Invoke the Bloody Mouth (part two)

(back to part one)

(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 30 minutes)

When the Year is not Kept

And the Bloody Mouth is Invoked

The Scion of the Salmon Run was set to return to Compassleaf for a sojourn. The height of the fishing season, when the river would be more salmon roe than water, was just around the bend, and naturally he had to take first honors so the others of the region could then acknowledge him and eat their fill.

Krakodosus had been on the coast investigating washed up kelp forests as a food source, so the mountain-stump city was in the middle of his straight path from the shore to Blueguts. The great black grizzly had been meaning to stop there for some time now, as it was getting embarrassing to muddle his way through conversations that praised a storyteller he owned but had never actually seen perform.

His precious niece had not squandered his gift, not that he would’ve seen it if she had. The girl could do no wrong in his eyes, and unenviable was the bear that would eventually seek to bond, mate, or breed with her. In fact his reputation alone had already dissuaded dozens of suitors before they even started.

Word of his arrival came, via messenger bird, several days before it occurred, allowing Lady Butterfur to make special arrangements. Her uncle was not one for pomp or circumstance, at least any that did not involve being, at minimum, ankle deep in Blueguts, but she decided to ignore this knowledge in favor of the opportunity to throw a small celebration.

She was confident that Loric’s performance would overcome her uncle’s curmudgeonly nature, and thus he would tolerate a handful of guests, as long as there were not more than he could pay attention to at any given moment. It would take place in the theater of course, but selecting and refining the guest list was a more complicated matter.

The Lady was torn in several different directions on that front. She was the prime social authority in the city, and saw it as her responsibility to both track and mitigate conflicts. Certain beities could be excellent company, but incapable of getting along with each other thanks to longstanding grudges and slights.

She knew that Orrobis the bison was an excellent listener, except when it came to the voice of the ostrich Rattistruth. A mere disagreement about tone meant neither of them could be invited without offending the other, so she was limited to one on one visits with them, and was careful never to visit the same one twice in a row.

There was also the balance of power to consider, though she preferred the social dynamic. Compassleaf was a city, and even one of animals had its imports and exports, its economic reputation, and its pressing issues.

To that end she started the guest list with an invitation dispatched to Bagogreen, to the big cat called Grinjipan; she was a wealthy and clever beast whose family supplied supplementary scavage bones to Compassleaf. Having plenty to gnaw on helped keep the more predatory population docile. Hocmursus didn’t partake, as she noticed a rather strong prevalence of human bones in those sent from Bagogreen, and she was too close to her pets to ever consider eating them. She was one of few beities that would genuinely starve before doing so.

Grinjipan’s acquaintance had been made several times before, and Lady Butterfur knew her to be perfectly polite but also conniving and calculating. She was difficult to offend, but once offense occurred there would be severe, if often invisible, consequences. Still, she could be excellently appropriate company for her uncle, as any of her subtler implications would fly completely over his ears without them even twitching.

Maintaining positive social relations with her would help ensure the bones kept flowing, which might mean that humans had to keep dying, but the lady did her best to not think about that and move on. Who else could round out the audience most effectively? When she pictured all of those that would be present so far, Loric, herself, her uncle, and Grinjipan, she realized they were skewing very mammalian.

Yes, the Wild Trinity was all mammals, and mammals moved in their power most bombastically, but the other creatures of the world were not to be trifled with or ignored. Even quiet and sluggish reptiles could command far more respect than formerly domestic dogs and monkeys, and a day without birds was a day without effective communication.

Keenly aware that some of the birds were quite incapable of preventing themselves from memorizing Loric’s stories, and even retelling them in mimicry of his voice no less, despite their promises not to, she eventually decided a more reserved attendee would be better: Dendrimor.

She was a dark green python large enough to swallow half the beities in Compassleaf if she felt like it, but was also especially passive even among her own kind. Dwelling in one of the cooler places in the northernmost stump, her primary responsibilities included watching the border for threats and charitably dispatching any smaller souls in the city that were sure they were dying of something catching.

Dendrimor’s crushing muscles were said to be so powerful that they could flatten and rupture everything she consumed, even those illness-causing creatures that were too small to see. It was a most honorable death for the sickly rabbits and polecats who sacrificed their fading forms to her, and she was respected by all the beities of the city, but there was a darker side to her reputation among the humans.

She had no slaves of her own, but was know to borrow them from time to time so they could use their nimble hands and permitted thumbs to perform deep tissue massages. The problem lay in the extreme depth of the tissues. The python would unhinge her jaw and turn her mouth into a portal, ordering the poor human to crawl inside.

The internal massages were most relaxing, and though Hocmursus was sure the serpent had no intent to harm, there had turned out to be a one in three chance that she couldn’t entirely control the contractions of her stomach muscles, thus turning the masseuse into an accidental meal before they could scramble out to safety.

Between the awing fear her uncle commanded, Grinjipan’s overly familiar bags of bones, and the Dendrimor incidents, she realized she had an audience that would play well with each other but would almost certainly intimidate her storyteller. To make matters worse, the audience grew beyond her control when the troop leader of the Babeloons invited himself.

Self-serving, aggressive, loud, neurotic, and constantly grasping at and soiling things above his station, Troop Leader Mojopap was, in the lady’s opinion, the worst beity in the city. How he ever earned a higher name was a mystery to her, except that it surely involved bullying. His language policing frequently brought him into conflict with her, as she owned more humans than any other individual in the city. This allowed him to pretend they had a working relationship, and that he could do things like invite himself to events where the Scion would be present in order to give him updates on the security of the city.

Not too long ago she would have been able to refuse him, but not since the Sig-neagle’s surge of interest in their metropolis. There was little question that there was something drawing her, and the slightly larger question of which exact human was hiding the item. Mojopap’s reach increased, albeit shakily and irritatingly, every time her angry cry was heard overhead.

Compounding the stress was the fact that the Babeloons had a doctrinal distaste for storytellers, as they were the closest living things to authors and readers. Perhaps it had been unwise of her to ban all those primates from seeing Loric’s shows out of fears of intimidation, only serving to sour them to this exact point where Mojopap forged an invitation, but it was too late to change that now.

The only safeguard she could think up was giving Loric something to take his mind off the audience, a gift she waited to give until Krakodosus had already arrived and they were mere hours from the early evening show.

The young man was called into the private chamber afforded to Hocmursus’s two handmaidens, and was surprised to find the lady herself present, as she could barely fit through the entrance and took up most of the room, sitting on a pillow that could comfortably hold ten people.

My lady,” Loric greeted with a bow. He was already in his performance costume, which was little more than the rearranging bands he always wore about his chest, but this time they had bright orange frills on them. There was also a half-mask of cloth sticking out from his belt, cleverly sewn with many pockets that could be reversed to reveal a new outer pattern. Each was dyed to resemble the eyes of a different animal, which he could pull over his own when donning the voice of a specific character.

Hello my little singing jewel,” she greeted him as she often did, cooing as if he were a toddler. Already hunched over to avoid the ceiling, she bent further so the cool tip of her snout was mere inches from his bare skin. Her presence was as overwhelming as ever, but he sensed a flutter in her demeanor; she was giddy, or perhaps nervous. “Have you selected a tale for tonight?”

It has been picked out for days, and I have been whittling away at it based on your sage advice regarding your uncle’s preferences. It’s full of bravery, and stoicism, and the passing of torches from one generation to the next, not forced by death, but freely given in recognition.”

Which one is it?”

Wholly new to you my lady. It should be a treat for you as well.”

Wholly new!? You mean you still haven’t run out? What bottomless pond do you dredge them from?”

They come from the spirit, which has no boundaries. It is infinite, when I suspect nothing else is… except for the reign of the Wild Trinity of course.”

Splendid! But tonight is a- what do they say?- tough crowd? Uncle Kranky-dosus doesn’t think he even cares for stories. He is a bear of action. I know you will change his mind tonight, but there will be that bloated head Babeloon as well.”

Mojopap will be in attendance?”

Yes, I’m afraid it was unavoidable. Our theater has never seen a heckler, but something tells me he will be the first. If he does engage in such behavior, and we must pause, just do your best to resume once I’ve handled him.” Loric was a fantastic actor, but she knew him, and most of her pets, well enough to see the flashes of emotion in their eyes so often absent from the eyes of beities. There was no mistaking his fear, even underneath his placid grin. “It is a burden, I know… which is why I thought you deserved a gift to help shore up that infinite spirit of yours. And here she is!”

The blonde bear took up so much of the room that Loric hadn’t even suspected there was someone hiding behind her furry flank. Out came Faemae Powderwash: one of the lady’s handmaidens. The other was Geez Lacquerclaw, who hadn’t been at the bear’s side much lately, as she was occupied raising the newest addition to her master’s stable.

Faemae was all bashful smiles, hands holding each other, feet tapping forward in little grasshopper hops. The handmaidens’ status was indicated by their full bright clothing, complete with hoods, but Faemae was wearing much less than usual and the hood was pulled back to reveal her uneven hair, casually chopped whenever and wherever it had peeked out of her hood too much.

The two were already more than acquainted, as only Loric accompanied Butterfur nearly as much as her maidens. They often spoke before his shows, and when they ran long, wearing out both his body and throat, he would sometimes collapse into her lap just offstage, napping on her thighs for an amount of time he could not track, but in which she never stopped stroking his hair.

He did not dislike her, but these days Faemae’s presence rattled his nerves, as she sometimes came looking for him, including between the cushions of the pillow trove during his lessons with the bottomless book. She’d never seen anything, but she had eyes very ready and eager to see parts of him that he would rather keep hidden.

The insistent Hocmursus was forcing the issue now, in the way she sometimes did, the only way in which she was frequently mistaken about the wishes of her pets.

I’ve seen you two together,” the bear said, voice swelling with pride and adoration, taking up even more of the room and making Loric feel sandwiched between the two expectant females. “But I’ve always kept you so busy you couldn’t enjoy each other, shame on me! That ends now.”

