The years came in fours, and snails marked their age by the heat years in which all new snails were born. During such years, snails both young and old lived in shelter while fiery light burned the land. Wither years followed, where death crept upon plants and warned the snails to eat before their slumber through the approaching cold year. Snailkind awoke to evanescent chills in the joy year, the end of the cycle, where the plants returned with bursting color and warmth and moisture. Then the cycle continued, and the new heat year marked another cycle of life for the snails fortunate enough to survive the world’s many dangers.
These cycles constantly changed the vast, wonderful world that a snail named Frehn called home. Frehn was a careful and hardworking young snail of only three heat years, and they had lived through days too great in number to hold count. Hiding in their shell, feasting on delicious leaves, trekking through a boundless, wondrous world — through the many trials and perils of the world, Frehn had managed to live a good life.
Such trials were common. Life was capricious and ever-changing, and even within the patterns of time did the days shift so rapidly from one another. Days came in two, one day of darkness, one day of light.
It was the unspoken, ancient rule of snailkind that dark days were the domain of the snails. Of the many enemies, many roamed the world during bright days. The birds, the squirrels . . .
But the most perilous danger of bright days were the giants.
Many snails had trouble evading bright days completely. Doing so effectively required care and speed, the latter of which no snails were known for and the former of which only some snails possessed. But even wise snails such as Frehn had moments where things got the better of them.
Once, Frehn was eating in the Rohdverge Woods that stood humbly in between the Sydwok Plains and vast Rohd Canyon. There were many forests scattered along this land; the Sydwok Plains bordered the Rohd Canyon endlessly on all sides, and for reasons only understood by snails through long, passed down knowledge, the giants allowed forests to grow at these barren edges.
Countless other forests existed in the world, but for many snails, circumstances made edge forests such as Rohdverge the best options for food and shelter. Though their plants were sparse and intermittent, the leaves were firm and delicious, and amid the twisting wooden bodies of the plants grew an infrequent canopy of gentle round leaves that bobbed lightly in the occasional breeze. A snail could find shade and food, and frankly, these were all that a snail truly needed.
Under the serenity of a cool and calm dark day near the end of the joy year, Frehn was perusing the offerings of the Rohdverge Woods, sipping tiny puddles atop fallen fronds and gazing out upon the Rohd Canyon while chewing through bits of leaf. Though dangerous to ever traverse, the canyon was a truly beautiful sight to behold. Its gaping, immeasurable presence existed on a scale that snails did not see frequently when living comfortably in forests. Canyons were common and always close to plains and mountains, and though mostly avoided, they were a wonderful and thrilling danger to many.
An enormous beast with glaring yellow eyes and deep, lasting growls rapidly cut through the darkness of the canyon. The glows of its gaze warned of its arrival, but this warning was inconsequential to a snail. Frehn had heard tales of many snails unfortunate and bold enough to risk journeys through canyons such as these. Such stories were enough for them to know that canyons and plains were never completely safe from the giants, even on dark days.
Perhaps the weight of the giant’s existence humbled Frehn into distraction. But before they knew it, the shadow of the dark day was beginning to retreat.
Panic kicked in quickly. Fortunately, Frehn was not a reckless or anxious snail. But they knew that the situation they were in would get very dangerous soon. The Rohdverge Forest had shade and food, but they nonetheless got uncomfortably hot during bright days. A snail could survive, but the conditions were not ideal. And it was known that giants occasionally trudged through them when journeying from the Sydwok Plains to the Rohd Canyon. Safety was not a guarantee.
Frehn would be safer if they could make it to the Yarde Forest on the other side Sydwok Plains. The giants rarely passed through the Yarde Forest, and the canopy there was thicker and provided greater shelter from the bright day sun. But could Frehn make it in time?
There was no time to deliberate. Frehn made the decision and made it fast. They approached the end of the Rohdverge Forest and stared at the lengthy breadth of the Sydwok Plains. A long and perilous journey lay ahead of them.
Frehn took a deep breath and let out a thick coat of slime. It was time to go.
The land in canyons and plains was known to be rough, but it was nothing that a snail couldn’t handle. Calm breaths, good slime, and grit were all it took. With all of these in mind and body, Frehn took the first step into the Sydwok Plains.
