(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 19 minutes)
When the Year is not Kept
And there’s a Tug on Every Ear in Compassleaf
The Tower of Babel, home and stationhouse to the Babeloons, was the highest artificial structure in the city, dwarfed only by the four stumps themselves, but there was one that was nearly as tall, and thin to the point that it looked like a rope of glistening drool about to fall into the sky.
Its mud-daubed exterior was a mosaic of thousands of glass and metal beads reclaimed from the bygone age, everything that didn’t have a touch of cleverwood to it. The art was the work of magpies, one of many varieties of bird that used the Roostcheck, as it was called. In the world of the beities all news came on the wing, sometimes by bug, sometimes by bat, but almost always by bird.
They had the voices, and the sense of urgency, and the memory to see that information was transported almost losslessly across entire continents, and even the seas if an albatross was brought in as courier. Roostcheck was Compassleaf’s primary post depot, through which most business was done when there were no meetings in person.
However, it wasn’t all business. Birds small enough to use it were all of a lower name, and so were obligated, at least within a settlement, to obey every order given by a higher name, and though the names were higher they were not immune from lowly temptations and scandal. The birds had to treat gossip as equal to news, contracts equal to love notes, and every argument as the historical record.
Within Roostcheck everything was everyone else’s business, so if secrecy was the goal the messenger was instructed to never pass through it. The birds freely discussed their own opinions on everything they carried, and there existed a rich alternate fantasy world where they were the higher names, where they had the ears of the Wild Trinity, and where they had built a much more just and successful society.
The tower’s base was a thin long-dead tree riddled with knotholes, the hardening mud having greatly extended its tip over the years, but the holes remained as a few were just big enough for larger beities to stick their heads in and give their orders. The always unwelcome head of Mojopap was the latest to arrive, his pompous brown mane filling the lower shaft with dander as he squeezed in.
“Well if it isn’t the wordsman himself,” a dull parrot squawked at the sight of him, using their derogatory name for the baboon. It was a play on ‘woodsman’, as they were no fans of the many ways he hacked away at the language that was their tool of trade. Often he had come with complaints, accusing them of delivering messages to humans too frequently, supposedly making it difficult for him to track where new slang was coming from, and if it was new at all.
“Piss’ll be your rain,” they told him, as they had before: a very bird way of saying that he should be gone as quickly as possible. It was also a threat that could easily be made a reality. Such disrespect was not normally tolerated, especially by Mojopap, but with his head jammed in Roostcheck it was a different story.
Every head that entered was at a disadvantage, with no room to strike, and all the birds within were drunk on solidarity. Even if one offender could be picked out, all would flee at once in a storm of feathers and talons, and they would quickly be lost.
“Watch your beaks,” he warned them, trying and failing to angle his eyes up high enough to see the entire shaft. He had no idea exactly how many birds were listening. “I have an order direct from the Scion this time.”
“Direct from his ass,” a starling noted.
“Because he shits on you so much!” a raven guffawed, assuming he had to explain the joke to the idiot primate. Roostcheck exploded in laughter, and since birds tended to use their physical voices rather than those granted by thickened blood, the sound echoed out the open top like the eruption of a mirth volcano.
“That’s his rain,” another quipped, and the chain could’ve gone on endlessly if Mojopap didn’t blast out the relevant information.
“Krakodosus is opening a hunt!” The flock quieted; they did need to hear. Getting a name slightly wrong in an announcement like that could mean an unwarranted death, which was the sort of thing that might get a lone bird singled out from all of them and roasted over a spit. It wouldn’t be for flavor either, just to make a point.
“Who’s the lucky critter?”
“The human storyteller… Loric Shelvtale.” The baboon sneered, lips peeling back from his yellowed sabers. He could feel the ripple of shock moving across each bird like gooseflesh, and it was immensely satisfying. They were quieter than he’d ever heard them, and for longer, but eventually a woodpecker piped up.
“Go on then, details.”
“Loric has been witnessed, by myself and the Scion, to use an extinct word, and to flee the care of his master with no such permission. He is suspected of literacy and script possession. The Scion authorizes a full hunt, any and all takers, in and beyond Compassleaf. The reward is one cow of scavage, even if the hunter is no bigger than a stoat. And…” He loathed adding the last part. “Loric is to be brought in alive, and with no thumbs taken extrajudicially. The reward is void if this is not followed.”
Not a single bird flew away immediately, when normally each would want to be the first to spread such news, perhaps rewarded or remembered for swiftness. Nearly all of them had sit in on one or more of Loric’s shows, and sometimes the memories of his stories kept them entertained on the wing for long stretches. Occasionally they had even overshot their destinations, soaring until the memory finished playing out.
He was a good human, if there were any good humans. He knew what thick blood was like, even if he didn’t have it. This news was a great shame, and so was Mojopap’s delight in delivering it.
“Come on, make with the flapping!” the troop leader scolded. “This is the biggest story of your wispy little lives! Make use of it!”
“Spoken like someone who never listened to Loric,” a dove cooed, more to her fellows than to their intruder’s head.
“Do you remember that one with the swordfish?” a chickadee asked. “The whole thing was underwater; I didn’t even know stories could be set underwater.”
“That was nothing compared to the tale of the earthquake and the new river!”
“Oh yes, that one was stupendous. Why when he said-”
“-Enough!” Mojopap snapped. “Those stories could be infected with countless contagious contraband words. You’re making this worse already, and you haven’t started flying yet! Go! To every corner of every stump in the city! Open this hunt! Rend it wide open! Yow!” A daring one among them had glided down to his backside and pecked him near the tail.
Mojopap wrenched his head free from the hole, requiring a partial rotation before he was able to do so, and he brought several shreds of old bark with him. By the time his sore neck was free he looked up, despite the pain, to see a spiral of birds rising into the sky. They didn’t go very high before dispersing.
The primate’s wicked grin followed them across the clouds. Soon every pillbug under every rock would know that the storyteller was a marked man, and soon after that Mojopap was confident he would have hundreds of fresh pages from which he could weave an impressive cape.
But, he suddenly remembered, he was derelict in his own duties. His troops had not been mobilized yet. Krakodosus had forbid him from opening the hunt in the organization’s name, but they were not barred from participating in it. If Mojopap couldn’t find the blighter himself, it had to be one of his kind who did. No matter whose name, it would be the troop leader’s honor. For it was the Babeloons, in an irony he considered tragic, most worthy of writing about.
“That is the hunt for us opening,” Hygenis whispered as they both heard a flock of distressed birds overhead. Loric wanted her to say something much more calming than that, for he needed it. Panic had set in again, even though at that moment they were surrounded by beities that were none the wiser. One wrong breeze could change that though, disguised as they were by nothing but thin spider-woven handkerchiefs over their heads.
The dentist was unaware that technically the hunt had only been opened on the storyteller, as Grinjipan had elected not to share her encounter with the Scion. The reverse tiger was up to something, Hygenis was sure, even without that knowledge. That beity was a creature of reaction, scheming as a reflex, never even contemplating climbing until a vine smacked her in the face.
To avoid suspicion she had stripped away the more recognizable parts of her dentist’s uniform, and her attire now resembled an ordinary slave’s. Loric had been instructed to stow away his recognizable cross-shirt in his pack.
The Bloody Mouth was going crusty on her lips, and Loric wondered if her commitment wavered. This plan of hers seemed very foolish, but he hadn’t protested since he lacked one of his own, and because, he reminded himself, she had just thrown away her own life over one sentence, and he had spoken this predicament into being.
But they no longer had any weapons. Hygenis had only one escape strategy to offer, and it involved them walking through one of the city gates, watched over by both Babeloons and whatever other beities happened to be present. For that to work they needed disguises, and there was no fitting the long and awkward shape of the weapons under the masks that were available.
For now they had been stashed in a hole, a secret crevice along one of the root-walls outlining the city. If everything went well they would have to abandon them there and continue on without them, a prospect Hygenis was not pleased with, which Loric could sense despite knowing so little about her. The tension he’d witnessed between her and the spider, the smoldering air between her eyes and the eight black ones on the ceiling, had taught him much.
He heard the slave in front of him take a step forward, so he did the same. Best to act like all the others until they were out of sight. The handkerchief clung to his lips after a particularly large breath, and his panic spiked. The sweat was making it stick. It was revealing the shape of his face. Every droplet that touched the cloth was an additional chance he would be recognized as the famed storyteller.
“Talk to me,” she said from behind, sensing his anguish. A hand on his shoulder would’ve felt like it was pushing boulders off him, but she couldn’t offer that without looking suspicious. They were disguised as a very particular sort of human slave, ones not allowed to express themselves in any fashion. “Nobody is listening right now, not to these poor souls.”
“We’re running out of time,” Loric couldn’t help but whimper.
“Our turn is coming up. You can’t see anything, and neither can they. What else is in your mind, something that’s not taking the mammoth’s share?” He thought hard, drilling through the anxiety slate and into the groundwater of his true curious spirit.
