It is the age of the beity. The animals of the world have grown in size and intellect, and in their wake humanity is reduced to meek servitude. They say the humans did it to themselves, shying away from the chaos they created. Loric Shelvtale says that, and much more in the course of his duties as a storyteller in the court of the great bear: Krakodosus the thundercoat, Scion of the Salmon Run.
Until one evening, during a key performance, he violates one of the ultimate rules, meant to keep his kind in check. Fleeing for his life, he seeks the only human power left, a secret reserved only for dentists, who are still allowed to forge metal to keep the giant teeth of their masters clean. That secret is the Bloody Mouth, an oath that turns a dentist into protector and warrior, and the tool of their trade into a weapon.
And so begins their struggle, to flee the beities, and perhaps learn how the world could have reached such a state, though they would be shocked to find it all started long ago, on a place called the internet, where their forebears could not stop obsessively staring at photos of adorable animals…
(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 17 minutes)
Invoke the Bloody Mouth
When the Year is not Kept
And the Clutch of the Sig-neagle Fails
A beity is not failed by their talons out of nothing. There was an attack, and it had come out of clear skies no less. That is how the Sig-neagle was caught off her guard, for countless seasons had passed since last she suffered such craven disrespect. Even for her the skies were not without their threats; sometimes she did battle with hurricane winds and lances of lightning. They were challenging foes, eluding the steely traps at the end of each leg.
Lightning’s nature would’ve protected it completely in the seasons of old, but not now that the twin forces of life both ran in the river of animal blood. When bolts struck around her flight path they had be wary, despite their speed. More than once she had been witnessed under the dark clouds with a bolt caught up in her claws, those that saw it testifying to the indignity of the long-untouched lightning which turned out to flop just like a fish plucked from a lake when captured.
Yet such encounters were under skies busy with cloud and shadow, rain and boom. The day was empty but for her errand, as free and blue as a potable sea. No other bird dared fly while she was about, lest they get between her and the invisible auras she used to track her prey. Entire flocks would set down and fold their wings away, waddling as a crowd, migrating on absurdly unfit feet, until she passed by and out of their near future.
Her wings, from one feather large and strong enough to serve as an oar to the other, cast a shadow bigger than most beasts of the land, even in the age of invigorated double-thick blood that had grown them to creaking proportions. A hooked beak of slate cut the air, making way for the glass of her piercing mahogany eyes.
She was never at peace, assailed at all hours by the wail of the inanimate, those that should have died, so her thick crown and collar of gray and white feathers were always ruffled up to their fullest. About her neck hung looped bundles of trophies, what would have been naught but reek if her prey was flesh and bone instead of metal and wire.
Their glint in the sun marked her, even from the great distance to the ground, as the Sig-neagle, the one and only Tensilharp, the machine-scratch harpy, the harried queen, the fisher-eagle of filaments, and every other name that could be stuffed in her beity breast.
More bundles of wire, in many bright colors, were wrapped tightly about her legs, stripped in places to sharp strands of copper. Not placed as trophies like the electric brains dangling from her necklaces, these were just the end result of her many hunts. She always made a mess of her prey when she caught it, if it was large enough to do so, so it didn’t bother her with its screeching in her flight back to Rhadiospir: the rock-reclaimed tower upon which she had nested for countless generations of other birds’ eggs. She had no time for any of her own, not when those sounds were still about in the air like flies passing straight through the brain.
Far longer than her own reign of the sky had birds navigated its currents by a similar force. It wasn’t the one that kept most creatures glued to the ground, or the one that lit everything, or the one the animals broadly long held, or the thickening one bestowed to their blood by the shamed. No, it was one now hidden back in its old haunts. One of the few times it could be seen was when two lodestones refused to end their loving embrace.
It was the cousin of lightning, which perhaps explained her rivalry with those striking monsters as well. Tensilharp felt it in her always, ever since she had first fledged and been struck unawares mid-flight, bashed in the head by a piece of falling debris from the black sky above the sky.
Her own parents tried to soothe the knotted wound with stories explaining those horrid things above even the clouds. They were machines, built to do nothing but talk in a new way, an absurd reinvention made necessary by the old way’s inability to function up in the darkness beyond.
Falling when the beities rose, some lingered long after, just to shock and terrorize those beneath, treating the birds of the sky and those that crawled and slithered as one and the same. The Sig-neagle could never go that high, not with the thickest blood in the world, for it could be set ablaze and still go to ice when that place was reached.
So the stories that failed to soothe went, but she would come to test their claims eventually, once both her creators had passed. Her father, remembered only as the egg he once was, successfully hatched in the clouds without ever touching land, had died in flight, his body continuing to glide until it passed out of this world and into the next. In all that time he touched no earth, drank only rain, and ate only other birds.
Her mother, the termite-singer, thief of songbirds and birdsong, had done as most do in the end. She had landed a final time. There were never many siblings, but all had made that final landing, none as driven as their sister to become the sort of beity whose name makes it across continents, not to the level of the Wild Trinity, but lofty and legendary nonetheless.
Once they were gone, and would not be shamed by how little their efforts to soothe her had done, the Sig-neagle tested the upper skin of the sky. She wanted to invade the airless infinite, to hunt down every last machine up there and make sure none would ever suffer the throbbing headaches she was cursed all her life with.
It was impenetrable. No air. No warmth. She made it so far as to see the curvature of the world, and to see that there were still some metal monsters streaking by. She’d always pictured them as still, frozen to the ceiling of existence like icicles, just waiting for something to pass beneath them before breaking loose.
When she fell she almost struck the ground, but she felt visited by the spirit of her father the cloud-egg. His voice rang throughout her mind, driving out the lodestone wails for the only moment of clarity in her flying life. It woke her from her sky-drowning and she was able to recover her altitude.
From then on she swore to hunt what she assumed were the raining offspring of the monsters above the sky: the machines of the Earth. Any that dared to taste electricity and return to life would know her wrath. She could feel every last one of them, no matter how small, though size proved an unreliable indicator on the day with clear skies, the day of the attack.
This one was unusual in exactly how much it tormented her. Such a small thing, it was barely a splinter between her toes as she gripped it. All that mattered was that she had it, so its appearance did not concern her, but had it she would’ve cataloged its rectangular shape, its textured black finish, its single white light like a pearl, and its dead screen.
A dead screen was even odder, a most ineffective form of playing opossum when the device was so full of activity that it roused Tensilharp from her perpetually light sleep seventy march-days away. What had triggered it was unclear, the item sitting out in the open upon a large rock when she swooped down to it. It couldn’t have been there long, as the sun was clear and strong but its surface wasn’t hot to the touch. It didn’t even bear the warmth of man hands.
Shortly after she took off again with it in her clutches it stopped emitting. Another trick. Turning off and on as they sometimes did. It couldn’t fool her. It was going to Rhadiospir, where if it was too small for her to destroy her mother’s termites, serving her daughter out of inherited respect, would disassemble it piece by piece. If need be they could even escort it lower, to the tunnels of the blessed moles who buried the plastics.
The Sig-neagle’s flight took her over the land of Namstamp: a dense collection of forests, rivers, and crags. It was carpeted by countless types of tree, but all were overshadowed by the mountain-stumps, which had descended from the redwoods.
Those trees of old dropped seed by cone, but when the twin forces converged these trees surged forth with the animals and broke their rules like chains. Instead their seeds now took to the wind and spread across every water to all lands. Now they grew even larger, so large that when one was toppled, which only advanced age or the Wild Trinity could do, it created an earthquake.
When the shadow of the mountain-stump passes you on the road all is lost, it is said. Cities spring up in the stumps they leave behind thanks to the thick walls they create, though they are only buildings to the bigger beities. The Sig-neagle passed over one such city marked by four long-felled mountain-stumps at each of its corners called Compassleaf.
Beyond its northern stump ran the river Plunderoe, too wide for most to cross unaided. It separated Namstamp from Tuncrad: lands of peat and ice marsh. There dwelt the moose lords, who grew a second pair of icicle antlers under their more traditional crowns.
Further west than the western stump were the cold shores of the sea, beaches called Walrutter. They served as landing for beities powerful enough to cross oceans, which occurred only once every few generations, so they laid mostly empty of everything but shellfish old and skilled enough to pass as salted boulders.
South of the southern stump things got hotter and thinned out the trees. The place was called Bagogreen for the way its densest vegetation was often hidden inside small round valleys that were almost sealed by lips of rock. Further south Plunderoe completed its first of three horseshoes before it dispersed into infinite smaller tributaries.
