement blow for blow.  “Did you notice the creature’s strange ornamentation?”

“I did!” Lerna said.  “I saw it close up!  Its armor was a mix of osteoderms and keratin scales.”

“Unheard of in modern animals,” Dr. Bradbury chimed in, “But we know some of the herbivorous retrosaurs exhibited such a mix, so it’s not as though it’s horribly unlikely.”

“Strangely mixed, too,” Lern said.  “Most of its horns and spikes were made of bone, as far as I could see, save for the ones on its neck and on the underside of its arms.  Those spikes were made of hardened scale.”

“Perhaps a need for greater flexibility in those areas?” Dr. Bradbury suggested.  “It must have a very violent life to need so much armor, especially as a predator.  Any flexibility it can preserve must be utterly necessary.”

“Perhaps,” Lerna said, mulling over the solution for a second before changing the subject, “And you saw the horns on its cranium?”

“Yes!” Dr. Bradbury answered, “Very strange!  Two on the snout and three over each eyebrow for a total of eight.  Very curious.  The most I’ve ever seen on a fossil is three.”

“The eyebrow horns seemed very light and flexible,” Lerna said.  “I don’t think they’re firmly rooted to the skull like the thicker horns on its snout.  They seemed articulate.”

“For what purpose I wonder?”

“Identification?” Lerna proposed, “Or perhaps communication?  It made a variety of noises while I was riding it.  I think this species must be very social.”

“Yeah, speaking of that,” Deputy Collins interrupted, finally finding a place where he could get a word in between the hurricane of science talk, “How exactly did you manage to convince it to give you a ride over here?”

Collins had found the one question that the scientists were least prepared to answer, even as hundreds of others were swarming in their thoughts at that very moment.  “I don’t know,” Lerna said.  “I accidentally crawled onto it when it was asleep.  I mistook the creature for a ledge, you see.  When it woke up it looked at me, made some noises, sniffed the air, and eventually came across you two.”

“Paleo Tyrants were believed to have a strong sense of smell,” Dr. Bradbury said.  “It may have been tracking us by scent.”

“That doesn’t explain why it brought her back,” Deputy Collins said.  “It’s a honking big lizard, not Goddamn Lassie!”

“I’ve been wondering about that too,” Lerna said.  She looked to Dr. Bradbury for answers, but the old man seemed lost in thought.

“Yamane,” Dr. Bradbury said finally, “Yamane did research on animal intelligence, back when we were trying to determine how one particular retrosaur could have controlled its massive body with a comparatively tiny brain.  There are some apocryphal stories of wild animals behaving in oddly benevolent ways towards humans – you know, feral children being raised by wolves and that sort of thing.  But I can’t recall any that involved reptiles.  Scientific consensus holds that they are too primitive for cognitive thought, or even any emotion beyond fear and agitation.  However, Dr. Yamane held onto the notion that our understanding of animal intelligence was crude at best, possibly even in the case of lower beings like reptiles and insects.”

“So it’s possible,” Lerna said, “But not probable.”

“Yes,” Dr. Bradbury said.

“Much like a giant carnivorous retrosaur surviving in a subterranean ecosystem is possible but improbable?” Lerna asked.

“That, my dear, is entirely impossible,” Dr. Bradbury said with a smile, “Or at least it was before today.”

Deputy Collins was once again lost in the nerd speak, to the point where he was literally scratching his head in confusion.  “What I’m getting from this is that you two don’t know what the hell is happening.”

Dr. Bradbury and Lerna looked at each other, then at Collins.  “Correct,” the said in unison.

“Alright,” sighed Collins.  “Since you two are useless, it’s up to me to figure this out.”  The policeman’s scrunched up around his nose as his mind shifted into gear.  “Big lizard with sharp teeth, eats meat, not scared of people…” he trailed off as his thoughts collected into something resembling an idea.  “I’ve got it!  It’s a predator, right?  Well, when a predator doesn’t fear people, it’s a maneater.”

Lerna’s brow furrowed.  “But it didn’t’ eat us,” she protested.

“So it wasn’t hungry just now,” Collins said, sidestepping the counterargument.  “It still tracked us down, probably to make sure it could find us when it gets hungry later.  Point is, that thing must have been what destroyed those cars.  It chewed them right up.”