“The Bloody Mouth… Did you choose it, or did you have to accept it to be a dentist?”
“I chose it. None of us has to.”
“How many of you in Compassleaf?”
“Not many. You were very lucky in your choice of rooms to invade.”
“But not lucky for you right? I’ve killed you by bringing you into this. I’m sorry. I didn’t know where else to turn.”
“You had nowhere else to turn,” she told him and herself. “We all daydream of easy escapes, but it’s called the Bloody Mouth for a reason. You have to fight with a vicious desperate bite to get away in this world.” Another step forward. They could hear a flexible gate of wood creaking open and shut.
“What will we do if we get out of here?”
“We will stay together until you tell me you are free,” Hygenis assured him. “My oath remains until you do so, even if it’s the rest of our lives.”
“You should be quiet now,” a third voice said, startling them both. It was the slave in front of them, face equally hidden under draping cloth. “You’re about to be mounted.” Being overheard was worrying, but their fellow human demonstrated his trustworthiness by warning them.
He must’ve been trained to listen closely by his masters, who were only visiting Compassleaf. The journey from his native settlement, a collection of orb nests in treetops called Weaviranch, was far too long for the lesser beities’ stubby legs, but it could be made comfortable when their humans were transformed into steeds.
Marmosets, being both monkeys and quite small, commanded very little respect. What authority they had was exercised aggressively against their chattel so that they became both more and less than beasts of burden: mere extensions of the monkey’s will.
A human mount consisted of a person with a cloth draped over their face but tucked behind the ears. The material was usually just sheer enough to sense large objects through, preventing them from running into things but still making them reliant upon the signals received from their riders, signals delivered via reins fed into a pair of piercings at the top of the ear.
Loric, being a decorative entertainer, already had such piercings, commonly filled with tiny polished gems or wooden beads. Hygenis did not, and was forced to, just prior to stashing their weapons away, use another secret sliver of metal like the one left in Grinjipan’s gums to hastily create her own.
A marmoset was not likely to pay attention to any fresh blood, something that an irritated tug on their end could create at any time. The humans were free to bleed as much as they wanted, as long as they followed commands and stayed both faceless and voiceless under their blinders.
“A tug on the back means move your feet,” their coconspirator whispered to them. “The front means use your arms.” He didn’t have the time or space to tell them anything else, hoping they would intuitively understand that orders on each ear corresponded to that side of the body. It could get much more complicated than that, but the marmosets were just headed out for a jaunty sightseeing ride around Compassleaf’s border, so their hands likely wouldn’t be required at all.
Loric sensed an object on his right as he stepped forward. Something scurried toward him: his rider. The entire plan flashed through his mind in the seconds before its little paws hit his scalp.
The pool of slaves they’d brought with them was large, and several were making their way to the Scion’s retreat for medical checks, and had left behind their blinders. Hygenis hoped that no care would be taken to check the individual identities, and that once they were outside the city they could rip their marmoset masters off and toss them aside, escaping into the dense forest. From there they had only one place they could get to before being run down: the Shedlands.
But he was getting ahead of himself and very much needed to pay attention to who was about to get his head. It took everything he had to avoid flinching when the marmoset took its first step, despite knowing it was coming. There was disregard even in its footfalls, like it walked across the hull of a coconut.
He heard its breath and felt the warm tendrils of its huffing make their way down each of his ear canals as it supported itself on his cartilage and fed its cord reins through his piercings, drawing them painfully tight. All he had to do was walk, he told himself. Walk until Hygenis became his master again.
The first tug came, on the back piercings, so he slowly walked forward. A monkey took to Hygenis in much the same fashion, and the distance to the swinging gate rapidly closed. What Loric thought was a wall turned out to be the flank of another foreign beity about to head out for a stroll: a massive wolf almost twice as tall as the man at the shoulder.
Her own low growl couldn’t be heard over the yipping and nipping of her litter, all of whom were stored in pouches hanging off her sides, supported by a strip of leather over her back. Despite being puppies, each of her children was the size of a dog from the bygone age, all set to mature into dogs of a higher name. Uncommon for such animals, the knowledge had already spoiled them rotten. They kicked and tussled inside the pouches rambunctiously, nearly knocking Loric over when he accidentally leaned too close.
His marmoset chirped and tugged hard to correct him, and then expressed its anger further by smacking his skullcap. It didn’t bother to berate him with words though, as they liked to pretend their mounts did not have minds at all. The giant arms and legs they controlled were their own, putting them on the same scale and footing as any bigger beity. They had to be respected because they were, some of the time, tall enough to look a bear in the eye.
There would have to be a word though, and it would have to come out of Loric’s mouth. It was the first time in his life he didn’t feel like speaking, but they would find that word whether or not it was forthcoming, would rip it out of him even if his thin blood came gushing out with it.
“Password?” a grimy cockatoo perched at the edge of the gate asked a slave-mount just four spaces ahead of Loric and Hygenis.
“Cowrie,” the slave responded: the only word the marmoset astride them would allow. The cockatoo lowered its crest, indicating the monkey was free to urge its mount through the gate and enjoy the wilderness beyond.
A new concern for Loric, which was really a fresh jolt of terror. Did he know this cockatoo? Did it know him? He had the most recognizable voice in the city that wasn’t emitted from the mind of a beity. One word could be more than enough, especially for a bird with such speech and memory capabilities. He would disguise it, he decided, try to pitch it lower like when he pretended to be skulking vicious villains in his performances.
“Password?” the bird asked again for the next mount.
“Mud pot,” they answered. The storyteller’s breath escaped so quickly he nearly blew the covering off his face. It was an individual password; each slave had been given one. It was a measure likely put in place to prevent exactly what they were trying to do: swap places when a large group was spread out.
Of course such a measure existed. This was the realm of the Scion of the Salmon Run. Plunderoe’s seasonal bounties were the greatest treasure across all surrounding lands, each piece of roe as valued for its taste and the density of its nutrition as a cut of any meat five times its size. Compassleaf was a palace, a dense hub of the beity versions of both engineering and security. Every slave had to be properly counted and cared for.
That last one was two words. He might have to give two, or three. The possibilities spanned in front of him like a cliff side. No matter where he chose to step the plummet would be the same. Sharpening his ears did no good; Hygenis wasn’t feeding him any suggestions from behind. She was likely caught just as off guard, and they couldn’t refuse the tugs on their ears.
A guess it had be, then. He thought hard. He could always find the words before; that moment should’ve been no different. Words came in groups, and these would’ve been assigned by a beity. Whatever animal it was they would’ve lacked the creativity to make them abstract.
He analyzed what he knew. Cowrie. Mud pot. White cheese. Cheese took some care, but it could grow mostly naturally. These were items, but not products of human craftsmanship aside from culturing. What else? One or two words. Not enough. He prayed the last one in front of him would somehow contain a hundred more clues that he would also be able to parse in a flash.
It could be a currently alive thing. He cross-referenced it with the others, and found nothing else. That was all he had. Thousands upon thousands of possibilities, and only one more step to take. The marmoset ordered it taken. Loric found no point in going a great mental distance for his shot in the dark, so he chose something close, so close that it clung to his every inch. The password was sweat, he hoped, he guessed, he settled on. That was the word he landed on after his years-long plunge into the bottomless book.
“Swearit.” Every drop of sweat seemed to shake off its sluggishness and fall down his side like rain. He’d been so rattled that his lips didn’t even work properly, producing a nonsense word. Tens of thousands of paths and he somehow stumbled into the uncultivated space between them.
The bird shrieked and flapped wildly: an alarm. The shocked marmoset leapt from his head to escape whatever the rogue human had planned, even though it was nothing. Hygenis was the one doing the planning, as much as she could. The dentist lunged forward and wrapped her arms around his torso, holding tight.
“I’ve got him!” she shouted, and proceeded to grunt in a way that suggested the stunned storyteller was about to break free of her grip. Loric was off his feet a breath later, lifted and thrown backward into the pooling line of other slave-mounts waiting to be let out. It was her hope that, having lived voiceless lives, these other humans would notice and take any possible opportunity for silent and deniable rebellion.
They did. Bless the stars, Loric thought. They did. All of them pretended to trip or spin around in the confusion, especially those that didn’t have a marmoset to guide them. The humans became a great pile, and despite the tumult not one mask slipped to reveal a face. All that did slip were the dentist and the storyteller, out from the bottom of the heap and underneath the belly of the giant wolf mother.
As a being that had both birthed and continuously cared for fourteen puppies, and had also arrived at Compassleaf from a weeks-long journey on foot while carrying them only the prior day, she had no time to care about or even acknowledge human misbehavior. Parts of the flailing pile-up of blind slaves touched her leg, but she didn’t even shift. In fact she yawned.
“Settle down back there,” was all she said, and it was directed at her children who had all popped their heads out of their pouches to watch the chaos and laugh as the marmosets howled in flustered frustration.
