(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 31 minutes)
“I didn’t understand much of that, but I take it that man had some insight into the Forbidden Thumbs,” Hygenis said once Loric had finished telling one of the bottomless book’s countless tales. The trio was still ambling away from Compassleaf, led by the mongrel who decided to tolerate them anew every time he heard them speak, looked back, and realized they were not imaginary.
“What’s the internet?” he asked to check if he was real enough to speak as well.
“A network of information powered by electricity,” Loric explained. Being the first time he’d said such a thing out loud, he realized how much his dark learning under the pillows had silently shifted his foundation. What had crumbled on stage under the baboon’s gaze was just the standing husk, like the world of old in its dying days. “It could move any information across the world in seconds, including moving images.”
“All images move if you shake them,” the mongrel chuckled. “Don’t need electric-kitties for that.”
“I do wonder how exactly the original beities decided on the list of Forbidden Thumbs,” Loric mused. “All that happened after they stopped recording things in books like this, but you know they could’ve gone further with the rules. We don’t automatically have our thumbs bitten off at birth.”
“Because they want us to have them,” Hygenis answered with the confidence of someone who had known that particular answer since she was old enough to walk. “Beities like trinkets, carvings, paintings, blankets, and getting a good tooth scrape,” she hefted her hook, “but they don’t like what all those things turn into when we apply our smarts to them with selfish or sinister intent.”
“But beyond our actual thumbs. I’ve violated the thumb of language now that I can read. We’ve both violated the thumb of metal for stealing these instruments. This book surely runs on electricity, so there’s another thumb for me.”
“That leaves locks, doors, and stairs,” Hygenis finished. “Still so many rules to break.”
“Locks and doors they hate because none of them have the hands to open them properly. Stairs I always assumed were added to the list by the hoofed creatures, difficult as they find it to ascend and descend such tight even structures. No bison could keep his slaves from laughing at him if they saw him try and climb a set.
But there was more that could have made it to the list. Cleverwood isn’t a Forbidden Thumb.”
“Because it’s not like metal ore that reveals itself constantly by stubbing your toe,” the dentist guessed. “The secret to making it is lost.”
“Not to me. We used to make it from oil. Will they have to add another thumb to the forbidden hand just because of us? Perhaps they will add the Bloody Mouth as well.”
“It wouldn’t matter if they do,” she assured him, though it sounded more like she was talking to the entire world. “The Bloody Mouth has always been an act of ferocity. It is the predatory taking of all privilege regardless of cost. It is what a person does in place of tearing a throat out with teeth the way a saber cat would.
We dentists have always maintained that it has nothing at all to do with our thumbs, and that is why we allow ourselves to take the oath. They cannot keep it from us, for they bloody their own mouths constantly, and, even if only briefly, we will be equal to those who call themselves our superiors.”
“So you’re as good as a beity right now?”
“Yes, and as long as I live in the service of the oath I will be. When it ends, either in death or success, I will be just as tame as anyone else. I’m sure they would still visit punishment on me, but it would be pointless. I am fulfilled, and I couldn’t be invoked again in any situation. The end of the oath washes the blood clean, and you would never know these tiny blunt teeth had tasted it.”
“You are so free of doubt,” Loric complimented. “Even in the middle of a performance, when I’m supposed to speak for the most courageous and determined beity, I can’t put that quality in my voice.”
“We are trained for it. I trained for it even without my masters, muttering its tenets under my breath while locked in punishing suffocating silk…” She faltered for a step, but then recovered her pace and position. “I bloodied my mouth as easily as I can climb a set of stairs.” This time Loric faltered. Fell behind. Put his bottomless book away as he turned an idea of his own on the lathe.
When Hygenis noticed she tapped the mongrel on the flank with the side of her hook to get him to stop. She called to the storyteller, and by the time he caught up with them he was ready to share it.
“I won’t ask you to wander with the oath stuck between your teeth for the rest of your life,” he told her resolutely. “Tell me, since the Bloody Mouth turned out as real as the flame to the moth, is that also the case… for Staircase?”
“Yes,” Hygenis and the mongrel answered together, tilting their heads at each other to ask how they knew such a thing.
“It’s a place beities can never go, and since I live in Baldy Town, where beities can never go, I thought I could also live in Staircase,” the mongrel explained. “Too much of my fur was gone when I reached the riverbank though. Nobody would let me swim it without drowning me.”
“Many dentists who have invoked have tried to seek refuge there,” Hygenis explained when it was her turn. “That city stands just as it does in tales, and stands on tails too, but they can only do so because they are sanctioned by the Wild Trinity.”
“By Phobopan specifically if I’ve got my many shelves of stories straight,” Loric interjected.
“That’s right,” the mongrel mused, thinking he remembered the fact and wasn’t hearing it for the first time. “Not crossing Plunderoe wasn’t so bad then. I never would’ve been let through the gates of Phobo’s city. He hates things that don’t have fear, and that falls out with everything else in Baldy Town.”
“In a sense that’s why Staircase exists as it does,” Hygenis clarified. “It is a purely human city with no slaves, obligated only to obey the Forbidden Thumbs of language and electricity to stifle advancement.
Phobopan sanctioned it in order to give rogue humans hope, which is the tinder of fear. Those who have nothing to lose have no fear, no trail which the cat of shadows can follow, no meat to sink his quicksilver sabers into. The beacon of Staircase means they’re always afraid of never seeing it, never attaining it.”
“So it’s bait?” Loric asked.
“Bait that not only tantalizes the prey, but reveals it even if it is not actively seeking. It’s the perfect bait for fugitives. Getting there means crossing the river at the peak of the salmon run, traversing the mercenary trails encircling it, heading closer to the Sig-neagle with every step, and finishing up this trek across the Shedlands with multiple hunting parties on our tail… and that’s where you want to go?”
“Would they take us in if we got there?” the storyteller asked, second-guessing himself.
“At least temporarily,” Hygenis theorized. “But they’ve turned away many invocations. The Bloody Mouth is one of the greatest violations of beity law, and Staircase’s existence would not be tolerated as a perfect sanctuary.
You may stand a better chance if we go our separate ways at the first step up. Those who invoke are not considered as responsible as those who bloody their mouths. Even then, nothing stops a hunt from trying to extract a target from Staircase. They would have to decide to defend you with their army if Krakodosus and his baboons came calling. The other beities would only run afoul of Phobopan if they tried to outright destroy the city.
And you would certainly have to destroy your bottomless book. Even if you didn’t reveal it, the Sig-neagle would eventually plunge into their midst seeking it, and it would serve as a violation of the electric thumb, which could draw punishment from the shadow cat himself.”
“So I’ll be risking all their lives… but that is a choice they can make for themselves when I get there and implore.”
“You’ve made up your mind?”
“Yes Hygenis. We will make for Staircase, and then I will make my case at their mercy, flavoring it with dramatic accounts of what we went through to get there. The more dangers we face the better the tale, the greater my chances of salvation. If I set foot on that first carpenter’s step I would hold your oath fulfilled, and accept your departure… or… further… collaboration.”
“Collaboration?” she repeated with a sly smile and one eyebrow raised. His only response was to puff out his chest and hold his ground, to which the dentist sighed and turned away, but clearly toward a slightly new direction.
“Staircase huh?” the mongrel mulled aloud. “Then you two lizards are going that way.” He pointed his snout off into the distance, at lower flatter land with a touch more vegetation that was nonetheless extremely dry. “Follow the sloping wall with the stripes until it ends, then follow the smell of water until you find Otter’s Whip. You’ll know you’re out of Baldy Town when you either stop seeing trash moles can’t take or start seeing furry things walking around without a care in the world.”
“Your reward,” Hygenis reminded as the creature tried to walk away. One last time she explained to him what he could do with a sharp little shard like that, before kneeling and peeling back one of his lower lips. Telling him not to swallow it, she tucked it in and patted the skin over it, which was more characterized by fatigue than by the disease it battled at that point, like a steak that had pounded itself unpalatable.
The creatures split to their diverging paths. The mongrel would mostly forget them, but the memory would flare up when he found more naked things the next day. He didn’t bother talking to them though, hurried and agitated as they were, clearly not as nice or sociable as the lizards. They weren’t infected either, just shaved. Tourists in Baldy Town. Now he had seen everything, and could stop trying to remember any of it.
When the Year is not Kept
And the Stranger is Twice Strange
Days passed, with the mongrel’s instructions proving much easier to follow than the animal himself. The wall of stone, what must have formerly been the side of the riverbed, was marked with such clear striations that it was impossible to lose them in the surrounding rock. Other tormented souls of the Shedlands must have engaged in some form of upkeep, tearing away any creeping plants that might cover such a helpful feature of navigation.
The soil beneath them gained an orange character, but did not go completely to clay: a small blessing that softened each step with their aching feet. With a clear way and an easy path they wiled away the hours with the bottomless book, Loric reading and Hygenis listening, though much of what she heard of the old world didn’t seem to impress her, only amuse her slightly every time her suspicions were confirmed.
To her, despite taking her oath, the fall of man had been required. They’d filled themselves up with anguish, with childish rejection of basic principles, and only a clean slate could save them. It was, as she feared, existentially embarrassing. All their ancestors were no better than any other species that explosively forced itself on the rest of the world, starving out everything else until an inevitable collapse. The only difference was foolish efforts to justify such an unsustainable way of life.
“No, I don’t quite think that,” she said when Loric asked her if she thought servitude was humanity’s rightful place. “It should be an option. I’ve known people with a mindset wholly unsuited to anything other than taking orders, but I would call them the minority. Our ambitions are a problem, but to say that we all can’t manage them because some of us can’t is unfair.”
“I don’t know how I would have been in that world,” Loric admitted. “I’m breaking every rule in this one, so would I have done the same in theirs?”
“Rules are arbitrary. What is right is different in all situations, and no rule covers a single day of human life adequately.”
“But the Bloody Mouth has rules.”
“All self-imposed… and if you break your own rules that, in essence, means it was never a rule in the first place. If-” A shadow that Loric missed gave her pause. Looking at the sky would do no good, as the sun was directly overhead and blinding, so she acted with great caution instead, advising him to hunch over and shade the flat face of the mirror currently being used as a walking stick. She did the same with her hook, and together they rushed to the nearest tree with enough foliage to hide them from any eyes above.
“What are we hiding from?” the storyteller whispered. “The Sig-neagle?”
“Too small to be her, but a bird I think,” she answered him.