“It’s definitely large enough to destroy a vehicle,” Dr. Bradbury said, “But without leaving tracks?”

“Maybe they were just too big for us to notice!” the policeman barked.  “You’re asking too many questions!  We’ve got an enormous and dangerous animal in here that has already killed a number of people as far as I’m concerned.  We need to seal off this cave.”  He could see both Lerna and Dr. Bradbury start to protest and decided to silence them first.  “Either you come with me or I seal you in with it.  I ain’t letting that thing get to town.”

Lerna wanted to argue on the reptile’s behalf, or at least for the multitude of world shaking scientific discoveries that still lay in the cavern, but she knew the cop was right.  As benign as the retrosaur may have acted towards her, it was capable of leveling Generiton just by taking a stroll down Main Street.  “For the safety of the town,” Lerna said, and Bradbury reluctantly nodded in agreement.

The journey back was shorter than they expected.  Maybe the thrills and chills of their time in the cave gave them excess energy, or maybe the trio was stronger than they realized, but after thirty five minutes or so of climbing and running they were back at the mouth of the cave.  The car stood nearby, untouched since their arrival, with its precious load of dynamite waiting to be used.

“The floor’s pretty flat, right?” Deputy Collins said.

“What, of the cave?” Dr. Bradbury responded.  “Fairly so, why?”

Collins opened the driver side door and started the engine.  “’Cause we ain’t got time to spare.  Hop in.”

It was a risky move, but the cave was wide, time was of the essence, and it wasn’t like jeeps were incredibly hard to come by.  Lerna and Dr. Bradbury quickly entered the vehicle and gathered the dynamite while Deputy Collins drove straight into the mouth of the cave.  It was a bumpy ride, but between the Jeep’s solid craftsmanship and the impressive driving skills of Deputy Collins, they got along alright.  They parked thirty feet or so past the skeleton they had found earlier, near a part of the cave that had a significant number of stalactites.

Though Lerna and Dr. Bradbury tried to help, Deputy Collins did the lion’s share of the work, setting up bunches of dynamite all along the cave floor and even stacking some against the wall.  Each cluster shared a wick, which Collins then tied to the wicks of the other clusters to make one long fuse for the entire bunch.  “It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” Collins said, “So help a guy out, eggheads.  This look like it should disrupt the stability of the rock?”  The scientists nodded in agreement, and Collins, smiling at his own genius, motioned for them to get in the car.  They drove with the far end of the fuse until it was taught, parked, and lit the fuse.

On the other side of the cave, in the great chamber of the Hollow Mountain, Big Green heard an enormous bang followed by the sound of falling rocks.  It would have been incredibly mysterious and awe inspiring had he not survived a massive earthquake weeks before.  However, one thing that followed the explosion managed to attract his attention: a smell of smoke.  The retrosaur had always been drawn to the fumes of flames, and lumbered off in the direction of the blast to investigate.

Outside the chamber, the three humans looked at their success.  The tunnel had successfully caved in where the dynamite went off, while the rest of it was still incredibly stable.  In fact, the only sight that the rest of the cave had even noticed the explosion came from the strange crystals hanging from the ceiling, as for a moment they shone much brighter than normal before dimming back to a more tolerable radiance.  Though their adventure had technically ended with a bang, it all still managed to feel rather anticlimactic.

There was just the slightest sound of something large and leathery flapping every so faintly behind them, and they only noticed the dull thud that followed it because of the sheer immensity of the thing that hand landed ever so delicately and quietly behind them.  The three humans turned around to see another massive beast perched behind them, its white, scaly body drawn up as its blood red eyes focused on the collapsed tunnel.  Horror dawned on the trio as they saw the pale creature’s wicked fangs, some of which still had bits of shredded car stuck between them.  By trapping one monster in the cave, they had inadvertently locked the worse one out.

