Invoke the Bloody Mouth (part eight)

(back to part one)

(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 3 minutes)

When the Year is not Kept

And the Rainbow Climbs Color by Color

Finally the marmoset Ellapock came of use to the travelers, after it became apparent that Hygenis’s general knowledge of the layout of the land would not be sufficient to find Staircase. Both humans had pictured a towering city, with Loric imagining all the more aggressively thanks to images from the bottomless book of places with names like Dubai, New York, and Tokyo.

Instead they were met with forests taller than anticipated, and uneven rocky paths that often dropped into pits, which did little to stop the trees from taking root but much to stop their feet from finding comfortable traction. Hygenis’s mental map had kept everything flattened in two dimensions, and she grimly revised their time of arrival by several days once they encountered the hazards, meaning the Babeloons, or the Sig-neagle, or even the Scion, whose fate remained unknown, might catch up with them.

“Hah!” the little monkey blurted, three days recovered from his partial drowning. As he rested on Loric’s shoulder, wearing a shawl woven from the humans’ shaved hair stored in the pack, which had also found use as his bedding, he was able to slap the man’s earlobe back and forth a few times to ensure he had their attention. “I happen to know the way.”

“And how is that?” the dentist asked, suspicious of being led straight into an ambush from the trees that already seemed to be leaning in to listen. The creak of their tall thin trunks got louder in her ears.

“Because I’ve participated in the Trek Across the West!” He assumed this would explain everything, but it was a wild overestimation of the prevalence of popular Weaviranch culture in the surrounding areas. “What? Why are you looking at me like that? It’s true, and it wasn’t secondhand either. It was by the firsthand of Dinny Chamberhand herself, assisted by her mate Running Chamberhand. There were a few others there as well, but they just handled the distant landmarks.”

“Ellapock we have no idea what the ‘Trek Across the West’ is,” Loric informed him. Affronted enough to assert dominance, the primate clambered up the side of Loric’s head and sat in his hairline before he bothered to enlighten them, which he did enthusiastically in recollection.

“Of course Compassleaf was uncultured, sat on by a bear that apparently hadn’t even heard a story until this season, but I should think a Shelvtale should know about it regardless, given that elements of your art are used for immersive entertainment where I come from.”

“Where you come from you throw rags over our heads and drive us, so we assume the worst,” Hygenis noted.

“Oh to have ear-reins in my hands again,” the marmoset lamented, taking up two bristles of Loric’s hair and pulling them back and forth to no effect but irritation. “But I assure you, even as you ignore the subtleties of the art of mounting and riding a human, you will not be able to miss the appeal of the trek.

You know the typical task of the Chamberhand is to create rooms on a flat surface by laying down their arms and hands neatly, so that we may populate and rearrange them as we see fit. The curl of fingers makes for an excellent door, and a good Chamberhand knows to watch our paths and make their opening and closing all but automatic, as if triggered by our very thoughts. Really, you are such wondrous creatures once you acknowledge your place within a craft and not atop a throne.

Dinny Chamberhand understands this, and in her devotion to her craft she came up with the trek: a journey from Walrutter of Tuncrad down and westward into Namstamp, past Plunderoe into Flatrock Easter’s Staircase and Rhadiospir, into the seasonal deserts of Wudulpes the fox. Normally this journey, upon the cloven hooves of a Tuncrad moose, would take a season or more, but thanks to the Chamberhand art we can do it over the course of a dinner party.

She realized if a hand could be a door it could be so much more, like a hill, a tree, a passing beity with a thumb for a bottom jaw, and a hundred other things. As it goes the trekkers, any marmoset lucky enough to receive an invitation from Dinny’s owner, or to have her lent out, start the journey on a long empty table.

For my part I did secure an invite to the most prestigious tree in the grove, somehow kept wreathed in flowers all year long, but I digress. I, along with several of my peers, watched in awe as the western half of the continent was constructed before our very eyes. It was all arms and hands, but each was painted the primary colors of that region and its structures.

Then we proceeded to walk and explore. We stood shoulder to shoulder with passing moose lords, though their antlers were just the upturned and curled fingers of a diligent Chamberhand with an eye painted on the knuckle.

At any point we were free to deviate, to take little shortcuts and see places we’d never even heard about, and the humans kept up flawlessly, having memorized numerous accounts of the lands and built representative models they then mimicked upon the tables.

If I wanted to climb a hill I would go from wood to knuckle, and the transition back would be seamless, exactly as rock again became dirt in the true version. None of us ever noticed that when we transitioned to a second table the first one was silently moved to the other side of it, and curved a little, so that we could walk in an endless circle if we so chose.

And off to the side, on what was to me the horizon, painters stood by. When we were finished touring an area the Chamberhands would pull away, rapidly wash the paints off in buckets of water, and have a fresh more relevant coat applied before we reached its need. So that is how the blues and whites and boggy browns of Tuncrad became the rich greens and yellows of Namstamp, and then the oranges and reds of the desert. Wudulpes’s desert becomes meadows in the spring and summer, or when he wills it, and when one of my party requested it the orange desert vanished and was replaced with flowering meadows in the time it takes to swish one’s tail.

It is truly the ultimate entertainment! And if my climbing of the social branches had not borne fruit we would be utterly lost out here! Several cheers for Ellapock! As many as you’ve got!” The marmoset took the deepest of breaths to kick off the cheering, but one of his steed’s fingers appeared, despite receiving no order from his tugged hair, and jammed itself into the tiny monkey’s mouth.

“Let’s not shout with so many sharp ears perked for any sign of us,” Loric reminded, glancing to see Hygenis’s slight nod that approved of his newfound situational awareness. “Why not be helpful at a reasonable volume and then acknowledge our appreciative silence?” The marmoset crossed his arms and refused to speak, but only briefly. All it took to get him squeaking again was several steps in the wrong direction.

“No no! This way!” He tugged Loric’s hair to redirect him, but his vehicle’s response was sluggish. Perhaps it needed a checkup with a Healthfarm. No such human was present, so the monkey made do with an explanation. “Look at that tall tree there, with those six symmetrical branches cast so wide to the sides.

It’s called the Powermocker. Purposefully it grew into that shape, much like the artificial poles humans used to string up electricity canals. With its height it mocks the old incompetent masters of the Tame, and claims more power than they ever transferred through its like! I have seen it before, rendered in fingers and forearm as I passed by its left side from this very angle!

After we pass it we will descend into the lowlands by a slope of root-locked boulders, like clams dredged in a net. Then we turn at the vegetation so flesh-dense it cannot be passed through. That’s when we reach the thin rainbow fields, colors only revealed up close, which entirely encircle…”

“Staircase,” Loric finished.

“Yes!” Ellapock yipped. “Now onward human!” He nearly pulled his two fistfuls of hair from their roots, but the storyteller wasn’t coming unglued.

“And just why should we trust you to steer us in the right direction? The last time you were atop me you were hidden, your slaves luring us in and bashing us with the best bashing sticks in the land.” The tip of a vassal stick rose, mighty as a tree from Ellapock’s perspective, and then leaned close enough for him to smell distant mountains. What little neck the creature had recoiled.