“A bird definitely,” the bird said, causing both humans to spin around and draw their weapons. What met their eyes was a creature far too small to do them any harm, though any voles in the vicinity would have wet themselves if the shadow of such a falcon passed overhead.
The creature spoke with confidence, presumably because its speed in the air meant there was little a human could ever do to it without a large net, but it reacted with shock and terror at the weapons suddenly pointed its way, screeching and wailing, hopping back and forth on a branch of the tree that was supposed to hide them.
“Eeyah! What is that thing!? Make it stop! Why is it doing that? Stop- Stop its moving!” The puzzled humans, who were not shaking their weapons at all, shared a look, but neither had a solution. All they could do was eke out more clues from the increasingly-frazzled raptor’s shrieking. “You painted my eyes on it you fiends! Those are my eyes! Mine! It does not see what I see- because that would be… me!? Put this foul mimic away right now!”
Only one object could possibly be interpreted as having the bird’s eyes, and that was the mirror. Loric had little chance of flattening the minor beity with a blunt swing anyway, so he obliged by putting the flat and polished bronze behind his back. Immediately quiet returned, the falcon’s legs disappearing into its fluff as it settled down on the branch.
“It was just your reflection,” Hygenis explained.
“Exactly, my reflection,” the bird countered. “My very soul! We birds of prey have such big eyes because they capture reflections. You can’t get the prey if you don’t get its soul first. Even if they escape your eyes have tasted them, and it has stoked your own will to live, allowing you to go on even with an empty stomach.”
“We’re not about to eat you,” Hygenis said honestly, and only in part because the little devil would be too swift to catch. The dentist was very knowledgeable when it came to wild morsels, and they’d had nearly a full breakfast of seeds and tubers already.
“Could’ve fooled me,” the falcon spat. “Even if so I can’t just let you go around licking my soul like that!” He turned his beak up and away.
“Were you pestering us for a reason?” she asked. Though he could do no harm on his own, she was already well aware what sort of bird he was: feathers too organized to be a wild hunter, manners too good to be a trickster intent on leading them into a deadly ravine or ambush, and too impatient to be a scout gathering information. This was a town bird, not a wild one, and though his feathers had nothing to fear from the Shed, he still had little reason to come into such lands when there were far lusher places nearby.
“Yes, you’re naked,” the bird answered.
“No we’re not,” Loric countered, pulling on one of the straps around his chest. “It’s a miracle you can taste any souls at all with eyesight that poor.”
“Naked and rude,” the bird said, clicking his beak the way a human might cluck their tongue. “And that’s naked in the sense that you haven’t got any fur. I’ve got a message, and I’m being paid my weight in rat tails to deliver it. Trinity knows what’s going on in Compassleaf that has them giving out scavage like raindrops, but I’d rather swallow some of it than ask questions.”
Both Loric and Hygenis were able to gather vital information from his yammering. He was a messenger by trade, not quite the ruthless hunter he mused about, but he also was not a regular resident of Compassleaf. He could’ve been contracted out by another bird that was but who didn’t feel like going as far as the Shedlands, or he could’ve been a message pirate.
The latter were in a vicious trade, one that started with intercepting other messengers midflight, grounding them, and then forcing them to reveal their messages and recipients. After that they would make a meal of their prey, absorbing their obligation to deliver the message so they could then claim a second reward. As long as they did their hunting in skies that weren’t directly over cities it was all fair game.
Most relevant was simply his foreign nature. He did not know Loric or Hygenis by sight, did not know what an incredible fortune he could net if he delivered a last known location to the Babeloons, or the marmosets, or the thunderhead lord of Compassleaf. He also had not heard the exact nature of their hunts, otherwise he would’ve been able to identify them simply by the description of two humans in the Shedlands carrying dental weaponry. In light of all that it seemed he was a pirate, and of the entire flock sent out had targeted one of the few with a different mission.
“So you’ve been asked to deliver a message… to a nameless naked person?” Loric probed, careful with his words, more to avoid Hygenis’s disappointment than any actual danger.
“It doesn’t have to be a person… I don’t think,” the falcon muttered. Whichever bird he had disemboweled hadn’t left every last detail hidden away in its entrails. “It just goes out to anything naked in the Shedlands. I get a rat tail for every soul I tell. Though… it sounded like it shouldn’t be hard to find a whole herd of you.”
“Why is that?” Hygenis asked, words sharpening, which the raptor sensed. The bird instinctively recoiled, no longer the confident stalker that had surprised them.
“The… client… spoke that way, like I should expect to find swarming nudes.”
“Would you give us a moment?” she asked after a few quiet seconds absorbing the information. The bird looked about to protest, so she made the request more compelling. “We’ll cover our ears and refuse to listen to your message if you don’t.” She interpreted his beak turning away again as permission.
“A swarm?” Loric asked in a whisper when the dentist came very close to his ear. “What do you make of that?”
“They wouldn’t send a team of humans after us, not since you invoked,” she laid out confidently. “They’d be too afraid of them turning to our side. And the word ‘naked’ implies that something has been removed, so no snakes, crocodiles, lizards, or birds either. It can mean only something shaved.”
“Mojopap,” Loric said, now just as confident. Such a plan sounded extremely foolish and undoubtedly determined, the hallmarks of the head Babeloon. “He has shaved his entire troop and followed us in here?” Hygenis nodded. “How long could they keep that up?”
“I’m not sure. The Shed does not need tall fur to seep in. I would guess a few days at most. We should pick up the pace so they’ll have to turn back before picking up our trail. This also means that the message this bird carries is most likely meant for Mojopap’s ears, yet wasn’t sent to him specifically. It might not be information from an ally; it could be a threat, or something to undermine his troop’s confidence in him.”
“Are you ready yet?” the falcon asked. “I don’t know how long a human moment is, but it seems much longer than a falcon moment. Considering that you can kill in a moment, that makes you the much crueler species.”
“You won’t be paid for idle comments,” Hygenis reminded him, pulling away from their whispering huddle. “Yes, we are ready to receive the message.”
“Finally, here it is: Beware, all thieves of metal, regardless of species. You carry what is forbidden, and do not argue the nuance of the law, for Phobopan the fear-full lion watches you from the shadows. Return what you have taken, this is a decree directly from him, and the rumble of his innards, and those that howl in damnation within, will overpower any technicalities of your argument. Only your screams will be heard.”
The thieves of metal sat like rocks, all too ready to sink into the ground, return to the wet lair of the constuctopus and let themselves be entombed, if it meant the ones that sent the message would never lay eyes on them.
“Did you get an earful?” the falcon asked impatiently.
“Yes we heard it all, go claim your mouthful of rat rump and leave us be.”
“Return my reflection first.”
“Suddenly you’re hard of hearing? I’d be nuts to let you keep it. Show me you haven’t still got it or I’ll fly above you screaming bloody murder until it happens.” Loric had an idea of how to humor him, so he brought out the mirror, this time careful to angle its face away. He struck the back of it as if dislodging something, then tilted it just enough for the falcon to glance its surface without seeing himself.
“Thought you could pull one over on me,” the bird grumbled smugly. The storyteller felt like arguing that the raptor really shouldn’t be allowed to leave with their spirits stashed in its eyes, but better to get the little cretin out of their regrowing hair. Once their visitor was back on the wing they were forced to discuss what he’d just dumped on them like a mound of porcupine quills.
“Phobopan has taken an interest in us directly,” Hygenis started bluntly, biting her inner cheek.
“Indirectly,” Loric hoped aloud. “That was meant for Mojopap, and apparently he’s a ‘thief of metal’ now. That means he took something from the dentists to shave his troop.”
“And still has it. That means he intends to chase us without end, all of the Babeloons getting a trim every day to keep them from getting the Shed.”
“Can we rely on him to turn back once he learns the Wild Trinity is ready to swallow him whole?”
“He has to learn it first,” the dentist argued. “Even if he does, he could argue he never did. It would be his word versus the messenger’s… and if it’s that messenger, who probably killed the previous one just to deliver it, it won’t be worth much.
Mojopap knows how to play politics. He would never take a risk like this unless he was sure he could talk his way out of it. He could be very wrong, but that doesn’t affect the crossing of our paths unless Phobopan also happens to cross at the same time.
And no, we can’t assume we’re safe from the fear-full lion. He is thorough, and will follow the scent of fear everywhere it leads.”
She turned and looked at her charge, attempting to gauge the level of fear in his eyes. He didn’t need to speak up, for these were stories they both already knew; they passed between them silently.
His quicksilver teeth were fluid once they punctured the skin, only truly striking after they flowed through the veins and reached the heart. His size was limited to that of the darkness from which he last emerged, but there was no story of that ever being used to his disadvantage. He came at the worst possible time, in your lowest moment before any epiphany can manifest and free you from fear. His ashen mane was the wall upon which every part of a man’s soul was exposed as weakness, breaking up and splashing against him.
Vissovis was the carrot, Assaulquus the stick, and Phobopan the shadow of them both. The fear-full lion was the terror of loss, of both opportunity and body. The message delivered unto them was an infection much more potent than the Shed, seeping in immediately. The mere thought of him, at the wrong time, near too dense a clump of darkness, could summon him to their side.
“Loric,” Hygenis asked, grabbing his cheeks with both hands. “We cannot escape or overcome Phobopan. He must never find us. We must move without fear. If you cannot do so, we cannot continue and must change our plans. Can you?”
“Yes,” he said, but not immediately. Out came the bottomless book, only to be gripped tightly as a totem. “In all that I’ve read, I’ve seen no evidence that the twin forces can take anything more from me than my life.
There’s talk of spirits, souls, ghosts, and how a large percentage of them are dissolving in anguish in Phobopan’s gut… but I don’t believe a word of it. The twin forces are the forces of life, and their transfer brings forth great magic that I cannot wield, but none of it extends into death. Death is final. Phobopan killing me is the same as any other beity doing it.
I know this because I use the tactics of fear myself, in every story. I set the stakes for the characters, and I know when I’m embellishing. Any stake beyond the flesh is one of those embellishments. Phobopan cannot take my mind. I direct countless lives with mine, and I’ve seen what awaits them in death and failure alike. It’s oblivion… and it is not frightening.”
Hygenis found this answer acceptable, but even if she didn’t they needed to be on the move again. Mojopap was behind them, and struggle ahead.
Falcorix was the low name of the sky pirate that had delivered a bouncing bundle of fear to its new human parents. Long considered tacky for a low name to mention the titles and deeds of their parents, Falcorix was always quick to do it anyway.