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Chapter 4: Tyrantis vs. Ahuul

The massive white beast stared intently at the sealed off tunnel.  This was an unexpected development to say the least.  After a few days of exploration, the monster had felt it was developing a good routine: come out at night to hunt, return to the lair before dawn, avoid the green enemy and enjoy a life of plenty.  Now it was cut off from its lair and the green enemy, which left only the outside hunting grounds to call home.  Doubt and worry plagued the flying creature’s mind.  It had yet to find any adversaries in the wide open world, but it had only been exploring for a few nights.  What if there were other creatures as territorial as the green enemy out there?  What if there was something worse?

On the other hand, the human hive still sat out there.  Perhaps this was a sign.  Maybe fate had sealed this tunnel in an effort to make the reptile gather its courage and truly reign over the outside world as king of the wide open sky.  The creature liked the thought.  It was time to feast.

Movement below caught the attention of the monster’s blood red eyes.  There were three of those little moving innards on the ground, one of which was fiddling with some shiny rock or something while the other two stood still.  The fiddler raised its shiny rock towards the monster and emitted six yipping barks in quick succession, and then fiddled with the shiny rock again.  Next to the creatures was one of those strange beetle shells.  The poor doomed creatures probably didn’t know how helpless they were.

Deputy Collins was still reloading his gun when Dr. Bradbury whispered, “Young man, take Ms. Lerna into the car and hit the gas.”

The policeman looked to Bradbury and, recognizing what the stern look on the old man’s face meant, silent agreed to the plan.  He quickly grabbed Lerna’s hand while Dr. Bradbury bolted in the other direction, which is to say, closer to the flying monster.

“Dr. Bradbury!” Lerna shouted as Collins pulled her towards the car.

“You’re my most gifted pupil, Ms. Lerna,” Dr. Bradbury said as the pale retrosaur’s eyes followed him to the other end of the cave.  “Explain this to the world!”

Lerna tried to protest, to struggle, and to run after her mentor, but everything was moving so fast that she felt almost like she was standing still.  It all played out before her in slow motion, with her body too dull to react even as the unstoppable chain of events played out before her.  Collins pushed her into the passenger seat.  The flying retrosaur’s head turned to follow Dr. Bradbury to the opposite wall of the cave.  A roar came from the engine of the jeep as it swung around.  The retrosaur’s head darted downwards, obscuring Dr. Bradbury from view.  The jeep squealed as it tore out of the cave, knocking back dust and pebbles in its wake.  Behind them, the flying monster turned to follow.

“Always wanted to see this thing move at top speed,” Deputy Collins said as his foot hit the gas like a lead weight.  The jeep roared again as it thundered out of the cave and onto the poorly paved country road, handling itself admirably well despite its perilous course.  Lerna, on the other hand, was not handling the peril quite as well, and even someone as emotionally stunted as Deputy Collins recognized.  “He was a good man,” Collins told her, “Cared for you a lot.”

“Thank you,” Lerna said quietly.  In the rear view mirror she saw the pale form of the retrosaur following slowly behind them, its red eyes glinting wickedly.  The monster wasn’t moving fast, apparently content to take its time since catching up to them would be easy.  As soon as it reached the mouth of the cave it spread its wings, whose dark blue membranes seamlessly blended in with the night sky, and rose into the air.

“It’ll catch us,” Lerna whimpered.

“Nah it won’t,” Deputy said, craning his neck out the window to look up.  “We’ll move serpentine and confuse it.  Everything will be fine.”

In the sky, the monster weighed its choices.  It could peel apart the beetle now, of course.  Though the insect moved fast, the creature could fly much, much faster.  However, the insect was heading straight toward the glowing hive, and that was where the real feast was.  Why settle for an appetizer when the main course was already served?  The flying creature decided to spare its prey for now, and instead flew past the beetle in pursuit of the larger feast.

“Ha, damn thing lost sight of us!” Deput Collins said as the monster flew past them in the sky above.  “See that, lady?  It’s heading right past us.”

Lerna’s eyes, already wide open in despair, grew wider still as she realized what that meant.  “You mean towards town?”

“Heh, yeah towards…,” Collins trailed off as he also realized what that meant.  “Oh shit.”

“Do you have a radio?” Lerna asked.

“Yeah, yeah!” Collins spluttered as he quickly fumbled through his pockets and picked up the device.  “Sheriff DeBourge, you read me, over?”