“Because I also want to get to Staircase!” the lesser beity insisted. “Their position is under Phobopan, and they wouldn’t be so foolish as to risk a diplomatic incident by killing me. Once you are there you will no longer be under threat from the Weaviranch hunt, which means I can charter a less dull creature as steed and finally head home!”

“To face the shame of your failure,” Hygenis pointed out. Her silver hook glinted nearby, drifting closer until it stood in judgment over his head same as the vassal stick. He’d been surrounded. “What will they say when you tell them you were a prisoner of their prey, from the Shedlands to Staircase, and never managed to break free or capture them?”

“Obviously I will tell it far more charitably than that. My experience has been… harrowing. Thrilling. Enlightening. And when they hear I made the Trek Across the West in person, and can confirm the accuracy of our dear Dinny Chamberhand, I will be welcomed back with the most skilled of open arms.”

The hook and stick hovered, circling slowly, but eventually they backed down. They had to, the marmoset reasoned, for if they struck they’d bludgeon and puncture that precious storyteller brain that was the cause of all this.

“We’ve no better option,” Hygenis admitted with a sigh. “If only we had more time or less focus on us. To the Powermocker.” Both humans began trekking again, their weapons turned to walking sticks. Though the storyteller had learned much about commanding a situation, the fatigue was too deep in his ligaments for him to bother dethroning Ellapock. The marmoset was allowed to ride and direct him with hair tugs, gleefully humming to himself.

If ever he was about to lose their way he placed giant imaginary fingernails on everything in sight, and that always revealed the proper path, with Loric’s tolerance never wearing too thin once he realized it was the skill of Dinny Chamberhand guiding them, not Ellapock. Once again he was saved by a human deciding there was no upper limit on their imagination and resolve.

The Tame. Was this feeling the lost force? Was his blood thickening again to its primordial state? No, he reasoned. It didn’t happen to individuals. The Tame was floodwaters, and it moved all at once to transform. If he felt it lapping at his feet he was merely standing at its edge. That did not imply the whole of it was moving. He would never be able to make it do so, not as a lone creature, not as part of a Bloody Mouth. All the hope he had would have to stop at the end of his own years.

To Ellapock’s and Dinny’s credit, they did know the way forward. As predicted they soon came upon the root-wrapped rocks and had to carefully descend them. So treacherous was the terrain that Ellapock did not even pretend at the expertise needed to navigate them, and kept a loose grip on Loric’s hair until they reached the bottom with every stick and bone intact.

Eventually the difference in scope between their perilous quest and a marmoset dinner party became clear, as they were not able to travel far past the rocks before they lost daylight and had to make camp, difficult to do given they carried no tent with them and any attempt to hack off useful sheltering branches could convince the trees to rise from their slumber enough to communicate their location to the nearest beity.

Instead they climbed one of the smaller trees, which was still plenty large enough to accommodate two humans and a recovering fur ball. Its branches were quite straight, but angled away from their nearest neighbors, suggesting it had perhaps tried to grow like the Powermocker and make something of itself but given up to save face after it couldn’t master the concept of parallel lines. Either way, the groove where two branches met at the trunk made an ideal space for the fugitives to curl up on.

Faith in Weaviranch dinner theater wavered, for in the next two day-marches they did not come across any vegetation ‘dense as flesh’, which Ellapock insisted was their next best trail marker, one that he refused to revise even after two nights of sleeping on the idea.

Provisions ran low, and worse flavor had disappeared from their diet since Plunderoe, as some of their pepper-leathers had been lost and turned small portions of the river to stock, the rehydration costing those that remained most of their taste. For days now they’d eaten wet gritty mush, entering that horrible phase of the monoculture diet where their blood felt it was composed of that same wet gritty mush.

Ellapock promised them that the flowers of the rainbow meadows would be edible, but Hygenis was doubtful given that he could only provide the color of the petals and not their names. That was the difference between a peppery snack and converting all of one’s intestines into vomitus.

Vines snapped as Hygenis swung her hook through them, fresh water flowing out of their woody tissues. Both humans took one up quickly, guzzling it down. These vines were parasites on the trees, so not only had the trees filtered the water when initially soaking it up, but the picky vines had filtered it a second time. The taste was cleaner than moonlight, so pure that their tongues sensed a chill that wasn’t there.

In holding his slashed vine over his head and shaking it Loric gave himself something of a shower, with the marmoset happily participating, catching the flow on his tongue to have his own fill. Clogs of mush were forced through their veins by the sudden infusion, granting energy, but that did not translate into progress through the vines which quickly went from boon to obstruction.

“Oh,” Hygenis panted when she stopped mid-hack, web of vines holding her back like a jealous lover. “This must be it. I hope it is, because we can go no further without wasting all of our strength.”

“Then we go,” Ellapock said, putting up his own arms as stand-ins for giant human ones, “this way to the rainbow meadows. I’d stake another shave on it.”

“Good, something to hold you to,” Hygenis teased, bouncing the blunt side of her hook in her hand as she pulled away and changed course. Loric chuckled, but allowed the marmoset to silence him with a twist of a left-side lock.

Forced to camp yet again, this time able to use cut vines as a camouflaging cloak since that was a favor to the burdened trees, it wasn’t until early in their following day-march, dregs of mist and dew still clinging to the canopy, that they came upon the rainbow meadows said to encircle Staircase.

Supposedly they were tended by humans, though the fields fell outside of their Phobopan-sanctioned territory. It was easy to believe, as the myriad blooms did not grow interspersed into a muddle of specks; they were a clear spectrum moving from one color to the next in rows, starting cooler and getting warmer as they, hopefully, neared the city.

Each color had a scent, and they too came in waves as the fugitives slowly waded through them, each more calming and reassuring than the last. Sweet. Rich. Like fruit. Like sweet onion. Like the bundle of herbs thrown into the pot when a Flameguide was holding the ladle. Petals kissed Loric’s bare legs, leaving pollen on his hairs and slowly turning his lower half into the muddle of color he’d been expecting to see.

Hygenis dropped to her knees, out of hunger instead of injury. With careful and sure eye she identified one blossom, then another, then another. It appeared every last variety was safe to eat, which helped explain why the residents of Staircase would risk their lives to curate and arrange these meadows so meticulously: crops.

She told Loric all the petals and buds were safe to consume, as long as he checked them for pollinating bees first, before attacking them herself. If their journey was more leisurely it would’ve been simple, even enjoyable, to arrange the petals into piles and eat them one at a time, letting the flavors mimic the natural flow of an artisanal feast: light and sweet first, then spicy, then hearty, then sweet and hearty, and finally the zip of a minty palate cleanser.

But with many day-marches behind her that felt like many more thanks to a half-mechanical subterranean tentacle demon, the vexing Shedlands and their biting vassals, the swooping Sig-neagle, the showdown with the Scion of the Salmon Run, and their brush with darkness, Hygenis went ahead and forced clashing handfuls of the flowers into her mouth and chewed vigorously.

