Tourney at the Hanging Gardens (part three)

Multitasking

Babylon’s sky was the only sight humanity would ever see that could truly convince them they had left their world of origin. Even the celestial ocean swimming with stars was still their world, despite being inhospitable. The hanging gardens themselves could be felt and thus understood, but they were just grit forced deep into a wound and healed over. The realm itself was foreign, and they were all immortal because they didn’t belong there.

As such the endless fields of orange and gold clouds, while breathtaking and sometimes even breathkeeping, eventually wore on the soul like the unblinking eyes of a disapproving parent. The only refuge was heading for the core of the gardens where there were walls on all sides and mindless chatter about nothing could bring them back to a sense of normalcy. Except the weather. They couldn’t make soothing small talk about that, as Babylon didn’t have any.

Various people from different places and times retained their magical or technological powers that helped them attain the gardens, and sometimes they were turned to attempts to replicate the blessedly mundane aspects of the Earth. Someone inexperienced had tried to make rain in the central marketplace, just a little drizzle to corral them under the awnings and bring them closer to each other; it had gone wildly wrong.

There was downpour in some places, but only as tight cones like waterfalls. The effect was more like a massive pool on the level above them springing a leak. Goods were washed out of their stands and broken, debris floating down temporary rivers that quickly overpowered any shallow drainage canals built into the walkways. Everything cloth hung as heavy and dark as it could, haggard in their constant dripping.

Beautiful clothing and rugs draped over lines became significant obstacles to the few people who hadn’t abandoned the flooded market. The extra seconds it took to lift their deceptive weights and get under them could make all the difference in which party possessed the treasure chest fought over. To think its seller hadn’t bothered to take it with him when fleeing the rising waters.

Such dampness made the lightning conductor a double-edged sword, as the bolts he ordered about could easily spread through puddles and streams to multiple enemies and allies alike. Still, the firework archer and the burned witch both had their fiery and explosive abilities suppressed by the same factor, so he was all that was left to help his friends with the ranged aspect of their battle.

And help was very much needed. All four of them, conductor, blooming scarecrow, snake charmer, and werepanda, were bogged down in the seafood section, with some of the fresh wares even managing to slither by and swim away underfoot now that they had escape routes. It reminded the conductor of the canals of his home Ys, but that was centuries ago by the accounting of his own heartbeat.

He hadn’t taken the form of a trumpetfish in a long time, but if it came down to it he could, abandoning his fellows in the hope of escaping with the rest of the aquatic life to some deep and hidden reservoir of the gardens, built by unknown hands, or something like hands.

Never. That was the coward’s way, and he’d already proven he would never succumb to it, as had his musicians on that fateful night when the vile princess opened the gates. It was supposed to be a celebration, and no wall of water was going to stop that. Even as everyone around them panicked and morphed into their gills and fins the orchestra kept playing, narrating the approaching disaster.

Defiantly the conductor had raised his baton to the heavens, only for lightning to come down and strike him. When he next awoke he was in the tower of the king, tended to by a handmaiden who was not authorized to fish burnt smoking old men out from the balcony but had done so anyway.

Foolish it was to think that the bolt had been a conduit, transporting him up to the tower as it took off for what turned out to be the immortal sky of Babylon. Something had taken him and placed him on the rising edge. Marimorgan’s hands were too busy catching tears. For his part the conductor believed it was his dearly beloved and departed, the flying mermaid. Somehow she still lived, or one like her.

He never voiced this theory so as not to create false hope in the remaining people of Ys. It was healthier for them to blend into the throngs of the gardens, become a new people. Integration would bring healing. The conductor thought he believed that, yet here was putting himself in dangerous situations, trying to raise funds in his battle against the royal family, who of course had no interest in becoming any sort of new people.

The enemy, whatever their cause, was there for the same thing. He didn’t recognize any of them, and he thought he had already memorized the entire population of the gardens. Soon they would learn the floating structure they all resided in was so large that parties could land on different balconies, form societies, send out exploring parties, and still not run into any of those who had lived there for centuries.

Their party was an even match of four, of which he also took note. The gardens seemed to love the number four; it popped up everywhere. Among them was a half petrified man, a hulking jester wielding an executioner’s sword, a glassblower who had weaponized their craft with magic, and a man who was perhaps Norumbegan who signaled the others by drawing symbols in smoke.

With the chest in their possession, for now pressed against a wall by the snake charmer’s back as he loaded poisonous serpents into it, a fine surprise gift should it be stolen away, their strategy turned to cornered defense. Werepanda’s bulk was equal in muscle, hide, and fur, so he took position in front of the rest, beating his chest and roaring in an intimidation display.

Whoever was behind the jester’s thick caked face paint laughed in turn, deep and wheeling like something falling down the black chasm of its own insanity. It was plain he was there for violence, the gold inconsequential. He swung the square tip of his sword low, sending a ripple through the pooling rain toward them as the only warning.

It didn’t actually reach their feet, with the lightning conductor realizing why when he took a step back and heard a crunch. Their healer the scarecrow was pulling heaps of straw from her own body, careful only to avoid the glowing pink-red flowers that held her life force. She threw them to the wet ground, and with wild gesturing encouraged them to stand on them.

She couldn’t speak with a mouth merely stitched on, but her intent was clear. The straw would insulate their legs somewhat from an electrical attack. She wanted the conductor to go all out, to use his Zeus crescendo. The plan was beyond desperate, but she never would have suggested it lightly, considering she was at the greatest risk of simply bursting into flame and being obliterated.

