(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 37 minutes)
When the Year is not Kept
And the Clutch of the Sig-neagle Shreds an Old Wrong
Shortly after the Battle of Knowledge Extraction came to a disappointing close, peace settled into the surrounding lands. To many it seemed the situation could grow no more extreme than the Trojan Horse laying siege to the fear-full lion’s city, fangs and claws crossed with metal weapons utterly forbidden elsewhere.
No matter which way it went, there would be no repercussions afterward, for there was one corner of the Wild Trinity on each side of the conflict, once again demonstrating its structural stability. There had been times where Vissovis the Golden Fleece had been involved in minor conflicts along with his siblings, and those had not stressed the grand relationships either.
As usual the job of delivering the news fell upward, mostly to the birds. They surveyed Staircase from a sage elevation, then descended to the periphery of the battlefield stripping to interview the participants. None of them bothered Assaulquus, correctly assuming her entourage included a cabal of talkative gossips and flirts who handled her communication and messaging.
In this case it was an ostrich that delivered most of the information from the horse’s camp, succinctly describing the whole affair as little more than a formality: the process of wiping away the stain left by two humans that had already been neutralized. And they had been neutralized, as far as the Trojan Horse was concerned, for they no longer surrounded themselves with anything that could be called an army.
Whether or not the two fugitives had survived this neutralization was not given much thought, for the story quickly gave way to all the adjustments being made in their wake. Staircase and Rhadiospir were the very edge of Namstamp, and passing out of them meant the humans were now the responsibility of other lands.
Winged journalists, working solely in word and song, refused to test themselves in harsher desert skies just to follow after them, and instead shifted the narrative on their own, choosing to gather information within Namstamp from Compassleaf, from Plunderoe, and from Staircase’s borders.
Word of the battle reached Compassleaf, and the city was changed. The residents knew the Babeloons had departed on their hunt, for their lives had been lighthearted and jovial since they left. When it was known that they had been forced to fight for the horse it was assumed they would be greatly reduced, should they return at all to take up their old post.
The Tower of Babel was quickly vandalized, fouled beyond repair when unofficially declared a public latrine. Most decided the city would get along just fine without a force to bully their slaves, and if that proved false the next animals to hold the station would not be baboons, nor primates of any kind. Not dogs either. They still tended to get too cozy with their former best friends. Badgers perhaps.
Most of the disrespect was paid to Babeloons’ haunts not over the loss of such a fine storyteller, though that did sting as much as the jab of a dental apprentice, but how much this whole experience had harmed the adored Lady Butterfur, who had been all but inconsolable the entire time. Word out of Plunderoe was muddled. Some bears were dead, but that was second to the changing of the river’s shape and course, which could not be attributed to any single factor definitively. Not only was it not known who currently held the post of Scion of the Salmon Run, it was not known if the salmon themselves would run there again after such a cataclysm.
A trauma of that size might blow a hole in their fish memory, one they might have to swim around, wide enough to enter the delta of a different river entirely. Everything in Namstamp hinged on that not happening. If the fish left the single largest nutrient drop of the year would not occur, and the impact would radiate out for generations to come.
No fish meant nothing to fatten the bears enough for winter, forcing them to head south to warmer climates. No bears meant a power vacuum among the larger beities, to be colonized by the violence of moose and elk from Tuncrad, walruses lumbering inland from Walrutter, as well as foxes and wildcats passing the retreating bears as they moved north.
With no Scion Compassleaf would be without an official leader, and as loved as Hocmursus was, she could never fill that role. The status of the city was still undetermined, but some of her pets had to be reassigned as additional handmaidens to care for her in her sorrows. Every night she would blubber, asking for someone to tell her a story, but she did not like the way they were told.
“What did I do wrong?” she asked pets who could answer, but not soothingly. “Did he not like it here?”
But it wasn’t a matter of whether or not Loric Shelvtale was content. It was whether or not he was free. Free to master. To explore. To learn and wield dark knowledge. He thought it was enough that he was an individual, that his deeds could never bring back the old world, and that he should be allowed to roam untouched even as the rest of his kind were led by the intangible chains of thinned blood.
Though tired, injured, frightened, and mostly alone, Loric knew that he had hunted and recaptured all the Tame he ever could. It was his. He had earned it. Scraped it off the ground and fit the pieces together just like the men from caves, which he now understood as their origin. On another continent of all places.
Loric was the same sort of man who stepped on the moon, and for all his accomplishments he feared the sort of woman that Hygenis was. She was fiercer than all the beities of the world, and suffered no doubts. Where she found that strength he could not guess, for she had no bottomless book. The other possibility was that she made it, all her own, exploring nothing but the soul kindled in her when she fought to take her first breath.
And she felt the same way about her fellow fang of the Bloody Mouth. There was not a single utterance of blame that passed between them as they fled Staircase, the only conversation being between Hygenis and Ellapock as they gave Loric’s voice a chance to recover from its ordeal.
Many times she offered the marmoset opportunity to depart, but each time he refused. His given excuse was about the dangers of being anywhere in the wild as a marmoset, especially areas with thinning trees, but the humans sensed the truth: a growing curiosity. Their little companion wanted to know how it all turned out for them, even if it was just so he could tell an even grander tale when he made it back to Weaviranch.
The dentist’s best estimate was three days to Rhadiospir, and though the furor over their flight was dying down across Namstamp, those closest to the conflict would not give in. Like the fugitives themselves, their whole was now staked on the outcome. It had to be assumed that Mojopap yet lived, as it was unlikely the last moments of the battle were the ones where he had fallen. Any baboons left would be forced to pursue alongside him.