It tasted a mess; it tasted a wonder. And in the back of her throat was the iron flavor of the Bloody Mouth. They were oh so close, close enough that she could take a moment with soft plants under her knees to consider what might come next.

Technically, should they succeed, there would be an after whether she wanted one or not. Many Bloody Mouths ended in death, and even among those successful the chance for their record to make it all the way back to dental students was thin, even skeletal. She knew of only four such victors from what her dental instructors whispered to her over the gaping chasm of a tranquilized beity’s open maw.

None of the accounts came with names, as names made such threads easier to trace, and one successful trace could wipe out an entire dental college, possibly even getting its members thrown into deep dark pools to be fed on by hagfish: ironically toothless creatures that would nonetheless bore through their flesh and tie themselves in knots to tear off chunks.

As she ate she remembered those heroes, and not the hags they could’ve been fed to. One successful Bloody Mouth saw a dentist wielding nothing but a tongue depressor successfully destroy the internal power structure of the region’s largest beaver dam. There was a bucktoothed coup, and in the end the humans involved successfully scattered the beavers’ slaves to further and hopefully kinder corners.

Another guarded a pregnant woman who fled her stork master, the bird a high-ranking member of a social club that delivered infant slaves across great distances. With the sky full of watchful eyes the child was successfully delivered, and never seen by beity eyes again, though the dentist was dropped from a cloud and killed for the infraction. Still, the Bloody Mouth itself had succeeded.

The other two were even murkier on the details. Something about a dentist retreating into a giant termite mound and never coming out, presumably living out the rest of their days in insect company feeding on the mushrooms growing from their stockpiled sawdust thanks to no beity wishing to challenge the bugs’ sovereignty. And something about a dentist getting swallowed whole, but ripping their way free, with which instrument and from what sort of stomach was never mentioned.

At best she fought for one of these results, though in the moment she was sure she’d fought for nothing but those handfuls of flowers turning gummy and slowly sliding down her throat. A vine to wash them down would’ve been perfect, but those were already far behind, cut back into cowardice by the same humans that laid out the rainbow buffet. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied one as she gorged.

Or she thought she did. Head and hook and body all rose together, and faced a human silhouette, but the shape may have just been borrowed from them. The figure standing there, so close that Hygenis would have said it was impossible for an actual human to sneak that near without her hearing them, was composed entirely of butterflies.

The fluttering insects also came in a rainbow of colors, from iridescent purple to fiery orange to soft pale green. Their wings were not still, but it was impossible to say whether or not they were in flight, so tight was their formation in the man-shape. Even fingers could be discerned, as could the tilt of the head that mimed looking from her to Loric.

“Loric,” Hygenis said as she swallowed the last of her flowers. The storyteller had not yet noticed the figure, and rose at his guardian’s word to see not one, but three of the things surrounding them, but still too distant to reach out and touch: primarily purple, primarily green, and primarily white. Inside the one nearest him, the white, a voice coalesced from many tiny glimmers and flashes of sound.

“These flowers are not for you,” it said. It was one. It was many. All were more curious than disapproving. “No man not of Staircase may partake. No beity shall ever.” Ellapock blew away a pink petal stuck to his bristled cheek.

“We wish to be of Staircase,” Loric said, bowing. “I am Loric Shelvtale of Compassleaf, formerly owned by Krakodosus the thundercoat, Scion of the Salmon Run, formerly owned by Crimarus the welcome smuggler. This is my… dentist: Hygenis Fixtooth. Our mouths are bloody, and we beg for the asylum of the city. Will you help us creature?”

In response the white one burst into a flurry of individuals that washed over Loric and Ellapock. The human allowed every tap of their feathery feet, wondering what they were trying to detect before considering where the voice had come from. Insects were beities, but often with barely a double-thick drop in each body, so to be heard they sometimes had to pool their voices and could only speak when completely united.

Yet the voice had sounded very human to him. Were they mimicking his kind’s affect? Such a thing might be possible, even elementary for any high-name parrot, but any human voice older than an adolescent’s, channeled through throat rather than mind, would be impregnated with scarring experience. If their lives meant anything no swarm of butterflies, save one the size of a hurricane, could imitate it convincingly.

The white man-shape reformed behind him, but it was the green one that spoke next.

“Can you offer evidence of your identity, Loric Shelvtale?”

“We carry forged metal,” Hygenis interjected, twirling her hook to make her point, careful not to cut flowers from their stems, “so there is little else we could be.” The green one sank into the meadow and vanished, but she knew where it went, for she felt them gliding past her ankles. The purple one walked toward them, and it was most disturbing to see the insects trudge with all the weight of a man. It spoke.

“Yes, the tools are the evidence of the trade. Now the storyteller must give evidence of his. Tell us a tale, and not one performed for beities countless times. Give us one of human victory: a story that could climb all our stairs on its own two feet.”

Challenge issued, Loric took longer to respond than Hygenis expected. She knew that he had the power to start speaking before he knew what he was going to say, that he trusted undercurrents of creativity in his spirit to guide him to a proper ending. It was not a lack of ideas stalling him, but how much of the truth should be committed at the outset.

The delay was due to the bottomless book. It transformed him from Loric the slave into Loric the free. Its effluence was so much richer, a sort of double-thick, than being orally passed story crumbs from old masters who lost entire arcs when there was an age-related earthquake in their minds. Twice the man he was, now that he’d read of it, and ten times could he be if he was allowed to drink from an unceasing supply until his death. Perhaps a hundred if he ever found its bottom. The man of all men. The intellect that properly cultivated the Tame and felt no shame in mastery of it.

He would not give up the book, which stairclimbers might demand of him for passage into the city, or for lasting refuge there. Living much as free men do did not make them free, as they technically remained slaves of Phobopan. Not all Forbidden Thumbs were lifted by their polydactyllic hands.

Loric would not live as he did in Compassleaf, only sneaking glances at his font of endless knowledge inside a burrow of pillows. It would be his openly, which meant those granting him sanctuary would eventually see. The only question was whether to have that argument occur in the rainbow fields or safely behind their stairs, and in the case of the latter they might feel they had been taken advantage of.

Adding to the duration of his uncomfortable silence was the possibility that they already knew about the book in some capacity. Winged rumors of their escape had certainly made it that far, whether or not Staircase maintained good relations with messenger birds or clandestine spying bats. A deduction that Loric carried books or literacy materials would not be far behind such wings.

And he had just been subject to an inspection by countless limbs. As the butterflies washed over him he might’ve had invaders in his pack fully capable of identifying the touch of cleverwood underfoot and the cold glow of artificial light. Their request for evidence may have been a test of his honesty, and if he did not divulge the bottomless book and its contents the stairs may never unfold and allow his ascension.

Rather than speak his first action was to reach behind his shoulder and draw out the device, holding it up for every butterfly to see. Hygenis gave no reaction aside from a deep breath; he hoped she understood his decision.

“I have many such stories on the tip of my tongue. My mind swims in them leisurely everyday, but there are countless more, not subject to the corruption of failing memory, inside this item. This machine is my bottomless book, and I seek refuge for it as well. Where I go it goes, for it is now as much a part of my soul as my thumbs are of my hands.

