(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 45 minutes)
2036 is the kept Year
And the Ducks Expand Immeasurably in Dignity
Yes, they walked into the sky. To parcel their daily trip out more than that, they walked from their frolicking fountain across a red carpet, with many onlookers, and into an elevator that then closed its doors and escorted them gently to their penthouse in the sky where they would disembark and wait to do the whole thing again the following day.
This was the march of the Peabody ducks, as they had marched since the year 1933. It consisted of one male, a drake as they are called, and his five accompanying hens of drabber color. While the feathers upon his crown were a bright, nearly iridescent, green, like the felt on a billiards table spruced up for its first date, he was sometimes not the center of attention.
That honor could easily go to the Duckmaster. The position was held by many a person over the years, some honorary guests and others living the full life of the Duckmaster. The uniform that sometimes outshone the drake on his rougher days consisted of a red jacket with black cuffs, shoulders topped with tight chevrons of golden thread, and a long looped tassel hanging from one side like a rancher’s rope off the saddle.
Underneath was a tie and a buttoned vest, but of greater note was the black cane, topped with the head of a sharp-billed duck, used to make way for the ducks should any of their devotees become too enamored and cross the velvet ropes meant to keep them from the path of the march.
The Peabody of their name belonged to the building itself, which was a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. A hundred years ago the owners had allowed some of their pet ducks to play in the lobby fountain, and drawn from it much amusement. So too did passing guests, and before long they became a staple, then a ritual, and finally a way of life embodied by those who donned the Duckmaster uniform.
Originally the ducks had been call ducks, small high-pitched ornamental things brought out on hunts to quack and draw in those more suitable for shooting and hoisting above the head proudly. In the intervening years that role had been entirely supplanted by artificial duck calls, and the birds that now populated the penthouse were a more robust and regal breed.
By the tenure of Duckmaster Hattie Tincenny the hotel was known for nothing else, though it provided more than adequate service in hospitality. Each day the lobby was flooded with guests who would never see a bed, content instead with just a red carpet and the webbed feet waddle-marching upon it.
The elevator doors would open at eleven in the morning and Hattie, a young and exuberant woman with a chest full of ambition, all of it duck-oriented and so unrecognizable by others of her species, would stride out with her cane and her charges to the tune of a Sousa march. Inundated with camera flashes, they would make their way to the fountain so her precious little pets could wash them off in its basin.
Carved from Italian marble, topped with a head of fanning flower rods far too large to call a bouquet, the fountain was an adequate offering to the birds, who would swim and cavort to their hearts’ content until five on the dot, when Hattie would escort them out and back to the elevator where their rooftop palace awaited. In the beginning of her time it had recently been renovated, costing over one million dollars.
Excessive, even for the Peabody and its famous ducks, but it hardly made a dent in their profits, which had soared in recent years. There was no shortage of hotels, many more had been opened thanks to the recent wave of home invasions across the southeast, committed by what the press was calling ‘skunks, raccoons, and opossums adapted to cohabitation’.
This was an age of nature kicking people out of their homes as easily as humans had removed it in the first place, so there was great need of beds so coldly corporate that Mother Nature did not yet feel comfortable in their sheets. Hattie didn’t know too much about that; she lived in the hotel close to her ducks.
The owners had put her in charge of the ducks’ social media, which consisted of several accounts across just as many platforms. She had briefly worked in communications, and had at that time become familiar with the phenomenon called the ‘cute animal sinkhole’: the idea that eventually all internet activity would collapse into just the distribution and viewership of calming, endearing, or humorous photographs of animals.
All those hotels had to be owned by someone, and sometimes several of those someones were the same person. The rich were almost as rich as they could theoretically be, and had priced most of humanity out of its own trappings, but they hadn’t managed to limit access to the cute animal sinkhole, almost like some other mysterious entity was running it from an offshore server farm, or perhaps an outright submerged one.
Some would argue they stopped being hotels altogether when they allowed long-term stay and charged rent instead of rates, but that wasn’t Hattie’s purview. She just led the ducks and told people about them with her posts, each of which had come to garner hundreds of millions of views, even when it was just an announcement that they were switching feed brands.
Savvy in the ways of the duck, Hattie was early to posting pictures, then early to video, and finally early to live continuous camera feeds covering the fowls’ penthouse, elevator, and fountain. On an average day they had more viewers than an opening weekend box office for the biggest picture of the year.
The surge in interest was of course related to the cute animal sinkhole; if she needed any proof of that she got it when the hotel received an official request from the United States executive branch to cease their daily video feed. The lawyers assured Hattie she had no such legal obligation, and also hinted that sabotaging the feed had a much greater chance in embroiling her in court.
None of this was any concern to her, convinced as she was that she already lived in the eye of the sinkhole. For a while she entertained the notion that her own decisions with the ducks were the very genesis of it, but there was strong evidence that there were several nexuses across the continents: capybaras in South America, pastel-painted elephants in Asia, stacking meerkats in Africa, and an Australian kangaroo bounding into a relay race and winning.
Such was the world’s business, not Hattie’s. Her business was the ducks, and she’d never fielded a single complaint, except from those who booed and jeered at her execution of the ducks’ strict schedule. They wanted more, and who could blame them.
So attentive was she that not a single duck had perished under her watch, more than impressive considering that several of the birds were well past their expected lifespans. It was the schedule, she reasoned, in combination with the elements of the ritual: the elevator, the red carpet, and the fountain. The birds moved in a miniature replica of a migratory pattern, living a whole year in a day as they traveled from the cold north to a wet south humid with the breath of an anticipating public.
Hattie marched day in and day out regardless of health. She took no vacation days, glad that all requirements for such things had recently been legislated away, not that she would’ve obeyed the law anyway. A new law formed, she felt it, one that wasn’t so heavy in the soul, one that glided across the surface of a pond silent and serene. Natural law.
The ducks’ audience grew all the more fervent, but as they did the power of the ritual outpaced them. No matter how the rabble pushed, shoved, shouted, they would not cross onto the ducks’ path. People could suffer from the confines, have the breath crushed out of them, and still no human foot would touch the red carpet. The Peabody’s walls would crack, had cracked, under their pressure before the path was violated.
No fool, Hattie was not oblivious to the daily changes, more and more noticeable after the stock market collapse and its replacement with the Safari Photo Online Retail Token Service, or SPORTS, its short-lived cute animal sinkhole counterpart, the result of apoplectic brokers hoping that pictures of animals could serve as the new currency. It was all in error, but so much the more when they tried to limit others’ access to free photos and video. After that they had to learn that there was no new currency at all, that the world would only ever barter again.
Which the Duckmaster was content with. By her measure her wealth only grew, for she treasured the sense of awe and of grandeur at play when she performed her duties. Her ducks became wiser, more distinct from each other, and larger. The fountain began to overflow, and the audience relished the new instinct that told them they were never to mop any of it up.
The ducks’ feed was no longer delivered, but those who came to see them provided, tossing out sprays of oats like rice at a wedding and presenting grape bunches on bent knee. At some point the ornamental flowers of the fountain had been replaced with real ones that somehow got through the foundations of the Peabody and found soil to root in. They grew to an incredible height and from there crept across the walls and turned into vines that never browned or dropped a leaf.
All of these changes were gradual, save one, which came on the first day that the ducks truly had guests of their own, invitations passed to smaller birds and then on to their recipients. Hattie, pained by the alteration to procedure, now chose to take each duck down in the elevator one by one, as two could no longer fit.
When the doors opened that day and the drake emerged behind the Duckmaster he was forced to pause, for his escort had. All at once she saw the lobby as a new place even though it hardly looked different from the month before. It was its altered role that had struck her, just as hers soon would.
The lobby was no longer an altar to the Peabody ducks; it was a gathering place. In this freshly christened council chamber many creatures patiently and reverently awaited their hosts. Of the humans their greatest change was their quiet, as they no longer clamored for a peek, and instead prayed to feel the nearby grace, the glide of the new natural law as the Tame drifted away from them into a blinding dawn they could not trace and threaten.
But they were there merely to fill in the margins; they were not the guests. Some of the invited animals Hattie recognized from their fame online, though they, like the ducks, had grown to astounding size.
Nestled down snugly behind the concierge desk was none other than Sandal Pelican, a famous early example of the cute animal sinkhole, a viral sensation that prevented ten thousand suicides if the comments on his video were to be believed. He had grown a crest upon his beak resembling the straps of the footwear, and when he glanced at the Duckmaster he appeared to do so through spectacles because of it.
The sensation of his gaze filled Hattie’s chest with warmth, and, though she had difficulty defining how she knew it, light. She was acknowledged by this beast of the sky, not as consumer, statistic, voter, or criminal, but as an acolyte of the ducks. She was in the nest of a new and grand institution, and regardless of how it treated her down the line she was so relieved to not be of her country, state, and demographic that she wept tears of release. A floodgate revelation of pure emotion. The heart escaping its claustrophobic dodecahedron dam.
And Sandal Pelican was but one of the guests. Hattie was now glad for the alteration of their routine, for it gave her a moment in the elevator to recover and prepare herself for the glory of the others she had to witness. At the top she bowed to allow one of the hens to enter, again shocked when she tilted her head outside the car and saw the sun, saw how dim it looked compared to Sandal Pelican, nothing more than a caution traffic light.
When she next disembarked with the hen, spinning on her heels and bowing with her staff out to direct her next to the drake, she took in another wonder lounging comfortably in the risen waters of the endlessly overflowing fountain, which had been near Hattie’s knees for weeks now and held fish that had come from parts unknown.
They spiraled around the honored Daredevil Frog, a minor deity of the sinkhole, but one with the determination to make it to this important event. The video that birthed his fame saw him released from the cupped hands of a child and leaping straight into a campfire. Surrounding children had gasped and cried, questioning in their innocence why an animal would do such a stupid thing, but their reactions turned when their freed captive emerged from the other side unscathed, continuing on to the pond he had been pulled from.
Unscathed according to the grainy cellphone video, but not according to Daredevil Frog himself. Hattie now saw the truth as scar tissue rising up his chest that had taken the form of its creator, licking up the sides of his wide mouth like tendrils of flame, no doubt sculpted by the same forces that remodeled Sandal Pelican’s bill and the very interior of the lobby in which they now waited.
The frog, now the size of a bean bag chair, had no less of an impact than the first guest the Duckmaster noticed, and so she was again glad to retreat to the elevator and fetch another hen. Granted polite quiet by the duck overlooking her snotty weeping, Hattie put herself in the corner of the elevator car and desperately tried to don her mask of professionalism once more.
This was it, the most important march of them all, and now her soul chose to grapple with the reality of what was happening. This was a test, though the ducks and the other animals wouldn’t say it. Suddenly she wasn’t just a sideshow employee; she was now the only human of merit for miles in any direction. All the others were just as the fish, merely present, merely lesser creatures too lowly for names who swarmed about the larger animals only to worship them, adequately frame them for any magenta eyes watching from the depths of the cosmos.
A tiny quack from the hen reassured her, for which she thanked the duck copiously, stopping only because the elevator had arrived. She wiped her expression at the exact pace of the door opening.
Second hen flanked drake, and the Duckmaster saw and knew her third sinkhole animal of the day: a rabbit. A rabbit the size of a van. She didn’t like getting her feet wet more than any more typical creature of her kind, and so was held aloft by more than a dozen people on their knees and elbows, their own heads barely above the water.
She was Hat Rabbit, star of an eleven second comedy sketch where a hatbox was opened, she was removed, and then she was placed on the head of an adolescent who proceeded to make several poses and kissy faces as cameras flashed. Hattie thought it strange the animal showed no markings of its genesis event, but then she reminded herself of the platform on which the rabbit rested. It was, as before, made of humans.