A voice crackled over the radio.  “I got you Collins.  What is it, over?”

“Sir, you won’t believe it,” Deputy Collins said.  “The mountain’s full of monsters and one’s heading to town, over!”

“…Deputy, are you on the sauce?  Over.”

Collins frowned and bit his tongue.  “No I am not drunk, sir!  I’ve got one of them scientists – the palegeologists or whatever.  She can back me up.  Over.”

“Alright Collins, I’ll bite.  What sort of ‘monsters’ are we dealing with?”

“First there was this big green one, musta been a hundred feet tall.  It’s one of them retrosaurs like in the kiddie books.  A pale… Paleo Tyrant?  Is that-” he looked to Lerna for confirmation, and she nodded.  Pleased, Collins continued, “We trapped that one with a cave in.  You must have heard the boom, over.”

“Ok, so you trapped this, uh, what’d you say, a ‘Ty-ran-tis’?  You trapped this ‘Tyrantis’ in the cave.  That’s why the dynamite went off – not because, you know, your actual job was to seal off dangerous sections of the cave.  Nice try, Collins.  Over.”

“No, sir, listen!”  Collins nearly screamed.  “There’s a second one!  A flyer!  It’s headed right for town!  We trapped it outside by mistake!”  The Deputy waited for a response, before remembering he had forgotten an important piece of protocol.  “Over!”

“Sure, Collins, a flying lizard.  Real funny, hotshot.  I know escorting a couple of city slickers ain’t your idea of a thrill, but this is a waste of my valuable-”  The walkie talkie abruptly cut out as, far ahead of them, something large dropped out of the sky and into the city below.

~ ~ ~

Big Green had finally reached the site of the cave in.  A kaleidoscope of smells seeped in from the cracks between the fallen rocks.  There were lingering traces of smoke, which, while pleasant, were not accompanied by the other smell he had hoped to find alongside them.  There was the faint oily smell of the tiny mammals, as well as the familiar stink of his most notable and aggravating neighbor, but not the far more familiar smell of another member of his own species.  Dejected, the green retrosaur turned away.

Then another smell, far more distant yet coming from a strong source, wafted past the beast’s nostrils.  It was the smell of hundreds of tiny mammals all clustered together mixed with the alluring coppery scent of blood, with a hint of smoke and, in its center, the wretched stench of the reptile’s obnoxious flying acquaintance.  It only took a few seconds for Big  Green to figure out what the bouquet of smells meant: his hated enemy was attacking the nest of small mammals.

It wasn’t Big Green’s business.  As much as he disliked his neighbor, the flying monster had a right to eat what it caught and killed.  Big Green had done as much himself from time to time.  However, when he thought of the little mammal that had rested on his nose, his heart stirred.  Though he wasn’t entirely sure why, the great retrosaur started to dig out the rocks that had caved in the tunnel.  The least he could do was try to save some of them.

~ ~ ~

It was nine p.m.   The sun had fallen two hours ago, and the night was still young enough for people to be frequenting the few bars and restaurants that catered to the night owl crowd.  A good number of people were prematurely celebrating, as the mayor had assured them today that the geologists would find the Hollow Mountain to be perfectly safe for tourists.  Business was soon to be booming, and Generiton would finally be more than just some little town in the middle of nowhere.  Teens were drinking shakes in the two soda shops and dancing to the swinging dance tunes of the Thunder Lizards on the jukebox.  In the bars, many of the cops and business owners were toasting the town’s imminent fortune and success.  Some couples were simply walking the streets, enjoying the cool spring night.

Then something massive descended with impossible stealth in the middle of Main Street.  Its arrival was so surreal and silent that, despite taking place in front of dozens of witnesses and in the middle of many bright street lights, few people believed it actually happened.  An enormous reptilian creature with colossal leathery wings now stood in the center of town.  Most of its scaly skin was a sickly off white broken up by dark blue stripes.  Its underbelly was also a dark shade of blue to better hide its presence in the night sky.  A large, elaborate frill of skin hung limply over its shoulders and around the base of its neck, while a line of spikes ran along its back to its tail tip.  On its head were two large, blade-like crests, and its beak-like mouth was filled to the brim with jagged yellow fangs.  Long, cruel talons tipped its fingers and toes, each at least twelve feet long and poised to kill.  Yet worst of all were the creature’s eyes: two massive blood red orbs whose pupils were an almost invisible slit glinting with malice.

