(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 19 minutes)
When the Year is not Kept
And the Best Strategy is Blind
Compassleaf was in tumult when its latest visitor arrived on the wing. He’d seen such chaos in a supposedly civilized place before, but only when the lord of the town had decided to disband it in light of his own approaching death. The end result had been a raid of all its shelters by wild beities: a cascade of blood and competing theft that shredded what it stole more often than it didn’t.
Things in the Scion’s city weren’t as bad as all that, but the air was squirming with short tempers and frustration. So many birds came and went with urgent perpendicular paths that they were colliding midair and fighting. Local songbirds suddenly possessed of fierce pride and determination, despite their cargo rarely being anything more consequential than love ballads between blossoming romances, fought claw to claw with much heartier crows.
Falcorix weaved between these altercations as he made his way to the glitter-encrusted Roostcheck to collect his payment for yelling at naked things in the desert. The rat tails on his mind could be smelled on the wind before the spire was even in sight, so there must have been far more than the few he was owed.
The proof came when he landed on an exterior branch and hopped his way through a crack in the mud, looking down amidst a din of bird chatter like he’d never heard. It was as if they’d all forgotten their melodies, and perhaps they had at the sight of the pile of scavage that had completely filled the lowest level of Roostcheck and that had the entire shaft smelling of smoky gristly meats and blistered skin.
It was difficult to imagine a larger pile of tails. Falcorix saw them as a den of snakes, not only because some of them belonged to snakes, but also because some of them were still moving, slithering like the only serpents not yet paired in a massive mating knot.
Tails were the commonest scavage paid out to smaller beities, as the lower quality meat was suited to lower names. They were light of bone or completely boneless, making them easier to transport. In Weaviranch the marmosets enjoyed large portions of them, twisted into noodle towers and drenched in butter and lemon juice.
A tail was also an easy thing to collect from its owner, especially since it did not always require them to give up their life. Shortsighted rats would exchange a moment of chopping pain for a more favorable burrow deeper in the city. If they lived close enough to a mighty beity, one of radiant glamour, they might even regrow their tail and get to barter it again.
Lizards had it all the easier, many kinds able to regrow their tail by default, making their living by soaking up sun and converting it into the meat they could harmlessly separate from their bodies. Even large and respectable lizards did so, with a stump of a tail seen as willingness to contribute to the Compassleaf community.
However, the tail of a large lizard, one productive and savvy enough to nearly elevate their name, could retain some thickness of its origin’s blood, not only continuing to move for a long duration after separation, but sometimes taking on a pseudo-life, patrolling for prey and constricting it like a snake, even though there was no gullet with which to ingest their prize.
None had bothered to sort the tails coming into Roostcheck, as they were arriving far too quickly. The pool of reward scavage for the capture of the storyteller and the dentist was growing all the time, and by extension so too was the ancillary pile offered for information surrounding their whereabouts.
Falcorix knew little of this, even surrounded by relevant chatter. His degenerate piracy did nothing to temper his ego or delusion of thickened bloodright, preventing him from paying attention when in the company of those he deemed lesser. In stealing the task of the desert message he’d neglected to even get all relevant information before dispatching the original carrier. So in Roostcheck, as he looked to collect, the context still eluded him.
“You,” he addressed a bird below him that seemed to tally the tails, “I’m here to collect on a delivery. Fetch me rat tails.” The raptor was ignored. Rather than complain he made note of the orange patch on the disrespectful robin’s breast, so that he might kill them outside Compassleaf and take what they carried as his next mission.
Twice more he attempted to address a literal underling, to being ignored both times. His frustration finally allowed some of the discourse to sink in. The flock was atwitter about a pair of fugitives, one of them apparently cherished by the whole city. In effect it first convinced Falcorix that he needed to wash his talons of the place as soon as possible, if it was such a desecrated hollow that any human was called ‘cherished’ and provided what the beities treated as half the joy of the city dwellers.
“I will help myself then,” he informed them, though none were informed sine they weren’t listening. Had he paid closer attention he would’ve noted that none of the occupants of Roostcheck were standing on the pile directly. Contributions were made from above or the sides, and the reason became clear shortly after he set foot on the mound of still-warm flesh and skin.
The scents of many animal were mixed in a clinging cloud around the pile, intoxicating to a creature such as himself, accustomed to merely tugging invisible strings of odor on the wing. Falcorix’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as his nostrils did draught deep of rodent, lizard, snake, and fish gristle.
Temptations abound, the pirate avoided haphazardly raking a pile of tails into his beak. Many transactions in cities operated purely on the honor system, and he followed it within their bounds not because it was difficult to sneak away with extra but because of the punishment for those proven to have offended: death. Transformation into the very scavage pilfered.
Still, he got a little something extra for free as he rooted around in search of only his allotment, and only of rat tails, namely the pooling soup-scent, which was almost a meal unto itself. All types of rodent tail were mixed together, mouse, rat, squirrel, chipmunk, even beaver, and he delighted in taking additional time in the pile to discern between them.
Lost in the process, eyes inches deep in scavage, he did not see the bulge under the pile’s surface that slithered toward him. The moment he pushed a dried trout fin out of the way the half-creature struck like a cobra, wrapping around his neck and squeezing. The bird panicked and cried out before his air was cut off, then tumbled forward and rolled down the side of the mound.
Tossed out a split in the side, he rolled to a stop in the clover at the foot of Roostcheck. Finally he was the center of attention, though the bulk of it was derision, for he wrestled not with a snake that had survived a sentence by masquerading as a long tail, but by an actual lizard tail. The mostly dead thing belonged to a giant anole, and had gotten it into its flesh that it was something like a tree python.
It nearly succeeded in its effort to squeeze the life out of Falcorix, for his panicked biting scored flesh that could no longer feel. The heat of the pile had excited the tail’s death spasms, invigorated it, and as soon as it was free of the rest its power faded quickly. As its grip loosened, Falcorix flailed free and collapsed gasping onto his back, wings spread.
Shame came with the raucous laughter. Guard dropped, information too finally washed over the fallen hatchling of Echopeaks. Didn’t he know the rewards were not yet properly sorted? Didn’t he know there was no need to hurry, as so much as word of a human hair on the wind was enough to earn a tail and a tip of two tips? Had he never heard of Loric Shelvtale, greatest storyteller in Namstamp, and how he’d made himself star of a story by stealing a mirror to wield as hero’s weapon?
Falcorix’s mind dilated as the fact fell into place in his craggy ornery memory. A mirror? Much as it stung, he let the rain of arrow-tidbits strike him for several minutes, lying so still he was at risk of being dragged back and tossed into the tail pile: two humans, two dental weapons, one man and one woman, the woman elder enough to see a difference, thought to be in the Shedlands.
Not just under his nose, but within his reach. In sight of each other, but to their advantage since his mirror put them in sight of Falcorix’s very soul. The biggest piece of context hit him like a boulder, really had him feeling the ground, the thing that he never should’ve felt; no, the touch of dirt should’ve been as alien as the eggshell of the moon. Only high branches could hold him, cradle him enough to foster his return to stable respectability.
That context was the reward for the return of the fugitives to the estate of the Scion Krakodosus the thundercoat. It made the pile of tails look like a pinch of sunflower seed. Even in Echopeaks he’d never heard of such a hoard of meat, bone, organ, and marrow. Everglut it was called, or eternaglut, when framed in relation to a beity of his diminutive size.
If he made the claim of everglut, and the claim was accepted, it meant that in lieu of taking the total of the scavage all at once, which he could not possibly consume before it rotted, and would thus have the headache and heartache of bartering most of it away immediately, he could instead be granted a lifetime supply of scavage from the party offering the prize, beneficial to them as it was usually a lesser amount than the lump carcass sum.
Since that party was the Scion, his everglut would be honored by Compassleaf at large, and across Salmon Run dynasties, should the life of a lesser beity somehow last that long. Falcorix would be entitled not only to all he could eat, but all that he could individually carry. With the right cargo of lightweight and dried meats, such as tails, bird feet, and tarantula legs, he could carry an impressive bounty on the wing, from Compassleaf and to Echopeaks.
With it he could barter his way up the branches, up to his old home, and then higher. He would be Falcorix of meat drippings, of meat rain, of meat downpour, of meat monsoon, every beat of his wings showering those below with food.
Much sustenance in Echopeaks came directly from the mountain-stumps, be it their nuts the size of mammoths or the fruits of the lesser trees that grew in groves between giant branch divots that had collected soils falling from bird and insect wing over eons. Meat was in high demand, so much so that even the mountain-vassals in the foothills accepted it, in the form of morsels tossed into knotholes. The tough but stalwart trees believed it invigorated them, quickening them in battle against the rock slides of the mountains that threatened their masters.
The everglut was the key Falcorix had long sought, unknowingly, in the back of his mind. His mother and father surely still lived behind a veil of indigo-silver clouds, and as soon as he pierced it they would welcome him back, nest preserved so he could relive all the nurturing he was denied.
