A Beast That Fell in the Desert
rating: +11+x

It’s already in flames before it hits the Mojave soil.

I'm standing over the wreckage of a beast, metal innards twisted and cracked in the Arizona sand. Bloodstains and broken fauna lie in its wake. One of its wings is unaccounted for. From a quick survey, it looks like it tumbled one-hundred-and-fifty, maybe two-hundred yards after landing. The Hallowed Ones will want a precise measurement, but all things to come. A caretaker's job cannot be rushed.

First, the fires. Gone now, but the scent of scorched metal is indistinguishable if you somehow missed the billowing smoke. Drained fuel lines snake around its exposed guts and the arms of the horrid creatures. It's clear that the fire covered most of its skin, but that doesn't tell me where it started. There are burn marks and open wounds everywhere on its body. With all I have now, the fire could be a cause or a symptom. Can't rule either out yet.

The flames are long extinguished, and the blood is dried. The pain is no more. And yet it lingers, hanging in the air like the smell of carrion.

Despite the brutality, it was worse fifteen minutes ago while the beast still clung to life. Already the scar tissue had started to form over some of the minor injuries before it passed. The beast has remarkable healing powers, which would matter now if it wasn't already dead.

The horrid creatures, trapped under the beast's stomach, wriggle out a last gesture before slumping to the ground. Beings of every shade of pale gray and brown, bleeding a thick, white substance, all blurring into a thin stew of dull plasma. Their limbs are bruised and charred, some barely hanging on to the flesh. The anguished moaning, which was already quiet when I arrived, is quickly subsiding as the last of them pass on.

I'm not here for them. Why the Hallowed Ones put the horrid creatures on this Earth, I have no idea. Sustenance for greater beings? It's the only answer that makes sense. Not important. These things will have to be cataloged as well. A lesser caretaker can deal with that. The horrid creatures are beneath me as much as they are beneath this pile of broken metal.

The buzzards are circling above. They will have their chance. For now, I have a job to do.

I share a second's worth of empathy for the beast. Just a fleeting moment, one that connects its heart with my own. It is not a matter of courtesy, but rather practicality. My work cannot be complete unless there is a bond between the subject and myself. There is no room for any real attachment. No sooner have I given the beast a recognition of its existence than I'm already prodding around its corpse, searching for the details of its demise.

A cursory diagnosis is easy enough to determine at a glance. Where once there was a flying metallic behemoth, towering and monstrous, there is now nothing but rubble and rotting flesh and a gaping hole where chromed intestines spill out. Bones of a once-great machine, now mangled and decayed and lost to death's bitter sting. The wounds run deep. It can't have survived for more than a few minutes after it landed. It must have been miserable, trying to writhe around but barely being able to move its fractured body.

But my job is not to heal. Merely to catalog. Here once was a beast, and now it is no more. Another mark for my records. A blip in the cosmos at the end of the day. Yet every blip has its story. The Hallowed Ones want to know each and every one. That is why I'm here.

It is time to begin.

I wave my hand, pointer and middle fingers extended, towards the beast's stomach. An orb of barely-contained mist, black as ink, rises from its abdomen. The shape of the orb is indicative of both an evil spirit and a sudden death. The latter was already identified. The former is not surprising, given the nature of beasts like this.

With a turn of my wrist, the orb begins to unfold itself. The mist parts out from the center to reveal a glassy prism, rusted gold plating adorned on its edges. It is cracked from the trauma, but not shattered. The sign of a great resilience to pain.

Inside the prism, images of the beast’s last moments are kept. They are indecipherable at first. Every soul operates at its own frequency — its own language. Some are lucky to be attuned to the frequencies of a handful of souls besides its own. A caretaker needs to understand them all.

This one takes some time to tune into. Beasts like this often do; they are surprisingly complicated. As I focus my own soul to resonate with the beast's, the glassy cage shimmers and begins to glow. I close my eyes, and the prism beckons me inside. I let it take me, and I sink into a dark, endless abyss where pictures come and go in rapid-fire succession.

Memories. The brighter ones are fresh, capturing the final seconds of a proud, majestic animal.

