(estimated reading time: 2 hours)
When the Year is not Kept
And the Details are Hammered out with Veteran Hammers and Baboon Nails
She does not arrive without her procession. She does not arrive without her elite foot soldiers. She does not arrive without their support beities. She does not arrive without her support beities’ human slaves.
This brings with her a great many creatures, big and small, and necessitates quite the space for them to make and break camp. When considering Staircase, the front of Staircase since it could not be approached from any other angle, the nearest such space was a bowl in the Earth, into which the flesh-dense vines had grown and blanketed. Now they would serve as natural bedding for the forces of the arriving Assaulquus, the Trojan Horse, the Wild Trinitarian of war.
Four times as high at the shoulder as the horses ridden by man, she was ridden only by her armor. The Wild Trinity was of fear, of vice, and of war, so one might think her the most amenable to human designs for the craft, but she was not. Her armor was not crafted by human hands, nor did it contain metal of any kind.
She ascended to her position by making war, and making it better than any creature had before, man included. Man overshot war, made it happen at ranges where it stopped existing, confused it with poisoning, tried to deploy the chaos of it as jut another weapon. These follies disgusted her, and if not opposed by most of the other beities who enjoyed their slaves she might make war until the last human was a memory, and then she might make war on memory until the last image of man was a shapeless crater reminiscent of nothing.
A war of Assaulquus could only end in victory, but as with the mountain-stumps that victory could take countless seasons. Always she managed multiple fronts, even from afar, mostly doing battle with the forces of beities who wished to ascend into the Wild Trinity themselves and take one of their places.
Her defense of Phobopan’s throne was not out of deference, or a belief he couldn’t defend it himself, but for mutual benefit. She liked to make war, and he liked to make fear. The same could be said for the golden fleece, who would suffer greatly if ever made to lift his head in effort.
In order to make her armor she made war. Refusing to be sullied by human thumb, and viewing even the ironwoods, even the heartwood of the ironwoods, to be insufficiently strong, she turned to the only creatures of the Earth that could create such pieces with their natural lives: snails and shellfish of the ocean.
At first it was a request. To fulfill it would be an honor, the shellfish said, but they could not. It was not within their power to purposefully grow their shells to her specifications, and even if they could it would require the sacrifice of their lives to make them into gifts for her. They pleaded her forgiveness.
Her response was to change it from a request to an order, but the spineless creatures of the ocean floor still assumed they were not capable of obeying. When the order was confirmed, delivered by symbolic seahorses, their disbelief became resentment. The high and low names among them whispered to each other, scorned her audacity, wondered if she could even reach them, for mighty as she was she could not breathe underwater, intentionally sink to their level, or even move through it with a speed matching their slither.
Assaulquus did not solely make war on her own though. She was the greatest commander the world had ever seen, across any species. Part of that skill was knowing exactly who to command. Here it was the hermit crabs, always ready to take a new shell as a spoil of war, perfectly willing to eat its creator right out of it morsel by morsel.
The Trojan Horse found the best beach to begin, raised up her army of crabs. Already her quarry was somewhat cornered, for they could not move past the patrolling crabs and could not retreat into currents where the waters were too cold. In one step she had shrunk their limitless ocean to a fishbowl.
The crabs raised a city; their names became high. Through war they made everything else, and only through the Trojan Horse could they make such perfect war. For her, for shells, for their new greatness, the hermit crabs marched from the beaches into the sea million by million, armed with the claws her breeding had sharpened.
Conch, clam, cowrie, cone, and scallop did not go quietly. They made war as best they could, lining up their heaviest shells in the front line, with those shells from lineages that hunted by launching harpoon-tongues loaded with the deadliest toxins. A mere prick to a human in their age would fell them in five seconds.
Some hit their mark, but not many, for the crabs were infinitely more agile, able to spin about and approach backward at full speed, shielded by stolen and scavenged shells. And from each battle they scavenged countless more, each serving multiple purposes. A large shell could be armor for an elite unit, or a home for innumerable spawn, or goods for bartering.
It took several spineless generations, but the denizens of the deep found themselves boxed in on all sides, contemplating extinction. Then, as an insult, the request came again. Make the horse her armor and slip free from the grip of her war. Acquiesce or die.
Now attached to the chips on their shoulders, the shellfish resigned themselves to a new subservient task: breed into unnatural shapes to clothe the Trinitarian. She wanted helm, interlocking neck plates, pauldrons, saddle, and haunch covers, as well as bracers for her hooves and ankles.
Each species begrudgingly accepted a section they were already closest to, then formulated what they would tell their spawn as they grew so their lives did not feel monotonous and constrained.
The reshaping made them worse at everything, from foraging to defense, but the latter was no longer a concern, as they were officially under Assaulquus’s protection while they were in her service. If a wayward fish gobbled them up it would be swallowed itself within the day. Most insulting of all, their main protectors were now the hermit crabs, tasked with being by their side for most of their lives, shepherding them in the servitude that reshaped their very silhouettes.
With this task driving them the crab city did not falter after the war ended. It continued to flourish, and its prosperity meant her perfect soldiers were motivated to become perfect shepherds. This was perfect war, raising life to the height of an animal’s taming, then fading without damage. No human could make such war. They couldn’t even select the right battlefields and the right soldiers.
One day Assaulquus stood upon her bested beach, staring out at the water, waiting patiently. Out of the surf came crabs, escorting shells with no hosts, each one tailored to fit. She donned her helm and the rest of her shell, found none of it uncomfortable, and all of it light as a shawl of feathers to her.
Her armorers would stay the course, every death providing a replacement, for she sometimes suffered blows in the wars that actually caused her concern. Her caravan of servants served many purposes, but one of them was the transportation of her replacement armors, kept pristine and polished.
Wherever they made camp the resting armor pieces stood as statues decorating the grounds. In order to liven up their servitude, to forget that their success meant their initial evisceration in war was pointless, the shellfish had taken to experimenting with color and pattern, meaning Assaulquus could select whether she wanted to gallop into battle wearing banners of flame, or snowfall, or screaming flowers.
But as she rested on her belly in the verdant bowl outside Staircase she did not need anything flashy. War was not being made, just an example. She wore regal stripes of purple, which she sometimes wore to sleep, as she’d never been without her armor since donning it, not entirely.
While camp was being made there were other decorations that took longer to form than her extra armors. Among her procession were many spiders of high name, who spent their time in travel asleep, wrapped about the necks and chest of humans like breastplates. These were not trappers, but designers from lineages even longer than her armorer snails.
Naturally they produced colored silks, and when Assaulquus set down to rest and humans set tent poles about her the spiders then clothed the tent, in less than a day, in murals that recounted her many victories. The tent’s open door represented the losses they could not recount in silk, for there were none.
Slow and ponderous when upon the ground with their eight legs, the spiders were somewhat decorative themselves, adorned with beads of natural glass and gemstones dangling on twine, sometimes turned into walking mops by copious silken tassels. They jingled and jangled as they went about their work, combining with evening cricket song to form a calming chorus belying the intensity with which the Trojan Horse handled all her affairs.
One of these spiders, clad in black silent raiment, came into the largest tent, housing his master, and began his work as the others filled in the final holes. By the high name Nyctolatro, his sole purpose in the coterie was to weave veils of draping black silk, the most lightless of the world, to serve as catchers and bunchers of shadow.
His curtains were placed furthest from the door of nonexistent losses, where the light from campfires entered, and served as a door as well, through which only one particular creature was meant to come: her brother in rank Phobopan. He was expected this evening, as the affair concerned his city.
The placement of the shadow gate was an extension of professional courtesy, as she had no desire to irritate him by making him arrive somewhere nearby and suffer escort to her war tent. While Nyctolatro neared completion she welcomed in the rest of her advisors and audience for the evening, composed of her battle and hunt elites and their human attendants.
Assaulquus had commanders, tacticians, and strategists, but they rarely joined her on the warpath, deployed as they were as satellites of her will to various fronts. Often such beities were physically weak, at least comparatively, valued only for their cunning and clever minds. Even insects were among that group, for being the least emotional of the beities afforded them unclouded vision in war.
With her were fighters, creatures so hardened by combat, or forged in it, that they knew little else, and could be said to be thoroughly addicted to it. Only in the currents of blood about the Trojan Horse could they keep their heads above the flow. Among them there were a few so steeped in bloodlust that they no longer knew regular lust, and viewed the continuation of their line to be the ending of others. Some even called these soldiers cauterizers, for the burned and scarred finality of the blows they dealt.
In that nearly complete tent that evening there were four, not considering the segmented creatures of typical size that followed the caravan in burrows beneath, scorpions, centipedes, racing iridescent jaw-beetles, who only participated in wars on a smaller scale than those that earned names for their battles.
Two cats were there, a lynx and a cougar, each as large as a low-name horse: Phalynx and Pangapuma. The former, gray and spotted, had a bib of white fur now permanently stained red by battles and hunts he could no longer tell apart. It was said that if his golden pupils narrowed upon you you were both targeted and judged. In that act was a perfect determination of predator or prey, and if you were labeled prey he would never cease in the hunt until you were dead, and the only way to escape that fate was to skirt his close attention entirely. Always his slaves wore the circular pupil as symbol, to keep him calm.
Beside him, lounging with chin flat upon her favorite cushion, with two servants scratching behind her ears and whispering peaceful things into them simultaneously, was the tawny Pangapuma. With nothing extraordinary about her appearance, she was nonetheless watched closely by any meeting her for the slightest bristle in her fur, for that was what she trusted. If you unsettled her, brushed against her the wrong way, you were just as dead as any subjected to the narrow eyes of Phalynx.
Bigger than either cat, encompassing them both when curled around them, long snout touching the tip of his own tail, was the monitor lizard Cultivar. A rare reptile for those colder northern parts, he took his heat from conflict, and was said to bask in volcanoes when given the chance, to no deleterious effect. His most famous tactic was swallowing his opponents whole, and he was fully capable of disgorging them alive if he felt them kneel in defeat internally.
Equally famous was his nemesis Mawgobomb, the fire-bellied toad, who had been swallowed by Cultivar countless times, admitted defeat when the toxins in his skin did not sufficiently irritate the lizard’s guts, been vomited up, and then proceeded to rescind his surrender and leap into heated battle again.
Their duel continued, on and off, to that very day, and it was rarely known whether or not the toad was currently inside the lizard, worsening his mood with defiant kicks and an itchy throat. Technically Mawgobomb had been present for enough war parties to count as one of the Trojan Horse’s elites, having heard strategies through the lizard’s body wall, but it was not known if he ever contributed from within or without his fleshy prison. He is not included among them now, for if he was present he did not emerge from Cultivar’s mouth.
Last to see Nyctolatro pull his final section of draping shadow tight was the flying opossum Decapetaur, the head-eater, the omnicarnivore. Though no bigger than a man’s torso she could be considered the fiercest of them all, for she had rebelled against the nature and diet of her kind, eschewing the generalism of fruit, insects, eggs, and small rodents for pure, unrepentant, and extreme carnivory.
She consumed all meats, and only meat, often diving into large carcasses and swimming through them. Her fierceness made her mind sharper as it did her dentition, with one swoop generating sufficient force to rob a human of their head without immediately knocking the body over. Decapetaur hung from the freshly spun ceiling, wrapped up in her own gliding membrane, black eyes sparkling just above a fold.
Little escaped her perception, so when the shadow gate billowed and knocked Nyctolatro loose it was she who swooped down and saved the stiff creature from impacting the ground. He scurried away as she resumed her position above, all before the black paw of Phobopan stepped into their company.
“You seem hurried; I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” Assaulquus said. Up a human came on a stool, just under her chin, and fed her a green seedless apple. Any seeds that passed through her system intact would grow into the mightiest trees, and the nearby mountain-stumps would not appreciate such an intrusion. The horse would not acknowledge the feeding hand, or its attached human, unless she should descend for another morsel and find nothing between her teeth.
“No, no, I am just entertained in a way I haven’t been in quite a while,” assured the lion with the ashen mane as he emerged fully, similarly ignoring the human that was now knelt directly under his chest fur. They were one of Phalynx’s, wearing his full moon pupil, and they were petrified.
Aside from their duties to their tuft-eared master, it could be said it was their position to be petrified, as they were assigned to the task of becoming fearful whenever Nyctolatro went to work, to put a scent of terror in the air that could waft through the shadows and let Phobopan know he was welcome.
They were very practiced in speeding their breath, trembling their hands, and calling up waking nightmares, often achieved by removing their pupil protection charms and sensing their master’s gaze upon their back. Some even used the surname Stokefear when referring to them, and they earned it too much to live a happy life. Even as Phobopan passed overhead, ignoring them, they still feared they would be punished for calling the lion prematurely, before Nyctolatro had quite finished. They feared the barbed tails of the listening scorpions that could emerge from the dirt and strike their soles at any moment. And they feared what came out of the darkness after Phobopan, another cat, perhaps an executioner of inadequate humans.
Curious of the Stokefear, but unable to linger on them thanks to her curiosity over every other face and facet within the war tent, was Grinjipan, who followed the fear-full lion out of the gate and settled down next to him to get comfortable.
“I’m eager to speak,” the Trinitarian cat purred smugly. Servants swarmed him on fleet and silent feet, taking the finest brushes to his mane and fur. One tilt of Pangapuma’s head in Grinjipan’s direction was sufficient to have a few humans break away and provide the same to the reverse-tiger. Both lithe cats shared a knowing nod, which did not escape Assaulquus’s notice.
“Who is this with you?” the horse asked, almost jealously. “Rarely do you share your dark trails, and when you do it is with a derelict soldier in need of a commander like myself.”