We’re in agreement,” the snake charmer hissed from the back. “Do it!” The strike in Ys had rendered him more than unconscious after it traveled through his raised baton and into his body. The serpentine creature of the live sky had coiled up in his chest and now lived there. When he moved his baton as he used to, conducting the final movement of his final symphony, he could encourage it to lash out and strike with searing fangs.

Make way!” the conductor warned the werepanda, but something was amiss. The furry beast’s black arms were lax at his sides, his jaw slack, his last roar having turned into a gelatinous yawn that flopped out. “I said make way! We’re out of time!”

They could see no spell upon him that would vex him so, and in their desperation trusted it was part of some preconceived plan. The werepanda was not an intellectual when inhabiting his furry and fanged form, but when outside of it he was a brilliant tactician. Sometimes the man would make a decision that the beast would enact, but only like a pet following a trigger its owner had reinforced many times.

He would lunge out of the way at the last moment. Yes, that had to be it; he used his great bulk to block their foes’ view of what was coming. The conductor closed his eyes and brought forth the final movement of the symphony from the recesses of his mind. Drums rolled in dark clouds that the gardens never suffered. A harpy flock of flutes swooped and transformed into gnashing wind.

The nearest concentrated columns of rainfall lit up like the pillars outside the courthouse of the gods, each issuing a blue-white bolt as cracked as any canyon, as thick as any sea serpent. They converged at the commanding tip of the conductor’s baton, which he brought down in front of him.

Electric stampeding forces blasted their way, splashing crater by crater, toward the werepanda and those on the other side of him. The time came for him to leap aside, and passed. The raging parade of shocks was already through him by the time the others realized something was wrong, but they had to deal with the side effects of the attack themselves.

Such raw power left them all reeling and unable to control their bodies. The snake charmer’s pets dropped off his shoulders and twitched. The scarecrow was outlined in campfire orange as every one of her edges was singed and gave off white smoke. The strike had explosively transformed much of the water on the market tiles into steam, so all they could see ahead of them were silhouettes.

The large one before them slumped to the side and fell, and four others were revealed past it, growing. The jester’s laugh came over them like a second darker mist, its oily cloying sound seeping into their ears and bones. The executioner’s sword approached, but it didn’t need to taste the panda’s blood; he had helpfully absorbed the brunt of the attack and protected the jester and his accomplices. The chest was theirs.

What the Hell Marco!?” Handzy shouted at him as she slapped the table, accidentally pushing herself away from it on her wheeled chair. She struck the second granite table behind them as her question echoed out into the cool warehouse of stone slabs.

We lost,” Plusplus said numbly, wheeling away much more calmly on dainty shuffling feet. “I basically lit myself on fire.”

Yeah, that… that wasn’t good for us,” Flippers agreed. “We’re in the loser’s bracket now. They were streaming this on the game’s main channel too, so I think-” He closed the game and opened a browser with a few pathetic clicks on his gaming mouse overloaded with bells and whistles, like opening a can of beans with a titanium scalpel. “-Yeah, about 60,000 people just watched us kill ourselves. Nice.”

Marco didn’t say anything, even though he was driving the werepanda brawler that cost them their only shot. He was too busy to say anything. A quiet Granslam was a deeply disturbed Marco, so his teammates crowded around him to see what was amiss. His screen was still alive with many colors, but they were not the shades and textures of the hanging gardens of Babylon.

It was a digital collectible card game, with characters springing out of the cards as soon as each one was played and automatically doing battle with those played by the enemy. All of them were enmeshed in the gaming community enough to know it was called Archetypes, though the trio hadn’t played it before. It took Marco shouting and bursting into tears for them to realize he had just lost that game as well.

Without a coherent word he scrambled out of his chair, rolled onto the granite table, and sobbed into his cupped hands. Only when his breathing became more like a human and less like a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner did the others start in on him.

So do we get some kind of explanation?” Handzy demanded. “I’d sure as hell like to know why our giant wild panda decided to roll over and die, like he enjoys being on the endangered species list.”

I thought I could do both,” Granslam said, croaking between the words. He pulled his hands away and stared up into the fluorescent lights like he was waiting for a valkyrie to descend on their rays and take his fallen body to Valhalla.

Both?” Flippers asked, incredulous. “You were playing two games at once, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line?”

The Archetypes tournament this week has a first prize of fifty K. It’s a card game, so you take turns, and you have a lot of time for each turn. Five whole minutes. I can shower and eat breakfast in five minutes if I’m really trying…”

You were hoping to take your turns while you were in respawn,” Plusplus reasoned, “but you weren’t dying in the gardens. Until the end…”

That’s… that’s!” Jenny couldn’t get out anything more than that, except the hairs she ripped from her temples. Their only wiggle room had been ripped away over greed, over stupidity, over teenage boy arrogance. “Why would you do this to us!? You don’t even need the money like I do! If we don’t win I’m getting shoved off the only path I’ve ever cared to walk Marco! I could wind up with my brain melting under a customer service headset because you thought you could do both!?”

Your Dad’s just going to give you a job here if you need one,” Flippers argued more calmly. He put his hand on Handzy’s back to console her while she struggled to suppress the red blooming all over her cheeks and forehead.

I don’t want his money,” Granslam said weakly. He looked like he was about to liquefy and become an invisible coat of sealant on the granite slab. “I want to make my own, and I can, if everyone would just let me.” He should’ve been concerned over whether or not Handzy would let him live, let alone keep all his fingers intact enough to game again. To contain her rage she stormed out into the warehouse, letting the rocks absorb everything she radiated.