Loric, helplessly stranded, kept glancing between the two of them as Faemae leaned closer. His flesh was as mortal as any man’s, fully subject to carnal temptation, but again the infinite nature of his spirit foiled what became to him a lesser goal. Both women and men, even before his time in Compassleaf, sought him out for physical companionship, drawn by his inspiring reputation much more than his appearance.

Yet the act rarely occurred. He would get to talking, and talking quickly metamorphosed into tale-telling, and his potential partner would, just as he did, forget all about what first brought them to him in favor of a very different climax. The stories were just more thrilling. He wasn’t trying to escape them, or trick them, or dissuade, but his moments of togetherness just naturally turned them both into voyeurs perched over the lip of the dish legendary.

Go on, let’s have a kiss,” Lady Butterfur encouraged, moments from pushing him into Faemae with her snout. Despite his reservations, there was too much riding on that night to upset her even in the slightest, so he turned away to keep her from seeing his true reaction. Planting his lips squarely on Faemae’s, he allowed her to wrap her arms around his back and pull him closer, which she did with the speed and ferocity of a fly trap snapping shut.

All the while he wasn’t thinking about the kiss, but about what was expected to come after. Lady Butterfur watched her pets’ bonding habits closely, and many of the rare times she expressed anything resembling disapproval occurred when she noticed two of them getting closer and loudly cleared her throat. No, not that pairing. She’d imagined it already, and it didn’t excite her. They had to complement each other you see, and she knew what complemented best. The human perspective was so low to the ground; they couldn’t look down and see whether or not they matched like the pips on a die. The lady could, and it was just accepted as one of her quirks that her dice were to roll over and over again until she approved of the sum.

And while the bear enjoyed every aspect of human courtship, she invested in no part of it more than the endgame of reproduction. Loric could deduce from the lady’s proximity and insistence on this one kiss that it was not an experimental procedure. The storyteller and the handmaiden were to produce offspring.

Beautiful,” the bear commented as the kiss continued, Loric wondering when it would be acceptable to breathe. “Now as nature takes its course I will take mine. I’ll see you at curtain-up Loric.” The beity was too large to be the one to clear the way, but Faemae knew what to do, directing Loric’s shuffle as they embraced, the two of them rolling along the lady’s fur as she passed like they were tumbling through a field of softest wheat.

As soon as their master was too distant to hear, Loric pulled away, but couldn’t get even a single pair of interlocked fingers behind his back to decouple. She tried to take him to the cushion, and succeeded in getting them both to sit.

You know this is exactly how the world’s klutziest warrior Tuckahippo came to be,” Loric babbled to distract. “She often spoke of how her parents hadn’t actually intended to have her, they just sort of fell into each other, ending with an apology first and a child second. If we’re not careful we m-”

None of that this time,” Faemae insisted, placing a finger on his lips to shush him. “I love your stories, but we’ll have plenty of time later. You know what our lady desires. We must provide.”

How do you feel about her wishes?”

I feel very blessed to have the life that I do. I’ve seen the lives we could live outside Compassleaf, and there was many a time where that almost became the last thing I would’ve ever seen. The lady is so kind to us by comparison, so generous, that obeying her will doesn’t even feel like paying a price to me. It is not the bad to be taken with the good, just a good that is focused on someone else.”

Disobeying her is not something I would like to do either,” Loric assured her, finally managing to unwrap her hands and put them in their shared lap, “but we may need to delay it a while. I do not share with her every detail and nuance of storytelling as a profession… but it is generally frowned upon to engage in physical satisfaction right before a performance. It is best to have as many energies as possible pent up before taking the stage you see… Another night would be better…”

You will not suffer for it,” she said, cutting through his excuse like a dragonfly through morning mist. “What is the matter? Am I not satisfactory?”

You’re perfectly lovely Faemae. There’s no person in the city I would rather be forced to be with, but all the same I’d prefer not to be forced at all.” He stood, leaving her sitting as if he’d just shoved off the dock on the only boat and left her on a deserted island. If he was trying to exit and break the situation cleanly he was doing a terrible job, zigzagging back and forth but in the general direction of the exit.

We’re all forced Loric,” she reminded him. “But the lady affords us so much in the game of pretend that is our choice. She keeps us safe. If you stray I think you’ll quickly find the fires of the world are much closer than you thought.”

There are hidden embers everywhere Faemae, and even here I have scalded my feet. They are callused and ready. By the way, has anyone ever told you you would make an excellent storyteller?” He used the double-edged compliment to split the interaction and make his retreat. She was right. Even delaying the lady’s wishes was pushing his luck, even in his standing.

Leaving her there was not his finest moment, especially considering that he was not making a decision that only affected himself. Hocmursus would surely interrogate the maiden about every last detail of the interaction, such things were her actual favorite stories to hear, and that put Faemae in the difficult situation of having to either reveal Loric’s reluctance or lie to the lady herself. He could not expect her to take the risk of the latter.

Perhaps it could be made up for with a stellar performance that evening. He took to the backstage area early, safely isolated from the theater by the curtain made of pelts, by far the most expensive sort of cloth in the world. Their thickness and musk gave backstage a close and musty feeling, but with one finger he could lift the edge and stare out at the most impressive artificial structure in all of Compassleaf.

Krakodosus’s theater was a great bowl deep in the Earth, with bands of painstakingly polished stone around the roof to help creatures such as Loric echo. Mountain-stump roots emerged from the earthen sections of ceiling enclosed by the bands, forming twisted loops that acted as seating for legless creatures such as the python Dendrimor.

The stage was lower than most of the cushions set out on tiers, but higher than the closest set, which would not quite be filled by that evening’s handful of attendees. They would be near enough for him to feel the breath of beities as large as the Scion and his niece. At that time of day the light, which poured through but one opening as a natural spotlight, would be dying, turning the entire arena of fiction the colors of fading fire. The stories would have to be stoked as it went, keeping the beities from noticing that their eyes had to sharpen to follow the action.

Loric was sweating; he heard the guests start to arrive and take their places. He peeked again, despite knowing who to expect. Dendrimor was already there, having slithered in silently and from an unknown opening. She was draped over the largest hanging root, layered over herself like waves of thick cream. Her amber eyes and their narrow black dividers were already fixed on the stage, even as her head dangled as it would if she’d been dead.

Though he would never admit to ignoring a beity in any situation, there was no need to consider what the snake wanted out of his performance. Carnivorous reptiles such as her mostly didn’t care for plot; they just liked to watch a warm-blooded thing prance about on stage. The only time he’d ever felt threatened by one of them was after a show where the entire audience was scaly. They didn’t have the biological means to applaud, stomp, or howl their approval, so his only reward was a gallery of black slits, staring, as if they expected the proper ending of him marching off the stage and into the open mouth of a crocodilian.

He would do what he had to in order to please the snake, which was continue generating body heat. The others would not be so easy. Grinjipan of Bagogreen arrived next, escorted by some of Loric’s trove-mates and flanked by two slaves of her own. They wore as much clothing as Butterfur’s handmaidens, but for different reasons. Both humans were coated in scars that were best hidden in polite company. Loric only spotted their wrists and chins, and from them alone knew their entire bodies had suffered similar torment.

Their master was a tiger of an uncommon coat. She bore the familiar stripes of orange and black, but reversed from their normal positions so that the black was quite dominant. She had a smaller head than many similar beasts, more leopard-like, and with pale eyes that had things figured out before her mind did. Though nowhere near as large as cats could get in this world of savage and thick blood, she was still around half the weight of Lady Butterfur and could easily eat human heads like grapes if she so chose.

Even in unfamiliar surroundings Grinjipan acted right at home, immediately identifying the most comfortable cushion in the front row and settling onto it. She set about various rituals, with only Loric hidden enough behind the curtain to express his shock.

One of her servants brought out a rod of silver ore with a high concentration of the metal. The tiger revealed her claws and ran them back and forth along it, but not to sharpen them, as there were far better choices of material for that purpose. No, silver was known to have natural cleansing properties that prevented infection, and she didn’t want her slaves turning feverish and falling over dead from what she was about to do to them.

Once the silvering of her claws was finished, without any hesitation, both of her pets knelt down in front of her and scrunched up like frogs about to leap. They threw up the backs of their shirts, exposing canvases of flesh that had experienced much editing. Like any other cat Grinjipan enjoyed kneading soft surfaces, but the cushion just wasn’t as satisfying as the tissues that belonged to her. She went to work around their spines; Loric was amazed at their resilience. They made not a sound as she brought forth blood, stopping only long enough to lick it from her paws.

The performance could not begin until everyone had settled into their seats, so there was nothing Loric could do for them, though he vowed to work that much harder to distract the backward tiger from her idle pawing.

Three listeners more were required, and they arrived to the theater together. Lady Butterfur was beside her uncle, already buttering him up, providing the many smiles and giggles he had difficulty mustering himself. Loric had seen the Scion once before when he was sold from the den of Crimarus, but not this close. The Scion had been impressed mostly by the gamble-gamer, and hadn’t even bothered to listen to the main attraction, purchasing him based on the recommendation of subordinates.

Krakodosus was half again as large as the lady, the biggest bear he’d ever seen. Despite his grizzly ancestry his fur was black as overcast night, as the holes at the bottom of the sea that produced billowing hot darkness. Much like the fish that lurked in such deep places, his hide would light up occasionally, though not with glowing secretions.

For he was Krakodosus the thundercoat, and the name was no exaggeration. With the exception of the Wild Trinity, blood did not get thicker than his. The dual forces expressed themselves within him most magically, as thunder and lightning under the top coat of his fur. Flickering lights, blue and yellow, rolled across his back and faded away, rumbling no louder than a stomach but still unmistakable in their character.

It was said that the storm brewing underneath his surface only broke through in battle, and that besting him in combat was impossible because he could unleash the full fury of Mother Nature at any moment. With every step down toward the stage his paws flashed, but it was more like seeing ripples in a pond than a blinding burst. Loric found it surprising that the cushion he sat on did not burst into flame.