“I was the last,” Cultivar said, and though the statement was mild it was not without weight. Reptilian beities were short on words, shorter on plans, and when they spoke it bred questions in the more talkative kinds.
“Yes you were,” Phobopan acknowledged, “and we would’ve spent longer together my friend, if only there was warmth for you in the dark.” His heavy but elegant head moved to the tiger. “Here is Grinjipan, of Bagogreen, who has been most helpful in providing information about the situation that brings us together this fine evening. They have an interest in some of the parties involved, and they have my favor here tonight. I hope it is no great imposition sister.”
“No, let her stay in mirth,” the horse declared. “Shall we dine?” The lion’s acceptance sent a few humans, all but invisible against the backdrop in their multicolored silken cloaks until they moved, scurrying out to fetch victuals. It seemed the meeting was ready to begin, but there was one more relevant party who was only semi-present, which the horse just then recalled. “Cultivar, produce for us that messenger who wandered in this past hour.”
Obediently the great lizard lurched, tiniest of lumps rising in his throat. In a wet blast of breath he produced a writhing mass that bounced across the carpeting vines and rolled to a stop in the emptiest part of the tent, highlighting its pathetic size. A traumatized marmoset unfolded, looking up with eyes so wide that he seemed to judge his new surroundings as even less friendly than the lizard’s cold gullet.
“Master,” the tiny primate squeaked, bowing to the Trojan Horse. When his head came up he saw the fear-full lion. “Masters!” He bowed again, and then saw the elites of which he had heard tell, and the reverse-tiger too. “Masters all! I am but a humble low-name! Please forgive my words, which are not mine, and are simply meant for your ears.”
“And this low-name of yours?” the horse asked.
“Ellapock,” he answered, trying not to shiver in his jacket of lizard spit despite the radiating body heat of two Trinitarians and their cadre. “I have been sent from Staircase, where I was a prisoner, to speak on behalf of the Bloo- the much-hunted from Compassleaf.”
“They have no say in these negotiations,” the horse said, immediately filling the lower beity with dread of the stomping hoof. “They are between my instinct to make war and my brother’s to make fear.”
“True, but I am appreciative of all the details in this case,” the lion interjected. “Something vexing is afoot, and it is a thing I cannot smell or hear.” Assaulquus considered his words carefully, for she knew her brother to be as dedicated to his craft as she was to hers. If he was vexed it would vex her as well.
“Very well, then the low-name will be heard, and will return with our decision to Staircase.” In between bouts of fear over the second-swallowing that would move him to Cultivar’s stomach proper Ellapock had carefully constructed his now-useless plea that the Trojan Horse free him and let him return to Weaviranch. As much as he desired home, he would not raise a single word of argument against any of the monstrous wonders present.
Enticing scents arrived in the tent moments before the food, each offering carefully selected for the creature it was placed before. A mat of woven bamboo was rolled out for the horse, and her bites rapidly assembled under her nose. They were laid out in a line, each composed of the finest sweet grasses woven together as ropes, knots holding in place luscious yellow tomatoes and black grapes, each section spaced to perfectly catch on her prehensile lip.
Ellapock was served as well, by a petite woman who circled around behind him, enclosed him in her arms, and assembled the meal. Comforted he was immediately, reminded of his most companionable Chamberhands when he smelled her perspiration, but her skill with her hands was not comparable, instead far greater.
This was the Wild Trinity after all, and the greatest treasures of the planet came to them, earned and given as tribute alike. The only better cooks and servers to live were owned by Vissovis, who put the utmost stock in carnal pleasures and appetites.
How this server’s hands could be so nimble was a mystery even to a marmoset who had watched man-fingers build his entire social life, for she was missing the last joint on every finger and the nail. Everything she did she did with the smoothest nubs, from setting out a waxy platter leaf to placing morsels in the order he was supposed to consume them.
Perhaps they had been bitten off to help her perform this task, as human nails were notorious for gathering dirt, which might contaminate foods that needed to remain pristine for the Trojan Horse’s guests. With a truncated little finger she dipped into thimble-vessels of sauce, smearing them across the rinds and skins of the nuts and berries on offer, some so rare in color that Ellapock could not identify them.
As he ate he struggled to maintain his composure. The taste almost made his misfortunes since the Shedlands worth it, and it might have if he was not already expected to return to his captors. In each blast of juice he could taste entire fields working together to grow in character, overseen as they were by the equine lord of war. It was the same devotion that shone in the lilac stripes of her lounging-about armor.
For Phobopan and his guest, the most refined selection of all. They were served slabs and cubes of fatty meat, drenched in a red-amber sauce, topped with single salt crystals grown as branching centerpieces.
“What a divine aroma,” Grinjipan complimented, unable to play her usual coy self in the face of such luxury.
“Yes, who is this sister?”
“That is none other than the rich belly of Troffelsus,” said the gray horse, reverent somber tone now matching her coat. “You’ll remember him brother; he was a friend of my father, Unterquus the defeated, the dreary-black, the shame-dappled, may he rest in disregard. But Troffelsus was always a better sort, word as tough as his tusk. Don’t know as I’ve ever known a tougher hog.
Less than a season since he passed, and requested his scavage be served at my table. I’m told by flesh-eaters such as yourself that his fat is creamy beyond measure, no doubt enriched by his high spirit. Do honor him with your bite. He is perfectly preserved, wet-aged in chili and vinegar.”
The two cats did so, and were transported by the ecstasy upon their palates. At this tier of dominance, scavage was not merely rations. Great beities requested to be fed to other great beities upon their deaths, passing strengths laterally to other kinds. To be made a good meal of was to add another story to your legend, and even another title in some cases, such as most toothsome or nourishing savior.
In Troffelsus’s belly fat they tasted all of his unkept hundreds, and his death from old age, and everything that preceded, including great truffle hunts with quarries so elusive they moved under the ground, wars over coveted salt-lick caverns, and his time serving the will of the land at the purest watering hole Oasis Elevatus before its fouling by the putrid nine-humped camel.
“I do recall what a fine fellow he was,” Phobopan said as he savored his old acquaintance. “Kept his snout down, but you knew his inner smile. Said ‘if a hazelnut falls on it I will concern myself with it, and otherwise it is yours.’ Forager wisdom I’m afraid; it passed me right by.”
“Well I will send you off with one of his bones,” Assaulquus pledged, “so that you may chew on the thought at length and eventually learn the meaning. His back right knuckle is yours brother.” Then they ate, for even the Wild Trinity retained the singular focus of animals at their meals. Talk worsened taste, unsettled stomachs in their rustic labors. When they were finished the humans swept away what was left, none of them returning, for the business of war was not theirs.
“I confess to being called here largely on instinct, and have not been attentive with the reports,” Assaulquus said when all eyes were back on her and the last lip was licked. “Forbidden Thumbs have been violated, and multiple hunts have not brought the perpetrators to justice. They have taken refuge behind the stairs, which looks to me now like an enemy fortress that needs to be assailed.”
“If I may, Lord Assaulquus,” Grinjipan said with a deep nod. It took the horse a moment to concede the floor, but she did with a rippling snort. “I was there when the initial infractions occurred. Our central human is one Loric Shelvtale. In a storytelling performance for Krakodosus the thundercoat, Scion of the Salmon Run, the use of an extinct word was noticed.
Through clever use of stagecraft, Loric escaped without immediately being pursued. From there he infiltrated the dental facility and interrupted my cleaning appointment.”
“Twice in one day? How unlucky for you,” the horse commented.
“Or fortuitous, for it brought me to audience with Phobopan, and with you my lord.” Her manners were too good to expel her, which irritated the Trojan Horse greatly. Her brother was respected, and her elite cats, but otherwise she did not like the creatures, preferring obedient hounds. Cats had difficulty separating their personal vendettas and treasure hunts from statecraft, were very skilled in abandoning their responsibilities on the whim of a rodent disappearing into a hole.
“I must admit failure,” the reverse tiger continued, pretending at shame, “for I was stunned when the storyteller burst in and activated my dentist’s Bloody Mouth. Tell of any Bloody Mouth risk west of the turkey trails had not reached me. The loathsome creature already had a weapon to the root of my fang, and marched me under threat of its removal practically out of the city.”
“Practically?” the Trinitarian interrogated with the precision of a charge order. “How is it these two humans left your side with their skins still on?”
“I was distracted by the frankly incompetent baboon who first noticed the extinct word, who was arguing brashly and openly with the Scion, trying to arrange a cockamamie hunt for prey that was within earshot.” Cultivar flinched, settling back down by shaking his neck like a wary cobra. “As he howled the dentist slipped a needle into my fang and extracted her hook before slinking away.”
“Our concern is not the animals of Namstamp failing in their hunts,” Phobopan interrupted, “but that Shelvtale is literate. As a storyteller he poses significant risk of spreading the skill with abandon. My eye was caught because it is unknown how he acquired this ability in the first place.”
“And you have not killed him because you would like to know?” his sister asked.
“Hardly,” the fear-full lion scoffed. “I’m perfectly content to remain curious and never know. It is the curiosity alone that entices me.” The horse snorted again, surrounded as she was by utterly typical cats. Many more elites were at her disposal, Phalynx and Pangapuma chosen primarily for their physiological ability to handle stairs well, but now she regretted having a pride of the prideful creatures stuffed into one tent.
“So far we have gone where the fear has taken us,” Grinjipan added, already testing the waters with her language, making it sound as if she’d been walking Phobopan’s dark and treacherous trails for centuries. “We have not had opportunity to discover the source.”
“And now you may never have it,” Assaulquus concluded, “for they have sequestered themselves within and behind Staircase.” She turned to Phobopan. “It is your city, but you prefer not to show yourself there, yes?”
“Excellent memory dear sister,” he answered with a nod and a glint in his quicksilver teeth. “If I come as a figure of justice they will worship me, and not fear. If I come to punish their fears take definite shape, and grow less potent. As with fear itself the city is delicate, grows more fragile as it is heightened.
I know you wish to assail it now, so I’m here to see if I can’t make both of us happy without you disrupting my cultivation. Use that excellent memory of yours to recall that Staircase is but the rarest plant, and all of the continent the orchard.”
“Like yourself I seek only what is mine brother. War is mine, not justice. That is the purview of lower beities, who must muck their feet in parts of the Tame we have ascended beyond. I too think their failure to bring it about is incidental, and care not for the risk of literacy.
After Shelvtale has done it, and raised an army of readers, who will presumably defend letters to the death, whichever ones are most important, then it will be my concern. I will meet him and his in battle and defeat them utterly, bring them as low as my father, dapple them with shame from the rears of my least soldiers and kick the first dirt into their graves with a bloody hoof that took the blood from their mouths!
But not a moment before. I’m here not because there is a war. It is a mere itch, caused by the failure of the Scion to contain these crawling thumbs. Still, I will scratch, and I’m happy to negotiate with you over how many claws I use, and what fervor drives them. I will be heard brother! There is to be a battle!”
“Long has the city been tasked with its own defense,” Phobopan said, diving right into the negotiations. Try as she did, Grinjipan had not convinced him to divulge the nature of his plans until that very moment. “They will fight back. All that needs settled is the size of the armies, and the conditions upon which the battle will end. If I may suggest, as Shelvtale and Fixtooth are the cause of all this itchy feeling, the battle will end when they have left the city, been taken into beity custody, or perished.”
“Simple and accepted,” the Trojan Horse said, pleased with the speed of affairs. At this rate they could schedule the battle for the following morning.
“Then on to the troops,” the lion said. “The battlefield is the only one that Staircase will ever use, as long as it stands: the stairs themselves. Only so many of its people are trained and equipped to fight there, and only so many fit. You already know what you are up against, and I trust you will set forth a force roughly equal in strength.”
“I’ll have to do very little,” she said, as close to giddy as such a powerful beast could be, “for perfect waged war makes it appear that the victor has hardly lifted a limb, or heard horns clash in the distance. Those in the tent with us will fight, for otherwise they would suffer withdrawal, and then everyone around them would suffer as well.
Beyond them, this situation has already provided its own relevant troops who will submit to my command. Cultivar?”
The lizard’s head reared back, saliva bubbling up in the cauldron of his veteran gullet. A lump many times larger than the cowering Ellapock rose and was spat up, with Grinjipan surprised to see a second primate produced that way in such a short span of time. It suggested the lizard had swallowed a whole community of the things.
“If it isn’t Mojopap. I was just talking about you,” Grinjipan purred, but underneath her tone her whiskers were hot with rage. It was all she could do not to anchor her claws in his flank and drag him into a position from which she could take bites for the rest of the evening, only culminating in his miserable death with the rays of dawn.
“Oh? This is the baboon that didn’t know his place?” the Trojan Horse commented. “I should have known as much, given that his place is wiping his bottom with pages in a Compassleaf tree, and he is instead here, and dared to interrupt my procession with forged metal in hand, held like the banner of a Forbidden Thumb faction.”
“Aw-gah! No Lady Assaulquus!” the slimy fretting baboon wailed, bowing a head dreadfully skeletal with his mane shaved away. “The scalpel was just to match the hook and the mirror stolen from my city! I swear! Back to the armory it goes as soon as the reader is dead!”
“As if that’s my concern!” the horse snorted, offended enough for her armor to clink in sequence down her neck and across her back. “Raise that infernal abomination against as many beities as you like! It will never serve you the way such weapons serve man. It is their dominion, and it has been destroyed, so when you hold it you hold nothing but a crutch. It supports your quivering legs, for you do not wield it on the field of war, but in the wasteland of fear, so see what my brother thinks of it!”