Past the Eastern stump the Sig-neagle was flying with her troublesome prey. Ahead of her lay the only bald patch of any significance in all of Namstamp: the Shedlands. It was cleared intentionally to separate it from the surrounding areas, so its residents would know not to trespass into healthier lands. The Shedlands were pressed up against the inner curve of Plunderoe’s first bend and terminated at its recovering shore: a narrow rocky strip known as Otter’s Whip. The bend itself was where the bears fished, and no others if they wanted to keep their guts.
East past Plunderoe there were many things, an entire continent of things growling, creaking, chirping, roaring, yawning, and living in the reclaimed world of the beities. Not quite that far out was Rhadiospir, but she wouldn’t get there without strife.
Somehow, out of clear skies, the Sig-neagle was beset by an unknown foe. It moved by rotor instead of wing, and it had four of them to her two. Limbless beyond that, it seemed to be made in mockery of her father since it had no feet to roost with. That also meant its best method of attack was a ramming bash, lucky considering that anything sharp that caught her that unaware might have killed her instantly.
Beities had never shared the skies with machines, not in any significant numbers, and it would not start now. She spun and cried to intimidate her foe, though it had no face to betray if there was any such effect. It bore no markings of any kind, like a shadow shattered with a hammer and then reassembled to have three dimensions. Most of them at least had lights somewhere as imitation eyes, points of comforting relation to the living world, but not this one.
Tensilharp named it Umbramach so her mind’s cry could target it. The great raptor had the beity speech, which required no moving of the mouth, only a mind to transmit and a mind to receive, but she kept it to herself. What the world below knew of her was determined solely by the actions they observed, and they knew much.
Observers would never glean how she had named it, but they would speak of the battle as an ill omen. Machine relics were treacherous; all knew this. They could come to life without cause and paid no heed to any lives now that their masters had self-shamed out of power. But for one of them to not just rise out of the soil, but take back to the sky, was unheard of in Namstamp.
And Umbramach would be the only one ever heard of if the Sig-neagle had her way, if she could declare his ruin into some smoking treetops. Umbramach Nightmachine, she cried to herself, you will not see the darkness that birthed you again. Only my shadow will take you in, be your grave, and it will bring you no comfort.
Bird and thing clashed again, driving each other into a cloud that exploded out in all directions from their gusts, like a fledgling snowball hit with a growth spurt. No sooner had the white sphere reached its full size than the combatants pierced its side and shot out. The next cloud they disappeared into suffered the same fate, ballooning from the inner bomb of the Sig-neagle’s wing beats.
No name for Umbramach would have the privilege of crawling across the earth with the languid lizard-steps of man speech passing it back and forth, but the battle would have a name, as many saw the clouds expand and pop one by one, lingering for a time like the balloons of ghostly airships. Many eyes saw, but many ears were confused. They felt there should be a sound to go with such explosions, but if they heard anything it was just the distant peck and scratch of the Sig-neagle against Umbramach’s metal and plastic hide.
Odd for any plastic to make it so high, the raptor noted even in the midst of her fury. The moles were never lax in their duty; it was religion to them. They had trained their ears to recognize the sound of its movement. If the wind blew a mere candy wrapper enough to make it scrape across a pebble a mole would be under it in moments and subsume it with one splash of dirt. It would go down to be smashed and ground in the deep plates of rock: the obliteration press where fresh molten continents were hammered into shape. How did this much of the stuff escape them?
What would be deemed the Battle of Cloudburst raged on, claiming no less than thirty clouds as its victims. The Sig-neagle had fought with machines before, all of them showing different degrees of insanity, but Umbramach showed no such signs of decay. No stains. No scratches before the ones she insistently gifted it. Its engines hummed and purred as if fresh from the sort of assembly line that hadn’t existed since the year was kept.
Her cloud busting was but a side effect of her primary attack, in which she beat her wings powerfully enough to crack the air in the hopes of dislodging the weakest parts she could see on the artificial monster: the individual blades spinning within its open rotors. She tried and tried again, but they showed no signs of jarring loose.
Umbramach pressed an advantage. The Sig-neagle used only one claw to its fullest, with the other occupied gripping the tiny unassuming device between two toes. The rotor-beast pitched at an unexpected angle, seeking to catch her foot in the spinning blades. Tensilharp rolled to counter the movement, managing both to keep her wings outstretched and stay glued to her foe’s smooth back.
In the midst of an exploded cloud, when her vision was most obscured by the white, the machine struck as she passed over, rerouting all its strength into a vertical trajectory. It rocketed up, catching her on its back, using the force to keep her pressed against its body. Together they ascended above the suffering cloud families into the thin air, which felt like breathing the skin of a soap bubble to the eagle’s beleaguered lungs.
Was it strong enough to survive in the darkness? That would make it stronger than her, a notion that the Sig-neagle would never accept. Death would be accepted first. She relinquished her grip; the air ripped the small device away faster than could be seen. With no recollection of the last time her prey had been forcibly taken from her, the harried queen surged with stoked rage.
Using her beak as a pick, she dragged her body to the edge of Umbramach’s, letting one wing hang painfully off the side, bent by the force of the ascent. Soon as enough of her weight was over she spun, catching one of its four arms in her beak. She shook her head and neck like a crocodile dismembering its meal, and it was enough to end the machine’s rise.
Its strategy changed, to one of retreat. The speed of its flight was almost as great on the horizontal, but the Sig-neagle gave chase, gave cry, gave oaths of vengeance. Such an insult could not be allowed to stand, which changed the beity’s priorities. The small device’s aura still scratched at her skull, which was felt most in the bone cracks of her oldest would just above her brain, like there was a piece of that fallen machine left, scraping the fissures deeper, determined to taste her cranial fluids.
Such a sensation would not be difficult to track. After Umbramach was defeated she would return to reclaim it. Unless they were folded away under a panel, not impossible but unlikely, the tiny thing had no wheels or legs. It would stay right where it was dropped until its painful lure brought her back.
No man or beast would dare pick it up; her reputation made sure of that. The Sig-neagle plucked machines wherever she found them, not caring if the internal organs of whatever creature carried them came with. She killed humans for even looking at her prey, for in the end it was all their responsibility. The ones above the sky had outlived any of their individual creators, a notion that created such disgust in the bird that she could not love the hairless apes. She hated them so much she couldn’t even stomach them.
And her hate would only grow, for nudged fate saw to it that the device would not stay where it fell. Sturdily built, there was still no way it could have survived the plunge if it had not first been slowed by passage through the leaves of a mountain-stump. Briefly it gathered speed again before hitting the lower canopy of trees that weren’t trying to hold up the roof of the world. Then it bounced from branch to branch, disturbing the hundreds of birds who were densely hiding from the Sig-neagle until all traces of wing beats were gone from the wind.
The birds could tell she was still out there from those traces, but creatures that couldn’t fly were stunned by the device crashing through. She had dropped it, the squirrels thought. Could she be dead, the skinks wondered. Only death would make her let go, the snails insisted. These were beity voices, but they were so lesser out in that wilderness that humans couldn’t hear them.
So to the disorganized line of humans under the shade it only sounded like the falling of a large nut even though it created a great commotion among the animals. A few of them waited for a thud, but none came. They merely shrugged their shoulders and moved on; it was still half a march-day before they reached their new home city.
At the front and back of the procession there were two large herding dogs, and here large meant big enough to corral man with ease. Each stood as tall at the shoulder as the sorts of horses men used to ride. The dogs were neither seller nor buyer, merely shepherds and couriers. This time they marshaled and guided a group of fifteen human chattel.
Dogs were not in great standing in the world of beities. Once they were called man’s best friend, and now that was a curse. Collaboration was in their blood, and thus it wasn’t as double-thick. The breeds men had crafted into toys died out while those that remained struggled tooth and nail to grow in mind and body with the rest of the animal kingdom. Only the wild dogs avoided such scrutiny, as the wolves, coyotes, dingoes, dholes, and foxes had never submitted to cozy service.
Herders, hunters, and guards reclaimed every scrap of dignity they could, but often that meant offering their services to greater beities. They had not the reputations or power to live within the cities most of the time, so they kept to the trails, where they could feel their limited authority in their muscles and growls.
Uncouth it was to converse with human charges, even alone with them on the road, as it might stink of renewed collaboration, but the herder in the back couldn’t help it. These were not typical cargo: entertainers all. Some wealthy beity had ordered a whole set of them, like the contents of a toy chest, and they couldn’t help but make merry even as they were marched through the wilderness.
The juggler was juggling mountain-stump cones, which the giant trees had gone back to using once the world had settled. The acrobat was flipping from one rock to another, eventually drawing a scold out from the lead dog, as she wasn’t going to deliver a damaged slave that had fallen mid-tumble and cracked their own head open.