Two tented slabs provided her a place to sit. Doing so was extremely unsafe, and she would’ve gotten an earful from Mr. Vallet if he had been there to see it. Only Flippers saw, and he joined her under their shade, crossing his legs and throwing one arm over her shoulder while she steeped in a hot sulk like a teabag with a foul flavor.

We’re not out of it yet,” he said to bolster her. “He screwed up, but everybody does. We need to forgive him.”

You want to forgive him!?”

I want to forgive him in time to practice for the next match,” he reasoned, looking away, into a black hole in the granite’s many colors. “This sucks, but it’s where we are now. Let’s just move on and try to be friends. If we win it’ll be like nothing ever happened. Winning erases mistakes. It eats bad decisions, just like we’re going to devour whoever they put up against us next.”

You’re right.” She sniffled, tilting her head back to keep a stream of hot snot from ruining the moment further. “We only lost because one of our players was so sure we would win that he tried to play in two game tournaments at the same time. That’s… badass? Just don’t tell him I said that.”

All of your secrets are safe with me,” Flippers promised with his hand over his heart. “In turn just don’t tell anybody I’m not as much of a winner as the rest of my squad.”

You’re a great assassin. If I was going to get murdered I would definitely want you to be the culprit,” she joked. Now it was his turn to blush. Both of them stood to get out of the awkward pool they’d just created, and hit their heads on each side of the granite tent respectively. They both emerged hissing and rubbing their scalps. “Ow ow ow shit ow. We really shouldn’t have sat there.”

This place is a deathtrap,” Flippers agreed. Together they returned to share their utilitarian hope with Plusplus and Granslam.

Yet it would take more than hope to keep them in the Hangers-On Open. More than 60,000 people had indeed seen their baffling defeat where one player looked struck dumb at a crucial moment. 64,883 people to be exact, though only a handful of them mattered, as they were with the organizers of the tournament and the developer of the game itself. They were the setters of rules, and the enforcers.

Video game audiences talked to each other, did so quite a lot, and it didn’t take long for a fan of Hanging Gardens of Babylon to shoot the breeze with a fan of Archetypes. Word reached the arbiters that the same username had been playing two e-sports tournaments simultaneously.

While this was not explicitly against any bullet point within the rules, it could be broadly seen as against the community sportsmanship standard clause, which Granslam had agreed to by clicking on the button at the bottom of the registration page without reading a single word of the document aside from ‘agree’.

Game publishers are vain and paranoid creatures; they can’t accept the existence of any other games that might take up their customers’ money and time. Granslam’s stunt was a slap to their figurative faces, and he was punished as forcefully as was within their authority. Marco Vallet was quickly, by both E-mail and public statement, banned from participating in the Hangers-On Open from that point forward.

The only solace was that he could rejoin the community the following year if he so chose, but even that decision was cynically calculated on their part. Such a limit to the punishments needed to be established should they want to pull it out in regard to a much more famous or beloved E-sports athlete. Banning that kind of person could cost them brand deals and PR, and all over something like homophobic statements or underage sexting. No, a year was plenty of time for them to learn their lesson, make an apology video, and go back to raking it in.

Archetypes banned him as well, so now Granslam had no chance of making a splash in any tournament scene. The empty year ahead of him spelled doom for Handzy’s hopes of a gaming future, and she was finding it difficult to locate the forgiving part of her soul. Afterwards she also learned of her sister’s failure to capture the image of Mangst Breadslaw, so their hatbox of an apartment became a dour mire where nobody bothered to dry their hair after showering.

The Beaucoup Bucks seemed well and truly excluded, as the rules also stated that only people signed up to a team at the beginning of the tournament were eligible to play. More professional organizations had auxiliary members built into their roster, often another full set of four who were more flexible in the roles they could play.

The Bucks had nobody. Their roster didn’t even fill out the application form all the way to the bottom; there was just a gaping painful white space where additional support should have resided.

Though they were technically still in the tournament, they would be disqualified the moment they tried to enter a game lobby with only three members or someone who wasn’t registered.

Despair overtook them, but desperation remained, so they tried the only thing they could think of, switching to a new game. It was called Board State, and it was just as boring as it sounded to everyone who wasn’t Granslam. Up until his stunt it was considered a fun quirk of Marco’s that he played the big dumb brawler in the gardens but preferred intense strategy challenges when playing games on his own.

He suggested the pivot, offering to tutor them all even as he learned Board State himself. It had a few of the same qualities as Hanging Gardens of Babylon: a large roster, abilities with cooldown periods, and character synergies. Primarily it was a decision-making game though, not one of reflex and aim. Players took turns moving their characters like chess pieces, viewing the board from overhead, and making collaborative decisions on a timer.

Handzy kept her mouth shut about how lame it all was to her. Theoretically, fun didn’t matter if it got them into some money, and Board State did have some behind it. There was a weekend tournament on its horizon with a 70,000 pot at the end of its grayscale rainbow.

She couldn’t connect with any of the characters though, and only partly because she was watching the action from above rather than sharing a pair of eyes with them. Board State didn’t have any lore. The gardens was a rich place full of multiple histories; you couldn’t walk down its fired clay streets without kicking aside pebbles that were technically ancient ruins.

The gardens had culture, spirituality, mysticism, magic, evil, and good, and all in equal amounts. The strategy game on the other hand had none of those things. It contextualized things more as a mystery novel or police investigation. The pieces were unknown ‘suspects’ defined only by the limited information had about their actions.

As such they had no identity beyond their play style, no names. They were literally called things like Crush, Snipe, and Sprint. Crush crushed. Snipe sniped. Sprint? He ran an all you could eat Taiwanese restaurant. No, Handzy’s hopes were dashed again. He just sprinted.