But he had to plan, and carefully, putting aside the pelting of insults he both endured and would endure if Compassleaf were to learn that he had conversed with perhaps the most valuable humans on the continent and then let them get away.
Sharing the information of their most recent location would earn him another payment, but just that, just another dose of scavage. To earn the everglut he had to facilitate their capture and return. The real question was how to go about it while keeping what he knew to himself. Two options formed in his racing mind: one involving Lady Butterfur, whom he had learned much about just from the babble of the preceding minutes, and one that left her in the dark.
If he told the blonde bear not what he knew, but that he suspected he had a lead on her wayward pets, she might provide to him the muscle needed to achieve the goal. A fast beity was needed, one that could keep up with him as he flew, which probably meant either a large bat or the swiftest hound. No cat would have the endurance, no horse the predatory cunning. Any birds large and fierce enough would be raptors like himself, and thus vulnerable to Loric’s mirror: the sad curse of their immense, yet surprisingly light, intellects.
On the other wing, he could strike out alone and attempt to relocate the pair. Once he had, being careful not to reveal himself, he could then make wider and wider circles in search of a beity to recruit on the spot. There would be no viable candidate in the Shedlands themselves, wretched as its residents were, but there was no chance the humans were looking to stay in that accursed prairie.
Otter’s Whip, he wagered, was their initial destination. When he’d caught them they were headed east, and would likely follow that wall of rock he’d seen rather than summit it and hit an inhospitable stretch of Plunderoe shore, the fording of which would serve only to put them in the icy grip of a Tuncrad frost-fen.
Otter’s Whip wasn’t called that for nothing. Those scoundrel beasts frequented that bend, commonest of the thieves that dared to challenge the Scion’s claim to the salmon when they came to spawn, as they very soon would. Falcorix wasn’t privy to what intergenerational snaggle between their teeth caused the otters such entitlement, especially when they could feast aplenty when lesser fishes like mud trout came through in similar numbers for the same reason, but the bird knew he could use it to his advantage.
Yes, at Otter’s Whip there was bound to be a rapids-hearted eager otter who would love to subtly insult the bear Scion by claiming the bulk of his hunt-prize. There was no need to involve the lady, and it was best for the heir of Echopeaks to move along swiftly.
The bird righted himself and hopped back to Roostcheck, rage bubbling as he rolled his shoulders to throw off the insults. Keeping a closer eye on any ambitious lizard tails this time, he selected a portion of the rat tails he was owed and tied them about his legs to serve as rations during his efforts.
Once he’d done so he took to the air and freed himself of the stifling atmosphere of Compassleaf. They could have their bickering and keep it, for soon he would ascend to the silent heights, where the sharpest-eared of the bats could not hear any sound generated by the Earth, even the violent upheaval of its very substance. Up there a volcanic eruption wasn’t quite the warm glow of a campfire. Up there the air was so thin that none would dare to waste it with an insult against him, especially since it would bounce uselessly off his high name, black as the infinite night beyond the blue.
Days were spent getting back to where he’d just been, as expected, but he made excellent time with the fires of determination felt in every feather the whole way. Hardly a nibble of rat tail was required to ignite a fireball in his breast, one that allowed him to sleep while maintaining flight, a skill that was in truth more reminiscent of a higher name than one lower, even though the thickest blood would allow him to change course and respond to obstacles in slumber as well.
Fresh were his eyes and wings when he came to the eastern edge of the Shedlands after following the rock wall, encouraged by the sight of several human tents laid out in a systematic grid that could only be recognized as seeded traps from the sky. Slaves still patrolled them, meaning the storyteller and the dentist had passed through without getting caught.
Actually finding the two fugitives was to be the most difficult part of the task, for while he had a powerful sense of smell among birds it was meant mostly for carrion, and did not have the sagacity of a hound’s nose, which could sniff out alive from dead, old from young, and the individual from their twin sibling.
Destiny was his updraft, for his beak didn’t have to pretend at the skill of scent-sleuthing, instead pointing right at his goal dumbly as soon as his eyes caught a sight as great as those he imagined soaring in the upper reaches of Echopeaks.
Tensilharp, the machine-scratch harpy, the harried queen, the fisher-eagle of filaments, the very Sig-neagle herself. There. With booming screech separate from sonic boom of wing. The thickest winged blood of the five lands of Plunderoe was there with him, and she was attacking Loric Shelvtale and Hygenis Fixtooth.
Clad in feathers gray as any storm, blue as any thought of the future, she was also armored with the husks of archaic machines, their colorful veins now empty of electric blood wrapped about her neck and legs in much the same way he had his rat tails. It almost looked as if he mocked her appearance with shabby imitations, so Falcorix tucked his legs as close to his body as he could as he began to circle the sphere of her influence, exuded like the splash of a blue whale that had just performed a complete flipping breach.
She paid him no mind, almost couldn’t, consumed as she was by her dives at her quarry. The confrontation should have been over in seconds, the great beity’s silent swoop resulting in both humans skewered on her pitchfork talons, but the Sig-neagle’s mind could not be bothered with a stealthy approach.
The machine sounds only she could hear drove her to the precipice of insanity, and sometimes that had be vented as piercing cries, especially so when she recognized a mechanical hum long sought and long denied. She knew full well this was the machine that had burrowed into Compassleaf like a tick and hidden there, the denizens protecting their parasite for reasons that escaped her.
Vengeance was to be hers, but it all had to start with the device itself, which would serve to finally end her battle with Umbramach Nightmachine from those years ago that had knocked its offspring from her clutches. Her claws were all too ready to reclaim it, throbbing with the nearness of her goal, but a shield was thrown up at the last second and the colossal bird was repelled.
It was not the metal that repelled her, she’d ripped through sheets of titanium before, gouged the chrome rims of light-up eyes out of engines rivaling her in size, but the shield’s skin of magical glue. Her body pulled back in time, but not her spirit, which was caught on the shield’s surface. Tensilharp saw her reflection in the mirror Loric held up to protect himself, and was just as vulnerable to it as her miniature Falcorix. Eagle minds felt, down to the stems of their brains, the same way at the sight of themselves, every twitch stolen and reproduced a whip-lick between the wings of their instantaneously enslaved essence.
The thickness of her blood had no relevance here. It was just her nature, her expression of the Wild, which would not allow any input from the Tame that was in her blood in equal measure.
Loric had not lucked into the tactic; that much was also clear. Deliberately the storyteller angled the flat face of the mirror, daring to shoot the Sig-neagle in the eyes with the piercing stare of her own. Falcorix feared he had unwittingly provided them their battle strategy in their first encounter, but dismissed the true notion, instead assuming that since they had brought the mirror with them the whole way they had long intended it for this purpose.
With the clash still firmly in the Shedlands, each of the beity’s wing beats kicked up a cloud of dust that obscured Falcorix’s view. He also granted her greater tactical acuity in his assessment, guessing that the clouds were meant to cut her off from the reflection. Such an obstacle would not prevent her from knowing the humans’ exact position, thanks to her electromagnetic sense.
If her gambit worked Falcorix would fail, the end result being two corpses that would be scavenged before he could recruit anything to carry them. So for the time being he needed the pair to be cleverer, stronger.
They did not disappoint, which he might have expected had he known that the Bloody Mouth had been invoked. The oath gave an extra wind, past the second, that allowed a human to keep struggling over the edge of death. With it they could practically run on the air. Hygenis emerged in the distance, from the end of the dust cloud, pulling Loric right after. She was choosing their path while he watched the rear, angling his mirror as needed to repel the Sig-neagle.
“A little further now,” Falcorix encouraged under his breath as he ascended and saw how close the humans were to new terrain. Ahead the color of the land shifted from oranges and browns to black and slate. The last of the woody plants gave way to curtains and blankets of moss and scum draped over boulders, their surfaces softened to a creamy finish by the spray from the river on stormy days.
Tensilharp’s cry rent his concentration, gave a pang of guilt. His heart should have been with his fellow bird, with his compatriot who was surely grand enough to deserve an Echopeaks sky. Guilt became homesickness as his shadow passed effortlessly into the drawn pebble beaches of Otter’s Whip.
Echopeaks was more than the depths of the sky. He recalled the frost coating the trees, ice crystal spears extending from every leaf so that their crops were glittering white labyrinths. Birds of his size could challenge themselves, dive into openings at full speed, trusting their instincts to guide them through unexpected twists and turns in the fronds of ice. Sometimes they didn’t make it back out, but when they did they felt so alive, having plunged into the racing currents of their very nature as beities on the wing.
His home had cowering mountains, falling artificial stars, forests in the crook of the world’s most majestic trees… and the archresin. The memory stalled him midair. Normally such a hover preceded a hunter’s dive, but Falcorix found he already had a firm grasp on his new idea. The archresin was an even better plan the everglut, for it allowed him to return to Echopeaks before earning it through achievement. It would take time, yes. Days and days. Its greatest weakness was that it required him to have much more faith in the humans: a belief that they would somehow succeed in their inevitable efforts to cross Plunderoe. He knew this was their plan, for there was no way to leave Otter’s Whip but through Blueguts. Retreat only took them back to the Shedlands.