The singers were singing in harmony, the drummer banging a carved stick on a stone to give them a beat. A fool practiced jokes on herself, pairing them with different laughs to see which pairs fit together best. There was a poet, a wrestler, a performing cook, a gamble-gamer, and a few dancers, but it was the storyteller who bent the already floppy ear of the dog in the back.
“So as sure as his scenting matched his sight, the mastiff had found them in the fog, that unnatural ghost-vomit fog expelled from the depths rather than the skies. He held back even his growl, for while he was confident he could take them in the open, he feared the fog schemed with them and would replace his very breath if he charged into it haphazardly.”
“Smart,” the herder said, nodding along with the fictional mastiff’s strategy. “Precisely what I would’ve done.” Even as a dog he was still large and civilized enough to make his voice heard to the humans, though tongue never so much as twitched. He looked to his left, where the storyteller was walking barefoot beside him.
Humans were clothed sparsely outside of winter months, and only functionally so. The herder remembered something he’d heard about their old traditions: human women used to wear shirts much of the time simply to hide their chests. That was one of those politics, if he remembered the word correctly. He was never educated enough to tell whether such a tradition belonged to this politic or that politic, but it hardly mattered anymore. Shirts were for the cold, and sometimes for costumes.
The entertainers were all more whimsically clad than the dog was used to, owing to bright colors often enhancing performances. The fool’s eyebrows were shaved away, replaced by stripes of pigments. The dancers had transparent sleeves they could slip off and use as ribbons while they twirled.
For his part the storyteller had one notable article of clothing, little more than a densely woven and flexible ring, but it had a magnificent purple color which was difficult to achieve with dye. The ring could be rearranged as numerous things: scarf, hood, waistband, and a prop of a rope for use as a storytelling aid. At the moment he had it crisscrossing his chest as an X and stretched to cover his shoulders.
He carried a pack on his back which contained all the personal belongings he had in the world, though technically they belonged to his new owner. It wasn’t much. No responsible beity would ever allow it to be much. Blankets. Tiny carved figurines of wood, stone, and shell, reminders of characters so he wouldn’t forget their roles in various stories. Sandals for rougher terrain. Marbles and dice for games. A waterskin.
His most prized possessions he carried in his skull instead. Stories from all throughout the age of beities, with one even as far back as the Whale Parade: the tale of the sinking of the last metal human ship. A few were true, but all were exaggerated. The young man, just twenty-eight if someone were to keep his years, knew he was an imperfect vessel, and that sometimes the jars in his mind would fail their seals and leak into each other, transposing characters and events, but all could be aligned to make dramatic sense with care, and always by the end of the telling.
Five other storytellers, all much older, had handed down their treasures to him before they passed on, but always orally. The written word was one of the Forbidden Thumbs, one of the two thumbs of speech alongside any language, spoken or signed, that wasn’t what he now spoke: Lowmanish.
They poured more than he could ever hold, and entire lineages of tales were lost in the spillover, but it couldn’t be helped. He tried not to mourn their loss even as they ran down his sides, for that sensation would never cease. As his imagination naturally concocted stories of his own even more would spill out as the old were displaced. Storytellers were geysers, not puddles.
With so much experience in him he was highly valued, even among those of his already celebrated profession. Beities had a deep love for fiction, even as some of them couldn’t admit to it, for their creative minds swayed in other directions. The mightiest were excellent craftsmen of deceptions, but still not fiction. Even knowing it was false, it still struck all the animals like a retelling of history.
“Mmm… yes exactly,” the rear dog added, yet again in agreement with the mastiff as if there was a standard procedure for dealing with malicious mists rising out of the south. His snout nodded again, a nod which changed the course of many lives, outright ending some. For the dog was so engrossed in the story that he wasn’t listening for all the gasps up in the branches. When his head was at the lowest point in the nod his eyes could not see the open top of the storyteller’s pack.
The device fell into view, and then back out of it when it landed in his bag. The man paused, twisting back to see if a bird had alighted on his shoulder, but there was nothing. The rear dog urged him to continue, to describe what he already knew was the mastiff’s next step in battling the phantoms of the fog.
The procession carried on through the forests north of the Shedlands until they spotted one of the felled mountain-stumps now acting as gatehouse.
“Human delivery,” the head dog barked up at the baboon manning the uppermost crag of wood.
“Who for?” the primate called back, leaning over the gripped edge. She didn’t like the look of the entertainers, like a rainbow had fallen drunk out of the sky and burst into meaty chunks on impact. “Aw-Aw! Stop that dancing!” They obeyed, but stared up at the guard with sullen disrespect, sleeve ribbons now hanging so limp that they dragged across the rock. Suddenly the baboon felt as if she’d wounded the creatures.
“To be delivered to the leisure retreat of the Scion of the Salmon Run, to the care of Hocmursus, who is also called the Lady Butterfur,” the lead dog barked up at the baboon.
“I will take them for delivery.” A slap on the wood produced an effect below her as other guards split a panel of bark acting as gate from its camouflaged border and set it aside to allow passage.
“We will pass them only to the lady herself,” the dog countered, “as per our orders. These are not bathers and fire-builders; they are entertainers. The price was high, and the service will be higher.” The guard pouted at the dog’s brazen speech, unaccustomed to taking such guff from something decidedly less than a wolf in the paws. She bet the hounds even had pink spots on their paw pads, perhaps an infection spread by human skin when learning to handshake.
There was nothing to be done however. The dog’s pushiness was indeed warranted by her charges. There was no more powerful beity living in Compassleaf than the Scion of the Salmon Run. His every growl was law, and if anything went awry with a gift to his precious niece there would be skulls crushed under his feet.
“Go on through,” the baboon spat. She watched the human train enter pair by pair, like the legs of a centipede that changed its mind about its color every body segment. As the last of them passed through she twisted around to see them sliding down the throat of her precious city.
Compassleaf was a diamond determined by the wrecks of the mountain-stumps, their fallen wood split by natural forces but turned upright and driven into the ground as fence posts by man-labor. Ferns and leafy veils overtook these constructions to make them appear more natural, as the plant life about Namstamp bore a particularly gritty distaste for humanity.
This was due in no small part to the Ambush Heat: summers foisted upon the region as weapons. Wildfires were expected every generation, simply lightning strikes that took their time with their torture, but the Ambush Heat made them far more frequent and sent them north to lands that were typically protected by heavy rainfall.
It was not the fault of any one machine, but all of them collectively. The animals could seek shelter, but the trees and shrubs could not, so they burned. When the age of Beities began some of the trees sacrificed themselves, carbonizing to black shafts and then baking into pots, all to suck in and contain a few flames of the Ambush Heat. There it stayed until successfully aged into the hatred that now covered the works of men in mere hours.
Even a cairn of stones by a pond would be turned into a cone of moss before the sun fell on its construction. As such all Compassleaf buildings that required the deft hands of the naked ape wound up the greenest and best hidden among the terrain. It was the roads that looked the most artificial, though they were pounded and scraped out primarily by lumbering beities.
Paved they were with smooth rocks from Plunderoe, slate-dark but speckled like the eggs of songbirds. Light gravel marked the edges, with just enough grains of quartz in each piece to catch light when it rained and turn the paths into streams of glittering crystal.
Mountain-stump roots were never hacked away; it was rotten luck to do so. Instead everything was built around them, with their chosen routes determining some spirals in the roads that visitors always found unnecessary and dizzying. Roots often became ceiling beams, countless bundles of thatching tied around them, replaced regularly to keep them a deep green and the chambers’ air spiced with pine.
Earth between them was dug out, allowing the creation of buildings where rooms were of random size, and distributed amongst each other just as chaotically. There was always a lower chamber to find, and sometimes the rodents had a cathedral all to themselves simply because only they were small enough to travel the choked passage between it and its higher brethren.
It could be forgiven if a visitor saw the interior of Compassleaf at certain odd hours and judged it as abandoned, as nothing but roads that got confused and wandered off into the nearest cave that would have them. Yet it was very much alive, and bustling, if one were to peek behind the hanging veil of vines seeking to hide the shameful pockets of boisterous humanity.
Compassleaf had never been visited by any of the Wild Trinity, but its blood was plenty thick with beities of wide renown and impeccable quadrupedal standing. Presiding over most of the matters of the city, including borders, construction, residence, and security was the title of the Scion, held always by a bear, though there was some commotion a ways back when an animal of indistinct breeding, something like a gigantic red panda without much of a tail, laid claim to the title.