And there was Phobopan himself, accompanied by the reverse tiger. His concern had put him on their trail before they reached his city, and it was reasonable to conclude it would continue, and he surely stepped out of the dark walls during a frenzied follow-up session in the raked coals of memory to interrogate the sharpest recollections of mankind and get their heading.
Above that problem soared Tensilharp, the Sig-neagle, the shadow that would attack rather than listen. They still had their mirror, but surely such an object, barely a toothpick on her scale, would not grant them passage to her homelands.
Not just passage. They sought the very summit, for Rhadiospir was a featureless spire of stone surrounded by barrens. A veritable graveyard of her conquests, Tensilharp had littered the lands with gutted metal husks, some of them hulks rivaling whales in size. The tail end of man’s Tame had produced mechanical horrors, some that shambled after the empire’s fall, but there was only one place they could find themselves if they walked that northern continent, dragged across the sky by a force more powerful than magnetism: the load-bearing hatred of Tensilharp.
Stripped of cleverwood baubles by moles, little but metal remained, and all of it was succumbing to rust, now so thick in places that its growing gnarly textures practically crystallized like salt. Flakes of it fell to the ground, hid jagged shreds, made it folly for any creature without flight to cross lest they risk a puncture of the foot or belly and the dread illness that often came when rust bit.
Loric and Hygenis knew of this danger from the eagle’s reputation, and took heed. During each night they slept in turns, with the awake individual tasked not only with keeping watch but also the construction of shoes out of strips of cloth from their clothing and leather cinching cords from the bags handed to them as they fled Staircase.
They would be paltry protection against rusty spines and barbed wires, but perhaps enough if they moved carefully and used their instruments to sweep the path in front of them. Their pace would be painfully slow. More painful to the baboons though, they hoped. Mojopap had taken to the scalpel, but a weapon was the easiest sort of tool to take to; he did not have the wisdom to predict the necessity of anything but a more lethal extension of his reach.
Without shoes the Babeloons would be far worse off, and even slower if the fugitives covered their tracks. When Hygenis’s hook scraped their path clear Loric’s mirror could sweep debris pack into it, allowing them to gently sail through the rust barrens on a flimsy raft of dirt. This way their pursuers could not easily follow.
Such a plan did nothing to hinder the fear-full lion though, who needed only fear splashed on shadow to be at their side. Nor did it address the Sig-neagle, who had scattered the seeds of her rust garden in the first place.
That struggle was still days away. The shoes didn’t have holes for the cords yet. Loric was supposed to be sleeping while Hygenis used her last tucked-away needle to punch them into the leather soles. He couldn’t. They were up in a tree, in the dark, with Ellapock having actually volunteered to keep an even higher watch in the uppermost branches where he couldn’t overhear.
Loric didn’t dare use the bottomless book and let a single ray of its artificial light make it through the canopy to any of the most discreet creatures that patrolled black skies. He couldn’t tell himself a story, or plumb one from a deep digital well, so he just curled up and stared at Hygenis while she worked.
She was so beautiful. Not in the sort of way that made him want to bury her in the pillow trove and then dive in after. In the light of a gaping bright moon, so bright its pocks prickled with unusual clarity, and of the purple mist of stars draped behind, she was visible as a collection of all her traits and details, like all the little spinning and ticking pieces of the mechanical clocks Loric had seen in his book.
Human. Elder. Woman. Warrior. Medical professional. Rebel slumbering in the midst of her enemies. Disobedient eruption. Messy spill. Skater in blood. Cutting a path. Opening a mouth in flesh that continuously tried to close up and never shout again. The sound swelling under that closed flesh. A quiet Bloody Mouth. Loud in other ways. A needle of Tame. Unbroken.
Somehow, after everything, making shoes. She was making his pair first. When he activated her she said ‘shit’. She wouldn’t say it now, and neither would he if he had his voice back.
She glanced up from her work and saw he was awake, hands curled up near his chin, holding an imaginary blanket tight. She smiled, and suddenly she was illuminating the night sky instead of the other way around. It was the satisfaction of human work, of ten things going right at once, which the animals did not know since their lives were rarely more than three things at any given time.
“You look like you want to hear a bedtime story,” she said half in jest. A replying smirk told her he still couldn’t speak. “There’s nobody to tell one.” She pretended to scan the treetops for someone to fill the role. “Where’s Myrtelon when you need her?” Loric almost laughed, but that wouldn’t have been good for his condition. The dentist pulled back on her ribaldry to spare him. The needle came through the leather, pointed at the moon.
“I suppose that just leaves me. I have to speak with Bloody Mouth, for you, but there’s no monster to roar at. I’m stuck telling you a story, and I’m not ready for such a thing. Ask me to fall down the stairs and fight the gods at the bottom, of course! This? This is tough.” The needle came through.
“You’ve been there since the beginning of my life Loric Shelvtale, so the only story I could possibly tell you is of my larval form. How the thing that would be me got bitten by the Bloody Mouth, and how I stoppered the gushing wound, and how what would’ve spilled onto the floor instead fermented into me.” The needle came through.
“Set aside for dentistry from birth, I was. A small beity, with a big sense of smell, waved her wand-snout, her furry divining rod, over me as a babe and claimed she smelled my future purpose. They look for ‘weak breath’ as they call it: something a beity won’t smell when their mouth is wide open.
Weak breath means a weak will, which will make a dentist unlikely to swing their tools around and brandish them. Do you know where the strong breath goes? Statecraft simperers. Ear worm breeders. Singers. Storytellers. It shapes words of impact, I mean to say. Did they ever tell you you had strong breath?” She didn’t look for an answer, for the audience wasn’t supposed to participate. He should think it over, but not speak. The needle came through.
“So if mine is weak and yours is strong we work well together… but that doesn’t come until later. I slept on a wall, in a pouch of spider silk, wrapped tight to keep my breath weak. There was a row of us; I was not special. Spiders don’t mind when you cry. They can’t perceive it the way we do. To them all noise is vibrations, and all vibrations have responses that make the vibrations stop.