But if they could, besting bears and currents, and continue into Flatrock Easter they would be in raw wilderness for the longest leg of their journey yet. The most notable landmarks in that place were the human city of Staircase and Rhadiospir: The Sig-neagle’s very nest. Staircase could turn them away. Falcorix knew the Wild Trinity enforced a limit on its population, but even if they didn’t the power of the archresin might allow their extraction from such a place anyway.
There was a crucial second ingredient: the beity struggling before him. She could be his recruit, though phrasing it that way could easily earn his demise. Yet if convinced she would be an invaluable ally, likely taking nothing as payment but what she was after. He knew her stories all too well, and no pile of scavage would draw this attention from her. Loric or Hygenis had a machine on them, a live one, hardly surprising given their unscrupulous use of the mirror.
The dust was nearly settled by the time Falcorix emerged from his plotting hover. He soared to catch up to the struggle, all the way out of the Shedlands. Now the Sig-neagle had nothing to blind herself with in defense, nothing but what the lesser beity could offer. He chose then as his moment of approach, gathering the courage and ambition needed to fly within her aura. And to cry out.
“Great Tensilharp! I am Falcorix, son of Sonalco Splinterwing, son of Avalaco the resinous, and it is by the wisdom of the latter that I intervene! There is a tool, of tree not of man, that can be of great use here! It allows you to control your own blindness, perfect for avoiding the snatching mirror! It lies in Echopeaks, and I can guide you if you’d allow me the honor!”
He broke away to cut off his own pestering as quickly as possible, spiraled up into a fresh hover. The Sig-neagle was of the wildest mind, those fully capable of speech but who chose never to use it, so if she agreed he would know it only by her actions. Only if she disengaged from her frenzied scratching just above the storyteller.
His breath caught when she did. The greater beity climbed the sky much faster, providing precious few moments to arrange any further justification he might need. The eagle reached his height, flapped before him, giving a look that could kill, and that would if he dared waste her time while the humans escaped to the river.
“At the edge of Echopeaks I can show you the way! The archresin does not allow its use lightly, but you, the Sig-neagle, make no request lightly. It will respect your wishes.” Tensilharp had a response: she turned away. Crucially, it was northward. The Sig-neagle flew, and it was on tiny Falcorix to keep up, something he quickly realized he absolutely could not do for long.
She had no reason to question his motives. Of course he had his own, but they were too small to be of consequence to her. All that mattered was the truth in what he said, which he had clearly staked his life on.
There was no way to be sure if she would allow it, but he had to try if he was to be her guide. Falcorix flapped his heart out to catch up to her, positioning between her shoulders. It was the most awkward landing of his life, and would’ve been every bit as humiliating as the wrestling match with the half-dead tail if anything had been high enough to see.
He did manage it though, quickly nestling down into her feathers and sitting still. The Sig-neagle did not protest, so she would allow him to ride out the journey since he could not keep up with the mightier creature. It would be a good opportunity, one sorely needed, to freshen up his breath-holding skills. They would be critical, as the archresin was deep in the sky, surrounded by air too thin to sustain them. Every fluid that high up was frozen unless swaddled in flesh, with the exception of the archresin. The heat of its eternal battle kept it flowing, like lava gobbling up the land underfoot.
Normally the flight back to Echopeaks would have taken him twelve days, but from the Sig-neagle’s pace he guessed it would be less than four. Not once did his chariot attempt conversation, which was both expected and for the best, as the smaller bird’s nerves were rankled.
There was no worse feeling than knowing he would be unwelcome in his own home, that every step of what would now be called trespass had to be cautiously planned. Most of that plan was his mount. None would question him in the immediate company of Tensilharp, but here ‘none’ only meant animals.
The mountain-stumps were another story, and a long one at that. Despite their inability to move on a time scale that could be witnessed, they nonetheless possessed myriad methods for enacting their wills, violence included. If they wanted you to slip off their bark while you rested, it could be made to happen. If they wanted you dead, perhaps for the crime of buzzing around their heads a little too much like a fly, it was best never to do that buzzing directly under any of the cones that held only tenuously to the branch.
Two mountain-stumps in particular were their concern, and each other’s. Far from the front lines in their kind’s battle with the mountain range, and pushed ever further back, the pair had been too long distracted by their quarrel with each other. The exact nature of that disagreement was impossible for a beity to know, but the best guess with such beings was always either proximity or water.
One thought the other had grown too close, and perhaps the other thought the same thing, and they’d been at the argument in a physical sense long before Falcorix hatched, and even longer in the psychological sense. Over countless seasons they’d grown toward each other in the first swings of their fencing match.
The first paths were but glancing blows, a branch snapped off by pressure every moon or so. As soon as they’d made it through each other’s thickets they turned right back around for another go. This time their weapons clashed and became lodged together. Now both titans were pulling away, but the knot was holding, and so from a distance all the beities saw was two trees that had grown into an arch, almost peaceful, and the endless flow of their mingled resin.
Each mountain-stump’s fruitless pull produced stress fractures, wounds in the wood that leaked their double-thick sap, amber and crimson when the light shone through, dark as a maple’s depression without it. The result was a keystone in the arch: a monolithic hardened jewel of resin from which fresh tributaries flowed down in a jellied curtain, occasionally dropping globs. The Earth was so far that these eventual impacts could spray bison-sized droplets of the material day-marches away.
Such spattering quickly lost the properties Falcorix was after. It was only archresin while still hanging between the arch of the warring trees, still influenced as it was by their smoldering wrath.
He’d seen the hardened pools and puddles below, like blood welling up from the ground, but never the archway. That place was too high for a low name, but once Tensilharp pierced the veil he would fly through in her wake, on the tailwinds of her authority, and into the life robbed from him.
The archresin was his to claim, his inheritance, as his caretakers had long told him the tales of his progenitor Avalaco the resinous. They were a bird that could rival the Sig-neagle in size and mastery of flight. Mountain-stump tree-blood was no mystery to them, the curtain at the arch least so.
In the tales Falcorix had both fallen asleep and flown to, Avalaco could sail straight through the veil of sap without slowing, reappearing on the other side wearing a heavy coat of its colors like armor. With it they could battle other birds and beasts, enemy claws sinking into sap and dealing no damage.
This was because of the will instilled in the archresin, the very aggression of the spatting mountain-stumps. Legend, his legend, had it that any will that could match the mountain-stumps’ could also direct the archresin as they did. The material could be given a single assignment, and as long as the will burned without dying the resin would not harden and would obey its task.
Thus Avalaco the resinous, the red-gold under the sun, the ruby of Echopeaks, had amazed and dominated the sky between the frosted canopies. And so too would their son, once his day was out. Falcorix trusted that, either directly or indirectly, the archresin would make him the beity that piracy had cast down.
He would claim a piece of it, wear it upon his beak as a shining blade, a focal point for description: Rixfalco the amber dagger. That could be his high name. And should this fail, should he not be able to claim the archresin, the Sig-neagle would not fail. With it as blindfold, peeling away from her eyes whenever she willed it, she would destroy her machine quarry and leave two broken humans for Falcorix to collect and deliver. With that delivery would come the everglut, and a way into Echopeaks that was only slightly delayed.
These visions sustained him all the way to the cloud layer that separated his low-nest homeland from the upper depths. The mountain-vassal forests were far below, some of their roots probing at the solid puddles of resin that had splashed into their reach. Two impossibly large trunks stood on either side of the Sig-neagle’s flight path. One combatant and the other. Falcorix dismounted after warning her they had arrived, flying to face her.
“Through these clouds stands the archway, and between them the archresin. Match the strength of the trees’ wills and claim only the piece you need. It will obey you in one assigned task, which I imagine will be as a blindfold. The storyteller’s mirror cannot take your spirit when you cannot see its taking!
Whenever you will it the blindfold will come away, and it will fall as sugary grit as soon as you are done. But be warned! The archresin will not be disrespected. The lesser will find their own wills subsumed… not that you need worry, mighty Tensilharp!”
The Sig-neagle lingered to the end of his statement, but did not react to it. The much smaller bird was beginning to wonder if the great beity had become almost as single-minded as the resin itself, if her intellectual faculties were pushed to the back of her being, quietly doing the work of understanding him without interrupting her raw personality.
He was about to deliver his second warning about the thinness of the air, but she would be held back no longer. Her deep breath indicated she already sensed the conditions, and with one powerful flap she broke through the silver-indigo and into the upper depths of Echopeaks’s inhospitable sky.
“This is it,” Falcorix told himself, flapping madly to keep steady in her wake. “Stop shaking!” His legs didn’t listen. “Did you shake when you killed for rat tails? Did you shake when you hunted the high name Neuracory and ate them? No, now stop!”
If his limbs didn’t obey, how would the archresin? There was no time to puzzle it out. The further the Sig-neagle got from him the less legitimate his claim to the air he tread. Only time inhaling was justified, and only if he didn’t exhale until they both exited the clouds with amber badges of honor.