But now the title was with Krakodosus the thundercoat, and any attempt to call him bear-like rather than a straight bear would surely result in a public execution, if he could wait long enough to call the citizens out of their homes. The Scion of the Salmon Run was determined every decade by fishing competition, though sometimes it was eleven or twelve years if the Scion was particularly well-respected or the fish more plentiful than usual. They still called it a decade in such a case, as the year was not kept, and one or two was nothing to a beity whose life would stretch centuries if not cut down by misadventure.
Krakodosus was on the seventh year of his fourth run as Scion, with no end in sight, which was a record of duration as far as anyone could remember. Best among them at remembering was a small-eared elephant, dreadfully alone for such a creature thanks to his unusual preference for cooler weather, who was insistent that he had never seen a more powerful Scion.
The result of his reign effectively made him king of the city. Most beities would’ve preferred to take their internal squabbles all the way to the top, up to him to pass judgment, but despite his ever-present authority, and the frequent mention of his name, and the deeds done on behalf of his house, he was rarely there himself for any extended period.
As the Scion he traveled to the dens of all bears in Namstamp, and negotiated with those in Tuncrad and Bagogreen over fishing spots. Each one seeking to fish in the rich bend called Blueguts, bordered inside the curve by Otter’s Whip and outside by Flatrock Easter, needed his explicit approval. He stayed as their guest during his judgments, and then there were the weeks wading in Blueguts itself, overseeing the hedonistic seasonal gorging.
He also had caves marked with his scent for when he found companionship too overwhelming for his stoic male nature. His extended isolated stays in their cool silence was best for everyone, keeping him from losing his temper: a temper that could create storms powerful enough to flood every last sparkle off the roads of Compassleaf.
His haunt within the city, an absolute palace compared to everything else, complete with a theater, bathhouse, and medicinal facilities, was instead the home of his niece Hocmursus, daughter of the pick-fanged gold miner and daughter of the presumed-dead breath holder. It was the breath holder who was the brother of Krakodosus, and the siblings had been thicker than their blood.
His daughter was his only child, and as of yet the thundercoat had none of his own, thanks to sexual drought enforced by the female bears his own age, offended as they were by what they saw as preferential treatment of males for positioning during salmon runs. All feared and respected him, but no powers or titles could raise him above edicts delivered by furious matriarchs. Those women determined the flow of children, superseding the petty barony of any single river.
Lady Butterfur was as spoilt as beities came, showered with gifts both from her uncle and those seeking his good graces. She had filled the Scion’s home with carved animal statues of both stone and wood before deciding the overflow would serve as public decorations along the streets.
Yet she was not unpleasant to be around, polite, sensitive, and warm in equal measure. The entertainers had heard, mostly from their own kind, about the lives of her slaves, and were relieved to hear it. The bear was a close master, unlikely to give them much time to themselves, but had never personally ordered physical punishments for disobedience. Rumor had it her worst was simply a sale to another party.
The storyteller would see for himself soon enough, but the Scion’s retreat was in the deep heart of the city, and they had to pass everything else first, including the shadow of the Tower of Babel. Mud-daubed, spotted with vertical bricks that had no neighbors, and ringed with round windows only in the upper reaches of its single spire, the tower was the guardhouse of the Babeloons.
As they traversed its shadow several of its inhabitants appeared from around its base, plodding along on all fours almost silently, their curled knuckles not even disturbing the gravel. Baboons all, they slotted themselves into place alongside the entertainers on both flanks as if they expected them to break out into riot.
“Watch it,” the rear dog snapped when one got too close. The baboon sneered in response. Really dogs, apes, and monkeys were all in the same boat, the former for being domesticated and the latter for being closely related to mankind in the first place. There was only so high that a primate could go in the beity hierarchy, so it would’ve benefited them to treat hounds as brothers, but the two groups often squabbled over who could be more effective soldiers to their superiors.
Having tails meant the baboons had an easier time than the apes, and in Compassleaf they had established themselves as the primary enforcers of order, with a focus on keeping the sizable human population obediently in check.
They were called the Babeloons, those who worked in the tower under their troop leader, and they could be distinguished from a mere citizen by their trophies and tokens. Mostly these consisted of scraps of paper ripped from printed books, yellowed but still dense with black script. Twine around the shoulder kept full pages over the bicep like a sleeve, like a badge. Those of lower rank only had strips with single words on them, many tied to necklaces that ended up looking like feathers.
“We have some questions for them,” one of the monkeys informed the lead dog.
“We’re not stopping.”
“They can answer and walk at the same time, presumably,” the Babeloon snickered. He had a page on each shoulder, mistakenly believing they were from the same volume. One was actually a cookbook, and the other a geology textbook. All that mattered was the presence of words, and if it spurred that one particular look in a human’s eye that their troop leader trained them to catch: the reading look. He pulled back until he walked side by side with the humans, his shoulder nearly as tall as theirs. “Aw-yee! You humans! Do you know your Forbidden Thumbs? They are extra-forbidden in Compassleaf. Recite them.” He was looking in the eye of one of the dancers, so she assumed she had to answer first.
“Languages not meant for animal ears and eyes.” She twirled a sleeve-ribbon around her head like a blindfold, but her eyes could still be seen through its loose knit, staring right back at the monkey without blinking.
“Electricity,” the gamble-gamer said from the back to draw attention off her.
“You can get struck by lightning if you want,” a necklace-wearing Babeloon joked, earning a few huffing laughs from his compatriots.
“Metal,” said the storyteller, unaware there was some nestled in his pack at that very moment. If the Babeloons searched it on a whim he would be disemboweled and hung outside the borders, his hanging entrails coated in moss before daybreak. The machine would be treated much better, simply tossed outside to wait for its feathered executioner.
“You know them,” the thin-book Babeloon acknowledged, “so you know the punishment. One forbidden thumb for one allotted thumb. If you’re all out… you’re all out.” It was common law across most cities. Any human that dared pick up their old tools, that they had so misused in the past, would lose the means to do so. With no metal the offending digits were removed by bite, often by those with great jaw strength like alligators and dragon monitors. Unfortunate was the misbehaving slave with only dog enforcers around: punishment by a thousand gnaws.
With no thumbs left a third offense might get them killed, but often they were left alone, as a human without thumbs didn’t serve their purposes very well. Death came by negligence or ostracizing or an owner’s frustration.
“They know them, now back off,” the lead dog warned. “We’re delivering toys. You’ll sour the giving of the Scion’s gift.” At the invocation of the title the Babeloons quieted, but they did not abandon their guard until the edge of the Scion’s retreat was reached. Even then they kept glancing over their shoulders as they stalked off back to their tower.
The retreat was deep in a bowl created by the curving of mountain-stump roots, their many tendrils dripping constantly, cloaking the place in a mist of quiet that dampened sounds from beyond. Hundreds of statues marked the outer boundaries and the spiraling way down, including a piece so long and awkwardly shaped that it must have been carved from a boulder that had been sitting there since before the mountain-stump grew over top of it.
It was actually many statues connected to the same base, depicting a line of bears chasing after salmon that leapt out of curling waves. Defeated beities, with no right to fish, were cast aside, eyes closed in defeat: cougars, otters, and wolves. One bear moved against the flow, but she was not part of the statuary. It was the lady herself, come to receive them.
Flanked by two human handmaidens colorfully clad in orange, the lady outshone them in her natural splendor. Her fur was blonder than wheat, more golden than sunlight dancing across a river. It was full and fluffed to the maximum volume that was believable, giving her a very round profile almost like a dandelion ready to collapse in the slightest breeze.
A beity’s face could not express emotion like a human’s, but it radiated off them just as their voices did. Hocmursus had an ecstatic air about her, buoyed by the bouncing of her paws with each step. She rose up the incline like the sun until she sat before the lead dog and leaned back, to a height of three tall men stacked atop each other. The expanse of fluff across her chest looked like a portal to another brighter world, and the entertainers were tempted to take a flying leap into it.
“Ooh yes yes yes!” Lady Butterfur squealed in a tone her new toys were not accustomed to hearing from bears.
“Lady Hocmursus,” the lead dog said as she stretched her front paws out and bowed her head. “Your uncle sends his love, and these new servants, from the den of Crimarus. He took note that there was skill in the mirth of that place, something he had not considered before. As he could not be bothered to practice with such trifles, it is his hope you will use them to keep the retreat warm until his return, to foster them into something even greater.” The bear squealed again, but this time without words.
“Of particular note,” said the rear dog as he approached, bunching the humans together while rolling one of them around to the front with his snout, “is this storyteller. Crimarus did not want to part with him, and it took the license to fish the Fatty Tributary to convince him. That makes this human worth a mountain of fish this year, and a mountain the next, for as long as he should live.”