Everything was still for a moment as the town took in the sight of the monster, and the monster in turn took in the sight of the town.  The creature was the first to break the silence as it released an loud and wretched shriek, “AHUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUL!”

People screamed as the town exploded into chaos.  The flying creature’s head darted up and down as it nabbed five pedestrians within twelve seconds.  The survivors scattered, running in all directions to escape the monster’s hunger, yet few were fast enough to escape its slathering jaws.  Some patrons in the restaurants noticed the scene and, defying good sense in their panic, bustled out of the buildings in an attempt to flee.  Of course, the main result of this was that they were out in the open, and so more were caught in the monster’s jaws.  By the end of the first minute the creature had devoured at least thirty human beings.

Two of the town’s policemen were on the scene by this point, having left their bar of choice the second they heard that shrill and unearthly scream.  With little else to do, they drew their guns and fired upon the monster.  They were thirty feet away from the reptile at most, and not only was it bigger than a barn, but the darn thing was standing fairly still.  Yet somehow not a single shot had any visible effect on the creature, though the noise did draw its attention.  The last thing the cops saw was the monster’s blood red eyes turning upon them seconds before they were engulfed by a sea of fangs set inside two colossal jaws.

On a different side of town, Deputy Collins and Lerna arrived in a now very beaten up jeep, skidding to a halt at the city limits to take in what was happening.  A few blocks away they saw the monster at work.  Though parts of its body were obscured by buildings, its long neck and gigantic head were clearly visible as they darted up and down between bites.

“The damn thing’s gonna eat the whole town!” Collins yelled.

“There’s not a military outpost for miles,” Lerna said.  “How are we going to stop this thing?”

An idea struck Deputy Collins.  “Ms. Lerna, dig around in the back.”

Curious, Lerna did as instructed, crawling into the back of the Jeep and digging around the supplies there.  She quickly saw what Collins was thinking, as there was one last cluster of dynamite in the car.

“I only used what I thought was necessary,” Collins said, “Which turned out to be a whole lot, mind you, but not everything.  We got one last big bang in our corner.”  The policeman smiled devilishly.  “Let’s feed it to that sucker.”

“Deputy Collins!” crackled a voice on the radio.  “Deputy Collins, do you copy?  Over!”

Collins grabbed the walkie talkie.  “I hear ya, over.”

“Is this – the flying thing, it’s here?  Over?”

“Yeah, that’s the sumbitch, over,” Collins said.

“And the other one, the Tyrantis, it’s trapped?” said the voice.  “Over?”

“Yeah, the tyrant’s taken care of, over.”

“Then how do we deal with-” the voice was cut off as, further in the city, the monster released another ear splitting “AHUUUUUUUUUUUL!”

“…with Ahuul?  Over.”

“I got some dynamite, sheriff,” Collins said.  “Me and the scientist are going to shove it down the sumbitch’s throat.”

“Wait, just one scientist?  Weren’t there two?  Over.”

“Other one got ate,” Collins said bluntly, not noticing as Lerna winced behind him.  “We’re gonna avenge the old codger.  Over.”

“Godspeed.  Over and out.”

As Deputy Collins hit the gas and tore into town, Lerna looked at the dynamite.  “How are we going to get it to eat this?”

“Simple,” Collins said, “We’re gonna make it try to eat us.”  He noticed the shock in Lerna’s face and added, “Look, normally I’d say you’re excused from the almost-certainly-suicide mission on account of being a woman, but we got a town to save and I can’t hit the gas and throw the dynamite at the same time.  If either of us wants even a chance of survival, we have to do this together.  If we die, which we probably will, we still save the town.  If we live, we’re heroes.  You alright with that?”

Lerna thought of Dr. Bradbury.  “More than alright,” she said.  “Gun it.”

Collins smiled. “Yee haw!”