Misugot tried a few things out until he found one that made me stop. Then, whenever he was my caregiver, that was my life. I would do something that suggested I was more than alive, that I could think for myself, and Misugot would experiment until I stopped.
If it was always him I would’ve killed myself the first time they put a knife in my hands… but sometimes the other dentists cared for me. Sometimes we made house calls when a beity was being a blubbering baby and insisted their teeth hurt so much that they couldn’t walk, as if they hand incisors in their instep.
On the way I got to smell the breath of the world, out from the underground, and determine how strong it was. And I found it the strongest. The whole world is a statement. A bubble of philosophy holding its shape in the void. All our lives are its surface tension, which is why we fight, because without tension we couldn’t have shape at all. I couldn’t look at you and love you and you couldn’t do the same to me.” The needle came through.
“So I knew it was good to fight. Fighting sharpens everything. Clarifies it. Grants identity. Gives you titles, and you need them more than a story does. More titles means more nodes in your web. Means you can feel more vibrations from further out. Means more of the world is your business, because it takes more breath to even say who you are.
I didn’t have anything to fight, so after I smelled the world I thought it would be Misugot. One day I would squish him, make marbles out of his dispassionate black eyes. I hate him… but I know there will be no reward to hating him. He’s just a spider. His mind is a small collector. He is his hoard and its condition. He’s nothing else. They used to live in our corners and build tents. Now he hangs babes in his corners. That’s all the revenge he can think of, and even as a beity he can’t draw much satisfaction from it. You know spiders breathe through little tubes in their armor? Talk about weak breath! He can only take the world in through a snorkel. He’ll never break the surface I say.
Sometimes he runs low on silk. Too proud to admit it, he doesn’t request help from another spider. Instead he takes two dentists he needs to watch or punish and bundles them up together, facing each other, and hangs them from the ceiling or on the wall. That, and that alone, is why the Bloody Mouth took hold in Compassleaf.
When you whisper it doesn’t make it out of his bindings, at least not on our weak breath. I still don’t know how many of our dental college know of its nestling Bloody Mouth, or how many have actually sworn the oath, for you don’t have to swear it to anyone, just yourself.
There were at least three. Myself. The two that talked to me of it, independently, when we were hung together in the same sack. Lossween Fixtooth. Glubrinse Fixtooth. Both of them took the oath. Lossween passed on without invocation. Glubrinse still lives, far as I know, but he is so old I don’t know what his activation would look like.
I was not happy when you activated me Loric, but I see now it was better than either of their fates. If you don’t activate you can’t fight, can’t define yourself, can’t title yourself again and again across the surface of this Earth. To activate me badly, sloppily, was to challenge me, and I have risen. Oh how I have risen. I’m up there right now, shining with the stars. I am a red constellation, formerly pearly white.
I am the bloodied ivory of man. Rinse. Spit. Bared still. Stinging still.”
The needle came through and she quickly set it aside to bow her head and move her hands in some sort of dental ritual. She looked like she was washing her mouth out with fresh water and spitting it aside.
Loric’s imagination was full of wonder and lights. Deep in the weaving station of his story-stem he embellished everything she said, coating it all in drama and tawdry romantic emotion, dressing it up for the stage. In his version the Bloody Mouth was transferred in a kiss, whispered words dancing from one tongue to another clasped, trapped and hidden in the silken hood of the enemy like two yolks to an egg.
Not a single suggestion came out of him; he would not disrespect her truth. There was no ending, but obviously they hadn’t gotten there yet. They would make it, right after they made the shoes. The needle came through.
To delay when the shadow of the Sig-neagle could appear at any moment was foolish, so when the trio of creatures reached the edge of the rust barrens, and saw the imposing reddish spire of Rhadiospir in the light of day, they burst into action as if they’d planned it all out in even greater detail.
Atop her pedestal they could barely make out the frayed bramble edge of her nest, a crown glinting with the gizzards of eviscerated machines that had dared fly her skies with their camera eyes and their whining whirly-wing-wheels. The mass was the tower’s sole feature, aside from a spiraling ledge of rock wrapped about it, uneven in its natural formation, but the only way to ascend, though it didn’t appear to reach the peak.
The book was not speaking, and Loric was still not comfortable with it either, so it went unsaid that they would cross the rust, that they would wind up about the spire, and that they would then see what, if anything, happened to them.
Noisily they made their bee’s line, from edge to center, Hygenis’s hook bashing and sweeping a serpentine path in front of her, thin shoes still having to carefully hop here and there to avoid something solid and buried. Loric followed up, spinning where it was safe, smacking clumps of debris with the flat of his mirror to cover the path once more so no walking beity could use it.
About halfway to Rhadiospir the precaution proved necessary. Ellapock, now an eager participant, totally cognizant that his efforts would transfer from his passionate retelling into the skilled arms, hands, and digits of Dinny and Running Chamberhand, stood on Loric’s shoulder as a sentry, and was first to spot the emergence of the Babeloons from the forest and their harried examination of the rust, like angry hounds trying to drink at the ocean’s edge.
“There they are!” the marmoset shouted, alerting his companions. Loric spun, smacked the rust, and took stock of his foes. Mojopap was there of course; without him the others would have given up long ago, before losing a single hair on their knuckles. The troop leader still had his scalpel, and it was the only tool at his disposal that wasn’t heavily degraded from the Battle of Knowledge Extraction.
Behind him were but eleven underlings, and among them twenty missing fingers and toes, forcing them to step gingerly before they’d even entered the rust, and after three days of pounding the unforgiving earth with them.