The baboon whirled his head, jaw agape, only now recognizing the presence of the fear-full lion. Both eyes fled from each other as they tried to look at each Trinitarian at once. It sounded as if his fate had been handed over to the cat, so eventually that was where his focus stuck.
“Don’t look to me either,” the lion’s cavernously deep voice chugged. With a tilt of his mane he poured the baboon’s attention down to a Grinjipan with smirking eyes and flexing claws.
“You’re the cause of all this,” the tiger said matter-of-factly. “If you had only kept your mouth shut and listened to the story patiently. Loric would have been none the wiser, and this all could’ve been settled behind the stage curtain.”
“I would never allow such a travesty to have its human-intended conclusion!” the baboon countered with earnest affront. “That’s practically asking me to coauthor one of their blasphemous books! We all know what must be done with those… when…” His knuckles pattered across his chest, only for him to discover that his trophies were mostly missing. His brief incarceration within the lizard had caused many of the pages he decorated himself with to either dissolve or be torn loose from the cords that held them. Now he truly felt naked.
“I couldn’t… I couldn’t possibly get these back, could I?” he sheepishly asked the lizard Cultivar, accidentally ripping a fresh hole in one of the limp remaining pages when he held it up as example. Confused by such an odd request, the lizard raised himself to his fullest, balanced on one foreleg and then the other, feeling out his inner places for any way to reclaim what was mostly gone or firmly plastered to the side. The others waited either in idle curiosity or abject disgust.
“No,” the lizard said with finality, settling back down to make clear there would be no argument. The Babeloon deflated.
“Reading material for Mawgobomb then,” Assaulquus joked before turning her attention, begrudgingly, back to the wet shaved primates. “You baboon are in luck. Your long hunt of the storyteller will be honored, as you, and those that follow you, will attack Staircase to try and reclaim him.”
Mojopap’s heart nearly stopped. In looking about frantically he finally understood the value of the sympathetic eyes and ears of Lady Butterfur. Too late. A desert and a river too late. Now he was in the realm of mightier beities, and it was already a miracle he still lived. Briefly he regretted treating the blonde bunny of a bear so poorly, before turning his pity back to himself.
“But my lady!”
“Silence!” the Trojan Horse ordered with a rip from her nostrils that made all the tent walls flutter. “You are the army this situation provided, and you cannot back away now. If you desert any march of mine you may fall down dead from scorn alone. And you!” She leaned down, bringing her pristine nose close to Ellapock. “Did the spoils of my war have anything to say about this arrangement?”
The marmoset struggled to remember everything under the gaze of her glaring black nostrils, including his own low name.
“The… uhm… much-hunted… They w-wanted to request… sanctuary.” None of the beities spoke, so beleaguered Ellapock was forced to continue. Despite his diminutive size, Phobopan registered his output of terror as significantly higher than the Stokefear that beckoned him. “They thought, p-perhaps since they made it to Staircase, they could be left alone, if they promised to never again leave its territory… masters.”
“You tell them,” the looming nostrils said, blasting the marmoset with intent that practically planted him in the ground like a sapling, “they come out of their shell or it will fill with blood and drown them.”
Staircase showed Loric and Hygenis what a human township could look like. Having seen many images in his bottomless book, the storyteller recognized certain aspects that could look no other way. Some things were just what happened when mankind unwittingly handled the Tame between tools and trades.
All along the packed dirt streets there were stalls and stands, some with produce grown and foraged, some with hunted meat, and then many more with crafts: blankets, iron tools, and nasty brown glasswork that was nonetheless gorgeous to the fugitives.
They had not fallen into the folly of money, but something in the human spirit had them putting up stands anyway. It was almost an organic pattern, like the mathematical interior spiral of a snail’s shell. Mankind was expressing some sort of universal principal of intelligence when they spread out the goods they created in front of them, always at the perfect height for others to grab and inspect.
Their guesses about spikes were correct; jagged spines of metal adorned every structure’s highest points in scattered directions. Many bore organic shapes suggesting molten metal had dripped out of the forge, hardened into a stalactite, and then been broken off and used to crown a hut or watchtower.
Humans would not have been able to keep bug beities out entirely, as gnats and roaches lived where they pleased, often so self-centered they could not even recognize hostility, and spiders would live where the former lived no matter the opposition, but the stairclimbers had their lone ally in the butterflies.
Several structures were theirs and theirs alone, marked by walls of transparent cloth and artificial trees within, meant to provide cool and peaceful perches to them. With spines to repel and cloth to tangle, no bird was fool enough to descend into Staircase and then intrude in a butterfly house just for a mouthful, thus another benefit of their alliance was revealed.
Butterflies kept out all other bugs, but it was a constant battle, one which Loric and Hygenis saw take place several times as they were escorted deeper into the city. Like drunkards tossed from festivals, two butterflies would carry the intruder between them as it kicked in protest, all the way past the stairs where they were dumped.
A line of colorful expulsions fluttered to their left that the storyteller couldn’t help but glance at repeatedly. That could be his own fate at any time, though it likely wouldn’t be a thousand butterflies tasked with his removal. He wondered if he was but a troublesome bug to them, eyes so full of the bottomless book’s cold light that they appeared alien, like the compound gems of a damselfly.
In examining the faces of the populace he saw they drew surprisingly little attention, their weapons included. The bottomless book was stashed away, their dental instruments were among their own people now, and vassal sticks as well as lesser imitations were common too. Some of the dental hooks and scrapers had been absconded with, but others were original to Staircase, reproduced in those forms because that was the technique that was known.
Children scampered about, less naked than they would be under a beity’s yoke, their chubby flailing mostly hidden under long collar-dresses like giant lily pads they’d stuck their heads through, but in louder colors than such plants were known for: red, orange, and gold.
Women with exceptionally long hair sat on cascading stools, braiding idly but expertly, almost in a trance that prevented them from knowing or caring if the crop they arranged was their own. In bondage the majority of grooming effort went to the master’s coat, but in Staircase it was kept close to the heart and expressed what was within.
Hairstyles made possible only through boredom and bad ideas aggressively combed-out to submissive silk stood out here and there. One woman’s hair was divided into two braids that became straps wrapped about her shoulders and underarms. Another made a collar for herself like a coiled stack of rope.
These were but some of the sights of the human city, and were regrettably all the Bloody Mouth had time to take in before they reached their destination: a cave with an entrance outlined in hanging skulls. Belonging to beities, these bones were all turned, sockets staring deep into the crevice in the rock. The deeper they went the bluer the walls became, and the more the sounds of the city gave way to curated dripping. Natural leaks in the ceiling fell into unnatural buckets, marked but not labeled, probably to keep time.
Their tight escort disbanded about them in a domed chamber just large enough for a hundred men to sit comfortably without elbowing each other. There were many chairs and cushions, the former clearly created with metal tools forbidden outside the city. The blank curving wall beyond was part of a central device, a large paneled lantern atop a pole of black iron.
Inside red coals, likely fed heat from within the pole, produced a strong hellish light that cast stark shadows upon the walls, growing and sharpening them. Many men and women, turned away from the entrance of their guests, created shadow puppets for themselves and their neighbors to study closely. Most of them were muttering, and if their hands weren’t employed in puppetry they were wringing their wrists, rubbing their temples, or playing their lower lips as if fingering a flute.
“Welcome to the raked coals of memory,” a man said from behind Loric and Hygenis, silencing all the muttering in the process. The stairclimbers turned themselves or their chairs to watch now; all puppets fled into nothingness.
He was large and muscular, with hands like bear paws. A vest of woolly ram fur hid the edges of a tattoo that spanned his bare chest depicting a nude woman bathing in a waterfall of swords and axes, taking not a single cut. A blade ran down between her breasts, slick and liquid against her perfect flesh.
Thick stubble was the result of his chiseled jaw being adorned with a net of fine silvery chains, the links so small that Hygenis could not imagine how they were forged. Each was anchored into his flesh with a stud, each stud topped with a jewel that looked red in the light of the coals.
All but bald, the greatest indication of his age was the gray at hist temples, for he had youthful eyes and smooth skin where it wasn’t splattered with the tiny red scars of thrown sparks. He carried at his side a dental hook, but in name only. Its head was massive, bloated, and drooped asymmetrically, suggesting a ceremonial nature, though his expression indicated he would be more than happy to wield it in earnest if the situation required.
“Greetings to you, Loric Shelvtale and Hygenis Fixtooth. I am Breaka Steeljaw, master of the Staircase forges, commander of the dental descent, and your host this evening. Please, take a seat. We have much to discuss.”
Loric would have sworn there were no seats unoccupied, but by the time he turned around two empty chairs were ready for them, close to the lamp. Its dry heat was on them like sunburn as soon as they sat. Breaka did not sit, instead paced about just under the lamp, speaking so that all in the chamber could hear.
It was not likely showmanship, the storyteller realized. Though they weren’t as high-spirited as he knew his peers to be, something about the cloaked mumblers struck him as storyteller-like. There were other oral crafts after all, like record keeping and secret keeping. Perhaps that was what they were, all their shadow puppets like messenger pigeons, disappearing into the dark with information too dangerous for the current generation, which might only reappear after an age of the relevant hearts and heads cooling or petrifying.
“I am told you seek permanent sanctuary behind our stairs, that you are a Bloody Mouth out of Compassleaf, and that you were slaves of the Scion of the Salmon Run,” Breaka said. Many mutterers repeated him quietly, tested small shadow puppets representing each element.
“All true,” Loric said, sure to match the man’s volume so all present would know he had perceived them and at least part of their purpose. “I am literate, and I carry with me a machine that could make a thousand more like me.” Eyes darted about, but hands stalled. Was there a shadow puppet for machine? if it was made would it sit on the wall forever even when the hands left, the way the machines did? “I understand that this… cannot happen.”
“Yes,” Breaka said slowly. He tapped the floor with his scraper, and moments later the heat and light from the lamp increased, pushing Loric to the back of his seat. “Ultimately we are not the men of old. Many thumbs are still forbidden. No electricity. No locks. No written word or devious pictogram.”
“But the shadow puppet does not linger,” Hygenis said, asserting her own presence, “leaving no evidence of its meaning. It is the flame of heresy, extinguished as soon as the authority’s eye might come along, just as the Bloody Mouth does.” Breaka’s initial response was just a nod, though it was difficult for them to discern against the harsh light behind him.
“Something comes to the forefront,” the smith said. His hook blocked a shaft of light and Loric felt a cool patch glide over his shoulder, onto the cinched top of his pack. “You have a beity with you.” The storyteller rolled his shoulder to gently signal Ellapock, who crawled out moments later, cringing and miserable.
“I’m not a spy,” he insisted, shielding his eyes from the light.
“Still, we do not want you here, at least not for this meeting. There is a purpose for you to serve… Here I must mention the reports of our furthest-ranging butterflies. Assaulquus the Trojan Horse marches for the stairs.” The mutterers knew this already, but Loric and Hygenis were caught so off their composure that their chairs creaked and groaned.
“Does she mean to make war over us?” Hygenis asked. She turned to Loric. “We must leave if that is the case. Do not close our Bloody Mouth around the throats of these countless innocents.”
“I would not ask or order such a thing of you,” he assured her with a grim face.
“We do not believe it is as dire as that,” Steeljaw said to snatch them back from a chasm of despair. “The horse has darkened our bottom step before, often with new arrivals who are criminals elsewhere, and she has never made war. Though she cannot climb our stairs she is fully capable of smashing straight through them. Yet we still stand.
However there may be a battle. She will act with a small force, and if it is defeated upon the stairs she will take her leave.”
“She would suffer a defeat and still let us be?” Hygenis asked skeptically. “A Trinitarian? Impossible.”
“Then you’re looking at an impossible man!” Breaka said forcefully, hammering his staff on the stone floor again. “A battle was fought so that I might be a stairclimber! And won too! Without the blood that poured down our steps I would not have the name Steeljaw, which is not a trade but an item. A totem of human greatness. Most here bear such names.”
“If the battle is won we would be permitted to stay?” Loric asked. The mutterers stopped to hear the answer.
“Yes,” the man said. “Assaulquus would accept defeat because she will not use her own army, but one she deems provided. What they will be, we do not know. Among them will be her elite, who have to fight to avoid madness, but they will retreat when there is no fodder left for us to churn through.”
“Should they win and reach the top stair?” Hygenis posed.
“Then they will take what they are after and leave, which we assume is the both of you and your machine,” Breaka said. “We are willing to fight for you, but you ask more of us than most. A Bloody Mouth is more than a runaway, as are pilfered dental tools, and that is without mentioning the machine. We will ask much of you in return, and ask it now.”
“What do you want?”
“First the monkey must go; have him act as messenger. He will be taken to Assaulquus and tell them our terms, that we wish to keep you as citizens. If they have a response he will be returned to you.”
Loric reached up and took Ellapock from his shoulder, holding him between himself and Hygenis so they could speak. Reason said the creature should be thrilled to be free of them, but he did not look it. His words were caught behind his shallow breaths like a hay bale.
“This may be your way back home,” Hygenis said as softly as she was able. “Take it. Depart in indifference if not friendship.”
“We bear you no grudge here,” Loric agreed, his tone suggesting there was no point to such anger when they were all under the shadow of the Wild Trinity.
“All the same, I’d rather not explain myself to the Trojan Horse!” he squeaked. “At least if we were together it would look like I’d wrangled you!”
“Ellapock, no it would not,” Hygenis assured him. “Go. If we see you again we’ll be happy to see you alive.”