Still the foursome tried. They were once again in the warehouse, sitting at their computers, trying to qualify for the new tournament. Their next Hangers-On match was still scheduled for that coming Saturday, as none of them had the heart to officially withdraw. The thought of going back to it gave them more energy than anything in Board State did.

Despite the constant need to strategize, they were so quiet that Marco’s father grew suspicious that they had left without telling him. He appeared in the doorway of the computer room, but quickly clammed up when he saw they were busy. He started rolling along the jamb stealthily as if they all hadn’t spotted him already.

Relax Dad. We don’t need to focus that hard; it’s not our turn.”

You take turns shooting at each other?”

Different game Dad.”

You didn’t tell him?” Plusplus asked Marco. His grumpy silence was answer enough.

Tell me what?” The others filled him in on the disqualification, but they kept it vague, pretended it was an unintentional error that they all overlooked, but which Marco happened to take the blame for.

Hey, that really stinks guys, I’m sorry,” Mr. Vallet offered. He saw his son prickling with angry shame; it wasn’t a good time to bring it up. But he was the adult and safety was important. “Mostly unrelated but… these past few days have any of you been walking, running, or sitting under the stone out there?” They all shook their heads. “You sure? My dad senses were tingling. It felt like somebody was being stupid out here.” Their heads never stopped shaking, but Handzy’s and Flippers’s lips did purse noticeably more. “Okay good. I might not be playing with you guys, but I’m on your team too, and I always look out for my teammates.”

He started rolling out of the jamb again, pleased they at least didn’t roll their eyes at his parental lameness. Suddenly, something happened inside the timid mind of Plusplus. He had a very uncommon sputtering outburst, one that caused him to disregard their active game even though it had just shifted to their team’s turn. He didn’t care that the piece Charity couldn’t be charitable without him.

Oh! Oh no! I just had an idea. Why am I the one having the idea? One of you guys should’ve thought of it, jeez!” Mr. Vallet stuck around to hear whatever this was; he’d rarely heard the kid talk that much, and if he did he was being overly polite or apologizing.

Just spit it out,” Granslam told him, “it’s our turn.”

Mr. Vallet’s on our team,” the shy boy said, growing more confident with every word.

Yeah he just said that,” Handzy snapped, turning back to the monitor to make Ricochet ricochet once again.

Shit!” Flippers exploded.

Watch the language,” Mr. Vallet warned, pointing a meaty finger that really wasn’t threatening much of anything at all. If they had heard some of the things that came out of his mouth when he dropped some of the inventory on his toe their parents might not want them coming around anymore.

Sorry, but Plus is right! You’re on our team!”

All the way,” the adult agreed smugly.

Guys we have to qualify,” Marco warned them. “I’m taking the turn for us.” He shoved Flippers’s chair out of the way and wheeled over to take the next mouse, but by then Handzy had gotten the idea too. Three stations abandoned. Marco kept his mind on Charity, on Ricochet, on Venom and Armor. It was not a plan he wanted to hear.

Marco is the only one of us who’s still seventeen,” Plusplus explained to Mr. Vallet. “The tournament requires you be a legal adult to participate, or be fifteen and have the signature of a parent.”

Yeah I signed the online form thingy,” he admitted, suddenly and irrationally worried he had signed over some kind of personal bank information to a Russian hacker.

Yes you did!” Handzy declared. She jumped back to her computer and minimized Board State before Marco could get to it. She pulled up the registration logs for the Beaucoup Bucks on the tournament site and scrolled down:

Jenny Handerly – Handzy

Elijah Marsden – Plusplus

Glenn Delaney – Flippers

Joaquin Vallet – (provided parental consent)

Marco Vallet – Granslam

Yup, there’s the old John Hancock,” Mr. Vallet confirmed. “What’s the big deal?”

Marco got banned, but you didn’t,” Handzy said. “You can take his spot on the team. You can play with us. We can still win the tournament!”

No!” Marco protested, but he let the last seconds of their Board State turn slip by without any action. “He can’t. He hasn’t played a video game in twenty years. We’ll be the laughingstock of the whole scene.”

We already are because of what… what happened,” Flippers reminded him without getting explicit.

I don’t want to embarrass anybody,” the adult said, suddenly shyer than Elijah. Handzy wasn’t having any of it; she marched right up to him and grabbed his much larger hands in hers, squeezing them together in prayer.

Joaquin,” she started, mesmerizing him with his own first name in such a young voice, “we need you. If we don’t win this tournament my dream, my whole life as I’ve imagined it, is over. We need you to play, and we need you to do the absolute best you can. If you don’t I’ll have to go back to school… and I. Hate. School.”

I would try,” his voice whistled, suddenly flute-like, “but not without Marco’s permission. You’re his friends. This is his game.” They all turned to Granslam, whose hands had abandoned both mouse and keyboard. His expression was impenetrable, somewhere between granite and a hard place.

You’re still playing,” Flippers tried to convince him with a soft voice, as if a harsh word was equally likely to make him erupt or melt, “but through another layer. Instead of moving the brawler you’ve got to move your dad who will move the brawler. But you have to guide him all the same. We still need you too.”

Even the slabs made more noise than the five humans in the ensuing minute. Finally, with a head that looked too heavy to stay attached, Marco nodded. His teammates collapsed into relief and laughter, with Joaquin joining in.

So, how many buttons are there?” he asked. His son picked up a keyboard and held it up like a stone tablet from Jehovah. “Oh.”