The Peabody Ducks could always be observed from the next floor up as well as the lobby, and when Hattie’s eyes climbed she saw yet more internet sensations come to join the summit. As with the others she remembered each of their stories as she brought down the other two hens:
There was Front Seat Dog, who howled and whined during car rides if he wasn’t afforded the place next to the driver, who in the end received it even when it meant the driver’s wife had to sit in the back.
Near him sat the 4K chameleon, who had toppled a very expensive yet poorly mounted television when she struck at an insect displayed on it with her tongue. Now as big as a shopping cart, she leaned over the balcony edge, globe eyes centered on the Duckmaster in a fashion most foreign for chameleon faces.
And there were many more, but Hattie did not yet know them, and their more minor fame had only exaggerated their size to a degree that could still occasionally be believed: jewelry thieving rats, a slug that escaped the maw of a carnivorous plant, a pair of romantically entangled roosters…
All of their eyes were on the Duckmaster and it was now time for the Peabody ducks to march to the fountain and bring into session… whatever this was. Whatever the world beyond now was. She didn’t know. She hadn’t seen anything other than its sun in months.
She took her position at the head of the waterfowl procession, raised her staff so its metal eyes could gleam right back at the onlookers. Behind her the Peabody ducks settled down on the water as if they swam peacefully across a much deeper lake, gliding with an impossible elegance, making Hattie hyper aware of how her marching disturbed the waters.
Her trudge was the only sound, as the Sousa march had stopped some days ago and not been missed. The splashes were disruptive, unsettling, shameful, and each step pounded on her heart like a sledge hammer. Then she stopped at the foot of the overflowing fountain, watched her ripples finish ruining the atmosphere the stoic sinkhole animals emanated.
These feelings were a lesson she could learn, and this was her only chance to do so. Her march disrupted the event because now was the time of the changing of the guard, the type of guard. She could shift just as the lobby had, but she had to show then and there that she knew how and why.
The Duckmaster took a new sort of breath, spun, and dropped to one knee. With her head bowed she turned her staff, presented it to the drake on two flat palms. Despite the maelstrom of emotions and her thundering heart she knew this was correct, that nothing had ever been so correct as offering the Peabody ducks a chance to take the staff, to be their own leaders.
She was nothing, because her kind had made themselves nothing in a self-inflicted defeat. Of course she could not remain in her position without a gesture of vulnerability, of subservience to those who would not have the capacity to be their own downfall.
All about her the animals exuded thoughts and feelings. Together they wove the very possibilities in the air, but they did not speak, until now. Together, a ring of the Tame about the neck of every duck, almost visible, their spirits were buoyed into the realm of the intellect and their will became a word spoken in the tongue of the mind, heard and understood by all, even down to those microscopic, who coiled their cilia in their own version of respect.
“Rise!” trumpeted the Peabody ducks, and Hattie dared not disobey. A smile exploded onto her face as she turned the staff again and rose to meet them once more, not as Duckmaster, but as Duckservant.
The people cheered, the reaction sanctioned by the equally effusive sounds from the guest animals. Daredevil Frog croaked a hearty approval as Front Seat Dog howled as 4K Chameleon struck a hanging bell with her tongue repeatedly. Fish leapt from the water and spiraled as a swarm of radiant dragonflies emerged from the fountain’s flower-column and redecorated the walls in green and blue.
The Duckservant stepped aside, her duties of introduction performed, so the Peabody ducks could glide about and confer with their peers. She held her deep bow, watching her heavy smile ripple in her reflection. Another name occurred in her head, though none had spoken it with mouth or mind. It occurred as it did in heads the world over, at least those who could see something other than darkness ahead. Beity.
Soon the Peabody hotel would grow into another new name, as it welcomed more and more beities who came to discuss the new order. The voices of their minds were still fresh, rarely audible to man, never so much as the single word the Peabody ducks had spoken to their servant.
And she had risen, while others would certainly fall. Those who were the most responsible for the loss of the Tame, men of SPORTS, men who worshiped a hungering swallowing economy that could never germinate, men who would never have stopped until the extinction list included species they’d never discovered, even the flora of their own guts, would be brought to the fountain.
They would be forced to bow by a paw or hoof on their back and as they begged and mewled, understanding less than those of a single cell, a claw would glide across their throat and out would pour more red carpets that flowed straight to the fountain.
And in this crimson crossroads the Peabody ducks would feed, bills tremulously sifting out the delicious blood like crumbs of bread, but far more nourishing.
“Doesn’t count as a story if it really ‘appened,” Myrtelon said, the first to speak after she was certain Loric wasn’t using one of the dramatic pauses she herself had practiced. She didn’t know if what he described was history, but it rang like history, so it was accused of being such.
“All stories come from the real world,” the storyteller argued. “Truth is the caterpillar to fiction’s moth. And as it so happens… that wasn’t the story.” The otters turned to each other to see what they had missed, but nowhere in their family had Loric’s intent been gleaned. Wide paws shifted nervously back and forth, unbalanced, for rare was the occasion where not even one in five in a multifaceted and high-minded romp couldn’t make enough sense of a thing for the others to follow them.
What the fugitive from Krakodosus had said bore all the hallmarks of a story: characters, events, a setting, and descriptions. Ever-perceptive Myrtelon even recognized that its single location made it rather like a stage play, though she had only witnessed such a thing once when a traveling troupe owned by a merchant painted horse had passed by the river and given a performance for the fireflies who in turn provided the lighting for their stretched-cloth backdrop.
And what the man had recounted was copiously dramatic, and was indeed a pivotal event in the early world of beities. The importance he’d placed on the Duckservant’s baton was even relevant, though Loric had only sensed it himself and had not been gifted its fate by the bottomless book.
But great was its power, made as it was primarily of wood, of a formerly living thing in a mystically-revitalizing wild. Greater than the staff of Moses or the rod of Aaron which could transform into serpents. Like Aaron’s, the Duckservant baton regained its ability to bud and to put down roots, which it did when cast into the moist earth outside the Peabody by the fourth Duckservant in the age of beities, when the year was no longer kept.
Sprouting anew and glorious, almost wrathful, like a vengeful cadaver claw from out the grave, the Duckservant baton grew into a stern black tree of wide canopy and bare branches, seen as a stark spiderweb from the sky. Though it was no mountain-stump it stood large enough to signpost the Peabody, then and now called the Preybody, guiding diplomats and rivals from all across the southeast of the continent to the place where they could make council and partake of the red bread, which was the ducks’ name for scavage.
Atop this tree grew a burl shaped like the head of a duck, at center of which sat the original metal ornament in much the same likeness. Everything but the metal was reproduced, in miniature, when the tree came to seed, and around it grew the vibrant yet black swamps. That tree, seen by many as the southern mountain-vassal, was known not only to defend its sovereignty, but to bend its branches unseen so as to guide loyal humans to safety and deviants to their demise.
Loric knew some of this, with scant a connecting detail, but the story he struck naturally wove much of it together in a simulacrum of history thanks to hybridized skill and instinct. He explained this stroke of his plan in part.
“Whether or not this preamble counts as a tale on its own is irrelevant, my dear otters, for it was completely necessary to provide… context.” Their long necks retracted like snakes taken aback, offended out of an imminent deadly strike. It was the reaction he’d hoped for. They knew what context was, but only vaguely, and the word made Myrtelon’s fur prickle. She knew it was one of those words she was missing part of, like not being able to see what lurked in a lake thanks to its murk, and that she better pretend to have a complete grasp if she wished to keep up her reputation.
“Context… for… what… exactly?” the authorial otter asked, choosing each word like she was choosing which young to nurse and which to let starve. Her final word was chosen most incisively, implying that she already knew his game, just not the minutiae in his version of the rule book, all the while simply asking him to clarify.
“Context for the real story, the one that will reward you so richly you’ll feel compelled to not only let us cross Plunderoe, but help us do so. The Duckservant plays a part in it, so I had to ensure you were prepared to undertake this journey as I lay down the path before you.”
“This feels like a current,” Spiltilon whispered to adjacent Inkolon, his head slithering back and forth on his neck in pantomime. Her only response was to rip another strip from her preserved fish and chew too quickly, turning it into a gum in her mouth. Loric recognized that as a positive sign: an engaged audience always ate their provisions too quickly, then found themselves without distraction by the most climactic point.
Yet they’d reached the point where Loric needed the utmost caution. Much of this story would be crafted in the moment, partly so Myrtelon couldn’t catch a piece he’d largely grafted from one she might have heard before, leaving him with tough decisions that split his focus like an ice pick.
This was the toughest of those: who should be the star of this story? The obvious answer was an otter, just as the choice with Krakodosus had been a bear, in order to breed easy relatability. Animals wore more sympathetic to those that wore the same hide, and more so to those of the same kind, and more so their close blood relatives.
But Myrtelon, and to a lesser extent the others of her romp, complicated the matter. Perceptive like a shark with its double-thick blood doubled up in its brain, she might see through the tactic, tell the others that it was all a glamour meant to confuse and manipulate them. She might say that it was the story of an otter because he needed the help of an otter, and that would rob poor Spiltilon and the others of their sense of wonder. Cynicism would wash over them like green tub water, and they wouldn’t hear a word out of him after that.
That left the option of another animal as the protagonist, a close relative perhaps, though not one in the reproductive sense. Beities paid no attention to morphology, only to behavior and role. While the bottomless book had told him otters were nestled alongside weasels and badgers on the tree of life, such creatures would not elicit sympathy the same way an animal with a closer lifestyle would.
No, an otter would prefer to hear a story about a mink, or a beaver, or perhaps even a venomous diving shrew. It had to be something with strong ties to the water, for in the hearts of such creatures every other pump was of their river and not their double-thick blood.
The biggest pitfall he avoided was the wolverine, the glutton, the quickhatch, mightiest among the weasels and fiercest among the needle-teeths of the leaf litter. As a close relative and a renowned warrior to the last drop of life, its reputation was a siren song to the storyteller. But water was needed.
In the end of the longest pause he felt comfortable taking, more than water was needed as well. Myrtelon might see through it, but the otters themselves were the best candidates. If they were to model their behavior after his story in an effort to live it, to live the thrill of hearing it and thus magnify it a hundred fold, they had to have the closest connection he could breed.
“The Duckservant is here little but a pair of eyes, through which we will peer into the recent past, for they have witnessed the perils undertaken by Errolero the giant otter, up from the southern continent of his people, an explorer and champion of justice in the black swamp of Preybody and the gracious host ducks.”
There was no immediate rejection among the romp, no scoff from Myrtelon. Both Hygenis and Ellapock were oblivious to the snares the man had just sidestepped, as well as unaware of Myrtelon’s unusual creative capabilities. They were sitting back, relaxed, listening; the marmoset, now more comfortable in the thinnest velvet restored to him, still treated Hygenis’s hook like a hammock, his tiny hand and arm hanging off the side.
Something like serenity was adjusting itself inside the dentist, a most unfamiliar sensation. She needed to keep her thumbs out of the thundercoat’s mouth so she could keep count of all the dangers they were in on her hands, yet she was more at home there in Otter’s Whip than she’d ever been in Compassleaf.
For a brief moment she considered leaping up and performing some hook maneuvers, for these new sensations had to be a sort of poisonous miasma hanging about, making her sluggish. Then she let it strike her, gently, that she was simply responding to Loric’s storytelling. It wasn’t precise, it wasn’t the way he would like, but it was now taking some effect on her.
No words excited Hygenis, and no sentences. All statements pertaining to her, and her range of motion, were made silently by a spider tugging on a thread, tightening it about a limb or neck. Talk was just so much birdsong in comparison, but she found she could enjoy it in much the same fashion.
Loric was in his element, comfortable making the noises he was bound to make, and his contentment infected her. This was just the Bloody Mouth returning her devotion, she decided, leaning back to hear Loric and not his tale. His joy was her peace, as was the otters’.
The dentist didn’t even register the name Errolero, but if she had she would’ve understood it was a different sort of high name than those of the otters present. This romp was on otters, of the kind on, and Errolero was of the kind ero. He was an otter, but a distant cousin, the distancing intended to help throw Myrtelon off the trail of manipulation.