The Scion of the Salmon Run wholly overshadowed the buffoon that dared to walk alongside him, Mojopap of the Babeloons. The primate had an enormous head, even among his own kind, but with a narrow snout and nostrils that were simultaneously puffy and droopy. His lowest underlings wore necklaces with strips of paper torn from books and magazines, with those above having entire pages wrapped about one or both shoulders. The troop leader himself was practically a library, or a tumbleweed that had passed through the ransacked remnants of one.

Sleeves of layered papers went from shoulder to wrist on both arms, with them looking much tattered near the hands thanks to the creature walking on his knuckles most of the time. They must have needed constant replacing, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do considering there were no more books being printed anywhere in the world, at least as far as any man or creature in Compassleaf knew.

The Babeloons’ supply of contraband had to be dwindling by the day, as pages had also been woven to create a tunic for Mojopap. The stiff spines of what must have been encyclopedias ringed his ankles like bamboo shoots. Altogether the ruffling of his pages made him look much rounder without significantly increasing his size, leaving him by far the smallest beity in the theater, only about twice the size of Loric himself.

Despite a broad sense of incompetence among their peers, Loric feared nothing more than the Babeloons, and that fear was entirely the fault of his bottomless book. He could read now, and he had no idea how much truth there was to baboons claiming they recognized a ‘reading’ look on the faces of literate humans.

He couldn’t just look away from the papers adorning them, as that drew their suspicions. With no instruction from the device, as it had no contents relevant to such a situation, he had to swiftly concoct a strategy where he looked directly at the primates but did not allow his eyes to focus, something that never got any easier. Passing by them in the street was always a taxing test, and sometimes they made an actual test of it before permitting him to tell stories in public.

Mojopap administered several of these tests himself, circling Loric, rattling his papery parts until the air smelled equally of tome and dander. The beity did not like the storyteller, on their respective roles alone. The baboon had no personality aside from his station, and so envied the little creature that seemed to contain a thousand different worlds, and could articulate them all perfectly, even turning one into another without the story being any less satisfying.

Nothing in that evening’s tale would be for the troop leader. As Hocmursus had suggested, it was best to pretend he wasn’t even there and let her handle any interruptions. Krakodosus was the priority, the story built mostly around what little Loric knew of him. He already thought he wasn’t much for stories, so he had to be given something that didn’t feel like one, something to help him slip into it, warm water that only got hot enough to bubble when he was already up to his neck.

Grinjipan, good to see you again,” the Scion said as he looked about and identified the other two guests. He’d trusted his niece so much that he hadn’t even asked who else would be there. Dendrimor wasn’t one for conversation, so it only took a nod to acknowledge the hanging serpent.

Scion,” the tiger answered, bowing her head slightly. “I thank you for the invitation. I’ve heard much about your storyteller, so much in fact that it was beginning to irk me that I had not seen a performance.”

Surely you have your own.”

Yes of course, but quality is everything.”

They do tell me I have everything,” the giant black bear mused. “I would make a gift of him if you so desired, but I’m afraid I can’t part with anything that brings my little Mercy such joy.” He nuzzled his niece’s fluffy cheek, the deep resonant voice of his mind made amusing by its attempts to soften.

Oh uncle stop!” Lady Butterfur said bashfully, pushing him away with an affectionate paw and polished ivory claws. “Don’t put it on me! Once you see and hear this show you will never be able to sell him. I wonder if you’ll have the will to tear yourself away to Blueguts without wrapping him up, putting him in a pack, and taking him with you.”

I would tell you the same thing about Blueguts,” the Scion said. “You do need to come with me some time Mercy. You’ve only ever had the dried fish and roe we bring back; it’s just not the same when it’s not fresh. And you won’t need stories once you’ve been there. Everything that happens is worth talking about, but you won’t need to, because you’ve really lived it.”

Just as someone lived what I’m about to share!” Loric declared. The beities turned their heads and saw him standing there at the tip of the stage, toes hanging curled off of it like a gargoyle perched on a parapet. The curtain hadn’t raised, the storyteller having slipped out from the side when he sensed the best possible opportunity to begin.

The hidden stagehands, confused by his breach of protocol, hastily pulled on the ropes to get the curtain up. Loric built their reaction in, just as he’d already incorporated the Scion’s last statement. All of it would stay, become so intertwined in the narrative that it would make him look preternaturally prepared, more of a soothsayer than storyteller.

Yes, go ahead, you might as well raise the curtain,” he said, throwing up a hand in false exasperation. “This isn’t a mere story; it’s a historical account. But I suppose I will need the space to move around, as long as none of these fine beities mistake this setting for frivolous stage dressing.” He reached up and pinched the pelts just before they were out of his reach, rubbing nonexistent dust between his fingers as if it disgusted him.

Has… has it started?” the Scion whispered at Hocmursus.

Yes Uncle, now shush!”

A historical account of a mighty bear,” Loric continued, feet sweeping back and forth across the stage, hands clasped behind his back as if recalling each and every wonder was a grave and somber occasion. “A bear so much like the Scion of the Salmon Run that it cannot be coincidence. No, a spirit is moving through me, compelled back to the land of the living by the presence of its kin-in-accomplishment.

You, Krakodusus the thundercoat, may think you don’t know everything I’m about to say, but you do! It resonates deep inside you, and you will find yourself finishing my sentences because you already know where they are going.”

Is… will I?” the Scion asked his niece, as shrunk and embarrassed as anyone had ever seen him. When his enemies tried to outsmart him he simply powered through their plots with his bulk, flies more of a bother than intellect, but Loric had undercut all that by implying a power he wasn’t sure he had.

Shush Uncle! You don’t need to do anything.”

But he said- It’s very confusing if you ask me…”

I imagine it would be confusing,” Loric announced, both as a direct continuation of what he was saying and a response to the Scion’s muttering, “because it will feel like an echo in your mind, or a reverse echo that shows up before you’ve even said anything. Because this account is from a bear who, while he was not the Scion of Plunderoe, held a very similar station in a foreign part of the world. Another continent in fact.

This bear was stalwart. Strong. A hero, but rarely known as such because he never sung his own praises. A bear after the heart of our own Scion. Many of his actions were exactly what Krakodosus the thundercoat would have done, were he in that time and place.

I doubt he needs a reminder of his own deeds, but this retelling is just a gesture of respect, of worship, of acknowledgment of all the bear spirits in the stars, and of how they all fish the same river, but catch different lives and deaths.”

There was a moment to draw breath and look around, assess the reactions of his audience. Dendrimor hadn’t moved an inch, which was the best reaction he could hope for. Mojopap was barely listening, wasn’t even looking at the stage in fact. He was likely thinking of more ways to keep the Scion’s attention and make requests once the show was over.

Grinjipan’s response was intriguing, and thus automatically concerning when the treatment of her slaves was taken into account. Her eyes were alive with enthusiasm, her imagination obviously captivated, but her expression was also extremely knowing and amused. The tiger knew exactly what he was doing to ensnare the bear, and while she had no trouble sidestepping the iron jaws of a trap that was not meant for her, her obvious interest in its construction worried him.

She was more than entertained. Designs were occurring under and between her ears; he knew it. If she was merely enjoying herself she would’ve looked much more like Lady Butterfur. There wasn’t time to puzzle the predator out however. His job was the Scion.

Putting him front and center and making him uncomfortable was a risk, but one that immediately paid off. Krakodosus was intensely focused, something he was not used to doing with the words of anyone else. It was a struggle to keep up with the storyteller’s pace, and he couldn’t stand the feeling that fish were slipping by him, his paw swiping a second too late.

But soon that struggle, once Loric slowed down imperceptibly, became the thrill of the story. By constantly comparing himself to the fictional bear Krakodosus was planting himself in the narrative, working through the dire situations just as he would in reality, and feeling a surprising amount of the associated emotions.

Loric led him like a dog on a leash, and up a mountain of stakes no less. The protagonist was one Sportarct, a sun bear beity purported to be from time immemorial. There was a river he controlled, much like Krakodosus, but it was more perilous in strange ways, for it was a river of bees.

Sometimes it did not flow at all, dammed up in the hive, but when it did the force of its wings could strip the leaves off all the trees it passed through. The stream of insects rained honey, and Sportarct decided who would receive the blessing of its precipitation by directing the path of the bees.

It required a complete lack of fear of their stings, and of others who would steal his shepherding of the river and turn its course to eviller parts. Sportarct of course had the strength to do it alone, but he was joined by an assortment of colorful talkative characters, all existing to flesh out the tale and make it less annoyingly indulgent for Grinjipan and Dendrimor.

There was a precocious bat who gave the sun bear updates on the bee river’s path from above, an obstinate rival crocodilian whose permission needed to be secured so the bees could pollinate his lily pad flowers, and even a villain in the form of a honey-thieving monkey, whose mind was enslaved by the venom of an insidious wasp jealous of the friendships the bees could form with greater beities.

It was the wasp! As I suspected all along,” Krakodosus said breathlessly more than two hours into the performance. Loric had been forced to back up, to behind the curtain, as the Scion was now leaning his massive head over the edge of the stage, even drooling on it.

Very good Uncle,” the lady snickered quietly.

I want honey,” the Scion muttered, looking around for a slave that could hear. He found one. “Bring some honeycomb.” They bowed and scurried off to fetch it.

Loric was almost as exhilarated as his target, for all was going even better than he could have hoped. There was a cub living somewhere inside the mighty Krakodosus, one who had never been properly given the gift of narrative, and it was only coming to life at that very moment.

This was what he lived for, and he very much believed that even in a different world, one where mankind still had its half of the blood-thickening forces, where they still steered their own destiny, he would still be a storyteller. Books would not have swayed him to authorship, for there was no guarantee of seeing his audience’s immediate reaction.

If there were no stages he would have built one. If there was nobody to listen he would’ve filled the seats with mirrors. Even thinking the sorts of thoughts he had mid-telling was treasonous, for they implied that he had not only a power that the beities lacked, but one that could give his life such purpose as to convince others that the animals weren’t needed in the first place.

It was a twinge of the Tame, the twin force that used to belong to his species. The other was the Wild, and it had always been with the creatures that were now swollen into gods and warlords.