Namstamp was not his homeland; birds of his feather had recently come from Echopeaks. Past the river, so far north that the clouds could freeze you solid and drop you like hail if you flew threw them, Echopeaks was the newest land to lay claim to the tallest trees the world had ever known.
About Namstamp the mountain-stumps mostly stood alone, perturbed to even see another on the horizon, sometimes even falling to propagate as clonal forests rather than witness a neighbor any longer. Compassleaf was built in part to commemorate four such trees who chose to stand together, but that behavior was not an outlier in Echopeaks.
There the trees had to stand together, for they did battle with the mountains, competing over the watering hole that was the sky. Formations changed endlessly as trunks advanced, summits crumbled from the bottom thanks to root infiltration, ranges took moments to breathe when the trees dropped their leaves in autumn and slept in winter, but it was all in vain for the ore.
The mountains were losing, mountain-stumps taking more territory each year. A few had grown so bold as to germinate deep in the Earth, assuming victory, and grow straight up through high peaks, only breaking ground and tasting sun through snowpack that had outlasted the worst artificial heat of man’s old crass world.
Mountain-stumps mocked their fallen foes by taking on their characteristics. In that ultimate forest, so high that the air was too thin to breathe, every sound echoed between the trunks as if it was shouted down into a mountainous valley.
Not that it was easy to shout up there. Some birds dwelt there permanently, but themselves had to live in mimicry of the deep-diving whales that hunted colossal squid and other leviathan. Only birds and bats of a higher name had the lung capacity to hold their breaths for hours or days at a time, so the upper echelons were peaceful shafts of great and still power that would perhaps one day plunge through the atmosphere and challenge the void with verdant determination.
Those that dared nest up there had to escort their eggs down in the moments before they hatched so the chicks would not asphyxiate. Falcorix had been told that this was how he was born, hatching alone because he had accidentally fallen from a loving beak in the thinnest reaches.
The parents of the first nest he remembered called themselves surrogates for his true heritage, weaned him on accounts of the two silent silhouettes far above that had brought him forth: Sonalco Splinterwing and Avalaco the resinous. Sonalco Splinterwing could fly straight through the trees, leaving holes in their own soaring image, coming away with nothing but new decorative splinters between their feathers.
The resinous was a title held by a few, those who understood the properties of the tree-blood in Echopeaks. It was double-thick tree blood, which existed nowhere else. It flowed ignorant of the rules of time, and was instilled with a will of spiteful growth.
He memorized every last story of them down to the low names of all the prey they’d taken, yet his adoptive parents would not allow him to ascend and seek them. Why? And if he was of higher names why was he so small, so alike his siblings in the lower branches that were still above most survivors of the range?
The air, they claimed. He was spoilt by the rich air after his fall, so his body never felt the need to grow into its potential. Better he stay down there with them, be nothing more than branch candy to show off to the other low-name low-nesters.
Falcorix could not accept this, and when he learned to hunt on his own he showed no fear of the upper reaches. With practice came the ability to hold his breath longer and longer. By the time he was full grown he could dive to where the slightest ruffle ripped the air and stay there long enough to successfully hunt.
Only he’d never sought permission. Those were the hunting grounds of higher names, names that extended even to the insects. A gargantuan pincerfly, called a dobsonfly by the humans of old, having attached one of their own lowly names to it in incredible disrespect, was impressive prey for Falcorix to claim given that it rivaled himself in size.
Except it was called Neuracory, a high name, and only flew so obliviously because it assumed its status would protect it. The pincers atop its head, which seemed such fine trophies to Falcorix, were never opened in hostility. He ate of its flesh, but was not gifted thickness of blood simply for consuming something of a higher status. Perhaps he could’ve earned it if it was a bird of status he had bested, but not a bug.
His punishment was expulsion from the branches of youth, and when he swooped lower he found himself banished too from all of Echopeaks. Not even the rocks would have him; they were ground to gravel in humiliated defeat and they still went unstable under his talons and sent him further south.
So Falcorix fled in shame, straight through Tuncrad knowing no sympathetic moose antler would let him rest on its velvet, and into Namstamp. To him it was low in all the ways, from its elevation to its trees to the character of its natives. They were all beneath him, confirmed by their foul taste when he hunted. City life was too confining, but he still thought himself deserving of more luxurious foodstuffs, so decided that he would take payment from those so-called civilized places if only to maintain the dignity of his digestive system.
Somewhere between his first act of message piracy and his hundredth his standards had slipped. As a fledgling he would’ve turned his nose up at a freely-offered rat tail, even one regurgitated lovingly, but now he slavered after them like they were the finest silkworm pupae seasoned by a strong breeze through the herb bush in which they had taken hold.
To keep his mind off the bounty he tried holding his breath, just for old time’s sake. One breath of a common falcon. Two breaths of a lowly peasant. Three breaths of a- Falcorix gasped. The skill was leaving him; barely any of the Shedlands had passed under him. It was all the fault of those damn naked humans, snatching the breath of life from his very bosom with their accursed mirror.
Why were such inventions not consigned to the list of thumbs where they belonged? Perhaps because nature occasionally created them on her own with reflections in ice, water, and even Falcorix’s own eyes. If Sonalco Splinterwing had been there when the rules were decided-
He stopped trying to hold his breath; it was pointless with such an exciting bounty directly below. There was the naked pack that rock dove had whimpered about while giving up his goods and his life. Baboons they were, some with pale pink flesh and others gray, but all as hairless as skinks.
Some of them had patches covered, with paper of all things. Silliest and no doubt heaviest among them was their leader, practically encased in a ball of pages, supporting his weight on another nasty piece of metal as he surveyed the surrounding Shedlands. Falcorix swooped down and landed upon Mojopap’s shoulder, careful to not look at the polished side of his giant scalpel.
“Message for all naked animals in the Shedlands,” he said plainly, hoping for a less contentious conversation than the ones the humans stuck him with.
“What!?” the baboon snapped. So much for a friendly chat. “How did you know we were here?”
“A little birdie told me, now listen up.” Falcorix repeated the message; he could feel the tension rising in the primate’s flesh as he spoke, even through several pages.
“Aw-yow! Who brought Phobopan into this!?” Mojopap hissed, keeping his voice low so the troop couldn’t overhear.
“That wasn’t part of the message.”
“Who gave you the damned message turnbeak? If it was the fear-full himself you’d have a shocked look in your eye still. Describe the sender to me.”
“I’m under no professional obligation to do so… and also I really don’t feel like it right now. I’ve had enough of you mammals for today.”
“What what!? There were others you’ve delivered this to? What were they? Where were they? Were they two?”
“I’d worry about myself if I was you,” the falcon advised, “seeing as it looks like you’re one of the ‘metal thieves’ this little ditty refers to.”
“This instrument was requisitioned properly, thank you very much. I imagine a miscommunication is the cause, perhaps even at the end of your wing turnbeak. And to think the fear-full has been involved because of it. I’m sure I can clear this up when he arrives, but you’d best share all the relevant information with me.”
“Already did, just have to give it to your chums now.” Falcorix took off, but was nearly swatted out of the air by a grabbing Mojopap. The baboon successfully plucked a tail feather. “Hey, you lost your mind dungbreath!? You have any idea who my folks are?”
“More dung-raining birds I’d wager!”
“Oh you’ve done it now,” Falcorix said, eating as much of Mojopap’s spirit as his eyes could gobble up. “You Namstampers don’t know the names you should, but I’ll tell you the high names of my sires rival the Sig-neagle! I know she ruffles your feathers! Or she would if you had any left.”
“Clearly I meant no disrespect,” Mojopap said, ceasing his flailing. Upon rubbing the back of his neck with one hand he was disturbed to feel bristles. With newly acquired precision he casually ran the blade of the scalpel across the skin, pores prickling at the sensation. It wasn’t so difficult, and he was starting to think they didn’t need humans for dental work at all. “I would just rather you didn’t frighten my soldiers pointlessly. I will give them the message, so be on your way.”
“Don’t think so pal. I get a tail per creature I tell, have to maintain the chain of custody. It’s on my honor as a messenger… you understand.” Falcorix kept up his brisk flap, just out of the range of a hurled spear.
“Whatever you’re offered I’ll double it if you overlook your obligation,” the baboon promised.
“You got a bundle of rat tails on you?”
“I’m the troop leader of the Compassleaf Babeloons! I’ve destroyed countless words to bolster my own and it should be sufficient for you. I promise you this reward.”
“Proof only exists when it’s sitting in the stomach,” Falcorix asserted, immediately flying to the nearby monkeys. Mojopap pursued, shouting, but it was pointless. He couldn’t out-scream a raptor. “Listen up you rats!” While he delivered the message he counted them: thirty-two. With Mojopap and the humans that made thirty-five rat tails.
All that was left now was their collection in Compassleaf, which meant a miserable trip to the bustle of the city. Silently he asked the splinterwing and the resinous to give him strength, to fly into his head and grant the tranquil silence of Echopeaks. As the bird flew off to claim his bounty the Babeloons descended into screaming panic.
Even with small eyes compared to most beities, the baboons’ fear enlarged them greatly. Heads felt heavy whipping back and forth, searching for the lion that was clearly already among them. Perhaps the beity would’ve been called to them, but just then they were on an expanse of dirt and flat stones without so much as an overhang nearby.
No doubt the fear-full lion could manifest in the pale shadow of a single drop of baboon sweat as it fell, but the time it would take to chew through their hides and swim to their hearts at that size wasn’t worth the effort. They couldn’t just sit there, baking naked under the sun forever. Large white flakes of their initial sunburns came off in their disarray, only to be snatched out of the air so they didn’t grant Phobopan any larger shadows.
“Order yourselves!” Mojopap demanded, bashing the end of his scalpel on a rock repeatedly. “Aw-yee! Obey your leader! Are you a troop or thirty wood lice scurrying out from a lifted stone!?”
“You heard that bird!” one of them shouted, holding the corners of her eyes open so she wouldn’t blink and suddenly see the stalking beity. “Phobopan’s coming for us! We have to be rid of that metal! Bury it! Bury it and forget it!” Others agreed that disposal of the evidence was best, never mind that their skin would continue to be evidence of its use for half a season.
“That’s a decision to give yourselves the Shed,” Mojopap reminded. “Who knows how many trims you’ll need before we get clear of it, but I can assure you it’s at least one.” They quieted some, mostly in the transition from terror to weeping. “That bird was ill-informed. I have stolen nothing. He said he was to tell all naked animals, which means he was likely targeting the same prey as us.”