Loric and Hygenis came out on her other side, lifting their cloths only enough to scan their immediate surroundings for any possible exit. There were none, but there was another hiding spot they hadn’t considered, mostly because it could only be offered.
“Hey humans! You can hide in here!”
“Yeah, in here! Ha!” The yips of the troublesome puppies turned them around, where they saw one of them holding the pouch they were resting in open with her snout. There was no time to question, so Hygenis practically shoved Loric up and inside. He landed on his face, nose squished deep into the scent of paw pad oil and loose fur. The smell was ground even deeper into his pores, and vice versa, when Hygenis dropped on top of him.
“Those stupid marmies can’t find anything!” one puppy giggled, wide bright eyes alive and glittering with mischief. “They can’t even find their tails!”
“Shhhh,” Hygenis requested with one finger over the dark crackling blood on her lips. Amazingly the animals obeyed, though the smaller one did lean in and lick the entirety of the Bloody Mouth off her face, which gave Loric the foolish fear that the dog had somehow nullified what he had invoked.
“I told you to settle down!” the wolf repeated, but her brood did not listen. Only the pouch containing the humans, both clutching themselves so tightly they resembled eggs, was on its best behavior. The others were too riled up by the commotion, and the entire left side began to howl and bark. “That’s it! Now nobody gets to go for a walk!” With that she turned around and headed back into the city in search of a spot to settle down and get some sleep, perhaps on top of her children if that was what it would take to silence them.
“You heard right, according to my sources,” a fastidious falcon said from the upper reaches of Roostcheck. “Tried to disguise themselves as marmamounts, but gave the wrong password. Somehow still slipped away.”
“We have no confirmation it was them; nobody saw their faces,” another bird corrected from slightly below.
“Of course it was them! You think it’s a completely separate incident of a human trying to escape? Nobody else is reported missing. Right?”
“And they failed, so they’re still in the city.”
“What password did they give?”
“What was the word?”
“What does it matter?” several birds said at once with only slight variation.
“For the record of course,” a voice very far from a bird’s declared. Everything feathered looked down and found the face of the reverse tiger Grinjipan staring back, smug and serene, utterly at home despite being out of her element. Where Mojopap had entered and shouted with all the grace of an ostrich getting its head lodged in a beehive, the tiger’s head had slipped in so silently as to not be noticed, even by the millipedes under her resting scalp.
Outside Roostcheck the rest of her was on her back, paws tucked in, tail swishing. She was at play, and she had the perfect angle to address anyone who spoke, which made it impossible for them to use their cherished anonymity.
“Swearit,” a finch told her sheepishly to end the uncomfortable silence. “The failed password was swearit.”
“It must have been the other one that said it, not the storyteller,” a raven blurted. “He has all the words. What a moron he’d be if he decided right then was the time to coin a new one!” There was much agreement, but then testimony that the word had been spoken in a clearly male voice. This was not the part of their conversation that interested the tiger, so she pushed them back in the right direction.
“The other one?”
“The dentist.” It was clear, at least the birds thought so, that the cat’s curious stare, unblinking and expectant, meant the beity was not yet aware of what only the birds knew en masse. In truth she was merely gauging how much the rest of the city had caught up to her own knowledge of the affair. “He’s got a rogue dentist with him now, by the name Hygenis Fixtooth.”
“Oh, could it be?” the cat purred, existing in that state exclusive to cats, perpetually suppressing laughter into an aura that unsettled every other creature around them. Better than the other side of the coin, in which felines suppressed rage in much the same fashion, it nonetheless made the birds antsy. “No, it couldn’t possibly be the Bloody Mouth.”
“Afraid so my lady,” a rock pigeon informed her. “The spider watchman of the metal tools has confirmed it.”
“What else did the spider say? Was it in any danger from this rogue?”
“Well he’s still got all his legs I think; nobody counted. He’s not talkative. You know bugs like him, my lady. All their details are woven in their webs.”
“I see,” Grinjipan purred. So Misugot had not seen fit to tell anyone that he had witnessed the tiger held hostage during the escape. Excellent. There would be no questions as to why she didn’t inform the Scion. A significant blessing, the arthropod tendency to not see anything beyond the most relevant fact, and to fail to recognize the existence of politics entirely.
Her ear perked up before the birds turned their heads. Another pair of wings was headed for Roostcheck, flapping so haphazardly that they were losing feathers. An old hawk gone gray and white crash-landed on a wider entrance meant for such birds on their last legs, sliding into the interior of the dead tree.
“A hunt!” they panted, head and body in much the same position as the tiger many levels below. “A hunt!”
“You’re very late; we’ve been talking about the Scion’s hunt for ages.”
“No!” the hawk protested. “No, another! The Riding Society of Weaviranch is opening a hunt on Loric Shelvtale and Hygenis Fixtooth! The marmosets-” they took a pained deep breath with a gasp louder than any of their words “-are offering two cows of scavage and a hog of gnaw-bones to any that bring proof of either human… dead!”
“Dead!? But Krakodosus wants them alive, and I can only imagine what Lady Butterfur will have to say.”
“Oh indeed,” Grinjipan interjected, reminding them all she was still there, still listening intently, still expecting to be told everything first. “Tell me, is it even legal for them to order the death of the Scion’s own property? And such valuable trinkets no less.”
“How things work in Bagogreen is a mystery to me,” a thrush told her, “but in Namstamp, which includes Weaviranch, any beity can hunt anything, even if that prey is sought by someone mightier.
The problem lies within Compassleaf, as our cities have laws of their own. As this place is officially counted as the den of Krakodosus, as his territory, as long as he fulfills his obligation of not blatantly allowing the use of any Forbidden Thumbs, his will cannot be overridden… but… should the escaped humans leave the city and enter the wilderness they become fair game.”
“What silly little monkeys,” Grinjipan laughed. “Hoping that they escape just so they can be the ones to take revenge. They haven’t heard the old adage: taking offense takes years off your life. Truly the thinking of lesser names all tied in a bundle like kindling.”
“Speaking of death,” an owl noted, her giant yellow eyes fixed on the old hawk that had delivered the news, and whose ruffled chest was no longer moving in breath.
“Hope he didn’t leave anything out,” another bird commented. “Suppose some of us should haul him off to the scavage yard. He might even get paid out to whoever brings in Loric.”
“He looks heavy; we don’t need to bother,” another hawk argued, his opinion taken seriously since he was of the same species but felt no need for reverence. After all, his last delivery had been completed; that was plenty of honor for a low name. The living hawk turned his attention down, to their begrudgingly-esteemed guest. “Your litheness, would you do us the service? If it isn’t too presumptuous of me to ask?”
“Of course. You Compassleaf birds have been so hospitable.” The tiger’s maw opened wide, the breath from her massive chest and overwhelming soul enough to warm the entire shaft of Roostcheck. Those nearest to the deceased hawk hopped up and pushed him with their heads, over the side so that he fell straight into her mouth where he was promptly swallowed whole.
Time could’ve been taken to savor, but Grinjipan found the flavors of Roostcheck’s information much richer and more rewarding. The game was truly afoot now, and though she didn’t think it would be as satisfying as relaxing back in her own den by firelight and listening to a tale Loric had crafted for her and her alone, becoming an active player herself was still an experience to thoroughly enjoy.
Far more patient than any marmoset, she saw no reason to bolt into the woods yet. The prey hadn’t even done so, and she needed them to if she was going to open a hunt of her own and eventually claim her prize. Krakodosus and Hocmursus had made it very clear they would not be selling the man, but soon the humans would be the property of no one and everyone.
There was still the matter of what to do with the dentist that had dared draw tiger blood, and even taste it, who dared to lead around a beity by a stinger in the mouth like she was just a trout hooked and dragged from Plunderoe. There was always room in her stable for another scratching post, or another chew toy, but a thought squeezed out from the sides of her mind and rolled to the center: none had ever served both roles.
Each of her slaves was a work of improvised art, a canvas turned into a landscape of scar tissue by her idle gnawing and clawing. Grinjipan knew them better by the marks she left on them than their names. Loric would stay Loric, as she wouldn’t dare alter the delicate environment that spun such gold from its depths, anymore than she had to in order to avoid the wrath of the Wild Trinity. One thumb of flesh removed, cleanly, but nothing more, and she would be the one to eat it off him, which could be done almost without pain.
Hygenis was an altogether different story, as there could be no trusting her to take up a dental tool ever again. Death for one of the two would also get lingering eyes worried about impropriety off her acquisition, but Grinjipan was not one to let life go to waste, and the dentist could not pay for her disrespect if she could not hand over suffering regularly.
So the answer was to turn her into the tiger’s first mixed-medium work of art, wrought from both tooth and claw. What a delight it would be to see new forms of valley and mountain appear and scar across her totality, swelling over time until her face and body became unrecognizable, injuries layered like salt and herbs in the crust of a seared steak. The dentist would die after all, in a sense, but there would still be a body and a heartbeat, everything detrimental carved and chewed out of her throughout the artistic process: the only kind of story Grinjipan found herself capable of authoring.