Here is one of its stories, tailored to your specifications.” Loric’s fingers moved nimbly about the book’s screen as he tapped in key words and phrases that produced a list of entries, his digits navigating it more deftly than the butterflies did his skin in their inspection. “Once, in days long past, days so different we would say they belong to another world entirely, there was a building filled with garments. Just outside, people strolling by saw a most peculiar creature perched on its doorstep…”

2033 is the Kept Year

And a Cloaked Dragon Unlocks Cloth Manacles

The photo saw much greater circulation than the video. The video was a mere seven seconds, so the algorithms determined it was an untenable length for viral spread. No less than two point five events had to occur within those seven seconds for the code behind the major platforms to alter their judgment, and the subject of both files had only one event to offer: passage through an automatic door.

That passage carried much meaning, and even greater intent, and it changed more lives than any other event in the early stages of the cute animal sinkhole, but all that was seen by the wider world was a delightful anomaly. All they saw was a large bull green iguana, so prodigious of spine and thumbtack-scale that the denizens of the internet often mistook him for a bearded dragon, standing just outside the automatic door of the clothing chain Zipper Park.

Already incongruous, the image was made all the more surreal by the lizard’s attire. He wore a small custom-made puffy winter jacket, safety orange in color. It even had a miniature hood that could never be pulled over his head effectively without being skewered by his long dorsal spines.

‘Aww look, another happy little customer of Zipper Park’, an official comment from the social media team of Zipper Park read. ‘Cold-blooded discount hunter’, read one more anonymous.

Few were focused on the situation that put the lizard there, or his well-being. This Zipper Park was nestled in a chilly climate, and there was even snow on the ground in the corner of the photo, though the most popular iteration of the image cropped that out, which made it all the easier to add legible text just below the lizard’s blank expression that suggested he was just going about his day and doing his best to look the responsible adult.

They called him dragon shopper and implied he was just trying to fit in, to stay warm in a rough wet winter, to nab a good deal before the next blizzard doubled the price of fleece pullovers sized ultra double extra small.

But he was not just a butchered image to shellac sentiments on. Dragon shopper was a pet, both neglected and loved. Which parts drew which reaction from his owner were starkly divided. His image, his lizardness, drew out cooing love and warm cuddling. He was photogenic, and as long as he was everything underneath the surface was deemed to be in good health.

In truth dragon shopper was perpetually ill, deprived of sufficient heat to function. He was sold from a pet shop far from his natural habitat, and his owner alleviated this distress with but one item: a heating rock. Its plastic shell hid a faulty mechanism that never achieved the temperatures on the packaging.

Dragon shopper was warmed enough to stay alive, but never enough to become vigorous. He was in a stiff sort of pain, glued to an item that never gave him his fill, that made him believe the frost in his flesh was the natural order. The full extent of life was never available to him, not until the day he was walked, on a leash, to the Zipper Park.

The whole thing was staged, by none other than his owner, who dropped his tether and left him there, knowing full well the chill of the sidewalk would sap him of strength and leave him frozen in place, perfect for them to cross the street and snap what would appear to be a candid photo.

His little parka had been custom ordered, but all its specifications were for its appearance only. It locked in no warmth, so dragon shopper had none as the sidewalk leeched what little energy the world supplied him with. He thought he might die, and die cold, and in that moment, in sight of the ultimate low temperature, he understood there was a high counterpart his body had never been permitted to achieve.

The tools that would allow it were nearby, confirmed when a customer, too distracted to see dragon shopper dying most statuesque underfoot, triggered the automatic door and entered the store. A blast of heated air escaped, along with the scent of mixed fabrics and freshly printed price tags alike.

The air struck dragon shopper and gave him a hope like he’d never known, invigorating and frightening. Together those sensations produced a deep and desperate want, a sobbing grasping spirit embedded in his tissues that knew how to cling to something even more raw than life, to stimulus.

And so dragon shopper rejected his photogenic quality the second he was able, breaking out of his perfect pose and swinging his long clawed toes forward in determined strides. He waddled onto the sensor before the door, and with his clothing he had just enough presence and weight to trigger its mechanism.

The portal opened, and before the cold could still him once again he made his way inside and found a land of untold wonders. Scarves. Mittens. Compression socks. Hats with furry wings. Every fiber truly trapped the artificial heat pumped into the structure’s air, saturating every surface, one of which was now a most altered lizard.

The cute animal sinkhole had begun, but beities were far from taking names for themselves. Still, as dragon shopper’s body warmed new possibilities were unlocked within him, like wrongly condemned wings of a building suddenly flung open. Fresh fullness changed him, turned a piece into a whole and granted understanding of the actual boundaries of the self.

So here he will be given a proper beity name, though he lived before such a time. Dragon shopper had, with one step over the threshold into hot life, been transformed into Mausolana. And no sooner had Mausolana come into his full fiery being, truly a dragon of old, did he vanish completely. Only for a time.

In that time, just a minute into it, his owner finally crossed the street when the traffic ceased and hurried into Zipper Park to scoop up their scaly property that had just acted so uncharacteristically alive and rebellious. Only to stand there, slack-jawed in the threshold when there was no sign of the creature soon to be branded dragon shopper.

“Do you mind? You’re letting the heat out,” an employee chastised them so they would stop activating the door. The owner obeyed, moving further in, and asked if anyone had seen a lizard in a coat just walk in. The looks they got suggested they were crazy, but there was photographic proof on their phone.

“Oh my god, that’s so cute,” one patron said when shown, before remembering they were asked for information rather than a reaction, “but no I didn’t see that little cutie anywhere. You should post that picture… actually can you E-mail me a copy? I want to show my niece; I swear she loves animals more than people.”

Long blessed with the practiced power of kicking a wheel until it becomes squeaky, the owner ultimately enlisted the help of seven employees to form a sweeping search party that systematically combed through the entire store as if searching for a missing child in the woods. They were warned iguanas were sneaky, and that they could sit so still they almost disappeared, after squeezing themselves into the tightest of spaces.

Even large sleeves were checked as they hung on the display racks, by the hundred, but none of them contained the missing Mausolana. He wasn’t in the men’s section. The women’s. The children’s. No, the employees assured the skeptical owner, there was no pets section to check. They were very sorry, but there was nothing more they could do, though they were free to continue looking in the customer areas until store closing.

They didn’t stay that long. Pulled out and home they were by the temptation to get to work on photocraft. There were colors to tweak, borders to define, and a long list of platforms to curate before mass posting and watching the appreciation roll in. Basking in it would be better than rolling in money, better than basking on a perfectly calibrated heat rock.

Dragon shopper was an immediate success online, which gave the former owner something so close to a revelation that it almost counted as one, which was the greatest intellectual achievement of their life. They had never wanted to own anything alive. Only something poseable.

With the dragon shopper brand they now had such a thing, and so never returned to Zipper Park to reacquire their pet, assuming two possibilities with equal indifference. Either a playful child would squeeze between the coats to hide in the impromptu fort of a circular display rack and discover their new snazzily dressed companion or a custodian would sweep a dead and limp dragon infestation out from under a heater along with numerous clumps of dust.