The breath taken bested his nerves: a veritable cask of air that hopefully aged gracefully. Falcorix escorted it through the clouds, startled by their physical resilience, like flying through a lake of spiderwebs. Calculating how much of his precious breath was used up in breaking through would only result in panic and the further acceleration of its consumption, and he had just enough determination to acknowledge that and keep going, focusing on the Sig-neagle.
Which couldn’t be done for long, for even she was nothing in the face of the archway. Both trees were too hot with anger to frost, made fiery when compared to the other whitish canopies visible in the distance. Those who could read trees saw their fury, the arch less architectural and more emotional: a perpetual dual-snarl as one mouth bit the other’s lip and tugged. Here was a bloody mouth, vast and turgid and spoken in the temporal tongue of the plant kingdom.
Crimson keystone with sun behind bathed both birds in passionate light, but their goal was below, issuing from the fissures in the gemstone. The resinfall hung lower than Falcorix had ever imagined, stretching like a road all the way back to the cloud border.
It was also a mass grave, many animals entombed in amber glass, the freshest not entirely immobile as they flowed toward the ground at a rate of two snail day-marches to each human day-march. Those still in the fluid portion had failed the test, foolishly tried to take the resin and had instead been taken themselves. Should the trees ever settle the altercation, dropping the keystone like the fulfilled sword, the spot would be forever marked with the war’s casualties, some dramatically posed in death.
As they approached Falcorix saw that bugs were the most common creatures to err in this way, too tempted by the sickly double-sweet smell and too intellectually weak to value their own lives more than a slim chance at the sort of meal that could sate for months at a time, not surprising given that some of their lifespans were mere months, and thus one swallow of the archresin was an everglut in itself.
A cloud of beetles, black and iridescent green, hung about the flow, working up the nerve to die. Predatory insects, who could nonetheless digest the resin because the mountain-stumps themselves insisted it was as good as blood, hung in a dead and dying layer at the flow’s surface: scorpionflies, flying scorpions, parasitic bat flies that had leapt from their hosts looking like spider crabs of the deep sea thanks to the size of the wings they’d fed on, frost mantises with the patience to freeze mid-pounce, wait a winter, and finish the strike in spring, and countless others of the chitinous hordes.
Some of them were to be included in the Sig-neagle’s blindfold as decoration, creating a masquerade mask with pink, white, and green flower mantis fringes. Were the ever-buoyant Lady Butterfur living close to the archway some of her staff may have gotten themselves killed seeking the decor and costumes she simply had to have for her next social.
Tensilharp, devoid of any and all affection for both culture and the aesthetic, had no thoughts to spare for such things. She was of one thought, one drilled into her by a now distant, but still detectable, sound. Were there an active machine ten times her size, spinning up hurricanes with metal exterior drills like a gigantic industrial urchin, she would still swoop in and attack, claws scratching at its shell even though the rest of her body was now a red haze behind her.
The archresin could not kill what had already been driven so insane that it did not accept death. It made no attempt to do so when the Sig-neagle dipped her face into the flow and then retreated with a powerful flap that sent a slow ripple through the curtain. Successful, she came away with spectacles of resin.
With a swift mental shove she tested them, the resin slurping over her eyes and sealing them behind crimson-amber goggles, even clouding to prevent light from penetrating. Another thought opened them again; Falcorix’s word was good. The little bird had not requested any compensation, and even if he had it would have to wait until there was no buzz in her brain, so the Sig-neagle turned to depart.
Panic hit Falcorix in the breastbone, spilling yet more of his held breath, which was now more than half spent. First he had to realign his vision, see the archresin and not the dead vermin underneath, and certainly not the skeletons underneath those, or the machine fallen from the sky beneath the sky under those.
Next he had to feel, with all his spirit, that he was as powerful as the resin, which was true as long as he hatched from high names. This he could do, he was sure, for his spirit had been fully returned from the mirror. Loric had none of it squirreled away in a pocket as hostage. Falcorix had seen the mirror emptied, and yet…
The realization lit a fire that consumed his breath in a flash. With it came the understanding that it couldn’t even be called a realization, for he had known for the entirety of his banishment. He had known from the bitter taste of Neuracory’s blood, that he was not born of these skies. His true parents were the ones that sat on his egg, the ones who fed him on legends and grew him up weak with their falsity.
Falcorix would die if he tried to take the archresin and forge a beak dagger. Defeated, internally humiliated, humbled before the altar he’d unknowingly built of flimsy twigs, the raptor felt like a wobbling tear hanging in the sky, contents barely contained and by surface tension alone. He couldn’t even find the strength to save himself with a dive, instead falling.
But the archresin knew what he had attempted. How dare such a brazen spectator not only invade skies he could not master, but also put himself in the path of trees’ blows? He had interrupted, and it was clear his mind could not conjure a justification. Had the bird known the arch, grown up flying in a wide berth, he would’ve known that it wasn’t only the boastful who were consumed and petrified.
Those who flirted with the concept were guilty as well; they did not even have to touch. As Falcorix plummeted with closed eyes, waiting for the wet clouds on his skin so he could breathe, the resin swelled and lashed out like a tongue, catching him and pulling him in alongside a swarm of long dead damselflies.
The raptor’s eyes popped open and were met by a wave of glazing sap. Never before had he tried to fly and felt only a slight push, the world acknowledging him, but only enough to tell him it was going to be cruel rather than indifferent.
He cried out to Tensilharp, begging for aid, but his pleas became nothing more than a bubble in the resin in front of his beak. It separated and drifted a short ways, but not close enough to the surface to burst.
Now he wanted it back. That was his last breath, and turned and fired as it was into the clay of a desperate bargain, he was sure there was still some good air trapped in its flaws. There had to be, because he had no air left, and any would be good by comparison.
He thrashed in agony, but the archresin did not allow it to show; he was already locked. Mewling did not show, nor curling, nor resignation, nor dying. Forever there was a bird that dared to think he could be something beyond his potential, that could only be immortalized as a terrified fool chasing his last breath like a butterfly.
This was the world of the beities. The Tame was sequestered, regulated, suppressed. One could not win by cleverness any longer, not in the long run, not against creatures with passions as strong as the forces of nature.
When the Year is not Kept
and Otters will Show what they can do
Not long after their encounter with the Sig-neagle the fugitives found themselves awash in a spectacular failure from which escape was only the beginning of the struggle. Free of the Shedlands, and free of the bird for the time being, they had no choice but to discuss the obvious while hiding under an awning of moss that had somehow bridged the gap between two boulders, perhaps the loftiest goal moss ever set for itself, akin to humans walking on water.
“She will return,” Hygenis assured her ward. “Eventually her madness will overpower her fear of her reflection, and she will have plenty of time to investigate getting her soul back when the mirror lies next to our cold bodies.”
“We need not see her again,” Loric reasoned, rubbing his arms, sore from waving the mirror like a battle flag. The strain had internally reopened his vassalwood bruises, old spoiled blood oozing into his waterways in a way felt most painfully, and spawning much dread like a poison reaching the mind.
“There are two safe stepping stones,” the dentist agreed, completing his thoughts for him when she saw how much of his energy was occupied with recovery. “Plunderoe, during the next ten days or so, and Staircase, where she has no jurisdiction… but she will eventually test both of these boundaries the same way she will the mirror. We are her tormentors as long as we have the bottomless book, and a true beity’s spirit does not break like the animals of old. They only die or lash out harder.”
“My point is that we can cross the river safely before we need to think any further. The salmon are running, and thus all of the river’s curve is the property of bears. No other creature may approach the fish or feed on them, including Tensilharp.”
“Yes, but you see what we now face. How do we cross? From now on if we can see the river we can see bears. Allowing each other space to fish sets them up like sentries. There will be no blind spots, and each one has a nose as sharp as a hound even though they rarely use them to their fullest extent, seeing as they don’t need to when they weigh more than low-name elephants and perform public executions by sitting on the convicted.”
“You slipped us away from Grinjipan, without even taking your weapon out of her mouth, even with me bumbling by your side. I know we can make it. None of these bears know my scent but the Scion, and he will be occupied by his duties and the stink of the fish. Lady Butterfur never attends the run, despising travel as she does… We can make it.”
“No you can’t,” a tiny voice insisted, the kind usually spawned from the fearful back of the mind, but this time it hung between their heads, from the mat of moss, by its fingers no bigger than a grain of rice. Ellapock shivered, the air already chilled from the river’s spray, which they could all hear, almost feel like a tide lapping at their toes.
“We did not ask you,” Hygenis said, “and you better hope that we can since you’re coming with us. You still haven’t made yourself useful.”
“Because a pathetic naked rat is so vital to have by your side,” the lower beity moaned, no longer concerned he was arguing against his own utility. “I can’t swim by the way. Every puddle I’ve ever seen has been forded by steeds much more trusty than you two.”
“You’ll be in the leathers bag, judging when to hold your breath by the rising water.” The marmoset lost his grip and fell, which would’ve resulted in injury if the dentist hadn’t stuck out her hook for him to catch and cling to.