The scene unfolds in waves, scattered dreams pouring out from the prism as the beast drains the last essence of its ties to the universe. The average being might collapse from the strain of receiving all these images at once. Others might ignore them, fearing what may happen if they can't piece everything together. Yet in my line of work, every single fact matters. We cannot discard any detail as insignificant. To miss one microscopic piece of information is to miss the story entire.

Inside the beast's soul, I let the memories flow into my consciousness. The sequence of events begins to take shape in my head.

It goes like this: a once-ravenous beast soars through the skies above the Mojave, headed south towards its den. Inside its belly are nearly a hundred horrid creatures, some mumbling to each other in incoherent babble, others silent and inattentive. The beast knows that a horrid creature does not have the mental capacity to understand when it is being swallowed by a monster. It has taken advantage of that.

Apparently it is a substantial bounty, as the beast is not flying nearly as fast as it could. That's what makes it vulnerable to a sudden strike from afar. The beast doesn't recognize it's been hit until after the projectile pierces through the other side of its skin. The blast immediately sets off the beast's fuel lines, explosions rupturing its stomach and tearing apart the horrid creatures. A wing flies off, jettisoning towards the ground. The beast begins its descent.

As it struggles to maintain its balance with its remaining wing, it looks towards where the shot came from. Briefly, it sees a figure in the distance that it does not recognize. I know it all too well. It is a Hallowed One. Kor'ashha.

The beast would pursue its attacker were it not spiraling towards the desert floor. Fire spreads around its waist as it screeches in agony. By now, it's already reached terminal velocity. Not that it knows what those words mean exactly, but it's intelligent enough to realize that it's in danger and that it's going to die if it hits the ground. Something inside it knows that it can't save itself. It tries anyway, in vain.

Impact. Metal scrapes on flesh and bone. It jettisons horrid creatures from its stomach as it lands. The sand gives way, too weak to fight back against the colossal metal frame. Its body comes to a stop and rests in the sunlight. The air smells of blood and kerosene. Limbs flop out from its stomach as the horrid creatures attempt to escape.

The sun is beating down. It's far too hot out here for the beast's liking, but it doesn't have the capacity to care anymore.

The beast is dead.

With that, I reopen my eyes. The prism spits me out and I find myself back in the desert, standing above the broken animal. The light from inside the prism is gone, and the mist has dissipated. I hold the inert soul of the warrior beast in my hand, observing the nature of its construction.

There is little time to reflect on what I've seen. I have heard reports from other caretakers of the Hallowed Ones striking down beasts like this, but scarcely believed them. Yet here it was: Kor'ashha, the cursed blade, had taken a life from this Earth. No middle-person, no manipulation. A cold-blooded murder of an innocent being. Relatively innocent, anyway.

Questions begin circling in my head. The first I ask is why he killed the beast as he did. A Hallowed One can annihilate every piece of matter inside a portion of space instantly. It can remove a being from the universal consciousness by erasing all thoughts of it. It can remove any mention of a being from history. Kor'ashha did not need to kill the beast so viciously. It does not need to hunt as the beast does.

Yet it chose to. Why? Easier to conceal from the others? That's assuming he's trying to in the first place. He could have fled as soon as the beast was struck, but he remained long enough to be seen. Kor'ashha knows that a caretaker would examine the beast's final moments. It should have disappeared when the beast turned its head. It didn't. Why would it allow itself to be caught? If this isn't Kor'ashha just lashing out, then what's the endgame?

The beast has no knowledge of the Hallowed Ones. It couldn't fathom something of their power, let alone pose a threat to them. So why? Why destroy their own creation in an act of malice, of hatred?

As I observe the prism, another thought enters my head. The Hallowed Ones assigned us to record the deaths of all their creations. Do they want to hear of this one? So long as I have doubts about Kor'ashha's intentions, I can't be sure that he's acting alone.

Perhaps we aren't meant to know. Perhaps they have some greater idea in mind and we just need to play along. Judgment will have to wait. I don't have the full story yet. Just details. And a caretaker never regards any detail as insignificant.

I allow myself one more moment of empathy with the beast. It has earned that. Then I turn to the east. Dark clouds form ahead, and the buzzards begin to swoop down.

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