It was just the first stroke of a rapidly-coalescing master plan that would cut the female otter off from any objections, but she would hopefully not realize that until close to the finale. There was much to do before then. What followed was the performance the desperate fugitives needed it to be. Loric normally had to hold back something to keep his voice, which he couldn’t afford to lose when he was performing five nights in a row, but for the otters he screamed himself raw, just as each character would when he killed them off, made them face their worst fears, and gave their enemies little victories that felt larger in the moment.
The dental mirror was incorporated as well, the first time in a storytelling performance in ages. Much of its use was as a stand-in for objects from the tale like the Duckservant baton, or a helpful stick jammed in the mouth of the villain trying to swallow the protagonist, or a line in the stones representing a border it was most illegal to cross, which Errolero of course crossed when chivalry demanded.
As with the adventures of Sportarct, much of the potency of Loric’s story would be lost in a perfunctory recreation. So much of it was in his physicality, in the voice tearing holes in itself to simulate the stings of vicious underling insects, in the way he turned the mirror and let the otters see their own faces in the moments Errolero was meant to reflect, that simply repeating it plot point by plot point achieves nothing.
Some of it must be described, but only to clarify how the otters were swayed, and in what direction, and whether or not it was intentional. As the hours passed and the sun descended Loric talked and walked circles around the romp, trying to answer any questions he saw forming in their dark eyes, even if it meant a lengthy aside with a miniature climax of its own. Not once did a query rise in their gorge enough to hit the air and interrupt him.
Errolero the jolly giant, an otter grown large as a bear and long as a python in the warm waters of the hothouse south, came north to confer with the ducks of Preybody, hoping they would summon their many contacts so he could appeal to them as well. The subject of that appeal was his dear friend, unnamed in Lowmanish because man could not pronounce the name a river had given itself. Only the river and its tributaries could do that. And the otters of course, so there was no one else qualified to make the introduction.
It was charity that brought him up the land, along the coast of the mean old crater and sidewinding through its tossed hurricanes. He came before the river, for the river knew that traveling without warning would be most disrespectful. At Preybody Errolero was to make its case, to tell the beities of the north that it wanted to visit, and if it felt right, to stay.
The new river would bring with it warm waters and all their bounties. If it came no beity would be at risk of freezing in the winter, for there would be a steaming warm bath close by. The arrangement would be mutually beneficial, as the river was eager to see new lands, and course with new fish and shells.
And the black trees pointed the way and the ducks were agreeable and so too were all the beities they brought. All. Except. One. The frozen rock. The killjoy. The beity who turns away the very rays of the sun when they attempt to greet her: Muddabos the bison. She admitted it not, but clearly she had come to Preybody just to obstruct, and that was her very nature, for she hated the humid swamp lands and everything in them, having plowed her way straight to the former hotel in a trail of destruction when the black baton trees refused to show her the path.
Muddabos would abide no new river. Muddabos would abide no warm river. She lived on flat land. She knocked down trees with her hard head and carved them into fences with her obsidian horns in order to keep others out. All day and all night she sat in the middle of a cold river, staring into the mists, in what she always described as building character.
The colder the water the better, though she didn’t permit it to freeze. If a warm path came through she sensed it and struck immediately, her girth belying the lightning fast reflexes of rage mummified inside wraps of ropy muscle. Those warm spots were so frightened they turned and flowed in the other direction, even as the rest of the river continued on its course.
And so Muddabos would turn away this new river before it even arrived, in her eyes save the beities of the world from the character-softening currents of the frivolous and immature south. They would thank her later, when they were all as granite as her, and as old as the mountains underneath the mountains that refused to be cut by water, that shaped the very lands.
They came to their inevitable clash when Errolero brought his entreaty to the Preybody. This was also where the Duckservant rejoined the narrative, so it was where Loric increased the level of detail to startling sharpness, tears blinked away so every leaf in the forest could be seen. It proved the necessity of the preamble, for without it the lens that now made the story feel so much truer would not have existed.
The Duckservant, their place in the line of servants now as unkept as the year, recalled through Loric how the gliding ducks brought the meeting to order, quieted the balcony bullfrogs, the hanging bats with stars in their wing membranes, the catfish with nimble barbels curling into crowns above the water, and all the others, including Muddabos sulking in her warm bath in a paradoxically ancient petulance.
The giant otter pleaded most obsequiously, unafraid to debase himself on behalf of any of his friends, a notion Loric knew the otters would understand. Any individual shamed could retreat into the dignity of their romp and thus dissolve it.
But there was no vote. When a powerful beity speaks it overrides the will of the smaller and weaker others. The ducks offered no words of judgment, as they were there only to maintain the arena. All opinions were in the favor of the new river. All. But. One. Muddabos voiced her opposition, pledged to turn the river away with one strike, even if doing so looped it back to the ocean and created a new island whose residents might then starve, cut off from their migratory routes.
Errolero was not a creature of pride, or, as Loric corrected himself, not a creature that stored his pride in his body. It was in the waters he swam and fished. Its honor could be at stake, and was under the threatening hoof of Muddabos. So the otter spoke again, groveling before Muddabos individually this time, offering to sit with her in cold waters for centuries if that was what it took, offering to learn her ways completely if only she would give others the chance to learn his.
She refused, and with a smug snort made an offer that she thought could get her out of there and back to her tundra as fast as possible. A duel. A death on either side would settle the matter completely, a notion to which none present could disagree. The bison and the otter could take it outside, and whichever could bring it back inside would have their way.
The Preybody was not a battleground, but when the animals exited they found the black baton trees had subtly constructed one, woven themselves into a circular basket edged with inward thorns, not that any of them could stop Muddabos if she decided to charge through them. The pair each took a side.
Again Errolero asked that the impasse end peacefully, for he was not violent by nature, so much so that when he fished his prey often thanked him for ending things so politely and respectfully. Some were practically eager to be consumed by a soul that was truly gentle among the high names.
Muddabos rejected him a final time, and their duel began with a hundred beities bearing witness.
And Errolero lost. He did not do so slowly, not as reported by Loric. To the enrapt otters it was an epic struggle, with much back and forth, and throughout they subconsciously saw themselves fighting against bears. Loric hoped this anyway, for that was why he chose a bison as the antagonist. As with the protagonist Myrtelon might have called out anything too close to their current circumstances in the Salmon Run, so instead of a bear it was a creature filling a similar role that would, in the close heat of the battle, be identical. When Errolero was wrestling Muddabos he was wrestling a mighty wall of dense fur that would not allow him to interact with the waters of the world as he pleased, and so Muddabos was Krakodosus.
The romp could hardly believe they lost to Krakodosus, and not only that, they were mocked by total evisceration. With a dead Errolero hung on Muddabos’s horn, she shook his remains back and forth, raining blood into the waters until he was nothing but rain, without so much as a sore neck in the end, for she was like rock and would be completely impenetrable until the day she split down the middle.
Loric could’ve killed their spirits. The romp would not be on his side, but they still would’ve been defeated, pulled into the tale as if by net and then dropped into a death that hit them close, like that of a true friend. But Loric kept talking, as if the story was not over. Could it be? They looked to Myrtelon, but she looked to Loric. She didn’t know what this was. It couldn’t be a setup for more context, as Errolero was now deceased and thus could not be the point of view for another story another layer deep.
Technically, they began to notice, Errolero had not left the story, only transformed into clouds of red in the stagnant waters of the swamp. Stagnant, yet not without activity. The Duckservant observed that the red bread was on the move, drifting away from the battlefield as a stream, into one of the entrances to the Preybody.
They followed, marching alongside, for the red bread was the property of their masters, payment for hosting services rendered to the larger community, and they could do with it as they pleased. Their masters fed in private, so none of the guests had returned inside. Quiet had gone the Preybody, a quiet that made the bump of two lily pads like the collision of felled trees down white rapids.
In it glided the Preybody ducks, still holding to the original composition of one drake and five hens. Eggs were laid in clutches of six, and from them that ratio was always born, though the brood were never guaranteed a position within the old hotel. When an elder perished an offspring rose, and like a great many things it was the flow of red bread that determined who commanded the Duckservant, and who merely commanded their respect.
Red bread pooled about the fountain as omen, as rolled bones gone to liquid, and sometimes the Preybody Ducks did more than read it before they fed upon it. Sometimes it was double-thick, its high name insoluble, and it could make requests as well as prophecy.
Long at their side, the Duckservant could read much of the red bread’s intent as well. It was all a matter of recognizing its mind-voice as identical to that of a living beity. There was no more prized position for a slave in all the world than the Duckservant, and humans clamored for mere proximity to the position, so the current servant was extremely cautious even when leaning in to read the red bread, keeping their own ankles out of its flow so as not to distort the message.
Somehow the ducks could sail through it without disturbing it, their elegance one of the primary and eldest proofs of beity divinity. Thick blood most buoyant. A power to listen, to alter, and to stop altering when most appropriate.
Loric told the romp that the ducks kept the request to themselves, but that the Duckservant spoke of it, and that was how the story came to him, and thus eventually to the romp. Errolero requested to live again, to have another opportunity to be as tenacious as the river he represented, to flow again with a different temperature and temperament.
The Duckservant knew, when the ducks appeared to feed on the red bread, that the remnants of the otter were not actually being consumed. Deft and exacting was the bill of a duck, and none more so in all the world than those of the Preybody ducks. They could sift gold flecks from the water and foil their bills with it if they so wished.
With that deftness in full practice the Duckservant observed the key moment, where the drake took from the red bread the insoluble high name and tucked it into a groove of his mouth for safekeeping.
Following a silent order, fish appeared, pushing a raft of natural black bark shed from a mighty baton tree which knew the directions to all the meeting places of beities across the world. They too avoided swimming through the red bread, simply setting their raft off to the side and vacating swiftly.
The hens, with mouths full of red bread, came to the raft and began to deposit choice morsels upon the flat bark. From the cloud of death they knew exactly what to take and where to put it, though the bias of their own forms crept in. The ducks had craft, but they were not the hand of nature itself, and so could not recreate Errolero as he had been. Instead they made what ducks could make out of an otter’s clay.
When a bed of red bread was established the hens spun away like winged seeds on the wind to make way for their drake. Gently he placed the insoluble high name in its bedding. Bill to bill a hen passed him red bread, with him placing it about the name layer by layer as if laying soft bricks. Once it was safely enclosed in flesh the work sped up, all the ducks about the raft at once, laying lines of the new creature.
The Duckservant watched it take shape from the balcony, having only seen their masters build beities a few times prior. It was rare work, for if too much death was undone both nature and the other beities would revolt, for the dead were meant to be food for the living and for the world. Feet had to become the soil upon which feet moved.
Bones were built then spittle-wrapped in red bread that already glistened with anticipation. Industrious effort brought forth organs like gems, nudged and rearranged until they looked just right like the fruits in a cornucopia. The main cavity was sealed, and then the drake breathed into the puckered seal, inflating it with the breath of life, held and not refreshed until the hide was finished.
The ducks lined up red bread in their bills until it became rows of hairs, each one planted in the hide as delicately as a sprout. The drake rotated his head on his neck as he worked his way around the eye sockets, building the creature’s second sight. All of what was Errolero was used, and when the waters about the fountain were crystal clear once again the breath of life was released. The new body exhaled and inhaled. The high name was held tight and did not escape in those crucial first bouts of respiration.
Born again was the beity, but as a duck’s otter. Gone was the neck, its length compensated for by a black leathery duck bill now cemented across the mouth. The body was shorter, plumper, the tail flattened, the feet much more webbed and hairless like a duck’s. Recognition hit the romp one by one. They’d heard of this creature, but never known its origin, for few lived on this continent in their time.
Loric gave it several names, all iterations, making its tail inextricable from the tale: a double helix of nature and etymology. Preytopus. Plotterpus. Platypus. The duck’s otter. In the story, on the raft, the new life spoke in a different mind-voice. From it the Duckservant learned that more than the shape had been altered.