“If the Wild Trinity hunts Shelvtale we have no reason to,” an underling reasoned. “It’s hubris to think we’re needed here now.”
“Stretch your brain so it at least thinks as long as a day!” their leader boomed. “Think what would happen to us, to our very station, if a human not only learned to read under our watch, but kept a book under our watch, escaped under our watch, and had to be caught by the highest authority in the world when he most assuredly had something he would rather have been doing.
There’s no need to fear him when what you should be feeling is shame! This is our responsibility. You want to return to Compassleaf empty-handed, tails between your legs, sitting in the wet dread of the Scion’s return?
We will be stripped of the tower and they’ll give it to yet more birds! Sleep in the gutter will be our fate as mere messengers take over our role, hardly able to do anything more than tattle when they spy a human reading. Most of them lack the strength to even carry off a leaflet, let alone a novel!
And that miserable scenario is what happens if we’re even allowed to remain in the city without gainful employment. What good are the lot of you at anything but biting thumbs and keeping button noses to the ground?”
They had no response to his speech, but only because they couldn’t articulate it. What Mojopap said didn’t matter, whether he employed sound reason or not. Phobopan was in the air, coloring their every thought, seasoning them with anxiety.
Some even thought it an honor to be hunted by the fear-full lion, as long as it was out of hunger rather than duty. That would mean he considered them legitimately challenging and rewarding prey, but becoming honorable viscera wreathing his ashen mane would not be the fate of metal thieves.
“The sooner we capture Shelvtale the sooner your pathetic cowering ends,” Mojopap promised them. “Now march!” Miserably stuck in their situations, the Babeloons relented. Sitting in the middle of the Shedlands wasn’t doing them any good one way or the other.
As they marched one monkey near the back asked another if it would’ve been better to stay, not just in the moment, but for the rest of their lives. The scalpel could protect them, and in a sense the Shed could too. Surely Phobopan’s fur was just as vulnerable as that of the deranged hobbling cats they’d already seen in their trek across the plagued lands. He wouldn’t risk such an iconic coat over them, would he?
The listener stopped the speculation, shut it down with truth so raw it didn’t require evidence. He might. Diseases were at least partly alive, and even if they didn’t know fear the divine lion’s quicksilver teeth could reshape to fit their mold, teach it to them in wicked sympathy. He might come, because the Shed might fear him too much to dare.
Fire glow drew them, the first they’d seen since they fled the city. Fire was not a Forbidden Thumb for one simple reason: taste. Just like men, beities knew the improved flavor of seared and roasted meat. Caramelization was an allure every bit as strong as the sinew in stories that held them together which the animals could never figure out how to reproduce. Human minds and hands were again most adept at generating and handling fire, so they were allowed, under strict circumstances, to do so.
Some so sanctioned were called Strikeflints, others Flameguides. It was thought that splitting the work of fire into two phases, two camps, two professions would help prevent humans from using it as a weapon against their masters, a tactic that had proven most effective for generations, especially since a rivalry between the two was constantly stoked and fanned.
Strikeflints were given the raw materials: sparking stone, straw, tinder, and oils. It was their job to tailor a fire pit to the requested specifications and create the initial flame. Flameguides were cooks who took over from there, taking into consideration the tastes of the beities served in the upcoming meal, available seasonings, technique, and timing.
Assuming a beity wasn’t of a more primordial mind and put off by the scent of flesh where blood had evaporated out, a great deal of subtlety was required in getting the cook correct. That was why they were called Flameguides, as they were seen to guide the dangerous material where it needed to go, to advise it on the handling of the meat, to scold it for scalding, like a mentor with a novice.
Flameguides had their own internal fire, the body heat, so went their edicts. Only dentists were granted greater privileges than fireworkers, so each of the two factions came with a school and a culture, deliberately all its own. Flameguides were much more spiritual, often attributing errors in the cooking process to a weakness in managing their own body heat properly. If they couldn’t guide it, how did they expect to guide the fire, which lived a wilder shorter life with no skin to contain it?
Sweat was weakness, fire calluses strength. They lingered all throughout the meals, watching beities eat, watching the embers die down in order to study their behavior, when they weren’t ordered to extinguish them immediately by Strikeflints that is.
Those who started it were also tasked with stopping it, and doing so in the safest and most efficient manner possible. Where Flameguides were clerics the Strikeflints were engineers, much more practical in their mindset. To them errors were simply errors rather than learning opportunities. There was no reason to get burned, ever.
So the brilliance of the beities shone in the juxtaposition that kept fire from ever being properly made into a blazing thumb. The moment the Strikeflints succeeded they were shuffled out of the way by angry Flameguides, and when roasted foods were removed the Strikeflints rushed in with buckets of water or dousing dust to destroy the afterglow of the efforts.
Exactly when one group should step aside and the other step in was always up for heated debate, and there was no greater intraspecies violence in all of mankind than what burned between them. Loric had only seen the body of one person intentionally killed by another in his entire life, and it belonged to a Strikeflint who was trying to pull a Flameguide away from an extinguished pit so he wouldn’t damage his lungs with smoke inhalation.
The smoke was the dying words of the Flameguide’s child, the only chance to reflect upon their life together, and so denied the Flameguide took a second life that day.
Which made it all the stranger that Loric and Hygenis stumbled across the glow of a fire at all, let alone one contained in a tent as opposed to reducing a random bush to ash. That meant it was no lightning strike.
Hides, which the tent was constructed from, were not considered scavage generally, especially with valuable fur attached. It was automatically passed on to beities of authority for decorative and comfort purposes, so to see it too in the wild was unusual. A traveling beity, unafraid of the Shed, carting a lineage of furs with them, as well as both a Strikeflint and a Flameguide was highly unlikely.
“Fugitives like us?” Loric whispered as the two of them crouched behind a ridge of rock, waiting to see if anyone would emerge from the crackling structure.
“If so they’re more skilled, seeing as they’ve escaped with such treasures in tow… and are flaunting them here, where predators still exist even if they are half-dead and more than half-mad.”
“It could be a reptile with some servants come to claim us,” Loric offered, trying to mimic her talent for discerning the threads of beity webs. Before the dentist could react they got part of their answer when a woman emerged from the tent’s spotted flap and scanned the horizon. She wore much soft clothing, immediately bundled it up when stepping away from the fire roaring inside.
Of greater concern than her attire was the tent’s contents, which they were able to glimpse as she emerged. There were two other humans sitting around their campfire, and not a beity in sight. If one was hidden somewhere within it wasn’t of a dangerous size, excluding of course something concealing a quantity of venom.
“We have the weapons, we will approach,” Hygenis resolved. “Hold it like you know how.” She’d given Loric some introductory lessons with wielding the mirror, so he was able to effectively follow the instruction. Standing tall, catching the woman by surprise as planned, the pair strode forward, just far enough into the light to reveal the shape of their faces and not the details.
“Where on Earth did you get those?” the woman asked, far more stunned to see their weapons than them.
“We mean no harm,” Hygenis offered. “We travel through the Shedlands simply to reach somewhere else. What are the three of you doing here?” Loric took note of his mentor’s tactics; she had deliberately revealed they were already aware of the number inside the tent. It made them sound that much more informed, that much more capable.
Before she could answer the other two, having overhead, emerged. There was another woman and a man, and it was not hard to tell that they were the sources of the fire, as one wore the shade of red favored by Flameguides and the other the charcoal gray of the Strikeflints. Even though they now outnumbered the intruders they kept friendly expressions.
“We’ve fled from Tuncrad,” the male Flameguide offered. He turned and lifted the flap to get a peek at his active flame, spoke while watching it. “We were slaves of Glodorang, antler of the east.”
“Were?” Loric queried.
“Our reindeer lord makes a show of shedding her excess wealth yearly, alongside her antlers. It wouldn’t be as impressive if she sold us I suppose. Turned out we were, expected to find our way as easily as her material possessions find their way into decomposition and dirt. If we had stayed a crueler master would’ve snapped us up, so we took what furs and supplies we could and ran for warmer lands.”
“So you have no plan beyond the Shedlands?” Hygenis asked pointedly.
“We’re testing if we can live here,” the first woman answered. “Between us we can make fire, and I’m good with the tent. We don’t have the finest hunting skills though… and foraging has been thin on the ground.”
“Are you starved?”
“Not yet. We still have some scavage that was turned out with us, which I can preserve by smoking to high perfection,” the Flameguide claimed. “Why don’t you join us for some? We have nuts as well. I don’t doubt that weapon marks you as a fine hunter, and we will gladly exchange knowledge for food.”
This was sufficient explanation for Loric, and he was about to step toward their new friends when Hygenis spoke again and stalled him.
“You have created fire with no beity supervision. Even here there are those who could communicate what they’ve seen to settlements outside the Shedlands. You won’t be taken in again by beities without punishment.”
“It’s a risk we take,” the Strikeflint acknowledged without elaborating. Hygenis wasn’t finished.
“The pair of you are valuable. There’s no reason you couldn’t live in luxury with any number of creatures watching over you. What really drove you out here?” The fire makers could not take the oath of the Bloody Mouth. Each had only half a skill to weaponize, and fire could not be by their side as constantly as the sword, could not be hid under a pillow while they slept.
They also were not ones to invoke, comfortable as they tended to be at least among their peers. Too occupied they were with internal conflicts, too unwilling to investigate the furred forces that put two rival insects in the same hot bowl in the first place. The only reason Hygenis could see for them to travel together as refugees was a forbidden romance, but it was plain from their body language that the two were not close; there was an invisible iron grate standing between them.
“The same as you… I imagine,” the first woman said tentatively, experimentally. Her eyes were empty. “None of us want to be ruled… even those who aren’t handed metal. Join us, please.”
“No,” the dentist said plainly, which changed the demeanor of the others instantly. Even Loric couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t, at least for the night, share food and company. They were heretical enough for a brazen blaze, so perhaps they were in the mood for a good story lifted straight from the bottomless book like a bucket of fresh water up from the well. “Thank you for your kind offer, but we are pursued, and mustn’t rest yet. Come my friend.”
With that she gave the tent a wide berth and continued on, the storyteller skittering after her, looking over his shoulder repeatedly. The three watched them leave intently, faces blank. Loric assumed that if it was some sort of trap they would’ve called after them, coaxed them inside with every gesture, desperately trying to spring their snare, but they said nothing.
“They don’t give chase,” he said to Hygenis when they were well out of shot of ear and eye. “I think we’ve made a mistake.”