“Lady Grinjipan? Was there something specific you wanted to tell us?” The bird’s question pulled her out of her sadistic daydream and reminded that creatures without wings usually came to Roostcheck to speak instead of listen.
“I just popped in to tell you all you’re doing a wonderful job; Compassleaf wouldn’t be what it is without your tireless efforts.” Receiving the praise warmly, the birds tittered and squawked and puffed themselves up. Technically they weren’t doing the best job at the moment, given that they were not on the wing informing everyone of the marmoset hunt, but they thought it rude to take off before the higher name had taken her leave, which she did before they had even recovered from her compliment.
“Swearit,” the tiger muttered as she prowled away, turning the lathe of her genius. “Oh I do swear it little storyteller. I swear it in the name of the wildest third.”
Mojopap had ordered the Tower of Babel emptied; not a single Babeloon was to rest or idle until Loric was captured. While the troop leader would take credit for any success, he had promised that the entirety of the scavage reward would go to whichever individual or individuals brought the storyteller to him.
Such a complete exodus from the structure had never been witnessed until that day, baboons marching out and away in pairs and rows. The surrounding area reeked of primate all at once, a broad scent given that baboons got up to all sorts of dirty and varied businesses, but there immensely helpful for its quality of containing and covering the similar smell of human beings.
Just over their heads, hiding in a hollow branch, scrunched tightly like caterpillars that had eaten themselves into a bloated bind, were Hygenis and Loric. Some things had been overheard from the safety of the wolf’s pack-pack, namely that the Babeloons were being mobilized all at once.
Part of Loric hoped to remain curled in the pack forever, wishing that the puppies would think it a game for the rest of their lives and bring them food, but that same part of Hygenis peered out from under the flap and sought a real solution. When the wolf passed near the Tower of Babel, and the hollow decorative tree beside it, covered in yellowed blank paper tacked on by thorns, she threw her ward out and then herself.
The pages were trophies, taken from the fronts and backs of books, left blank for reasons long forgotten. Even tally marks were too close to the sacrilege of script, so each page was a tally mark: one book beaten by Babel, one human, one whelp that would dare try and reclaim the willingly abdicated Tame.
As the primates were immensely proud of their accomplishments, and the pages were extremely delicate since no attempt was made to preserve them, the hollow tree they were attached to was rarely touched and completely unoccupied, even by the lowliest of bugs. It hadn’t seen so much as a mushroom in seasons, even the spores intimidated, or perhaps irritated, by the constant crowing of Mojopap’s soldiers against the scourge of literacy.
Only when it rained did the tree see any activity, and only to have a tarp of waxy sewn leaves thrown over it so the pages wouldn’t dissolve. There was no rain, nor threat of it, so they were safe inside as they listened to the fading marching in the street below. Safe from everything except the vicious hook of Hygenis’s scraper, which poked against her side in the tight space.
After exiting the pack they were, in a stroke of luck, near both the tree and the fissure where they had hidden the scraper and mirror, and so had quickly reclaimed them before disappearing again.
The plan was terrible, but it had been firmly established that only terrible options remained. Trading out tiny marmosets for hulking baboons, and their disguises for no disguises at all, felt even more like suicide, but Loric was able to grasp their chances better when there was nothing left of the authorities but their stink. The tower was incredibly quiet, owed to its occupants never bothering to make themselves good company for the other residents of Compassleaf.
And, if Hygenis’s information was correct, the tower contained a way out of the city. Once dentists had taken the oath of the Bloody Mouth it was never discussed again, for safety reasons, but information relevant to it could be traded casually, camouflaged in idle gossip. She had heard several different reports over the years of the Babeloons springing ambushes on bands of free humans who assumed it relatively safe to skirt Compassleaf as long as they did not enter.
Such ambushes were achieved by underground tunnels, dug outward from the tower and terminating beyond the gates, the exits hidden in rock overhangs, ditches, and stumps. Using them was impossible, so long as there was even one baboon in the tower, but Mojopap had cleared that obstacle for them. Theoretically, the most dangerous moment in the entire scheme came when they wriggled out of the branch and dropped onto one of the tower’s lowest balconies. After that they climbed wall pegs like the monkeys they were and found an opening, as the world of beities was not one of doors or locks.
Foul as the freshly kicked-up baboon musk was outside, the interior of the tower was infused ten times as aggressively. The humans might’ve gagged if the mellow scent of paper hadn’t been nearly as strong and opposite in its effects. Dim and dry, with air as double-thick as beity blood, the tower asserted itself as a place wholly different from the world just outside.
Large logs were positioned in place of ramps, just the right size to curve with a baboon’s feet and hands. They provided passage to the upper levels and their observation balconies as well as those dug out from the ground. The escapees began their descent, weapons held out to help keep balance on the logs.
“We can talk here,” Hygenis guessed. “If we’re getting caught underground it’s by something ahead of us. Tell me what brought their ire upon you exactly.”
“The word Mojopap heard me use… I learned it from a machine.” Hygenis glanced back at him, but did not stop. “It’s about the size of a book and it does all sorts of things. But, most relevant, one of those things was teaching me how to read. It provided much to read as well. I know things about the old world that I am not supposed to know. Things that make it harder to be their servant.”
“Where is this machine now?”
“On my back.” This time she did stop, albeit briefly.
“Is it alive with electricity or inactive?”
“I don’t think it’s ever completely inactive. There’s a small light on it that never goes dark, no matter what I tell it to do.”
“So you are the reason the Sig-neagle has assailed the city these past years. You’ll need to destroy it before we surface, or she’ll come for it.”
“I can’t do that,” Loric insisted on a principle he couldn’t name, not even if he scoured the entirety of the bottomless book’s dictionary. Hygenis didn’t stop this time, as if his answer was expected. Gone was the lion’s share of daylight, replaced with nothing, the brittle yellow of aged paper now the brightest spots on offer. Disemboweled books, nothing but hard covers with scratched-off titles, littered the floors and ledges. It occurred to the storyteller that each and every one of them may have lived on, identical to their past lives on the page, between his shoulder blades.
“We can discuss it when we find the sun again,” Hygenis told him. If there was anger in her voice he couldn’t find it, not under the haystacks of itchy frustration. Suddenly the storyteller felt like asserting himself, like justifying their positions.
“Do you know why people gave up the Tame to the animals? I do. I know it not as one sentence read, but as the moral across a thousand different tales. It isn’t what we all tell each other. We didn’t look at the beasts and see in them better stronger leaders-”
“I do not care,” she interrupted, again without anger, but the sharpness had come from somewhere. “The Wild and the Tame are no different than the sun, moon, and tides. Sometimes I move with them, in their flow as if I do not exist, and sometimes I am against their grain and must steel myself to endure. There’s Tame here; there’s Tame there. A spot of Wild stuck between my toes. Whereas Hygenis is in the basement of the Tower of Babel, and so is Loric.”
“Only the shifting of the twin forces explains our situation,” he countered. “Context is vital to everything. Why are we here? What is our motivation? If we have none we should simply stop and put down roots.”
“You were the one who invoked. If you tell me it is your ultimate purpose for us to stand here until the Babeloons return and eviscerate us, that is what we will do. I gave my word that I would gain the skills of the Bloody Mouth in exchange for my service to anyone, absolutely any human, who invoked it.
So I do not care about your motivation. If I had any it was placed long ago, the fuse lit when I tasted that cat’s lifeblood. Everything now is gravity.”
“Well we are going down,” Loric offered with a snort, but it was more of a period on their conversation as they descended into the Earth and into silence. Papers that made it that far down were just shreds like torn moth wings. Having passed out of the living quarters, there were no more piles of trinkets and trophies to be found.
Multiple paths opened before them as they reached the end of their ability to drop directly, and the rumors had not included a clear map, which meant they had no way of knowing if a tunnel looped back or curled to a pointless dead end. All they could do was select one and hope it terminated beyond Compassleaf on the same side as the Shedlands. Hygenis, having somehow tracked their heading despite spiraling down disjointed logs for several minutes, pointed to the Shedlands and asked the motivator of their journey which way he wanted to go.
The damnable baboons hadn’t so much as marked any of them with stones or totems. Eight passages into the deep dark. Perhaps as many as eight ways to die. Unwilling to endure his bodyguard’s withering gaze if he were to spin around and select one at random, he simply chose the path just to the left of the one that seemed to indicate a straight arrow to the Shedlands.
The dentist didn’t so much as give him a questioning glance before she took the lead. The only thing to discuss was whether or not she should drag her hook along the wall, leaving a gouge in the dirt that would mark their trail in case further branches got them lost. Ultimately Hygenis’s expertise was against it, as such a mark would both raise the suspicion of any baboon that saw it and lead them straight to the humans.
Scraping wouldn’t have done much good anyway, as they had only traveled a short way before the tunnel’s composure began to change to something much wetter. The shift was nearly as sharp as her hook, with one footstep being silent and the next a loud and nasty plop into dark mud glittering with silica.
