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"What are you doing?" said Sharla the Swordswoman.
"I'm making plum brandy," said Vorn the Gladiator.
And he was, too. He was using a traditional recipe much favored by the fighting men of the city of Chi'ash-lan. Take a handful of dried plums. Add as much raw alcohol as it takes to drown a rat. Stir thoroughly. Wait for as much time as it would take for a rat to actually drown. Then drink.
"What are you doing here?" said Sharla. "Here. Now. That was what I meant."
"Where else would I be?" said Vorn.
"At Malfri Daldo Kobri Jem," said Sharla, intoning the holy name of the Sacred Grave of the Fossilized Mole.
"And what would I be doing there?" said Vorn.
"You know perfectly well," said Sharla.
And Vorn did. According to the ancient prophecy of Tambris, today was the day on which the Karshagrin Chronoclivity, a fracture in the space-time continuum, would open at Malfri Daldo Kobri Jem.
" ... upon which the City of Chi'ash-lan will be invaded by a monstrous regiment of Chickens, against which the mightiest of heroes will struggle in vain. Then will the City know the Rule of the Chicken. To the service of the Chicken will women bow. The Tyrant himself will dedicate his days to the happiness of the Chicken. The Chicken will he feed and the Chicken's droppings will he cleanse away. Yea, even the Tyrant! He will laugh when the Chicken is happy and weep when the Chicken is sad. And the City of Chi'ash-lan will be weakened by the Worship of the Chicken, and war will follow, and the City will be defeated by the Thogess of Naunt, and will bow to her milk in Humiliated Service, and will offer unto Her the Homage and the Tribute she demands."
Vorn knew all that.
"Vorn the Gladiator does not venture forth to do battle with chickens," said Vorn firmly. "That is not what Vorn the Gladiator is all about."
"It's beneath your dignity, you mean," said Sharla.
"But the whole city is in a panic. They need you, Vorn. You are our hero. Our slayer of dragons. You are the one who hunted down the koala, who dared the emu in its lair. Three times you played ice hockey, yet survived. This is a time of fear. And, in times of fear, the people need a hero."
It was true about the fear. The greatest name in prophecy was Tambris, and, down through the generations, not once had Tambris ever been wrong. In anticipation of an invasion of chickens, many people had fled the city. Many of those who had stayed were taking the sackcloth and ashes route, doing penance to atone for past sins. And an unfortunate chicken farmer had actually been lynched as a suspected enemy agent.
"Very well," said Vorn, with a sigh. "I will gird my loins and venture forth against the dread enemy."
And he did so, albeit with reluctance. His reason was not fear but scepticism. As far as Vorn was concerned, most prophecy was just so much meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Privately, he believed the priests had probably rewritten history to make Tambris look more prophetic than he actually was. The last thing Vorn expected was a breach of the space-time continuum, whatever that might be.
However, on schedule the Karshagrin Chronoclivity split open at Malfri Daldo Kobri Jem. The World We Know broke open with a diamond-splintering shriek, revealing a lurid orange fracture as wide as a river and as tall as the sky.
"Okay, okay," said Vorn, trying to suppress the lizards of fear which were doing somersaults in his unsteady bowels. "Then where are these chickens?"
And, gripping the great sword Zaftig in his two sweaty hands, Vorn prepared to do battle with an army of supernatural chickens.
"If my courage fails today," he said, "then cut my hair and feed my bones to parrots."
However, it was not chickens who came forth from the Karshagrin Chronoclivity but people. They were duly interviewed by Maple Pajora, the High Priest of the Cult of Applied Semantics, who determined that they were refugees from the Thrastolian Bazaar, a lost civilization which had been destroyed several thousand years earlier by a particularly aggressive meteor shower.
"There are thousands of them," said Maple Pajora. "Thousands and thousands. What are we going to do?"
"Sell them as slaves, one imagines," said Vorn.