One of these did come to pass, but only years later, when animals were dreaming up the names they would use as soon as they found their voices in the storage areas of their minds, which seemed to constantly expand now. Mausolana, through heat alone, had felt much the same, and constructed a hidden kingdom in the early lurch of the Tame. Just as he had claimed victory in life, so too would a human child, with his help.

For every story there is a counterstory, with an opposing moral, yet both are completely true. What a reptile needed was often what a mammal detested, for one blood had to be gifted heat while the other gave away as much as it could.

By the time this happened Zipper Park was no longer a business. It still received clothing, and people still came to take it in substantial numbers, but much of the financial circus tent had collapsed, leaving the new clothing without price tags and brand names. There were no employees, but there was a man and a woman who arranged everything on the displays mostly out of habit, watching with muted calm as people came and claimed what they wanted.

The stream of takers was steady, yet the garments built up, some distant factory still producing despite a senile wandering demand. Without enough racks for everything, piles formed, splitting off into new ones whenever they were tall enough to touch the ceiling. Over one such pile a child crawled, sliding down the collapsing side, separating themselves from their parents who idly performed what used to be called shopping but now felt more like foraging.

“Don’t go too far sweetie,” one of the parents tossed over the mound without looking away from the two sweaters, identical save for color, they examined.

“Okay!” the child of eight shouted back with every intention of keeping her word, unaware of how poorly she understood the space within Zipper Park. Its stretches of tile and carpet appeared ordinary, though the clothing on the racks now sat on the border between tousled and disorganized. Yet there were hidden lands, patrolled by a guardian.

She found what she’d climbed the hill in search of: a circular rack filled with heavy coats. Even at her tender age she still had nostalgic memories, which had formed more readily now that the world changed rapidly, changed downhill. She recalled the sounds of high heels on the tile, of credit cards swiped through machines and the ensuing chug of a spat-out receipt. In those days she had sought to stay longer than the errand, hiding crouched inside a circular rack with a book or a video game.

In there the greatest discomfort was stifling her laughter when she heard her parents just outside, trading barbs about who was more responsible for raising such a scurrying rodent of a child. Always she would fail to do so after a minute or two, and big hands would split the walls of her hideaway and extract her gently. At that point she did not resist. Once she was found the game was over. The world had her as a participant once again.

So she squeezed her way inside to relive the experience, already missing the swipe and chug and tinkling coins of money, but only as background noise, as human birdsong. Video games no longer held her attention now that things seemed to be happening around her, so she had no distraction with her. Instead she sat on her bottom, clutched her knees close to her chest, and listened to Zipper Park to get to know its new form better.

The silence was warm, so much so that it felt like tassels nestling down in her ear canals. She rubbed her ears and smiled, delighted to notice that the very act of smiling could be heard. It had a nice sound, like ripe fruit falling from the tree. And the sound of ripe fruit falling naturally summons the animals.

Cozy air warmed, stiffened. Little aches and pains she never recognized, that would only enter her perception properly in her thirties, melted out of her, leaving her feeling inert, like a belonging accidentally wadded up in bed sheets and left behind as the human day began.

A stirring in the coats that made up the one curved wall could not have been her parents. It was too soon, although now that she thought about it she had no idea how much time had actually passed since she’d entered that confined comforting realm. The stirring was graceful, as if the coats were the native waters of a fish about to surface. The child held her breath, waiting for a face to appear, and Zipper Park did produce.

Swirling sleeves created a cloth whirlpool, and out of its center rose the green nose of Mausolana, nostrils permanently flared, lips stoic and scaly. Next came his eyes, golden and wise, kindled and kind. His dewlap emerged and hung, but all his old spines were gone, long sloughed off to facilitate his swimming through a world he redefined more as his nest, year after year.

“You’re a lizard,” she whispered, honestly wondering whether or not he knew. It was a strange place for a lizard, and a strange ability as well. Children were especially susceptible to the cute animal sinkhole, so she was entranced by his image, overwhelming in its three dimensions. She reached out to feel his nose, explore its surface, and he allowed her innocent curiosity.

“I am the dragon shopper,” he said with a voice that was the warmth in the air, his mind and words powered by the artificial heat. “I am free when I am warm, and I have been warm a long time now.”

“Do you live here?”

“I can live nowhere else.”

“So you’re in jail?” she asked sadly, rubbing the side of his smooth neck. He wasn’t cold at least.

“Heat is no prison for me… but it is for you. Have you ever worn one coat too many? Trapped in a fourth skin? It makes your sweat bite like fleas, or so I’ve been told by the others who have sought my aid.”

“Well yeah, but then you just take the stuff off. But you can’t take it all off in summer, because then you’d be butt naked and everybody would look at you funny.”

“You see? You are the prisoner. No chains, but you obey. Suffering under the sun, solution at hand, yet the fleas rise up and bite. Your fear imprisons you. I know there is a thrill to fear, for there was a time I was too cold and muted to feel it, and knew only dread instead. But your fear should not rule you.

You, human child, are an engine of heat, a phoenix of flesh and hair, and to invent these anxious fleas was folly. I keep heat here, in Zipper Park, by mutually beneficial exchange. I would like to make an exchange with you.”

“You want to trade?” She turned her pockets inside out, producing only a crumpled sticker of a panda bear and a single lint-covered candy she’d already licked the color from. “I don’t really have anything right now, sorry.”

“Oh but you do,” the iguana insisted. “The shackles you can’t see. I will take them; they are something else to me. Turn but one over to me, and in turn I will give you a taste of a freedom your kind used to possess. And this taste will last always, sweetening every meal, freshening every breath.”

“I’m not really supposed to be talking to strangers… but I think that was about people and you’re a lizard so… I guess it’s fine. And you did find me here. Nobody but my parents ever finds me here. I think that means you know me, kind of. I’ve seen lots of lizards online, so I know you too. Do you know that one that wears the cowboy hat on the rocking horse?”

“I gave him that hat,” Mausolana said proudly. “It was passed to me from someone much like you. We had an exchange. Let’s have one now. Put your hands here,” he turned his head so she could see the large circular scale beneath his jaw, “and here.” He showed her the one on the other side.

She shuffled forward on her knees and reached out. One hand. The other. Her little fingers had plenty of room left within the circles, and that was when she realized Mausolana was bigger than any lizard she’d ever seen in person. Bigger than he was supposed to be. But if a lizard could talk it was probably free to do all sorts of other things, growing the least of them.

Her hands didn’t adhere, but she felt something that kept her from pulling away, like static but made of the heat from a dryer instead of electricity. At first it was simple flow, warmer to cooler, though both bodies had grown quite warm within the rack of fleece and wool. It didn’t feel like an exchange, but like she was giving and he was taking.

This was correct, but she didn’t immediately understand that the taking was also giving. Mausolana took her excess heat, the heat of the cloth manacles her kind’s misuse of the Tame had placed upon her. There was a coolness she didn’t know, robbed from her at birth by the swaddling cloth. She’d not felt the ice of free toes, the chime of the collarbone when wind is upon it.