Errolero was now female, and so physically altered that she chose a new high name by compressing the old one into a shape more aligned with this second life. Now she was Elorhynch, but still the greatest friend and animal love of the distant warm river so eager to go north in friendship and altruism.
Devoid of fear, for the ducks had recognized Errolero’s incapacity for such an emotion and maintained it in the new form, Elorhynch thanked them and took to the water with restored grace. The red bread was red no more, baked and brown and round, ready to deliver a taste of its essence to the insistent enemy.
Muddabos was slow to move when not doing so in violence, and had not yet left the black swamp. The black baton trees showed Elorhynch the way. When the bison heard her coming she turned to look, and by the time she turned back the trees had reforged the battleground just as the preytopus had been.
The bison dared laugh, which she hadn’t done in lifetimes. Some hidden plates of the deep earth laughed more often than her, and she dared laugh at Elorhynch, recognizing her through her change. She told the reborn beity that she had drowned, and that the ducks had lifted a corpse to eat it, and accidentally let it slip through shoddy manners, and thus the plotterpus was there to be wiped away again.
Still Elorhynch tried reason, an honest plea. The bison was unmoved. And so the fight broke out again, brutal and prolonged. Elorhynch weaved between water and stomping hooves, bill striking at thinnest hide like an ax blade. Her foe repeatedly tossed her with horns, into the clawed boughs of baton trees. She dove in determination, swam like a dart back to the fight.
For her river. For the spirit of the otter. For the birthright of free flowing water. With a jump she slashed the air; Muddabos brought obsidian horn to meet. And meet they did.
And this was where Loric Shelvtale stopped speaking, dropped his hands. The mirror stood as a post to his side, Tagalon able to see only half his face in its angle.
“Why’s ‘e stopped?” Spiltilon yipped, upright and alarmed.
“No one’s as good as ‘e says ‘e is,” Myrtelon guessed breathlessly when she felt her romp’s eyes on her. “‘E needs more time to shape an ending. Reached beyond ‘is wit ‘e ‘as.”
“No, I have the ending,” Loric said, breaking the silence forcefully, as if he’d snapped a vassal stick over his knee. “But you do not.”
“We know that ‘uman,” Hedfulon spat, fluffed from affront, blustery as a sea lion. “This is where you give it to us.”
“Why should I?” Loric growled. “Have you proven yourselves? This story is for those with otterly spirit. Otters are defiant. Otters rise to the challenges of the river and otters best bigger and burlier beasts. I haven’t seen that from you. I’ve seen you sunken and sneaking, and not once have you existed in the sight of a bear. For all I know you might vanish in a puff of red bread should one see you.”
Hygenis was on her feet. A flick of her wrist tossed Ellapock off her hook and onto her shoulder so the weapon could be at the ready when the otters pounced on her ward, which she now considered inevitable. He had brought them too far to deny them, but then, that was the point wasn’t it?
“Turn over what is ours, now,” Tagalon demanded, having bounded up to Loric’s face. His whiskers touched the man.
“As the bears have turned over what is yours?” Loric challenged. Even with Tagalon in biting distance of the hot fruit skin of his neck, the storyteller stole a glance to the side, at Myrtelon. She was still the true threat. Now was the moment where she would’ve wanted to accuse him of manipulation, of picking an otter’s story just to give them a veiled order. But he had successfully headed her off, as it wasn’t an otter’s story, not by the climactic hill they were perched on, squirming.
The story was about a platypus, not an otter. It was about righteousness and chivalry and water, otter things, but not an otter. He had even changed the beity’s sex, which brought Hedfulon, Inkolon, and Myrtelon as close to the character as Tagalon and Spiltilon were, bringing all their investment in the character in line.
Baited by otter, switched to preytopus, left as cliffhangers, a position made all the more precarious by the stubby and webbed paws of both animals. Like a giant clam Loric now contained a bounty of meaty treasure, but it was locked away tight. Yet otters were tool users, so they rummaged through their box of tricks for anything that could be tried before acquiescing.
“Myrtelon,” Tagalon addressed without retreating from Loric, who now smelled nothing but the salty flatfish on his breath, baked by his frustration, “can you finish it?” This was it, Loric knew. The actual crucial moment. He chose to bend, look around Tagalon and challenge the creative otter with his stare.
She met his gaze, mind not racing, but lifting heavy stones and probing underneath, carefully considering which ones were worth the effort of moving. It was Shelvtale’s hope that her skill was slow and deliberate, lacking any dynamic qualities. Her stories couldn’t turn on a pin the way a human’s could, for she tackled the task in her relaxation time, treating them as decorative baubles rather than working toys.
She was gentle with them, doubting as she did her own grasp on the more advanced aspects. Myrtelon the collector, who only had so many endings in her collection, each one hard won from the imagination aether, polished and shelved and called upon only when needed, and only when fitting precisely what came before. There were a few more in the works, but to ask her to finish them there only to realize none of them were compatible was beyond reason. Which she knew.
“No,” she answered her romp, to their dismay. “And if we try and take it from ‘im… ‘e could spoil it with a rotten one.” That was an attempt to regain some ground, and slightly successful. Even in victory Loric felt syrupy dread over his organs; her gleaning of that possibility was too close to the true deviousness of an author. Any more arrows pulled from behind his back might be wrenched away, leaving him humiliated and empty of all but quivers.
“We need it Tagalon,” Spiltilon said from behind his leader, terrified his fellows might not feel the same way. “Who knows ‘ow long it’ll be before I can think of anything else. ‘Alf my life could waste away wondering!”
“Relax,” Inkolon said, scratching her ear with a back paw, affecting nonchalance. “We’ll get it.” She started to bend this way and that, limbering up. Already her preparation had shifted from argument to action, to be enacted against the bears instead of Loric. They all shared some measure of relief that there was now a reason to challenge the robber bears they could allow to override their survival instinct.
“What are your exact terms for turning over Elorhynch’s ending?” Tagalon asked.
“Simple,” Loric claimed, “all you have to do is get us across the river safely, tonight, by whatever tactics you deem most shrewd, whether they be stealth or open combat. After all, Elorhynch only turned to violence when there was no other choice.”
“She was great that way,” Spiltilon added, nodding. Hedfulon reared up and landed on the youngster, shutting him up and pushing him away, toward the huddle where they would plan the evening’s maneuvers.
“We’ll be back,” Tagalon said, as if they were still in deliberation. Like Inkolon, Loric’s concerns had already pushed forward, to the moment his toes hit the waters slick with fish oil.
On the misty blues and purples of the early night, bears emerged from the woods for another feeding. Plunderoe was never empty of them during the Salmon Run, but now the Scion had come down from the hills for his feast. His cadre was simple to witness, for the brightness of the stars, of the vaporous river coursing between them, added to a bold lantern moon and their reflections on Plunderoe to make for a night almost as clear as the day.
The lights of the night, the green and blue insects bearing it as well, shone at their best out of respect for the Scion, for the time of year where the bears were best. Long had they had cordial relations with the stars, for the form of two bears, one large and one small, could be seen in the heavens as emissaries; all one had to do was draw lines between the relevant points of light. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor they had been called: unorthodox high names, but highest nonetheless, as the head had to tilt all the way up to address them.
Krakodosus the thundercoat compounded it all, lightning rumbling under his topcoat, flashing in his paws with every heavy step. Flanked he was, most immediately, by four bears of enormous repute.
There was Hyborus, a hybrid of brown and ice bear, muddy feet and snout about a pristine ivory coat. She was the most massive of them, and had come from her stomping grounds in the far north of Tuncrad, where the blankets of snow, which could be sharp to the soles of trespassers, parted to make way for her.
Ruddy and red, beside Hyborus, was Shabrickus the bellicose, the belligerent, the buster. He hunted by felling trees onto his prey and crushing them flat, licking them off rocks. In his territory every home was his, and weaker beities were expected to host him kindly when he destroyed their roofs to lounge in their beds. His tongue lolled out, hungry and stupid, ready to take more than his fair share of fish.
On the Scion’s other shoulder plodded Long-neck Lydrandus, the spying intellect, most intelligent bear of both Namstamp and Bagogreen. The bees were her spies, their queens making up her court. The great golden hive she lived in dripped with honey through all seasons, yet even she came for the bounty of the salmon. Some years she skipped, her queens whispering to her that the yield was weak that year, but not this year. This year’s was so strong it brought not just fish, but otters and humans and political intrigue had come bobbing along as well.
Last was Beglockus, the glad death, the death hobbyist. Thrice he had been defeated in battle, bloodied to the point it seemed a weight loss strategy, declared dead by those come to nibble at his lobes and gums. Thrice he had risen and made a snack of those presumptuous little creatures. Each time he returned he was a hungrier beast than before, and had already consumed twice as much as any bear that run.
Perhaps he would eventually be banished from the run, if he kept getting himself temporarily murdered and passing the cost along to his cohorts, and that was his reason for hovering about the Scion so brazenly. For the most part, these four were not the friends of Krakodosus; they were his rivals.
Only Lydrandus was content with her queendom, understanding that the position of Scion would split her attention too much to keep her colonies agreeable. She defended Krakodosus in his position simply to stay in his good graces and ensure high quality fish for herself. She was of little use in open battle, instead supplying him with information about likely challenges. Krakodosus was most satisfied with this arrangement, as all challenges to his position would result in one on one battles by the old rules.
Any bear could bring challenge to his post and become the new Scion, either by an admission of defeat or by death. Such challenges were limited to one per run however, as none expected any beity to fight without ample opportunity for recovery between bouts. Some years there was no challenge at all, for there was much to consider, even with the bears as a kind being brusque and not particularly erudite thinkers and schemers.
If one were to bring challenge at run’s inception, they did so knowing that a defeat that didn’t rob them of their lives did rob them of the privilege to partake of the fish that year. None invited to the run were in poor standing, and would survive without the bounty, but it made their upcoming hibernation all the more comfortable. Among them it was generally accepted that feasting on Blueguts salmon brought good dreams, and their spirits swam into those dreams to allow themselves to be fished a second time.
Long-neck Lydrandus had selected Beglockus as the one soonest to bring challenge, eager as he was to silence all talk of him taking too large a share before he was disinvited. Still, the challenge was not yet brought, so the five contending bears came to the river in relative peace, and behind them came another ten who were there mostly to eat.
They joined the handful that were already feeding, but only those flanking the Scion would benefit from his most unusual collection technique. Krakodosus facilitated the densest tables, and had thus accrued many years as Scion, for potential challengers often found themselves suddenly too full to fight.
It was into this coursing labyrinth of teeth, musk, and muscle the romp and their helpless cargo had to dive. Loric and Hygenis did not share the most pressing reason for their urgency, the feared return of the Sig-neagle, but the otters did not demand it, fearing their own bravery would be called into question if they requested they move the crossing to a time of lower bear density. Besides, they wanted the Scion to see, if they were doomed to being seen.
The fugitives had zero guesses as to how the otters would even slip into the water with that many bears on patrol. Perhaps they could’ve pushed one of the walls of rotting fish back into the water, hiding themselves in its collapse, but as it turned out they’d always been prepared for such intrusions, their subverted burrow modified into something like a beaver’s dam, another skill they’d cleverly acquired, to include a submerged entrance into the waterway.
Cold, but coursing and alive, the touch of the water was electric on the humans’ skin, and presumably on little Ellapock’s as well, though he was sequestered away in the bag, again gambling on pockets of air in objects he held overhead. Those outside the bag did their best to keep their eyes open, thick as the river was with oil and a blizzard of glimmering scales.
Silent and masterful, all five otters emerged into the depths from their hidden hole under a submerged boulder. Hygenis clung to the back of Tagalon, Loric to Myrtelon, who had insisted on being his steed and pestered him with questions about storytelling he was very reluctant to answer in detail, already fearing she might absorb some of his techniques by osmosis.