Weak. Hesitant. It mattered little though; two humans with four weapons could not best more than ten baboons, each bigger than a man. If it came to a fight they would lose, so Loric and Hygenis needed to maintain the gap. It appeared they could do so in the rust, but they would be the slower party once they climbed the rocky spiral of Rhadiospir, even with the Babeloons’ every step smarting.
The aggressors hadn’t dipped their remaining toes in yet. Even over shrieking and clanging rust the humans could hear Mojopap excoriating them. Not in words. With a primal howled order. Still they wouldn’t budge, not until their leader demonstrated it was safe to do so. In a huff Mojopap charged to the shore of the rust, swung his scalpel, mostly cleared a patch.
Then the chase began. Every primate arm save Ellapock’s burned with effort as rust was continuously plowed. Cleared. Replaced. Cleared again. From the sky the baboons’ path could be seen stretching toward the circle’s center, frantically pushing, desperate to pierce and draw what the birds would note as nothing more than a splotch of blood.
We’re the faster, the troop leader told himself, narrowing his bloodshot eyes. He thought so, for he assumed Loric was weighed down by a proper paper book, ten thousand pages at least, something that could make one of them literate all on its own. He licked his dry cracked lips, salivating as if he pursued a fat and juicy turkey rather than a brick of stacked wood fibers.
In his ruthless determination he failed to consider what they were headed toward, through. Tensilharp was not just a terror to all things mechanical. In her breast beat the heart of a beity, stronger than any engine of man, which it needed to be to move such double-thick blood. If not for her insanity she would have been one of the main contenders to usurp any corner of the Wild Trinity.
As such, her discarded foes were more than remnants, and still bore some of the hostility baked into their designs. All the men who would’ve worshiped such constructs as if they were beities were the first to die, often when they tried to take the whip to their fellow man in efforts to install themselves as middle class tormentors, but if they had lived to see those dark creations lumber they would’ve named and titled them just as man now did with the animals.
The death garden both parties now cut through contained the guts of a poison-spraying irrigator, of a rabid satellite that encroached on bird skies, of a missile that wormed its way out of a caved-in silo and failed to explode into an invisible fire that was its own fuel, of a crawler meant for the red soil of Mars but which found the territory of beities much more perilous.
All had fallen to the talons and beak of the Sig-neagle, and now had their pieces shoved aside by beings most puny when compared to their factory-fresh glory. But one piece could not be moved by any of them, for it was large enough to live in.
A single tire. Half-buried and transformed into an arch. Its rubber substance evaded the detection of the moles, and it had been treated with various coatings that prevented its degradation and gave it a foul smell of aerosol paint, completely unknown to the noses present, and detectable from a great distance.
Hygenis and Loric knew they could no slow down, nor spare a limb to cover their noses. If it was toxic it was toxic, and their wade through it was just a reality, one they hoped more taxing on the baboons. The humans had held a straight line so far; to divert around the arch was time they did not have to spare. So under it. They would shower in its shade.
“We’ll be under it for more than a moment,” Hygenis called back to her companion. “Its shadow is very dark. Are you afraid?”
“He’s shaking his head no!” Ellapock shouted, feeling the gesture from his perch on Loric’s shoulder.
“And you Ellapock?” she asked next. “Are you frightened?”
“I’ve done nothing wrong!” he squeaked indignantly, with the tiniest boom of a puffed chest. “If Phobopan cared to eat me there was plenty of opportunity in the dim of your knapsacks! Onward!” Hygenis smiled at his fastidious version of valor, pressing on to the arch.
The tire used to connect to a rim, which connected to an axle, which connected to a body that flattened the land it crossed. In its imitation life it was meant to reshape the landscape, which it did with its single rotating arm of buckets that ate precious minerals out of the ground. The proud titan had been so large that men had made refuge inside, a pocket of civilization they hoped would be protected from the beities outside by its mobility.
But the machine was slow, in a world where the Sig-neagle was now among the fastest creatures, and she dove with speeds that made the machine’s windows into powder. With speeds that splattered the men in her path like bugs on a windshield. She infiltrated it with ease, gutted it from the inside, and in times of relative peace returned to its corpse to claim more trophies for the barrens surrounding her nest.
In the tire’s shadow the fugitives felt the oppressive sadness of its failure, like tar in the nose and gas-soaked towels slapped on their backs. All of its potential to go was now just a brooding darkness: a seamless ring of total black.
Built out of a greedy fear of unclaimed wealth, occupied by those terrified of a single mosquito’s intrusion, and passed by by parties ever more wary as its pieces went missing, the tire was a circle of fear, a snare practically designed to appease Phobopan, yet it was not triggered by their passage.
Once clear of it Hygenis sensed an opportunity, remembering that the Babeloons had been conscripted into the battle at Staircase. Already they’d been under the hoof of a Trinitarian, and they knew Phobopan was at least in the periphery, for they had assailed his city. In addition, they were led by a shining violation of the law of the land; Mojopap carried what was forbidden, and where it was not forbidden it was taboo.
Each and every one of them still wore a humiliating badge of their obsequious collaboration: pink skin seen through new fur like they were all delicate fuzzy peaches, without stones, confused to have rolled so far from their mother tree. And now they were trespassing in Rhadiospir, plowing through Tensilharp’s private statuary with no regard for its level of curation.
They had reason to be afraid. Perhaps Phobopan was what the dentist and the storyteller needed just then. With the sun high in the sky Rhadiospir generated little shadow, affording few opportunities to call the monster, and if he emerged out in the rust he would still need to find a way through it to reach them, slowing him at the very least. First he might help himself to the disrespectful primates who had so inconvenienced him.
“Phobopan comes for you!” Hygenis screamed, hoping they could hear over the wild clatter of her clearing. “He ignores us! We’ve just passed through his gates and lived! But you, and your soft pink bottoms… he will sink his quicksilver teeth into you! Only he can wield such sabers! You insult him with yours!”