But the vile wasp, mind too verminous to grasp a name, even in its own soul, was not yet finished! Coloflim was merely one puppet of many. Most of them slept dormant in a cave, with the wasp only able to produce enough venom to control one of them at a time. Secretly, maliciously, with the dark intent of ten thousand scorpions, the wasp had been saving up one drop of venom per day.

The secret supply was stored in mud jars, themselves pale pathetic imitations of the wavy honeycomb cells he could not make. Sunlight destroyed its potency, so the jars were kept deep in a cave, a crack in the world unknown to everyone-”

-except Sportarct!” Krakodosus exploded, paws smacking the stage, claws gouging out some of the wood. “He knows where they are!”

Uncle please,” the lady said, trying to bite his ear and rein him back. “You’re interrupting.”

Except Sportarct knew,” a Loric glistening with sweat revised and confirmed.

I knew it!” the Scion hissed, as if swearing at a god even higher than himself.

And he was able to locate the jars by…”

Smelling them!” the bear declared, looking around to make sure Grinjipan and Dendrimor agreed with his assessment. If they were frustrated by his outbursts they hid it extremely well. “Once he learned of the wasp he memorized all of its scents separately! He knows the smell of the shell! And the wings! And the venom! It’s what I would’ve done, so it’s what he did!”

-smell alone! For he had a habit, understood only by those precise of snout, of committing the various scents of the creatures and plants he met to memory. And each scent was itself a collection of component scents. His knowledge of the wasp was broken down into body parts and substances.

From smelling the injection site around Coloflim’s neck he learned to recognize the nefarious liquid. In addition he was a master tactician, so he deduced that when the wasp became desperate it would rely on the venom more than anything else, so he singled out the scent and was alarmed to find there was a large deposit of the substance nearby. Logically, that had be where the creature had retreated to plot further.”

Incredible,” the Scion muttered, shaking his head back and forth, mouth hanging open, practically panting. Loric had him hooked, like a fish by the lip, but he was also upon a sharp point, and failed to realize it. In so doing he changed everything. For himself. For Compassleaf. For the Scion of the Salmon Run, for the Sig-neagle, and even for the Wild Trinity. All it took was a single word.

When Sportarct arrived at the cave’s entrance he had to pause and contemplate. Each deep breath, allowed to meander across the tuned surface inside his snout, testified to but one thing: venom. Not only in the literal sense. The wasp’s long brooding there had turned the place evil. Even when the creature was squashed under his mighty paw, his venom would linger in the very rock. The cave was a poisoned wound upon the very skin of the Earth.

Yet his will did not waver, for he realized something else. He was every bit as good as the wasp was vile, and so his own den was the exact opposite of this place, rippling with good that would be felt far beyond his own life. Ripples later felt and iterated upon down the greatest river of all, the river of time. Masters would feel them, kings and queens, Scions.

The cave was just a wasp sting. Of course it would heal, as long as it was so overshadowed by the resonant pulchritude of his goodly home.”

What does that word mean?” the Scion whispered to his niece.

I don’t know Uncle, something very good I imagine.”

Mojopap’s ears perked up. It was a testament either to his obstinacy or his idiocy that he hadn’t been enthralled by the narrative up to that point, but he was present now. He knew the word. From where? Pulchritude, pulchritude, pulchritude. It even had a cohort: pulchritudinous. Where had he heard those two skulking about?

The memory came back. They had raided a stump beyond the city’s borders, based on a tip from a scurrying little tipmunk. The stump disguised something called a ‘lending library’, and rogue humans had used it to store and reclaim books and pamphlets.

The Babeloons had caught one of them in the act, hand halfway down the stump. There was no need to test her for the reading look. The woman had used a Forbidden Thumb, and so had lost the privilege of a permitted thumb. Mojopap himself bit it off her hand while she was held against the library’s side. Then he ate the other one, because a human without a master was also a violation.

Of course she screamed. No matter how much the chatterers read their language always failed them when the pain was sufficiently intense. This woman fought off the wild vacancy of fear however, reciting lines of poetry within her screams all throughout the punishment.

And upon bluff most ruinous

a monument to me

my castle pulchritudinous

stands highest over thee

Though she did not answer interrogation directly, she did babble as she bled, devolving from verse to simple definitions, and among several words she defined starting with the letter P, pulchritude, the mastermind behind the adjective, was present.

The reader was sent into town and given over to a slaver, the one who nested next to the scavage yard, for what would inevitably be her slow execution, as a bipedal servant without thumbs wasn’t good for much.

Pulchritude was an extinct word. Its fossils could be found in books, but it did not exist spoken anywhere in the region. Mojopap had a long list of such words memorized, and even oral transmission through multiple generations of storyteller was not sufficient to explain its presence here, for storytellers shared any word they came across almost immediately, vomiting it into the minds of their audiences.

And the baboon had not heard it but that one time, from that one culprit he was already in the process of eating. The troop leader drew the only conclusion, that Loric Shelvtale could read and had read, at the very least, a single world and its definition. A thumb had to be taken.

My Scion,” the monkey growled, tugging at the fur on the bear’s arm. “We must stop the performance. He said-”

Quiet you,” Krakodosus scolded him, lightning flashing under his coat’s outer layer and delivering a painful shock to Mojopap’s hand. The beast recoiled and sucked on his fingers, but those were not the digits he should’ve been tasting. He tried again, muttering through the side of his mouth.

Scion we must abide b-”

Silence!” the thundercoat roared, everyone momentarily blinded by a flash that overpowered his shadowy fur. The bear’s fangs flashed almost as much, and down his throat Mojopap could see his intent to end his life if he interrupted again. Once the Babeloon dropped onto his bottom he crossed his arms and glared at Loric, who had stopped speaking at the roaring flash and only now saw what was happening between the beities.

He had processed the Scion’s question to his niece about the word, seeing it as only a minor mistake. Using a word the black bear did not know would undercut his message of clear resonance, but it suddenly struck him that Lady Butterfur had not known it either, and she was very well-spoken.

Like Mojopap he too had a single memory of the word pulchritude, and it took place deep in the pillow trove, by the light of his bottomless book. Loric now thought he too was bottomless, but only in his foolishness. Little attention had been paid to all of the words he had imported from the device, none inspected for toxic or explosive elements.

It was clear from the baboon’s expression that one had been flagged as such, with ‘pulchritude’ being the most likely source, not that it mattered which word at that point. It was already too late. The inevitable had come, and it hadn’t dropped on him with talons as he’d anticipated, but been fired out of his own mouth.

Suddenly his heart was pounding; fear squeezed his neck, threatening to pop his head off and send it rolling down the stage. He was going to lose one of his thumbs, at the very least. Krakodosus was the ruler of the city, but not even he could undo such a sentence. The Forbidden Thumbs transcended his authority, set down as they were by the Wild Trinity when they took their place atop all beities.

Failing to enforce them would bring the wrath of the supreme beities down upon Compassleaf. They would be justified in any measures they took in response, even the destruction of the Scion’s role and the annexation of Plunderoe and its fish, despite the bears’ stewardship for countless generations.

A dramatic pause could only last so long. Sportarct was still poised at the entrance to the wasp’s cave. The final confrontation was nigh, but Loric’s mind was so shaken that he dropped thoughts and phrases just as he did beads of sweat.

And so Sportarct took his first step toward the darkness, and felt its veil fall over him.” Loric demonstrated with his own step back, toward the curtain. Technically he had time to act. If he’d had more he might have acted less rashly. After all he could still do his job with but one thumb. The risk of bleeding to death was low, as was the chance of infection when medicinal herbs were so close by.

But he had lived the life of luxury so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to suffer. The prospect of it, of no longer being whole, of losing pieces instead of gaining stories, drove him mad with terror. Mojopap would not settle for one thumb, not once he knew the written word was scrawled all over the inside of the human’s mind.

Investigation and interrogation would not cease until the bottomless book or its smashed remains were uncovered, and then he would be thrown to Tensilharp and cursed forevermore for subjecting the city to her persistent attacks.

But he had time. They hadn’t stopped the show, so Mojopap had not managed to share the information.

Yet even as the shadow surrounded him, he strategized,” Loric assured the thundercoat, taking another step back. “Even if he became poisoned he would still fight, insist through any taint that he could, and that none could stop him, and that none could control a world he inherited and improved.”

We know the strength well,” Krakodosus muttered, bonding with his brother across a gulf of time and reality.

In the cave none would bear witness to the battle. Our hero hoped, nay believed, that those waiting would continue to do so, rather than come in after him and risk their own lives. They knew to wait, pauses, hours, days, for him to reappear at the entrance, triumphant and carrying his enemy’s body in his unbreakable teeth!

The great bear disappeared into the depths, and the weight of the entire world stacked, over and over again, in each moment where his friends heard nothing. But in their infinite respect they waited! Silently, they waited! They would not allow the dark specter of doubt to invade their hearts! Bravely they waited!”

Loric finished backing up and stepped to the side, vanishing behind the curtain. It didn’t so much as flutter. Silently they waited. At least one dramatic pause passed, in which the troop leader’s rage boiled over his cowardice.

Scion, he has fl-” The bear’s head whipped toward the monkey, thunder in every part of him but his eyes, which bore tar pits of death instead, forcing the lesser beity to bow his forehead until it hit the cushion and keep it there. Despite his reaction, the Scion was also confused, and so turned to his niece.

Is this typical?”

Sometimes he steps aside to catch his breath and let the tension rise. He’ll be back,” she assured him, though there was a twinge in her own thought. This was unusually long; Loric had never needed to catch so many breaths.

Silently, faithfully, they waited for his return.

It was Grinjipan who finally stood, stretching her forelimbs and flashing her claws before turning to leave.

Where are you going?” Krakodusus asked her with a snarl.

I’ve figured out the ending,” the reverse tiger said, completing her exit.

Loric hadn’t figured it out himself. Fearfully he leapt from plot point to plot point, and only when the one he was precariously balanced on began to crumble and collapse. There was no destination, no method, only a goal: escape Compassleaf.