Body excessively tamed, dunked in a tub of sweat fleas. This was all she’d ever known, just as Mausolana had only known the rigid cold of a defective heat rock made addictive by its failure. Once the heat was taken something shot through her hands and into her heart, then down to her left foot.

An inner chain exploded, and though it had no physical presence the coats around them rippled as if pelted with its broken chunks. She fell backward, gasping. Mausolana’s mouth couldn’t curve into a smile, but she felt it on her, gliding across droplets of her new cooler sweat. But something was gnawing on her ankle, with fierce iron teeth, as if the chain had rebuilt itself haphazardly and now tried to force its way back on in total disregard of its sharp and jagged edges.

She ripped off her left shoe and took off the sock even faster. With the sock came the bite, and now her foot was free. It felt like sprinting, like that sort of running especially light people can do that feels more akin to skimming the surface of a puddle, but the rest of her body lagged behind.

Experimentally, she put her shoe back on, and found it did not bother her. It was just the sock, which now sat next to her like a miserable leech that hadn’t had its fill. She didn’t smell it, but she knew it stunk of musty old biting sweat. Why did the body even make sweat like that? In rejection, she thought, though in more childish terms. It was like pain, a signal to remove whatever caused it.

“Do you see what I gave you?” the iguana asked, leaning closer, dragging the coats with him and encircling her all the more.

“You gave me my foot back,” she said with a strange clarity, her words light as dove wings. “But all I gave you was a sock.”

“And I thank you for it. It will keep me warm, like all my other blankets. This heat harmed you, but helps me. Everyone can be comfortable if they are but in the right place, and sometimes that place is a skin.”

“Okay, good trade I guess,” she said airily, moving her foot back and forth on the ankle. It was different from her right now, and that difference was clearly more than one sock in volume.

“We may see each other again friend,” Mausolana said, “but for now I must go. Don’t tell the world of me please, for my privacy, but you can tell your family if you want.” The iguana’s head dipped, snagging her loose sock in his mouth. As soon as he had it he retracted into the coats and moved on, with his new friend trying to follow his path in the ripple of the coats around the rack, but at the end of them two garments split, arms and a face intruding, human this time.

“There you are!”

Neither of her parents noticed the missing sock in Zipper Park, or on the way home, or in the days after. The reveal was indirect, for when the laundry was done only single socks of hers came out of the wash, and only the first few could be attributed to carelessness.

By this time her schooling had become informal, but she still played with other children at a local park under the watchful eyes of all the parents. Some of the others grew concerned, and addressed the child’s apparent limp when running with her friends.

“It’s not a limp,” her father was forced to explain, pinching the bridge of his nose and wincing. “She says she has a good foot and a bad foot. No, not like she twisted one. No, she doesn’t need a doctor. She doesn’t even say good and bad; she says her left foot is free and her right one is… caged.”

Once, then again a few days later, then again a week after that, they sat her down on her bed, the both of them, and tried to talk her out of it. There was no irritation on her right leg, and she admitted there was no pain, so why on Earth did she refuse to put on a left sock?

“If you make me I won’t walk anywhere,” she insisted with red face, tears in her eyes, indignation dribbling out of her nose. How could they do this to her? Mausolana gave that foot as a gift and now they wanted to take it away, shackle her with another flea-infested one. Her threat was more of a promise, for of course she would not be able to walk when bound.

Finally they asked when and why this new habit of hers started, and were surprised to hear the name Zipper Park. That was where you gained clothes, not lost them. Yes sweetie, they told her, fully aware that she had hidden in the round rack. All children did so, as far back as the world had round racks to hide in.

But, she said, giving them pause. There was an iguana in there, and he spoke. There was an exchange of heat, from a human with too much to a lizard who could never have enough. He had opened her foot, freed it, and now she sometimes felt like it flew away and spent time with the birds while she slept at night, returning to her ankle every morning just before she awoke.

“Sweetie… there is no giant lizard living in the Zipper Park. That was your imagination.” They both said such things, over and over again, but nothing convinced her to put that left sock on again, and when they tried to force it she screamed herself raw, as if she’d just been locked in a dungeon cellar and her keepers had retreated up a lengthy flight of spiral stairs.

All of the world’s therapists were busy, and would be until the profession stopped existing, treating obsession with the sinkhole. Their efforts were fruitless, so no appointment ever opened up. Her parents had nowhere else to turn but Zipper Park. Perhaps if they confronted that place they could prove there was no lizard, and this was all a daydream gone rotten.

She went with them all too willingly, even holding their hands in the walk across what used to be a parking lot, which now held many tents and vehicles on flat tires, their trunks opened into awnings from which their owners sat and watched the sun rise and fall.

“Why don’t you take your other sock off so you’re not dragging one foot?” her mother asked as they approached the door that was no longer automatic.

“I can’t just take it off Mom,” her eyes rolled, “The lizard has to free it! We have to trade! You’ll see.” Her father reached for the door, but apparently it had been repaired, for it did slide open on its own. With an amused snort he entered. In order to truly arrive they had to enter the round rack, which was a much more daunting task for the two adults, which they knew even better once they bent down and heard their knees crack in unison.

“I bet he can fix that,” their daughter giggled, tongue between her teeth.

“There definitely is not room for all three of us,” her mother said rather than address her crumbling bone structure.

“I’m fine out here,” their daughter said, anticipation almost making her itch. “Don’t go too far.” As they entered they quickly learned even two people was a stretch, or rather a compression. They could sit, but only with the rack’s base pressing into their backsides. A shared look, a shared shrug.

“Nothing’s happening,” the father said loudly to cross the clothing barrier.

“Do it right Dad!”

“What does that mean!?”

“You’re in there. Nothing else is real. Don’t talk to me, because I’m not here.” Her father was about to argue further, but then he involuntarily felt the memory rise up within him. Another shared look confirmed his wife felt the same. Yes, there was a familiar mindset they needed to make an actual effort.

The round rack was round like the planet; it was an entire world. One calm, one curated, one cozy. It was the sort of world a solitary bookworm might invent for themselves. What they didn’t realize was that they were experiencing the great missed goal of mankind: the state they had sought for the Tame.

The Tame was their power, collectively, and it was what the animals didn’t have. It allowed them to make their own weather, to change food into unrecognizable messianic gifts to the palate, to turn thoughts into pebbles they could collect and arrange. Most strove for the Tame to get their own round rack, to ignore the world and replace it with a pampering den when the indifference of nature was too much for their spirit.

But they’d failed. The symbol of the round rack had never coalesced in their cultures at large. Nasty low impulses had ripped them away into false prophecies of religion and finance. Generation upon generation was fooled into seeking power, crafting a cold rack large enough to roam around inside rather than one to take shelter in.

Round racks had formed within one small aspect of their consumerism, almost incidentally, but tiny soap bubbles in what should have been a never-ending tide of sea foam. Only the children knew what they were, but were prevented by well-meaning but hopelessly corrupted adults from integrating the round rack into their life properly.