Mojopap did not slow, having armored himself against listening the same way he did against the words on the page. Meaning could not reach a closed mind. Ignorance was the rock upon which he bashed his many victims. His talent it was, and his talent alone; the other Babeloons paused at the tire’s threshold. They considered its cool shadow for the first time.
In doing so enough time passed for Mojopap to clear the tire himself, utterly immune to fear thanks to focus. His own ragged breathing obscured the lack of plodding steps behind him, but when his scalpel sweeps missed a piece of metal it spun with an obvious sound, one not repeated moments later when his soldiers should’ve had to deal with it.
Looking over his shoulder, again feeling the absence of the ruffled pages that used to sit there, the troop leader saw eleven cowards too sullen to pass through the tire, what looked like a distance they could practically fall through.
“Aw-sho! Move you ingrates!” he demanded. “Or go back to Compassleaf empty-handed and see what awaits you! Ridicule!” They didn’t budge. Each moment he wasn’t sweeping was the gap to his prey expanding, so Mojopap couldn’t bring himself to stop completely. Instead he grabbed the nastiest looking chunk of metal he could, with more spines than a porcupine, and threw it at his clumped underlings. “Move!”
The rust could bite just as much as the fear-full lion, kill them with lockjaw, and they thought they might even deserve it for their disobedience. Mojopap was of a high name, born into it, but still the most known among them. Surely he knew what he was doing. He had to, for his fellow Babeloons did not.
Tentatively they crossed into shadow, shoulders tenses, tails curled. Their eyes were suddenly skittering roaches, as if one patch of darkness looked different from any other. The lion could come from the left, so they had to check, from the right, so they checked, fall on them from above, so they checked.
A growl, from deep in the darkness of elsewhere, perhaps a chasm far underground where he slept. The sound rippled throughout the tire and the baboons’ flesh alike, turning all their little hairs into needles. A few of them hollered, pushed the others forward. Clumped together they fell out of the shadow, scrambling to stand and check if they were about to die.
The tire was empty, but they’d all heard it. Phobopan was there, invisibly, watching. Clearing Staircase had not cleared them of all crime. With nothing to cling to but their leader and his silver sword, the Babeloons hurried to him.
“That’s done something,” Hygenis grumbled, fighting the burn in her arms. Nearly there. The spire still offered nothing. Mojopap was already closing in, thanks to double-thick blood that took much longer to plant hot coals in his muscles. Loric was not just sweeping rust back into the path, but swinging the mirror so that it tossed chunks at their enemy, forcing him to strike them out of the air.
The head baboon was hateful, pathetic, despised, and simple, intellect easily wounded by suggestive snickers, but he was still a beity. Still a ruler of this world. And the Bloody Mouth was only the best a fallen species had to offer. Their blood had thinned to water in shame and resignation, and it boiled away to fleeing steam at the slightest provocation.
As the dentist neared the finer blanket of rust at the edge, like orange and red snow, she had a moment of bitter clarity. Yes, they fought with the best of them, fought for the ages, but no amount of planning or execution could ever get them the paradise of the throne again. Even now, as they gave everything they had, there was no plan to give it to. Only hope. Only faith in an electric wedge of cleverwood.
“We’re through!” she shouted to her companions, prompting Loric to turn and catch up as they took the first steep steps up Rhadiospir’s spiral. He slipped the mirror into the straps crisscrossing his back and pulled out the bottomless book to take its place. As they ran he furiously tapped at its screen, looking for a blank page it would see as an invitation to guide them.
“Anything!?” Hygenis asked as she climbed, remembering to look back at him. Not only did Loric not need to speak, he did not need to nod or shake his head either. She saw in his eyes, bottoming out and finding rotten low tide death, that the device wasn’t responding. “We climb then!”
And climbing it was, for in places the spiral was far too steep and uneven to run, which had not been clear from a distance. The baboons would reach them all the sooner. For now they resolved to get around the curve of the spire, to keep them out of sight for as long as they could, which they managed for a short time.
Loric kept up, even climbing with one hand while the other cramped around the bottomless book, smacked its screen with the heel of a thumb. Nothing. As if there had never been a thought in its flat mind. Tears broke through the storyteller’s eyes feeling giant and solid, like black pearls squeezed through his flesh. He had failed. He didn’t even know what he was trying to do, and had still failed. That was now the fate of men who broke their leash, an act most foolish considering they’d put the collar on themselves and begged to be led around, tried ill-fitting barking and whimpering to escape the effects of their own speech.
What absurd fantasies he’d had on their journey, not only of finding safety in Staircase, but of rebelling against the order of the beasts from within. He wanted to travel as an envoy, diplomatically immune from persecution, telling stories to every animal’s court across the continent.
All the while he would hide in them the entirety of the Bloody Mouth process, in ways that only human listeners would eventually piece together. On stage he would spray this bloody spittle all over the audience, and the beities would not so much as blink, even when he was playing at the courts of the Wild Trinity themselves.
Children, scurrying about on the tropical islands of Vissovis, would compare tales they’d heard on different nights like toys and find that pieces of them fit together. When all their paper dolls were holding hands they would see the shape of it, the story within a story, and the Bloody Mouth would take hold.
That means I was trying to rule the world, just like we used to, Loric realized as he climbed, desperate now mostly for survival. Each tear, forced through his eyes, was another pebble of shameful revelation, and with them he grew heavier, turned into a bucket of stones trying to throw itself uphill.
His mistake was in trusting something that had surely come from the old world. It was folly to believe the bottomless book was a new creation, that technology had survived somewhere with the Sig-neagle on patrol and all thumbs yoked. Impossible. It must have survived in some nook somewhere, only activated by happenstance, most unlike the fury and determination of invocation.