In the wilderness he stood the slightest chance of survival. There were more places to hide, and beities did not abide by any laws out there, even those of the Wild Trinity, for the primeval rule outside civilization was that desire and power were the only laws, the natural laws. Out there any beities he ran into were just as likely to kill and eat each other as they were to set their sights on him.

The first place they would look for him was the servants’ quarters where he kept his belongings, so that was where he had to go first while nobody suspected anything of his absence. If they had lived in a noseless world he never would’ve gone back to the pillow trove at all, but most beities had one.

His scent was all over his belongings, and a single one would enable even a half-dead dog to track him across most lands within the loop of Plunderoe. It was imperative to gather them all up in a pack and take it with him, bottomless book included, though his racing mind didn’t have time to consider what taking it beyond the city’s borders would signal to the Sig-neagle.

His tenure had earned him many gifts from adoring human and animal alike, but thankfully he’d at least had the sense to gift most totems and trinkets back to his community. The oily fingerprints of his pillow mates had hopefully long disguised his scent on all of them.

Everyone knew it was time for his show, so he once again had to put too much power in a single word every time he was passed by one of his fellows, blurting ‘intermission!’ at them as he scurried past.

At the entrance to the trove he dove in and submerged immediately in the hopes that the few who were resting or playing this early in the evening wouldn’t take note of the lump moving underneath. Quick as he could he bagged up his few articles of clothing, his character totems, the device he now resented for granting the power to doom himself, and everything else within reach that he remembered touching more than a single time.

Once he wriggled free he froze at the entrance. There might as well have been a cliff in front of him, because this was as far as intuition could take him in his panicked state. How could he possibly get out of the city? None of the gates were particularly close, and all of them were guarded at all hours.

Even walking the streets was far from safe, as he was the most famous human in Compassleaf, and he’d very rarely been seen unaccompanied by either a dog or the lady herself. He had to think, which at that moment literally required him to place his fingers on his temples and squeeze. Only under threat of deadly vice did his mind spit out a possibility, and it was one it would have rather kept swallowed.

The Bloody Mouth. He could invoke the Bloody Mouth.

If it was even real. Were it real, there was still no guarantee that one who had taken the oath was in Compassleaf, or that he could find that one in time. Loric squeezed his brain again, but it had nothing else to give up. Either he surrendered himself to Mojopap and his guts spilled across the street stones, or he invoked and most likely had his guts spilled across the street stones.

Once he accepted the darkness he’d dived into, it was the easiest choice in the world.

It was a much better kept secret than ‘pulchritude’, and in his case it was because he knew it was supposed to be kept secret. The concept had only been shared with him a single time, again by one of his mentors, but it was not a story to be repeated.

Only for humans. Even under the pain of torment and torture. Even under threat of death. Only for those of thinnest blood, who remembered that it wasn’t always so eager to run out of their veins.

The oath was kept in the only place it could be kept, the one exception to the Forbidden Thumbs, the one indulgence of bygone human civilization that the beities refused to give up: dentistry.

The forging and crafting of metal from ore, or the reclaiming of it from ruins, was one of the activities that could leave their hands one digit lighter, as machines both represented and embodied the time when human destruction of the natural world was intensified a thousand fold. Keeping it from them kept them from any weapons more effective than arrowheads.

But the beities so loved their teeth, which were as precious to them as thumbs were to their slaves. In their world an emotion was easier to express with the flash of canines than it was with their entire face or their mind’s voice. With one loose or infected all joy was gone from eating, which was deemed by most to be the primary source of happiness in the world, only occasionally competing with sleep, companionship, and the rush of warm water.

Poor oral hygiene, and sometimes the crowding of teeth, also had a tendency to cut their lives woefully short, regardless of how thickly their blood flowed. Dreaming of death at the hands of nothing more than the yellowing of their own fangs, the Wild Trinity, supported by most other beities, decided that there would be but one exception to the Forbidden Thumb of metal.

Dentists could be trained, and only humans had the necessary precision. There were fish and shrimp that were more than capable of removing plaque and parasites in symbiotic relationships, but they could not perform procedures like sculpting or extraction of infected and impacted remnants.

The humans couldn’t do that either, not without metal instruments. So a dentist was also a blacksmith, and vice versa. Dentistry was the most insular of human disciplines, passed down in select families, their members kept separate from the larger slave population to prevent the transfer and corruption of their skills.

It was in this extra latitude and freedom, this bubble of human privilege, that the Bloody Mouth had incubated, or so the story that Loric latched onto went. For there was a crucial difference in scale for beity dentistry. Their mouths could be several times larger than a person, with even sperm whales partially beaching themselves and opening wide for treatment. That meant the instruments had to be much larger than their ancestors.

The tiny hook used to scrape human plaque became something of a spear, fully capable of delivering lethal slashes to the throats and guts of most beities. The dentists had to be allowed its use, and plenty of practice, if they were to save the animals from their own mouths. And being humans, they automatically took advantage of it, pulling the slack in the leash taut, opening the possibility that the parties on either end could be choked to death.

Dentists practiced combat against the animals with their hooks, needles, rasps, scalpels, and mirrors. In secret. But there was no building plan, no eventual revolution. The harm they could do was always small, limited to whichever individuals were in the area. The Wild Trinity’s power extended far beyond; it had taken down a world overflowing with humans and machines after all.

No, this secret combat power, this adapted warrior’s spirit was, like their tools, forged in the last flame of human insistence. There was disregard for animal power in the hearts of dentists, and with no war to accept it as fuel, there was instead the Bloody Mouth.

A dentist who had taken the oath would do nothing with their training but keep it as sharp as their hook, lying dormant within a facade of professional healing until one specific stimulus came to them: a fellow human from outside their skilled clan who was in desperate need of help. It wouldn’t matter with what. It wouldn’t matter how terrible the odds for them or the dentist. The oath was the ultimate obligation, the opposite of the Forbidden Thumbs. Even in violent death their human spirit would be fulfilled as it was obliterated, if, and only if, the one seeking help knew the magical words.

Loric thought he knew them, but they were no good thrown into the hallway outside the pillow trove. They needed a dentist’s ear, and all the dentists owned by Lady Butterfur were housed in and around the retreat’s medicinal facilities. The problem was that he did not know exactly where to go, having never been to their bunks or seen for health issues in the same chambers in which the beities were.

Knowing the entrance to the facilities had to be enough. There was no chance the Scion was still sitting dumbly in the theater with baited breath. If Loric had measured their personalities correctly, Hocmursus was buying him time with excuses, not to help him escape, but to maintain her own faith in her pets. Mojopap would be undoing most of it. The snake would probably have nothing to say, and might not leave for several hours. The tiger? A rogue element.

As soon as they were out of the theater, and started passing information to person and animal alike, he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without raising the alarm. Guards would be placed at all of the retreat’s entrances and exits, and he wouldn’t even get into the wider city.

The only solution was to run, without slowing to assure any of his trove mates that everything was fine, without so much as acknowledging them. Loric took off, bare feet smacking against packed dirt and stone alike. He filtered out all humans that he passed, for their confusion at the sight of his behavior might not immediately turn into anything. It was gossipy birds, rodents, and bugs that he needed to look out for most.

Such vermin were kept well away from the medicinal facilities in order to keep them clean and put patients at ease. Once Loric threw himself down a level there was a new and greater quiet about him, no scurrying things from that point on. The sudden peace made him want to slow and catch his breath, but he pushed forward. Every moment was everything, he reminded himself. One wrong step and he was scavage, his steaks seasoned by generations of epic tales but nonetheless as temporary as a single round of digestion.

Finally he came upon a curtain, thinner and darker than the ones that introduced him at the theater. It was spider silk instead of hide, and it fluttered when he suddenly stopped in front of it, sensing him like the hairs inside a flytrap. For a moment it appeared to be the veil of death itself, and crossing it was too tempting, too easy. He hated that his only sliver of salvation was somewhere behind it, and would only reveal whether or not it even existed after he was over the threshold.

Loric pushed through it headfirst, his whole body trembling. Its sultry wave over him took his tremors, but not his fear. The antechamber had the stillness of a grave, but for a young woman sat behind a curved desk constructed entirely of extracted beity teeth, some as large as Loric’s legs.

She was playing a game with tiny tiles, molar caps, and was winning by the slight smile on her face, which vanished when she looked up and saw a very lost-looking storyteller. Of course she would recognize him, even if he didn’t know any of the dental clan. There was perhaps a moment where she would defer to the authority she assumed someone as famous as him would have, but it wouldn’t last long.

The dental rooms?”

Well they’re through there,” she answered dumbly, pointing at another curtain of black silk. Loric didn’t wait; he rushed past her and through. “But there’s a… a patient,” she added, voice fading faster than the curtain could still. In trying to justify the information she’d just dispensed, the woman told herself that perhaps it was a storytelling emergency. Who was she to tell him how to do his job? There might have been an emergency addendum to the last ending, a development he telepathically sensed.

The next hall was even dimmer, but light emanated from behind the curtains that separated each room. There was a bloom of color in it, meaning that shafts of sunlight were probably hitting placed crystals and diffusing it all about. Some of it bounced off the elephant tusks that were half-embedded in the walls, used to outline doorways and point patients in the right direction. Some of them must have been collected in much-needed procedures, their irregular shapes implying the owner might’ve been stabbed in the eye or the roof of the mouth if they were to continue growing unhindered.

Loric spotted a glitter behind the first curtain he came to, one he had not seen often, assuming it was polished metal. Gently, he leaned toward it and lifted the side of the curtain with two fingers. He’d guessed correctly, but the sight of the dental tools did not put him at ease. The spears and staffs were mounted on the wall in perfect parallel, the facility’s own sharp set of teeth, but they were not held in place by clamps of wood, or stone, or knots of rope.

It was yet more silk, black as the drool of the deepest cave, and it lined the entirety of the round chamber. The creature that had produced it, a crab spider twice the size of a beaver, hung on the wall, spinning yet more of it. Loric had assumed the silk had been dyed dark, but it emerged dark from the spinnerets, especially disturbing given that the spider itself was brightest white, brighter than any of the teeth he’d seen, with patches of cream present only at the joints and around its many small eyes.