“I remember this,” the mother said, tears welling up warm. A stifling corset tightened around her. What had she been missing? Had it been absent her entire life? Was she ever her true self without it, or always something lesser, something slowly and deliberately maimed into a different shape, like a topiary sculpture?

She recalled it, but the minor beity lived it. The very embodiment of the round rack came forth once again, from a supernatural twisting of many sleeves. Ever humble, the lizard’s head bowed to his company.

“There’s a lizard living in Zipper Park,” the father said numbly, now wondering if he could live there too.

“You might know me as the dragon shopper,” Mausolana said.

“Like… the meme dragon shopper? With the parka?”

“One and the same. We have already met, and you have already known me enough to laugh with me, at the incredible reality of a warm life.”

“This should be impossible,” the father said. Just the spiteful twisted Tame lashing out.

“When something that has gone wrong for a very long time is quickly corrected, much of it appears impossible,” the iguana assured. “The loss you feel is merely your preconceptions, not your sanity.”

“What did you do to our daughter?” As response Mausolana retreated back into the coats, rummaging around in his storage that only a beity could access. Shortly he returned with a single child’s sock in his mouth, which he gingerly dropped into the father’s cupped hands.

“That is mine, but you may examine it,” the iguana said. “You’ll find it quite ordinary, whereas I find it quite warm.”

“We don’t understand. So you have her sock. Why won’t she put on any others?”

“Do you feel you need them here?” Mausolana asked pointedly, the sharpest of his reactions since the loss of his spines. “Forgive me for answering for you, but no, you do not. This carpet is soft, clean, and warm. Why wear shoes here? Why socks? So much of your clothing serves no purpose indoors, yet you wear it while sheltered for days at a time. This misuse harms you, and with sufficient time that harm scars into bonds.”

“Her foot is free,” the mother whispered, already beginning to see, even without the lizard’s exchange. Her round rack memories were strong; so far she found no limit to their elasticity.

“She has had but a taste of freedom, my precious humans. I should like to give her the rest of it, and you as well. It will make me all the warmer, all the more content. I will take your responsibilities, burn them in my hearth, take comfort in them, and release you to the wilderness you have forgotten.”

About to speak, the father was stopped by another bond, this time his wife’s hand around his wrist. In turning he saw her face changed, from the harried adult he knew to the girl he had once loved with the whole of his being instead of the whole of his schedule. She was weeping silently, bottom lip glossy and quivering. She wanted this, and she was desperate for no argument.

He felt something himself, weaker only because he had spent a fraction of the time she had in the round racks. Everything else was falling apart, he wasn’t certain he would receive his salary at the end of the month, so why not take this risk? After all, it was only a sock. Together, hands clasped, they gave Mausolana a nod.

And so he freed them, only in equal measure with their daughter. Instead of taking socks he chose other items, judging which part of them needed freeing most. From the father he took a belt, and from the mother just the buttons over her chest, opening her shirt just down to her bra. When the cloth peeled back she felt opened, like she was breathing out a pair of cellar doors flung open below her throat.

Her partner moved his hips experimentally. Now something was missing, but it wasn’t his belt. Some other companion. One that liked to touch him. One that loved him. The arms of his lover, rolling around his waist, leashing him, pulling him to dance, to bed. Now it would be all the quicker to disrobe, to make their love an expressed reality, and to create new life.

He remembered he had a daughter, one born into a cage, practically dropped into it from the birth canal. Without a proper goodbye he and his spouse scrambled out of the round rack, leaving behind a Mausolana who had only grown more satisfied with the world. Lovingly, the beity took his buttons and his belt, not the warmest of items, but there were more to come, and what was the cold of patience was now the warmth of anticipation.

Upon returning home the girl’s parents finally understood. He discarded his belts. She forcibly opened any of her shirts that didn’t allow her breasts to breathe. Never again did they bother their daughter about left socks, or respond to questions regarding their absence. Life was easier, but as the weeks passed the holes in their prison walls revealed the extent of the structure. It was still all too massive and crushing.

When next they returned to Zipper Park the door opened for them again, though the place no longer had hours posted, and it was the middle of the night. Shipments did not come, but new clothes were gained in exchange.

Mausolana was happy to see them, and he listened intently when the father joked about his colleagues, who all accused him of being some sort of casual Friday despot. In one anecdote there was a man so offended by his lack of belt that he accused the father of sexual perversion, of trying to distract everyone with lewd informality.

The lizard listened, but all the while he was still doing his dragon shopping, looking them up and down, figuring out which parts of them were best to free next and add to his hideaway. The girl’s other sock. Her shoes. Her father’s collar. Her mother’s sleeves. All were exchanged for freedom at the end. They left lighter and happier, the father carrying his daughter so her bare feet wouldn’t suffer the broken glass of the parking lot. What a terrible place, and he finally understood it was not the fault of bare feet but of asphalt and broken glass alike.

Before two years had passed since the first exchange, the father was no longer employed. His fellows did not accept his unencumbered appearance and expelled him, but it mattered little, for none of their positions existed a month after that.

Accused of indecency, the park where their daughter played rejected them as well, but if it harmed their child that did not show in her personality. Everyday she laughed more, louder, spoke of pets, but spoke of them as friends and advisors rather than property.

When they were ready Mausolana freed the last of them, and told them they were great friends, but that they had no reason to return. All improperly allocated heat had been exchanged. All chains had fallen away.

Just prior, near total freedom, the family were pariahs. Objects were cast their way to paint their naked hide with bruises, but they had little impact on their joy. Those still shackled wondered how they could live in such a fashion, exposing their child to a lifestyle of sexual deviancy.

Yet there was no such element to those freed by Mausolana. To the unencumbered, the free nudes as they would come to be called online, assuming exposure meant sexual intent was the silliest notion. Why would the ships sailing the seas be preoccupied with the activities of the shipyard? They were living, not making more life, and certainly not bargaining with various parties over materials and costs.

The scorn they faced disappeared when the dragon took their last scraps. No soul that remained completely bound by cloth could perceive them, and that was still much of mankind. The three moved freely, through even dense crowds without a comment. If anyone spoke on the matter it was likely to be the free nudes themselves, lamenting how poorly these souls would fare when the collapse of their societal hollows finally occurred.

Until then the free nudes, of which this family was only three among many, moved as the most fulfilled ghosts, immune to much of the chaos around them. Those who would stop them and demand payment could no longer detect them, having reduced their own idea of their fellow man to nothing but outfits.

And so these people lived in the transitional age, stopping and resting in any spaces sufficiently like the round racks, which were the perfect balance between need, desire, and modernity. Almost as free as the animals, they were slow to turn themselves over to beity ownership, and rarely drew their ire enough to be captured. When one of their kind finally accepted any aspect of the shifting of the Tame they might suddenly see them, a whole flock, stark naked, leaping between rooftops or waiting out the rain under a generous tree.

The free nudes of Mausolana were the last free people of mankind’s Earth stewardship.

“Until the first climb of Staircase,” Loric finished, stashing the bottomless book back in his pack. Ellapock’s grip on his hair had loosened, as if the little primate suddenly hated holding anything like a chain.