Crossing the threshold was a tense experience. Frehn shared the sentiment of most snails in that they loved to feel cozy and confined, and taking a step out into the vast open plains filled them with a deep sense of fright and discomfort. They shuddered on a breath but assuaged their mind, fighting the unsettling air as they took step after step and abandoned the Rohdverge Woods behind.
Darkness was fading rapidly. It felt like Frehn had made no progress at all when the first beams of sunlight hauntingly crept over the horizon. Distant dewdrops on the canopy of the Yarde Forest glimmered with a sparkling danger, flaunting a goal but ominously reminding Frehn of encroaching threats. Fortunately, heat didn’t ride the sun like a shell; it followed the sun like a trail of slime and wouldn’t arrive for a while. Frehn still had time before the rough ground of the Sydwok Plains began to burn.
A roar echoed through the Rohd Canyons behind. Frehn shuddered and looked back. Though they could barely see over the canopy of the Rohdverge Woods, the immensity of the passing giant exceeded the plants infinitely. Its eyes did not glow — canyon giants’ eyes never glowed during bright days — and the earth crunched and crumbled beneath the weight of its four massive feet. Tremors lightly assailed Frehn’s physical and mental balance. Perhaps the only solace was the tremendous shadow that the beast briefly cast over the plains, but its passage was a morbid reminder that the giants had awoken.
At least it was only the canyon giants. For now.
As their heart began to race, Frehn looked side to side. Plains giants were more slender and agile than canyon giants and, in these lands, were known to approach just as fast. No giants were visible to Frehn’s frantically scanning eyes, but Frehn knew the disadvantage that they, as a snail, were at. In this world, everything, especially giants, was faster than a snail. The same moment that Frehn caught sight of an approaching giant could very well be the predecessor to their last. Yet, despite the futility, they could not help but warily scan their surroundings with every fleeting breath.
Dead leaves littered the plains. Frehn panted as they pushed past them, determined to not end up yet another death decorating the hollow expanse of these hostile lands. The bleak grey ground wore into Frehn’s mind and weathered away their morale. By the time they got barely a third of the way across, they were already growing tired, motivated only by the urgency of the journey.
Plucking a twig off the ground and anxiously chewing as they moved, Frehn gazed ahead and saw before them what would take dozens of precious minutes to cross. Grey, barren ground, assaulted by the intensifying rays of a rising sun, stretched out endlessly to the sides and still so unbearably far ahead. The Yarde Forest, separated from Frehn only by the bleak and numbing ground of the plains, was calm and welcoming in the distance. Beyond those beautiful and comforting greens, the immense, skybreaking Appartemint Mountains proudly stood. Mountains were the homes of giants, and the mountains in these lands towered beyond the limits of a snail’s vision until their beige color faded impossibly into the faraway unknown. Out here, alone in the plains, with sanctuary so far away, Frehn felt truly small. It was humbling in a terrifying way.
But now was no time to be afraid. Time was running out. Already did the sun feel blindingly bright above.
Frehn had begun at a brisk walk, reasoning that keeping a steady but hurried pace would work better in the long run. At this point they were already beginning to debate this initial decision. This was a matter of life and death. There could not be any more hesitation. Would a final mad dash be a more effective course of action?
The answer to this question came abruptly in the corners of Frehn’s vision. It emerged suddenly, impossibly fast, an instant appearance that shook Frehn to their core and thrust into the forefront of their mind the idea of curling into their shell and cowering as if the cold year had abruptly begun. Frehn was aware of the speed with which the giants moved, yet the truth of one’s arrival still shocked them into near petrification.
Significant distance was the only thing that permitted Frehn a morsel of insight into what the plains giant looked like; they saw enormous black feet, vague dark blue legs, and what may have been a bruting grey body high up above. It tore through the side of the mountain, bending the invisible wall of air impossibly trapped by one of the giants’ massive silver cages. By the time Frehn had truly realized what was happening, the plains giant had already descended the Stari Hills, a series of intensely steep cliffs that snails had spent entire days traversing. All of that to the mere second that Frehn could comprehend. There was no time to even consider the possibility of imminent death before the plains giant had disappeared; in a moment of fortunate twisting fate, it moved in the other direction, missing Frehn completely.