A glitter they didn’t notice, not until Loric brought out the bottomless book and used the light within its screen to reveal the way forward in what would otherwise have been absolute darkness. Hygenis’s face, ghostly in its pale glow, came close to examine the device, but she made no effort to touch it.
“It is housed in cleverwood,” she noted. “Do not let it touch the walls, or the moles will sense it and come to claim what is theirs to destroy.”
“They can’t dig their way here; they’ll have to swim.” She looked around, at a ceiling that was now lower and sagging.
“You’re right. This doesn’t look like a passage those baboons would be comfortable using, but it’s too late to go back now. They’ll check the tunnels at some point.” And so they pressed on, their bare feet disappearing into the mud more with each step until it was sucking on their ankles. Worse, it veered away from the Shedlands.
It was a terrible place for a storyteller to be, replete as his mind was with ten thousand landscapes of dramatic underworlds: places of punishment and torture. Was this one of them? The hell of darkness and mud? He couldn’t tell if the passage was getting smaller or if it was just a tightening of his throat.
Most of these underworlds had things living in them, not damned to the deep but born from it, nourished on a milk of shadows and woken from epoch-naps only when moist stalactites grew all the way down and tapped them on the head. They didn’t breed, and were instead spawned from subsumed resentment, brought low and compacted like the minerals that became diamonds.
Gemstones lived in the deep so they didn’t have to sparkle, just like any resident creatures. Loric threatened to rouse them with his blasphemous artificial light. Only the sun should’ve touched those places, and only during the sundering of the world. A new fear, a most wearying addition to a rapidly expanding collection, overcame him: the fear of trespass.
What followed now felt like it was entirely his own doing, like he had walked off a cliff and still had the audacity to tread the air and dread the impact. Everything was his fault; they were up to their knees in his faults. It was even his when the entire passage lurched to the right, the suction now swallowing them without any footfalls to help it along.
“The baboons didn’t dig this,” he whispered, words shuddering.
“I know.” All at once the muck under them gave way and they were sent sliding on their backs, to a new and worse hell. Clutching the bottomless book to his chest, most of its light was suppressed by mud smearing across the screen. A smooth ceiling rushed by, perhaps moving, as if they were being swallowed.
Loric screamed and cried, hoping to track Hygenis by her echoed anguish, but if she was still alive she was silent. How could she not be afraid? Was that single taste of beity blood enough?
No roots. No stones. No flick of a single worm’s tail across his back. It was all mud, all slobbering earth, all the way down. Somehow, without realizing it, he had stopped sliding. If there was a final splash it was already fading from his memory, dissolving in everything else. Loric opened his eyes, but there was mud thicker on them than tears ever had been.
Wiping them could do nothing but compact it into the corners, make it forever a part of his face, so he slowly blinked it away, letting tearful floodwaters work. While he did his hands wiped, wiped, wiped at the bottomless book’s screen. It couldn’t be cleaned fully, not when dropped into a world of grime, but some light still shone through.
“Hygenis?” he shouted, tasting the mud on his lips. It was cold, almost refreshing like spring water. Here was a place so old and hidden that man had never touched it. He and his bottomless book were the most offensive litter, breaking its streak. “Hygenis?” It didn’t echo back, the mud swallowing even sound.
“I’m here,” she finally answered after an eternity under the silica stars, Loric’s soul almost lost to the space between them. The mud under her was too thick to walk through, so she used the staff of her hook to plow a fissure, moving one leg at a time into it in the brief moment before the sides collapsed. Another eternity later she had made it the short distance to his side.
To her he looked interred on his back, ears swallowed by the ground, arms across his chest clutching a glowing heart. She was relieved to see the mirror still in the nervous mummy’s clutches, albeit incidentally, simply included in his death grip when the slide had begun.
“Are you alright?” she asked the eyes and hyperventilating mouth surrounded in soupy soil.
“Alright!? That’s the word that should be banned! Banished from every tongue! What is this place, and why do we still live within it?” To answer the dentist forced the hook underneath him like a shovel and pushed to lift him out. Their thick cocoons of sediment prevented them from grabbing onto each other properly, everything just slid, so they crossed weapons and braced themselves against their shape, like a tent frame.
Only then could they examine what had to be a chamber, since they were still breathing air instead of mud. Nothing could’ve held the ceiling that high, yet there it was far above them. Whatever tear had sent them into a sluice was already gone, absorbed back into the massive walls, but those were not uninterrupted.
There were tunnels, and like the ceiling the humans could not even guess how they held their shape. Perhaps a creature of the deep willed it so: a spell made possible by their blood being thicker than the murk they writhed in.
“As long as there is a path we must follow it,” Hygenis urged him, though she sounded drained of vitality. Loric was certain there was not a human alive that could’ve sounded any better in their situation. Rather than wait for him to agree, she started plowing toward the nearest drooping opening with her hook, pulling him along behind by the mirror since his wrist was too slippery.
Eventually he found the willpower to be less of a burden, copying her technique with the mirror, but he was slow. The distance between them grew, with the dentist stopping at the opening to wait for him.
But he couldn’t cross. Not with that bulge between them. That hill. That mountain. Featureless mud had risen with shocking speed. Even before the shell broke they understood this was no gas pocket, no belch from the molten core as it snacked on a batch of plastic dropped in by moles.
This was a thing of purpose. They expected flesh, which they did not receive when the dome burst and a colossal metal claw with a palm like a pelican’s pouch emerged. Rusted hinges roared as it came back down on a long jointed arm, right where Loric stood. He dove out of the way, landing like an acorn in wet clay.
The machined thing didn’t alter its course to chase him, instead taking a raking bite out of the soft floor. All the while it was still rising, revealing more of the body the claw belonged to. It was a body that hadn’t seen the surface world in hundreds of years, knowing only two seasons: one before rust and one during.
Neither human had seen such a thing in person, but as he desperately slogged his way around its reach, Loric recognized its overall form. His bottomless book had shown him these machine-creatures in history lessons. It was a digger, piloted by man, yet he didn’t feel hope. There was no other person there; they would’ve sensed them.
Looking to the place where the pilot was supposed to sit, aiming his book’s flat light as best he could, Loric saw its roof was partly collapsed, two of four support rods bent and bowed. Nothing at all seemed to drive it, yet the claw asserted that it was alive, moving and taking another bite. At least this time it wasn’t aiming at him.
His sapped arms and legs couldn’t pull him to Hygenis any faster, so he kept an eye on the rusted hulk. The claw and its arm had no partner, its angular body rotating before each bite. There was no chewing or swallowing, the mud simply set aside in a pile that grew even as it flattened. If he had identified it correctly there would be wheels inside a track underneath the main body. It was still rising, but yes, there they were, somehow climbing out of the ground without spinning.
“Hurry!” Hygenis urged him.
“It’s a building machine!” he shouted back at her over the screams and groans of the digger’s flaking joints. “We used to dig pits with these and then put houses in them!”
“It doesn’t matter, just get out of its way!” She had her hook poised, ready to strike if the claw should get any ideas about adding them to its pointless pile.
“It does matter! We made it! We drive it! But there’s no one inside!” Loric argued. He was moving even slower now; every step through the mud required the force of a hundred, force he had trouble finding in his muscles and his twig-bones that felt ready to snap.
“It drives itself!” the dentist yelled to settle the matter, but it settled nothing in Loric’s mind. The history, at least the one that continued on like those tunnels into absolute darkness within the bottomless book, informed him that some large machines had been able to move themselves and perform simple tasks without any spirit aside from that provided by a lightning strike.
They did not look like this one however; they no longer needed wheels. This one was older, and he simply sensed that it did not have a quarter-mind like the flattened one pressed in the book. A ghost then. A vengeful old human from a time when they controlled the Tame, putting themselves into an arm they recognized so they could move and shake the world as they had done before.
“Maybe we can talk to them!” Loric reasoned, having gotten so far ahead of himself he forgot he hadn’t communicated the possibility of a ghost to Hygenis at all; he just sounded crazed. His insanity was all but confirmed when he stopped and turned toward it, forcing the dentist to abandon the exit and trudge toward him.
“What are you building?” was his first question, to which there was no answer. Perhaps he couldn’t be heard over the grind and groan of the metal. After forcing his way closer he tried again. “It’s for us I bet! You’re bringing the old world back! We can help. I have-” he struggled to present the book without planting his face in the muck, “-all the knowledge you could need!”
The arm swung by, forcing them both to duck, which Loric optimistically interpreted as the machine turning its head to hear him better. If so it was a waste of effort, as Loric would go to its ear, which was presumably somewhere near the driver’s seat.
“Don’t!” Hygenis warned him, but he wasn’t listening. Any tools of the Tame’s time with man would be on their side; he was sure of it. At the edge of treads he climbed up them, rolling over onto his back, onto the first surface like that he’d ever experienced. Comfortable was not the word, so he quickly scrambled to his feet and leaned under the collapsed roof of the cab to look inside for his friendly phantom.