The storyteller bowed his head, but dared not speak, even before such a friendly snout, until spoken to. There was no resentment from his fellows, for they all understood that he was the keystone of the gift arrangement. Without his draw none of the others would’ve been thrown in to sweeten the deal. Crimarus’s den was not a bad place to live, but it was hot, and the beities there roughhoused so aggressively that sometimes a human got crushed when they rolled around in the middle of celebration.
This new bear looked too soft to crush anything; her eyes were too glistening to bear a callous look. Her handmaidens too. They looked so broadly pleased that it was almost smug. With a coat as beautiful as their lady’s, their lives were mostly consumed with washing and brushing it. It was soft work, pleasant work, and they rarely left the retreat to be scowled at and shoved by the Babeloons.
Indeed the only time the lady became angry, more like pestered, was when she got word that her property had been roughly handled when sent about the city on errands. Most who were criticized by her, which was rare indeed, chose to move out of the city rather than wait for the Scion to return and hear a report on their behavior from his niece.
“Welcome new friends,” Hocmursus burbled at the entertainers. “You will be very happy here with me and all of my old friends. We have sixty of you here in the retreat already, and three more are on the way.” She nudged one of her handmaidens with the back of a paw; the human giggled and pulled back her orange robe, revealing a bump. So, three more were on the way in the sense of the flesh rather than being delivered by pairs of dogs that were more than ready to get back to the peace of the forest.
“I am most excited to see your many talents, but for now you must rest! Your journey was long! Ladies, take them to the pillow trove!” The handmaidens beckoned them forth, and they followed down into the retreat while Hocmursus conversed further with the dogs, offered them tempting lodging and food that they could not accept if they wished to be judged timely and reliable. She refused to send them on their way until they agreed to take pieces of dried scavage as tokens of her gratitude.
Each time the entertainers thought they had entered the underground proper they were surprised to find great open ceilings and shafts of light. The spaces expanded and contracted as if the whole of the retreat were a massive pair of lungs. The place breathed, and it did so in a relaxed fashion despite the business of its smaller capillaries. Servants were both on the move and relaxing everywhere, all of them very friendly to the newcomers. This was paradise, they assured them, as far as humans could find it in the animals’ world.
Several of the sixty were quite old and useless as anything more than decoration and conversation, their presence the single greatest sign of the lady’s generosity. Most beities did not have the room in their dens or hearts to keep such fragile things around. Usually their future was as scavage.
The next best evidence was their waistlines; some of the servants could be called plump. That was a rare state for a human in those days, as the doctrine was to feed them only what they needed for full function, and to only give them meat if every last beity, down to the bugs, had already had their fill of it for the day. Sometimes a Compassleaf fern would eat a haunch of meat before a human could get to it.
Orange seemed the lady’s favorite color, as most of them wore it, and wore it in full as a robe that covered everything but the hands and feet. Soft green sashes acted as belts and the same color lined their hoods. The entertainers guessed the distinct, and surely expensive, dyes served to mark them as Hocmursus’s, and by proxy the Scion’s, property.
There were already robes prepared for the entertainers, folded neatly on a giant pillow of matching color as they entered a wide chamber with a low ceiling and dark earthen walls. The pillow trove was as advertised, flooded wall to wall with the things, some nearly as thick as a man was tall. The floor was utterly invisible, for the cracks between the biggest pillows were filled with smaller ones, and the cracks between them with the smallest.
The storyteller picked up one hardly the size of a hermit crab between two fingers, marveling at the precision of its stitching. He wondered if the needles were made from bone or imported cactus quills. As he wondered one of the lady’s old friends wrapped the robe around his shoulders and hugged him from behind. Friendly indeed.
In some places the seams between the biggest pillows were filled with people instead, and they were filled with each other. These were communal sleeping quarters, but as privacy was not something afforded even the most privileged humans for very long, all sorts of other activities occurred there.
Those engaging in coitus kept it quiet, but for a few escaping giggles. As the entertainers crawled on top of the pillows they heard those little sounds passing under them, indicating some of the lovers were deep between the layers, pressed against each other in hot little pressurized seams that felt like entire worlds.
The storyteller wondered how long someone could live down there, seeing only the light in the loving eyes of others, eating only food passed from the mouths of visitors, before a beity found them out. He made a note of the thought; it might make a good basis for a character in one of his tales: the person from between the pillows, pulled out into the harsh world where love was scarce. Could they survive? Would they want to?
Encouraging hands helped him up onto the biggest cushion only for him to immediately sink into it. For the moment none of them bothered to point him out as the main attraction, so he was free to watch everyone else as they got comfortable and learned to what degree the lady’s people took liberties with each other’s bodies. It could be quite bad in some places, but here it was enthusiastic and curious. None were forced, and there was no more pressure than could be applied by the tiniest pillow gripped in the storyteller’s palm.
His pack was pushed aside at the entrance to the trove, the plastic edge of the device visible under the flap. A few even saw it, but assumed it was none of their business. Their business was the new bodies, the people that smelled like other places, and the things they had to say.
The only comment that came regarding the item was from the Sig-neagle, in the deadest part of that night, when all the people of the retreat, save for the handful that slept in the lady’s chamber as her closest pets, were deep in the trove’s trance of slumber.
Tensilharp did not have to speak, not at first. Not even flap her wings. All she had do was soar over Compassleaf and her presence was more than felt; it was heard. Her very shadow, barely existing under the moonlight, made a beity sound as it poured over the roofs like floodwaters. To the lesser beities it was like looking down an empty pipe, hearing the water rushing toward them, but not seeing anything yet.
Above the sound of her shadow was the sound of her slicing the air, of high altitude moths spiraling and flapping out of control in her wake. Her pursuit of Umbramach Nightmachine had ended one way or another, with her at last victorious enough to still live, and to still pursue her goals doggedly.
The trouble was that she was not permitted to pursue them in Compassleaf, or indeed within the borders of any beity city or township. Just as the humans had to abide by the Forbidden Thumbs, even powerful beities had to respect laws set down by their superiors. In this case the rules of cities were set down by none other than the highest of the high, the greatest and most terrible, the blood thick as gray magma, the Wild Trinity.
Predation was prohibited within settlements, by their decree. This was to ensure equal footing between herbivorous and carnivorous beities. Oxen and Lion could come to treatise without one threatening to devour the other. All meat had be provided from the lawless wilderness, or by the occasional natural death within the borders.
Meat within city limits, and within transaction, was called scavage, equal parts scavenging and salvage. It was legal tender, and tender indeed, delivered and made a meal of as quickly as possible. Even if obtained illegally it became scavage once separated from a living body, and was never considered too sacred or inappropriate to eat, never allowed to spoil in sitting as evidence of crime. Still, punishment would come to those who obtained it against the will of the Trinitarians.
Tensilharp was banished from all settlements for her tendency to create illegal scavage. She created it in two ways, only one of them intentional. First, in her overwhelming desire to punish, what was now an instinct after ages of being tortured by the lightning and lodestone auras of machines, she always killed any human or animal she considered responsible either for a machine’s activation or for keeping it from her talons for even a single moment.
Secondly, there existed a similarly massive pile of bones that were just collateral damage from her swooping attacks. Before the ban she was known to crash through roofs to get at machines inside, often as small as a thimble, with several dying in the resulting collapses.
Her mind was wild, and could not be reasoned with normally, so only consistent and brutal enforcement of her banishment made the message eventually stick in the thick paste of her soul. The Sig-neagle had never been forcefully ejected, with much effort and death, from Compassleaf, but she had from a dozen other places. Eventually, when it was clear that their insistence matched her own, she stopped coming, her refusal to even fly over them her only acknowledgment of their sovereignty.
But nothing had offended her so much since then as Umbramach. Even if she had died in the battle, her ghost may have returned to lay claim to the device. When she did return and found the device had moved her rage was stoked to a new height, blazing so intensely that she felt none of her minor wounds. It had been in her grip, and against her skin she had known it. The device had no way to move on its own, and the winds were not strong that day. Something alive had taken it up and taken it from her, all the way to Compassleaf. They thought they were smarter than her, that the old ways were safe behind walls. Walls were nothing to the winged.
The alarm sounded before her wings even beat, and in Compassleaf the alarm was comprised mostly of wolf and monkey howls. It was heard even in the depths of the retreat, even under all the pillows, but very few humans dared poke their heads out to see what transpired. Most hid, rolled up into pill bug shapes to indicate passivity and compliance, the storyteller no different.
He knew of the Sig-neagle, and so did all his compatriots. Her tale was more common than any communicable disease. It was a story most of them wished they could be rid of, flicked away like stubborn earwax, as even among the beities she had killed a staggering number of their kind. What he did not know was that she was after his pack, and had already pinpointed its location even though she couldn’t see it through several layers of root and earth.