And that was exactly what happened. Not that the refugees made very good slaves. None of the women knew the first thing about spinning or weaving, and none of the men could so much as shear a sheep. So they were sold in bulk to the Metal Mind which ruled Engor Hab, the seaport city state which had recently lost 75.94% of its population to the Black Death, and consequently was not too fussy about how it repopulated itself.
So far, so good.
And, when the Karshagrin Chronoclivity healed itself, it seemed that the prophecy had been disproved. Vorn went off to the mountains for his annual training camp, and thought no more about it. Until Sharla the Swordwoman came to see him.
"What are you doing here?" said Vorn in alarm. "You know women - "
"Can't come to the training camp," said Sharla, kissing him. "But this is an emergency."
Then she showed Vorn a box. It was made of plastic, a substance Vorn recognised from his days amongst the Ceramic Vampires. One surface of the box was, recognizably, a kind of television screen. The array of pimply buttons on the side undoubtedly constituted a control panel.
"What do you think this is?" said Sharla.
"It is a TV," said Vorn, taking the box. "It is a package of tricks which shows you things at a distance. We live, you know, on a planet which is round, like an orange. Overhead there are very clever things made of bright copper, which the Ceramic Vampires call satellites. They show pictures of the weather. The satellites, I mean, not the vampires. If you have a TV, you can see the weather, you know. And commercials, too, though I never did quite understand about commercials."
Vorn was getting excited, as he always did when he started talking about the Ceramic Vampires. It was one of his weaknesses. While people were generally too polite to talk about it openly, it was generally known that Vorn had been brainwashed by the CVs, who had filled his head with an enormous amount of dizzy nonsense about space, time and the universe.
Fortunately, the city of Chi'ash-lan had very good therapists, who could rectify even severe mental aberrations with some applied leather and iron. Consequently, Vorn usually kept quiet about his delusions. However, at certain moments he forgot himself, and this was one of them.
"It is not a television, whatever that is," said Sharla. "It is a chicken."
"A chicken?" said Vorn.
"A chicken," affirmed Sharla.
"No," said Vorn. "You are wrong. A chicken is a bird. It has two legs and two wings. It can fly, though not very well. It is good to eat, and for that purpose it is raised. That box is not a chicken."
"Oh no?" said Sharla. "Watch this." And she pressed a couple of buttons. In response, a picture of a chicken came to life on the screen. "See?" said Sharla, handing the box back to Vorn.
"That is not a chicken," said Vorn, vexed by Sharla's backwardness. "It is merely a picture of a chicken projected onto a miniature TV screen by mechanisms far too complex for your womanly head to possibly understand."
"Am too a chicken," said the chicken.
Vorn was so surprised he dropped the box.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!" wailed the chicken. "You dropped me, you dropped me! Pick me up, pick me up!"
Guiltily, Vorn picked up the chicken.
"I'm hungry," said the chicken. "Feed me, feed me."
"I can't feed you," said Vorn. "You're a TV image, you're not a real chicken, you can't eat worms and stuff."
"The blue button! The blue button!" said the chicken. "Press the blue button! It's flashing! Press it to feed me!"
True enough, the blue button was flashing. Vorn's thumb, hugely callused by his labors with the sword, moved toward the button. Then he restrained himself.
"No," he said.
"No?" said the chicken. "But I'll die!"
"Die, then," said Vorn, ruthlessly.
"You're cruel!" said the chicken.
"Of course I'm cruel!" said Vorn. "I'm a gladiator!"
"But I'm hungry," said the chicken. "It's so easy for you to feed me. Then I'll be happy, I'll be happy, really I will. I'll dance and sing, I'll worship you, I'll tell you happy stories, I'll be your friend forever and a day."
Then Vorn was moved. He wanted, more than anything else, to press that blue button. To make the chicken happy. But he restrained himself. And, before his eyes, the chicken sickened, sunk into death, then dissolved in perishing decay. Leaving Vorn feeling an absurd but ineradicable sense of guilt.