The Fall and Ascent of Norumbega

(excerpt from HGOB tie-in novel Norumbega to Babylon)

The mole’s dim curtain. The lynx’s beam. Headlong lioness. Hound sagacious. Spider’s touch. Nice bee. grov’lling swine. Half-reas’ning elephant. Every animal was an image swimming in his head, through all the others, each defined by a sense or quality. All of them had to be acquired in order to fulfill the prophecy.

He knew it could be done, as it had been many times before; Leif Broadstream was merely the latest to attempt it. The first time the words were spoken, the words that raised the golden pillars from the ground and filled their baskets with pearls, was when the two peoples of Norumbega met on the cold rocky shore.

The Norse had completed an impossible journey, sailing across what they had started to assume was an endless ocean. They were half and again starved, but the new land they’d found had a people all its own, and they knew to bring food with them. They were darker of skin, hair, and eye, but arrived in such welcoming warmth that the Norse squinted against their brightness after a year under the sea’s fog.

Somehow, despite sharing not a single word between their languages, the leader of the explorers and the chief of the tribe managed to speak. Later it would be attributed to a handshake between pantheons. One of the offspring of Odin must have stowed away with the Norse, and was equally happy to see a bestial trickster weaving between the natives, laughing with its entire head.

Both leaders had the same thought, and took turns saying one word at a time, and together those words became the prophecy:

And when the tenth invader is a friend

to Norumbega both of us are sent.

There we thrive until the eleventh comes

and drinks our blood alongside teas and rums.

One of both who knows our ways of learning

will undertake ev’ry animal’s journey

until they know the land foes seek to steal

and can repel them to complete the wheel.

With bestial power they are driven off

and our golden branches remain aloft.

But should our chosen fail to understand,

then it’s the end of Norumbega clan.

The gold will sink and the people will rise,

for shared words go unheard under blood cries.

Leif knew only the bounty of Norumbega. Their halls stood by pillars of gold and their streams were sometimes more drifting pearl than water. Wild animals let them be, understanding that they had been blessed, that Norumbega was paradise on Earth, and predation and disease had no place there as long as it lasted.

The two peoples had blended into one, and they were certain a hybrid god now oversaw their civilization. But just as with the Norse and their longboats, eventually another castaway god came to their shore, and this one did not share. He had no pantheon around him; he claimed to be the one and only.

The pilgrims he brought under him could not share words, only crushing judgment. They saw the gold as wealth, not as solid light. They stole, and when they could not steal without violence they took to it enthusiastically, even after they learned that any treasure removed from Norumbega turned to ash. It was cursed ash too, with each grain as heavy as the entire golden pillar had been. One pinch on a man’s back would flatten him to death.

Despite this they kept coming, too blinded by entitled greed. Their weapons used an explosive powder to propel metal balls. They were the sort of wicked devices that would never cross the mind of a Norumbegan. Instead, when they needed new ideas they turned to the powers of nature just beyond their borders.

Leif Broadstream was chosen for cleverness and for his desire to help, but beyond the choosing no help could be offered to him. He wasn’t even allowed clothing, for it was the animal’s world he was about to enter. He sought the powers of nature, and could only begin as he was freshest in life.

Where the invaders sought power in wicked volatile machinery, a true Norumbegan would forage it, use it only as needed, and then let it fall to the side, keeping only the lessons learned. There was something to cherish in every animal’s life, all the way down to the wiggling worms that enriched their soil, but Leif sought those best equipped for harsh and desperate situations.

He started small, with the mole, crawling naked through the forest on all fours until he found the opening to a burrow. Dropping to his belly, he waited nearly a full silent day for one to emerge. When one finally did it was the dead of night and Leif saw only the tiniest sparkle of its weak beady eyes.

That was all they needed to share. Eye to eye. Leif set his soul out on a raft, and willed a wind to send that raft toward the mole, toward the dark tunnels of its eyes. Once it was inside the creature retracted its head back underground, but it took Leif’s spirit with it. The young man was still naked and helpless on his belly, but his sight was in the earthen tunnels.

A deep breath allowed him to smell the muscles of the world. Rich. Moist. Like the sweetest cakes imaginable. Everything the tunnel could terminate in was something the mole could enjoy, especially a dead end, as that was just an opportunity for more creation, but this one was going somewhere in particular. It wanted to show its passenger something special.

Deeper down they went together, past where even the worms go, into a loam so dark it looked like a cloudless and moonless sky. On the surface Leif struggled to breathe, even as his limbs held paralyzed; it felt like he was drowning in the darkness. The mole had no such sensation, swimming through it as elegantly as a beaver.

The human had to keep quiet. This was not his turn to speak. He’d already put his word in, and the mole was free to say its contribution as languidly as it liked. He couldn’t hold his breath either. That was resistance. He had to know the mole’s truth, the mole’s experience, to wield its power.

At the limit of his ability to keep conscious it felt like soil was being poured down his open throat, pebbles and the drippings from the oldest roots filling up all the tiny spaces between his skin and muscles, muscles and bone.

Finally the mole turned the last corner in the bowels of the world, and even in the complete blackness it shone: a golden pillar of Norumbega. It was a brilliant wall to the mole, too big to even appear curved.

The sediment emptied from Leif’s lungs and he understood. The pillars of Norumbega were no mere baubles. They extended all the way to the core of their land, of all lands. Traveling through the bedrock of all creation, their rocky shore was blessed above all other places. Should the pillars ever sink they would still exist, waiting again for those who could make paradise in mortal squalor.