On her first lower pass she was pelted with rocks thrown by primates, but she was made of tougher stuff than the stones, with one even exploding into grit against her hooked beak. No birds in Compassleaf came close to her size, but there was a bat and a gliding lemur that were each nearly half of her. They took to wing and membrane alike, getting between her and the ground so she couldn’t dive without causing a casualty and ensuring the wrath of the Scion, if not a member of the Wild Trinity itself.
In frustration she screamed at them. If a resident cowering underground hadn’t yet guessed the intruder’s identity, they knew it then. It didn’t take much speculation to reach a conclusion as to her intent. The Sig-neagle would never do such a thing unless there was an active machine among them, unless it was different, worse, than most that she hunted and ended.
None considered that the machine’s presence could be accidental, and thus a seed of suspicion was planted, one that would only flourish in the coming years. For the Sig-neagle did not successfully siege the Scion’s retreat that night. She never so much as touched a Compassleaf leaf. Even at the edge of sanity, even soaring somewhere below the cliff edge of reason, she still wished to keep her own life and knew that the Wild Trinity would not allow her to do so if she destroyed any part of the city or turned helpless screams into scavage.
The Sig-neagle was repelled, but she watered the suspicion seed with some regularity, flying by the edge of Compassleaf every now and again. Most thought it random threats each time, but it was the device. Sometimes it powered down, but often it was on, and each time she sensed it she returned if nearby to see if its caretaker had finally made the fatal mistake of being within eyeshot.
He never did. As it happened he did not even discover the device until days later, as it slipped to the bottom of his pack the next time he picked it up and moved it to the pile of belongings that sat in the back of the pillow trove, inside a shaft of rock, the only thing that didn’t offer comfort in the chamber.
There was a way to be alone in the pillow trove, he quickly learned. All one had to do was burrow under one of the larger pillows and find a pocket between their corners. It was very dark, but dark was perfect for thinking, something he had to do often to both organize and search his collection of memorized lore.
After generously giving him days to adjust to his new environment, Lady Butterfur had requested a private story session with her evening grooming, one of five groomings each day. In order to prepare the storyteller found a quiet dark pocket and opened his pack. He couldn’t see the figurines inside, but he knew each one by touch, as well as their associated epics. While feeling around in the recesses for something to surprise her, something not heard anywhere in the region in a long while, he found something much more foreign. The edge of the device. The texture of plastic.
And he did identify it immediately, frozen as if stung with his finger extended. Not a single piece of plastic had ever crossed his path, the blessed moles were so thorough. But he knew it from stories, and more than that he knew extremely detailed descriptions of it from those stories. It was always described as unmistakably unnatural, separated from a living origin by multiple mass extinctions.
It was sometimes called the wood of cleverness, or cleverwood. It knew only how to be part of an object with a purpose. Without machinations it was nothing, and thus couldn’t know or create joy or peace. Cleverwood was made by tricksters, themselves always outcasts, so it boggled the mind how it ever became as ubiquitous as it did in ancient times.
To the storyteller the brush of it felt clever, but in spite of itself. By existing so cleverly it was dangerous, and it endangered everything around it. For a while his fingers didn’t dare venture further down it, and when they did he was traumatized to find that it just kept going. When he found the full shape of it he realized that, while very light and flat, it was larger than both his hands.
The darkness between the pillows should have been the safest place in the city to pull it out, but the device sensed that it was being handled by a long forgotten sort of master, and activated of its own accord. Artificial light blasted his face; he instinctively shielded himself with his arms as if an explosion had gone off.
It kept exploding, but it did so silently. He lifted it from the pillow once more, squinting against its intense brightness to examine its features, of which there was only one: the screen. The light was not empty, but filled with markings that he recognized as writing, though he had never seen it scribbled in electricity before. That meant it screamed at him, but unintelligibly, as he was completely illiterate.
One of the storytellers that had trained him, the oldest and craziest with the least concern for their own life, had often been frustrated by their failing memory. They talked to themselves, asking their own memory to bring forth slippery words. When they couldn’t be caught they resorted to desperate measures, writing it in the dirt at their feet with a stick.
The younger teller had never been so frightened as he was then, his heart hopping into his throat as he averted his eyes, just waiting desperately for his elder to remember how to say it and erase the reminder before it was set in the ground forever.
Instinctively he moved to wipe the electric writing away, but succeeded only in replacing it with a different page of light. So the screen could be manipulated by touch, hence the lack of buttons and levers. He swiped again and got another new page. Again. Again. Was there an entire book in this one thin slab?
A book could hold one story. A mind hundreds. The device? The teller realized he held something that might contain mores stories than a library, all of them blasphemous thanks to the delivery mechanism. The Babeloons would kill him with raw sun exposure if they found him with such a thing, then shred him into flakes, then dry him again, and then feed him to the koi.
When his sense returned to him he found some calm, which might have been impossible without a pillow twenty times his size pressing down on his head and back. None of this mattered. Without the ability to read the device was nothing but gibberish; he should toss it over the city’s outer wall at the first chance and be rid of it.
As if it sensed his thoughts, a tiny metal bud extended from the center of its bottom. The teller grabbed it and pulled, a wire coming with it. There was a faint sound coming from the bud; he held it up to his ear.
“A. Ah,” it said. The voice sounded like it belonged to many different people, like their unique sounds had been whisked together and then pressed into something like fruit leather. “A. Ah,” it repeated. The blocks of text on the screen had been replaced by a single large letter, which looked to him like a tent on stilts.
“A? Ah?” he mimicked in a whisper.
“Very good,” it answered back. A new letter appeared, like the right half of a butterfly. “B. Buh.”
So on to C and so forth to Z. The storyteller’s mind was made up halfway through the alphabet. He had disrespected the Wild Trinity without even realizing, and now that it was done there was no going back. He changed that night, in ways that he did not know he could change. Certain human things were gone from the world, or so he thought, until they climbed out of his own depths on metal claws and synthetic ropes.
He felt his brain start to turn, and it felt like wheels and fulcrums. Concepts slotted into place perfectly, as his mere meat was somehow rearranged into interlocked cubes and hexagons of thought. Every idea now had diagrammed branches, even those that were dead ends. What he became was the extinct sort of human, the ones who very nearly destroyed life on Earth.
At first he gave no thought to the device’s means or motivations, but some things became clear. This was no mere toy or relic. It may have come to him accidentally, but its existence was purposeful, and he was conducive material to the expression of that purpose. It was teaching him how to read, because someone had taught it how to teach reading.
No trifle of the marketplace would be capable of the things it was capable of. Its power source seemed limitless, though in truth its battery was only a decade strong. It did not allow him to browse its contents, feeding him only what it chose to, and only moving on when he repeated what it demanded he repeat. Eventually it stopped asking for repetition and ordered him to formulate his own answers instead.
The device never saw the open air; he brought it out and activated it only when deeply isolated in the bottom layers of the pillow trove. Others could be heard scraping across the covers as they approached, and felt too, so there was little chance he would ever be caught unawares. When he was finished he would hide it away in his pack, having pulled out several stitches to create a new pocket in the bottom for it to slip into.
Sometimes, and only when it was in use, he heard the Sig-neagle screech from just beyond Compassleaf. It was clear he had what she was after, but not if she knew anything of him individually. For the time being he accepted the risk, swearing to never take the machine out into the open, even within the diamond of the four stumps.
The young man was kept exceptionally busy most of the time, entertaining both the lady and her guests. He was also sent out as a favor to the dens of the city’s other beities. Every gathering could be warmed by his work, and he was in high demand, though every trip outside the retreat saw him escorted by two burly fellow slaves and a large bloodhound frequently in the lady’s employ.
His nefarious education was saved only by the limitations of his work. Though they sometimes needed reminding, given that their own voices emanated from their minds and not their throats, the beities understood that the voice needed to be rested. He was afforded two days out of every six where he was not required to travel at all, or even to speak a single word. Hocmursus encouraged him not to, insisting that if he rasped even once without an illness in his throat it was her own failure as a caretaker.
Whispering along with his lessons still allowed him the necessary recuperation. Eventually he was doing just as his crazy old mentor had, writing words with his fingertip, but doing so in the plush surface of the pillow where it was even easier to destroy. He wrote his name into one pillow a thousand times: Loric Shelvtale.
Humans were given first names by the caretakers of their own kind, and last names by beities, subject to change if they were shifted to different duties. In the youth of his youth Loric had merely kept inventory, storing and cleaning beity belongings. It was only when other storytellers came by to caress these objects, to remind themselves of stories just as Loric did with his figurines, that he plucked at their minds to hear the resulting vibrations.