“Perhaps, but they did not sit right in my mind,” Hygenis explained. “They made themselves perfect prey for anything out here that has even a single straw of hunter’s instinct left. Torches keep medium beasts at bay, but their fire was in their shelter and they had no guard posted. Something with mass would just knock the thing over, pick one of them off as they scrambled out to escape the spreading flame.”
“They said they were not well-versed in this life. Was it not our duty to keep them from such a fate?”
“My duty is to get you to Staircase; I won’t presume to tell you yours. If you turn back I will have to follow.” She didn’t stop or turn to see if he would. In noticing her pace, which didn’t falter for one moment, Loric decided her confidence was much stronger than his own guilt. That pace was her continued argument against it. Loric was convinced, so much so it was like a length of rope bound the two together. So on they went alone, as separate from their own kind as they were the moment they left Compassleaf.
Then, on the following night, that separation was tested again. Earlier was the hour, with sunlight left enough to still discern the five needles that made up the edges of the leaves on the hardiest leathery bushes. These bushes granted the densest foliage since they’d entered the plagued stretch, but it was an obstacle rather than a boon, as they had to wade through them slowly to keep following the line in the rock.
“Ahch!” Loric hissed when he pricked himself in the process of pulling a veil of them back, but he’d only suffered the misstep because he was shocked to see another tent in the next clearing. This one was a little smaller than the last, but also made of hides. These were cheaper than the others, nary a decorative spot or stripe on them. The most exotic was on the top, dirty white with patches of brown, and may have at one point belonged to a hybrid bear equally of the mountains and the ice.
“No fire,” Hygenis whispered to him in the moment she both caught up to him and overtook him. She was right, as they saw no glow and heard no crackle. “Let’s test their vigilance.” The nature of that test was a pebble, tossed from behind the bushes. Thrown with enough force that a trained ear would mark it intentional, the rock bounced off the side. Whether it landed first or the three occupants of the tent emerged first was difficult to determine.
“Who’s out there?” one of two men asked while the solitary woman quickly circled around in search of intruders.
“They bristle better,” Hygenis noted in a whisper.
“And that’s a good thing!?” Loric shot back.
“It’s a good sign. Also, one more day of us not finding any food or water can make a substantial difference in risk assessment.” Loric’s parched palate made a sound of agreement when his dry tongue scraped across it. The largest morsels they’d had since the last sundown were scrawny scorpions, partly crushed and separated from their stingers. Having a Flameguide by their side to roast them would have made all the difference.
“We are,” Hygenis declared, standing out of the bushes, crescent of her dental hook gleaming in the fading light. How she struck such intimidating poses Loric wasn’t sure; this time her face looked like the mighty sun about to overtake the moon of her weapon in eclipse. Such strength she exuded, even with a grumbling stomach, that she appeared on the verge of having a blinding aura. All of this had to be suppressed before the invocation, perhaps why it blazed so intensely now.
“A hook and a mirror,” the other man noted once Loric stood at attention as well, only able to appear as intimidating as the eclipse’s dog walker. “We’ve heard about you. Lots of animals on the hunt for you two.” The woman finished circling around and rejoined her companions.
“They’re bristling like porcupines; I suppose that means we should invite ourselves in for dinner?” Loric asked his partner in a sarcastic hush.
“Are you not some sort of fugitives yourselves?” the dentist asked those of the tent.
“We are, but no metal thieves,” the woman claimed. “All I need is a stick to bash a beity. That’s my name: Glory Bashbeity.” Blasphemy: there was no such surname or profession. Humans were employed to hunt and kill their own kind, but they could not deliver blows upon animals under most circumstances. The return blow would be swift, and it would be death.
“Honor Bashbeity,” the slightly taller of the men said to introduce himself.
“Justice Bashbeity,” the last said. New names they had be, forged in their flight from whatever violent crime they’d committed. A bond to keep them together, loyal only to each other now that they had smashed the glass collar of fealty.
“If you’ve earned those names you’re no less sought after than us,” Hygenis said. “We would happily break bread with your ilk, if you have any to break. I can offer a metal needle in trade, and perhaps information from out the Compassleaf way.”
“And a good story!” Loric rushed to add when he saw their skepticism. The woman Glory nudged Honor. A good story sounded convincing to at least one of them. There was always at least one, and that was all it took to have an audience.
“We’ve got leather to spare,” Justice conceded, here meaning vegetables or fruits that been sun-dried to leathery husks of their former selves for preservation. The produce of the old world had escaped machine-plows and returned to the wild, growing smaller, feistier, bitter, sour, and treacherous with bigger and harder seeds, but sometimes beity cities and towns had their humans wrangle them back, choke them once more into a partial submission that might last fifty or so seed-generations.
Leather could have meant smoky crimson tomatoes, a dozen lined up still on the branch, purplish chips of artichoke heart, golden raisins sweet enough to make ants explode in ecstasy, and each one of these temptations was enough to get Loric Shelvtale into their tent, even if the three residents had had scorpion tails of their own bobbing over their heads.
When they were all safely inside they took seats around the edge. With five occupants the space was tight, barely enough room for all their belongings to sit without touching each other. Sizing up the items, the newcomers were relieved to see that at least the claim of leather was true. They had sweet peppers, each longer than a hand, dried to a concentrated dull orange. It was an unusual crop for this far north, but they traveled well as leather.
Glory snapped one off for each of them and passed them around, and for a while they ate in silence, all understanding that when food was scarce it was to be treated as entertainment as well as nourishment, savored and uninterrupted.
Loric thought the taste stupendous, every bit as good as what he was used to in Compassleaf, but still very dry and thus rough to swallow. This had to be taken into consideration if he was going to tell a story that evening, as throat clearing was a major menace to any such performance. While he chewed he sifted through his library, looking for stories of mariners who might speak only in coughing voices from lifetimes of swallowing breaths full of salt.
Hygenis too was impressed by the quality of the food. Dentists were encouraged to eat clean, inspire confidence in their patients by presenting smiles that had nothing stuck in the cracks, so something as stringy and fibrous as the pepper was uncommon for her, used to scaled dried fish skins and seedless grassy berries as she was.
Her thoughts were also turned somewhere throughout the meal, aimed squarely at the other belongings of the Bashbeity trio. Glory hadn’t been lying about her preference for sticks; there were five leaned up against the side of the tent. They had known the hands of a craftsman, and whether that craftsman was one of the three remained to be seen.
The items were uniform in size, straight as the shaft of her hook, stripped of bark, with some textured carving serving as grips on both ends as well as in the middle. Not only that, their wood was recognizable, in both color and scent, the latter being difficult but not impossible to detect under the scent of both the hides and the pepper leathers, as mountain-vassal wood.
Mountain-vassal was a tree that grew in the shadow of mountain-stumps, forever loyal to their giant masters, guarding them from any attacks that might come from their rivals the true mountains while they rested in winter. Vigilant throughout frost and blizzard alike, the vassals, at least on their scale, were the unbreakable wood.
Loric knew a twig of a poem that used to be an epic tree:
Bites like arrowhead
and blisters the palm
‘til weakness be shed
and battles in calm
the vassal of vassal
in the mountainous halls
Unknown as the snippet was to Hygenis, she still knew what it meant: these sticks were weapons. In truth they were the best weapons a human could get their hands on outside of a dental instrument or something with a chiseled head of stone or bone.
An expertly made vassalwood stick had myriad practical uses, and often escaped the eyes of beities as a potential threat. When seen by animal eyes they were interpreted mostly as walking sticks, reaching sticks, prodding sticks, and toys for acrobatic dancers to spin artfully during their performances. Such items allowed a human with treacherous intent to go undetected, and to secure a most powerful tool for a potential flight from servitude.
“Let’s have that story,” Glory requested the moment the last seed was swallowed, casting a stem at Loric almost playfully. “When we heard about the ocean of scavage you’re worth we also heard you contain the same amount of stories.”
“I do,” Loric said, considering it to be so true that it could never be interpreted as a boast on his part. In a profound underestimation of the density of life in the world’s seas, he guessed he could tell a different story to every fish in them. “I’ll need some guidance though. Think of all legend as a menu, and tell me what you’re in the mood for.”
“Before we get into that,” Hygenis interrupted, “I’d like to know if you three have actually done any beity bashing. The taking of the name suggests you have.”
“It was just,” answered Justice most appropriately. “They were mere bugs, but beities all the same. We had more of those,” he pointed at the vassal sticks, “but termites took them. We didn’t want to leave until we had ten of them stockpiled, but when those drones made our seven five we couldn’t stand for it.”
“They also made our four three,” Honor said, bowing his head.
“Something about a whole mound of bugs going down,” Glory suggested, having neglected to take a moment of reverence for her fallen fellow the way Honor and Justice did. Her mind was elsewhere. “The capture and beheading of a six legged monarch… that already sounds like a title doesn’t it? Is it one?”
“Give or take a leg,” Loric answered giddily. Hygenis listened to his stories whenever he felt like telling them, but they didn’t reach her imagination or her heart. Those things were already consumed by the invocation; there was nothing he could offer her. It was good to be among those eager for his talent once more, though he couldn’t immediately find a tale that both met her specifications and allowed him to use gravelly voices, so the assignment required some initial hybridization.
“For you see, the evil Queen Retictetic had already lost one of her limbs,” he began, “and was out for revenge. Really she didn’t have much room to blame our heroes, as they only performed the severing; it was her own ravenous larvae, swarming about her, that snatched the leg as it fell and devoured it.”
“Oh I know this, villains have to be their own downfall in some fashion,” Glory said, irking the storyteller, but his endless professionalism kept it off his expression. Glory was perhaps a little younger than Loric, young enough to still entertain the possibility of becoming a storyteller herself, but too old to think interrupting the art would ingratiate her to a seasoned expert.
In fact, in Loric’s eyes, she had requested a rather pedestrian scenario, inadvisable if she was looking for the breadth of what the medium could do. Bug and vermin villains were by far the most common, as they were both in lower standing in the beity world and much reviled by humans in long past and longer present.
For their part the scuttling creatures never seemed too offended by their role, as they cared less for the art of story themselves and were more interested in feats culinary or mathematical. There was a niche entertainer role, Loric had not met many, where a human performed oral feats of arithmetic for a purely segmented audience.
The effect was said to nearly entrance them, akin to a glimpse at the invisible sluices that directed the flow of the twin forces. This was often all a mathematics prodigy could do with their talent, as using it aggressively in craftsmanship often put them down two thumbs. Their masters would treat them well, but being the only human living underground with a six million strong colony of ants was no doubt isolating, if not a sufficient drive to the cliff of insanity.
