Standing in the shadow of the church tower, I rubbed my eyes to check if they were deceiving me. But when I raised my eyelids, I still saw the behemoth’s shape towering over the mountainside. A titan, resembling a giraffe with a 36-foot-long neck supported by a body like that of an elephant, reached for the forest by its feet. Birds were swarming around it as it effortlessly tore trees from the ground.
Looking at one of the greatest marvels nature had ever produced, all I muttered was: “What is that?”
Colonel Vázquez puffed his chest. “That, Sir Pendleton, is our problem. As you can see, it’s devouring the whole valley in a feeding frenzy.”
As the titan cast its shadow on us, I gawked at its turtle-like head - crowned by a red and yellow crest extending into a brightly colored fan, surrounded by a smooth layer of shining fur. The behemoth’s size made the forests, it hadn’t devoured yet, seem any taller than wheat fields.
I observed how it trampled the remaining forest as if it wasn’t even there. “Where did it come from?”
“That’s a very good question,” said the colonel. “I would have my men follow the tracks. Unfortunately, this area is still rife with Carlists rebels, and I don’t want to provoke a reaction.”
“I thought the war was over,” I said.
“The uprising might have been crushed, but the flames of revolution have yet to be quelled, and many turned to banditry. We need to be discreet.”
I nodded. “Understood. But I haven’t killed anything bigger than an elephant. And that nearly killed me on several occasions.”
“Exactly. We hoped you could devise a method to kill it swiftly so that it won’t go on a rampage. Do I even have to emphasize what a disaster this is? This is one of the most peaceful years we’ve had in a while, and the harvests need to be picked. This is not just about devastation, but an economic necessity.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. You’d need an artillery battery. Immobilize it, and finish it off quickly. If that thing attacks or makes a run for it, God helps us all. The creature is too bloody big to be trapped.”
Leccubarrez raised his finger. “What about shooting it in the head?”
“By Jove! My rifle ain’t big enough. I don’t think any elephant gun in the world would be capable of this feat. It's a shame you used your explosive munitions during the war. You could have used them.”
Vázquez raised an eyebrow. “How do you know about that?”
“Your aid-de-camp told me, Coronel.”
The adjutant cleared his throat as the colonel glanced in his direction. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care how you do it, Mr. Pendleton. Trace its nest or whatever it came from. Catalonia is counting on you.”
I wanted to protest. “Excuse me. But I didn’t-”
“Just do it!” he bellowed but corrected himself. “I-I mean, you’ll be handsomely compensated.”
“But I’m a journalist.”
“Why not be both?” asked the Colonel with his boisterous voice. “Imagine what newspapers will pay you for chronicling this adventure. No man has ever seen such a creature, let alone taken one down. You’ll be a hero.”
“Not one that lived to tell about it, that’s for sure,” I said. But I have to admit, that article would put me in the history books, ensuring my legacy. “Well, plain cannon balls won’t finish it off quickly enough. We need to get under its skin. Whalers spring to mind. They use harpoons with explosive charges.”
“Cannons or harpoons?” Vázquez eyebrows peaked. “Why not both? Harpoons fired by cannons!” he said and laughed triumphantly while rubbing his hands.
I nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Such things have been done before.”
“I-I suppose. Well, I have to ask my engineers. And probably put some smiths to work. The cannons might take a couple of days to prepare. Mister Pendleton, in the meantime, you will find the origins of this beast and report your findings. AdjutantAdjudent, you’ll join him.”
His aide-de-camp was startled by the proposal. “Coronel?”
“You know the land, don’t you, Lecubarrez?”
After some hesitation, the AdjutantAdjudent nodded “Si, Coronel.”
“He might just be my aide-de-camp, but he’s a veteran in fighting the guerrillas, Mr. Pendleton.”
“Yes, he told me,” I said. “If we leave now, we might have enough light to find its origins. Could you spare us some provisions?”
As we left the summit behind, I looked at the creature grazing the forest. I could tell by how it tore at the tree top it could not sustain it, no matter how hard it tried, making me fear Catalonia would be deforested before it starved.
“I heard legends of dragons. I never thought I’d meet one.”
“Many claimed to have met them in the African bush,” I said. “But none threatened to devour the jungle itself.”
“Dragons are supposed to destroy farms with fire. I never imagined one eating the harvest. I always assumed that was a locust thing.”
“Indeed. It doesn’t seem to resemble the biblical Behemoth either. I can’t imagine this creature is of this earth. I can’t help but think it's a herd animal.”
Lecubarrez was aghast. “A herd? Are you serious?”
“Elephants are, aren’t they.”