Once he had learned to read, the device stopped giving him lessons and started giving him accounts. They were presented as historical fact, and they revealed a great many things to him about the past, but sadly the character of that past did not change. Yes, they had gotten themselves into the lives they were in now, and done so willingly. Yes, they had staked everything on electric brains, cleverwood, and oil rather than the integrity of their own emotional desires.
The accounts made Loric an even better storyteller, as he enriched his epics with new accuracy, with characters and twists ripped right out of the past. He bellowed with a confidence man had not known for generations, making each one all the more believable, and all the more thrilling for a beity to hear. His fame grew beyond Compassleaf. Beities came from Tuncrad and Bagogreen just to hear him.
All the while the device, which he called his bottomless book, fed him more and more, as if it knew every pivotal point in the past where the will of men waned and the blood of beasts thickened. It knew when and how the twin forces had fused. Loric read another angle of it, as he had many times before:
2033 is the Kept Year
And a Maggot-Riddled Raccoon Warns Prophetic
Gibson didn’t like shoes on his rugs. However, he found it difficult to articulate that precisely in that moment, at the tail end of a thunderstorm that would leave the sky raw and gray for days, like flank stank pounded so brutally that it took up the gray color of the counter top. He didn’t like shoes on his rugs, but everyone’s boots were so dirty that he doubted any speck of sole was actually making contact. They were all slipping and coasting along on layers of gritty mud.
The meeting had Gibson, Neubert, Rackley, Dendils, Phillips, Krepick, and Hayes. Everyone had been called, but few had come, most citing the storm as the reason they refused to travel the paltry number of miles to Gibson’s respectable 14 Sea Breeze Drive. This was it, the moment they’d all been waiting for, given up their lives for, and still they didn’t come.
Gibson had ordered a party sub and laid out bowls of snacks with dozens of bottles of beer, like they were going to watch a game on his big screen. He’d planned for it the only way he knew how, but at least he understood how vital it was. The wives hadn’t. Every last one of them had gone, and more than a year ago too.
That was impressive in and of itself. Most cults had women in them; he’d heard it argued that the whole point of arrangements like theirs was for one man to secure sexual access to multiple women. He’d also heard that people had different brains when they were in a cult, and in different ways. A man’s cult brain convinced him to sacrifice himself, completely and quickly as possible. A woman’s cult brain convinced her to disappear into the background, become so many different forms of foundation for a new society.
That was neither here nor there, because the Brotherhood of Exhumation was not a cult. If it was Gibson had lost the love of his life and his daughter for nothing. If it was he’d donated his country acres to a bunch of nutty people who wanted to repeatedly bury and exhume the recently dead to call their spirits back from the grave.
It sounded crazy, but everything sounded crazy these days, even the crack of thunder outside. Gibson’s windows were reinforced with storm shutters, but they weren’t the bunkering-up of paranoia. They were just what you did now that the storms in the summer got so loud that they shattered windows. Climate change they said.
If you asked Gibson, it was his daughter who was really in a cult, watching all of those damned inane animal videos on the internet. Her and everyone else, all day long, even playing them on the news. She didn’t want to apply to colleges, she didn’t want to get a job, and worst of all she didn’t want to sit with them at the dinner table.
Of course Gibson didn’t want to sit there at the moment either, not when the bundle in the tarp was muscled through his entryway and lowered onto it. The wood would be stained, no question. He tried not to think about it, and he tried even harder not to say anything. Providing the house was his job; it was the others who were actually summoned to reclaim him.
Why? He wondered. Why did he not receive the call? He tried to ask when the other six men first arrived, pulling into his driveway in a pickup as rain streaked down the pavement so thickly that it formed chevrons.
They were all in gray ponchos that looked even darker under the clouds. It wasn’t midday yet, but the sun seemed to have fled from the rolling thunderheads. The thunder was constant, yet Gibson didn’t see any flashes of lightning when he held the screen door open on his front step and watched his brothers struggle with the first real prize of their… organization?
Four of them were in the vehicle’s bed, holding something down even as it prevented them from stabilizing themselves. When Rackley hopped out and opened the back water poured out like vomit, streaked with some kind of ropy grime like the drool of a drubbed freeway. Everyone moved to secure their cargo, except Krepick, who was limping because a sharp turn had tossed him out of the bed. The other brothers had almost refused to slow down enough for him to get back in.
They were all terrified that the thunder was growling, and that there was something in the sky that didn’t like what they were doing. What they did was noble, divine, revolutionary, but it had to get under a roof and out of sight as quickly as possible. That was when their boots, muddier than the current legal status of Gibson’s marriage, squeaked across his doorstep and assaulted his carpets.
“How did you know where he was?” he asked Krepick as the others fell all over themselves trying to keep the bundle off the floor until they could get it over to the dinner table. They blew right past the sandwich, chips, and booze, but the stench they brought with them didn’t. One whiff of it made everything inedible.
“I don’t know,” Krepick said, but thought of a better way of explaining it. “I wish I didn’t know. I just woke up suddenly, knowing it, and nothing else for five minutes while I figured it out. I knew it in his voice. He’s back. Brother Mazarus is back.”
“What about the rest of you?” Gibson asked, getting nods and grunts. “Why didn’t I hear him? My car would’ve been fastest.”
“We called you,” Dendils snapped at him.
“With this,” Gibson spat, holding up his smartphone. He cast it aside, to the couch. “The Brotherhood is about brothers. We’re all brothers, and we’re all in it together!”
“Exactly, we’re all here,” Dendils told him. “You want to help, help now.” He stepped back, as did the others, letting Gibson see the soaked bundle for the first time. Something was wrong. They’d all struggled with it as if it had the weight and dimensions of a man, a man that was say, five foot ten and one hundred and ninety pounds, like Brother Mazarus when he was alive.
But it was much too small, and a lot of it had to be the tarp it was tightly wrapped in. Gibson moved to the head of the table, pushing the chair aside. It groaned against the hardwood. Staring down at the tarp, he saw the surface move. Up, not down. It couldn’t just be settling. The thunder came again, shaking the house, making the lights flicker. It dropped the other men into the remaining seats around the table. The bundle quivered at the crack as well.
“This can’t be right,” the head of the house muttered. He unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up pas this elbow as if getting ready to insert himself under a sink and fix a leaky pipe. “This isn’t Mazarus. Did you forget where we buried him? Or.. you know… where we buried him the fifth time?”
“Say that again and they’ll be calling it a doubting Gibson instead of a doubting Thomas,” Rackley warned. His hands were clasped in prayer, but still shaking, with it unclear if the cold rain or what he had recently seen was the culprit.
“But this-” He gestured at the small bundle, unable to articulate the entire timeline of things wrong with what was currently happening. It was Mazarus who started the Brotherhood of Exhumation, often claiming it was to help deal with grief over the loss of his own brother. Mazarus who formalized their rituals. Mazarus who claimed he’d witnessed mystical resurrection with his own eyes.
Mazarus who had legally changed his name from Owen Maple. Mazarus who had asked Gibson to tithe his land to the cause. Mazarus who made them all feel like they weren’t losing the things that everyone was losing.
Yet it was also Brother Mazarus who had changed suddenly, aggressively, a year and seven months ago. He quickly drove off the women despite being more interested in the lives of the sisters than the brothers previously. It came with claims that women were creators of life and they naturally absorbed all creative energies in their wombs. Nobody could be resurrected while there was a woman nearby, threatening to simply get pregnant with those energies instead.
He stopped making sense, at least to Gibson, but the deed to his lands made enough legal sense that he chose to remain in the brotherhood. There was one conversation, just between the two of them, shortly before his death by cardiac arrest while standing in front of the butcher’s counter at their nearest grocer.
That chat was probably why he didn’t get the miraculous call, Gibson assumed. There was doubt in their shared words, but it wasn’t Gibson’s fault; All of it came from Mazarus. He was talking mostly to himself, drunker than he thought on the wine used in their rituals, just after their third exhumation of Neubert’s grandfather. The man had been just as dead as ever, if not more so.
“There’s something else going on,” Mazarus had said when the others were away, washing off their hands with a hose. “This is all real.”
“We believe you brother,” Gibson had responded dutifully.
“No, I know you do, but now I- This is all real… in a different light. From a different angle. The animal angle. We need to incorporate something that’s going to work. I got confused. I thought it was about the old becoming the new again, but it’s about them. You’ve seen them.”
“The animals! All over the internet and the news. Nobody will shut up about them.”
“The Brotherhood is all we have that isn’t about them,” Gibson said, clarifying his own motivations for staying loyal. “Barb and Jackie were wasting their creative energies on them, remember? They were always going on about some bunny or a cat or even that… what was it? A fucking pelican? They were calling a pelican cute, and not just cute. They were calling it cute like they were calling god good.”