An eye. Otherworldly yes, but not the otherworld he hoped for. Pale like fog, blue like a stormy sea, gray like swollen rotten salmon skin. These blended colors surrounded a black bar, not unlike a goat’s pupil. Except of course for its immense size. The eye wasn’t looking at him, because it was looking everywhere, as if a human pupil had been stretched by the pull of both space and time, its vision expanded into new and terrifying ranges, valleys and peaks of perception that left the soul in cowardly futile flight from all visual stimuli.
This eye belonged to nothing dead, and it rose to meet him. Loric recoiled so fast that he struck his head on the bent roof and fell backward, rolling off the tread and into the arms of Hygenis.
“What did you see?” she asked.
“What does it see!?” was the answer she got. Whatever else the strange eye could perceive, humans were within its range as well. The eye rose until it filled up the cab and caught the light of the bottomless book, shining like a puckered moon. There was a body housing the thing, as dark undulating flesh swelled against the constraints of the machine’s chassis.
New and unexpected pieces of it appeared from out of every crevice and hole in the digger. Long, thick, and endlessly flexible tendrils snaked their way around the wheels within their treads. When the arm swung by again they could see another tendril in the rust-eaten openings underneath, fed through the remaining works, controlling its motions.
Things learned from the bottomless book were not foundational, so sometimes they came back to Loric in drips rather than all at once. It was at that moment he recalled such things being powered by engines, machines like hearts, and like hearts they made constant noise. But for the scraping of the rust, this infested hulk was completely silent.
So the beast was its engine, its many curious arms capable of squeezing through joints that seemed impossibly tight to twist what needed to twist, spin what needed to spin, and pull what needed to be pulled so that it could dig out whatever it wanted.
And the nature of this beity was not understood, given its unusual location, until one of the tentacles within the treads twisted and revealed suction cups before attaching them to a wheel rim.
“An octopus,” Hygenis said to dispel her own disbelief. “A giant octopus.”
“A constructopus,” Loric said, just as dumbfounded, desperate to classify it, still struggling against the false belief that correctly labeling a thing destroyed any possible hostilities.
For the animal’s part it made no attempt to communicate with them, but did successfully let them know they did not belong there with its aggression. Now that it saw them the digger’s arm moved with greater precision, like the arm of a mantis scaled up to terrifying proportions, and there was little its prey could do to avoid it, half-buried in the ground as they were.
Its first strike was successful, though it hit the ground past them rather than bisecting one of the humans. The arm’s pull took them with it, their backs hitting the bucket’s basin as plowed clumps of mud rode up to their chests like they were being tucked into their graves. Humans and mud were lifted out of the gouge in the cavern floor and up to the beity’s pale eye.
What it thought of them couldn’t be discerned, but its intent came in the form of a tentacle reaching up to grab them. Hygenis’s torso was still half-free, so she struck. It is impossible to overstate the skill it took for her to succeed. Not only had she correctly deduced that an octopus could bend its flesh around most pressure applied with a weapon, and thus avoid injury, but also that the way to combat one of this size was to precisely target its least flexible spot, which was too small to single out on the limb of a more typical member of its species.
She twisted her hook and struck underneath the outstretched tendril, placing its point at the center of a suction cup and then yanking, successfully lodging it in the flesh. Now it was the constructopus’s turn to recoil, the force of which pulled the hook, Hygenis, and a clinging Loric out of the bucket with a squelch.
They hung in the air for a moment until the tentacle cracked like a whip and dislodged her weapon, causing them both to fall and strike the tread. Each arm of the creature probed like it had a mind of its own, so they had to be on their feet and moving in a single second to stand any chance of escape.
The tread served as a runway, allowing them enough traction to build up speed as they ran along it, dodging every tentacle that emerged from around the wheels to grab at them. Machinery started moving again under their feet, so the pair took a flying leap toward one of the exit passages, Hygenis striking at the last limb in the way midair.
If she hadn’t rolled before impact the dentist would’ve wound up planted deep enough to stick. Loric did his best to imitate, avoiding that fate as well, just. With a glance over his shoulder he saw that the constructopus did not stay idle. Its many arms were latched to the wheels, spinning them once and detaching in order to reposition and do it again.
Its mastery of its shell was impressive, and he wondered if the beity could make it go faster than any engine ever could. The hulk spun in the mud, spraying it all over the walls. In seconds it had turned and was now crawling toward them, metal arm outstretched beyond the free fleshy ones.
“No more talking!” Hygenis yelled, assuming Loric heard her over the screeches of the trundling behemoth. She waded with such power and determination that her body was far likelier to give up before her spirit, yet it was not her pace that kept them from getting gobbled up again; it was the narrowing of the tunnel they entered.
The constructopus’s hull began to scrape the sides, and it was forced to address the matter by gnawing at them. Even devouring the mud as fast as it could, the pale eye still shrank behind them as the passage continued to choke. Eventually the beity gave up, wholly unwilling to abandon its suit of armor and pursue them, which was an incredible stroke of luck considering that even an octopus of its incredible bulk could still squeeze through the eye of a tire meant for vehicles smaller than the digger.
It must’ve had a job to do, something about moving one identical glob of mud away from its neighbors. The humans couldn’t imagine what such passageways could be used for, as anything other than an octopus far from its oceanic home had no use for such an unstable shifting mire. There were many more things the fugitives couldn’t imagine, as their minds were consumed by but one vision made purely of natural light.
Eventually the passage, while still narrowing, also became an incline. Hours later it was dry. Roots poked through the ceiling, which had Hygenis telling Loric to stash his device away in his pack lest it scrape the top and bring a swarm of blessed moles who would consider their own mission far more sacrosanct than the Bloody Mouth.
This meant they continued on in darkness, and for a time it felt like that was all they would know from then on. Their joints were achy and sapped of strength after both the desperate trudge through the deep mud and their hunched knee-scraping crawl through what might have been a hefty lower-name rabbit’s old burrow. Positive sensations numbered only one: as the wet sediment caked across their bodies dried and flaked away they felt lighter, freed from the subterranean trauma and nightmare beast with its two layers and countless arms.
Loric’s mind trekked across unimportant things to distract from the conflicts between his hide, muscle, and bone, but eventually he came back to himself when he realized he could make out the soles of Hygenis’s feet in front of him. Light.
The exit was too narrow for a baboon, but it was already obvious that none of them had ever taken the route Loric had chosen. He didn’t have to admit his choice was foolish though, as when they emerged from underneath a rocky outcropping it was into the rays of dawn still shrugging off the blue shawl of night.
Vegetation was sparse and woody, yellow instead of green. There wasn’t much cover to protect them from beity surveillance, but at that moment it wasn’t a concern, for the changed, more mesa-like landscape could only mean that they had entered the Shedlands.
Safe from anything with more follicles than their own. They collapsed for a rest. When Loric looked at his savior he saw there was no trace of blood or mud upon her face, the last of both having dried together and flaked away. The invocation was complete. Next came the struggle.
2035 is the Kept Year
And an Emotional Anchor Drowns in the Sky
Priscilla was her name, in the time before names higher and lower, though it did get both shorter and longer at times. Prissy. Miss Prissy-Pants. Pri-pri. One nickname was never settled on firmly for the gray hamster. All that was settled was her status, which was displayed via sticker on the side of the transparent plastic that made up her cage/handbag as it hung from the shoulder of her owner.
Krystal was her name, in the time before humans were identified by their use, though the people around her did have some other names for her. Ma’am. Lady. Whack job. Bitch. She had short curly hair, a long neck melting into a weak chin, smile lines that frowned, and a pair of translucent electric blue reading glasses that she only took off to sleep. There was no concern about them fogging up in the shower, as the lenses had fallen out years ago.
Now past the age, by her own measure, of hanging out in bars and making friends with whichever table she eventually collapsed on, Krystal was in search of new leisure activities at what could not have been a more inopportune time for the nation of Australia. The woman didn’t live there exactly, as she was Canadian by birth, but the southern hemisphere was stuck with her for at least a few months thanks to the latest storm patterns of the climate crisis.
The continent wasn’t surrounded by inclement weather, but it was plagued by it at random intervals, with unprecedented winds, rainfall, and lightning coming out of nowhere so fiercely that several large passenger planes had crashed over the ocean. Data was being gathered, but so far nothing could be explained or predicted beyond conjecture that it was related to the unstable weather patterns that had come to characterize the decade.
So all international flights were grounded in and out of Australia, for a period of no less than three months. Public anger over the decision was immense, and only partly because it meant the tourist Krystal would be extending her exotic vacation and plaguing local zoos, river tours, and now, of all places, the airport.
The one nearest her hotel wasn’t closed, not today. Three flights were scheduled, which was legal because they were domestic. The destination was their point of origin. Krystal had seen an advertisement that made that very clear: flights to nowhere!