“I suppose, but this creature…. How would they sustain themselves?”
“Going by its size and shape, there ought to be trees to match.”
“How? Where. Surely, this ought to be a sea creature.”
I contemplated it for only a moment. “No… Speaking of origins, what was your role during the war.”
“Artillery officer,” he answered curtly.
“Ah…” I didn’t want to pry any further as some of the puzzle pieces fell into place.
Down in the valley, we found the behemoth’s footprints, each large enough to bath in. Following its tracks all the way through the Pyrenees, we came across a sheep herd who were drinking the water from the tracks. A shepherd, covered with sheepskin, walked beside his flock and followed us with interest. “You are looking for the beast?” he asked with a hoarse voice.
“The dragon, you mean? Actually, we are looking for where it came from.”
The shepherd shuddered. “Oh, seniôr. Old Man Alphonso told us. He said how the demon appeared from fine air as if it arose from the ocean.”
“See!” exclaimed Lecubarrez. “I told you it came from the sea!”
“Non, non, seniôr,” the shepherd said, waving his finger. “It came from the mountain. But Alphonso said it looked like it emerged from the water,” he insisted and snapped his finger. “Just like that.”
I glanced at Lecubarrez and back at the shepherd. “Where can I find this old man?”
Following the shepherd's directions through the valley, we found old man Alphonso’s homestead—a wooden structure not that unlike the homes of the pioneers -- next to the river, with modest farmland.
After dismounting, we hitched our horses to the nearby trees. “Anyone there? We wish to speak with Alphonso.”
When there was no response, we entered the porch.
“Maybe he fled from the beast.”
“Don’t you think that shepherd would have told us?”
“That’s right,” cried a voice pitched like that of a crow. A man with gray sideburns stood at the far corner of the house, holding his musket aimed at us with its bayonet fixed. “Stay where you are, Royalist dog!”
We raised our hands. “We mean you no harm. We heard you saw the behemoth appear.”
“The devil’s herald?” he said. “I was in morning prayer when the quake happened, and the rocks shattered. It was like no explosion I had heard during the war. It was as if the devil belched, and the gateway to hell burst open! When I ran outside, there it was,” he said, pointing in the distance. “The beast of Sodom wearing a crown emerged from the well of blue flames and past the river destroying everything in its wake.”
“And you didn’t tell anyone?” asked Lecubarrez.
“Who? You!?” the old man said, pointing at the adjutant. “You killed my family before taking over. And now the devil has come to claim you! This is all your own fault!”
“I- I had nothing to do with the murder of your family.”
“You wear the uniform of our whore queen. Of course, you are. May that devil take you!”
“You won’t have to worry about that devil much longer,” Lecubarrez assured him in a mocking tone. “The army will make sure of that.”
“The army cannot save the queen! More and more demons pour through that hell gate until the devil has clenched these forsaken lands.”
Lecubarrez stiffened. “More of them?”
“Si,” he hissed.
I had enough of this and lowered my hands. “Let’s go, Lecubarrez. We have better things to do than arguing over grudges.”
The adjutant joined me. “Si, we do. If you are telling the truth about those demons, I suggest you leave this place.”
Alphonzo muttered something illegible through his teeth. “Si! Now get off my land!”
Aggravated, we mounted our horses and left the homestead behind.
“Is it true?” I asked him. “About his family.”
“How do I know!” Lecubarrez said. “It was war. People committed many crimes. He was probably fighting with the Carlists when his family was killed. It could have been bandits, for all we know. They are still a great menace.”
“It's of no matter. Apart from his colorful description of the event, we learned nothing.”
After that detour, we followed the tracks through the ravaged forest, past boulders, leaving footprints in the stone dust covering the mountainside. As we continued our climb, I speculated about the source of this creature. A tunnel beneath the earth, probably reaching for miles down the surface. An underground lake or jungle. Maybe even the lost city of Shangri La or Agartha. I struggled to contain my enthusiasm as I imagined the cave in my mind whose discovery was of greater importance than destroying that titan.
But as we approached the site of the incident, there was no hint of a cavern or ancient gate of any kind. When we reached our destination, we found a large crater but no cave. Not even a hint of an explosion or earthquake. If anything, the depression looked more like a sand pit whose surfaces were smoothed by the wind and draught.
“What could have caused this?” Lecubarrez asked as we walked down the crater. Just as Alphonzo had described, it appeared a meteor had struck the mountain, leaving a massive hole of at least 40 feet in diameter. But as I inspected the sides, the edge was smooth, like a sand pit. But no sign of the Hellgate or blue flames as his story suggested.