The journey across was not long in distance, but a straight shot was not possible, with bears vying for the best spots constantly and searching out fresher clusters of fish. Within minutes the otters could’ve weaved a giant basket with all the threading and dipping they had done. Shoals of fish were treated as moving cover, the elegant creatures gliding around their exterior to keep up with shifting angles.
Downstream of the Scion was the safest place to be, so there they stayed, with Krakodosus going about his usual showmanship, expressing more personality than he did in all other moments, save perhaps his affectionate fawning over his dear golden niece.
Brewing thunder came to a head, called out from his deep follicles by a throaty masculine roar. Krakodosus reared up, gathering the pale rumbling light in his forepaws. Lightning arced between his spreading black claws. Down they came in a booming splash, the spray a stunning curtain of several different lights in mix: moonlight, starlight, thunderhead flash, and the glitter of scales.
Out went a wave of electricity, fanning before him through Plunderoe, instantly killing all the salmon in its path. Bodies red and pink with stripes of living death bobbed up, presented themselves for eating. The five bears attacked the accumulating clumps, pouncing with wide legs to hold them back and snapping them up, swallowing many whole.
So egregiously powerful was Krakodosus that the small group could not possibly eat his whole harvest, with many drifting between them and continuing on, just over the slithering otters, to the other bears of downstream ranks.
The fugitives were halfway, if the circular wandering of Nimpetulus the minor, so named after his father Nimpetulus the major, was allowed to be their marker. Unfortunately, two bulky browns came up together, slowed their procession. Their noses were practically clogged with fish bones, so scent was no concern, and despite their pace it was beginning to look like the otters’ elegance, informed by endless spying and wrathful plotting, was infallible in practice.
If all variables were contained to that Salmon Run, and that run alone, undiscovered victory would have been theirs. But stories did not work solely for Loric Shelvtale; he could only watchfully shepherd so many. Nimpetulus the minor had heard one, telling of Krakodosus in the past runs, that the relatively young bear thought could get him some more fish with an effort even more minimal.
He’d heard a rumor most inflamed, by none other than another human storyteller desperate for material, that the leashed lightning of the thundercoat could do more than kill. Electricity was a versatile thing, that versatility lost on most when a strike was come and gone in a flash, but not lost on Krakodosus, who could call it forth and practice it at his leisure.
The Scion knew, according to the hot iron of the rumor anyway, how to use electricity to make muscles twitch, to reanimate dead bodies in spasm. Nimpetulus’s imagination had been captured by the reported image of fish killed by his lightning, but which immediately after leapt out of the water, straight into the mouths of waiting bears. So precise was the Scion that he could even aim the jumps through deceased bodies that weren’t his own, like those human games of skill where they tossed balls and sticks into distant holes for beities to wager on.
Nimpetulus the minor tested the patience of every bear there, breaking protocol to call out the Scion and see if all this was true. He wanted to see it, to feel it in his gut, to be more a part of the Salmon Run than he had in his previous visits, which numbered a measly two.
“My Scion!” he shouted, thinking a submissive tone would be sufficient to justify the interruption. All five of the upstream bears turned, thinking a foolish youth with a delusion of supremacy might be about to die at the end of the blackest of claws. A sudden fear struck Nimpetulus, but he batted it away, at least wise enough to know he needed to finish what he started. A disrespectful ‘never mind’ or ‘excuse me’ could easily cost his life as well. “Is your aim still the greatest?”
The younger bear bounded back to a distance he deemed too difficult to be achievable, splashing idiotically before whipping around, sitting on his haunches, and holding his mouth wide open.
The eyes of the bears shifted to the Scion. Was this to be an execution? Many of them suspected he was most sore at the moment, humiliated by an open hunt on escaped humans in his name, still open after many days, open while he presided over the Salmon Run. It suggested weakness.
Big, far blacker than the blue night, Krakodosus turned about. Without a word he reared up again, light flickering across his back and into his limbs. Whether he intended to jolt the fish or Nimpetulus the minor would not be known until it was too late to do anything about it, which put the younger bear in the awkward position of having to swallow fearfully while leaving his maw hung open like a begging fledgling.
The Scion struck the waters, a much narrower band of electricity issuing forth. A single salmon, already deceased, leapt out in response and sailed a great distance to the teeth of Nimpetulus. He didn’t even have to stretch to reach, nor angle his head back. The whole fish slid down his gullet without so much as touching his tongue.
Bears bellowed cheers, bounced their forelimbs up and down in celebration. Truly, his aim was the best, and his failure to catch his runaways must be a fluke. Confidence crackled on the mighty bear, and he was eager to make the fluke all the more absurd and trivial.
“Further!” the Scion ordered Nimpetulus, who was roused from paralysis by the goading of all the others. He shuffled backward, slipping into the current accidentally, though by the time he had his feet on stones free of scum he’d been dragged far enough back and across to satisfy his elder. Again he opened his mouth in challenge.
Krakodosus roared and struck Plunderoe again. The additional energy needed for the distance generated a greater serpent of light that struck as true as the last. A body breached the surface and arced toward the mouth of Nimpetulus, except this one was still writhing. And furry. And legged. And much too large. And spraying growling curses into the air.
Helpless as long as it was flying, the otter smacked into the young bear’s head and slipped off, disappearing back into the waters instantly. Too late. Every bear had been watching closely, and even if they hadn’t they could now smell the musk of a most unwelcome species. None roared louder in response than the Scion, but all tried.
It wasn’t all posturing. Many of them were already storming about, galloping out of the water and along the banks, setting up a wall of flesh that could not be crossed. More bears emerged from the woods, furious as the rest despite having witnessed nothing. No order was issued, but they all obeyed the will of the Scion nonetheless.
All the fish were allowed to slip through, unharmed except for their natural degeneration, but their schools were broken up into sections that could not contain stowaways. The bears’ wounded bellowing was unrelenting, sounding as if none of them stopped to breathe, all enraged that the trespassers hadn’t already turned themselves over to the hundred exposed fangs gleaming in the moonlight.
Krakodosus rushed to the middle of the river, the center of his servants’ encirclement. His coat was an endless series of flickers and flashes, blinding in intensity, the rumble of his thunder now a repeating crack that rivaled his roar and shook the stars in the sky. His intent was clear; the bear would unleash his squall of lightning into the water indiscriminately unless the intruders revealed themselves. The romp was smart enough to do so.
More synchronized than the affronted bears, all five otters appeared, serpentine bodies twirling up out of the water like aggressively blooming flowers. They placed themselves on rocks sticking out of the water, thus insulating them from any electrical attack. The creatures had insufficient bulk to hide their riders, and Krakodosus was quick to recognize Loric, as well as the glint of two stolen dental instruments.
The roars had to cease then, to make way for whispers. In seconds all the other bears had guessed at the identities of the two humans as well, understanding also the broad strokes of their simple plan: escape the thundercoat’s territory across the river. So there was to be a challenge this year, but not from any bear. A disappointed Beglockus helped himself to straggling fish while all the others observed.
“How dare you interrupt the run!” Krakodosus boomed in more ways than one. “If it is to turn yourselves over, you may yet be allowed to live… but I speak only to my humans. The otters in your employ will now die.”
“Employ?” Tagalon repeated, spitting the word out and rubbing its residue from his whiskers. Hygenis adjusted herself on his back, brandishing her hook, ready to joust even upon a most unorthodox steed. “Employ ‘e says!? You ‘ear that rompies?” The other four otters laughed uproariously, though Loric could feel in the stillness of Myrtelon’s ribs that she was faking it. “We’re in nobody’s employ. Just ‘elping out some old friends is all. Loric, ‘Ygenis, and us lot go way back. We just loved sneaking into Compassleaf and catching a late night story, using you as a night light whenever you waddled by, O-blih-vee-us!”
What followed was a roar the likes of which Loric had never heard, and only heard in part because he covered his ears. The sky protected itself from splitting by summoning clouds that robbed Plunderoe of much of its light. A rain began to fall, and Loric wondered if the droplets could actually target his spine in order to roll down it and chill him as close to his bones as nature would allow.
Javelins of lightning, long dormant in the back of Krakodosus’s dark eyes, pulsed to life and shone brighter than the bears minor and major above. This was the rage of a great beity, one of the forces that reshaped the world after the abdication of the Tame. Loric and Hygenis had never truly been in its presence before, and though they fought it their spirits cowered inside them, curled up smaller and smaller, guilt and shame mixed with fear. How did they dare? Mankind’s dominion was over, and their petulant pretending was most humiliating, would surely follow them into any afterlife and make them little more than gnats of paranoid thought.
They had to remind themselves that bringing back the old world was not their goal. Nowhere in them was the ambition to print bottomless books and lock themselves away inside cleverwood cubes once again. The beities had taken up the mantle when begged, and proven themselves largely immune to man’s folly, but still there was something. A flint. A spark. A rebellion living in both of them. Perhaps it was what remained of the human spirit, still distinct from the animals, when the greed was stripped away. A defensive, venomous, fanged lash of individuality. The Bloody Mouth.
“Turn over my humans!” Krakodosus demanded with the authority of an earthquake.
“Turn over our river!” Inkolon challenged in turn, which brought forth only another ear-shattering roar. The romp screamed back, not needing to share a word with each other, for many nights had been spent fantasizing a strategy against multiple possible Scions, and was their primary entertainment when Myrtelon was still whittling her latest gawky tale.
Without consulting their living packs, the otters dove back into Plunderoe to initiate their challenge. This was the thundercoat’s fight, twice over in fact, so all other bears kept their distance, and even kept their quiet.
Krakodosus whirled about, searching the waters, which had become darker and rougher with the rain, for his opponents. It was as if they’d vanished, but there was no gap in the bear walls large enough for escape, and the Scion knew a surefire way to reveal them. He reared up. His coat rumbled and flashed.
His tactic was as predictable as his temperament. Just before his claws broke the surface the five otters did so, spiraling in high elegant arcs, leaving ephemeral corkscrews of glittering scales behind. The Scion’s electric pulse illuminated the river, but lasted only as long as a lightning strike, having dissipated again by the time the otters fell back and disappeared.
“Cowards!” the bear accused, barreling forward, snapping at patches of froth indiscriminately. Knowing his own abilities well, and rarely one to underestimate an opponent, Krakodosus did not try to electrocute them again. The same thing would happen, for the otters would see the light building and his paws rise. Instead he kept the thunder rolling and crackling under his fur, granting an armor of living lightning. If they so much as touched him they would lose all control of themselves and issue smoke from the tear ducts and mouth.
There was no need to touch him. Not directly. For otters were tool users and there was no shortage of tools. Bears only understood one of the ways in which Plunderoe provided, proving over and again that it was not their river. They had no more claim to a body they did not live in than Muddabos had.
Otters were not craftsman, but foragers. Rather than striking stones against one another to chip one away to an edge, they instead scoured the waterways for rocks that already held the potential: much thinner on one side than the other. The river was craftsman, and the toolbox, for there was no better place to store the hand axes and hammers they used to crack open shellfish and fallen nuts. Doing so meant that, should they ever choose to do battle against the bears, the battlefield was already seeded with weaponry.
The romp was not just circling the Scion under the surface. They searched the bed and their memories for the best choices. Ax or hammer? Slick or rough? Fresh or already stained with blood? All would have an opportunity.
“Cowa-” Krakodosus tried to repeat, but Hedfulon shot out from nearby, a natural ax in both her paws, held out in front of her head. She struck the Scion in the jaw, drawing blood from his gums and breaking the weapon in two. The otter dropped it and sailed over his snout as crimson dye ran down one of his fangs.
For a brief moment he was stunned enough to not understand what had happened. How had she avoided the thunder? One touch should have been fatal. Not to a stone, he realized as the last pebble slid off his tongue and splashed. Heavier fell the rain; needles dropped from sullen firs.