Leif’s vision returned to his eyes; he attempted to stand, wobbling on weakened ankles. He squinted against the risen sun, but he he had to look up to be sure his journey progressed. It didn’t take long. The colored smoke rose above the trees, changing its shape midair like a serpent. The dark blue trail weaved the symbol of the mole. The smoke signaler was a shaman of sorts, the wisest person in all of Norumbega. They had undertaken the same journey once, and so sensed any time the chosen advanced.

Leif smiled; now all of his people saw that he fought for them. He closed his eyes only when the symbol of his success was entirely dissipated, in order to feel his new power. The mole’s dim curtain, the world where eyes were not important, granted him a new sense of vibration. As long as his feet were on the ground he could feel everything that moved upon it, through not just the forest and its maze of roots but the shore and every beating wave that came and went.

He also felt the pilgrims of the invading single god. They marched, all their steps afraid of deviating, as if any uncut path was automatically treacherous. How miserable. No gold would ever rise through such a terrified footprint. Such lives made it so that Norumbega could never expand; it was encircled and entrapped by the thin-skinned bubble of their undying anxieties.

His hatred grew, but he shouldn’t have watered that seed so much. The mole’s power was not granted for him to linger on his disgust for them, but to find the other animals who had what he sought.

Next was the lynx, a challenging target to locate even with his newfound skill. The elegant wildcat’s padded footsteps barely made any vibrations to detect. It traveled lighter than an animal a third its size, and its dozing breath was barely more than the rustling of a leaf. To make it all the more difficult it seemed to sense that it was being tracked immediately, and slept only for short periods in piles of the most agitated leaves it could find.

Even when he was close it would not just be handed over. Dusk was all about him, which he realized moments too late was the lynx’s favored time to hunt, its slashing eyes sharpened in the twilight. The mole was a pacifist creature, fully capable of dying without being bothered. Not this cat. There was no charity, no mercy, no negotiation without bloodshed.

He hadn’t seen it yet, but he knew it was hunting him back, keeping to the branches and the stones so its vibrations couldn’t be felt. Leif sensed its intent regardless. This was a game, with no consequences for the lynx should it lose, and every consequence for Leif should he. If it caught him unaware it would chomp down on the back of his neck and kill him. He had to lock eyes with it before that, had to open the connection.

It could’ve dropped on him from above, so he moved to the first clearing he could find: a mass of boulders with thorns growing out of the seams between them. Those spines meant the hunters had to watch where they stepped. Not only would it cause injury, but the resulting pained thrash could be felt through the vines, plucked like one strand of a spider’s web.

But the spider was for later. Leif’s dread took hold. The cat was getting closer all the time; he felt it. Whirling around he saw nothing, but it was still getting closer. How? If he knew he would not have needed its prize. Another spin. Closer. He checked an empty sky. Closer. Bent and flailed to touch his own back just to make sure it wasn’t already perched on his shoulders. Closer. He stepped back and sent a thorn into his sole. Closer.

All he had was the pain, so he turned it into an idea and used it. The lynx was expecting a degree of intelligence from its prey, so he abandoned all strategy and purpose, doing exactly what he felt like doing. Leif screamed. The sudden outburst startled the creature. It hesitated, and the hesitation caused a claw to scrape across the rock, which Leif’s mole sense detected.

Again he spun, but this time precisely, catching the cat with one foot raised. Its sheer size nearly knocked him over. Gray touched the edges of its brown coat and ringed its black spots. Tufts of silky fur topped its ears. There were plenty of other details outlining its years of impressive hunts, but they all fell away as their eyes met. The mole’s gaze had made way, but the lynx’s met his spearpoint to spearpoint. They clashed with a spark, and when it faded Leif was looking at himself through the cat’s eyes.

The animal was focus incarnate. Everything around the target of its gaze was warped, layered, like its quarry radiated all other substance and light. The hunt was everything; the hunt was gravity.

Lynx turned away, quickly disappeared into the underbrush, but Leif’s vision rode along. There was no great foundational truth this time, just what he already knew. Life was supplied by death, and a life as dense and lithe as a cat’s required the sacrifice of many others. The Norumbegans weren’t violent, but how much death was required to fuel their paradise? He didn’t know.

The cat only showed him how much fueled a cat. There was no minimum challenge needed for a hunt: grasshoppers, frogs, fish, hatchlings fallen out of the nest, all the way up to deer and bear cubs. Once the lynx’s beam was set upon them so too was death. That beam was the prize, for it seemed to pierce any veil and reveal what was behind.

In truth it could do no such thing, and was nothing more than extraordinary focus. In a wall of vegetation it could pick out the gaps, and then the gaps that overlapped other gaps, layers and layers back, until the cat’s eyes found the only open path. If there was any opening all the way through it was like the obstruction wasn’t even there. From one glimpse of passing fur across the forest the lynx knew whether its prey was large or small, young or old, attentive or carefree.

Leif’s eyes were dumped unceremoniously back into his head in the middle of the cat gorging on a trout, as if it had suddenly remembered he was still there and it wanted to shake off the dead weight. It was disappointing compared to the reverence of the mole, but he remembered the lynx was a predator, and likely saw itself as equal to or greater than the humans.

In glancing at the forest his pupils snapped narrow, and suddenly windows through it were thrown wide open. Landmarks like waterfalls and bone piles were revealed, dotting the map in his mind that had previously labeled the entire area as just a green blob and the word ‘forest’. There were roads the animals used, places they avoided, pitfalls now plain as day.