The little screen was now showing a purple egg.
"Hatch me! Hatch me!" said the egg, vibrating enthusiastically. "Press the purple button to hatch me!"
Vorn was moved to obey. He restrained himself - but it took an effort. And his was a will of iron. With a sense of foreboding, he turned to Sharla.
"Is this the one and only chicken?" said Vorn.
"Then," said Vorn, "just how many of these things are there?"
"Thousands," said Sharla. "Thousands and thousands and thousands."
It turned out that the refugees who had come through the Karshagrin Chronoclivity had possessed these chickens by the score. Naturally, the refugees had been plundered naked before being sent into foreign slavery, and thus the chickens had come into the possession of the people of Chi'ash-lan.
"At first, the chickens couldn't speak our language," said Sharla. "But they learnt very quickly. They talk to each other, it seems."
"Talk?" said Vorn. Then, hypothesizing, "At a distance?"
"It seems so," said Sharla. "What one chicken knows, all know."
"And?" said Vorn. "How fares the fair city of Chi'ash-lan?"
"It is as the prophecy predicted," said Sharla grimly. "Only worse."
Returning to the city of Chi'ash-lan, Vorn found it was worse indeed. Not only had the Tyrant become the voluntary slave of his personal chicken but Nazoora Petal, too, had surrendered to the invading monsters.
"You must fight against them!" said Vorn.
"But they're so cute," said Nazoora Petal. "Who could possibly resist something so cute?"
Vorn could. But, even for him, it was an uphill struggle to maintain his free will and independence. And the rest of the city? A disaster. Apprentices no longer labored, but played with their chickens instead. Slaves covertly raised their chickens in secret, despite an emergency law which had been passed to deny the privilege of chicken-keeping to slaves. Even the keepers of real chickens had abandoned their feathered charges to look after the incorporeal substitutes. If rumor was to be believed, honeymooning couples no longer went about the necessary business of propagating the species, but sat up all night comparing chickens instead.
Worst of all, the allure of the chickens was so great that the gladiatorial games themselves had to be canceled. The people would rather stay at home pressing buttons to cleanse away the phantasmal droppings of their chickens.
"Plainly," said Vorn, "if this goes on, then civilization as we know it will shortly cease to exist."
That was a self-evident truth.
And, in this time of emergency, Maple Pajora, the High Priest of the Cult of Applied Semantics, stepped forward to announce a message from the gods.
"This curse has fallen upon us because we have forgotten the true meaning of life," said Maple Pajora. "It has been revealed to me that the true meaning of life exists now at the core of a golden walnut in the entre of the Temple of the Silver Skull in the Citadel of Naunt. If our city is to be saved, that golden walnut must be brought to Chi-ash'lan and its inner truth revealed."
Now, Vorn the Gladiator was far from persuaded by this revelation. To start with, he firmly believed that the purpose of life was self-evident. The purpose of life is to drink beer, cuddle women and kill people. When you are a gladiator you know stuff like that.
But Vorn had the misfortune to be a hero. And, consequently, he found that people expected him to march on Naunt and wrest the Golden Walnut from the Temple.
"Grant me then the command of the army," said Vorn to the Tyrant, "and I will do what is necessary."
The army having been duly granted, Vorn marched forth. And, news of his advance having gone in advance of him, a countervailing army marched forth from Naunt, stationed itself on the far bank of the Dry River and made ready for battle.
Now, Vorn the Gladiator was no fool. He could see that the Dry River was a formidable obstacle, an obstacle potent against his elephants, his crocodiles and his highly-trained troupes of fighting kangaroos.
"Very well," said Vorn. "This is what we will do. We will send false spies to the enemy camp with news that my army has deserted. In the morning, I will march to the edge of the river with a small band of heroes. But I will not cross the river itself. Instead, the forces of Naunt will cross the Dry River and fall upon us in fury. Then the true weight of my army will descend upon them from the Golden Heights and sweep them away to defeat and ruin."