The creature stopped, shifting its head in Loric’s direction. The human instinctively retreated and walked on, listening for the patter of its eight legs behind him, but it did not pursue. That must have been the guardian assigned to the tools to make sure they were never taken up all at once in rebellion. Each time a dentist wanted to practice or work they would have to ask it permission and wait patiently for it to free the tool from the sticky silk and hand it over.

Human sounds drew him to the next room. Someone, a woman by the sound, was talking to herself, asking idle questions. Loric planned only on lifting the curtain and stealing a glance once more, but a draft blew through the facilities, raising most of the curtains. The slight wind and the accompanying brightness panicked him into believing it was the shock wave of the Scion realizing his disobedience.

He stumbled all the way through the veil and into the room, spinning to see exactly what he hoped for and exactly what he dreaded. In fact his hope had her hands deep in the maw of his dread. The shaft of light and its accompanying prism were in the back, behind her patient, visible only to him thanks to a circular mirror of highly polished bronze on a silver staff, its length wrapped in leather and leaned up against the wall.

Her other instrument was a silver hook, and it was busy scraping what little plaque there was off the rapier teeth of Grinjipan the reverse tiger. The great beast lounged upon a smooth granite counter, with a few steps leading up to her open mouth, the dentist stood on the last of them as she examined the animal’s hard palate. What Loric now recognized as a conversation ceased, and both unfamiliar creatures turned to look at him.

I invoke the Bloody Mouth!” he declared with what little strength remained in his voice. There was a long pause where the only thing moving was the tip of Grinjipan’s tail as it furled and unfurled off the counter’s edge, relaxed as ever.

Hello again,” she purred at the storyteller. “Is the intermission finally over?” She didn’t close her gaping mouth, a wise decision given that the tip of the hook was pressed into the crevice between left fang and gum, and there it stayed frozen.

The dentist’s head was also as deep in the beity’s maw as humanity itself, but she was far more concerned with the words out of Loric’s reckless mouth than the ivory trap about her neck. In waiting for a reaction, Loric had forgotten to actually absorb her appearance, something corrected all at once as her face and pose were branded onto the surface of his mind.

Ten years his senior at least. Curly hair with as much body as a porcupine. Prominent cheekbones and long cheeks. Her muscular body had a low center of gravity, allowing her great stability as she she bent and twisted to get at back teeth. She had full lips, but kept them squished and pursed constantly, suggesting she was always grinding her teeth behind them.

Her slate-hued shirt sparkled wetly, as dentists rubbed their clothes with various greases and gels that tasted pleasant to whatever beity they serviced, in case they needed to slide across the tongue to the furthest reaches of the gullet. Her sheer dress went as far as her ankles, and was slit all the way up both sides for full freedom of movement.

I Invoke the-”

I heard you,” she snapped with a voice like a dead branch stubbornly resisting its removal from the trunk.

My my,” the tiger said. “I never expected to hear one of you actually say that. In vain I’m afraid. None of those dentists ever made it inside Plunderoe. There was one in Tuncrad, but I believe his frozen body is still hanging impaled as an ornament on the antler of-”

The Babeloons are after me,” Loric interrupted, no longer sure which of them he was telling since Grinjipan did not seem angry with him.

You know,” the great cat continued, “I decided on purchasing you before the first act of your story had even come to a close. Then you went and complicated matters by making the Scion obsess over what I assume is the first story he’s ever bothered to listen to.

Then you made it simple again by running off. That made you trouble, a trouble I’d be happy to take off his hands. But now you’re here, saying the worst words you could say, but luckily I’m the only one to hear them. I will forgive them, we will pretend none of this ever happened, and you will voice a desire to return with me to Bagogreen.

Be a dear and get this hook out of my mouth; I’ll be stuck in a yawn any moment now.”

The hook did not move, nor its wielder. Her eyes were as wide as any he’d ever seen, including all the unblinking owls of the deep dark, like moons with holes shot through them. Technically, she was disobeying. She was waiting, he decided, for his reaction to Grinjipan’s offer.

It was an incredible temptation, and his instincts already begged him to submit to the tiger’s will. Having her as a benefactor just might save his life, and allow him to put the bottomless book behind him, but he’d already seen how she treated her slaves. Scratching posts. Hocmursus would barrel into a raging fire to protect her toys; Grinjipan might just break those that started to bore her to have a little fun figuring out how they worked.

Besides, the Scion would have to agree to release him in the first place, and Loric knew the bear’s rage would be equal in intensity to his investment in the story, and he had personally made sure that the bear’s thick blood was pumping.

I invoke the bloody mouth,” he said a final time, in a way that could not be written off or misconstrued.

Shit,” the dentist hissed.

There are no- Meeaargh!” The cat actually used her throat to speak, purely out of shock as the hook bit into the root of her fang. Her claws exploded out and scratched across the granite, but her body locked up, bottom in the air, when she realized the harm that could be incurred to her most precious bones if she were to jerk away. “What are you doing you little cretin!?”

A trickle of deep crimson ran down the fang and dripped. The dentist wrapped her hand around the tooth and slid it down to coat her palm in the thickness sacrificed. With one fluid motion she smeared the blood across her lips, across the veneer of her teeth, and down her chin. The Bloody Mouth. It was real, and the glowing throbbing coal inside her chest had been ignited.

If you so much as twitch you will lose this fang,” she promised the cat with a ferocity Loric had never heard out of a human before. It wasn’t rebellion; it was equal footing with a paw.

How dare you! To think the Bloody Mouth actually did take hold in the den of the Scion! It’s because that incompetent mound is never here! Leaving it all to that airheaded-”

Off the table, slowly,” the dentist ordered, pulling the cat down the steps with a tug on the hook. Grinjipan obeyed the force, taking the moment to regain her composure. Loric imagined that she understood the situation perfectly now. She could ignore the risk, kill them both, and face very little danger herself, but there was no reason. This was the Scion’s mess.

What are we doing?” the dentist asked Loric. He nearly smacked himself on the forehead to jar some sort of plan loose. This woman had just sacrificed her life, as it was, to aid him, and he had so little to give her. He was just a drowning fool pulling her down with his flailing, unless he got his head on straight.

I need to get out of the city. The Scion, the lady, and Mojopap have all started looking for me.” He expected her to ask what he’d done, but no such question arose. This was the Bloody Mouth, so it was of no concern to her what the infraction was. Even if he had murdered a fellow human she still would have activated, for it was the human way the oath was built around, in all its glory and depravity alike.

Take the mirror,” she ordered him, jerking her head in the leaning item’s direction. Loric skirted around Grinjipan’s massive head, her slit pupils following him the entire time. Surely she was furious, but she had subdued the emotion perfectly. It had its place, and its time, when she was in her own den. Then her rage could slowly curl in and out of her claws, sewn deeper and deeper into the flesh that was hers, no matter which body it was attached to.

My show gets interrupted,” the cat mused as the dentist grabbed at ropes of silken floss and looped them around her waist with her free hand, “so I decide to partake in the other institution Compassleaf is famous for and get myself a cleaning, just for this to happen. We are already intertwined little storyteller. You are already mine, and it would behoove you to realize it.”

I’m sorry Grinjipan; I meant you no harm,” Loric explained, but he took up the mirror nonetheless, examining his own reflection in the metal. He’d only ever seen it in water before. This new bronze face was made of tougher stuff, but Loric couldn’t quite recognize it. Too much fear. He was never supposed to keep that festering, instead weaving it into his characters for realism’s sake. Holding it strangled his heart.

Come to the corner,” the dentist ordered. She had him stand behind the curtain and extended the mirror-tipped rod through. The bronze plate was mounted at an angle, which allowed them to examine the corridor in its surface. Still empty. The trio moved out into it and crept toward the antechamber, uninterrupted until they reached what could only be called the armory. The crab spider emerged from the top of the doorway, scuttling toward them across the ceiling, only stopping when the dentist spoke.

You see my bite Misugot?” she asked the arachnid. It saw. Even the mightiest arthropod beities rarely spoke, and the spider Misugot was of a lower name. Nonetheless, they understood much. The dentist’s bite was red, fresh, and smeared across her face. The spider reached out one leg, pointing first at the hook embedded in Grinjipan’s mouth and then at the mirror in Loric’s arms.

I forged them and I’m taking them.” The spider said nothing as far as Loric could discern, but his protector heard something all the same. “I remember the cocoon you stuck me in. I remember the poke of your fangs through the silk and in my back, your warnings as you called them.

All that fear was false. I have never feared you, and with this thick blood,” she licked the front of her teeth, “I will never fear again. Now go back to your hole… or try and take my weapons and get squished.” Its black eyes did not, could not, react.

I have this under control,” the tiger told the bug coolly. “Don’t interfere.” Spider retreated backward, disappearing behind the door frame, and they continued on. The dentist knew one of her own clan was manning the desk, so she switched sides and hid behind Grinjipan’s shoulder, ordering the tiger to mostly close her mouth so as not to look suspicious. Both humans hunched over and quieted their footfalls.

Miss Grinjipan? Was your cleaning satisfactory?”

Yes dear,” the cat answered, stopping halfway across the antechamber, forcing those hid behind her to do the same. The dentist pressed the hook in further, but the beity did not even react. “Tell me, what was my dentist’s name? I would like to sing her praises to Lady Butterfur.”

You were seen by Hygenis Fixtooth,” the girl informed her, and by extension Loric. Hygenis. His savior was Hygenis, and now Grinjipan knew Hygenis was her target when this was over.

Thank you,” the cat purred, resuming her casual stroll to the exit curtain.

Outside the medicinal facilities Hygenis had Loric checking around every corner with the mirror, and they were starting to see other living things, forced to wait until they were out of sight. If they exited the retreat that would immediately become impossible. For now Hygenis had one route in mind; she had the tiger squeeze through a gap in the line of statues that ringed the spiral leading to the retreat’s exit.

There was nothing but grass and mushrooms big enough to be hats growing behind them, so the stone heroes of the past would obscure their movement. In feeling the cat’s breath on his shoulder each time he stuck the mirror out a gap between a stone rhinoceros horn and crocodile tail, Loric remembered there was one beity they could not avoid. At some point they would have to break away from the reverse tiger, and in such a way that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t be inclined to, immediately pounce on them.