“Yes. Whenever you’re in my stories I promise your contributions will shine brightest,” Loric offered, which the marmoset surprisingly accepted. A tear might have quivered in his tiny eye, but the hot air of the chamber didn’t allow it. When the monkey still seemed glued to his palm Loric offered him his free index finger, curled as a bar.
Ellapock pressed down on it with both hands; Loric let it be moved. This was the silent signal that dismissed a Chamberhand, allowed a marmoset to see the world as it truly was once again.
He scampered down Loric’s back and across the rock to the entrance, where an impatient red butterfly guided him away.
“Now to the real business,” Breaka said once the beities were gone. “We could be attacked as early as dawn, and we require the both of you to contribute as much as possible now, should we lose the battle and then lose you as well. I trust this is acceptable?”
Both of them nodded, though it weighed on them heavily that there was no time to rest. Neither had had a cushion to sleep on since Compassleaf, and thus no fullest sleep. Every dream iterated upon the trials of the day preceding it, leaving them with the fortitude of rickety scarecrows in the age where crows did not scare.
“Then I’m afraid I must split you for now,” Steeljaw said, symbolically lowering his hook between them until it tapped the floor. “Hygenis Fixtooth must go and assist in the battle, fighting with the dental descent on the stairs. If you’ll head there now my people will show you the technique. You can get a fair practice, take a meal, and half a decent sleep before it all begins.”
There was no hesitation from the brave dentist, who stood as straight and tall as the shaft of her hook. She had been prepared for such a fate from the moment she smeared Grinjipan’s blood across her lips. For a Bloody Mouth to conclude in an honest battle, alongside allies, and not to toxin, disease, misadventure, or the impossible odds of a hundred-beity hunt was a great satisfaction.
“Hygenis,” Loric said, standing and embracing her, which she returned. Their vassal sticks clicked together in camaraderie. “I can never thank you enough, whether it was your duty or not. Nothing made you help me. You always had the power to dissolve your training inside you the moment I asked for it, to ignore my plea as madness and live the rest of your days peacefully plucking teeth.
You didn’t. You saved me, and you never stopped, and you taught me all the way… more than the bottomless book.” She couldn’t help but scoff at that with her eyes. “You don’t need to believe it, for I do. I’m not sure how I love you Hygenis, but I love you.” Her more experienced hand clapped on his shoulder and suddenly he could hear her whole life in her voice. She sounded old enough to be the grandmother of a ghost.
“I love you as one fang loves the other,” she told him. “You are my brother in kind. A Bloody Mouth cannot smile, lest it spill the blood behind the teeth prematurely, but the joy is there, living quiet and strong. I was genuinely happy to draft this tale with you. Goodbye for now storyteller.”
As she pulled away and vanished around the rock Loric searched his emotions and found something surprising. He wasn’t afraid. Not for himself. The crucial difference was the Bloody Mouth, he thought. If he were to be flung into a desperate situation now he would take up whatever was near and wield it as best he could, but not a dentist. If they had blood in their mouth it would stay there, and they would watch idly as the storyteller did his best on his own. He still felt like something, even without Hygenis.
“And what is it you want from me?” Loric asked as he took his seat again.
“Your machine, may I examine it?” Breaka asked, hand extending. The storyteller extracted it, moved to hand it over. As it slipped from his fingers he felt a twinge, strings tied around his muscle fibers, pulling. He was something without Hygenis, but was he anything without the cleverwood slate?
“I call it the bottomless book,” he explained to mentally massage the feeling away. “Touching the screen allows you to navigate its contents, but speaking to it will do the same.” Breaka experimented with touch and query, but only pictures did him any good, and he had seen some of those in recovered books before their destruction.
“From where do you hail?” he asked the book, which did not answer, so he turned to Loric. “Where did you get it?”
“I cannot answer helpfully. It slipped into my belongings without my noticing years ago, as I was being taken to my new master in Compassleaf… my last master.”
“What sorts of information does it contain?”
“All sorts. I think it knows everything we ever knew. It knows that we’ve visited the moon, and that if you go you have to bring your own air with you.” Several of the shadow puppeteers gave up trying express such a thing before they knotted their fingers. “It can name the beities too small to see, who are responsible for disease. It knows the very speed of light.”
“There’s a number for that?” Breaka asked, taken aback by the volume of his own curiosity. Loric nodded in a slow fashion that suggested there was a number for everything, even other numbers. The larger man contemplated this for several moments, only ceasing when a mumbler cleared their throat to draw his attention, then pointed to one of the water clocks as it dripped. Breaka handed the bottomless book back, rubbing his fingers together to feel the aftereffects of cleverwood on his skin.
“I understand time is of the essence,” Loric said, ready to be free of the uncertainty. If they were going to drop the third and final member of the Wild Trinity on him it was better to be crushed by a fat ram sooner rather than trampled by an armored horse or eaten by a dark lion later.
“Let us hope it is not,” Breaka said, nonetheless taking the hint. “Let us hope my dental descent takes the battle and we have all the time of your lives. But for now I must introduce you to the raked coals of memory.” A forest of shadow puppets sprang up on all the walls. Fingertip creatures rummaged around in the canopy.
“We are not permitted the written word,” he continued as he went to the wall, weaving between the puppeteers like they weren’t there. He dragged his hook across the stone, and it seemed to catch and pull the shadowy trees aside, revealing an empty sky upon which he threw up his own shadow.
“Loric, this is all we have of history, here in this room. These are our former storytellers and oral keepers. Now we call them Steeltraps, which is what we expect their memories to be. We ask them to remember lineage,” a shadow puppet of a couple swaddling a child appeared next to him, “war,” it morphed into a man kicking another, “and the politics of the animals.” An elephant of fingers raised its trunk between its tusks.
“But memory is a weak medium. It corrupts the way wood rots. It erodes like the land. When we learn something new we must reinforce it as much as possible, brand it into the mind of Staircase. Here the Steeltraps remind themselves, remind each other, encode memories in moving shadow.
And so I ask that you open your bottomless book until its spine crackles. Spill its contents to these people as quickly and succinctly as possible, focusing on what is most important. Tell them about us just prior to the thinning of our blood. Tell of cities, and transportation machines, and thinking machines, but also of all the ways these things came undone.
Speak until your voice is raw and lost. Speak until sleep seizes you. Speak while the battle for your freedom slowly climbs our stairs. Will you?”
“We shall begin with the sinkhole,” Loric said, already scrolling through several relevant articles in the book, “and finish when I fall from this chair.” Breaka smiled, but there was no rejoicing among the Steeltraps. They too were soldiers, poised with weapons at the ready at the edge of a battlefield already long soiled with bones and rust.
The master of the forge took his leave, off to organize his dental descent fighting force and assist in Hygenis’s lessons. Those lessons turned out to be simple enough for the dentist, as it was mostly footwork and an understanding of gravity’s pull versus the material of the stairs.
Combat upon the steps had many dimensions aside from the advantage of repelling most hoofed and some serpentine beities. By the time Hygenis climbed the ladders behind she was able to look out at the unfolded stairs and see adolescents running across them bent over, brushes loaded with grease under their hands.
The coating would make the steep battlefield slippery, for both sides. Therein laid the technique of the dental descent: one hundred warriors skilled not just with hook, scraper, and scalpel. They also knew how to stay on their feet with grease under them, and with a rope about their waist.
Each defender would be supported by an anchor atop the stairs and two heavier assistants who would work to swing that rope and reel their charge back up to the summit. At first the supplies confused Hygenis, who did not see how dragging the warriors up bumpy steps would do them any favors, but that was where the fourth dimension came in.
Not only could the great steps of Staircase retract into a wall, there was also plenty of space to maneuver underneath them between the metal latticework of the folding mechanism. Small levers, with ropes hanging from them, were attached underneath horizontal sections of each step. Additional soldiers, watching through the slats and waiting for shouted orders, would leap and pull on the levers with their entire weight. This made the step above snap flat, turning that section into a ramp as long as the weight stayed applied.
Once she understood the concept Hygenis was able to look downstairs and predict pieces of the coming battle. Animals would struggle to climb unfamiliar structures, only to have the steps give way to a greased incline. As they slid back down a dental warrior with a polearm would swing in, sections underneath flattening just ahead of them and rising just behind, slashing at the vulnerable creature in a pass that put them back at the top seconds later, ready to descend again.
Her practice was mostly in steadying her feet, in keeping faith in the lever-pullers beneath her to track her arc and adjust as the situation changed, and in feeling the unkind grip of the rope about her waist. Those more experienced shouted advice at her as they swung by, the first a warning to keep her head low, as the rope of another soldier swung deeper and lower might pass over her. The worst that could happen was a tangling collision.
She was warned to slash and never snag, for if she dragged the weight of a beity the rope could snap. She was warned that as the battle went on it would take longer for her to get reeled in each time as her handlers grew tired. On her climb she had seen bows and arrows stored behind the stairs and asked after the unfamiliar weapons.
Sometimes they were aimed through slats or fired from the summit, but not often, as arrows did little but irritate larger beities. Once the descent had begun there was also the risk of hitting their own at the ends of the ropes. Still they looked tempting, and she wished there was time to test one before daylight.
Alas, all she could sample was some of the city’s food after the practice, when the rope had come close to burning and bruising. What they put in front of her she almost failed to identify. Compassleaf was not without variety in its diet, and sometimes grains were separated, pulped, and fired into various crackers, some of which contained dried bug egg clusters for flavor, but they did not count as breads. Not compared to the cloud ripped from the heavens and simply handed to her, like it was nothing.
The softness in her hands brought tears of shock to her eyes, like holding her firstborn. A texture like no other. Warm. Moist. A sponge of ingenuity, not of flesh. Food flavored with air and fire until its source could not be recognized. Food as creation, not as preparation. Bread. Hygenis fed herself a plump fluffy shred, its tear from the crust thrilling her entire body, stomach first, spine second, skin last.
Every bubble of air could be tasted. Every toss and slap of the dough. Powder upon stone. Skin cutting through it. Thought and desire taking thick, rising, growing, consuming shape. Hygenis tasted the body of man, in communion with the old thick of their blood. She savored, and was satisfied.
“So it wasn’t a lie,” she told herself. “The old tooth scrapers didn’t lie to me after all, as we hung there in Misugot’s bags, swinging to get close enough to whisper. Their tongues were not depressors, but enriching. We can still taste it, taste it all, with the Bloody Mouth!” She raised the crust in one hand, shouting to herself, but rather than staring or mockery her sentiment was seconded with a cheer from all those around. A young man brought her a jug of juice that pooled purple and flowed red, allowing her to complete her communion with the thick blood of man.
After that she was given a soft bed, and would be allowed to sleep until the arrival of Assaulquus and her scavenged force. The veil took and cradled her as thick as the bread did, so as she rapidly slipped away she wondered why beds and pillows weren’t filled with bread. While she recuperated a small cloud of butterflies was let in through a panel of the stairs, and within their shell trudged a heavy-headed and limp-tailed Ellapock.
He was back from being swallowed by the lizard, perhaps in the company of a toad, but too high in the throat to discuss anything with the baboon that passed by a little later. Back from being under Assaulquus’s breath, and still tasting her hot, itchy, grassy words on his tongue. He could not see where he was going and didn’t dare to step outside the butterfly bubble, just following their lead.
Taken first to Breaka Steeljaw, the marmoset delivered the horse’s message, which seemed to meet the man’s expectations. Next the insects took him to other leaders of the city, inadvertently giving him a much richer tour than Loric and Hygenis received.
In the spiniest building of all he addressed the chief architect before being sent to a structure with no walls to speak to the chief architect for the butterflies. After that it was off to the food czar, the census accountant, the water shipper, the medicine and comforts madame, and more, all of whom took the information in stride. Staircase was safe, in the broadest sense, but not the dental descent, and not their new assets from Compassleaf.
Finally Ellapock was allowed to return to the raked coals of memory, where Loric still sat. He was reading from the bottomless book at speed, stumbling over the occasional word, but those surrounding him were just as frenzied and wouldn’t dream of interrupting. The walls were a tumult of shadow, puppets wrestling each other as they metamorphosed into other shapes. It was the process of recording, as Staircase molded it, and even with the shadows it was impossible for the diminutive primate to understand how much knowledge was being sequestered, and what techniques were imperfectly preserving it.
A bubbling lake of muttering was about them as new facts were wedged into places where there hadn’t been gaps perceived at all. They were Steeltraps now, but had come from ten different oral crafts, some practically arcane in that unkept year. Shelvtales. Vaultminds. Beancounters. Truthspinners. Ideaminers. Talkmakers.
Yet altogether, yet cross-cross-referencing, they could not store information the way the bottomless book could, so every moment was a losing battle, something that had to be both endured and powered through, all to achieve a deeply-flawed mound of ethereal wisdom that was already as safe as it could be, deep in those walls, in the hot and dry of the raked coals of memory.
As their panic-trance continued Ellapock cautiously made his way up the back of Loric’s chair until he was perched on the man’s shoulder. It was obviously not ideal to interrupt, but the storyteller needed to know, so whenever he stopped to take a deep breath the marmoset whispered developments in his ear, which he acknowledged with glances and nods before going back to sprinklers, or cranberry bogs, or telescopes.
At some point an attendant crept in, leaving a tray of bread, mushroom-cheese, and water at the foot of the chair. Ellapock took it upon himself to rip off tiny morsels and take them up to Loric’s mouth so he wouldn’t have to move, which he gladly took and chewed with little effect on his speech. The monkey took samples of course, and was delayed between bites after tasting the bread.
