The red mountains crept along the Plain like a monster.
The sky loomed big and blue.
General Selus waited.
A rider trampled path of dust in the air as he approached General Selus’s camp, the long, empty distance between Selus and his final goal of the Coastal Country. After months of tearing cities, and towns, and villages to ruins, he had finally united the Eastern Country under his banner. Now he would ride through the Plain—a fast surrender—occupied by a lone tribe of savages and raise his throne on the coast as Ruler Supreme of the Realm.
His journey started in a roadside workshop as a boy, where he had helped design fireworks. He packed tubes with different stinking pastes meant to explode into different colors when fired into the sky. Fireworks were his town’s tradition going back hundreds of years.
Until the day when he burnt his hand in the fireplace, and his father lost his job, and his mother started begging behind the bakery—everyone knew it wasn’t begging—and he sat down at the fireplace in the workshop, and he wondered why he bothered to pack paste into tubes for coins from men who could afford to pay them more. He wanted to hurt someone. His hands shook, and his vision went black, and he slammed a hunk of metal against one of the workshop barrels.
A spark leapt. He saw it, in slow motion, the spark arching—so beautiful—like his mother’s eyes when his father brought home more sweet breads. The light from the spark rolled over the surface of the black pellets: sunlight on a summer road.
Flicker. The pellet snatched the heat. The workshop exploded.
He tumbled behind a table, and the explosion ripped the skin from his arm, burnt away his hair, and his boyhood dreams flashing before his eyes, and his head snapped against the brick floor.
When he woke, he understood what to do. His parents wept. The workshop owner pressed gold into their hands, thanking them for his service; he was dimly aware of something being wrong—pain blooming, pain all over, thank you—but the potential loomed large.
The next day he slathered creams over his skin and ignored his mother’s pleas and went to work.
He packed a tube with pellets, created a chamber within the tube. Then he put a pebble in the tube, and put on gloves, and he walked into the study of the firework shop owner.
Flint. Chip. Spark. Kah-boom, and the tube fractured in his hands, embedding metal in his leg, but the pebble erupted and hit the owner in the face, slipping through his skull.
Selus dug the metal shards out of his leg and went to conquer the country before the warlords even knew how he did it.
The Plainsman rode up on a rhino, as all of them did, and wordlessly took the conditions of surrender. General Selus watched with satisfaction as the Plainsman rode away.
“They will send someone to negotiate before the sun sets no doubt,” he told his advisor.
“No doubt,” echoed the advisor. “The terms were quite clear.”
“If they can read them,” said Selus dryly.
Chieftain Verbena sat atop his rhino. He idly poked at his thigh—his wife had been complaining that his riding calluses were becoming unbearable and that he really ought to be using lotion, but he… He just really did not want to bother.
His rhino snorted, rumbling on either side of his legs. He adjusted the spear on his back and the feathered headdress atop his head. “I know, boy,” he murmured, rubbing the rhino’s leathery head. “We’ll head in soon.”
His captain ran across the plain, sending dust in his wake. The sun burned hot.
“Chief,” gasped the captain. “I visited the camp of the Eastern Unifier, as they requested. They have given me terms of surrender.”
“Terms of surrender?” repeated Verbena, surprised. “Surely you jest.”
“They claim to have weapons that can fell any man or beast from hundreds of paces,” repeated the captain.
“Ah,” said Verbena, unimpressed. “They have a god on their side, yes?”
“They do not claim that,” the captain admitted.
“Then we’d best fight them,” said Verbena. “Please send our most recent and most potent negotiator. He will make our superior position clear. It has been some hundred years since we last spoke with the Easterners.”
The captain nodded and rode towards the village to get their negotiator and tie him to a saddle. They sent him away into the night, Verbena watching over the Plain as the sky grew cold.
General Selus left his tent as the negotiator rode into their camp. Soldiers loaded their guns and surrounded the rhino and its rider. Torches blazed.
The Plainsman had the terms of surrender tied to his forehead and his knees tied to his rhino. Baffled, Selus’s assistant cut the man loose. The Plainsman—ghastly pale, glazed eyes, what in—tumbled from the rhino and vomited.
The soldiers leapt back in disgust. Selus’s assistant bent down beside the coughing man and untied the terms from his forward. He vomited again, sputtering around a wet cough, and Selus’s assistant skidded backwards.
He pressed the sweat-soaked document into General Selus’s hands. “They haven’t written anything.”
“I think this guy is dying,” said one of the soldiers. “Here, help me turn him over.”
General Selus frowned, sweat breaking out on his forehead.
One month later, Chieftain Verbena road across the Plain into the ruinous camp. His men and women picked amongst the bones, tents, and abandoned guns, and they found a few survivors.
General Selus, sat curled around a gun, staring over the Plain.
“I suppose this means I have conquered the East,” said Verbena.
Selus said nothing.
“I have decided to ride to the Coast,” said Verbena. He pried the gun from Selus’s wasted, scarred fingers. “Thank you.”