After two months of being caged on their own continent, those who loved travel had become incredibly antsy, eager for anything that felt like their old vacations, even if it was just the stress of the airport and the popping of their ears. So one of the airlines offered a solution with flights that would take off, circle as scenically as possible for about the length of a feature film, and then land again. All for a price that couldn’t be called a discount even when Krystal squinted at it.
Oh well, she implied with a shrug of her shoulders. Any price was a small one to pay if it meant she could make some new friends. So far she hadn’t added any Australian numbers into her phone to go with the three Canadian ones that hadn’t blocked her. Airplanes already served alcohol, and it was her correct assumption that a flight to nowhere would have an even greater focus on the stuff, at a mark-up sure, but that was nothing another shrug couldn’t solve.
“You don’t have to worry about that, do you my little Precious Priss? No, you don’t. You don’t have to worry about anything because mommy takes care of everything.” She made kissy faces just outside Priscilla’s container, careful not to make contact and smear her lipstick on the plastic. The hamster stared back, whiskers twitching like tightropes, little black eyes like the tips of freshly sharpened pencils.
Krystal called her pet a good girl, rewarding her for her lack of misbehavior with a nugget of granola from a bag of trail mix. She was going to pay for some drinks, to up her participation and impress the others, but she would not be paying mini-bar prices for any snacks.
Priscilla was a good girl, certainly, at a time when the other animals of the world were not. Meat prices were up because cows and pigs kept escaping, sometimes seeming to vanish from the middle of factory farms, as if they fused with their neighbors in some kind of reverse mitosis. There in Australia both shark and crocodile attacks on the beaches were up more than five hundred percent. Spiders were weaving webs in bystanders’ hats before they put them on, almost like a practical joke.
Scientifically there wasn’t a name for it yet. People like Krystal just called it ‘going bananas’. All the animals were going bananas these days, and it was probably because of the climate too. There was even some speculation that animals, ocean birds in particular, were somehow contributing to the storms that had Australia cut off from the rest of the world.
Still, none of this stopped the Canadian from loving her pet, or any of the others she’d had in her life. She loved them more than she loved people, who did cruel things like block her number and tell the landlord when she allowed her saxophonist boyfriend to live with her. While she considered herself sociable, there were certain sorts of people she couldn’t deal with herself, namely those who thought she was causing a problem.
When all the eyes were on her, in a bad way, her chest tightened. Her eyes welled up and she couldn’t breathe and her fingers shook. Tantamount to a heart attack, she was convinced of it. Why people would be so cruel as to do this to her she had no idea, but obviously precautions had to be taken.
Her doctor did not initially want to prescribe her anti-anxiety medication, so she sought second, third, and fourth opinions. Eventually one did acquiesce, if only to get rid of her and avoid the curse of being referred to as her doctor.
Not one to be happy for very long, no matter the circumstances, Krystal came to the conclusion she needed a little more help in fending off such dangerous anxiety, help that came in the form of little Miss Priscilla Prissy-Pants Esq. After a quick and entirely illegitimate online certification process, Krystal was mailed a sticker to slap on the hamster handbag: registered emotional support animal.
Good enough to get her through security only because it was lax for the flights to nowhere, the sticker nonetheless would not protect the pair from scrutiny entirely. Treated as something of a social mixer, the seats aboard the plane were not assigned. This of course led to a mad scramble to claim those in the forward sections despite there being no first class or coach on their way to nowhere.
Krystal was squeezed out before she could snag anything near the pilot, who she assumed was extremely handsome based on nothing more than all the pilots in films she’d seen who tended to get shot or thrown out the side, prompting another character to ask who was going to fly the plane.
She had a little waking nightmare about being confronted, about getting herself tossed out the side without a parachute for the crime of speaking too bluntly, so after Krystal found a middle seat she opened Priscilla’s bag and stroked the little creature’s gray fur to calm herself. Doing so was wonderfully medicinal, and seemed to gain effectiveness over time, unlike the smorgasbord of pills she had tested for various conditions real and fake over the years.
Priscilla must have been particularly good at emotional support, and it was unfortunate she couldn’t understand that and that Krystal couldn’t communicate it to her with anything other than extra granola. Though the animal’s primary role there was as a conversation starter, her owner would’ve been more than happy to let someone give her a pet and test it out.
All the world seemed to melt away with each rub between her tiny ears. Priscilla’s power was transporting, like sitting around a campfire. It moved her not just to a new location, but a new body as well, one that had led a much more rugged life. These sensations taught her that the greatest rewards of the physical experience could only be reaped by a body that had dived deep into effort, that knew the adrenaline of running for its life and the aches of clinging to a rock wall for an entire day.
A campfire’s warmth could only perfectly penetrate pores that that been completely emptied of sweat, turning the last residue into a sauna inside the skin. Only bones that had plowed fields and held scared children through stormy nights had the hospitality to invite the flame’s warmth fully.
All of that, from touching her little Prissy Baby. Krystal had half a mind to put all that into an ad of her own and sell the animal for ten thousand times what she’d paid. She even served her other purpose well, less than ten minutes off the ground. Liftoff had been achieved with cheers, and as soon as the seat belt sign was off people were milling in the aisle, passing glasses of champagne back and forth, wondering how to get the flight attendants to put one of their favorite songs on over the address system.
Krystal was still waiting for her first beverage to be delivered when the woman next to her, in the window seat, looked away from the coastline and saw the plastic purse opened on her neighbor’s lap.
“Aw, that’s cute. What’s its name?”
“Her name is Priscilla. I don’t think she’s ever had a vacation before, so I figured she should get one.”
“I’d like one,” her neighbor grumbled; she saw Krystal’s puzzled look. “Hopping on this thing was my husband’s idea. I think he’s up front getting us some drinks. Personally I think it’s a tremendous waste of fuel. It’s not like the stuff grows on trees… and even if it did there aren’t that many trees left for it to grow on.”
“Having fun is never a waste of anything,” Krystal countered. “Really what’s the difference between this plane landing here, or there, or in Antarctica if people get something out of it along the way?”
“I suppose you have a point, but then we can just decide to have fun in much less expensive ways, can’t we? Instead of this flight we could all be sitting in a restaurant, having the same fun, no jet fuel necessary.”
“But then we can’t say we’re partying in the sky. Nobody’s going to throw a party if there isn’t anything to pay for.”
“Parties existed before money; I might not have been there but I’m confident of that. Now, the first party. That’s one I would agree to go to. Can’t screw up and embarrass yourself there. Those things hadn’t even been invented yet.”
“Sign me up as soon as they unveil the time machine,” Krystal agreed, though she had a sense she already knew what it felt like, was in fact feeling it at that moment each time she pet Priscilla. That fire. That very old fire crackling in the night, restoring what she had given to the day.
As of three minutes prior, the two of them had another neighbor, as an older man in a silk shirt somewhere between orange and cream had settled into the aisle seat hoping to examine himself in his phone camera and determine if he needed to undo one or two more of his top buttons. He was in the middle of assessing exactly how far a white chest hair had to curl out and over the shirt for it to become unattractive when he noticed another hair in the air, shed from Priscilla.
With a deep sniff he caught a whiff of sawdust, of cage and waste underneath the sterile scent of rubbery plastic. It put him off his appetite, his game, and his composure almost immediately, before he even looked down the dank corpse ditches that were the pores of his nose and saw the rodent in the woman’s lap.
“Oi, what’s that?” The women stopped their conversation.
“Are you talking to me?” Krystal asked, taking in just how much the man was not the handsome pilot she was hoping for.
“Yeah I am. Why’ve you got a rat on the plane?”
“That’s Priscilla, thank you very much,” the woman in the window seat joked, but now she was the only smile in the row, so she quickly killed it and ran from the situation by locking her gaze out the window, practically hoping to see one of the anomalous storms headed their way.
“She’s a hamster and she’s my emotional support animal,” Krystal lectured matter-of-factly, tapping the sticker, disturbing the animal in the process.
“We’re not going nowhere, so why do you need emotional support?”
“Frankly it’s none of your business.”
“Well, franklier than you, it is my business because I’m allergic.” He snorted to make his point, and it was not an idle threat. Clearly the man had an impressive arsenal of thermonuclear mucus that could be unleashed from his silos at any moment.
“Then move seats; they’re not assigned,” she pointed out, remarkably correct compared to her overall track record, but her opponent in this matter was the same sort of person as her. Being denied in any fashion was identical to being attacked, and his recipe did not include the hearty dollop of panic.
“I don’t need to move. I’m supposed to be here. Rats aren’t. I bet it’s some kind of health violation. Go put that thing away somewhere.”
It was at that moment that a male attendant arrived with Krystal’s gin and tonic, leaning across the man in the silk shirt and finding that he couldn’t lower the tray table and set it down thanks to Priscilla’s chateau occupying the space.
“Oi, you’re right on time. Get this woman to put her rat in the cargo hold or something. It’s unsanitary.” The confused attendant examined the purse more closely, saw the hamster cowering in a corner so forcefully that the plastic had warped to the shape of its body.