Hygenis felt similar to someone trapped in that situation as Loric began to describe the sunny faces of three protagonists. Now that her hunger was felled, the aroma of suspicion arose from the ground once again.
The white pelt topper, which also came into the tent and stretched across to make for an oddly low ceiling, had come from the north, their pepper-leathers the south. Mountain-vassals grew far northeast of their current position. Such wide-ranging goods suggested the Bashbeities three had come from a hub that saw much trade. Like Compassleaf, such a place would be difficult to escape.
“Free of her domain for the first time in their lives, guided by a sun that was so in their pocket it illuminated the path forward,” Loric continued, “they came to a valley of fruiting vines, the skins of which had never tasted the dirt on bug feet. Melons with rainbow flesh split open to welcome them, the tissues so rich they had to be ate and drank at the same time.”
“Oh please skip this part,” Justice requested, gripping his stomach as if they hadn’t just eaten. “I don’t want to imagine what I can’t have. It’s been nothing but leather for days; foraging has been thin on the ground.”
Loric did skip that part, and the next, and the next. His mind was too busy racing to speak, as was his dentist’s, though they were at very different parts of the process. Hygenis was already planning the struggle that was about to begin, placing all the game pieces on the board in her mind, finding ways to use the enclosed space to her advantage since they were outnumbered.
The nature of what stopped his story still had Loric hung up, like a confused kitten set on a coat hook by the scruff. What Justice said: ‘foraging has been thin on the ground’. Those exact words hit the pair’s ears one day prior, at the other tent. It wasn’t the least common phrase, but when paired with that identical first word it strained credulity.
Of course the storyteller recognized a script when he heard one. Both tents had been fed the same words and phrases to use, whatever beity ruled them so confident in their ability to converse the human way that they insisted their representatives memorize their lines and work them in where possible. The last tent was a trap they avoided springing, but so was this one, set by the same hand, and they were already inside. All they could do now was snap first, pounce more aggressively than the mechanism and hope to break it.
Unfortunately the trap had some awareness of its own that kicked in when Loric’s story trailed off. Bashbeities three glanced around, at each other, their esteemed guests, and the five vassal sticks. Curiously, Honor’s eyes found their way briefly up to the low-hanging pelt on the ceiling, and that was the last thing Hygenis noted before she sprang to her feet.
Their foes tried to do the same, and the two men succeeded, but one of Glory’s feet was pulled out from under her by the hook of Hygenis, forcing her onto her back. Rather than assist her, her companions took up a stick each, and it was clear from the way they held them that they’d had much practice, but they were up against the sharpened silver sickle-claw of a Forbidden Thumb, bitten into shape by a fierce and bloody mouth.
Glory couldn’t scream, her tongue squashed into the back of her throat by the rounded metal end of Hygenis’s hook. She couldn’t struggle either, as one twitch from the dentist would turn the swallowed side of her weapon into a hammer, and Glory’s teeth into glass. There were few things worse to have in your mouth, short of a bite of the Wild Trinity, than an enraged dentist.
“Move and she swallows her smile,” Hygenis warned the other two while Glory groaned underfoot. By now Loric had composed himself, managed to look almost as intimidating as the stick wielders with his mirror. This was it: a real fight. The man felt small, pathetic, like he’d done a disservice to every battle he’d extolled alongside his absurd gesticulating. Whole worlds fell in those tales, all while he thought he might perish if this one flimsy tent fell over.
Honor and Justice glanced at each other and made their decision, or rather they made the decision they knew their master would have ordered. Putting their sympathies aside, they charged. Hygenis made good on her promise, and with one stiff swirl of her hook obliterated the majority of Glory’s teeth. The woman sputtered, throwing her hands over mouth, but not before coughing up shards like clogs expelled from a fountain.
Even with its impressive strength, the wood of the mountain-vassals was far from its home and its life, and thus weakened, in addition to being an inferior material to begin with. One swipe with the hook would split a stick, so they had to avoid her blade, a task made simpler by focusing on Loric and his blunt weapon instead.
He could only block one stick at a time, so he turned to let the other strike his shoulder instead of his face. It wasn’t much better. The stick did indeed bite, and it was, only seconds in, the single worst wound the pampered storyteller had ever received.
Like venom the bruise penetrated and spread, spattering concussed blood, sinking to make the bruise an anchor in the bone. Loric felt a piece in every layer of him die, smarting, flashing numb, and then weeping into the surrounding tissues. If he’d taken it to the head he would’ve fallen unconscious, ten tales permanently bashed out of his brains. The only benefit the dose of vassalwood delivered was the clear lesson: ten such hits across the body, even without a blade, would be enough to kill a man.
Spared a second one by another swivel, Loric’s pack too the brunt instead. The bottomless book popped out of it, fell to the floor and joined the bloody shards of Glory’s teeth. Glowing brightly in response, the two Bashbeities still on their feet couldn’t help but stare at the radiant thing now illuminating the whole tent. A ghostlier light they’d never known, but Hygenis was happy to show them one better, the one leading into the afterlife.
While she took advantage of their momentary confusion, the book responded to what it thought was a request to pull up another story of the old world:
2034 is the Kept Year
And Scandal Rocks a Saltwater Bluff
It started as a joke, but everything seemed to start that way past 2030. Jacquelyn already knew, deep down, that none of them were jokes. Testing the water, that’s what it was. With a laugh they dipped their toes into absurdity, and were quickly sucked all the way down, laughing as they drowned, rising bubble plumes breaking on the surface as invitations for others to come on in. The water was fine.
She had a personal channel on a social media platform called Seesaw, where anyone could upload videos of anything, the only requirement being that they hid an advertisement somewhere in its runtime. That angle wasn’t hidden itself. No, that was another one of those, ‘we were just joking at first’ things. The entire site identity, and the engagement of their one hundred million users, was based on it now.
Every week they held competitions where users worked to find the most obscure product placement in the videos, which sometimes involved scanning every pixel, decoding ciphers in the script, or even aligning the backgrounds of two affiliated channels to create one complete logo.
Jacquelyn just wanted to make the videos, so she made miniature signs to post in the background of her aquarium, little ads for the list of platform sponsors, usually the pet supply store because she thought it was thematic.
Mostly it was about her fish, her little drama kings and queens. For two years now she’d kept a large saltwater aquarium, an endeavor made trivial by the amount of money she was willing to spend on it. Coincidentally that was the year she decided to give up on dating altogether, and its associated expenses. Climate change was aging the world faster and faster, so there was nothing wrong with being a spinster in her twenties. The pace of the downward spiral had to be matched if she was going to extract any joy from life.
Six clownfish: Mademoiselle Mime, Goofy Gills, Crybaby Christoph, Bobo Bubbleson, Chester the jester, and Donuts. There were a couple side characters as well, in the form of Mr. Scissors the cleaner shrimp and Wanda the starfish, but it was mostly her clowns capturing her heart with all their shenanigans: forming little social cliques, taking romantic sojourns behind the plastic rocks, and chasing each other in and out of the big anemone, which Jacquelyn had a hard time labeling as either their family manor or another character in itself.
Wouldn’t it be funny, she’d thought, the word ‘funny’ lifting so many different weights across her knowledge. Wouldn’t it be funny if she pretended they were the stars of a little soap opera, if she recorded their antics and then added silly voices over them. She could use the free video effects suite on her computer to put pictures of little items in their fins, like bouquets of roses to dramatically toss aside when they fled a broken engagement, two dimensional tears falling soon after.
So she made her first video: episode one of Saltwater Bluff. After countless hours, the kind of hours that couldn’t be spent on a jest of any kind, she uploaded it to her empty Seesaw channel.
There was a stick in Glory’s hands now, but she still hadn’t risen off her knees thanks to the effluence of blood from her nose and gums. Honor used his height advantage, bearing down on Hygenis, so the dentist decided to use the tent’s height advantage by snagging one of the support posts with her hook.
She yanked, making the whole structure shudder. It threatened to collapse in on itself, trap them all in a hell of kicking limbs and smothering hides. Not just a distraction, Hygenis searched for a specific reaction from the tall man, and she got it. Once more he looked at the bulge of white hide directly overhead, before throwing out both arms to try and keep the tent upright.
Such a gap in her enemy’s teeth Hygenis would never miss; the point of her hook found his hip. Blood gushed, and it would not take much exploratory surgery to find the entrance of a vital artery and open the floodgates. All of this was felt and understood by Honor, who had to release the tent to extricate the weapon and save his own life.
Meanwhile Loric spent his energy blocking every blow Justice tried to deal. The mirror vibrated in his hands with each impact, his wrists acting like frightened cats that wanted to bolt out from under his skin and cower elsewhere. Forced to take a step back by the onslaught, his calves found the side of Glory, and before she could find the presence of mind to swipe her vassal stick and smack his shins he delivered a swift kick to her ribs.
The woman rolled under the tent’s flap and disappeared. She managed to keep hold of her stick on her brief journey into the Shedlands, but it did flick Loric’s way before it was gone completely, missing his leg and striking the bottomless book, which spun to a new position and retorted by switching to the next page of its story, which included a record.
Interviewer: And Saltwater Bluff was a runaway success right?
Jacquelyn: A swimaway success hah, but yes. I loved it, other people loved it, and it was so much fun to make at first. Season one was all about who was going to inherit the anemone in the mademoiselle’s will, with her obvious favorite being Donuts.
Interviewer: That’s one thing I wanted to talk to you about. Donuts is actually the oldest fish, right? His character is the youngest, but he’s quite a bit older than the average lifespan of a clownfish. You haven’t replaced him with an identical one when no one was looking have you?
Jacquelyn: No, I promise hah. He hasn’t even slowed down. I can’t either. If I don’t get an episode done every two weeks people are at my throat. I like getting the fan mail, and I show some of it during the credits, but a lot of it I really can’t because it’s too strange or mean-spirited.
Interviewer: Some would say that comes with the territory of being the number one entertainment program in the world. Saltwater Bluff has rated higher than any debut this season from any of the big six streaming platforms. As of season three of your show they’ve had to redefine the ratings categories to include Seesaw in the first place.
Jacquelyn: I don’t really care if it does come with the territory. I’m still just one person. I could scale up the budget massively, hire a whole crew, but people get mad when I suggest it. They say it’ll ruin the charm, and that higher production values can’t enhance what the fish are already giving, which is clearly their all hah. But I’m getting pressure and harassment that should be distributed to at least a hundred different people. I get jumpy now, like there’s a crowd above me and a stomp could come from anywhere.