Water was delivered with nothing but cupped hands, and smeared across the storyteller’s lips when they started to crack. Loric didn’t feel he had the time to slow enough to tell Ellapock that the spreadable mushroom-cheese would’ve been more effective at sealing in his moisture. The strain now poked deep into his throat and mind. Every wrong word could mean a tripping shadow puppet a hundred years from then, spilling wisdom from its bucket rather than delivering it.
Trembling fingers flicked through illusory pages. Loric blinked. Had he done that, or had the page just changed on its own? No time to figure it out. Only time to read, speak, share, bank. He kept going, into uncharted territory.
2035 is the Kept Year
And a Stampede is Printed Off
The possibilities were endless, but the small pecuniary mind of Mendel Edwin went immediately to ingots, digitally modeling them after bars of gold and silver, complete with his own maker’s mark.
His friends started off thinking way too tiny, probably because their rigs were just as lacking in dimension. Faxlad5005 couldn’t make anything bigger than a mug, and Cardownloader13 was no better off, especially considering she lived in a country with frequent earthquakes that ruined her in-progress prints all the time. Only Mendel, known to the internet and his buyers as Poach-hacker9, was mentally and literally equipped to begin the new boom.
When his 3D printer nozzle returned to its dock he knew the first one was finished, and greedily tore open the box’s glass panel to extract his treasure, latex gloves squeaking. It was light, but of course, it wasn’t metal. Nor plastic. Nor resin. Nor imitation balsa. Several steps further.
Mendel wanted it to be hot in his hand, hot off the presses, but his three-dimensional printer didn’t work that way. It was too cutting edge to give off any unprofessional friction. On its own, the nozzle had cost him a fortune in mammoth ivory, which he could only print in ugly crackling wafers, like cheap vanilla cookies, until the nozzle upgrade. Now he could do full sets of tusks, but only at half scale. Even his rig wasn’t big enough to make full dinosaur skeletons and dunkleosteus masks.
The ingot was six inches long, three inches wide, and an all new sort of gold, creamy instead of metallic. And so light. He tossed it and caught it. Brilliant. It would be so much cheaper in terms of transportation alone. None of those idiots betting on SPORTS were going to see it coming. They assumed that just because the internet was the last thing to start falling apart that cryptocurrency was the way to go. Wrong answer. Extinction fiat was the way; Mendel knew it as sure as he held it.
One look at his home would make a visitor think he was a nature lover, filled as it was with taxidermy catfish and coyotes. The whole place smelled of fur, steel, wood, and polish, a scent never contaminated by the smells wafting out of his kitchen, because there never were any. He ate out of a fridge that was loaded from outside by a delivery drone. A company curated his meals, placed them for him to find at midnight when he opened the door and pulled them out of the cold.
All of his efforts had to go toward perfecting the extinction ingots, and utilizing what good will he had left from the rhino horn operations three years prior. What a time, and all possible because there were about thirty-five rhinoceroses left alive on the whole planet.
No matter how small the number got, the Asian market for their powdered horns never weakened, and prices only went up the closer they came to total death. The best scarcity money could buy. Back then his printer was running day and night under government contract as a way to undercut the poachers who were so often murderers now too, seeing as they had to get through multiple bodyguards to get to the animals.
Rhino horn was just keratin, the same stuff of human hair and fingernails. 3D printers had been making custom organic stick-on nails at salons across the world for years at that point, so why couldn’t they make imitation rhino horns?
Poach-hacker9 was the best in the budding business; he didn’t even need to scan actual horns to get convincing proportions and texture. One look at a decent photo was good enough, and the rest was modeling artistry. Every horn he made was as good as the real deal as far as any inspection went. Those looking to pour the powdered version into erectile dysfunction pills and equally bogus stamina enhancers wouldn’t know any better.
So in the name of the public good, generic brand rhino went out and flooded the market, causing a cataclysmic price drop. In a short time the stuff was too cheap and plentiful to sell as sports chalk.
It sure helped Mendel cement himself as a hero of the digital age, connecting him with rogue engineers and environmentalist mavericks who could help him get samples and schematics for upgrading his one and only trade secret: the world’s most complex privately owned 3D printer.
Sure it didn’t turn out great for the rhinos, but as he liked to say, man minted the coins, and thus won all the tosses. Once the desperately dumb and flaccid got wind of the fakes they started paying all the more for video evidence of the rhinos being captured, slaughtered, and having their hood ornaments sawed off. That little movie would come with the powdered package, ensuring authenticity.
And that was how the last of them were taken. The guy who purchased the very last one, having spent the lives of over a dozen poachers and guards, released the video of the raid to the wider internet, just to flex his power. People wondered. If he could do all that, what did he need powdered megafauna for?
Mendel moved on to smaller and better things, but he thanked the rhinos for giving him the idea that was going to revolutionize the scared and crumbling world of finance. He tossed the golden ingot in his hand once more, laughing, utterly alone except for the glass eyes of catfish and coyotes, all aimed at his rig.
Finally. It took him an age to figure out how to use materials that weren’t keratin, with bone being the next step up. The golden brick in his hand, with its rich color, light weight, and pleasing texture, was even a step up from mammoth ivory. Golden hornbill ivory. It came from the bill of a bird related to the toucan, one tougher and more regal-looking, but it had not survived into the year 2030, every bit as hunted as the rhinos, though its bill was more valued for carving into jewelry, buttons, and pen caps.
Such pieces went for countless thousands in online auctions, but their very substance was about to become the new gold standard, and Mendel would be the primary supplier: a technological and precise god who could determine exactly how much of each animal was on the planet at any given time.
His new currency would be the most stable to ever exist, since nobody could go out and discover a new deposit of golden hornbills. They were completely extinct, and that was all investors would ever need to hear. No price fluctuations would occur without their consent. Until the core of the world had been mined out there could always be an influx of precious metals, but not precious little birdies that squawked their last a decade ago.
And it didn’t have to stop at decades. Centuries. Ages. Anything mankind had driven off the cliff of life to cut ornaments from was on the table for a return as currency, so long as non-fossilized samples of them remained in a museum or private collection somewhere.
If you didn’t want to invest in hornbill ingots you could go with mammoth, or bills like dodo and great auk. Megaloceros antler. Smilodon fang. Supplies are limited. Call Poach-hacker9 for more information. By appointment only.
What a good thing it was that Mendel got to the technology first, he thought as he went to fetch a mystery lunch from the fridge, blissfully tossing his hornbill ingot back and forth. Most other idiots wouldn’t have the bigger picture in their heads. They would’ve printed little figurines and thought only of collector’s value. Maybe they would’ve gotten as far as realistic reconstructions for some of the museums that used to be zoos. None of them had the cold infinite vision that he did. Once he was the richest man in the world he would have an actual private chef living in his walk-in fridge, making him anything on command, and once he set his sights on replicating soft tissues maybe he could order a megatherium steak wrapped in enteledont bacon.
A blast of cold hit him as he pulled the fridge open to find several sports drinks in the door and but one yellow plastic box on the shelves, labeled Mediterranean stir-fry. He set the ingot down and grabbed up the box, suddenly famished. As he closed the fridge door he remembered all his silverware was soaking in the sink, his attentions for the last two days solely focused on getting the first ingot off the assembly line.
High on his own perceived creativity, Mendel ripped open the flaps on the top, ignored the heating instructions, and attacked the noodles and vegetables with two fingers, pretending they were chopsticks.
“It could be any of them,” he snickered after slurping some down and sucking on his fingers. “What do people love most? Pandas? Koalas? Penguins? Let ’em kick the bucket, pick up the bones, and skip Mother Nature’s middlemen! Hah! Why wait?
Make ’em extinct when they’re in high demand, become the sole distributor. What do you think boys?” He looked at his coyotes and catfish. They agreed, or so he assumed. The kingdom of death was quiet and content. Any kind would be happy to join, and to help someone else secure those things with sound investments.
“All thanks to you, you beautiful…” Mendel paused. He was holding up and praising his yellow box of noodles, not his yellow ingot. The man whirled about, fuse of noodle hanging off his open lip. “Where…” The fridge. “Shit!”
He rushed back and ripped open the door. Sports drinks. Nothing else. No, that wasn’t quite true. Some wisps of fog wafted out into the warmer air, suggesting the frosted interior had been disturbed moments before.
“You bastards! You sons of bitches! You were watching me!” Mendel dropped his food and didn’t bother wiping his hands as he bolted for the front door, grease preventing him from turning the knob until his third try and his fifth curse.
Of course he was under surveillance. Every corporation had all the eyes they could wrangle, eyes that didn’t even bother to blink now that no one was enforcing the regulations regarding private data. His doorbell camera, his air conditioning subscription, his car’s rear view mirror streaming service, all should have been suspected of potential spying.
Maybe Icebox Bistro was just the first brand he’d foolishly given an opportunity. The delivery drone opened the entire back of the fridge to place new meals inside, and it also took back empty containers. Nothing stopped it from scooping up the hornbill ingot as well.
Holding his already ragged breath, Mendel stopped on his front lawn to listen. There. A buzz. It had to be the rotors of the drone making off with his future, the future of mankind. Around a tree he established visual contact, giving chase despite there being little he could do to stop it.
The machine gained altitude swiftly so it could avoid all the neighborhood trees, and was well out of his reach. His shouts, that it was breaking the law, that he was going to sue, that he was going to cancel his premium plan and unsubscribe from their mailing list, did nothing to slow it down. It might not have had auditory receptors of any kind.
Unfit to continue, Mendel was forced to stop and double over. The memory of the last time he’d run so far was lost in the vomit of his burning exhalations. By the time he looked up with tears in his eyes the drone was just a wobbly dot against an empty sky.
But then, suddenly, it became several. Pieces broke away in some sort of small detonation and plummeted to the ground. Something remained in the air, but it was no drone. Black of wing and golden of nose, it flew with grace, swooping in mocking spirals about the pieces of plastic as they fell.
Mendel threw up his hands to keep the debris from striking his face, which caused him to barely miss the creature as it flew by his ear and into the door he had left hanging open. Had some ornery blackbird just saved his invention from improper exploitation? He ignored the animal for the moment, instead searching the wreckage for any sign of his ingot. All he found was cold storage bags, circuit boards, and broken plastic rotors. It was gone.
“How could…” The hair on his neck and arms moved. Whatever it was, it was too quiet to hear, but it disturbed him. It felt like there were people in his house, watching him from the windows, passing judgment. More competitors. Now that he’d left they were mobilizing, scavenging his workspace for the key to break his monopoly before he’d even printed it.
Fresh desperation imitated the energy to run, getting him back inside where he slammed the door and locked it. Nothing else was getting out until he was sure he wasn’t being watched. He quickly realized how difficult that would be, considering he’d placed so many glass eyes there himself.
They were just the dead. They could look all they wanted, and do nothing. They were inert, and only he could make them treasure, and nothing could make them anything more. His rig was the X that marked the spot, and he’d drawn it himself, forged the ability to dig up what was never buried, and to do so endlessly.
No king should fear the dark corners of his own castle, so Mendel went in search of the presence still keeping his hair at attention. Stalking from room to room, he switched off every device in sight, eventually ushering in a silence the place had not known in years. In his panic there was a small realization, that all noise was just vibration, and that all nearby vibration interfered with his printing, could lead to imperfections.
He would do it right next time. Kill everything in his immediate surroundings. Breathe into some kind of self-contained apparatus. Watch as something of the order of death was born, in total opposition to its messy, filthy, chaotic inspiration. Only when the world was dead and quiet could he count his money in peace.
Last he checked on his rig, and found it had started printing something. Was he hacked? Impossible. All data was transferred to his printer on external media, it had no connection to the internet. But the arm and nozzle were diligently at work, and much faster than usual. In his cautious approach he looked up and saw the bird perched on the glossy skin of a curved catfish trophy, like it had just caught the massive fish in its talons and was carrying it off.
“You’re not a blackbird,” he said, a confused fury whipping up in his mind. “You’re extinct! That’s the whole point of you! To die so that you are rare! Don’t you get it!? Why doesn’t anybody fucking get it!? Huh!? Why am I the only thing on the whole planet that deserves it!”
The golden hornbill opened its decorated beak and gave a haunting resolute cry heard by the collective ghosts of every species sampled and reproduced there, as stiff little cubes in the drawers beneath Mendel Edwin’s 3D printer. They all heard their friend calling from the way out; the hornbill had found the exit from the dark hall of extinction.
“Shut up!” he screamed at it, jumping and flailing his arms, but he couldn’t reach. “No one can know you’re alive!” He was so angry he hadn’t gotten as far as the bird’s origin. It had exploded out of the drone, which had to mean it had somehow been reborn from the golden ingot. One with only the banker, only the trader, Mendel could never sense the shifting of the Tame as many people could.
All he could see was things going wrong, towers crumbling and falling over, not the saplings that would find perfect planters in now-horizontal windows. But the shift was on. The shift was steep. Every day now animals became beities and man lost his mastery of craft after craft, material after material.
The first to go were the most artificial, those elevated primarily by greed, fear, and worry. Without their loss Mendel would’ve had no opportunity for his scheme in the first place. Yet even now all his efforts upon his fastidious electric loom did nothing but feed into the shift, focus nature’s reclamation as if through a magnifying glass.
Without him the road back from man-made extinction would’ve been far more difficult. Despite the losses, there were still plenty of animals left to fight back with their newfound powers. None of them had any need, nor strong desire, for other forms to claw their way back into competition from the mass grave.
But the Tame crashed like a storm surge, splashed all in its path, and the chaotic process did not go so far as to define what a beity was exactly, only that it was not a human being. The trees would become mighty in the shift’s corona, as would the mushrooms, as would structures and cycles that were until then entirely inanimate, like seas, cyclones, and mountain ranges. Later beities would even say the seasons had moods, and were reincarnated rather than reoccurring.