“Ma’am why do you have that?” he asked, still leaning, still adjusting his fingers on the napkin beneath the sweating glass. Suddenly he felt like he was going nowhere more than everyone else, stalled out in the first second of a rickety wooden roller coaster’s big drop.
“That is Priscilla, queen of the skies,” the woman by the window whispered. Her smile was back.
“She’s my emotional support animal!” Krystal yipped, holding the purse up to show him the sticker. The sudden movement sent the hamster rolling across the bottom and bouncing off the other side. The attendant recoiled slightly, spilling some alcohol on the complaining man’s unjustifiably expensive shirt.
“My apologies sir, let me just-” Nowhere to set the drink at all. The only option was to stand up straight and keep holding it. Going nowhere even faster. Soon everywhere would be nowhere, and there wouldn’t be a single spot stable and defined enough for him to set it down. “Look, ma’am, I don’t know why security let you through with your pet but they shouldn’t have. You will have to stow it away, perhaps in the overhead compartment.”
“So she can suffocate!” Krystal exploded. The party was dying down around them, the effervescence of the event going flat. Soon they would all be trapped in a nowhere of the Canadians’ design. “So I can suffocate too? That’s what’ll happen if I have an anxiety attack without her you know.”
“The compartment is not airtight; she’ll be fine,” the attendant insisted. “Put her away and I’ll give you your drink and we can all go back to enjoying the flight.” Except they couldn’t. They couldn’t go back to anything or anywhere, and the realization was seeping out from the ground zero that was Krystal to the other sections. Perhaps not dear little Priscilla, but something was unsanitary.
“Yeah put it away,” the unhelpful man continued, “and then we can discuss you buying me a new shirt.”
“You’re upsetting Priscilla,” the woman by the window muttered inaudibly, focus now lost to the deep skies. There was no energy left to lift her forehead off the pane. “Where did you go Greg? Stay away. Keep the drinks. We don’t need them here in nowhere. Spend everything to keep it, and keep it we will…”
“I can do whatever I want with Priscilla!” Krystal shrieked, forcefully putting her arms down as she rose out of her seat, sending the hamster tumbling back and forth. “She’s certified! Now just give me my drink so the two of us can enjoy it in peace!”
“Did she just say she was giving her hamster some booze?” one onlooker asked another, but it was the only question that actually escaped any of their mouths. They weren’t involved, but they were. It could be felt in their chests, somewhere below their hearts, nothing like anxiety.
“Ma’am-” the attendant tried to soothe, but it was too late. The sense of persecution had set in, the thousand needles of consequence were poking away under Krystal’s skin, and she felt a dire need to squirm out of her clothes and burrow into the soft earth underneath. Nothing underneath but sky. Nothing but more nowhere, as they’d already arrived.
“You don’t think I deserve her!?” she screamed, clutching her bag and its contents too close to her chest. “You think you know better!? Oh, he’s allergic, so better make sure there isn’t a single fucking hair anywhere on this entire shitfaced plane or he’ll sneeze! We’ve got to protect him! We’ve just got to!”
With that she forced her way out of the seat, crawling over the man and kneeing him in the groin. His violent shudder in response sent her flying into the aisle where she slammed into the attendant, who spilled half of her drink all over himself. A droplet burned in his eye, but by the time he had blinked it away Krystal was far away, disappearing into the lavatory and doing her best to slam a door so thin and cheap that slamming it just wasn’t mechanically possible.
Alone with her impotent rage, scrutiny still chewing ravenously on her windpipe despite the absence of any eyes, she acted without thinking. Gave the bastards what they wanted. She knew from warped experience that they would never leave her be until her happiness was destroyed, so she tipped her bag and shook it like she was emptying trash.
Priscilla the Precious bounced once on the way down and disappeared. Krystal hit the flush button, which was just as flimsy and unsatisfying as the door. The loud sound that followed did nothing for her mental state. Hot tears still forced their way out. All her fingernails still felt like clawing her own hide off, before or after she clawed off everyone else’s.
Hiss-sobbing, face contorted in a toddler’s certainty that all was lost, she stumbled out of the bathroom and back to her row, but she was blocked by several people.
“Are you happy now!?” she croaked at them.
“Did you just flush your pet down the toilet?” the attendant asked, eyes as wide as shot glasses. In response Krystal took the half of her gin and tonic that was left off of him, hoping it was the gin half, and downed it in one powerful swig, as if it was the sort of deep breath people use to count to ten.
“Jesus, you’re a bloody nutter,” the man in the expensive shirt said. “You’ve gone and ruined the mood.”
“I’ve gone! I’ve gone!” she growled at him, remembering all the people in her past that confronted her, trying to tell her how to run her life, how to take care of her pets. She remembered all the animals who did their duty to her admirably, allowing her to demonstrate just how terrible those people were to her. They got to see something escape into the wild, or die, and all because they couldn’t trust her.
Priscilla would be missed especially, as no other animal could take her to that campfire. Maybe she would come to regret it as she hadn’t with the others, but only when the last traces of that itching pressured heat left her mind and flesh, only when she was back to being her gregarious self, the one that always showed up to the pet store and talked about how draining it was to be lonely.
“We’ve all gone,” the woman by the window said, “but Priscilla hasn’t.” The plane shuddered, cutting off the music. A moment later it was replaced by the voice of the pilot telling them that they were experiencing some minor turbulence. The co-pilot must’ve been nervous, because he could be heard underneath the announcement.
“From what?” he’d asked. Now everyone else was looking for a place to set their drinks, and for something to hold onto if any more bumps came. Tray tables were the only option, which meant everyone was getting out of their seats, which meant the aisle was already packed tighter than any dance floor.
Worse than the sense of dread was the sense of absurdity. Most of them knew how foolish they looked as they scoured the upholstered landscape for any surface flat enough to prevent spillage. More concerned with the contents of the cups, with their small doses of order, than they were with the turbulence that could mean so many things, death among them.
But not a one of them abandoned that shred of decorum until their craft shook again. Some were nice enough to cover the sounds of spilling with their screams. Lights flickered. Oxygen masks popped out of their compartments, insisting they all imbibe a different sort of refreshment.
“I don’t feel well,” Krystal moaned, but there was no one to care. They didn’t understand that the plane had to stop shaking, that if it didn’t her anxiety would only get worse. What about the world? Didn’t it know how tough of a time she was having? She’d just lost a dear friend after all.
Even with stomping all around she still heard the scurry, probably because she had crouched down and wrapped her arms around her knees. It came from under the floor, zooming past. Then there was a scrabble as it turned. Came back for her.
It couldn’t be Priscilla, not this particular mouse in the walls. The awful people around her had taken her darling Pripri away from her. And this scratching scurry was much too loud, too powerful. Whatever made it had to be at least the size of a badger. Krystal lowered her ear to the floor so she could discern more, but her head was stepped on.
The culprit was the husband of the woman by the window, Greg, who had finally returned. After all that, after the sudden eruption of the crisis, he wouldn’t dream of returning empty-handed. There was a drink in each of his hands, and he hadn’t spilled a drop.
“Honey, I’ve got them,” he told her as he used his chest and stomach to crawl across the armrests, holding the refreshments in front of him like a pair of antlers.
“Greg, you fool. Put those away. Pray to our queen.”
Krystal was rubbing the shoe print out of her cheek when the floor under her buckled. Why was everything like that lavatory door? Dozens of civilizations behind her on the timeline but she still didn’t have slammable doors or floors thicker than her own skin.
It cracked. Collapsed. Darkness took her, but did not protect her from the violence of the aircraft’s sudden descent. Now weightless, she whipped her head around, seeing through the flying locks of her hair mostly by the sparks coming from the shredded wiring. The interior was torn up, riddled with claw marks in the metal.
The only creature that could’ve done it was floating in front of her, just as weightless as everyone else. Not her little Princess Pri anymore. A queen. An early and minor beity, but still strong enough to end the souls of everyone aboard, and then their lives.
Her black eyes had grown with the rest of her, and were ringed by strands of fur, whipped to stiff peaks and bright blue thanks to the layers of sanitizing chemicals from the inner workings of the lavatory.
Krystal saw her final destination in those inky orbs: nowhere. They careened closer, plunged, rattled, but all to nowhere. Priscilla was their chauffeur, and she recognized Krystal as the one and only guest of honor.
The hamster couldn’t give back the Tame, so she gave what she could in the form of a bite to the neck. Never before had buck teeth incurred such massive blood loss. A jet of it spurted back out of the hole in the floor, looking like just another spilled drink to the panicked. They wouldn’t be given the chance to understand that it was all just emotional support.
They wanted this, but only when the want of all peoples was accounted for. A deep yearning resonated through the species. Please, take this edifice from us. Save us from ourselves. The twin forces and the other animals obliged, but that meant the worst of the edifice, the branches so far from the trunk that they grew on nothing, had to fall.
and no more.