A stomp came down, nearly destroyed the bottomless book’s screen. If it had fallen anywhere but the Shedlands it would’ve already been claimed by a blessed mole, escorted to the molten rivers for destruction, a fate that might’ve been preferable to its current limbo between the combative dance steps of the four humans.
Four humans, but five weapons, as despite her gushing mouth Glory had intelligently perceived that forcing her way back in would just limit her allies’ room to work, so she was instead poking her stick in from under the flaps in attempts to trip up their prey. It worked well, briefly, but before it got any of them on the ground Hygenis had it figured out and stomped on her vassal stick to anchor it.
The dentist had to keep her full weight on it to prevent it from disappearing again, which meant she couldn’t move out of the way of any attack. Honor took advantage, going for an overhead strike that she wouldn’t be able to block without her hook snagging the tent and ripping it down.
Unavoidable she deemed it, until a mirror was thrust into the middle of things and practically reflected the blow. Loric had opened himself up to another direct hit to intervene, which he took in full on the ribs, suffering a crack in one in the process. He yelped like a kicked dog.
A veil of great shame fell over Hygenis. The fragile little man had invoked, and she was the invocation, not the other way around. For him to cover for her own weakness to keep their Bloody Mouth roaring was admirable, but should never have been required. The veil was just another tool, one of many instruments, one of the few that had grown dull with disuse, but it could still function.
With a forging blast of determination she smelted it into rage, poured that into the mold of strategy and watched it take shape. Hygenis lifted her heel so that only her toes kept Glory’s stick locked down, then she pushed back with a flick worthy of a donkey’s hindquarters. Vassalwood shot back through the dirt to whence it came, and judging by the grunt and pained swallow that followed its other end had struck Glory somewhere on the jaw or throat. If she still had enough head left to attack again it would’ve been startling.
Hygenis checked Honor in the gut with the blunt end of her hook, part of the same fluid motion that got rid of the low stick, and there could’ve been another move built into the end of it if the tallest Bashbeity didn’t interrupt with brute force, and at his size all that took was leaning forward.
He took a step, his foot catching on the edge of the bottomless book. One of its other corners lifted into the air, spilling fresh pages across its screen.
Of course the clowns deserved the lion’s share of the profit, but Jacquelyn didn’t know how to give it to them exactly. There turned out to be an upper limit on how fancy fish food could get, and she doubted whether a fish’s palate was any more complex than a binary indicator of food versus non-food.
Thus she concluded that real estate and interior decorating were the twin answers, and went about the process of expanding the manor and grounds of Saltwater Bluff. A second much larger tank was brought in, more than three times the years of her life in gallons. Plastic decorations were removed and replaced by expertly carved stone.
Real plants oxygenated the new waters the clowns migrated to once the tunnel between the two tanks was opened. They took to the expansion gleefully, their owner promising that all that space was theirs and they wouldn’t have to share it with any new purchases. There was some worry that the fish wouldn’t spend enough time grouped together, which would make filming more difficult and time-consuming, but that concern turned out unfounded. Every fish stuck to the script, and if she hadn’t known better she would’ve sworn they were getting to be better actors the more time passed.
One day she saw a swish of Bobo’s tail that smacked Chester in the face, and she could only characterize it as angry. When the camera wasn’t rolling they were back to being the best of friends.
Streaks of bubbles trailing from the surface after they’d snatched a bite were now language; Jacquelyn found herself interpreting them rather than making up lines of dialogue out of whole cloth. By season three the storyline had gotten away from her, and she was at best someone fighting its pull by kite string and at worst groping for a loose thread in the dark.
Sometimes, when she came downstairs in the morning for coffee and clown conversation, she could’ve sworn she’d seen an additional tank that she didn’t remember adding. One blink and it was gone, but months later it would become a reality because she couldn’t get the image out of her head. That corner just looked so empty without it. There was no reason not to add a tube climbing the wall like ivy; it would make a great shortcut between tank A and tank G.
“Oh you’re doing it! You’re actually falling!” she gasped in an excited whisper during the filming of the seventeenth episode of the seventh season. Quiet she kept so the clowns wouldn’t get distracted, but she still had to say something. A fish somehow knowing to still its fins, stall its mouth, and sink down the side of a miniature cliff at just the right time was remarkable.
And it was Crybaby Christoph on top of that, the maverick of the group if there was one. In the storyline Christoph’s third business was floundering, as was his marriage numbered the same, and he thought perhaps it was fate that he was also staying at the family’s third estate while at his lowest point, and in his desperate turmoil he’d foolishly thrown himself from a cliff and into the sea.
And he fell on cue. Jacquelyn couldn’t believe it, so much so that she felt a sting of worry. Was he dead? But no, the moment he struck gravel at the bottom of the tank he was back to his old self.
It was Jacquelyn’s home that was about to change forever, beginning with her front door opening even though she would’ve sworn up to heaven and down to Atlantis that it was locked. Before she could get up from the uncomfortable kneel that had her eye glued into her camera lens the intruder was by her side, lifting the grate off tank D and dunking his arm into the water.
With a flash of rabid possessive anger, Jacquelyn grabbed the young heavyset man by the shoulder and pulled him back. His soaked forearm dripped all over her carpet.
“Who the hell are you!?” she shouted.
“Why don’t you ask him who the hell Strider is!?” the man honked back, jabbing his wet finger at the tank, more specifically at Crybaby Christoph as he slowly swished his way back up the cliff to recover from his traumatic descent.
“What? This is my house! You can’t just come in here. Plus, I’m in the middle of filming!”
“Yes I know, you’re always filming,” he spat like they’d been stuck together, living in the same cardboard box, for at least eight months. “You’re why I can never get a word in edgewise around here. Oh, we have to be quiet Noah, she’s filming Noah, it’s not like you’ve planted yourself smack in the middle of our actual lives!” Jacquelyn had put herself between the intruder and the tank, but there were now so many aquariums throughout her living room, and extending into the foyer hallway, that all he had to do was turn to continue his backstage trespassing.
“I don’t know you and I don’t know any Strider. Get out of here before I call the cops.”
“You don’t know me?” the man apparently named Noah said, a brief glimpse of confusion passing across his face, like he’d walked into a sauna and wasn’t sure if there was anyone hidden in the steam cloud he addressed. “Real mature Jackie. You know full well that Christoph and I have been in a relationship for over a year. You brought chips to my birthday party, remember? Cheap ones.”
“He thinks he’s in a relationship… with a clownfish,” Jacquelyn said with a snort, saying it to no one in particular until she twisted to say it to her actors, only to find they were all now hidden away behind plants or within the tendrils of an anemone. Too embarrassed for him, she reasoned silently.
“I think I am, but I don’t know now!” Noah asserted, producing tears. He wiped them away, but with the wrong forearm, and the salt on it turned his eyes much redder. Whatever pain his heart perceived seemed a good deal worse than the sting in the eye. “Not since I heard my Chris has been messaging some guy named Strider! And now he refuses to talk to me about it!”
The last phrase was a hoarse shout over Jacquelyn’s shoulder that didn’t prompt any of the clowns to emerge.
“Then… I guess that’s your answer,” Jacquelyn said after a gap in their very strange conversation. “You’re not wanted here anymore.” The statement hit her own heart with strange solidity, like it had been jabbed with a wrought iron gate post. She hadn’t felt that way since she was in college, having slipped into the tangle of a twisted love triangle and been forced to play negotiator between all parties involved.
“I see Jackie,” Noah sniffled. “You stay out of it until you get your chance to hurt someone. Then it’s ‘cut, that’s a wrap, get that guy out of here!’ They don’t need you, you know? As soon as they can they’re going to get rid of the show and dump you out with the dirty water. Don’t come crying to me when that happens. We’re through!”
The man stormed off, beating invisible drums in frustration. He slammed the door behind him, and when Jacquelyn went to check she found it locked, as if nothing had happened.
That day passed like one aberrant bubble, one that popped so quickly it was trivial to pretend she’d never seen it at all, but Noah was only the first. Saltwater Bluff had more than fans. It had family, friends, lovers, and victims.
Wielding her hook with all the frustrated fury of a red hangnail, Hygenis swung it with such speed and force that it didn’t slow when it shredded the sides of the tent. In pretending she was no longer trapped and swinging it with abandon, her hook opened shafts for light to then pour in.
It was weak, the night was upon them, but it was still enough to blind the two men who weren’t ready for it. A glint caught Justice’s eye, but it was just from the light hitting the mirror, which also caught his eye a second later. Down he went, stick clattering against others, and against the bottomless book.
Parasocial relationships had been on the rise for a long time. Jacquelyn knew this, had been fully willing to participate herself, speaking to the people on her screens as if they were in the same room, typing messages they just might see if they didn’t get lost among the countless others with the same hope.
But now that well had grown too deep and too cold. The immersion was now stunning, overwhelming, and despite the distances between the entities involved things changed for both of them. The clowns had business partners, friends, nemeses, and they showed up in droves. Jacquelyn now awoke with strangers in her bed, with newly installed glass pipes over her head that the clowns patrolled.
A crew knocked down a wall, only needing a fish’s permission, and filled its glass replacement with water, coral, and fronds of kelp. The lights they installed inside it would ruin the ambiance for her filming, she complained, only to learn she didn’t need to film anymore.
Saltwater Bluff was still being uploaded, daily now, even though she had no say in its production or its arc. In the distances between program and viewer the viewer was seeing and hearing whatever they wanted, filling the fish’s flapping mouths with whichever words came to them and seeing the two match up perfectly.
By season ten the floor had no carpet, an inch of water instead. She couldn’t wear shoes. The tangle was back, only it was liquid now, and no part of it could be pulled loose. Jacquelyn wondered how much of it, back in the beginning, was even her idea. Seesaw existed not for her to express herself, but for advertisements. Her tanks were not for her to have friends, but for the fish to get fed. The show was an opinion, but one that seemed to come out of the air like a lightning strike. Not from her.
The white-tipped tent was a nation of heavy taxes, levied in blood. Once a citizen had paid it convinced them they could never again pay and survive, so they left with their gaping wounds and, of the three of them, two never even looked back.
Hygenis had opened skin on both Honor’s hips, and traced Justice’s spine with her hook. They were slipping in their own crimson when they threw themselves out the flap, though technically Justice tumbled out of one of the gashes in the hide that hadn’t been there minutes prior.