“Please, no,” he begged with tears in his eyes and a snivel smeared all over the rest of his face. “I’ll die!”
“Along with us… if you’re saying your intention is for us to swim across,” Loric said. Hygenis’s stare leapt up on him, pouncing straight over the little monkey hanging between, and he immediately felt it more intensely than both the smart of his bruises and the trickling of the brooding toxins they had made from his substance. A rare level of frustration shone through her expression, dark and wrathful, not strong enough to break the Bloody Mouth but powerful enough to be its shadow.
“I must work within the parameters you provide,” the older woman seethed. “We must keep the bottomless book alive, must keep us alive, must cross Blueguts during the Salmon Run… how would you have us do this except by swimming? A raft will be spotted. We could not possibly coerce or bribe a bear. The Salmon Run is their most sacred rite.”
“Are there any other birds the size of the Sig-neagle about?” Loric asked, fishing more aggressively than any of the bears. “They would have no interest in fish they’re not permitted to take, and could fly the three of us straight over.”
“Offering them what in return?”
“A good story.” Hygenis rolled her eyes. “Loric, there is no story that good.”
“All the faith you have in the Bloody Mouth I have in my own take on the mouth, all tongues and no teeth. I had the Scion himself eating out of the palm of my hand back in Compassleaf, and he wasn’t eating fish.”
“He certainly tells good lies,” Ellapock huffed, “I don’t know about stories.”
“This conjecture is pointless,” Hygenis dismissed, “as no such bird exists. These are the Sig-neagle’s skies, and none wish to compete. Even birds half her size steer clear of Namstamp, and we’d have to find two of those.”
“I guess the eagles aren’t coming this time,” the storyteller said with a jagged bitter laugh, to puzzled looks from his companions. “It’s nothing, from a story I found in the bottomless book… curious as it contained beities before they even existed.”
“Only the time between mass extinctions counts as time,” Ellapock said. “What you humans did wasn’t an age, wasn’t history. It was all one event. A disaster best left forgotten.”
“We’re swimming then,” Hygenis said to bring back their focus. She shook Ellapock off her hook, letting him scamper away to the safety of the leathers bag while she used its tip to draw a map in the dark gray mud under their feet. No detail was necessary, as the crescent she drew matched the simple shape of the river’s bend.
With her metal point she guessed at their relative position inside the crescent: the rocky cold beaches of Otter’s Whip. Then she poked several more spots, mentally constructing routes from what she knew of the places, as none of them had ever actually been. Most of the information came from the Scion’s associates resting in Compassleaf, reveling in recollections of runs past.
Salmon were creatures of memory more than intellect or personality. The routes they took were bred into them, sometimes so specifically that they would beach themselves and die if their instincts recalled the previous generation’s exact path through what was then a higher water level. As such there were places where they accumulated thinner and thicker, with greater numbers concentrated around landmarks that could more easily be imprinted into the liquid part of their souls that was passed in milt between parent and offspring.
Rocks of course, fallen trees if they were mountain-stumps and thus guaranteed to rot away about as slowly as the rocks, but these landmarks did not have to be detectable to the humans who now wished to understand their exact position. This would be their downfall, failing to understand as they did that a landmark could be wholly chemical, a tendency of a scent to still be present in the same place across fifty seasons.
As their knowledge stood they tried to create a route through the emptiest space, which they believed would be least remembered by the fish and thus less populated by the schools and the bears feasting upon them. With it came the problem of how they would approach the shore without any cover, but that was solved by the accomplished moss overhead, all too willing to go on another adventure now that it had conquered its rocky homelands.
It lifted like a blanket, resisting their pluck less than a sea star, and allowed itself to be wrapped about their entire party and used as camouflage. With it they scurried from position to position until they peeked over a ledge and finally saw the full life of Plunderoe.
The river wore mounds of dead salmon as garters. In these pungent heaps could be seen some fish that were not quite dead, still managing to swim some ways through the liquefying flesh of their kin, even with a few fin strokes being ones of luck that dropped them out of the mass and back into the water.
All of them, come from different oceanic shoals that met and mingled in the brackish mouth, were of the same species, recognizable by depressed green heads curving into odd bulbous snouts tipped with snaggleteeth, like the roots of a startled onion ripped straight from the earth.
Burnt pink traveled the length of their bodies, dappled here and there with brown like they’d been poked with flaming sticks. All of their eyes were gold, but dull and steady for they had already fallen into disuse with memory and scent guiding them. With nothing left to see in their lives, each fish acted as little more than a seed with a speeding tail, all understanding limited to the precise location where they could be planted.
High names were far from unattainable for fish, but those that had them spawned alone, mostly in the ocean depths, refusing to let their natural urges drive them to waters that would signal their bodies to begin a natural living decay. Every fish they saw before them was a low name, and it was the first thing to decay off them, followed by shimmering scales, abandoned eyes, threadbare gills, and then the very flesh from their sides until they were nothing but coated skeletons still paddling forward, capable of releasing milt and eggs all the way up until a most horrific point where they resembled storm-twisted weather vanes of cartilage.
Few did doubt that the bears, though for obviously selfish reasons, were doing the fish an individual service if not a service to their kind. To be snapped up and swallowed down in three bites was far less traumatic than feeling mind and body crumble away piece by piece, yet having the soul unable to depart until the very end, forced to hop back to the spine by instinct even when it wished to remain in the stomach, in the heart, in the mind, in the stem of the mind, in the…
Trapped between these two fates, the fish rejoiced in them both as much as nature allowed, dying in desperate stabs at glee that could only truly exist in the ocean both when they released their spawning materials and when an angelic bear gave them a new warmer home. Some grand pendulum determined which one, and Loric and Hygenis had to cross the river Plunderoe without it ever crossing their path, lest they be discovered and treated much worse than the fish.
At first they thought they’d crept as close to an ideal spot as they would ever find. The walls of the dead, bubbling up with pink foam, glistening with exposed fillets falling off the bone, untouched by the invisible decomposers until the bears moved on, were piled so high that the humans could sneak up to them without giving any bears in the river an angle to witness them.
And of such bears there were but three at this early morning hour. Many more were likely sleeping off the previous day’s gorging in the trees, these early risers being smaller, of lower rank, and needing to feed before they were bullied away during the best hours. All manner of bears were admitted for participation, so long as they had a higher name and hailed from a land touching the river.
The three patrolling their escape route were composed of two blacks and a brass, the latter bearing some resemblance to a hypothetical rambunctious and underfed nephew of the Lady Butterfur. Both humans could see these were young bears, and inexperienced too, chasing after specific fish rather than dipping their jaws in the flow and waiting for one to swim in.
Ellapock begged them one last time to reconsider, and Hygenis responded by grabbing the naked little beast and shoving him into the leathers bag, cinching it as tightly as she could before tying its drawstring around the middle of her vassal stick.
“Are you ready?” she asked Loric, hoping he’d learned enough to understand why they couldn’t delay. The storyteller nodded, having also learned there would certainly be a technique for this situation somewhere in Hygenis’s training, perhaps found staring down a beity’s gullet. “Put your mirror between your back and your bag to hold it in place. We enter like pushed canoes, horizontally, and stay that way, backs to the bottom, faces up.
This way our lips can break the surface to breathe. Hold your vassal stick to your chest; the wood is strongly buoyant. Kick with your legs, but do not splash, all while letting the current do most of the work. Let’s go.”
She barely waited for him to finish arranging his supplies, throwing the moss cloak over her head and running downhill as much as bent knees and tiptoe would allow. Loric grabbed the back of it in time to duck under and follow. Dark sand became rounded rocks underfoot, and those became slick with fish mucus. The scent of their death already coated his insides, but once they pressed themselves against the side of a wall of fish even his thoughts couldn’t escape it.
With the creatures too small to see made skittish by the bears’ absolute dominion, the smell was not tainted by rot. It filled his throat and wriggled down into his stomach as readily as one of the fate-hypnotized fish themselves would have. The empty cavity within him thrashed in protest, ordering him to take one of the slabs of pink-orange meat and swallow it down.
But he couldn’t. Nor could Hygenis. If a bite from an animalcule was too gross an overreach for the bears to tolerate, so too was a nip from Ellapock, and even more egregious was a man’s mouthful. Double-thick blood ran most strongly at times such as these, where great beasts gathered and broke a bread of bodies within the only events that could be called traditions of nature.
They would know. Young novice bears would know as immediately as any others if Loric so much as licked the fish. Every bite belonged to the Scion, and every bear that bit had his explicit invitation and permission. If so much as a dragonfly chewed his treasure every bear within a day-march would collapse on their exact position and rend them thumb from thumb and then limb from limb, not even eating the remains to send the message that they did not rise to the level of a doomed and dimmed fish.
The dentist dared to touch it, but only out of necessity, and doing so was technically safe as long as she didn’t lick her fingers immediately afterward. Using her forearm she slowly pushed a hole in the wall, swirled to expand it enough that when she pulled it back they could look through and see their path.