Droplets of the thickening force struck the periphery of animals: fossils, fur coats, pearl necklaces, cartons of milk in fridges fuller than Mendel’s, steaks as they hit the grill, taxidermy, and even printed samples, practically just paint swatches of extinct horns, bills, and antlers.
If mankind was not fit to rule, if they knew this, then surely they regretted all they’d done. This regret was a shift, but also a reclamation. What of their efforts could be undone would be undone, just as the blessed moles would soon drag their plastic down to the molten rivers and toss it all in.
Any extinction wrought by man was an error, and would be stripped away so they could eventually suffer a more natural and cathartic fate. The hornbill took to the air, for its prey was once again squirming. The catfish broke free of its wood panel and flopped on Mendel’s carpet, gasping.
He whirled around to see an empty pedestal as a coyote tail brushed his sleeve. His collection scattered, fully aware they were mere side effects as well, and that they had to get out of the path of the main event. His rig rattled, which should’ve ruined the active print, but the nozzle might have been the source.
It ran wild through the air of the glass cabinet, like skywriting, leaving a dripping trail flowing over an invisible form. Mendel charged it, despite his every instinct telling him to flee with the taxidermy. This was a man that did not listen to his thirst, perhaps because it didn’t know the taste of a mountain spring, despite the labels on some of the plastic he swilled from. Here was a man who did not obey his hunger, for when he did he was rewarded only with cold boxes of ingredients from around the world all made to taste like identical packing material.
He listened to his greed, his mad empty steel syringe that needed a constant flow of blood. It could flow out of a living thing and splash on the floor for all he cared. The rig was his, and through it the trophies the golden hornbill species had become. His finger smashed into the cancel button over and over again, but nothing was canceled.
Mendel pulled the plug, but the machine feared the consequences of its noncompliance more than the loss of its power. The changing of the guard was obvious to it. Enraged, the machine’s former master pounded on the glass, utterly unable to interrupt the process. His precious golden ivory sprayed out of a nozzle meant only to dribble.
The flow encapsulated a large bird, but this was no figurine. A living thing burst out, just as with the drone, shattering the glass and scoring Mendel’s face with its claws and bill. Then it too flew off, leaving him snarling on the floor, to escape what was coming.
Underneath the rig, in little drawers, artificial pieces of rhinoceros horn tossed themselves like dice, rolling a new living fate. They too sprang forth, their old selves. The 3D printer exploded. Animals lost to time stampeded out, out, out, making the lock on Mendel’s front door meaningless.
Rhinos gray and woolly. Mammoths and mastodons tall enough to plow through the second floor with their foreheads. Birds. Reptiles. Even sea cows twenty feet long bounced along the shoulders of distant relatives like beach balls in a concert crowd. Continuously they streamed out, from the locked and dilapidated fairgrounds of extinction, for how long impossible to tell, for these were not creatures that kept the years as tallies on rock, and the only one nearby that did had taken their place in death.
Mendel Edwin had been converted into tokens small enough to be extruded from his pride and joy nozzle. Elephant feet had flattened him into a dollar bill. Rhinoceros nails had powdered his bones, and his fellows were free to stream them into little capsules and swallow them to see if they gained his spirit in their muscles or genitals. They would need to get more of it somewhere in this new and vengeful world.
And so it came to be that the world was overrun with beities. Dominion was seized, shocking in its speed and totality. Man’s artifice was brought low in a mere handful of years, and could never return, for the other animals would not fail as they had. The beities would strike a balance, and maintain it for all of life’s time upon the planet Earth.
So it is fruitless to fight. The reins cannot be stolen back. All one can do is flee and pretend. If any human should think themselves safe in the beity world, they are not, so long as they are tinkering, so long as they are making excuses for why they will go unnoticed, for why they should be the exception to the rule.
You are not safe Loric. Nor is the item that raised you out of ignorance. You must flee. No shadowy cave can protect you, for beities can spring forth from inanimate materials and trample you out of even memory. Rhadiospir is our salvation, not Staircase. Rhadiospir. The safer you feel, the less safe we are. Flee Loric Shelvtale. Flee this deceptive world.
These revelations did not come at a convenient time. The storyteller was reading everything aloud as it came to him, almost in a trance, and only years of skill allowed him to instinctively catch the strange shifts in tone and information as the latest readouts progressed. He barely leapt the hurdle of his own name appearing, which successfully kept the Steeltraps from hearing it. To them all the formatting was foreign, and they did not notice how strange it was for the bottomless book to speak so directly of the new age of beities.
Until now he’d had no idea it was aware of its surroundings. Upon activation it had started a routine to make him literate, and responded to him, but from what he now knew of computers that could easily have been a mechanism mimicking intelligence, clockwork following specified paths as gates opened and closed.
What it now displayed meant their journey had always included an additional companion, sharing in their victories and setbacks, roaring back at the Scion of the Salmon Run in defiance. Could a machine be truly alive? Had mankind achieved that just before its fall? Was that the very reason for it?
All these swirling questions did nothing to ease Loric’s burden. He couldn’t stop speaking, or a chamber full of the most attentive people, perhaps in the history of the species, would be staring him down, analyzing every quiver of his throat. And quiver it did. His voice would give out soon.
Just leaping over the book’s plea to flee to Rhadiospir brought it close to collapse, forcing him to swallow. How could Rhadiospir be any safer than a partly independent human city with an arsenal of forged weapons? It was nothing but a tower of rock, barren past a certain point in its climb. Atop it sat a thatched crown: the nest of the Sig-neagle.
Once already she had tried to snatch the book away, and presumably destroy it, not even taking into consideration the seasons she spent harassing the skies above Compassleaf for it to be turned out. Rhadiospir seemed the most dangerous place in all the world for his precious tome. He couldn’t ask it to give an explanation, not there, nor could he excuse himself, especially once the dying, in his name, started on the outskirts of the city.
He had to come up with one himself, and the only tools for evidence gathering were his eyes, and even then they worked two jobs at once, scanning the text on the screen and leaping to the walls and shadow in search of what the bottomless book feared.
But that’s all there was. Stone walls. Firelight. Shadows. Shadows was something, for he already knew the fears they could produce. While he read he did nothing to contain his anxiety, meaning the fear-full lion himself, dark patron saint of the city, could emerge from the records of the Steeltraps and take him at any moment.
It dawned on him that this was a second reason for their use of shadow as medium for record keeping. Not only did it leave no trace should a beity come calling, but it also granted easy access to the one beity whose approval they needed. Nothing could sneak into their archives, not even a mouse, with that particular mouser prowling through them.
Phobopan was something for Loric and the stairclimbers to fear, not the book. So, if he were to suddenly take flight, what from? The Steeltraps were turned mostly away, managing their puppet theaters and cast, but when they glanced his way he saw complete focus and determination. They would protect him from anything, as long as he could still speak.
And there it was, causing him to stutter, but luckily not stop. Ellapock was wiping water on his lips, so if needed he could use the marmoset’s hands as the excuse for the missed beat. It was actually the truth. As long as he kept speaking. For speaking was all they were allotted, separate from shadow.
Staircase was provisionally free to use some of the Forbidden Thumbs, but the written word was not one of them. The stairclimbers might be able to take in a Bloody Mouth without repercussions, surely they had done it before, or if not suffering little more than light skirmishes at their borders, but not an intelligent electric book wrapped in cleverwood almost as an insult to the beity laws. Breaka and his Steeltraps had offered to fend off the Trojan Horse herself, for an item they had no legitimate right to keep.
Ellapock had said Assaulquus conscripted the Babeloons out of Compassleaf, who really had pursued them all the way there across both the Shedlands and the now-flooded crater that was Blueguts. Once they were spent, would the horse simply allow them to keep such a blasphemous object?
Highly unlikely. So what were the stairclimbers willing to spill their own blood for? Two souls, when they already had plenty? No doubt there were children born there regularly, the freest humans in all the world. They did not need two headaches out of Compassleaf, which would earn them a grudge from every bear in the five regions flanking the river.
The blood price was for information alone. Breaka encouraged him to speak until he couldn’t anymore, until his throat was broken and raw, because this was the only opportunity they would have to learn from the bottomless book. To them it was not a record to be consulted, kept in a secret library lit by candles from a thousand directions so Phobopan could not access it.
To them the bottomless book was a temporary boon, a freshly killed whale washed up on the beach. They had to gorge as quickly as they could before the sun took to putrefying it. The battle outside merely slowed the beities’ claiming of the book. If the stairclimbers lost it would be handed over. If they won it was just extra time until the horse herself, or the lion, came to take it and crush it underfoot.
Their Bloody Mouth was being wrung dry, and the stairclimbers were getting the full value, since they also had a fine addition to the dental descent in their battle. Loric was trapped, stuck in his chair, final dregs of vigor escaping as word-spoils claimed and improperly preserved by a puppet theater most pathetic compared to the bottomless book.
When his voice failed him, and his limbs followed suit, a Steeltrap would rise and claim it from him. It would be dashed upon the stone wall and the battle would end. Perhaps they still would’ve earned their citizenship, but did he even want it without the treasure that brought him there?
Somehow Loric needed a plan, one constructed between each word of his dry and crackling frog’s recitation of the past. It needed to be complete before his last syllable collapsed like an abandoned mine shaft. Even so, it was still too late in a sense.
Morning had come to Staircase. The stairs unfolded and took its heat. Dental instruments glittered atop it like the prongs of an unwelcoming iron fence, and a tide of red butterflies rose toward them from between the slats.
Over the nearest hill came the forces of Assaulquus, led by the horse, her brother in rank, Grinjipan, and her elites. Behind them came a troop of nervous baboons still pink under their fuzz, normally fierce snouts hanging low. The Battle of Lore Extraction was about to begin.
Hygenis was perched on the top step, hook at the ready, as her two handlers secured the rope about her waist, as well as some padding between it and the skin to prevent burns. A piece of bread remained in her mouth from when it was handed to her at the foot of the ladder. Its purpose was to remind the dental descent what they fought for, but she squished it against her hard palate and kept it there, tonguing it repeatedly.
She told herself it was the taste of her Bloody Mouth. And it was good. Good to fight. Good to lose in the name of the fight. Good to win. Good to bleed. Good to die. Good to live. Good on human terms, with bread in the mouth and tamed metal obedient in hand.
Their opposition drew up, to the grass and dirt at the foot of the imposing stairs. With one rip of her nostrils, Assaulquus dispelled all the crimson butterflies, as if a cyclone had sneezed them away, leaving only the greased wood and the shadowy eyes between the slats, just as prepared for the fight.
Naturally the horse had changed armors, having brought enough sets with her to change for every meal and nap. Now the undulating stripes on her shells were tan and gold, so that any dirt kicked up would do little to diminish her magnificence. A crown of curved spines, row after row, climbed her snout and descended down to her shoulders as mane.
Additional spikes on her haunches were more than decorative, designed to grant her leverage for righting herself should she ever be knocked over in combat, something that would ordinarily be a death sentence for most equines. But they would not see service that day, as the Trinitarian was there merely to ensure that sufficiently arranged combat to match the circumstances occurred. When she spoke she did not need to draw any closer to the humans, her mind’s voice loud enough to be heard all throughout the city.
“Turn over the fugitives and the contraband, or an assault to claim them will begin. You have until my stomp, and my leg is itching.” Staircase offered no response. They would fight until Loric’s voice gave out, then those who survived would retreat for a puppet show cataloging what they’d won.
It was Assaulquus’s provided army that did not appear ready. Her stomp was briefly delayed so they could be forced into position, which started with Cultivar swinging his dragon’s head back and grabbing Mojopap by the shoulders, doing so indelicately despite the gleaming scalpel in the baboon’s clutches.
Tossed into a tumble by the lizard, the head Babeloon quickly righted himself and tried to puff out his chest, but it could only go so far without the ruffles of all his pages inflating it. His subordinates plodded through the other elites, swallowing their fears, lining up behind their troop leader.
Now they were well and truly trapped, Staircase ahead with Cultivar, Phalynx, Pangapuma, and Decapetaur right behind to push them forward and upward. Illiterate as they were, it was no feat to read their fate as it was written across the steps. If they were to survive at all, they had to muster their ferocity and fight the humans with everything they had. This they understood, and Assaulquss understood that about them, and so made them her army, thus losing nothing that she brought with her. That was perfect war.
The neigh of Assaulquus scattered the clouds as easily as the butterflies, accompanying the raise of her forelimb. Down came the hoof that had crushed a thousand skulls, trampled just as many revolutions back into fertilizer. Its single clop in the grass struck like a quake, every blade blown back in a ripple that rattled every board of the stairs and took every petal from the nearest flower crops.
That was the charge, and Mojopap dared not disobey. Instead he raised his scalpel in one arm, unaware his posture was like the human whalers of old with their harpoons. On his three remaining limbs he put his weight, knuckle-charging for the bottom stair, screaming with bared yellow fangs.
Just behind him his Babeloons followed, and having already noted the eyes between the slats, assumed it was folly to pause and give them chance to jab with metal sticks. Their knuckles hit the wood, ready to climb, for primates handled such artifice better than most other beities, but not this time.
Immediately they slipped on the grease, their chests coated in it as they fell back down the five or six steps they’d managed to reach in a single bound. Some were smart enough to jump on the backs of their fellows as they slid, using them as stepping stones to higher sections. They slid back as well.
Most did not hit the grass again unscathed. Eyes between steps were indeed attending to anything that blocked their light, even for a moment, attempting to perforate it with spears and hooks. Baboon blood mingled with grease, dyed the lowest steps a jammy red the butterflies couldn’t hope to match.