Each Bashbeity took a stick with them as they fled into the Shedlands, but that left two as the spoils of war. Hygenis and Loric both groaned as they settled back down, examining their new weapons to distract from the pain. The storyteller was in a special agony, as the bruises left by the vassal sticks had turned his own blood painfully toxic; it felt like the contents of a graveyard had been disgorged into his veins, clumps of it settling in all the wrong places.
“Don’t rub it,” Hygenis warned when one of his hands was about to do just that on the bruise that was easiest to reach, the one that looked like a decomposing nebula in the night sky. “You’ll only add to the damage.”
“It hurts in five different ways, and one of them is itchy,” Loric hissed, rocking back and forth to control his urges. Hygenis helped him as well by talking, which was simple since there was much to discuss. She picked up what might have been Honor’s duty, glancing at the white bulge in the hide above them.
“As much as it hurts we came out ahead in this Loric. These sticks are faster more expendable weapons, and very light to carry. If we’re desperate we can also barter them. That’s without even mentioning these.” She reached behind, wincing from a pain of her own in the process, and dragged out the trio’s entire supply of pepper-leathers. Even if they too got sick of them, it was enough food to see them through the Shedlands and into Otter’s Whip, where if the river didn’t provide they would be happy to steal.
Loric spotted the bottomless book and reached for it, fingers faltering as he fought against a fresh wave of pain. An unintended tap produced the final section.
Jacquelyn went to get groceries, but only for herself. Not once had she offered any food to the countless strangers now squeezed into her home, yet they all remained fed. Some of them had pizzas delivered, but the delivery person just walked right in and never left, helping themselves to a slice of their own labors.
When she returned she dropped the bags at the sight of her home. Eggs within cracked, producing scampering chicks instead of running yolks. Strange as that was, her house’s transformation was all the stranger. Every window was blocked off by a massive extrusion of pink coral, like tree branches. The chimney bubbled over with sea foam. A layer of mud grew outward from the foundation, slowly swallowing the hedges.
The knowledge came from a feeling: the house was now filled with water. All one aquarium. With no sign of an exodus, all her visitors must still have been inside. Did they hoard one corner of air, treading water madly, still arguing over who was closest to which clown?
“It’s my home,” she told the house as if she could convince it. Then she marched to the front door and ripped it open, ready for a flood, only to be greeted by a wall of undulating lilac. The frame was filled with the tendrils of an anemone, far larger than any she’d purchased, far larger than any known to exist.
They were full of poison, and at that size they could surely kill a human foolish enough to wade into their forest. Clownfish were immune as part of a symbiotic arrangement, so perhaps this was some sort of passage to test the worthy. If Jacquelyn wasn’t worthy she was nothing, just a stepping stone to Saltwater Bluff consumed as the sea rose to meet it.
On the other side was the world she built, she reminded herself, but the reminder didn’t stick. The idea slid off her soul like rain down a windshield. They built? The clowns… No, they never so much as stuck a fin out their tanks. Their world couldn’t expand without her help, so she, in some fashion, must have been the one to grow the coral, to pour the new waters, and to put up the security anemone.
So, logic dictated, it had to let her pass. She would march through and be a creature in her handcrafted ocean, complete with gills so she could finally talk to her clowns about their performances. But if she wasn’t permitted… dead when she fell through the other side, belly up like the understudies she once purchased.
Jacquelyn didn’t test it with an arm. Her whole body passed into the purple tendrils at once, sensation flooding her skin to meet her spirit.
“I already know how this one ends,” Loric commented idly, stashing the book away in his pack. He leaned back with a groan, having to twist several times on the way to avoid putting pressure on a bruise. The position he wound up in on the dirt floor was something like a lizard trying to sleep with only its knees touching the ground. “So all this was a trap.”
“As was the first tent,” Hygenis added to confirm. “They knew what to look for, so they set out multiple snares. Their mistake was in baiting them identically.”
“Part of one of the hunts opened on us, I assume. Who was it do you suppose?”
“It was the marmosets of Weaviranch,” she said bluntly.
“How do you figure?”
“The marmosets are traders, but they live high in the canopy, and so prefer lightweight goods like leathers and vassalwood. Also it could not have been the Scion, who would send beities and not humans. All his humans are under Butterfur’s care, and she wouldn’t send them out to hunt each other.
Most telling… was that the first tent had a Flameguide and a Strikeflint. No beity sends out such assets without supervision. And these Bashbeities, most likely actually Chamberhands, felt the need to stick to their lines, which meant their master was listening.” Loric looked around.
“I don’t understand. There’s no one here.”
“No one but us monkeys.” Hygenis tossed her hook to a vertical orientation, caught the bottom, and dragged the blade across the ceiling. It caught in the hanging bulge of white hide, ripping it open and spilling its contents, some of which was chewed leathers and tiny wooden puzzle beads meant to be toys, but most of which was a single mass of golden yellow fur and screams.
The fur ball landed on its feet, then did its best to stay off them, bounding around the tent with a terrible chittering, forced to curve at the wall by an unseen force. Loric wanted to get on his feet to avoid its rampage, but the pain was too intense to bother. Instead he dropped the widest part of his mirror into its path.
The little creature slammed into the bronze and bounced off, dazed enough to sit still and realign its head with both hands, each finger no bigger than a grain of rice. It was plain to see that Hygenis was right; this was a marmoset. A blinding white underbite failed to contain its heaving panicked breaths. A tail like a silk worm curled around one leg and then the other, indecisive. It feared the fate of the pepper-leathers, whether that be days of excruciatingly intense sunlight or being chewed and swallowed by a human before the moon rose.
“Here is the master of the Bashbeities,” Hygenis said, “or one given temporary command of them. Since he’s been sent this far into the Shedlands he must be even more expendable than these sticks. A name as low as his eyes I’d wager.” The marmoset screamed at her in response, eyes back to darting even before they’d recovered from the impact. He searched for a means of escape that didn’t exist.
“How does he not have the Shed?” Loric asked.
“They probably put a fine mesh cloth up there,” the dentist guessed, pointing at the shredded hide pocket with her weapon. “That might filter the curse out of the air, but it meant he could never leave it during the entire expedition, like he was trapped in a bubble underwater. Their plan was entirely reliant on their slaves taking orders from their tent.”
“Only now they’ve fled,” Loric taunted the little animal, surprised at his own cruel tone. Just a few days ago he would’ve been careful to make every word, even to a mosquito that had chosen him as meal, as ingratiating as possible. “He’s all alone with two evil bloody mouths, and if he takes one step outside the tent he’ll be in the diseased air, and his life will end slower than if he were to pluck out his own hairs one by one.”
“It’s his choice,” the dentist contemplated aloud, “whether he wants that fate or if he’d rather starve to death in here, mummified inside his beautiful coat so another beity can come along, peel it off his bones, and wear it for themselves. Maybe a vain praying mantis.” The marmoset finally regained his higher faculties, spied Loric’s pack. The mesh could be transferred easily, but the plan required his authority to transfer from Chamberhand to Shelvtale and Fixtooth just as easily.
“I, Ellapock of Weaviranch, of inerrant errands, order you to put me in your bag and escort me safely out of the Shedlands!” His squeaks almost stretched into the inaudible. Fear concentrated his black eyes to soot gems.
“Isn’t that adorable,” Hygenis mocked, “he tried to give himself a title. Ellapock of inerrant errands… so you’re just an errand boy. And your name is so low I can barely make it out. What was it again? I’ve already forgotten.”
“I think it was Smellac-” Loric started, smile growing.
“Ellapock!” the yellow marmoset shrieked in correction. “Don’t pretend you don’t know me! I was there when you tried to sneak into our hands. It was my turn to mount, and then all of a sudden there’s a giant pile of humans and I’m nearly crushed. So of course I wanted to catch you and straighten you out, that way you don’t hurt anyone else.” He crossed his tiny arms and used the sides of his feet to swivel away from them.
“Ah, so it was for the public good,” Loric said, lightly smacking his forehead. “We should really be on our way then, as we don’t want to roll over and crush you in your sleep.” Moving felt like he was extricating himself from the crushing grip of a gigantic lobster, but it was worth it to further traumatize the little slave driver. Loric feigned getting up and reaching for the flap.
“No don’t!” the itty bitty beity begged. “Don’t let that foul air in here!” He grabbed at his fur, but it was so silky he couldn’t even make it clump. One full gasp of the Shedlands could be enough to rob him of it forever, followed by his sanity, and finally his heartbeat. “Please… just take me with you. I don’t care where, as long as it’s out of the Shedlands. Then we’ll just go our separate ways. I’ll forgive you your trespasses. Please.”
“Unless you speak for the Scion of the Salmon Run your forgiveness is worth less than nothing,” Hygenis informed him, crawling closer like a stalking cat, putting her nose but a finger away from him. The monkey cringed. “So what reason have we to do anything other than skewer you and roast you until that fur is gone anyway and your skin is nice and crispy?”
“They don’t call us bloody mouths for nothing,” Loric added with an implied cackle.
“I can’t be more than three bites!” Ellapock the pathetically panicked reasoned. “Any fire would expend more energy than I would give, be assured. I… I can be of use! Small I may be-“
“And low,” Loric interjected.
“-and low… but I am still a beity! If you need to get past a guard I can claim you as my property and they’ll have to let you through. If I mount you we have an excuse for covering your faces. Yes! That’s a great idea,” he seemed to congratulate himself, as if an unseen committee between his ears had just put forth their only good suggestion in years.
“That does tempt,” Loric said with a tilt of his head, looking at Hygenis.
“As long as he understands that revealing us at a crucial moment would be pointless,” Hygenis extrapolated, “because dental reflexes would allow me to snatch him off the scalp and crush him to death the moment he acted out of accordance with our instructions.”
“He does understand,” Ellapock said, finally regaining enough composure to stand. “Glad the talk of eating is behind us. I will also throw in a promise not to eat either of you, even with the right sauce. Now if you would recover my filtration cloth from overhead.”
“You’re not going in the bag,” Loric told him sternly. “We have fragile treasures in there, and we’ll give you no opportunity to sabotage them.”
“But then what shall I do?” the marmoset asked, already sounding betrayed, as if their ten second old bargain was a years-long friendship. “I can’t go out there unprotected; I’ll contract the Shed!” Hygenis responded by reaching into the leather straps wrapping her staff, extracting yet another sharpened shard of metal. This one was a little flatter and wider, more of a blade than a needle. She handed it to Ellapock, who held it in both hands like it was his own grave marker.
“You’ll have to give yourself a haircut.” The beity briefly reconsidered the option of death.