He was distracted from that when other voices finally reached them: the last ones he wanted to hear. Krakodosus, Hocmursus, and Mojopap were all present right at the entrance ramp, tangled up in an argument. The Scion’s volume, in earshot of his precious golden niece no less, was a terrible omen.

To be so insulted, and by a human! I cannot believe the audacity!” the black bear snarled, thunder rippling under his fur in waves like twitches in muscle. Nearing him, but still hidden behind the statues, allowed them to hear a crackle in his coat as well, each hair carrying a charge of indignation. “I’m beginning to think he did not come across Sportarct’s account honestly.”

My lord it was a fiction,” Mojopap insisted, standing on his hind legs and waving his stretched hands about. “There never has been any Sportarct!”

You idiot! You think I can’t tell when I’m being lied to!? Of course he’s real; I felt him in my spirit. How else could I accurately, down to every growl and swipe, predict what he did in a situation that I’ve never even faced! Really, aren’t you damn monkeys supposed to have big brains? All I’m hearing is a big mouth!”

Uncle, if I may,” the lady interrupted in an attempt to calm him. “I don’t know what happened, but I’m sure there’s a reason. He may have been unwell; we should send someone to check all the medicinal beds… and empty the pillow trove.”

No, no,” the Scion said, barely able to contain his tone when addressing her. “You heard what he said; he was trying to get us to wait as long as possible. I know this isn’t your fault my sweet. Humans just erupt this way sometimes. Something is afoot.”

Aw-wah! I know exactly what’s afoot!” the baboon babbled. “Pulchritude is an extinct word, as I keep saying! He knows it now, and he has fled. Shelvtale reads! And since he reads he must have something to read. There’s a book somewhere in Compassleaf, a seed of rebellion, no a germ, and it will infect every human that comes into contact with it. The Babeloons will open a hunt immediately!”

I can’t imagine why you think you can kill the property of the Scion!” the lady shouted, more affronted than Loric had ever seen. “You’ve always had it in for what is ours you greedy little-”

Don’t strain yourself,” Krakodosus insisted, gently pushing her back to her haunches with his nose. “You are right of course Mercy. It is I who will open the hunt.”

But Uncle-”

Enough Mercy. He is to be brought in alive, and the origin of Sportarct’s account, as well as his eventual fate, uncovered, before any sort of punishment. If it is proven that he can read… I’m afraid it’s out of my control. Now fetch me a messenger, so that we may open the hunt.”

Assert yourself and stall them,” Hygenis whispered in Grinjipan’s ear, which Loric overheard. They were barely hidden as they were; why would she call attention to their position? Before he could object the tiger had already stuck her head out from behind a statue of a bear that the Scion no longer considered particularly impressive, given what Sportarct had done. Hygenis carefully turned the hook to keep it poised but hidden.

What’s everyone shouting about?”

Grinjipan, there you are,” the Scion greeted. “What are you doing back behind Morlandarsus?”

Just admiring the grounds,” the tiger answered, “since our show was cut short, but it is difficult with all the noise.”

Shelvtale has more thumbs on him than we allow,” Mojopap said, thinking he was informing her dutifully. “A hunt is being opened. Where is that messenger Lady Butterfur?” Her answer was to stick her pink tongue out at him.

You are the messenger,” Krakodosus informed the troop leader. “After all, we can’t trust it to a human can we?” The monkey could not object to that, so he swallowed his pride, dropped to all fours and ran off, stopping and looking back only when the Scion added a reminder. “The hunt is to be opened in my name only Mojopap. And the storyteller is to be brought in alive, for the reward of one cow of scavage.” The beast nodded and disappeared around a corner.

You have my apology for the course of the evening’s events,” Krakodosus said upon turning back to Grinjipan. “Do you require any recompense?”

No, although I was interested in buying Shelvtale off of you. That interest would remain if he only loses his thumbs.”

You won’t have to purchase anything in order to learn the fate of Sportarct,” the Scion assured her, perhaps misjudging her motive more than any motive had been misjudged in the history of the Earth across all thicknesses of plasm, mucus, and blood. “I will personally ensure that the finale reaches you.”

Very kind of you, but I’m asking whether or not you’re going to kill the lyrical nugget.”

If any suspect word of his came from a book it will have to be done.”

I promise he hasn’t been reading,” Lady Butterfur offered to them, including herself. “He’s been kept so busy. In fact, he’s expecting a child with my handmaiden Faemae at this very moment. Imagine throwing away your entire family over some paper and ink.”

Grinjipan stepped out from behind the statue, ready to rhetorically wriggle herself into a better bargaining position, having forgotten that the dentist’s hook was deeper in her gums than any part of Loric had been in the handmaiden. Expecting a sharp tug pulling her back, the cat was momentarily stalled when none came. She whipped her head around to find absolutely no one. Both humans were gone.

How? A deep ache still attested to the hook’s presence in her mouth. Grinjipan curled a lip, stroked at the side of her fang with a paw. On the fifth attempt she dislodged a sliver of silver that fell and disappeared in the lush grass. That Hygenis was subtle, as skilled as the spider she clearly detested. After forcing the cat into conversation she had carefully swapped the hook for that tiny shard and the pair had retreated. Now they could be anywhere in Compassleaf.

Grinjipan? Something stuck in your teeth?”

No longer. I believe I overheard something about a hunt.”

2032 is the Kept Year

And a Musical Rat Attempts to Soothe a Starved Spirit

The forest was eating him when it absolutely should have been the other way around. He was the human here, the apex, the civilized genius. Everything under the canopy should’ve been lining up for the privilege to get deep fried and devoured. Yet when he stumbled out of the murky river, shins swallowed by mud with every step, it was with a hastily whittled spear that had not a trace of fish guts on it and socks pouched with writhing leeches.

Upon realizing the sensation all across his feet was not dripping water, he collapsed against a rock and attacked his socks, peeling them back only to choke on his own breath at the sight of the mass of slimy parasites rolling out, entirely separate from those that had successfully suctioned onto his skin to drain blood.

Not that there was much to drain. His substance was thin, almost ethereal, just the mist clinging to a placid pond. He wasn’t a meal, was in fact barely worth attaching to. It was as if he had died the moment he had lost his way. The worms couldn’t even imagine why his body was going through the motions of attempted survival.

The leeches were fed up with his taste before he pried a third one off; they abandoned him all at once and crawled away, fanning out as if fleeing from a slow explosion. Logan Dole didn’t think much of it, as long as they were done drinking him. He was so sure they didn’t have thoughts at all, and he might have been right a few months prior.

His own head was relatively empty, having succeeded in his modern man mission of letting other entities fill the vessel of his mind so he would never have to trouble himself with the process of discovery or its various emotional tolls. The ebb and flow of his life was determined by the release schedule of five bundled streaming services, his manager told him every week what his goals were and what he should strive for beyond them, and when it came time to plan his vacation he obeyed the first travel advertisement he saw, which was how he wound up in South America.

But not how he wound up off the bus and in the river, with no sign of anything else human for miles in any direction. How did that happen exactly? He struggled to remember. The event was more than four days ago at this point, but the time wasn’t the reason it had become so foggy; he felt that much. Perhaps it was the hunger. Four days without a bite, not one that he could swallow anyway.

His memories before the event were clear enough to pluck out something the tour guide had said, that this patch of forest, one of the last left in the region, was more biologically dense than the vast majority of Earth’s other ecosystems. A spoonful of soil probably had a hundred different species in it.

Yet none of them tasted like steak, or chocolate, or anything he could keep down. An attempt to suck his own blood back out of a leech was equally unsuccessful. How could he taste bad to himself? The blood was thin, watery; it hadn’t been inside the slimy thing long enough for its digestive process to alter it so.

The hunger had to be the culprit. Nothing had ever been felt so intensely, not in his entire life. Logan was married, but he’d never been in love. He’d been in fights, and he’d lost them all because he was never invested in anything behind the violence. He didn’t so much like the numbness of his hands-free drift through life as recognize its tranquility.

And for the first time it was gone, replaced by a sensation so cavernous that it seemed likely he would fall into himself at any moment, and keep falling until death took him midair. Again his head rolled to aim his listless eyes at the tip of his spear. Still no fish on it. That settled it; he officially did not believe it.

There wasn’t a chance that cave people foraged and hunted enough sustenance to keep themselves alive for generations. People were just naked wobbly aberrations unfit for life in the wild. God was real, and he had been the one taking care of them until they invented the microwave and those locking safety bars on roller coasters.

So why had god abandoned him in particular while all the others were still safe and comfortable? He asked the muggy air with lips dryer than any of his surroundings, and got no answer. Just more bird and bug noise. More tweets and whistles. And one twang. Wait, he thought, brain stirring like a rake dragged through a compost pile. Not a single bird or bug in his admittedly limited bestiary made twanging sounds.

Hello?” His cracked voice shouldn’t have been audible to anything; he barely heard it himself. An answer, in the form of another twang, came all the same. This time it was more like a sentence, more like music. Logan got to his feet with energy that didn’t exist moments ago. As he started following it he couldn’t help but construct a fantasy. The sounds came from a phone, in the hand of a teenager, sunbathing next to her family’s RV, parked on a perfect camping site.

Such roving was not all that common in the country, or permitted in such an ecologically imperiled area, but he’d forgotten that he wasn’t in America. Houses and vehicles and fast food joints were America, and everything with leaves was godforsaken wilderness. Delicate skin cracked further when he blundered through a screen of giant waxy leaves and forced a smile for his rescuers.

They smiled back, with big yellow buck teeth. Logan blinked harder than he ever had, which took most of his remaining energy. The maneuver failed, as that thing was still sitting there on a large mossy rock, little black feet dangling.

He recognized it from one of the brochures for an activity he had very deliberately decided not to pay fifty bucks for: a capybara petting zoo. His distaste for the idea was informed by the glossy details on the back of it. Capybaras were large indigenous semi-aquatic rodents, the largest rodents in the world in fact, many as large as pigs.