The pair of black bears was distracted, tossing the same fish to each other back and forth, watching as it tried to reorient itself to its destined direction midair. That was upstream, and downstream was only the brass bear, head somewhere under the surface, where it might stay for quite some time while they ferreted out the perfect morsel.
“Now,” was all Hygenis said, casting off the moss and scrambling over the mound, dead fish cascading down, some realizing they weren’t quite as dead as they thought. Such a flawless vaulting climb, utilizing the vassal stick rather than encumbered by it, was beyond Loric’s skill set, so he improvised by tossing his through the viewing-tube she’d pressed into the fish to free up his hands.
Once he was over the hump and back on the rocks he reached back to pull it through, but even taking that moment was enough for Hygenis to pull ahead and reach the water. Recent acquisition of the stick didn’t stop the dentist from being a master of it, using it once again to pierce the river silently and make way for her bulkier body to do the same.
Loric reached the edge, saw her as nothing more than a floating stick, one whose perfect shape and intricate carving would hopefully escape the notice of the bears. With a deep breath, the kind he used to start a protagonist’s final monologue, the storyteller dropped to all fours like a frog and then slid in on his stomach, spinning as soon as there was nothing under him.
An intense chill penetrated his every pore, the current tugging on him insistently, almost solidly, perhaps because of a setting gelatin from the oozing fish fat. The water treated him just as it did the fish, grouping him up with tens of them that paid him no mind. A gentle hand pushed those ahead out of the way so he could watch Hygenis’s progress and follow it.
Her changes in direction were subtle, likely implemented with the slightest turns of the vassal stick, and again Loric found himself having to improvise. There was a submerged rock nearby, so he pulled the stick down and struck it to push away and course correct, realizing a second too late that the sound of the impact was both distinct and much louder than he’d anticipated.
If not for the single-minded drive of the fish they may have turned and stared, the shame of which he was thankfully spared, but not the withering glare Hygenis spun in the water just to shoot him, all without slowing down of course. He assumed that meant the brass bear wasn’t alerted, and they should continue.
After a quick breath, nothing but his lips feeling the air, Loric redoubled his efforts to stay on course. Teeming fish made it impossible to tell if they’d crossed the halfway point yet, but it felt like halfway by Loric’s estimation.
An estimation that was correct, but that fell on a path undetectable to them. A place just upstream, nestled in a bare patch between the black and gray stones, occasionally bubbled. Those bubbles were belches of a gas from deep in the earth, a pocket left over from the blessed moles’ initial efforts to banish the world’s cleverwood infection to the molten core.
Sometimes piles of it became lost, too encased in stone to detect, and began a process of decay. Many toxic things were in different varietals of cleverwood, and some of them gave off the gases that now slowly streamed out of the bed of Plunderoe.
The bubbles were deeply unpleasant to the salmon, enough so to give them thoughts at a time where they would very much prefer not to have them, with the equipment needed to have them pleasantly already putrefying within their skulls. So the schools veered away, and over the generations they learned to veer out of instinct rather than the painful reminiscence that used to be thought.
And so they veered again, in the reign of Krakodusus the thundercoat, despite that landmark not expressing itself at that time. With no encumbrance to force it, the flow of salmon bottlenecked to an outrageous density, fish forced out of the water by a mat of their brothers and sisters underneath.
The fugitives had their attention turned to the paws and sweeping snout of the brass bear, and their ears underwater, so they had no clue of the tidal wave of salmon until it devoured them and rapidly dragged them off their escape route.
Loric tumbled end over end, nothing in sight but slapping fish tails and gaping thorny mouths. The mirror struck the riverbed, then the vassal stick, each impact threatening to rip one of his weapons away and donate it to the river. A tail to the face was the greatest risk of him losing his grip, and when he received one he finally perceived the size of the fish, with some of them nearly twice the mass of his torso, meaning he couldn’t possibly push them aside even if they weren’t reinforced by an avalanche of others.
According to Hygenis’s map, they had approached Plunderoe at the top of the crescent that was Blueguts, with the Scion and his coterie most likely feeding in the bend where the river was widest. The flood of fish was taking them there, how expediently Loric had no way of calculating. Partly that was because he was out of the fuel he used for calculation, and for everything else: air.
His mouth opened involuntarily, and he was surprised to find a gulp of what he needed rather than water. So torrential was the surge of fish that they’d lifted themselves and their unwilling passengers out of the water completely, but not for long, Loric was forced to accept when his third breath had to be spat back up.
Overwhelmed, confused, panicking, Loric’s shifting contact with the fish covered him in scales, decoration bartered in exchange for his ability to tell whether or not he was submerged. If it kept up much longer he would’ve considered biting one of the animals, if only to get a bear to locate him and rip him free for a few dignified breaths before his execution.
Not once did he run into Hygenis, or so he thought, but there was also a question of whether or not he could notice one of the hides buffeting him being briefly human. There was no way the dentist could have a strategy to get them out of this; it was pure chaos. Now their path squirmed like a centipede caught by the tail, and the Wild was choosing their new direction with no regard for their survival.
But before they could be spilled onto that new path, beities intervened. Loric saw a flash of fur, assumed a bear had thrown itself into the torrent to gorge and that it would be far behind him in seconds. He kept seeing it. And it changed color. Sometimes brown, sometimes gray, sometimes white or black. All these shades fit snugly in the musky rainbow of bear shades, but even in the chaos of hog-sized salmon slapping him in the face Loric took note of characteristics that didn’t match that most feared outcome.
The fur was oilier than a bear’s, and it wasn’t the grime sloughing off the fish. It was also tighter, denser, bowed close to the skin. Its owner was on the tip of his tongue, but before he could think it the beity was at the tip of his vassal stick, grabbing it in two large but stubby paws and pulling him across the flow of the fish. The storyteller could feel that he was definitely underwater once more, and what’s more could see where they were and were going.
Bear paws. Of the aged, experienced, lordly variety. Plodding in and out of the river as pillars of obstacle. The creature that had rescued Loric from the swarming school moved with ten times the grace of Hygenis, weaving in and out of the larger beities’ legs, somehow going unnoticed, implying an awareness of where each and every bear was looking despite the choppy surface distorting such things.
The storyteller knew he was clasped in the paws of a fellow intruder, and he counted himself fortunate that the bears didn’t even allow birds to patrol overhead for them during the Salmon Run. If they had a scouting hawk or eagle would’ve seen the sleek dark shapes slithering around the forms of the bears, never breaking the surface lest one whiff of their fur reach a subsidiary snout of the Scion.
They avoided detection despite gliding through the densest feeding ground. Doubtless it was that somewhere in the mix was Krakodosus himself, and Loric briefly thought he felt a tense crackle in the water like minute doses of his lightning escaping between strands of fur. If he did it wasn’t sufficient to worry his captor, who never once slowed through the thick of the paws, not even to give the human a chance to breathe.
So much so that Loric’s vision was a smear of brown, yellow, and black by the time they reached a shore hidden from prying eyes. His body was prepared to drown, about to open the ceremonial spasmodic dance of it, when he was, in one fluid motion, rolled down the length of the beity’s body and flicked off the tail.
The force used was not clear until he broke the surface and kept rising, higher than an elephant shoulder, arcing over a bank boulder. At least slightly unkind his rescuer was, for there was no bed of fronds or straw to catch him, just a nest of unwelcoming stones. Fully aware that crossing his arms and tucking in his legs would do little good, there was no right way to land in his position, he did it anyway.
Impact opened old bruises under the skin, released the toxic blood he couldn’t believe was still sequestered in pockets within him, not unlike the ageless cleverwood deposit that got him there in the first place, leaving him stunned and gasping, staring up at a gray sunless sky. A different heavenly body appeared, in the form of Hygenis tossed in much the same manner as himself.
He took some small solace in their shared helplessness, for if she couldn’t do anything about it how could he? It was short-lived however, as the dentist managed to free her hook and bury it in the large rock she now slid down, grinding to a halt on its side and getting her feet under her, hanging off it as if she descended a ledge via rope.
Quickly she dropped down and rushed to his side, helping him into a sitting position, but not urging him to run. Whatever had taken them from the river was either inescapable or amenable enough to negotiation by her measure. It didn’t take long for them to show themselves, shooting out of the chilly water as spears of fur, then bounding about between the peaks of the rocks like weasels on hot coals.
All the while they snickered to themselves, saving introductions for after they basked in the triumph of another undetected run through Plunderoe. Loric could fill out part of those introductions himself, for it wasn’t at all surprising to find a pocket of Otter’s Whip bursting with otters.
Numbering five, each was as big as a saltwater crocodile of the old world, an important distinction considering that some crocodilians in the age of beities, upon entering dormant sunbathing phases, often had the word ‘beach’ tacked onto their names as a descriptor rather than a title.
River otters all, they were devoid of the white fur upon their heads that marked them oceanic, though one did bear a white patch upon the chest. The rest were dark brown, with small sharp ears and big flat noses indistinguishable from the riverbed rocks. They took up positions atop the largest stones, lording over them on their hind legs like scouting meerkats.