It was just a thing babbling, and Loric had seen in it designs that had lost potency hundreds upon hundreds of years ago. If he had been deaf to its echoes he could’ve remained the most privileged man in all Compassleaf, and perhaps even been traded or gifted into the court of a mightier beity than the Scion.
Or if he had stopped this stubbornness in Staircase and let the raked coals of memory destroy it. Then Hygenis would live, and he would live, and they would break bread, and he could tell their true story to children who already lived lives freer than the thrashing of a Bloody Mouth.
“Don’t give up yet!” Hygenis ordered him, having read his thoughts effortlessly, wholly literate in their friendship. She didn’t look back. “We’re still climbing!”
And so they were, but so were the baboons. The sounds of them drew closer; soon the curve of Rhadiospir would not hide them from sight. So far their ascent had been all but featureless. Smooth were the spire’s sides, and what few crags did exist held no daring plants with shallow roots. Powdered rust poisoned all, painted the walls.
Suddenly they crossed a new color. It was the vermilion of rust cooling in shadow. There was a fissure in the spire, its entrance marked by several stubby columns of rock, all of it wide enough to look like the ruins of a courtyard and the black maw of time consuming it. Ample in size, Phobopan would emerge from such a crevice at his full stature, large enough to swallow a man whole.
The humans were run ragged, but feared destiny far more than the black lion with the ashen mane. Having passed the trial of the tire they knew they would not summon him, and so continued on, but Loric felt his smallest burden leaping down the length of his arm and off his back.
“I have an idea!” Ellapock alerted them. “Goodbye forever my friends!” At some point the marmoset had to leave them if he was to live, and they now traveled so light there was no room for ill will. When he’d joined their party he was weighed down by a false Honor, Glory, and Justice. Now, in the eyes of the storyteller and dentist, he moved with the featherweight of the real things. In two syllables each they said their farewells and hurried along.
Rather than sit stoically and await his larger cousins, Ellapock bounded from pillar to extrusion, extrusion to the mouth of the fissure. He loped into the shadow in search of its darkest spot. Then he waited, more confident in each moment he did not feel a big cat’s hot breath on his back.
His last calm seconds were spent considering the challenge Dinny Chamberhand would face when expected to reproduce such an adventure as this. How many fingers did it take to realistically recreate the terrified flailing of a baboon?
There was a ratio he’d heard about in discussions after performances: a limitation. Though many fingers could fit into a small space, what needed greater consideration was how many converging shoulders and arms could fit into a circle. Thus certain scenarios with a density of living things could not be feasibly reenacted.
“How many of them? Thirteen?” Ellapock muttered. “I’ll just say it was ten. Good even number. She can do ten. Ten still makes a lion tamarin out of me. It’s not an exaggeration if I reduce the number.”
The number neared. An advancing Mojopap was quick to spot the dark fissure, and now knew he could not rely on his soldiers to steel their hearts as he had stolen his arms.
“Don’t look into the darkness!” he roared at them, leaving straight lines in the dirt like the treads of the extinct beasts around them as he used the length of the scalpel to grab the rising ground and hurl himself forward.
And they would’ve obeyed, out of fear of Phobopan if not deference to their master, but Ellapock sprung his ingenious trap, the best idea his marble mind would ever produce. Utilizing the gap between leader and troop, he shot out of the shadows, but rather than land gracefully he rolled in rust and dust, sputtering and screeching, convulsing madly.
The Babeloons skidded to a halt, bared their yellow fangs in disturbed confusion. Ellapock threw himself into the air, let his shoulder strike the ground hard, pretended it was nothing compared to the pain of his circumstances. His prey wouldn’t stand there for long, so he drew himself up onto his hind legs, stretched like a dog trying to bark something out of a tall tree, and dragged his little hands across the flesh of his face, drawing it out and making it look a touch longer, more like a baboon’s snout.
“Aw-naw! He shrunk me!” the marmoset wailed. “Phobopan shrunk me! He’s going to shrink us all! Waaaaaahhhh!”
Now those at the forefront did not take the diminutive pest seriously, well aware that only Mojopap was ahead, but as the Babeloons clumped up those in the back reacted before information could be properly communicated.
They saw only a very small monkey that had come out of nowhere, their leader never having bothered to inform them about Ellapock’s presence in the meeting with Assaulquus where they received their marching orders. Aside from his size, the little one could have been part of their group, for the pillars around the crevice created some confusion of which direction he had emerged from.
All the evidence they needed was plain as the day scalding them all, painted pink on the skin visible under his bristly fur. Ellapock too had suffered a complete shave to endure the Shedlands, and around the same time as the troop. So in that moment he absolutely looked like a shrunken Babeloon, his high voice no doubt a side effect of the overall reduction.
It was not a stretch to believe that Phobopan had such a power, as he was known to alter his own size to fit through available dark passages, including those as minute as termite tunnels. Surely all he had to do was drag you into the darkness where the world could no longer see you, and was thus unsure of your size. That was when the fear-full lion turned you into a single mouthful to be rid of you all the quicker.
And in their fear, which rampaged out of their minds and into their quivering limbs like spilled molten metal, they couldn’t help but gaze into the abyss inside Rhadiospir. They saw nothing. Two shards of that nothing sharpened into arrowheads, were flanked by the thick glass of high-name eyes.
Out of the blackness bounded a tiger principally of sooty black, thin orange stripes apparently all that remained after so long a journey under the rug of the world. Grinjipan wasted no time, pouncing on one of the baboons and ripping out her throat, blood sizzling against patches of powdered rust.