A simple plan, but Vorn was confident it would work. As, apparently, did others.
"An excellent plan," said Maple Pajora, the High Priest of the Cult of Applied Semantics, stroking his glossy green beard and smiling.
That night: thunder. In the distance: stormclouds. Somewhere upriver, rain was falling. As the bulk of Vorn's army withdrew under cover of darkness, imitating treasonous desertion, Vorn began to worry. The Dry River had the reputation for filling with extreme speed, producing the most monstrous flash floods. There was the danger that it would fill overnight, and all his planning come to nothing. The last thing he wanted was for a raging river to separate him from his enemies.
But, in the sullen and thunderous dawn, the river proved to be still dry. The bulk of Vorn's army having vanished, Vorn himself ventured forward with his small band of heroes. And the forces of Naunt, thinking him vulnerable, surged across the Dry River and attacked.
"Okay," said Vorn, looking back to the Golden Heights, where his army should now appear.
Something had gone wrong.
A memory flashed bright in Vorn's mind. Maple Pajora, stroking his green beard. Of course! The prestige of the priests was all tied up with their ability to accurately predict the future. The prophecies of Tambris called for the forces of Naunt to prevail, therefore a victory in Naunt's favor must be arranged.
"Treason!" said Vorn. "Bloody treachery and treason! By the Feathers of the Chicken, he will suffer for this!"
Then Vorn had no more time to think about Maple Pajora, for the forces of Naunt were upon him.
Vorn fought well, but it was useless. His pitiful force was soon overcome, and Vorn himself was bound with leather thongs and dragged before the Thogess of Naunt, who was mounted in grandeur upon a richly caparisoned platypus.
"You have disappointed me," said the Thogess coldly. "I had thought you would do better."
"I had thought so myself," said Vorn. "How about letting me go? Then we could do this all over again. Tomorrow."
"I would if I could," said the Thogess. "But, unfortunately, our conventions of battle do not so permit. To the defeated commander: death. Cut off his head!"
So spake the Thogess of Naunt. And her executioner raised his sword. And thunder spoke. A bolt of lightning smote the executioner's sword. The executioner crashed from his horse and toppled to the ground in an incinerated heap. The Thogess of Naunt gave one great scorched scream of shocked panic, and her platypus reared up and threw her to the ground. A second bolt of lightning struck dead her chief eunuch, and a third killed the leader of her palace guard.
Seeing catastrophe strike their leader, the army of Naunt turned tail and fled. Bolt after bolt of lightning accelerated their flight. The routed army filled the riverbed of the Dry River with a frenzied sea of scrambling panic. Then, when the riverbed was full of fleeing soldiers, the boiling yellow maelstrom of a flash flood came crashing into sight.
"My lord," said a slave, cutting Vorn free. "My lord. You have need of this."
"Thank you," said Vorn, taking the sword which was handed to him.
And there was Vorn, the victorious conqueror of the Thogess. No force opposed him. His enemies were drowning by their tens of thousands in the turbulent waters of the Dry River. A few stray slaves were gathering round, weapons in hand, eager to serve the conquering hero.
"My lord," said the Thogess, kneeling in the mud to kiss Vorn's feet. "You have conquered me."
"No, not at all," said Vorn.
"You have achieved a mighty victory," said Vorn.
"What are you talking about?" said the Thogess, bewildered.
"You've won," said Vorn, with a happy smile on his face. "I fought hard, but, yes, you got the better of me, I freely admit it."
"Don't be absurd," said the Thogess. "It is you who have mastered me. You will bear me back in chains to your city in chains, and there I will - well, you know the rest of it."
"Unfortunately," said Vorn, "a prophecy holds otherwise, and prophecy cannot be denied. The wisdom of Tambris is never wrong, and it is not wrong now. The Thogess of Naunt has defeated the forces of Chi'ash-lan, and now Chi'ash-lan must render up the Tribute she demands."