With the lynx’s beam he could see the invaders, marching alongside them, just an arm’s length away, and they would never know thanks to the trees and bushes separating them. Between the beam and the curtain their presence in his mind was already near overwhelming. There wasn’t a moment’s peace with all their stomping, open-mouthed chewing, guffawing, and muttering of prayers.

Perhaps it was best to strike immediately; he was confident he could do it. So powerful was his anger that it convinced him he needed no animals at all. He had lived the Norumbega way his entire life, was born in a rippling pool of its wisdom, and thus had the entire arsenal of their civilization already. Gunpowder could not stop the thundering bison stampede that was his heart.

But the symbol of the lynx went up in smoke, and now he could see his people celebrate him even across a vast distance. Not completing his journey would be disrespectful to them, to his ancestors. Every power would be his, for he knew his place, right there, fenced in by the pillars of gold. Once he had the strength of the world they would drift out of his way as he walked toward them, expanding the boundaries of their perfect city.

Next were the headlong lioness and the hound sagacious. It wasn’t clear what the mountain lion would have to offer that the lynx could not, but he understood it when he felt it pounce. Both creatures could pounce, but the essence of the maneuver was about putting your entire weight and all your force into it without concern for yourself, and was thus more meaningful with a greater weight. Their eyes met with his back on the ground, and the lioness left him there, wandering away with his sight. It took him hours to realize the animal had nothing else to show but that first moment where their breaths mixed.

With her skill he could put all of himself into every blow, and he used it to meet the eyes of the hound sagacious, the gray wolf. It, and its entire pack, found him by scent, knowing he was going to chase them down anyway. Some of them still remembered the last Norumbegan to walk among them, and to walk away with their keen sense of smell.

To them locking eyes was no great sacrifice. Eyes were a convenience. The nose was the true gateway to understanding, as Leif learned when his vision stayed put but his nose and lungs filled up with the air breathed by the retreating wolf pack. They took his respiration to the shore, let him breathe in the salt, the pale dead crabs with their flesh going gelatinous and leaking out when the tide pulled at their fissures, the down of the shorebirds as they flapped and fought with each other, and even the wood of the beached enemy boats, its scent nothing but a long complaint that it wasn’t allowed to decompose.

Now he could smell the invaders with every breath, and so didn’t even look for the smoky symbol of the wolf overhead before beginning his search for the next beast on the checklist. He knew it was up there.

Next came the spider’s touch, which was acquired face to face with a grand web between two trees, far larger than the young man. Its master sat at the center, full of enough silk to cloak the entire forest if it were so inclined. Two eyes met eight, and at first there was confusion as his sight tried to divide itself into compatible pieces.

But again it was not about the eyes, but the pluck of a string. How to pluck without getting stuck. How to walk up trees like they were the ground. How to step around the heat and walk across the roiling surface of a boiling spring. How to choose where the foot lands even when the world wants to make the decision for you.

The nice bee, too nice to think of anything but flowers, buzzed by his head, looking at him incidentally. From flower, to flower, to bloom, to blossom, to petal, to flower. A thousand dives into pools of golden pollen powder. There was nothing to learn, until it was called away to an attack on the hive in which it sacrificed its life, turning its soul into a spear so powerful its innards were ripped free. Its last thought was of flowers, and it occurred before it even heard the call to defense.

It was the power to sacrifice everything without a second thought for the greater good; Leif stored it away. Nice to have, but unnecessary. They would fall with little trouble. A cloud passed overhead, probably the dissolving symbol of the nice, but temporary, little bee.

Eventually he reached the grov’lling swine, and the beast was even worse than it sounded. Leif hoped for a wild boar, something he could at least go tusk to tusk with and respect, but while sneaking close to an enemy camp he accidentally met the eyes of one of their livestock: a fat hog wallowing in the mud.

While they stared at each other it chewed absentmindedly, only handing over its wisdom when Leif became aggressive. That wisdom was to settle for one’s lot in life. If you had a nice mud puddle, and things to chew on that tasted alright, and other disgusting pigs to share it with, everything was as it should be. Sometimes conflict could be allowed to buzz by overhead like a dragonfly. It didn’t need to be seized, a bite didn’t need to be risked.

At least with the bee there was a chance he might need its skill, but with the pig he wished he could scoop it out of his mind and toss it right back into the creature’s trough ungratefully. When he left he didn’t even look in the direction of his people. He didn’t want to see them celebrating such a pointless hurdle in his journey to might.

There were many more, and he bested them all, saw the world from every animal angle. At the end of the list was a very special kind of eye, one which could no longer see anything at all. The half-reas’ning elephant.

He’d never seen a living one, and neither had his parents, nor theirs, nor any Norumbegan. They walked the land an age ago, like woolly mountains. All that remained was their piled bones, sometimes artfully arranged, and not by early people. Leif was drawn to one such sight magnetically, his gaze pulled as if sliding down a wet funnel, into the chasms of a mammoth skull enthroned atop a mound of rib cages.

Through its sockets he saw the passage of time, of an entire age, from ice to dirt. The sun rose and fell so fast that he saw only the changes in the stars. Creatures he’d never even suspected of existing arose and died off, leaving nothing behind. That was the mammoth’s power; it left something behind. It taught him to be noble in defeat, to leave a mark not of destruction, but of life.

No, he told himself, rejecting what was earned over the course of thousands of years, an entire wheelbarrow of time to any of their gods. The elephant had constructed a falsehood in death, settling its spirit by convincing itself there was nothing that could be done to prevent it. Defeat was not an inevitability, nor was it even an option.