The air that had been squeezed in Frehn’s lungs as their heart froze escaped in a relieved but still terrified sigh. Another breath followed. Then another. Heavy, elevated breaths continued to come, and in moments horror was squeezing at Frehn’s chest in a way that reminded them of the crushing weight of a giant’s foot — a thought that only made things worse.
No, Frehn thought to themself. They couldn’t let themself succumb to fear.
Forcing a deep breath in and out of their lungs, they squeezed out some more slime and steeled themself to take their next ste–
Frehn’s vision abruptly filled with darkness as a ferocious force collided with the ground. Wind blasted their face. They recoiled, immediately blinded. The shadow was a blur that swept across Frehn’s taunted vision and left them only with glaring specks of sight as the world shook from its core and their mind struggled to comprehend the slightest of what was happening.
The next darkness that Frehn saw was from the inside of their shell, for they were hidden within it as quickly as they could possibly be. They cowered, trembling, as the booming feet of the plains giant slammed the land in an opposing rhythm to their panicked heart. It was over in seconds, and by this time Frehn’s mind was still struggle to comprehend what had happened. They felt only unspeakable fear. Every other feeling and thought stemmed solely from their dread.
This wasn’t right, Frehn thought, they shouldn’t be out here. They should’ve stayed in the Rohdverge Woods and risked a bit of discomfort. This was worse. This was unbearable. No. No. Frehn couldn’t do this. This was too much. Now they were here, nearly in the middle of the plains. That giant’s foot had only been a few paces ahead of Frehn. Any minute a giant could come and crush them. Would they die instantly like some fortunately unfortunate few? Or would they suffer a painful, torturous death as the spirit of the wither year slowly beckoned them to the afterlife? Giants did not care. Giants would crush Frehn completely or crush only their shell, leave them gasping for air in their final moments.
Even in the homely fringes of their shell, Frehn felt exposed, vulnerable, weak in the center of an abyss of danger and death. They trembled, hyperventilated. Fear had control.
That giant had come from nowhere. Frehn hadn’t even seen it coming. They’d had no idea. Their life could change or end in an instant, and that would be it. Frehn wouldn’t even have a chance at futile defense.
It wasn’t completely dark inside. The light of the sun crept through the layers of the shell and surrounded Frehn in an unsettling, dim orange glow. It was violent, suppressing, an angry heat without temperature. This was supposed to be a place of comfort. It was supposed to be a refuge. But in it, Frehn felt nearly as if they were suffocating.
The faintest tremors of the land disappeared. Frehn was left alone with the silence and burning light of the bright day. As they lay there in the goldening grey of the plains, motionless except for a suspended shudder, their mind flickered, as if fighting itself, and memories returned to them of pleasant hours and days spent enjoying life in mellow peace with a comfy home. Sleeping during bright days in damp soil beneath the shade of evergreen leaves, surrounded by friends they hadn’t seen in many days or many years. Resting on the steep sides of mountains in long journeys to plentiful forests. Experiencing the thrill of beetle attacks and living to tell the tale to the walk of snails they’d been with it at the time. Curling up and diving with buddies into deep puddles from the edges of mountain trees. Comparing shell patterns with others and smiling and laughing as they complimented each other.
There were certainly other snails in the Yarde Forest. What new friends was Frehn yet to meet and make such memories with?
The new heat year was nearly upon the world. Frehn wanted to reach it and know that they had survived their fourth cycle. They wanted that. They wanted to live.
Halfway there. They were just under halfway there. They could make it.
Determination filled Frehn’s blood and slime, pouring into their body with the same vigor as the downpour that peppered the land with explosively wonderful oases of water. Frehn held that image in their mind and heart and drew strength from it. To live to see another dark day. To see another pond fall from the sky.
Fear remained but drowned in the rainfall. Slowly, firmly, they began to crawl out of their shell. Light, golden and threatening, had now filled the Sydwok Plains. No giants were yet around. The world could change in an instant, and it wouldn’t wait.
Frehn began to run.
Breaths heavy, steps rapid, eyes frantic, Frehn barreled across the barren land of the Sydwok Plains. Their foot rushed across their urgent slime, and in their haste, it seemed to Frehn almost as if the power and confidence of their stride paralleled the intensity of the giants. They were strong. They were going to make it.
