Above the End of the World
By Jonathon Burgess
We clung to Goraru’s back for fear of the horrors below.
The weather proved dangerous, up so high. Rain made our footing treacherous. The air was bitter and cold. Some measure of comfort could be had among the towering spines of bone running the length of the Great Beast’s back, but when he turned his flanks against the wind it was all we could do to hold on, and trust in our scavenged climbing gear.
It was life, of a sort. Some among us spoke of making it permanent. Goraru didn’t seem to notice our presence, or much mind, if it did. With hard work and the right tools you could bore holes into his spines. Then we secured ropes, pulleys, canvas. You could make a hammock to sleep upon, though not peacefully.
Why not build a town?
The idea held promise. Our naysayers disagreed, however. They would shake faces pale with fatigue and hunger. ‘We would need materials,’ they said. ‘We would have to descend again.’
So the rest of us would look down to wrecked towers. To fires burning madly out of control. Goraru traveled always toward the cities, it seemed. At the outskirts he slowed, stopping in the heart of each ruin for an hour’s time before moving on again. One hour, never varying by even a minute. The reason escaped us, like so much of the world today.
Thus we saw them all, passengers in a cataclysmic travelogue. Sydney. Tokyo. Hollowed-out Hong Kong. Broken Beijing. The life was stomped out of all of them. But rarely were they empty.
Picking through the rubble crawled our dead. They were like ants, from up so high, like the lice we hunted from between Goraru’s scales for sustenance. First there would be one, tottering aimlessly through the streets. Then another. And as Goraru’s thunder-stomp footsteps shook the rubble and smashed what was left, they congregated. Great flesh-hungry hordes of the unquiet dead drawn by the only sign of life left in the world, one they found it too titanic to trouble, too massive to ever bring low.
Not that they didn’t try. The hordes crawled over each other to reach the feet of the Great Beast. They’d swarm around his claws and pick at the horny, armor-hard scales that covered his ankles like truck-sized plates. A few would even grab the tip of his tail.
It didn’t matter. The walking dead had ruined our world, more intimate than the Great Beasts had ever proven, driven on by whatever bizarre virus had come with the Beasts from their mysterious island. But to Goraru and his kind they were nothing, less than insects. For every fifty that clung to his feet, forty fell away with the first titanic step. None remained past the second.
So we hid. Upon the back of a monster, the only safe haven left in the world.
Mostly. Goraru wasn’t alone. There were the other Great Beasts; Kacheron, Masakaru, Velikiy Zmei. The number wasn’t important—we lived in mortal terror of them just the same. Goraru’s kin weren’t a peaceful family. Another Great Beast was the only thing that could shake Goraru from his strange hour-long rests. Whenever one appeared he would roar and posture. Then he would fight. Great big knock-down-drag-out brawls that crushed the countryside. To say nothing of the walking dead. To say nothing of us.
Time passed. We adapted. The scale-lice clustered, we found, enabling us to shepherd them. Condensation collected in streams along Goraru’s flanks and neck. We learned to live without sure footing and to hold tight when the world shook. What else could we do?
No other haven made itself apparent. Everywhere we went the cities were flattened by behemoth tread, or hollowed out by undead hunger.
Eventually a decision was reached. The naysayers were quieted and a plan concocted. At the outskirts of Los Angeles some of us descended. It was terrifying. Our climbing picks were growing blunt. Our ropes were worn. We compensated with forced expertise. From mid-back we rappelled in a measured fall and then slid down horny plate. Scale-lice skittered in panic at our passing. We watched them get whipped away by errant gusts of wind, an object lesson.
The sun rose as we reached the ankle. As expected, Goraru slowed among the tattered finery of Beverly Hills. His weight settled and he came to a stop, for reasons mysterious as ever.
We hammered pitons into his scales, attached to lines. Then we descended to shattered asphalt, fighting off land-sickness. We grabbed boards from storefronts, scavenged tools from houses, cut away tarps, flags and anything with cloth. These would be the seeds of our sky-high steading.
Someone found an unopened can of peaches. He could not stop crying.
They came, then. Those first few that always presaged the groaning hordes of hungry dead. We fled, hauling our illicit treasures back to the lines dangling from on high. They surrounded us as we worked, our remnant cousins, forgotten friends, and perfect strangers.
A roar great stopped us all.
Not Goraru. Along the horizon to the west, on the ruins of Santa Monica where the city met the sea, another Great Beast was rising; Kacheron, towering and awful.
Our time was out. Goraru shifted, snorted, bellowed his own sky-shattering defiance. A mile distant there was thunder, as a half-toppled skyscraper finally collapsed.
We worked on. What else could we do? The horde grew on the ground, as Goraru half-turned to face his opponent. Feverishly we anchored the scavenged materials, spending our chance at escape for the future of those above. One of our number threw himself into the horde, buying time for us as Goraru shifted again.
Done. As knots tightened and carabiners clicked, we turned to join our lost friend with makeshift weapons at the ready.
But Goraru…did not leave. Kacheron roared again from the sea, yet Goraru did not answer. Struck by this, even under threat of rotting claws, we glanced back up.
To see Goraru peering down at us.
We fled, fighting and dying as we went, clambering up just in time, just as the Great Beast lifted his foot. He took a quarter-mile stride as we held on, the threat below exchanged for something far more fierce.
The struggle with Kacheron was titanic. We hunkered along the back of Goraru’s knee, terrified in so many ways. In the end our Great Beast was victorious, as always. So we ascended. Slowly, up his thigh and hip, the scavenged materials coming with us. The sky was bright when we reached the shoulder spines, and our friends. There we built home upon the back of a monster.