It took less than a minute for them to reach Main Street.  Ahuul was a couple blocks away gorging on more pedestrians.  Its claws had torn open one of the greasy spoon diners and were currently digging through the rubble in search of tasty corpses.  Lerna lit the dynamite’s fuse as Collins plowed down the road.

“Unbuckle your seat belt,” Collins told her.  “As soon as you throw that thing, we jump out.”

Lerna nodded in agreement.  Collins slammed his fist against the car horn, which blared so loud that Ahuul practically spun around in surprise.  The monstrous predator saw them coming and leered hungrily.  Its crooked jaws opened as its head swung forward, the jeep rushing to meet them.  Lerna threw the dynamite, and then both she and Deputy Collins bailed out of the vehicle as both the car and the bomb rushed into Ahuul’s gaping maw.

The explosion, while loud and impressive on its own, was dwarfed by Ahuul’s agonized shrieking and the violent thrashing of its massive body.  A nearby building was flattened in seconds when the flying monster crashed backwards onto it, while cars were tossed by the panicked flapping of its mighty wings.  As Lerna picked herself up from the pavement, her knees scraped and bleeding, her arms sore from the fall, she wondered if the plan had worked.

Then Ahuul’s massive skull rose into the air again.  Its eyes, which until now had been filled only with gluttonous hunger, now burned with volatile wrath.  The monster righted itself on the city street and turned its hideous gaze to Lerna.  A gunshot drew its attention away, however, as Deputy Collins stepped into view and continued firing point blank on the creature.  Ahuul shrieked and darted forward.  Collins, knowing this was his last shot, aimed for the creature’s eye.  Again the monster reeled in pain, as Collins had found the one vulnerable spot on its armored body.  The policeman contented himself with this Pyrrhic victory as Ahuul’s jaws snapped him up a few seconds later.

Lerna knew she should at least try to run, but she also knew there was little point to it.  As Ahuul once again turned his vengeful glare upon her, she stood still and calm in the face of certain doom.  Peace filled her heart as the jaws of death came ever closer.

An explosion filled the air, followed by a shriek.  Ahuul’s jaws pulled back as a fireball engulfed its neck.  The reptile fell backwards in pain once more and rolled on the ground to put the fire out.  Confused, Lerna’s eyes followed the trajectory of the blast backwards, traveling from Ahuul’s scorched neck across the city to the outskirts of town.  There, maybe twenty or thirty feet away from the nearest building, stood the green titan that had saved Lerna back in the mountain, who the police had accidentally named Tyrantis a few moments ago.  Smoke rose from his nostrils as the reptile’s yellow eyes and white, railroad-spike shaped teeth gleamed against the city lights.  His mammoth body was tense, with every colossal tendon wound tight and ready to pounce with deadly force.  Yet, despite his agitated body posture, the retrosaur didn’t look angry or scared; in fact, though she knew it skirted on anthropomorphism, the young woman could have sworn the green reptile was smiling with manic glee.

Ahuul had finally stamped out the flames and, to Lerna’s relief, had turned its full attention to Tyrantis.  The flying monster’s crooked jaws opened slowly as it released a croaking hiss that rose in pitch to become a truly hideous shriek of rage.  Spittle flew out of the creature’s mouth as its throat and jaws shook with the full weight of its scream, while its blood red eyes bulged furiously in a menacing glare.

Tyrantis’s reptilian lips curled up slightly to reveal more of his enormous fangs.  Then, with a sudden bob, he thrust his head forward and let loose his own roar, even louder than any of Ahuul’s shrill screeches.  It was a great trumpeting bellow, a deep and powerful howl of triumph and dominance.  Ahuul flinched back at the sound, lowering his head in reflexive submission to the Paleo Tyrant’s mighty roar.

However, it was not in Ahuul’s nature to submit for long.  The flying monster stretched out its enormous wings and pummeled the air, stopping only when it had raised itself two hundred feet off the ground.  Its blood red eyes were fixed on Tyrantis the whole time while its livid scowl grew worse and worse.  With an ear-splitting shriek it dove straight at Tyrantis with its talons – each at least ten feet in length if not more – aimed right at its enemy’s throat.

If Tyrantis was afraid, he didn’t show it.  Instead his reptilian grin just grew wider.