He invited the spirit of the mammoth into his own sight so he could give it a real lesson. If it transferred he felt nothing, but he moved as if he had a doubting passenger. The task was complete, and now the invaders could be driven off, and if they weren’t fleeing quickly enough, eliminated from this Earth.

Naked, coated in a hundred layers of dried mud, and with sharpened eyes and teeth, Leif bounded on all fours across the wilds outside Norumbega, using the golden pillars to mark his progress toward the shore. There was a village there, the main hub of what they called trading, but what was really pillaging.

He howled to let them know he was coming; there was nothing they could do to stop it. Let them load their guns and cannons. Let them barricade their doors. Let them dive into their bibles and bounce off the useless page. The pilgrims heard his cry and thought it was a wolf. They corralled their animals and locked them away, unaware they were the only creatures not in peril.

Hardly a weapon was ready when he leapt over their fences and into their midst. No demands were made, for he didn’t want them to do anything other than die. They didn’t deserve the opportunity to learn from the beasts of Norumbega, only to end like them, at the tips of his fangs and claws.

Hiding in their houses did nothing when he could both smell and see them through the slats, and feel their terrified trembling through the ground. If the doors were locked he clambered up the side and bashed his way through the roof. Even hermit crabs left their shells before these people. It was as if they didn’t even value their own lives. The lives brought the gold, not the other way around, the fools.

Bloody shreds were made of them, with no regard for age, sex, or the grov’lling they may have caught from their swine. It might have been smartest to get their leaders first, but Leif was sure he got them at some point. Any that remained had fled on their boats, and they were free to plague any shore but his as far as he was concerned.

Covered in minor scrapes and bruises, caused by his own rabid thrashing rather than resistance from his victims, Leif wandered into the surf and laid on his side, letting the lapping salt burn in his wounds, which was what it took to calm his blazing blood lust. Even with a stomach full of it, and bone, and flesh, it took him hours to sit up and realize that he had become a cannibal.

It wasn’t something the animals ever thought about, except perhaps the mammoth with its reverent treatment of its kin’s bones, so it never occurred to him when he was awash in all their hunting and persevering techniques. The smoke signaler had never mentioned that part of their own journey, but surely they must have walked the same path as he. It was the only way to be rid of them.

Stories came back to him, of others who shared eyes with the animals. They always came back changed, more respected, yet more distant from the people. Suddenly a crucial detail hit him like an anchor. All of them gave up meat. They could no longer consume the creatures they had lived inside, for it so filled their hearts with sorrow and despair.

Not Leif. He was still dripping with it. It was crusted to his lips. And all from one particular animal. But he’d done it. No matter the cost, he’d succeeded. Norumbega was celebrating, surely. All he had to do was pull himself out of the sand, turn around, and see the colored smoke of the great bonfire, around which hundreds would be dancing and praising his name.

Yet it was difficult to turn his neck, like a tree trying to swivel without cracking. When he finally managed he was not rewarded, but punished with an empty sky. No, not empty. The smoke was supposed to be a great veil, but it was only thin jets with short trails. What were those objects headed deeper into the sky?

By their trails it had to be the work of the smoke signaler, but these were not writing. Leif bolted, on all fours once more, toward his people, slowed by his need to keep his head twisted and aimed at the sky.

But should our chosen fail to understand,

then it’s the end of Norumbega clan.

The gold will sink and the people will rise,

for shared words go unheard under blood cries.

Leif skidded to a halt, ignoring the skin torn off the sides of his hands. His eyes went up and up and up, with the power of cats and falcons and all things that could see even in the dark, yet they couldn’t follow the rising objects any further. They were leaving him behind. The people were rising.

But to where? The prophecy never said. Or nobody told him specifically. The signaler tricked him, chose him knowing he would fail. Treachery. Treachery in Norumbega. Of course he hadn’t suspected it. They gave him the world, turned it upside down, and then left him to do… what with it?

His pained howl and flooding tears didn’t slow them. Where? Where was better than Norumbega? Nowhere, not as long as the golden pillars stood. Another lightning strike in his heart. He rushed for the border, just in time to see a golden tree sinking into the ground. He clawed at it, begged it to stay with him, smearing muddy blood and bloody mud along it as it descended.

Burrowing, he followed it underground, but he wasn’t an entire mole, so eventually he ran out of his diving breath and had to turn back, but not before hanging there in the soil for a moment, waiting to see if it was his grave.

It wasn’t, but nothing remained for him when he surfaced. His people were gone, his civilization reclaimed by the deep earth, and that wasn’t even all of his losses. No animal would approach him. They all shared their abilities just enough to track him and keep their distance.

He’d shared their sight, and misused it by their estimation, so now he would never catch sight of them again. Yet Leif lived, days on, seasons on, years on. He never saw a bird in the sky or a marching ant. It was like the world was dead, the oceans airless puddles. The only movement was the wind through the leaves.

And people. They weren’t connected to the rest. Leif would run to them, ready to share the spoils of his journey, eager to slobber his wisdom all over their faces, but by the time he got up to them, quick and quiet as the ultimate cat, the hunger overwhelmed him. He could no longer stomach plants, and no fish or rabbit ever crossed his path.

There was no solution to his isolation after Norumbega ascended. Every chance to end it turned into a tearful shameful devouring. Leif could only speak to his reflection, but over time he didn’t even recognize it.

On he lived regardless, perhaps sharing in some sort of immortality the rest of his people had achieved. On he lived until there was no Leif left, and only the name the other tribes and peoples gave him when he haunted their lands and stalked them in the night:

Wendigo.

continued in the finale

One thought on “Tourney at the Hanging Gardens (part three)

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