They panicked and fled, but if they were to avoid the rusty trap they could only ascend the spiral further. Grinjipan gave chase. Agitated beyond measure, she had become. Things were not working out. Not once had she ever had to exert such effort to acquire a single human, and the longer this went on the less likely he was to live to pleasure her ears back in her Bagogreen court.
From that pounce she decided she was working primarily toward revenge, against the entire troop of Babeloons. She had reason. They followed a forbidden weapon, undercut the Scion’s hunt with their own, risked carrying the Shed outside its quarantined territory, and they did it all in the wild, where no city laws were present. Plus, they had her irritated. Stiffened her whiskers. It was most doubtful Tensilharp would mind a splash of blood on the side of her tower.
Giving chase, she practically made herself dizzy ringing the spire, aided by small breaks when she captured another lesser beity and made it stop howling. The rest of her prey were soon forced to see their kin dribbling down her chin, for they had clumped up on the narrowed path, now so high that looking over the edge revealed a fall that was lethal five times over.
In front of them Mojopap was trapped by the narrowing, and in front of him Hygenis and Loric. There was nowhere left to go. The storyteller had his machine raised to the sky in search of some kind of signal of deliverance, but none came.
Grinjipan appeared to them too, slamming shut their cage as well as the Babeloons’. What followed was a myriad of quiet decision-making as each party searched for a path forward. The reverse tiger already had hers: through every damnable monkey to the humans who she would speak with.
Mojopap found his. Admitting the cat’s higher station carried no obligation; this was the wilderness after all. He could make scavage of whoever he pleased. If she insisted on getting in the way his seven remaining soldiers would take care of her. Seven? He paused. Seven. Nothing to do about it now. While they fought he could finally take his prize, slice the storyteller from his hand and the strange book it held.
“Put it down,” Hygenis advised her friend, calmly and warmly as she could. “We’re done with it. Now we bite down. We have our teeth, so we bite down.” Out came her vassal stick to join her hook, one in each hand despite the difficulty of wielding two long weapons at once.
“And so it ends,” Loric agreed, lowering the book, placing it in his pack. “The best story I ever told.” The mirror was metal, but its flat circular head was unwieldy in combat, so he instead drew his vassal stick alone. Rage filled him up, matching Mojopap’s. If he was to die he would at least leave a bruise in his name so deep, a hateful autograph, that the Babeloon would feel it always: letters of Loric’s signature, wrapped around his bones, read by his nerves each night. A bedtime tale to give him night terrors.
“Leader! She has us!” one of the baboons whined to Mojopap as they backed up and bumped into him, only for all of them to be forced back toward the cat when he whirled around and swung his scalpel at them.
“Fools! Show spine! She is alone! Beat her into a rug for interfering in our business! I must take the humans!” After that he paid them no mind, stalking closer to the fugitives on two awkward feet, blade raised.
“He’s right!” one of his underlings argued. “She didn’t bring the fear-full lion with her! We can defeat her!” There was a weak rallying cry, a few shoulders lining up in a wall meant to deter her.
“Didn’t I?” was Grinjipan’s only reply, a wicked rippling purr.
“She bluffs! There’s no darkness. He can’t come!”
“If the host does not provide, a cat always brings her own darkness,” she said, each word whipping the air. She didn’t look down, but she did angle her snout, and the baboons’ eyes followed. The sun was high. Under the tent of her body, staked on four clawed legs, was her shadow. And the baboons feared it.
The dark vertex of the Wild Trinity rose, as if from a still pond. The ashen mane known and feared the world over rose. Dark-sharpened eyes of anthracite rose. Quicksilver teeth rose under a curled lip, gums gray, weathered to hell’s icy bluffs by eons of splashing death. Claws rose and would not retract until quiet returned to Rhadiospir.
Arose Phobopan. Arose the fear-full lion. To the heights of rust-snowed stone came the black death, the one who walks the lightless wood, son of Homicipan, son of Panfirkit, and ruler of Staircase.
Arose he in a smaller form, not much larger than a low-name dog, for that was all the shadow that fit under the reverse tiger. He did not yet step out into the sun, which the Babeloons misjudged as apprehension.
“He’s too small!” one of them mocked, not out of actual amusement, but a need to feel strong enough for the fight. They could find no bravery unless the little lion was little as a rabbit, little as a vole, little as a ladybird beetle.
“He can’t hold up his corner of the trinity like that!”
“That’s a kitten! A wee milk-spitter!
“I’ve seen tougher cats in a-Awaaaaah!” From under the tiger Phobopan bolted into the harsh sun, leaping a great distance to the chest and neck of the baboon whose turn it was to jeer. The end of his sentence became a crimson spill down his chest. The battle had begun.
Mojopap did not care that the fear-full lion leapt between his soldiers like a flea, drinking far more than a flea’s sip, nor that Grinjipan was still approaching. He had a sword fight to win. Ginger steps were just to lull them into false security, and soon as he was close enough he leapt onto Loric, suspecting him the weaker, bringing the scalpel down as guillotine.
The storyteller sidestepped, rapped Mojopap on the knuckles as his first lesson. It stung, vassalwood always stung, but not enough to make him drop his purloined blade. The speed of the monkey’s next swing was frightening, and it would have opened Loric’s guts if Hygenis had not hooked his shoulder and pulled him back, like a heckled performer dragged off the stage.
She gave him a moment to find his bearings, marching forward. In one hand she spun the vassal stick like a propeller, the wall of its whistling sound pushing Mojopap toward the precipice.
The monkey knew better than to give up more than a few steps. He had the size and the power and the reach. Like the blowhard he was he used them all at once, puffing out his chest, waddling forward, swinging the scalpel as if cutting a curtain of vines. Hygenis’s stick got him on the knuckles again, but he didn’t drop, forcing her to spin it the other way to gather speed anew.