The initial collision was light, as Ahuul suddenly pulled up just a few seconds before its talons lashed Tyrantis’s face.  Both monsters knew Tyrantis was heavier, larger, and all around stronger, so Ahuul had to try to hit his foe without getting stuck on the ground.  They had done this dance more than a few times by this point, as both monsters routinely fought over their shared territory.  The nature of their feud had shifted, though, and both could tell the other was taking things a lot more seriously this time.

Tyrantis snarled as his enemy’s claws raked his face, drawing tiny rivers of red blood from the green goliath’s scaly skin.  The jade giant shook his head in retaliation, nicking Ahuul’s toes with the sharp horns over his eyebrows.  The flying monster’s pain tolerance fell short of Tyrantis’s, driving Ahuul back into the sky to rethink his method of retaliation.

Reptilian precision seeped from every flicker of Tyrantis’s eyes as he traced every movement of his flying foe.  The great carnivore stood absolutely still while his head moved in tiny, precise jerks to track the ivory menace.  It was no small task, either, as the dark blue underside of Ahuul’s body was perfect for blending in with the night sky.  Only the subtle fluttering of Ahuul’s leathery wing skin gave the soaring horror away, and even that was hard to track as the creature spiraled higher and higher into the sky.  There was a long, pregnant pause as Tyrantis struggled to keep track of his foe, and, unfortunately, the green monster’s keen eyesight eventually failed.  Ahuul had disappeared into the darkness.

A cruel screech assaulted Tyrantis from behind as something large slammed into the retrosaur’s back, sending the emerald titan crashing to the ground.  He looked up to see a cackling Ahuul rising back into the night sky and disappearing into the dark once more.  Hissing in agitation, Tyrantis got back up on his feet and let loose a furious bellow at his enemy’s dirty trick, only to be struck again as Ahuul went in for another dive.  The flying monster circled back and hit Tyrantis once more just as the green giant was getting up again, hooting in wicked glee all the while.

Humiliation flooded Tyrantis’s mind as the reptile let loose a throaty crocodilian below of frustration from deep within his gut.  None of Ahuul’s diving tackles had done significant damage to the colossal carnivore, but they had succeeded in breaking his concentration.  Sharp, stabbing pains wracked Tyrantis’s backside as the reptile struggled to his feet a fourth time.  The harsh wind beating down on him from above told the green titan all he needed to know: Ahuul was sinking its talons into him.  The flying monster shrieked triumphantly and dragged Tyrantis’s body forward on a collision course with the town.

The green reptile quickly figured out his ivory enemy’s plot: Ahuul was going to use Tyrantis’s sheer bulk as a bludgeon to crush the mammal hive, forcing most of the little creatures to the surface in the process.  Then the flying monster could eat them at its leisure.  Incensed, Tyrantis thrashed and flailed every articulate part of his body, but despite all his power he was unable to shake Ahuul’s determined grip.  With no other options, the jade giant decided to expend more of its most precious and rare natural weapon.  Smoke billowed from his nostrils as his throat glowed with a faint orange light.  Then, with a terrific bang, he spat a fireball straight at Ahuul’s face.

Once more the flying retrosaur released a blood curdling shriek of absolute pain.  Its wicked talons released Tyrantis as it flapped higher into the sky, screaming in agony as it desperately tried to shake the flames off of its head.  Below, Tyrantis scrambled back to his feet, his eyes locked onto Ahuul’s position even as his body rolled up off the ground.  The jade giant’s airborne opponent was distracted but out of reach, as its frenzied flapping sent it higher and higher into the sky.

Tyrantis’s tiny hands clenched furiously as he impotently watched his opponent gain altitude.  The ivory menace was out of leaping distance, but the flames on its face were keeping it from concentrating on flight, making it hover just out of reach.  There had to be some way Tyrantis could close the distance.  If only he could jump higher.

The emerald reptile’s eyes widened as a thought crossed its primitive mind.  Tyrantis crouched down in preparation for an impressive leap, then lowered his enormous head so his mouth pointed towards the ground.  Smoke rose from his nostrils as a massive fireball burst from his deadly jaws.  His legs kicked against the ground at the same moment the fireball struck it, propelling him into the air just as the flames exploded beneath him.  It was enough to launch him even farther than his normal leap, and the tyrant couldn’t help but smile as he looked up just in time to collide with Ahuul in midair.