They had brown fur, broad snouts like loaves of bread, and bodies like that of a deer crossed with a kiwi fruit. Nowhere in the pictures or the bulleted list of factoids did the pamphlet indicate that they could sit upright, that they could smile, or that they could play acoustic guitar with aplomb.

Hello my friend,” the rodent said. It could speak as well, with an accent fitting the local dialect, not that Logan could catch such a thing. He couldn’t even catch a fish. The song continued, but none of the other creatures joined in. Everything else went silent, retreated from that spot. They wanted no part of what was about to happen.

Wha-” Logan’s voice croaked several times before fresh saliva managed to pave over it and create smooth words. “What are you?”

Are you familiar with the concept of a spirit guide?” the capybara asked in turn, strumming away on his little guitar. The wood of it was vibrantly green, the strings moving as ripples did in the muddy water. The music was like little fish swimming about his head, so much so that he almost grabbed at them.

I just need food. Do you have any food?”

There is no food for you. The jungle has already decided it will not give you any. It has come to life, and it is grumpy. I think the music helps, but only a little.” It changed the tune as it remembered its own question. “People don’t use spirit guides much anymore, but now seemed like the perfect crack in time to bring them back.

It used to be that when people like you were lost, when the Tame stumbled back into the Wild, an olive branch might be extended.” Logan assumed Olive Branch was a chain of fast-casual Italian eateries. “An animal would come along, and with enough temporary mind to connect to another, guide them back to where they belong.”

I’ve seen it in movies,” Logan admitted. “Wolves, usually.”

Yes you do give dogs all the attention,” the capybara almost pouted, “but there are no wolves here my friend.”

So you’re going to show me how to get out of here?” Logan asked, taking several steps forward before collapsing into the mud and looking up at the little beast.

It’s not as simple as it sounds.” The song grew more complex, like the tune was finding its way through a labyrinth. The rodent’s stubby fingers danced across the strings without rest. Logan almost reached out to turn the knob like it was a car radio, before remembering his predicament. “You see, for us animals there is no way out of here. Here is everything to us, so there is no out, no right or wrong way to go.”

Then why am I here?”

Because you can find your way out, if you know how to accept my help,” it assured him. “All you need is some perspective. Then you will sense where the Wild is, and where rests the Tame. Once you know you will almost be pushed out, like oil out of water.”

I don’t even know how I got here,” Logan insisted, starting to cry. There were no tears, as he was severely dehydrated, but his face contorted in that unmistakable way. “One minute I was on this bridge, and there were mosquito nets all around it, and the next…”

Come now, that’s not what happened.” It tilted its head like a disapproving parent. “The world doesn’t just pick you up and move you from one memory to the next. It’s a journey. You got here. How did you get here?”

Logan listened to the guitar. It tested dead ends, encouraged him to do the same, except not give up when he found them. He thought back, found nothing before four days ago, but this time tried backtracking in a different direction, just in case he’d been down that way instead. On the tenth angle he tripped over something.

The bridge collapsed,” he said, letting the words hang in the air so he could find something ridiculous or wrong about them. There was nothing. “I think there were too many people on it. We were all tangled up in the nets.”

Yes,” his spirit guide snickered, “the butterflies had a good laugh at you over that. Now you know how that feels. And tell me, were you alone?”

No. My wife wanted to take the tour… and yeah… it was a butterfly tour. They were all landing on the nets. So many colors…”

So where is she?”

Well she got out. They cut her out of the nets with a pair of shears; she kept asking where I was… but I was right there. Why didn’t I… Why didn’t I speak up?”

You were dazed from the fall,” the rodent suggested, a question mark ringing in the last note of the verse.

Yeah but they would’ve seen me too. There were so many people, right there. I even saw them cutting out some animals that got stuck. There were some birds and frogs.”

Your wife left without you?”

She had a frog in her hands…” Logan paused. The memory was still fuzzy, but he tried to focus in on her expression. Once she had that little green creature cradled between both hands she seemed content. She made fewer peeps than the frog as she was helped onto a bus. The nets were discarded, not properly, just thrown over an embankment so they wouldn’t be visible when they rebuilt and started the tours up again.

That has been happening.” The animal’s words brought him out of his stupor. He had been content to remain in the memory, tangled up in a net and tossed into a ditch like garbage. At least an approved person had tossed him.

What’s been happening?”

Confusion. People thinking they are animals, vice versa. The forces are bleeding together. You’ve started it, and we’re accepting it. It’s how I can talk to you the way I can right now. Your wife thought that frog was you. One heartbeat for another was good enough. I’m sorry to say, but it means your bond isn’t that deep.”

But nobody else heard me shouting?” Logan asked, glossing over what he already knew about his relationship, even though that knowledge was normally buried much deeper in the cold sand of consciousness than it was just then. Too much of him had been swept away by the hunger, exposing the raw surface of his soul to the scouring rays of sun breaking through the dense canopy.

They would have, if you had shouted.” Logan opened his mouth to protest, but wound up as quiet as he realized he had been in the wad of netting.

Why didn’t I?” The capybara tilted his head again, pouring the answer into him. “Because… I thought I was an animal too. Just some dumb animal stuck in a net. That’s what I couldn’t remember. It’s like that day is… it’s like it’s saved in a different format. Text document versus PDF. Saved in animal format.”

Confusion,” the capybara summarized. “Everything is up in the air right now. It’s a difficult time for all of us.” His song reflected the somber sentiment. Suddenly Logan was reminded of a young man, a rival at one point, sitting outside a lecture hall at their university, playing the same instrument. He’d almost won over Logan’s wife with it. He should’ve let him have her, he realized.

So do I know the way out now?” he asked the animal and himself, looking all about. Leaves. Mud. Rocks. No miraculous path opening up. “I remembered what happened though.”

But it is not perspective,” his guide pointed out. “Where is your curiosity as to why all of this is happening? That is what you need to fish out of the murk. The confusion comes from the shifting of the Tame, but why is it shifting?”

I don’t know what the Tame is!” The effort of shouting made him feel feverish. This could just be a hallucination. He needed to touch this guide, feel its fur, see if it was anything more than spirit.

It’s you,” explained the animal. “It’s what makes people different from animals. We have the Wild, and you have the Tame… but now we have some Tame.” He played his instrument louder to illustrate his point.

You’re stealing it,” Logan accused, unsure if he should care.

It can’t be stolen.”

You think we’re just giving it away!” Still unsure, he was nonetheless furious. The last thing he would ever do was give up what had allowed him to coast along so freely. He needed every last drop of the stuff, if it came in drops. Without it he was exactly what he was then, filthy and unfit for leeches.

Logan was about to mention all the things made possible by his humanity, all his achievements, but he couldn’t make music the way the capybara could. He couldn’t even squeak. No, he hadn’t done anything with his life, but he hadn’t wanted to. That was peace. Others had strapped him in, read the instructions to him slowly, and then he had kept his hands and feet inside the car at all times just like he was supposed to.

That was peace. Other people were giving up the Tame, he decided. It was the one decision they made for him that he could not accept, and this was the violent rejection. He’d been vomited into the wilderness and left to dry out.

None of you can have my piece of it,” he told his guide, who stopped playing in response. “You hear me? It’s mine and I’m taking it back.” He grabbed at nothing and slammed it against his chest, hoping to put it back where it belonged. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

What do you want?”

I want a bed! I want some street noise! I want food!”

You wouldn’t be stuck here if that’s what you wanted. You would be seeking those things.”

I am seeking them!”

Logan, what are you after?”

You don’t say my name! You don’t say anything! You’re meat!” Vicious denial gave him energy that he didn’t have, forcing him to lunge. Crazed, he grabbed his guide by the feet and pulled him down off the boulder, into the mud with him. Finally the thing made an animal noise: a frightened squeal.

The song was over, and that was something he had done. Maybe the first thing he’d ever done. Logan felt powerful as a result, but he wasn’t responsible for that power. Dutifully he had avoided it, and so now when it came to him in desperation he refused to absorb its accompanying accountability. That belonged to someone somewhere else, whichever idiot in a suit and tie was handing over his Tame in a tan envelope.

The only thing he had in common with such a person was that a full meal was nearby; in Logan’s case it would just take a little more work. He took up the neck of his spirit guide’s guitar and swung, smashing the instrument against the animal’s flank, making it more dazed and confused than he had been at any point since the bridge.

Its little sounds of pain and protest were nothing to him. Just an animal. Just a nut to crack. And Logan cracked it by whipping it around, both hands around its pattering raccoon feet, and smashing its head against the rock it had sat on. Finally it went silent, but that lingered only for a second before all the other sounds of the jungle rushed back in.

Birds and bugs. Back to normal. Everything was eating everything else, as it did when the two forces were in balance. Logan couldn’t obey the Tame, off gallivanting as it was in the nearest city, so instead he bowed down to the Wild, supplicated himself to its mastery. His confusion did not require him to act in such a way, but it provided an excuse for later, when he assured the world that no raindrop in the storm had its path determined by Logan Dole.

The capybara was just a hallucination, surely, so it didn’t have to be raw. He imagined its meat cooked, and when he ripped its flank open steam poured out like he’d just torn the film from a microwaved dinner. Smelled like pork. Logan dove into it, taking massive bites and chewing less than he was thinking.

If he could hear a hallucination he could taste one. If he could see it he could swallow it, and it would satisfy his stomach just as much as it had his eyes. As he gorged he thought he was alone, with no one to see his shameful murder of the only being willing to help him, but there were countless eyes upon him.

Every leech that had tasted him knew exactly how little he was capable of, and how evil that little was. It provided insight as to why the Tame might shift, why they might hate themselves so much that they would get themselves lost and look for ways to be animals again. They weren’t getting it right. Bumbling. Ignorant. Flailing and drowning every rescue diver come to save them.

Someone would have to end this embarrassment, finish things up for them. Logan flossed with a guitar string once he was finished, sucking the last gobs of flesh back off it. That poor frog, he thought, stuck with his wife’s cooking.

 

(continued in part three)

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