Out came the assault in earnest. Two otters he heard rather than saw arced, crying war, over his back, pelting his spine with hammer stones. He felt them deeply, felt the force ricochet off bone. They knew where his fat was thinnest. Inkolon appeared with another ax and struck his other cheek, drew blood again, created a matching pair of red teeth.
A hammer hit his knee, then another, then the first one again. Krakodusus spun, but there was nothing there. Anticipating another surprise he spun back to his original position, in time to catch Spiltilon shooting toward him, ax outstretched. The Scion swung with a paw, hitting the weapon along its flat side, forcing its wielder back underwater. When his paws came down again there was nothing but river under and between them. Once more he unleashed the thunder, but all five otters were in the air at the exact moment. He spotted the wrathful focus of Hygenis astride Tagalon, who could barely contain the urge to use her hook.
Doing so was not feasible, as its metal would direct the lightning right into rider and steed alike. And without its presence the hook would still catch in the Scion’s flesh, ruining the trajectories now revealed as essential to otter combat arts. But there was no such obvious stricture against rocks, in their myriad brutal forms.
Tagalon and Myrtelon knew how to improvise, especially while riding in the currents, and the humans were quick to catch on when their hosts spun near the riverbed when already in possession of weapons. They reached out and snagged pebbles big as eyes, piled them in the crook of the arms that still held tight to the otter’s shoulder fur.
“Loric!” Krakodosus blurted when he saw the man, but was forced to blink when the human threw a stone at his brow and hit. A pang of guilt hit the storyteller as recoil. Even as his master and owner, the thundercoat was still a bear, an animal, and reacted to hurt from those it once trusted with the utmost exaggeration. A hit dog hollered, someone said in a thousand variations riveted into the well-walls of the bottomless book.
The storyteller thought himself the cruel one, and was right in part, for he trusted his feelings. But he didn’t want to be eaten, even if he could haggle it down to a price of two thumbs, and he knew he’d done nothing to deserve such punishments even as the inhumane Krakodosus did not deserve this stoning, or this disrespect.
After taking a rock from a human sling the thundercoat’s last sympathies were incinerated by the white plasma of his double-thick blood, almost cosmic enough in power for him to march up the aurora into the sky and make himself a constellation, the icy emptiness of abyssal sky perhaps enough to cool his temper.
Everything that emerged from the water was his enemy, and when Inkolon tried to attack his face again he thought he was ready for anything. The Scion closed his mouth, ready to swing his head as club and strike her in the belly, but Inkolon had taken up another unexpected weapon in the next phase of the otters’ effort to keep him confused and flailing.
What she held was not a stone, but the stone shell of a clam, one still held together by the living meat. The bears never bothered with meals that didn’t make it easy, and a clam shell was much more difficult to stomp through than the hive or den of most other things that squirreled away delectable treasures.
Otters knew how to handle them: by pitting stone against stone until the weaker broke. Any clam, weak in its nomadic abilities, wishing to stay alive in the waters along Otter’s Whip needed to live in servitude to the romps, which the low-name water-eaters hoped was a debt never called in. Unfortunately for the clam, Inkolon had called, and given an order, which it obeyed once she hoisted it out of the water.
The clam opened its mouth faster than the bear had closed his, and clamped down on his snout before he could hit the otter. In a flash Inkolon was gone, but her terrified weapon held on for dear life, instructed to hold the monster’s maw shut as long as possible. While his teeth were occupied and his eyes blocked, the romp swarmed all the more aggressively.
One of them went over the length of him, multiple stones striking all along his spine from shoulders to tail. His knees took several ax cuts from under the surface. This would be death by pestering unless he brought it to a definitive end, and that began by finally forcing his mouth open, splitting and killing the clam. If it wanted revenge it acquired it moments later, when its two halves were used as axes by just as many otters.
Krakodosus endured for several seconds more, waiting for the most important target. Myrtelon breached on the bear’s left, moving back to front; she thought herself out of range of the Scion’s snapping jaws. She had calculated correctly, but had not included the length of Loric’s mirror, which stuck out over his shoulder.
Caught in red teeth by the neck, the mirror yanked Loric who yanked Myrtelon. As a single mass they were flung downstream, bears scattering so as not to soften their impact. Lithe as they were, otters were no cats, and could not guarantee a landing upon the paws. Still, Myrtelon, ever the imitator, here a copy-cat, did her best to be as the lynx-leopards of the far northeast, who were said to survive even falls from mountain peaks.
Her imitation was pale, and she struck one of the boulders the otters had stood on when introducing themselves and their grievance. Scrabbling, her entire side bruised, a crack in one knee, Myrtelon managed to keep a hold on the pedestal. Loric was stunned upon her back, having smacked himself in the face with the flat mirror on impact.
At full gallop and casting ponds aside with every footfall, the Scion of the Salmon Run closed the distance while the rest of the romp tried to converge as well. Seeing the smaller animals’ approach as jets of froth, Krakodosus acted to stall them, shoving thunder into the currents yet again. When the otters leapt he hopped sideways with startling speed, catching Hedfulon with his shoulder.
Saved from electrocution only by its expenditure half a moment before, the otter was still knocked silly, tumbling across the water’s surface like a skipped rock. Her romp-mates Spiltilon and Inkolon broke off to assist, leaving only Tagalon to intercept before Krakodosus reached the pedestal.
The lead otter reared up in front of the storyteller like a cobra, Hygenis providing the single available fang, but the thundercoat was even more single-minded than usual. With sliding stomp he raised a wave that took Tagalon up and over the pedestal. A stubby paw reached out to Myrtelon, but she was too busy clinging to the rock as the wave passed over and momentarily submerged them.
After that the current took Tagalon, and his burning efforts to fight it gained ground with agonizing sluggishness. A hiss from Myrtelon did nothing to dissuade the thundercoat, the bear’s head dropping down, separating storyteller from steed. With the bulk of his head he shoved Myrtelon back into the river, thus leaving Loric alone, exposed, surrounded on three sides by the arms and head of a mammoth-sized king of Namstamp.
Too enraged to speak, the bear roared again, which Loric felt as static spittle zapping and sizzling across his cheeks and scalp. It had enough heat and power to dry him and his sopping clothes, but the swishing curtains of rain undid it before he felt the effect. Overshadowed by the beity’s silhouette, Loric also failed to realize that the storm overhead was the mightiest in his life. So thickly fell the rain that some of the salmon swam up into it as it fell, climbing invisible ladders and then flopping back down as if rejected from the heavens.
Pure hatred-furnace pupils, yellower than the sun, practically smoked inside Krakodosus’s skull. Tormented was the beity, cornered by disrespect and humiliation as surely as if he had claws to his partly-opened throat. Stretched in the agony of self-assertion upon the surrounding world, Krakodosus appeared unlike any other animal the storyteller had yet seen.
Awed, terrified, aghast at his own behavior, Loric sat hypnotized by his proximity to blinded destruction. Why was he still alive? When would the jaws snap shut to a more natural orientation, freeing them both from this conflict? Not before the storyteller disgorged his treasure, which he’d been hoarding as stubbornly as the clams below with their tender lives.
The gape weakened. Roar reduced to a crackle. Fatigue, from the rage rather than the exertion, expressed itself through huffing and puffing breaths that protected Loric from half the knives of the rain.
“What happened to Sportarct!?” the bear demanded, striking a volume so much stronger than the downpour, yet so much weaker than the wind that none of the other bears overheard, nor did they dare approach.
The spell on Loric was broken by that lone question. His shame over clawing at more life and knowledge than he deserved evaporated; his true power came to light and revealed the rain as rain, the river as just more water, and the lightning in the sky mere empty threats. Krakodosus the thundercoat, the Scion of the Salmon Run, was not angry over disobedience, nor over trespass.
He was sick with anticipation, that was all. Never much of a listener until the tale of Sportarct the distant, the great bear had never built up a tolerance for the pitfalls of fiction and myth. In that regard he was soft and fragile as a newborn, impressionable, flimsy, all hope and investment tacked to every narrative thread, unable to diversify his emotional holdings and keep some in reserve.
Because sometimes the storyteller died right in the middle of it, which was how many of them wished they could go. Sometimes the tale was serialized across multiple shows, and the listeners may be required to move on before the ending. Occasionally they might hear the same tale from different tellers, but with a different finale. Such a happening could cause diplomatic incidents as surely as double-thick blood feuds.
Krakodosus had no mental armor against any of it, and had been stewing in distracting misery over it since Loric’s flight, growing worse all the time, only slightly relieved by focus on his duties as Scion and their swimming spoils. The bear would not kill Loric, not until he got his ending.
Suddenly Loric felt like fighting. Fists clenched. Inside cheek bitten. Mouth red to match. Shelvtale spoke up, made the squall background noise.
“You know Sportarct don’t you, mighty thundercoat!? You said you did. Were you false?”
“I know him, yes!” the bear insisted. “We fish different rivers, but those rivers run the same! I know him as surely as I know myself, but I do not have the words. All words are contraband, confiscated from man, and handed back as needed! I can feel the sun bear’s spirit, but his circumstances are trapped in a maze of words! You have the words! You have his way out of his troubles.
We handed the words back to you, provisionally, trusting in you, so that you can return them once you unfold them and solve their puzzles. Now do your duty Shelvtale! Spin words and reveal the fate of my friend Sportarct!”
Despite time limited to the patience of a hundred hungry bears, Loric considered his position carefully, not just on the stepping stone plastered in the midst of Blueguts, but in the world. What was a storyteller outside the confines of the Forbidden Thumbs? What power could they wield, should they wield it, and what damage would it do when swung? Whatever he chose, he knew other storytellers would hear of it eventually and prickle with the implications, curse and hail him for bequeathing them such a thorny puzzle box of potentialities.
The romp did remain, of that he was certain. They needed their ending as well, and with their conflict with the bears brought into the open they would see it to its shredded climax even without coaxing from Errolero or Elorhynch. Without sign of them he knew they still lurked under the surface, for Hygenis was with them and would hold her hook to a furry throat as necessary to make them keep their word. He could think of no reason at all why the romp could not defeat the Scion. Loric had told tales far less realistic, and the gasps throughout them meant they were believed, that all the beity world believed such things frighteningly possible as well.
“And so the battle between Elorhynch and Muddabos raged on!” Loric screamed, igniting his performer’s heart through his sopping weariness, straining his voice so any submerged otters would know to peek at least an ear out of the black current. Krakodosus wrinkled his nose. “The bison’s horns, sharp and wicked, were the most pressing concern, so the crafty plotterpus robbed her of them, with dives that used her bill to cleave each one from the massive bellowing head of the enemy!”
“What is this?” the Scion asked, taking a nervous shuffle backward.
“With every shake of her head, red bread was sprayed into the waters of the arena, and happily drunk by the black roots that could reach it. The Preybody Ducks watched with dark eyes, gliding behind the trees, circling to see every grand inch of their creation!”
“What do those ducks have to do with Sportarct!?” the bear demanded. “They are on this continent, not the sun bear’s. Does this come into play later? Is this a side character?” Lady Butterfur wasn’t there to shush him, so Loric’s own furious passion had to do the job.
“But a beast so determined to quash joy has other weapons, and Muddabos chose her hard head to use next. She plowed through the mud, found the swimming platypus, and did her best to flatten Elorhynch with her forehead, forcing her deeper and deeper into muck with her charge.”
“I’m confused!” the thundercoat cried. Without realizing it, he reverted to the language humans had previously used on voice-controlled entertainment devices, fumbling in search of proper commands. “Skip this part! Continue on to Sportarct! Skip! Go forward! Next! Next part damn you!” But Loric still had both thumbs, and neither was an off switch. There was no next part; this was the end.
“Elorhynch slipped free, but knew she couldn’t take any other pieces from Muddabos with single strikes, as the bison was just a raw mound of muscle and fat and hideous withered hide. So the platypus took a great risk, placing herself under the charging bison’s hoof. The enemy slipped on the writhing obstruction, and her own weight was turned against her as she lurched forward. All of Muddabos stumbled into a baton tree.