“What ‘ave we ‘ere?” the obvious ringleader asked in a mind-voice like charcoal long stashed under a frozen lake. He was the clear eldest thanks to the white patch, the gray about his muzzle, and the nicks in his paw webbing that were equally of fierce battles and learning experiences with crayfish too large to eat without getting partially eaten in return.
“We knows!” another one said, paw raised as if this was a classroom. The only other male, his eagerness marked him the youngest, though it also could have been stupidity.
“Everybody knows,” one of the females, with a mane almost as thick as a sea lion’s, chastised him. “Tagalon’s just being rhetorical ‘e is. I know this pair is on the run.” She flicked her head at the two other females in turn. “Myrtelon knows they’ve fled the thundercoat ‘isself; Inkolon knows that the scrawny one’s a storyteller and the other’s a dentist.” She hopped down and prowled a circle around the humans like a lioness while they put their backs together and raised weapons. “And ‘opefully both of them are smart enough to know their own names are Loric Shelvtale and ‘Ygenis Fixtooth.”
“If you know the story as well as I know mine, why go to the trouble of saving us from a grizzly fate?” Loric asked, having raised the true weapon of his wit with more vigor than his vassal stick.
“Grizzly! ‘Ah!” the one called Inkolon wheezed with laughter, until the hairy one shot her a quieting glare. “Oh lighten up ‘Edfulon. It’s a bear joke; nothing’s funnier than a bear joke.”
“‘Ey, ‘ow many bears does it take to catch some bait?” the young one interjected.
“Not now Spiltilon,” Tagalon said, much more gentle with him than the female had been; perhaps Spiltilon was a blood relative. Eager to deepen their familiarity with each other, hoping it would make violence all the more difficult for them, Loric leapt on the thread.
“I see you have jokes of your own. Passed down through the family? Those are rich wells, and we storytellers often plumb them. Tell me, young Spiltilon, how many bears does it take to catch bait?” The eager otter looked to his elder for permission, mouth hanging open. Tagalon granted it with a sigh and a tilt of his head, bunching the fur and skin under his neck.
“Three! One to catch it, one to eat it when they can’t catch anything with it, and one to catch some more!” Spiltilon’s laughter rolled him off the boulder and onto his back, tapered tail whipping back and forth. Even the orneriest of the others chuckled, with Loric guessing it was merely a habit, like the fish sticking to their memory lanes, for the joke was very weak by his standards. All the same, he laughed uproariously, slapping his knee and withholding a wince when one of his bruises reminded him it was living there and could not be evicted before its time.
He encouraged Hygenis to do the same by jabbing her side with his elbow, but the best she could muster was an acknowledging hum and a nod. If she’d ever had a reservoir of mirth in her it was likely now a powder hanging in a pouch by a silken thread in the den of Misugot.
“I’ll have to remember that one, assuming of course you’d allow me the use of it,” Loric said, wiping away a tear that didn’t have to be forced thanks to his biting bruises.
“You just tell them that we sent it,” Myrtelon said, revealing herself as the most threatening of the romp of otters.
“We send the joke with our best, and keep you with our worst,” Tagalon said with a sneer, finally deigning to answer the storyteller’s question. “‘Is ‘ighness the Scion wants you, and you were about to blunder right into ‘is fat backside, so we stopped it. We love it when ‘e doesn’t get what ‘e wants.”
“The river knows ‘e gets it most of the time,” Hedfulon added.
“But what were you doing in the water at all?” Loric asked with a sharper point than Hygenis’s hook. “Nothing is permitted in there during the Salmon Run but the bears themselves. You were in just as much peril as we were.”
“Not a single ‘air on our bodies touched a bear,” Myrtelon asserted with narrow eyes, picking her teeth with a claw nonchalantly. Loric felt like the gesture was meant to imply that she’d been eating, not just anything, but the finned and snaggletoothed property of the Scion. He called the bluff, hoping it was strategic rather than foolish.
“So you swim among them… because you can get away with it? You certainly don’t do it to eat the fish. So much as one bite and you’d all be trampled flat… from sheer numbers of course,” he added to soften the statement.
“We swim these waters because they belong to our kind,” Tagalon growled, showing an ivory canine under a curled lip, a tooth that impressed Hygenis and more than implied that the creatures had some dental hygiene habits that were very uncommon in the wilds, further indicating their intellects were a cut above as well. “Bears traipsing through it every year makes no difference. We will not be put out.”
“In Compassleaf you’re known to be on these shores. We do call it Otter’s Whip, but Plunderoe is the domain of bears when the season calls them.”
“Tell me, in dry little Compassleaf, what do they call the shore on the other side of the river?”
“It is Otter’s Whip as well.”
“So it’s of the otter on one side, and of the otter on the other, but not down the middle? Places aren’t split in ‘alf. If it’s not connected it’s not the same place. Imagine calling two lakes the same name. The middle is Otter’s whip too.”
“I see your point,” Loric said truthfully. “In any case, thank you for saving us.” The humans bowed, but Hygenis did not lower her hook or her eyes. “We’ll have to find some other opportunity to cross, but it must be soon.”
“You ‘aven’t been listening,” Inkolon said, now flat on her stomach upon the rock, front limbs dangling. This was boring her. “We can’t let the bears ‘ave you, so you can’t cross. Go somewhere else. South, to Bagogreen, where it’s too warm for these lard-pots.”
“We’re not going south, we’re going east.”
“And what’s east?” Tagalon asked, fishing for something other than fish. The prey information within Loric darted out of the way.
“That’s strictly our bus-“
“Baughgh!” A spluttering Ellapock finally squeezed himself through the cinching of the leathers bag, tumbling wetly down Hygenis’s arm and then her staff, only barely managing to hang on when she turned the hook so he could rest in the curve of the blade like a hammock. “These are my slaves! I am Ellapock of Weaviranch and I demand you let us through!”
“They already know who we are,” the dentist informed the shivering naked marmoset.
“Well excuse me, it was very hard to hear in there… and also to breathe.” He found some more water to spit up.
“There’s something you don’t see everyday,” Inkolon said.
“Now see here-” Ellapock started to protest, but Hygenis cut him off.
“Ellapock, meet Tagalon, Hedfulon, Inkolon, Myrtelon, and Spiltilon.” The dentist punched the final syllable on each name to make her point, but the marmoset didn’t need her to. He was fully aware what constituted a higher name, for despite his position as an owner of humans he was still of a lower one, and trying to vaunt himself above them would result in him disappearing down one of their throats.
It did raise several questions however, the beleaguered trio collectively recognized. Here were five creatures of high name, but living in the wilderness, regularly cast aside by those of greater girth and influence, engaging in surreptitious disobedience of the order of the Wild Trinity. Bluntly, they were dealing with scoundrels. A band of bandits perhaps.
“With names like those you must have slaves of your own,” Ellapock said, still trying to make himself useful for reasons that escaped his human captors. “You don’t need to bother with us.”
“Otters keep no slaves,” Myrtelon claimed, “as otters need no slaves.”
“We’re self-sufficient,” Spiltilon bubbled, head bobbing like a trained seal awaiting its reward for remembering a word. Loric knew that Myrtelon wasn’t being entirely truthful. Perhaps these otters never did own his kind, but there certainly were otters that did. If he was at all charitable in his assessment it was because the creatures, often too rambunctious for city life, were one of the few known tool users aside from mankind.
They were not averse to taking up natural hand-axes and hand-hammers of stone, using their floating stomachs as tables to steady shellfish before attacking them with the items to get at the meaty innard treasure. The storyteller looked around, found some evidence of such behavior in the form of shattered and scattered shells. This was their home, meaning there was a burrow nearby, likely stolen from another animal and repurposed.
“You keep no slaves and need nothing from us, so let us pass,” Hygenis challenged.
“No,” Tagalon said with finality. “The Scion will not ‘ave ‘is prize.”
“Is there nothing we can offer?” Loric hastily asked.
“We’ve no need of metal or vassalwood, pepper-leathers or marmoset snacks, even though you went to the trouble of plucking it. And we don’t need an appointment with ‘er either.” Tagalon’s snarling grin showed off his perfect teeth as proof. Self-sufficient indeed, even to the point that they could identify the leathers in the bag from their scent in the water alone.
“And what about a story?” the human confidently countered.
“Once upon a time there was a romp of perfect otters,” Myrtelon sniped, sliding down her boulder and waddling menacingly close to Loric’s face. “They were forbidden from swimming in their own ‘omes, but they did so anyway, and they did so perfectly. No bear was ever the wiser, as no bear was ever the wise. They lived ‘appily ever after. The end.”
The other otters laughed and slapped their tails against the rocks as applause. Loric’s mind suffered a most jarring hiccup, more stunned than when they tossed him into their nest of stones, albeit briefly. Though pathetic by human standards, he’d never heard such a competent tale or creative abstraction out of a beity in his entire life.
For her to reproduce their actual situation, but in an ideal state in regards to their emotional needs, was itself incredible. Absorbing the conventions of the traditional opening and closing statements was impressive as well. Most beities could not recognize them as anything other than sentences, and would at most treat their repetition as a coincidence.