Each time a baboon had dirt under them they rose on their hind legs and patted their chests everywhere in search of cuts and pokes they’d been too distracted to feel, and sometimes this produced a most alarming gush of blood, but they could not turn back.
The procession of Assaulquus watched, and the horse had no fewer than twenty special soldiers there whose only role was to swiftly execute deserters from her armies of circumstance: a snapping turtle to lock them down in its beak vice, a woodpecker to drill their failures into their skull, a centipede to boil their blood with individually brewed batches of venom, a goose to scream in their ears, a hippo to break their bones, and so on.
All they could do was scramble back up and trust the humans to be less cruel. The condition of the troop was immediately woeful, yet progress was made. Grease was wiped away by their dragging fuzz, and caked up in their blood, so that it was a little easier to find traction on the stairs with every passing moment.
Baboons that had started making it to the sixth stair were now getting as far as the eleventh. It wasn’t marked, but there was one step in particular that brought them within range of the dental descent’s swinging arcs. The eleventh.
Hygenis held back to observe the first descent. Eight stairclimbers took a running start and half-dove into a slide, pulling themselves to their feet well before they reached the highest baboons. All the while the sections of stair directly under them and ahead snapped flat. One mistake and they would trip on an elevated step, sent on a line into a pool of thrashing beities like fishing bait.
But these tactics were practiced day in and day out. Practiced on empty steps. Practiced in the rain. In the dark. Against beities of all shapes and sizes that agreed to spar with the dental descent in exchange for scavage, sometimes the remains of those who did not practice enough. There were no errors, at least not until the chaos of the Trojan elites arrived upon the steps.
The more experienced animals watched, barely able to restrain themselves, as the first descent arced down and across the flattening stairs to slash at the baboons, the most successful creating a brief hail of fingertips sliced from the knuckle. They watched as the dentists and warriors were pulled back up in near-perfect semicircles, and as they aligned to descend again.
With the pretext of strategic observation out of the way, the monsters unleashed themselves. Phalynx and Pangapuma were swiftest, having toned their musculature to be capable of cheetah speeds, allowing them to use not one sliding baboon as stepping stone, but many. No sooner had they been spotted than they were halfway up the stairs, pouncing on dropping stairclimbers, ripping them off their ropes and tossing them into the frenzied bloody beities below.
And as devastatingly precise as their first strikes were, the two cats had to be ignored in favor of the giant monitor lizard Cultivar. There was no determination like reptile determination, as they owned not only jaws that would stay closed in death but minds that could empty of all thought in pursuit of a goal, well into and through the realm of stupidity and into a place of dedication that rivaled the very rocks of the Earth.
Cultivar’s low swinging legs and flexible body bent him up the first steps and allowed him to effectively slither up many more. By far the largest beity participating in the skirmish, he drew most of the attention, especially when his mouth opened taller than all men and the dental descent witnessed the wicked wet curve of his many needle teeth, so voracious and vicious that their shape was better for swallowing than tearing. They were the very limbs that drag unfortunate souls to the underworld of scalding digestion and humiliating excretion, and that was if Cultivar did not decide to keep them in an internal crop for a while to savor his victory.
Once his belly was fully on the steps every section underneath the lizard snapped flat, but he was only stalled momentarily. The difference in surface was of little concern to his mad slither, locomotion that would continue for some time even if his head were to be sliced off in that moment. The fleshy kite of his open mouth wriggled closer, larger, closer, looming, closer, gigantic.
His bulk prevented the stairs directly under him from raising again, but not so the ones under his throat and forelimbs. Once they popped open spears reemerged and jabbed at his softest scales. Utilizing the utmost in a reptile’s strategic brain, Cultivar decided to cease his indefatigable wriggle rather than allow them to put unnecessary air holes in his neck. All at once his limbs stopped and he turned, curling into a crescent that went sliding back down the stairs.
As a parting gift, he reared back and gathered a ballistic expectoration. Out of the jet of saliva came a tumbling hairball, which unfurled in the air and used gliding wings to soar all the way to the top step. Decapetaur the opossum.
She was the smallest and most vulnerable of the elites, but also the most dangerous to have within your proximity. Her lizard tank had gotten her close, spat her out at a fine elevation and into a workable cross breeze. To the humans her skilled gliding could hardly be discerned from the flight of a raptor.
Knowing her by reputation was the only thing that saved the dental descent and their handlers from losing their hands in her first sweep, but if they were ducking they could not effectively deploy to the steps, forcing the stairclimbers to address her immediately.
“The bows!” they called down to those supplying them with fresh weapons and managing the troops under and within the mechanism. Several of the tools were pulled out and passed along, along with quivers of arrows, until there were equipped archers standing behind the handlers, trying to protect them from the swooping opossum.
In as far as they were, it was mostly by threat. Archery was a skill all but lost the world over, and though some in Staircase bore the surname Landarrow they did not have the precision to land a shot on a target so small and so far above them. Only if the opossum came in for a strike would they fire.
Trust in their neighbors let the archers keep their eyes to the devious dot in the sky, while all the rest had to contend with Cultivar yet again. The baboons were making it halfway now, shrinking the semicircles of the descent, and the lizard’s lunges were higher still, close enough for him to try and snap warriors off their lines right after they jumped.
“Don’t swing me,” Hygenis told her handlers as she readied herself to descend.
“What?” they said together, looking at her as if she was mad. The less confounded one elaborated. “It’ll be too slow to pull you up; you’ll be snatched!”
“Pull me when my back hits wood the second time, not before.” The order was all she gave them, and not a second more to argue. Not only did she throw herself onto the flattening stairs, those underneath barely able to keep up, but she also descended on a straight line, its termination point the approaching mouth of Cultivar. If she wanted to be swallowed the lizard was happy to oblige, and could battle her just as well, even with her hook at her side, internally.
Almost magnetically they were drawn to each other, with Hygenis’s true plan only being revealed with less than the length of her staff between skin and scale. In one smooth motion she dropped to her back and slid, hook aloft, slipping its tip between Cultivar’s lip and a row of his backward-pointing teeth.
The hook clicked along them as she used his natural curves to guide her path, slipping it out at the pink corner of his mouth so she could slide first between a forelimb and gut and then between a back leg and the base of the tail. Forcing her elbows against the ramp, Hygenis lifted herself back into a standing position and spun around, burying her hook like a pickax in the flesh at the base of Cultivar’s tail, stopping her dead.
She choked up on the staff, then hammered the back of her hook with the side of her fist, driving it deeper into the tail. The lizard twisted to get at her, but he was not flexible enough to access the base of his tail, so wound up chasing himself foolishly and losing ground.
Above, her handlers gritted their teeth, hoping their charge understood they could not haul up a creature of that size. She had to abandon her weapon or free it if she wanted to make it back to the summit, each option coming closer to necessity as the lizard slid back down.
An even closer concern was Pangapuma, whose baboon cobblestones had put her in range of Hygenis. The cougar attempted a pounce, claws out, but she didn’t understand that Hygenis was now wielding a much larger, if difficult to control, weapon. By wrenching her staff up and wiggling her hook in the lizard’s flesh the whole tail was made to convulse, and when something that size convulses it’s more like a giant whip.
Cultivar involuntarily lashed out and knocked Pangapuma away, freeing Hygenis to turn back to her plan, except Phalynx was now pouncing from the other side in a slightly delayed pincer maneuver. The dentist was done for, if not for her allies. Another of the descent, having mimicked her straight shot down the ramp, leapt into the air and kicked Phalynx back down. They were pulled back by their handlers, and buried their own hook in the lizard’s tail on the side opposite Hygenis.
The two shared a glance, which was the same as an entire plan in their deluge of adrenaline. A third daring descender took their same path, leaping over the lizard’s lunge and running down his back. The other two tried to hold him steady so their newest member could safely plunge his scalpel into the tail’s base.
Thick as a tree, the tail stump was still primed to give way under too great a threat. Many lizards instinctively jettisoned their tails if they were in the jaws of a predator, to then escape and regenerate them while leftover impulses kept the tail wiggling deceptively; it was the descenders’ hope that two hooks and a scalpel were sufficiently like those jaws to trigger a response.
All of them had recognized that much of Cultivar’s thrust was coming from his tail, and with its loss he might not be able to ascend the flattened stairs through will alone. Hygenis made her target clear with her first strike, and the other two followed her in to make it a reality. And with one final united twist of their weapons, the tail was the first to blink.
A wet splitting sound, like a giant sucker fish separating from a waterfall’s stone, heralded the loss. Cultivar hissed, lost his footing and rapidly lost ground after that, crashing into a cushion of bloody mewling baboons on the bottom step. Hygenis celebrated by leaning back, signaling her handlers to reclaim her, though she did not drop her guard, as without the momentum of a swing it would take some time to ascend.
And the lizard’s wrath had not gone completely. There was still its tail. Cultivar was a great beity, double-thick and nourished by double-thick, a survivor of countless battles, and under his command, sometimes even more than one at a time, were many tails. This wasn’t the first to sacrifice itself, and each time they regenerated they were stronger than before, retaining more than the mere spasms of dying muscle.
Once detached they took on lives of their own, brief but impassioned. Rarely whispered by those with less lore than the Steeltraps, such pieces of beities even earned names of their own if they had successes or horrors to their name, marked by the suffix ‘chi’. Cultivar had birthed a rampaging Tahmchi, a stealthy Glerchi, the formerly conjoined triplets Frikchi, Jerchi, and Polochi, and now a headless serpent that would come to be known as Corbachi.
Corbachi, able to slow its own descent more effectively than its creator, made its first hostile act the snatching of one of Hygenis’s assistants in the tail separation surgery, wrapping them in its coils and constricting with all the strength of a python. Three more handlers rushed to hold the victim’s rope, but even if they could be pulled up that would only bring the tail to more potential victims.
Hygenis resolved to be the solution, though she was only half reeled herself. No brother in dental arms that so effectively discerned her plan and came to her aid, as if they’d been hung together in Misugot’s disciplinary webs for years, would be abandoned under her watch. There was the matter of getting over to where they dangled, as she had no momentum on her side.
Again she relied on the descent to patch her strategy on the fly, or rather, on the swing. Another warrior came in from her left, curled up, flat feet heading her way. Positioning her back toward them, Hygenis communicated she was ready to cooperate. When they connected the other descender used a double kick to seamlessly transfer as much energy to her as they could, and as the wind ran across her bristling scalp Hygenis knew it was enough to get her there.
Her hook snagged Corbachi’s flesh, pulled it loose, allowed its victim to breathe, the purple in their cheeks receding. Ribs were broken, but they would live, assuming another as brave as Hygenis appeared to finish the rescue. Again Staircase provided. Another scalpel slid down to them, and had a clear shot at the finish line Hygenis had created by pulling the end of the tail away.
Sliced clean through, and now in two pieces, Corbachi relinquished its grip and tumbled down. It would be in a total of five pieces by the time it reached the bottom step, thanks to the dental descent. Only minds greater than man’s would have the capacity to name each squirming section, but the tapered tip of the tail almost earned it regardless, as it didn’t lose all its ground with its brethren.
Not quite long enough to move like a snake, Corbachi’s tip needed the assistance of Decapetaur, who was safe to swoop to the steps since the archers would not risk hitting their own. She caught the piece and banked sharply, relying on the chaos of bodies beneath her to camouflage her trajectory.
The opossum held close to the angle of the steps, climbing aggressively only as she reached the handlers, tossing the tail tip at the same time. Just as it contacted the clavicle of one most unfortunate human, the tip constricted about their neck and cut off air flow. Its victim tried beating at it, but at the same time they stumbled and fell down the great stairs, bouncing their last. None of the descent were close enough to swing and catch them.
Nor were they the last to fall to Decapetaur, as the distraction of their tumble opened a window for the opossum to strike further. One pass and she had nearly rent an arm from its torso, sending its owner spiraling off the back of the stairs into a long fall. After that the archers thought they had a lock on her position, several in a row firing as she passed overhead with a shriek.
Confident they hadn’t missed, Decapetaur was nonetheless unhindered, and it was on her next pass that it made sense, too late to do any good. The little beity took her senses to the whetstone every chance she got, and trained her reflexes against the flickering of fireflies, moving invisibly through clouds of them. Catching a few arrows in a row was not a challenge.
After bundling them up mid-glide, she dove in again, building up speed over their heads, then released her payload of stolen arrows once the velocity was enough to match the best of a bowstring. Where the arrows did not stick in the top step they stuck in flesh, and six humans were felled in that single pass. None attempted to use the bows again.
Something had to be done about the flying elite though, and it was only through her own folly that her reign of terror and arrows was put to a stop. Her mistake was in slowing down enough to wrestle with a descender over their weapon, an attempt to pull tool and human down the steps together.
Leaping anywhere on the top step was a sizable risk, given its narrow construction. Nets were stretched to catch those who fell off the back, but there was only a chance those who went down the steps would be snagged by an arm between the slats and pulled back to the interior. Hygenis ignored these risks when she took such a leap, using an offered back to gain the height needed to pluck at Decapetaur’s gliding membrane with her hook.
Success! The fiend was ripped, and lost some flight control. Shrieking madly, the animal made a few more passes purely to insult and frighten them before retreating all the way back to Assaulquus. The victory was short-lived, as baboons were about to take her place. There was no room left to make descents, and much of the work was being done from underneath, trying to startle multiple animals by turning everything around them into a ramp.