Normally such a thin tree would give way, but not one of the black, the head of a duck visible in a mass of burls in its branching crown. Snap went the neck of Muddabos, all her objections gone in an instant. The red bread flowed again, and the Preybody ducks went to work, this time with no intention of invention!
Elorhynch went bobbing away. Broken bones. Weeping bruises. Tears of struggle leaking to join the swamp waters. But the Preybody Ducks paid no heed, for she was not red bread! She lived!
Time was needed to recover, and she took it, all on her return to her river friend that wished to bring warmer waters to the bitter north.” The sky was rent by booming thunder, but somewhere above the lowest layer of clouds. “Together they traveled up the continent, bargaining with other rivers to let them pass, relying on the generosity of the ocean on the easterly coast.
The place was found! Yes, all rejoiced and welcomed them, but the river could not leave Elorhynch, who had fought so valiantly in its high name. So rather than run far across the lands the water curled up around the platypus, nestled down with her.
Such a comfortable home was made that Elorhynch laid a clutch of eggs, but only the shells were of the ducks. When life hatched forth they were otters all! Otters many! Bright and alive and witty with all the diplomacy and wit of the Preybody, and all the bravery of the wave-divers of the southern gulf.
They were the otters of a new looping river, one that welcomed swarms of salmon from the generous ocean host! A new high name for the current was chosen, and was championed by the otters! These were the otters of Plunderoe!”
“What!?” Krakodosus exploded, underneath a sky that belonged to him, was beholden to his freewheeling wrath. “That’s the wrong story! Produce Sportarct! Now human!” Bright was his coat, providing a momentary glimpse of his niece Hocmursus. Yellow with a stress of purest lightning, bolts arced between his teeth. About his feet the waters bubbled as they cooked.
“There is no Sportarct!” Loric screamed back, rending the corpse of the sun bear’s story in his snarling red mouth. A drop of red bread drooled out of him, a fall of suffering, a declaration that man could be as emotional a creature as any beity. Yes, his intellect was inherent, but sometimes it had to cower in the shadows, the same as any lesser creature in the presence of rampaging instinct. “And there never was!”
“No!” the Scion boomed, recoiling as if struck. Trembling rage resurged and crested. “You lie! You-” The otters of Plunderoe knew their origin, and they would not betray a story that had rippled through so many ages, in flesh and tongue. Loric had delivered their ending, and they could have fled then, but that would mean they hadn’t truly absorbed the story. They would be a poor audience, and this romp considered themselves poor at nothing, triumphant at everything.
Springing forth from the river, all five pelted the Scion with hammers and axes. Spiltilon put the taste of minerals in his mouth by kicking a stone down his roaring maw, which the bear crushed to a powder with one bite. Rocks did not break the teeth of the mightiest beities, which were often the plows of the current world.
Firing at will, the romp encircled the bear like asteroids, sending meteors down to his surface as soon as they acquired them. Injuries mounted on Krakodosus’s hide, but they were all hidden by the bright rumbling in his coat. Even as thickest blood ran into the river his anger grew more potent, reflected in the energies gathering near his protesting skin.
A most powerful discharge approached, its range impossible to guess, and with the rain now falling in such thick sheets that it reduced the very height of the otters’ leaps, it now seemed likely it could travel through the air as well as it did the river. If the Bloody Mouth was to continue the fugitives could not be in its radius.
Hygenis was allowed to depart the back of Tagalon, which made it all the easier for him to participate in the battle. Like a gecko she detached from his back, spun, and landed on Loric’s rock. That turned right into an embracing tackle that took her charge back into the river. Nothing would be faster than the current when it came to a retreat, so they allowed it full control of their bodies.
Despite numerous dangerous distractions, Krakodosus saw with striking eyes, through a hail of rocks and a wall of rain, the heads of the dental instruments bobbing away. The jailer of Sportarct’s legacy could not be allowed to escape, especially not down the Scion’s property. Without knowing it he channeled the final move of Muddabos, charging forward with no regard for the safety of anything animate or inanimate.
He blew through the romp, casting three of them away. Downstream he stormed, and under his coat too. Energies could not be contained in such a volume by any beity short of the Wild Trinity, and thus escaped into the air, recaptured by the clouds above, now so swollen that their continuing expansion turned them into volcanic ash plumes. Every splashing gallop from the bear sent four or five bolts streaking into the sky, giving him the appearance of an electric porcupine, and the face of a demon long incarcerated in the deep sky.
Loric’s head broke the surface for a breath, and in the mirror he spied that reflected face, red teeth and yellow eyes like hoarded nuggets of gold broken loose and tumbling down a mountainside in some glorious avalanche. Those in its path might welcome such a gilded death, but Loric looked away, down the river, trying to see a future outside the racing current.
Nothing downstream offered sanctuary. Any moment now the Scion would explode: thunder hammering the anvil of the Earth. Only two outcomes: death and mutilated imprisonment. But these calculations did not take into account that most variant of variables, the affronted otter.
Now that they were one with Plunderoe’s coursing, the romp was the faster, and they caught up with the Scion fully intent on running him off the slick black road. All the better at learning lessons, they applied what Loric had just taught them, understanding that the great beity’s momentum could no longer be halted by a stoning.
Taking a foot each, their positioning enough to communicate their target to their kin, Hedfulon, Inkolon, Myrtelon, and Spiltilon darted underneath Krakodosus. Paws struck bodies that all twisted and rolled. The roaring Scion turned and smashed his shoulder into the waters, sending up a spray full of fish that had lost which way was up and which way was death.
As the distance grew Loric watched the shrinking confrontation in the mirror, the animals’ faces stretched into misery by rain streaking down the bronze. He saw Krakodosus stand once more, saw an otter weave between two bolts headed for the sky as they leapt over the Scion. Impossible to tell which otter now, too far. An otter of Blueguts. That was certain.
One of them was caught, right in the teeth of the thundercoat. A stake of fear and guilt plunged through the center of Loric’s spine as the slippery body failed to break free, paws wheeling in the air. The bear whipped the creature back and forth, sending their life flying away in streaks that were then beaten down by driving rain, lost in darkest fluid.
The rest of the romp leapt out as if rapidly congealed into new forms from the red bread of their fallen comrade. Each wielded a rock of opportunity, and all at once the four stones smashed the head and snout of the Scion. Trauma triggered detonation. All the thunder the bear ever dreamed up and kept under his topcoat was unleashed in a single devastating clap.
The fugitives were deafened, blinded by the reflection in the mirror alone, struck dumb, and pushed down by the force into the realm of drowning. The audience was not safe either, and most of the bears were knocked off their feet and dazed, with electricity burning in their lungs. A dome of water pushed away the rain and dented the clouds.
Deep the energies went, blasting the river rocks away from the bottom, sending them streaking up and downstream as bubble-trailing missiles. Several punched holes in the middle of salmon that just kept swimming, if they weren’t among those immediately struck dead in the blast wave.
Deeper still, through dendritic passages in the mud, kept open by streams of bubbles. These were the wispy tendrils of the same pockets of gas that altered the salmons’ course and got the storyteller and the dentist embroiled with the romp in the first place. And the gas was most combustible.
Countless ages could have passed without an ember or spark ever finding them, as they were little more than unkind statements swallowed by the world before spoken. They could’ve leaked out harmlessly, hiss by hiss, and never moved anything more than the path of a half-dead salmon trying to listen to ghosts, and even then only by a few degrees. Instead the Scion’s discharge brought forth its full fury not yet drained by time.
The river Plunderoe exploded into a new shape. Boulders big as whales were temporarily ships, waters too disturbed to let them sink. An entire bank rose like a razor clam, spilling bears into the tumult, so stunned they moved less than bloated ticks. Then what spilled them tilted further and fell upon them.
Collapsing behind them, the sensation of the river’s fumbling panicked metamorphosis approached Loric and Hygenis like a wave of dread. Both humans knew it was about to drop out from under their feet, even though they’d never experienced water doing such a thing. Instinctively they feared getting plucked as if by fishing eagle, of being left hung in the sky, to dangle until some creature stripped them of flesh and left a bone chime in the wind.
But that was not to be. Instead they were brought low with the waters themselves, after the second explosion had scorched the paws of ursas minor and major in the sky. The collapse of the riverbed pursued them, bit at their heels, then swallowed them altogether in an even greater collapse that would, from that day forth, be called Plunderoe Falls.
Air and water mingled into a wet vapor that could not be breathed, and both humans choked on it as they fell, slipping from consciousness as long as gravity did not apply. Once it did, Hygenis was the first to open her eyes, and to wipe sandy grains from their surface with her shaking hands.
Whipping her head to the left was shockingly painful, so much so that she cried out, but she got what she wanted, which was the sight of a prone Loric beside her, face buried in grit that was formerly silt. Without bothering to try and move her legs quite yet, the dentist reached and rolled the man over. His chest was moving.
Looking right was almost as painful, and again she saw someone. Herself. Loric’s mirror had its side planted in the sand as the murky waters lapped at its staff in indecision, not yet aware how recessed they were supposed to be at the edge of this freshly rent cavern. Scorched black, burned smooth, the wall of rock rose in a curve but ended jaggedly, like a different sort of wave lapping at the edge of the moon’s pull.
She assumed the moon was up there, as the sky was still beneath blackest cloud roses, unfurling despite there being no rain left to slip free from their folds. Had her vision been perfect and not still preoccupied with coating a few pieces of grit in mucus and shuffling them off to the corners, the dentist still would’ve had difficulty telling where the cavern roof ended and the night began.
Extricating herself from the wet sucking hole she’d made was taxing, but she made quick work of it and pulled Loric further in, in the event that a mostly-drowned bear suddenly broke the surface like a crocodile and tried to drag them back to the depths. The new waterfall crashed beyond, keeping the air thick with moisture, but the humans’ ears were so wounded by the thunderclap and the ensuing explosion that it was all muffled and stuffed into the backs of their minds, like the hum of a dragonfly darting far behind them.
Ellapock. Her concern for the creature was minimal, he was nothing more than a sprig of greens between the teeth of her Bloody Mouth, but as Loric was still unconscious she decided to see the marmoset’s fate. Once out of the bag she set him down in the sand and spread his limbs, looking for any signs of life around his closed eyes.
With one finger she pressed on his chest, which produced a jet of water and a bout of tiny squeaking coughs. He was alive yet, probably only given enough air by the romp leaping out of the water so frequently during the battle. The romp. The bears. Hygenis stood, ignored her many pains, reclaimed her hook and the vassal sticks floating at the edge of the water, and then examined Plunderoe’s new basin for further signs of life.
Dead salmon were plentiful. Some on their sides still had moving mouths and gills, but they were as dead as they were supposed to be. Beyond them there was no animal sign, be it bear or otter. Had they just witnessed the death of the Scion of the Salmon Run? If so Compassleaf would soon be in upheaval. There was no immediate successor to his dominion, no bear in the city that could conceivably claim the title of Scion.
Hocmursus was not a competitive or violent creature, and would never attempt to claim it even when threatened with the removal of her many pets. Dentists followed the political situation of their homes closely, as they needed to be aware exactly how much a bad extraction might cost them. As such Hygenis knew how rough things could get for her former home.
With no clear ruler Mojopap and his Babeloons would attempt to take power, utilizing their policing role in a new capacity, becoming embedded in every facet overnight. Except, she reminded herself. Except Mojopap was likely still on the hunt for them right now, as that hawk had inadvertently informed them. The primate’s force wasn’t present to seize anything.
Searching her memory, she turned up no other obvious candidates. Cities were mostly led by mammals and birds, as reptiles rarely had the heat in the blood that beities called ambition, making it unlikely that the python Dendrimor would slither into the throne. No bird in the city was physically large enough to make an attempt. Perhaps a cow? Most of them preferred to graze in the open, with only the fattest and laziest keeping themselves cooped up in earthen palaces.