More of the butterfly silhouettes had appeared during the telling, so that there was now a crowd of fifteen. The white one had drawn closer to the storyteller, close enough to touch, but said nothing as he finished. Loric had chosen that tale on a hunch, and he had to play it all the way out if there was to be any benefit. If he was wrong he would reach out to take his future, and have nothing but sand slip between his fingers.

“Please, do as they did,” he implored. “Disrobe and show us your true selves, not the arrangements you’ve made with the creatures around you. I know you are human, because I can feel it. We are not bound; our choices are our own.”

On that final word he reached out to grab the white figure’s shoulder. Reason told him it would achieve nothing but dispersing it into a swarm of common insects, yet instinct told him the morals he recited had made his allies solid. His hand connected with a clap. Scattering butterflies. But they left something behind: an entire woman.

When they had crept in, become knights in iridescent scale armor rather than mere illusions, was impossible to say, even for the perceptive Hygenis. It hadn’t happened with all of them, and perhaps some had been present from the start. When the white butterflies flew off the others followed suit, revealing seven more people and seven phantoms of the rainbow fields.

“Welcome to Staircase,” the woman said, letting Loric’s hand linger on her shoulder, “and watch your step.”

With escorts in front and behind, the Compassleaf fugitives had ample time to examine the attire of Staircase, which was more robust than they were used to. Many of them had full shirts, each garment adorned with innumerable fuzzy fronds barely longer than fir needles, chosen to give the butterflies a better grip when they landed.

A daily use warpaint sat on all their faces; out in the fields it was always a mask of butterfly wings of a single varying color. The escorts carried with them no weapons, for such items would only make it more difficult to complete their illusions when interrogating visitors at their invisible gates.

They were most interesting to observe, already their mannerisms seemed quite different to any of the slave populations Loric and Hygenis were used to, but they were scouts, and thus not overly representative of the people within the city, who were surely their truest selves when at leisure.

To see that they had first climb the stairs for which the city was named, the bold forbidden barrier that kept out many a beity, especially those of the hoof, who had been so insistent on calling such architecture a thumb in the first place.

Staircase was founded within a great chasm that narrowed to nothing deep in its recesses, with its edges above naturally sharp and sharpened further by diggers. That way no animal of significant size could enter from above without suffering a fatal fall, save those that could fly and glide. To combat them much of the internal architecture would be topped with wood and metal spines, Loric theorized, so that there was no safe perch. That would leave but one entrance, at the mouth of the rock crevice, between two impenetrable natural walls, which the Bloody Mouth saw when the color of the rainbow fields faded and they passed through the last curtain of trees.

“Bite my tongue,” Hygenis muttered in awe at the sight of it: more precise carpentry than they’d ever seen. A solid wall of wood divided by horizontal seams rose far above their heads, taller than a stack of giraffes. It had a rich natural stain enhanced by a waxy coating, both the wood and its treatment filling the air with the spiced scent of craftsmanship.

The exact wood of its composition they could not identify, though it was certainly from one source and that source was not mountain-stump. Even under Phobopan’s protection it would be foolish to test the world’s mightiest trees by disrespecting their fallen limbs in utilitarian carving.

Trees moved slowly enough that their warfare would escape the fear-full lion’s retribution, and so Staircase might be destroyed from underneath by creeping roots building trapdoors across decades. Likely the denizens of the city had gone with one of the nearest lessers to the mountain-stumps, like the coffin-cones or the imperial clonals, which would not be able to act in retaliation without the mountain-stumps seeing it as an intrusion in their realm of dominance.

One of their escorts threw up a hand, made three different signals with their fingers, which must have been witnessed by a sentry through the slats, for something incredible happened moments later. The fugitives heard a clunk. Clunks of stone they had heard. Clunks of wood. Clunks of shell, clunks of ice, clunks of bone.

What they heard now was supposed to be extinct for hundreds of years that weren’t kept; it was the clunk of metal. Even Hygenis, trained on the hook, the scraper, the scalpel, the mirror, had not heard such a large piece of refined ore fall into place. In what little forging she had witnessed and participated in the metal was but a rope of drool, an embarrassing accident of the Earth, made hard and sharp just to hide it away in a beity mouth where it could make use of itself without being witnessed.

The thing that moved behind the wall of wood was an alloyed unrepentant monster, a mammoth of iron tusk, and it pushed with even more strength. Clunk! Clunk! Like drums it was. Ellapock scampered down the back of Loric’s neck, tiny hands recoiling at the spiny feel of his hairs standing on end, and hid himself in the pack. It was not good for beities to see such things, reminiscent as they were of the age of caged animals, and slaughter-factories, and forest-shredding behemoths.

Then the slats revealed their true purpose, the lowest board crawling forward, the next one up following moments later, but never catching up. Slat by slat, nay Loric realized, step by step, the wall unfolded into something of the bygone world, the blasphemy to the bovines: stairs. Back in Compassleaf, and in all the beity cities of the world, there were animals assigned to examine paths, to carefully measure distances and regularity to make sure any set of stepping stones or root-knobs was not uniform enough to be called stairs, and would not exclude or offend beities like horses and hippos.

Such creatures would fall dead, hearts exploded at the sight of this, Loric recognized. Each stair was long enough to get winded running along it. They extended so far that the fugitives were encouraged to look down and see a line in the dirt, and understand why they had stopped so far out. The foot of Staircase would come all the way to them.

Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! The mechanism clunked its last, but the most magnificent welcome was not finished just yet. The butterflies, closest allies of stairclimbing man, long enjoying the benefit of skies kept clear of birds by roofing spikes, had not done their part. From between the slats they rose, clinging as close to the wood as they had to the flesh out in the fields. Again they coordinated by color, practically swimming up each step with such density that the wood disappeared underneath them: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The rainbow climbed step by step, color by color, and then repeated. It would continue until the fugitives understood this rainbow was a bridge, that they were to be, at least for now, stairclimbers themselves.

The natives moved first, to show them it was safe, for man and bug alike. The insects broke apart just enough for each step, and at the last moment, just so the humans could appear to walk upon the very concept of shimmering color.

Loric took his first step up, and in doing so felt like a different sort of man. Shown the procedure countless times by the bottomless book, the climb allowed him to resonate into a history he now firmly grasped. It wasn’t just like the olden days, it was them, at least on his scale. Hygenis came up behind, put a hand on his shoulder.

She was smiling, not at the completion of their Bloody Mouth, for that was not certain, but at this new and beautiful rebellion against the way of things, even if it was ultimately sanctioned by a beast they’d only barely escaped days prior. Loric felt a tap on his other shoulder, so he turned to see one of his escorts, a young man with a gray butterfly painted over his eyes.

“Storytellers like to add funny things they see to their stories right?” he asked softly as they climbed from indigo to blue.

“Yes, it lightens the mood, relieves tension. Why do you ask?”

“I’m colorblind. That’s funny right? Will you add that?” Loric laughed deep in his throat, in his chest. He looked up at the bright colors of the summit, at a line of people with the sun behind them, all waiting to hear what he had to say.

“It is! And I will!”

 

(continued in part nine)

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