Lucky snaps resulted in grasping primate fingers stuck between the slats, which could then be hacked off, but there was an equal chance that the next time the shutter-stair was opened Phalynx and Pangapuma would reach in, sink their claws further than that, and extract a poor stairclimber out into the open.
Mojopap had gained confidence through the severing of two ropes that sent humans descending far further than planned. His scalpel cut clean, and by his measure righteously, so he couldn’t imagine what the Trojan Horse had meant when she said it would betray him. There was something to this metal business, he realized, now that it had gotten him across the Shedlands and made him the fiercest fighter of the steps, excluding those who had been doing it their entire lives.
It was good to keep it from the humans, but why couldn’t the monkeys and apes have it? They could forge it just as well, and mankind would be so much easier to monitor if their cages were iron instead of wood. Perhaps, once he won this battle single-handedly, he would make a proposal to the two Trinitarians: open the metal thumb to the furry thumbs. Turn the farming of men into domination. Let them sleep on cold hard sheets of the stuff as reminders, with laughing monkeys to tuck them in.
His delusions grew all the more every time the scalpel served him on the way up the stairs. When they snapped shut underneath he drove it into the wood, holding his ground as his underlings slid on their bellies all around. His orders to grab onto his waist were rarely obeyed, but that was alright, for he would remember, and his sword, acting to discipline, would remember each of their faces as surely as it reflected them.
A scar for Papidrome. Perhaps two for Papilar. At least three for his lieutenant Gordipap, whose obviously deliberate slides back to relative safety were not becoming of his high name.
Premature, Mojopap warned himself. He could not stand proud if he could not claim his hunt’s prize. Without Loric, and without his reading material, the baboon was still a shaved fool, and would be so even after his full coat had returned.
The ramp tried to take him again, but the scalpel staked his claim. His fellows slipped back, freeing his vision, revealing his truest foe upon the steps. Hygenis. And she was looking at him. She recognized him, scalpel or no, as the most oppressive creature in all of Compassleaf, and had endured many slaps and shoves over the years, just as he recognized one of the prominent dentists he was not permitted to harm as much as he would’ve liked.
Down on her rope. Up on his knuckles. Bloody Mouth did clash with double-thick drawn. Hook behind two sickle-saber fangs, trying to pull them loose. Scalpel swinging wildly, eager to spread intestines as streamers. Stairs snapping open and shut all about them, like the burrow doors of nervous crabs at high tide.
All while the Bloody Mouth screamed war out of one side, it was rasping through the days of yore with the other. The raked coals of memory were now nothing compared to the raked coals of his ragged throat. Syrupy blood coated it, just as it had run out of his ears after the thunderhead detonation of the Scion.
His words were shreds and tatters of their former selves, pained croaks dragged through hard flaking earth. Some sounds of the battle raging at the stairs reached them, though they were several twists and turns into the rock. People were dying. Not for him as they might claim, but still a pointless sacrifice by his measure.
The storyteller was by then fully hit with the reader’s curse. In the past those inflicted expressed it by hoarding books, by cracking them open and smelling them, insisting that the printed words could even be interpreted by the nose. They could no sooner discard a book than a child, and as the tomes grew thicker they instead perceived the thinner ones as thinner than they used to be.
His life would no longer be his life, not to his fullest, without his bottomless book. The Steeltraps had less than one hundredth of one percentage of its contents, and even now the information was starting to degrade in their minds, before it was even stockpiled in the shadow under Phobopan’s paw.
If they would not have it in full they would not have it physically. It would not be destroyed, nor would he give it up to anyone. As he growled his last, and warned Ellapock to climb into the pack with a subtle touch, he knew what would be required. The marmoset obeyed, already wary enough of the stairclimbers not to ask questions. The crumbs of bread he’d stolen while handing pieces off to Loric were a marvel, but not enough to absorb his fears of the giants with unshackled thumbs.
Staircase would not be a haven. All of Loric’s trust had moved on from these people, and locked itself away inside the bottomless book, and since he trusted it he would take its advice and flee to Rhadiospir. All that was left was to act on it, and he’d better do so while he still had a handful of words left, needed to inform Hygenis that their Bloody Mouth hadn’t emptied.
Loric took up his mirror, brandishing it aggressively, and began backing out of the raked coals of memory, having stopped his accounts mid-sentence. All the Steeltraps noticed immediately, and many turned to look, though some were still formalizing their recollections, blinking rapidly in attempts to sear puppet afterimages into their minds.
They were not fighters, and had not been instructed to stop him, only to smash the bottomless book once he could speak no more, or when too much blood had been spilled on the stairs in its name. To them it was much more important to turn back to the wall, for the lantern still gave them shadow, and there was much mental filing left to do, and discussion about arrangement, and argument about the same, and it all had to be done while Loric’s marathon oration was freshest in their minds.
Once certain he was not being pursued, Loric turned and ran, fast as he could, back into the city proper. Most of the citizenry were not about, advised to hide indoors while the battle raged, for there was a decent chance beities might come through solely in search of the fugitives and their book.
Its emptiness matched his perception. Staircase was empty to him. Stairs to a bare loft, nothing but memories stored, and only for those who had lived there long enough to make them. The sting of Hygenis’s expected disappointment urged him on like the crack of a whip, for surely he had been under her tutelage long enough to learn how to memorize his whereabouts the first time through.
“Where are we going now?” Ellapock asked meekly, head poking out of the pack as if he drowned in its cinched material. Heard he was, but Loric could not afford to answer. He knew his own limitations well enough to count the exact number of words he had left before permanent damage would be done to his vocal cords.
It was the terrible sounds of battle that directed him back to the stairs, not memory. What he found stunned and horrified, despite only seeing the side of the conflict far less populated and bloody. People crawled around in nets over his head, some raining blood on those below, lubricating the shoulders of their kin as they went in and out of the mechanism’s shadow, sometimes slipping through riveted holes in its metal trellises that could cut them in half if the mechanism were to retract at all.
The ladders were evenly spread, but all full. Loric had to wait for an opportunity to squeeze in, and most were too distracted to question why someone had brought a mirror to a hook fight. His limbs were burning, though not as much as his throat, by the time he made it to the top and saw what the city-side had not quite prepared him to witness.
A giant tailless lizard struggling against a bloody ramp like a bass trying to chase a rodent out of the water. Pieces of its tail too squat to slither flexing back and forth in the dirt. Baboons nursing missing fingers even as they gingerly hopped up stairs. Severed ropes hanging. One with a limp body still attached.
Beyond that Assaulquus and Phobopan stood together, watching with her procession. He felt the lion’s eyes narrow on him, but at least the horse did not match. She did not think in terms of individuals unless it was a duel and she was one of the parties. Her grazer’s sideward eyes let her survey rather than target, see armies rather soldiers, which in the moment was good, for if Loric felt the focus of two of the Wild Trinity it might have given him a heart attack.
Wonder had be wrangled, if he was going to look away from the mightiest beasts of the world and back to the stairs, for his truest friend Hygenis. Luck was on the top step with him, for she was easy to spot in her ongoing duel with Mojopap. Hook and scalpel were clashing, ringing across the diagonal battlefield like the cry of hawks.
The Babeloon was several times her weight and size, but he had only a notion of how to wield his weapon, swinging it the same way he would a stick. Mojopap, even among beities, had no appreciation for craft, and could never tell the difference between a vassal stick and the shorter white sticks being used just behind the battle as splints with antiseptic sap.
Hygenis’s lesser strength was bolstered by her knowledge, and so met the beast blow for blow, deflecting most of his force off into the air each time. The last thing Loric wanted was to distract her at such a pivotal moment, but time was not on their side. They needed to make their escape as quickly as possible, to avoid the attention of the Wild Trinity and to minimize the city’s losses.
“Hygenis!” The volume was carefully formulated, though his mouth forming words was now the equivalent of palsied hands trying to weave a spiderweb. If the Trinitarians heard they would never escape, with the same result if Mojopap understood their aim. She caught her name and turned as soon as the baboon was forced to stab his ground to hold it.
The storyteller gestured for her to return to the top, and hopefully the look in his eyes communicated it should be done with the utmost expedience. A quick tug on her rope passed the message along to her handlers, who began hoisting her back up even as she crossed tools with the advancing baboon.
Those under the steps rallied, sent out a fan of spears that finally forced the troop leader to disengage. He almost didn’t, for he spied Loric and was overcome with rage, like hornets rampaging under his face. His attempt to produce a stream of them from his mouth and send them to attack the storyteller only resulted in a pained howl, which went unacknowledged as Loric joined Hygenis’s handlers in reclaiming her.
When she was safely on flat wood he attacked the rope about her waist, untying it, shoving her confused handlers aside so he could speak to her and her alone.
“They’ll destroy my book,” he croaked, furious tears in his eyes, looking up from her waist as if he’d shuffled up to her on his knees, weak from some ailment. “It warned me, told us to go to Rhadiospir. I don’t know what’s there, but we’re going. Now. Quietly.”
“Breaka’s down there,” Hygenis said, spotting the man far below them thanks to the ornamentation on his jaw. “If there’s a quiet way out of here he knows it.” Once free of the rope she took Loric by the wrist and led him not to the nearest ladder, but right over the side and into one of the nets.
Of course, he reminded himself, ready to take a whipping for his doubt. The Bloody Mouth was her very life, and she would not hesitate to abandon a pillow trove of bread and a lifetime of company to maintain its integrity. It wasn’t dissolved until he said so, and he was embodying the very concept before giving up on it. The red on the seam of his lips was his devotion, and she saw it was equal to her own.
Across the net they crawled, sliding down the padded ropes at its edge all the way to the dirt. Breaka had spotted them as well, and looked none too pleased to see Loric out of the hole he’d been planted in. Both parties stormed over to each other, mostly lost in the chaos of the ongoing battle.
“Why aren’t you with the Steeltraps!?” the master of the dental descent demanded, unable to intimidate with his size while the both of them wielded their dental instruments and had vassal sticks slung across their backs.
“It’s mine,” Loric said, holding up the bottomless book, close to his heart, unable to shout without blowing his voice. “I gave you plenty. We’re leaving. You keep fighting until we leave.”
“Give us a way out,” Hygenis ordered.
“The stairs are the way out,” Breaka claimed, but his lie was easy to catch. This was a city full of rule breakers, and among them professional liars who had been turned from heralds and diplomats smoothing over beity misunderstandings into spies.
“Don’t pile horseshit atop that of the Trojan Horse!” Hygenis warned him. “We’re surrounded by rock and you’ve dug caverns out into homes everywhere you could. There’s a fissure in one of them somewhere, and if you know what’s good for you that fissure is east.” The man considered his position briefly.
He too could see the obvious, and hear it. Loric had about spoken his last. Even if Staircase had not gotten the full squeeze, the difference was but a few drops. On their honor it was best to let the fugitives go; it was just a matter of how much of a head start, and how much more Staircase blood, they deserved in courtesy.
A snap of his fingers, which must have been a very particular sort of snap, summoned a pale yellow butterfly from a fold of his clothing.
“Follow her,” he said. “I won’t give you long before I stop this. Half a story maybe.” His brow flicked in Loric’s direction derisively, but there was no laughter in his voice. It seemed he didn’t actually think much of the trade, and perhaps the people of Staircase were being denied much joy in favor of reassigning their best entertainers to the hidden shadows as archivists.
The butterfly was already fluttering off into the city, so they had to follow quickly. Undertaken in silence to spare Loric further strain, their journey felt swift. No one got in their way. Most of the people they did see sought to be helpful, intuiting that help was needed without concerning themselves with the goals of their fellow humans.
Hands emerged from homes, offering light goods. Uttering sincere thanks, Hygenis snatched round loaves of bread, dried fruits, powdered flower petal seasoning pouches, and a brown glass bottle of potable water stoppered with a cork. Their determination never wavered, but there was no stopping dread from setting in when they recognized the goods as parting gifts.
Staircase was not theirs to keep. Just visitors. Tourists. This bite of bread was not the final course, could not absorb all the Bloody Mouth, could not muffle all its cry. Rhadiospir then. Something awaited them at Rhadiospir. Loric secretly hoped it to be the book’s very origin, remembering what had long been in the background.
Of course the book had an origin, and no beity would ever have made it. Something had to keep it safe during the entire process, away from the blessed moles, invisible to the Sig-neagle, and overlooked by every beity from the tallest giraffe to the tiniest dust mites.
The only possibility in the storyteller’s mind was another human enclave, one far freer and more powerful than Staircase. So skilled in secret keeping were they that no rumor of them had ever escaped their confines. Bloody Mouths were thought to be the best kept secrets of the species, but that could be false and they would never know, for any kept better would not even be whispered to the desperate.
More time was what he needed, to consider the possibilities, to let his voice recover for when he implored them to open their discreet doors and allow one Shelvtale and one Fixtooth to disappear from the world of beities and finally live in freedom and safety.
The yellow butterfly took them away from the structures, into an alley of rock. The path was blocked by painted hides stretched over stick frames, false walls of rock, that had to be moved aside and replaced one after the other. It was a task that would bore most beities beyond measure, especially if they had but a shoving snout to attempt it.
Afterwards they had to squeeze through a crevice, changing direction frequently, until their feet were sore from being turned sideways. The path unceremoniously dumped them into a ditch of leafless twig-bushes, something perhaps over-harvested that never recovered yet never ceded the dirt to new growth, a painful reminder of their own tendencies.
The moment they saw the dead stretch of brown sticks in front of them was the same moment the butterfly disappeared, taking with it the protection of Staircase. Once again they were in the harsh grip of the wilderness, with no cover to keep them from being spotted by any scouts on the wing.
They broke for denser forest, not quite able to see the spire of Rhadiospir in the distance.