Or some animal not of Compassleaf at all. There was no such badge as citizenship among the beities. Any that arrived were free to assert themselves. For some reason, dark stripes glided across Hygenis’s imagination. With them came a low growl, so low and slow it was like drums deep in the cavern surrounding her.
There was that tiger, Grinjipan. Having been denied her revenge against the dentist, perhaps she would accept the entire city as recompense, if she still dwelt there. The growl came again, moved in actual space. The dentist whirled about, hook poised like a tarantula rearing up and bearing its black sickle fangs. Nothing there, aside from draping curtains of shadow.
“Uhh…” Loric stirred, lifting a head heavy with sand and regrets. His protector gave the darkness another quick glance before rushing to his side and helping him to his feet. Once a vassal stick was provided he used it to hold himself up. “What kind of a happening was that?” he rasped.
“I don’t know. It was as if the river rejected all of us at once. I thought perhaps a volcano, but the heat is all gone and there’s no ash. But…” She went to the water’s edge, craned her neck this way and that, assembling the new lay of the land in her mind. “But we’re on the other side now. If we can find a way out of this hole we can make for Staircase.”
“No sign, but they were in the middle of it. We cannot wait around for something to resurrect itself from these waters.”
“The same statement applies.” In looking around, still hoping to see the river-rock nose of Myrtelon emerge despite the threat she posed to his livelihood, Loric found the beached Ellapock and checked that he was still in the mortal world. He strained to hear the marmoset’s labored breathing, and in the process heard something else. His gaze moved to the wall of shadows under a stone overhang, a darkness so impenetrable he feared it was the wall at the edge of existence.
Dawn was near, and all the light they had was from a great distance away, much of it still blocked by thunderheads too mournful to crackle now that their emissary among the beities had suffered a defeat. Even so, the cavern hoarded the shadows unnaturally, stuffed them in its mouth like a lump of leeches a heron couldn’t manage to swallow. Issuing from it was the sound of breath, from a chest larger than that of the two humans combined.
“Yes I hear it,” Hygenis confirmed, putting her back to the falls.
“This cave was just opened… There’s no moss or scum,” Loric whispered, shuffling closer to her. “There couldn’t have been a beity living in here… and no machine of ours ever drew breath.”
“So what’s in there?” Hygenis did not answer immediately, but he sensed that she knew. She might never have answered, seeking to prevent a very specific reaction from her ward, but the breath already meant the threat was too close.
“Loric, how frightened are you at this very moment?” It was a strange question, but the storyteller knew she was no kidder, and that if she bothered to ask at all she needed an answer both punctual and true.
“Somewhat.” He stared at the darkness in challenge. “I try not to fear the unknown, as that merely plants matching seeds within it. The unknown can be just as seeded with joy and achievement. I felt most fearful a short while ago, looking down the Scion’s gullet, but I surpassed that and showed him mine!”
“Good,” she told him without sounding reassured. “Hold onto that. Don’t allow your somewhat to become some more. Even as I tell you… that Phobopan the fear-full lion prowls about us.”
“How rude of him,” Loric said defiantly, though he swallowed half the words he meant to use as flourish, “to appear now as we’ve just bested our fears. He is late, and other beities have threatened us in his stead.” He stole a look at the dentist to see if his bravery was wise or foolish, but her expression yielded less than the shadows. Her breath was stiller than that of what lurked.
Both of them knew, as all humans did. Before they heard any tales from people like Loric they heard from their caregivers of the Wild Trinity. They ruled the world, but kept their vision narrow enough, carnal and hungry and mad enough, to seek out even the smallest of individuals that broke their Forbidden Thumbs most egregiously.
If Phobopan was upon them they were doomed, without question, but he had to be upon them properly, physically, and he did that through the conduit of darkness, his transport lubricated entirely by fear. If the mind wasn’t drowning in it, the pressure spraying it out the ears for the darkness to drink, there was no way for the fear-full lion to arrive.
Yet he was more a reaper than a jailer. The black lion of ashen mane and quicksilver teeth did not keep humans to torment them. None of his stories claimed there was a black pit in his dark tunnels webbing the world where humans suffered, limbs bitten off and stumps healed, piled high to languish in terror until he came along for a snack from his stores.
Such horrors were the habits of boogeybeasts, which were tale alone, as Loric well knew. None had ever come forth to correct him when he described them in growls and croaks around campfires. As a storyteller he was free to use these elements because they were fears for the thinnest blood: fear of being stalked, fear of pain, and fear of death.
Phobopan lived and worked in double-thick fear: fear of loss. The ultimate fear, which applied to things had and things that might be had alike. Torture did not brew or age terror with the most body to its flavor; hope did. It was the very hope offered by Phobopan that Loric wished to achieve, for the lion was the first to gouge in the ground the straight line that would be the bottom step of Staircase.
“Loric, please calm down,” Hygenis requested, but he knew her well enough by then to discern genuine panic in her placid tone. He knit his brow.
“I’m no more frightened than I was moments ago. Look,” he held up empty hands, “I’m not even scrabbling to take up the mirror. I need no weapon, as I am not afraid… comparatively.” Hygenis was forced to acknowledge his point, grip tightening on her hook. Stepping cautiously closer to the black veil, she tried and failed to swallow her confusion.
“Something’s wrong,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “He draws closer, but the way should be shut.” No rule said that tiny lives were incapable of the same fear output as larger beings, so she turned to see if Ellapock was responsible, but the lower name was still unconscious. “I don’t understand.”
“Hygenis,” Loric addressed sternly, not shouting, but he might as well have, given how it stalled her, “it’s you.” Instantly she felt as wet on the inside as she did on the outside. Fear was for all the time prior to the Bloody Mouth. The human lip could not snarl if it was preoccupied with a grimace or cringe. Failure. To be afraid now was to fail.
All of her doubt was concentrated on the one creature she knew would treat her most harshly if given the chance. She was present at the invocation, humiliated when forced to keep a stiff upper lip and march out into the open tasting her own double-thick syrupy blood. A boogeybeast that Hygenis had inadvertently created for herself. But they did not exist, so she stormed forward, to the edge of the darkness and planted her curling toes.
Crucially, she also held her hook at her side as a staff, let it rest in the mud rather than stand poised to strike. The dentist dared the dank darkness to deny her power. All of a sudden the shadows stopped their squirming. With it went the soft plodding of paws big enough to envelope a human’s head and chest.
But the breath remained. In fact they could now see it as a hot puff pushing the falls’ mist aside. Stalwart Hygenis stood, letting each breath roll over her and crawl down her sides. For now the way was closed, permeable by gas only, but even one uncurling toe might break the barrier. If breath could make it through so too could speech.
“Hello my little friends.” Issued from all of the shadow at once, the voice’s character was somewhat altered, but they recognized it all the same. Grinjipan the reverse tiger. Newly christened boogeybeast of Bagogreen. Or perhaps of Compassleaf.
“This is… most unexpected,” Loric said, futilely searching for the cat’s slit eyes in the black. All he could do was talk, and he sensed he needed to to protect Hygenis. “I’m sorry Lady Grinjipan, but I’ve been losing track lately. Have you come to collect some ending that I owe you?”
“I feel owed many endings, little Shelvtale,” the voice behind the veil purred. “By now you should be comfortably mine, lounging in my den, softening your voice with lavender water for your next private performance. If not for your dalliance with the written word, and that blundering baboon’s nitpicking, we would have this most satisfying ending.
I am also denied the ending of Hygenis Fixtooth. Her slow finale, where my claws erode her layer by layer, scar her into a topography so new and grotesque that she can’t recognize herself in the polished bronze any longer. You know, cold water still makes the root of that fang you poked sting.”
“You have found a dead end,” the dentist finally managed to say, “and will have to turn back. What did you do to convince Phobopan the fear-full to waste his time? You may have the power to slink in the dark, but not move seamlessly between its lakes.”
“He’s not far behind me you know,” the tiger teased, using her presence throughout the cave’s air to full effect. “I squeezed through just before you shut the door in his face.”
“No you did not,” Hygenis growled. “Only your voice did. If you were here you would have pounced already.”
“True enough little Fixnothing, little Breakeverything. Phobopan graciously allowed me to be his travel companion while he searched for Loric. The tale of you two fostered much grumbling in Compassleaf, and your defiant friends grew more fearful in equal measure with their volume. It has drawn the Wild Trinity’s attention; they will not even allow you to accidentally start a rebellion.”
“We make for Staircase!” Loric declared. “We make for the very city founded by the fear-full lion. Surely our pilgrimage there, with either outcome, benefits him. Should we succeed Staircase will create all the more hope in those who hear of it. Should we fail we will serve as a warning, creating fear in equal measure. He has no reason to intervene; in his wisdom he has already solved the problem of us.”
There was silence. Perhaps the two beities discussed something. Loric hoped so, as there were few rhetorical devices he could conceive more effective than the one he just deployed. Whatever the reason, he did not feel safe talking to Hygenis just yet, not while the darkness lingered even as the dawn crept nearer.
“He is not intervening,” Grinjipan said, “I am. If he is to grace anyone with his presence it will be at Staircase, but I am free to do as I please, even if that should prevent you two from getting there.”
“The Bloody Mouth speaks, and it says we will arrive into its providence!” Hygenis roared, puffing out her chest. It was not posturing, as she was preparing to strike.
“I should think it would speak now,” the tiger laughed, hot breath slapping the woman’s face and neck, “since it has spent so long gagged by silk.” The dentist’s silence was telling. “Oh yes, I spoke with Misugot before I left. I know you’ve always been looking to run away.
You pretended at frustration when Loric burst into our appointment, as if it wasn’t ideal, but he was your savior in your heart, the only ray of light to slip through the spider’s bindings. Finally you had an excuse to flee, to live anywhere but the web of your greatest fear, where every motion might have an invisible string motivating it. You are a puppet Fixnothing, and you are puppeted by fear.
To think,” the tiger laughed again, wicked bite in every syllable, “that this all boils down to a human woman standing on a stool, flapping her hands about uselessly, screaming for someone to come squish the spider on the floor!”
“Raaah!” Hygenis lunged, hook overhead, swinging at the veil. She didn’t care if she broke what separated them, and that was what saved her. Rather than be pierced the darkness retreated, like a touched anemone retracting its tendrils into its hood. As long as any of it remained it could always grow back, so the dentist did not let up.
Every step was forward, and came with a hacking swing meant to harvest more shadow. As the dim retreated a watching Loric saw his companion paint the cave walls with light. Her furious dance followed along the revealed wall of rock, and in a few instances the hook barely missed the surface. Contact may have created sparks, but they were utterly unnecessary for driving back the entrance of Phobopan’s passage. All that was needed was action in the face of fear: the behavior that built Staircase even as it did not own the land underfoot.
When the last patch of black vanished into a nook the dentist took several steps back. Voice and breath had gone; the cats no longer stared through the hole in the fence. In place of their camouflaging cover the fugitives saw a series of ridges in the rock wall that could be climbed, and this series ascended all the way to the cavern’s roof. They had their way out.
An aching Loric, who surely would have collapsed if the sight of the rock ladder hadn’t bolstered his resolve, trudged over to Ellapock and gently cradled the creature, looking for the safest way to get him back into a pack.
“She’s just upset about her tooth,” he said, unsure what words, if any, could provide Hygenis some comfort. He knew not to mention the spider at all, but the dentist mastered her own mind by doing so.
“They find it so unreasonable to fear a spider, yet they fear us.” She turned to look at Loric, determination pinching and twisting her expression as if her face was about to pop off and fly into the night, swooping and terrifying any beities it passed by. In that moment she looked to the storyteller like her only regret was not snagging the darkness with her hook, dragging it through its flesh, and claiming a splash of blood before it vanished.
It would have been satisfying to smear across her mouth, to decorate the sneer she wore as she grabbed the first stone on their stairway to Staircase.
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