Frehn hurried to squeeze out slime as rapidly as they could. They wriggled and trembled across their trail and pushed themself forward. Again. Keep going. They could do this.
Their mind processed the image flickering in their periphery only by the time the plains giant had already smashed the ground behind them. The Sydwok Plains trembled with the mighty force and Frehn tensed, frozen as if a sacrifice to the spirit of the cold year. Torrential winds swept through the land in the giant’s rapid passing; what reason did a giant have to run? What could hunt a giant?
Frehn waited not for the ground to stop shaking before continuing to run; nay, for they never stopped. They charged towards sanctuary with the likeness of a soldier crossing a battlefield, the giant like a bomb shaking the world loose of peace and calm. The light of the unrelenting sun grew brighter, its golden glory already nearly a white haze upon the world. Blinding glimmers ricocheted off the leaves of the Yarde Forest, and Frehn squinted, choosing to see hope in the chaos and stare into the shadows beneath the canopy.
With a grunt that squeezed air out of their lungs and slime out of their body, Frehn fought their fatigue and continued to run. A canyon giant roared in the distance. Plains giants moved in far corners of the land. Two paces later, the world had changed, the giants were in different places, and everything was shaking. The wind swept about, a thrall to constant change. Thoughts raced as hard as the body, flashes of regret and dread and hope and anger and will.
The bellowing foot of a plains giants pummeled the ground ahead of Frehn, harshly cutting off the hopeful sight of safety. Simultaneously, another foot swept through the air overhead, followed by two more. The tempest howled as if it and the earth were arguing against each other, oblivious to the immense beings that had disturbed them both. Frehn felt only burning tenacity to keep going, to win against the giants by surviving. Snails knew better than any creature in the world that the greatest revenge one could have on enemies both natural and not was to continue to live despite them.
The giants were out of Frehn’s tumultuous life in an instant. The Yarde Forest was only a short way’s away; Frehn could see the gentle specks of moist soil smiling up from the forest floor. Almost there. Almost there.
Distinct, thunderous sound bombarded the world — the indecipherable, powerful calls of the giants, an eternal growl that filled bright days. Frehn resisted weakness at this targetless attack.
Birds fluttered above. Squirrels bounded across the mountain trees. Giants appeared everywhere. The sun screamed with blazing luminance. The world calmed in that the chaos drew farther away.
Frehn panted. A journey of many hours rushed into minutes. A desperate struggle for survival; the closest to the spirit of the wither year that Frehn had ever in their life ventured.
Almost there. Almost there.
The tall and majestic trunks of the Yarde Forest’s trees gazed down at Frehn from above and filled the corners of their vision. Anxious, heartwrenching relief trickled in, a hand hesitantly held above the drain of a silo of fear.
As another plains giant hammered the Sydwok Plains behind, Frehn frantically pulled themself onto the delicate embrace of a single broad leaf. The land shook once more and the wind blasted through the plains, and Frehn crawled further, desperately dropping from one leaf to the next. A dizzy, urgent, and panicked perception made their comprehension of these actions blurry; all they knew was that they scrambled away from danger and, in some peculiar sudden change in reality, had then made it to safety.
This truth settled slowly in a terrified mind. Once a few leaves separated them from the plains and clarity returned to their perception, Frehn took a long, deserved breath and looked back. In the shine of the bright day, the Sydwok Plains were now a rich light grey and the Rohdverge Woods were bestrewn with sunlight. It held only scarce patches of shade.
A herd of plains giants came slowly approaching from the right. Frehn cowered as they approached, the impacts of their gaits perceptible in the pulses throughout the ground. The smallest giant, whose movements were clumsy and arm was held by the larger one beside it, took broad and erratic steps. It was not long before its swinging limbs cut through the Rohdverge Woods. Oh, what life could have — and could not have — been.
The giants passed. The booming noise faded. Frehn’s heartbeat slowed. Stimulative fear and fatal adrenaline drained out of their body as they peered from the gentle canopy of the Yarde Forest. They had made it.
Drudging along with an exhausted frame, Frehn turned around and ventured deeper into the forest. Now to find a place to rest.