The monsters tumbled to the ground below in a writhing heap of flapping wings, lashing tails, and slashing claws.  Ahuul shrieked while Tyrantis roared, and after some frantic wrestling the green monster had his white enemy pinned to the ground.  The flying monster flapped its wings impotently under Tyrantis’s savage talons, desperately trying to slap its mortal foe away.  Tyrantis merely reared his head back and out of the winged beast’s reach.  Black smoke billowed out of the jade giant’s nostrils as he glared at Ahuul with disgust.  His enemy glared back, its red eyes gleaming furiously beneath the moonlight.  Anger melted into panic when Ahuul noticed the bright orange light glowing from within Tyrantis’s throat and the sheer volume of the fumes billowing out of the emerald monster’s snout.

There was barely time for one last scream as Tyrantis’s jaws opened and unleashed a torrent of bright orange flames upon Ahuul’s prone form.  The green reptile emptied its reserve of explosive venom in one go to utterly bathe his enemy in fire.  Ahuul’s shrieks of agony mixed with the roar of the flames as Tyrantis finally relented, hopping backwards from the living pyre that was his burning enemy.  The flying monster immediately darted away once Tyrantis’s foot was off its chest, flapping its wings manically as the flames continued to consume it.

Ahuul spiraled through the sky in the general direction of the Hollow Mountain, only to crash straight into the entrance.  It continued to smash its way through the cave, shaking the already loose ceiling with every blind collision.  A great rumble came from the belly of the mountain, followed by the fury of falling rocks.  Tyrantis watched as the cave’s mouth was sealed shut by an avalanche, separating the Hollow Mountain and all its secrets from the world once more.  If the loss of his home shook him in any way, Tyrantis didn’t show it.  Instead he craned his head backwards and let loose a positively triumphant roar before collapsing onto the ground in exhaustion.

~ ~ ~

Few of the people in Generiton slept through the night.  Instead most eyes were glued to the sight of the enormous green monster sleeping just a few miles beyond the city limits.  There were some efforts to recover from the chaos of the night before, of course, but everyone was still on pins and needles.  After all, there was still a hundred foot tall prehistoric reptile on their figurative doorstep.  What was the point in cleaning up if there could soon be another mess?  The army had been called, of course, but it took ages for the mayor to get them to take the report seriously, and the nearest military base was quite a long drive away.  No one in town was prepared to deal with the beast, and so all the panicked citizens could do was sit and wait.

Tyrantis woke around noon, stretched, and squinted in the bright light of the sun.  He hadn’t seen a light that bright in hundreds of years – not since he was very small.  He looked at the human hive.  It was quiet and still, but no worse looking than it had been before he passed out.  They would be safe now that the mountain was closed again.

The green monster turned his gaze to the wilderness.  This world was massive and strange – quite unlike the underground tunnels he had called home.  There were probably many secrets yet to explore.  His heart beat faster at the thought of new sights, smells, and experiences.  It would be a great adventure.  The emerald reptile stood up, lazily lashed his tail from side to side, and grunted in satisfaction.  It was time to face a brave new world.

A faint sound caught his attention, and Tyrantis spun backwards to see what it was.  A small beetle-like thing with a shiny shell was scuttling towards him on four strange, rolling black feet.  It carried a familiar smell, and Tyrantis’s keen eyes quickly saw why.  The beetle, or whatever it was, carried the small red-headed human he had met before.  It stopped just a few yards away from him, far closer than any other human would dare to be, yet still at a fairly safe distance.

Lerna knew it was crazy to approach the monster.  She knew that, logically, she was being lethally foolish by getting this close.  However, when she met the monster’s gaze – and somehow she knew those massive yellow eyes were peering at her instead of just her car – she knew she couldn’t leave the beast alone.  There was more to the reptile than she understood, but with God as her witness, she would do all she could to bridge that gap, even if it meant she’d die trying.

Tyrantis smiled.  It seemed he wouldn’t be traveling alone after all.

 

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