And she tied it up with a bow by saying ‘the end’. Beities that tried to tell stories often trailed off, unsure if they were still telling it or if they had exited the narrator role and become themselves again. They could get lost in that space, even suffer mental collapse, with Myrtelon having mastered a safety phrase that cut her off from the imagination space. This romp was its own dentist, its own weapon smith, and even its own storyteller. If Loric was to use his talents to earn their way across it would have to be the absolute best performance of his life, something that would overcome everything Myrtelon the cunning had absorbed.
“Would a good bear joke convince you that I can top that story?”
“Yes!” Spiltilon answered brashly for his compatriots, and Loric continued before they could scold him.
“What does a bear eat during the winter?” The others, Myrtelon especially, would have taken the rest of the evening to try and puzzle it out, but Spiltilon wouldn’t wait. Without any fish they needed jokes to nourish them.
“What does a bear eat in winter?”
“They don’t know; they have to hibernate to think about it.”
With one omnidirectional blow the otters were struck down, knocked from their perches and flipped onto their backs with jaws forced open and limbs thrashing. Only the dust cloud of their laughter differentiated it from a slaughter. Spiltilon in particular was tortured by the throes of it, his body contracted like an inchworm, face screwed up in laughter that had rocketed into silence and now produced tears. His expression begged Loric to retract the joke, but nowhere in the toolbox of prose did Loric have a device capable of such a feat.
Last to be incapacitated was Myrtelon the self-taught, who desperately tried to keep her self taut, mouth closed and expression humorless, but her breath could be heard jetting in and out of her nostrils at a pace bound to overpower the narrow passages. A valiant effort, she nonetheless cracked and fell in with the guffawing of her kin, but she kept her eyes narrow and hateful, aimed at Loric, ensuring he understood that she wasn’t happy about being bested, and that her pride was kept safe in a soundproof corner, and at least that one part of her really didn’t think it was funny at all.
“B-be-b-because- Because they’re so-ahahahahaha! Because they’re s-so stupid!” Tagalon managed to say as he dragged himself out from behind his boulder, still lying on his side with joints of jelly. “They spend the ‘ole w-winter thinking about it because they can’t figure it out!”
“Stop!” Hedfulon shouted at him, for he was only causing a resurgence in the debilitating laughter. But it was too late; the second wave struck them and with it came the snorting as they tried to get adequate air into their lungs. Asphyxiation was now more of a risk than it had ever been underwater, their exhalations sounding like the spurting froth that came from a clam’s crack as it begged for its life.
Hygenis took full advantage, strolling about and standing over several of the otters menacingly, moving Ellapock to her shoulder so she could let the hook hang low and loose in her hand like a threatening pendulum. Myrtelon was her first target, as she was the most likely to understand. Clearly from her seething stare, she did. What the most talented otter comprehended was that Hygenis had a clear opportunity to kill at least one of them before the shock of the act roused the others from their paralyzed state.
An opportunity the dentist did not take, her contribution to Loric’s strategy, which she had deduced. Devoid of faith in storytelling, nourished as she had been by the most secret of narratives rather than the most open, transmissible only in whispers and during a full moon of turned backs, she nonetheless understood that whatever waterproof yarn Loric might weave stood a better chance of getting them across Plunderoe than the Bloody Mouth did at that time.
While Myrtelon came to understand that Hygenis had deliberately not struck, she still worked to silence her laughter first and reorient her head, then her body. When she cleared her throat it sent a signal that seemed to clear the others’, and slowly they recovered, rising on wobbly legs and rolling their lips to get the twang out of their whiskers. Though much of their dignity was restored, there was still fear that Loric would crack another joke and bowl them over again, so they stayed off their rocky perches so as not to risk a second fall.
“Can we hear one?” Spiltilon pleaded with Tagalon, unnecessary as it was. Whatever they’d planned on doing that evening before the humans drifted in, it could no longer be done. The laughing fit had robbed them of the energy for it, of the focus and precision they would need to do it under the watchful snouts of the bears.
“Go and fetch some fish,” the romp leader told the youngster, the latter squealing giddily and scampering off. He couldn’t have meant any of the salmon, even the bones blown away from the river, so the otters must have had some stores of other kinds in that burrow of theirs. While Spiltilon was gone the river creatures arranged themselves as comfortably as possible.
Inkolon curled up into a crescent and rested her head on a wide flat stone. Tagalon and Hedfulon rolled onto their backs, lounging their shoulders and long necks against a boulder so they were sitting up and looking at Loric. Their paws automatically settled onto their furry stomachs, with the female leaning into the male in a suggestion of intimacy that did not have to be carnal. Loric understood now that he was looking at a family, regardless of both blood and lust.
Myrtelon showed the same comfort with Inkolon, backing up into the middle of her crescent and settling in alongside her, all the while choosing to stare at Loric without blinking. It could’ve been suspicion, or an avaricious need to examine his technique and incorporate what she could, but was most likely both.
How Loric felt about providing ammunition to the most competent beity storyteller he’d ever crossed was a mystery even to him, but he could not afford to hold back anything if there was the slightest chance it might cost them their trip across Plunderoe, into the lands surrounding Staircase, which was itself frightfully close to Rhadiospir.
So vexing was the female otter to him that he started to wonder about the rules of the Wild and the Tame. From both the lore of the Wild Trinity and the countless accounts of the bottomless book, he knew that mankind had abdicated the Tame somewhat willingly, that it had to at least be called their idea, since in its beginnings there wasn’t an animal alive that could have an idea as labyrinthine as a man’s.
There was no doubt that the force had shifted, from mankind to beastkind, and that even if a man could still invent, could still vie for power, could still create new masterworks of art, these things could no longer be done beyond a certain scale with their thinned blood. Staircase, a mere eggshell fragment of their former landscape, was likely the height of what could be achieved, and even it only did so under the license and support of Phobopan the fear-full lion.
But what of the individual? Who was to say that a single man, so much less than a society, was limited in how much they could stoke their remaining Tame, or how much they could reclaim from across the line in the cosmic sand that now shown in the night sky in the absence of electric lights?
The storyteller did not think this selfishly, to the exclusion of the animals. It was Myrtelon that inspired the whole idea. She showed a webbed toe stepping over a line beities were not supposed to be capable of crossing, even with double-thick blood, for if all beities could do such things then there was nothing keeping them from becoming exactly as man had.
It was not heresy, he decided, not when limited to the individual. Each life like his, like Myrtelon’s, was an aberration, a curiosity. They were not long-lasting enough to be of concern to the forces of nature, and there was no shame in it. A man was himself only by himself, but what would he ever do without an audience? Could he merely draw on a cave wall and consider the stone’s willingness to hold the marks reaction enough?
Among these questions was an understanding that he could not shift the Tame back, no matter what he did. That was a collective act, infected as the collective was by dissent. He still didn’t know if the old world was better by them and for them, with the Tame’s absence suggesting his forebears had decided it wasn’t when they handed him off to the true bears.
There was no time for these realizations to continue ravishing his mind, for Spiltilon had returned, even muttered an apology when he waddled by Loric and bumped his shoulder. He couldn’t quite see where he was going, hopping along on his hind legs so that his arms could be overloaded with snacks to nibble on during the show.
Not salmon, the humans confirmed as they took a good look at what Spiltilon was both spilling and handing out to the others: flatfish. They could’ve started that way, as the sideways creatures that fluttered along the riverbed, or maybe these skin-on fillets had been more traditionally shaped animals in their original form and the otters had used rocks to pound them flat.
Again the fugitives were struck by the genius of the creatures, as they smelled salt alongside the potent musk of the aged meat. Not only had they reshaped the food, they had done so specifically to increase its surface area, to maximize its contact with what had to be slabs of natural salt stored inside their burrow that worked to slow decay. Really, it was a miracle the promise of a story could get them sitting and attentive at all: the miracle of telling a joke about their sworn enemies.
“Are you ready?” Loric asked them, hoping they would bring down the volume on their gnawing once he got started.
“Proceed,” Tagalon said with false bravado and dainty swivels of his wrists, to a few more chuckles from his romp. They didn’t know what sort of tale to expect, understandable given that Loric only knew the broadest strokes, unable to stop himself from informing his ensuing speech with the revelations that Myrtelon’s cunning had spurred.
The individual’s relationship to the Tame was the impetus for the beginning he selected, which was an early favorite from the bottomless book. It was the tale of the Duckmaster, and, there on a secluded side of Blueguts, it began thusly:
“Long ago, when the buildings of man towered over the trees, a gaggle of birds made their way into the sky… by walking.” He paused to see if the otters would interrupt, try to correct him. Beities loved to correct humans, and most could of course volunteer the knowledge that, in actuality, birds flew into the sky rather than walked.
Not the otters. They already guessed an explanation was on the way, that it was all part of the tale. They set the standards for the story higher with every reaction. Loric would have to sweat to win the day. With a stomp and a deep breath he underwent his grand labor.