“Sandal pelican,” Mazarus had said with glazed eyes, staring into the fire pit they were considering feeding with Neubert’s grandfather. “Someone got a video of a pelican picking up a bunch of sandals off the beach and running away with them.”
“Exactly… more people know about that video than know about us.”
“It makes people feel things. They laugh. When was the last time you heard somebody laugh at anything that wasn’t some innocent animal video online?”
“I don’t know,” Gibson admitted, thinking it over. It was strange, even stranger than the things they were doing. If there was a cult it was everybody else, he decided. “And they laugh so hard they cry.”
“We need to pivot Gibson. We need to pivot and I don’t know how…” Things had ended there, but Gibson had thought about it a lot. Pivot what? Their spiritual beliefs? Those weren’t supposed to pivot. If you twisted those they broke right off the foundation and took everybody down with them. No. They were the Brotherhood of Exhumation. One day their theory would be proven true. The dead could return, as long as they were never allowed to rest.
“Open it and see for yourself,” Rackley goaded him, under his own roof, under the threatening thunder, over the twitching bundle that couldn’t be Mazarus if everything was still to make sense. Now Gibson’s hands were shaking, but they came down anyway and started to unwrap the soaking thing, like peeling wet newspaper off a deflated volleyball.
The odor got stronger with each layer stripped away. It didn’t smell like death, but like clinging life, like someone attached to a dialysis machine, still breathing, but flung into a wet pit somewhere, various slimes seeping into the machine’s fluid supplies. Gibson ripped the last few away all at once and recoiled.
His back hit the wall, knocking down several family photos with a clatter. He was right; it wasn’t Mazarus. It was roadkill, and not particularly fresh at that. The thing’s head unfurled from under the tread marks, revealing its matted dark mask: a raccoon. Most of a raccoon. Part of a raccoon. A compressed, splattered, degraded, incomplete, unfit, rotten, floppy pasta shell of a raccoon.
Somehow it lifted its head and looked at Gibson. One side of its face was missing and mushy, held together with numerous maggots acting as living stitches. Some were fat and yellow, but most were of that small white variety that was barely visible, that moved like reflections on the surface of water droplets. One of its ears was torn off. Its tail was glued to its side, fed under a hole in the flank skin before coming out another opening near the spilled gut. It opened its dead mouth in a garbage-swilling gurgle. The sound made all the human skin in the house crawl faster than the maggots.
The undead beast hacked up a glob that was equal parts its last meal and road salt, enabling its next gurgle’s metamorphosis into a single word: brothers. They all bowed their heads, out of deference and to avoid looking at it, all except Gibson.
“I’ll… for…give you for… not recognizing me,” the raccoon said, its jaw flapping so loosely that some of the syllables dribbled out onto the table. “I am returned Gibson. Welcome me back.” Even funneled through the tiny obliterated throat, the voice was unmistakably that of Brother Mazarus. It echoed out of the other holes in the animal’s body, like it was a deep well with Mazarus trapped in neck-high water at the bottom.
“I don’t understand,” Gibson gibbered, looking at the others, each refusing to look back. “Your body turned into a raccoon? You never said anything about… vermin? The creative energies… They’re not this creative… right? Right?”
“All will be explained,” the Mazarus mammal assured him. “Brother Neubert, assist me. Take me to the head of the table.” The man obeyed, holding his breath as he stood and slipped his arms under the tarp, around the squishy backside of the roadkill. He lifted it up and brought it to the chair, but it wasn’t high enough.
Dendils lunged out of his seat, grabbing a small ottoman from by the television and placing it on the head chair just before Neubert lowered the bundle onto it. Together they pushed him up to the table before returning to their places. Mazarus’s stubby black paws rested on the wood. The carcass slumped forward, one milky eye moving over them.
Gibson was still glued to the wall, watching the back of the monstrosity’s head, disassembling his own babble. Mazarus’s corpse had not turned into a raccoon; there was no reason for it to have tire marks were that the case. It must have been a woman thing! A lady raccoon. Her wandering presence desecrated the grave site, and the creative energies inside her must have diverted Mazarus’s spirit into the wrong vessel. They were witnessing an abomination of both the natural world and the spiritual realm.
“Do not look so disturbed my brothers,” Mazarus began, “for I have come back to you as promised. A new world is dawning, one far stranger than the one we anticipated, but together we will ensure that the Brotherhood of Exhumation is a founding force within it. All of you, come to me, and receive my blessing.”
Nervously they stood and approached, bending down on one knee before him, pushing away thoughts of rabies and tetanus shots. Perhaps their leader intended to deliver a delicate kiss to their foreheads, but when forced through the decayed muscle memory of the raccoon’s body it was expressed as a lick.
A few of them dry heaved, but they managed to keep it off Gibson’s carpets, and it soon came to be the homeowner’s turn. The raccoon was too unstable to twist all the way around, so Mazarus couldn’t see the man still stood against the wall behind him, but he could speak to him.
“Brother, why do you hide from me?”
“Why the fuck do you think?”
“This is why I did not call out to you Gibson. You have always been full of fear, and that fear would’ve had you leaving me on the side of the road even as I reached out for your aid. I’m giving you a chance to prove yourself despite this. Come be by my side. We all have much work to do. You are needed like never before.”
“Why are you in a goddamn exploded raccoon!?”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” the roadkill said, pausing as if in regret of using such a common phrase when it was time to mint new scripture. “The path back was fraught with dangers, and had a great deal more twists than I expected, up until shortly before my demise, but I assure you, this vessel is an absolute treasure, the only island in a vast ocean that now surrounds us.”
“You can’t do anything but talk, and hearing you talk makes me sick,” Gibson spat.
“Brother!” Rackley shouted, but Mazarus raised his paw to cool their heads.
“Now now, we must forgive him his doubts. We all have them. What you must understand is that I could only return in the form of an animal. All the energies that have been stirred up are flowing in a great torrent, and only in the animal direction. Nothing at all could be done without them.
Getting a human soul into an animal body was, I believe, the most taxing thing a soul can undergo. It has humbled me, but not extinguished all my ambitions. Perhaps the husk of a bug could’ve been gotten with less effort, but I don’t think I could’ve used it to communicate with all of you before it was destroyed by something as rudimentary as a gust or a raindrop.
And among the larger creatures even this lowly mistreated mass was heavily guarded against intrusion.” He paused, breath whistling through exposed ribs. Mazarus sounded tired, drained, the tone entirely separate from the stress of wearing a dead animal. “But with the power of this form we will not be disregarded so easily. I am one of them now, and they cannot deny me my rightf-”
Cut off and muffled by the tarp, the heads of the other brothers all whipped toward Gibson and saw him holding their leader in the bundle, top twisted shut in his white knuckle grip. Without a word he hoisted the bag over his shoulder and stormed past the table, toward the patio door that looked out upon his ample and well-manicured backyard.
The others followed him, shouting for him to stop, but made no effort to actually step outside, merely clustering in the threshold like ears of corn jammed in a silo chute. Gibson kept stomping, out into the pouring rain and drowning grass. There was one tree he hadn’t cut down when arranging the play space originally intended for his young daughter. It was for shade, or for a tree house one day. At least that was what he thought until that moment.
Actually it was for swinging against. Mazarus made rabid desperate pleas to be released, but they could only be heard as animal struggling through the tarp. His most financially loyal servant gave no pause at the sound, rearing back like a pinch hitter and bringing everything he had into the swing. The sack smacked wetly against the thick tree.
The abomination still thrashed, so Gibson swung again. Snarls. Again. Whimpers. Again. Lamentation and prayer. Again. He swung until the tarp contained little more than a maggot slurry and a pile of shattered bones. Each time the thunder clapped at the exact moment of impact, with none of the accompanying rumbling before or after. The Earth applauded his decision, and the sounds killed any intervention instincts that might have arisen in his brothers.
Gibson cast the sack aside like waste and screamed at the sky. He rolled down his sleeves and buttoned the cuffs once more before turning to head inside.
“What have you done!?” Hayes yelled. Gibson stopped just under the awning, water dripping over his eyes from limp spikes of dark hair. “You just undid a resurrection! You just undid the second coming! Why!?”
“I’m not having that nasty animal in my house,” he said as if that explained everything. “He came back once, so he can do it again. And he can get it right this time, come back as something proper. Fucking animals. You’re all fucking animals, tracking mud everywhere.”
He pushed through them and went to the kitchen. He was going to have a sandwich and a beer, even if no one else would.
“Should we bury him again?” Phillips asked the others, but nobody stepped out under the judgmental sky.