"You don't seem to understand," said the Thogess, starting to get a bit desperate. "The Thogess rules for a brief three years, then the high priests sacrifice her on the altar of Dinibishnov. I have been Thogess already for two years and six months. That was why I crossed the river even though I knew there was a flash flood coming. I thought it might solve my problem. You do see my problem, don't you?"
"Yeah, I see it," said Vorn. "Okay. Let's sit down and negotiate. Maybe there might be a way out of this."
Shortly thereafter, Vorn returned to Chi'ash-lan. There, the people were surprised to see him, for Maple Pajora, the High Priest of the Cult of Applied Semantics, had already declared Vorn to be dead. According to Maple Pajora, Vorn the Gladiator had been struck down by lightning. On seeing him thus killed, Vorn's army had turned tail and had fled, rather than appearing on cue on the Golden Heights.
"It is true," said Vorn, who was careful never to say anything which might serve to undermine Established Religion. "I was killed indeed, and only stand before you today because the Thogess of Naunt has resurrected me to do her will."
If anyone had entertained notions of opposing the will of the Thogess, such notions immediately vanished. The Thogess could not only command thunder and lightning to fight on her side. She could also work miracles and resurrect the dead. There was no opposing such a wonder-worker.
Then the demands of the Thogess of Naunt were delivered unto the city of Chi'ash-lan by Vorn the Gladiator. The victorious Thogess demanded that every incorporeal chicken in the city be rendered up to her as tribute.
Then was there a great gnashing of teeth and a wailing of many voices and a rending of clothes. But, as Vorn kept explaining, defeat is defeat, and the humiliations of defeat must be endured.
"And now," said Vorn, once all the chickens had been sent on their way to Naunt, "I wish to have a private audience with Maple Pajora, our much-beloved High Priest of the Cult of Applied Semantics."
Maple Pajora wrote his Last Will and Testament before he went to that private audience. But, much to his own surprise, he emerged from the audience alive, if not smiling.
Two days later, Maple Pajora announced to the astonished city of Chi'ash-lan that he had just discovered a previously unknown prophecy of Tambris in the city archives.
The prophecy stated that a defeated hero would redeem himself by leading a mighty army against Naunt. And Naunt would bow down before his approach, and, in despair, would burn all its chickens in a great bonfire. And the Thogess of Naunt would be delivered up to the hero as his personal captive, and with her there would come to Chi'ash-lan a golden walnut containing the secret of life, which would have prove to have something to do with the consumption of large quantities of beer and the enjoyment of the friendship of many women.
"Does this mean what I think it means?" said Sharla the Swordswoman angrily.
"I'm afraid it does," said Vorn, "but I don't have any choice in the matter. I am but an ignorant gladiator, and my life is irrevocably conditioned by the tyranny of religion and the unalterable burdens of prophecy."
"That doesn't alter the fact that polygamy is politically incorrect," said Sharla.
"Politically incorrect?" said Vorn, puzzled.
"Political correctness," said Sharla, "is a revealed truth to which I was introduced by my chicken."
And Vorn, with a dismayed foreboding, realized then that a chicken banished is not necessarily a chicken defeated, and that the evil a chicken does may live on long after that chicken's mortal end.
This invasion story by Hugh Cook, "Invasion of the Chickens," was first published in Challenging Destiny No. 7, August 1999 (ed. David M. Switzer & Robert P. Switzer) (St. Marys, Canada, ISSN 1206-6656) (pp 37-48). It was published for a second time (first British publication) in Legend Issue 6 (summer/autumn 2002) (ed. Trevor Denyer) (Aldershot, United Kingdom, ISSN 1471-7786) (pp 7-10; unchanged 3,730 words) (fantasy). It was first posted online on 2005 January 8 Saturday. Copyright © 1999, 2002, 2005 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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