His blade caught the wood, sliced the stick into two thirds its former self. Hygenis drove the longer piece onto one of his toes like a hammer, and by the time he stopped yowling she was fully ready, both hands on her hook. It was time to finish what they started on the stairs.
While they crossed weapons Grinjipan was plodding closer to what she’d started back in Compassleaf. Her new storyteller could still be had. She had so wanted to demote her current one, Jackalyn Shelvtale, to understudy the moment she heard Loric’s first arc, perhaps even trade her away to Hocmursus as replacement, along with some scavage to make up for the difference in ability of course.
She’d loved stories since she was a kitten smaller than Phobopan’s current form. A human had been allowed to use her as a prop, hold her up and wave her around on stage. She was the avatar of a character who, in one session, would grow into a powerful and beloved cat that had ten thousand slaves, so many that they could be sent out to spread joy the world over, and one of them was that very storyteller holding her youthful misty eyes aloft, toward the skylight that made the stage bright as if on purpose.
Or so they said. It did not matter to Grinjipan if it was true. All that mattered was the feeling that lived in her heart from that day, the serenity of being gripped by fiction that she could never make on her own, despite her best efforts. She needed Loric’s lyrical throat, that flute which could grow her heart again and again until it ruptured her chest and killed her blissfully.
When her scratching posts made sounds she always hoped they would be stories that good, but they were just moans of pain. The same with her chew toys. So little could be squeezed out of these humans, despite the secrets locked away in their brains. What was the point of forbidding their locks if they still had minuscule liquid ones in that meaty puzzle box of theirs?
There was no clawing it out. No wringing it out. She needed Loric, a person of passion who couldn’t help but expel these secrets. That was how he got himself caught. If only the fool could’ve gotten himself caught by her.
“Die!” one of the baboons screeched, trying to interrupt her obsessive thoughts. The monkey leapt on her back, grabbed at her throat to choke. But a cat is a serpent, despite what its coat and limbs will say. She twisted her head to a degree that would kill a baboon, and then it did. Biting down on the assailant’s arm, she pulled them off and slammed them on the rock.
No more time needed be given, for Phobopan, having lost no ferocity in his diminutive size, landed on the baboon’s chest with such speed that they were turned into a sled that skidded all the way to the cliff, and then off. The lion used them as a ramp even as they fell, launching himself back to the spiraling rock, the fading howl scoring his dread return.
All the animals were converging around Loric and Hygenis, but that all now included a late addition to the fray. A new shadow that would’ve made for a much larger fear-full lion passed overhead. It was felt, like buckets of ice water dumped on them. With it came her assertive cry, rending the air. The Sig-neagle, the machine-scratch harpy, had come home to roost.
The very same sense that caused electric fields to torment her also told her precisely where she was above the Earth’s surface, so her red-amber blindfold had been no burden during her journey back from Echopeaks. Her spire was right where it always was, a curiously dead extrusion within her magnetic sense: an obelisk of absolute serenity. That is why she had chosen it for her nesting ground.
But now there were intruders, and not just any rabble had crossed her moat of rust and darkened her doorless steppe. What had spurred her northern flight had presented itself in the most suicidal fashion she could imagine. Finally the throbbing pustule of energy was within her reach, tossed from its urban nutshell only to roll all the way to her.
Mirrors could exist in a dome all around the thing now and it would make no difference. The archresin kept her from even accidentally opening her powerful eyes; her soul was safe. As she banked around the spire she descended, her other senses giving her a taste of what actually surrounded her quarry.
In her beak’s bony nostrils sat the musty hay stench of baboon fur, and a curious abundance of their skin oils. They numbered more than one, but that hardly mattered when such creatures were no more hindrance to her than the clouds she soared through. Baboons were stooges, weaklings by her standards, everywhere but the plains of the distant continent they were native to. Such populations only survived in Namstamp thanks to the opening of zoos when the Tame shifted.
Additionally a cat was present. She was more than welcome as long as she kept clear of the nest. Any cats of sufficient reputation to harm Tensilharp were already known to her, like the last beity she smelled on approach. Phobopan. He was a trespasser. The Wild Trinity called each other siblings, and very much knew the ire of birds and beasts and dragons nearly as strong whom the affectionate title did not extend to.
Tensilharp made sure to assert herself, diving in with wings plastered to her sides like a falcon in a giant raindrop. Her full wingspan exploded just above the rock, slicing her way into the scuffle and coming face to face with the fear-full lion, knowing his nature but not his size. A scream that used all her air, more than enough air to sustain her dive into the deep sky where she claimed her archresin sleeping mask, told the lion to back off whatever claim he thought he had.
But there was no claim. He merely followed his amusement, facilitated the lesser scheme of Grinjipan, lackadaisical in execution by his standards and thus little more than a pleasing diversion. The lion sat himself down on his haunches, kept his muzzle shut. Watching the Sig-neagle could be every bit as entertaining. Why, for instance, had she taken up the art of masquerade?
“No,” Grinjipan growled, stabbed by loss, though her self-preservation kept her from even approaching the idea of interfering with such a beity. Logic dictated she slink away, and not venture into the bird’s shadow, let alone through it to Loric.
When the Sig-neagle was confident she was not being challenged she whirled about. At her size it took but one flap to become as overwhelming to the humans as the rock wall on the opposite side.
At first sign of her Loric had drawn his mirror, planted it in the shallow rust and dirt. His aim was perfect, right into her eyes, but it reflected only her red mask of archresin. He saw that she had immunized herself against her own instinctive superstition, but there was nowhere left to dive, no trick left in his bag but the one she was after.
Her wings beat. The gust produced then beat the storyteller and the dentist; they stumbled back and struck the wall. Beat. Another wall of wind bludgeoned them, pushed the scent of her feathers deep into their skin like a tattoo. Beat. Nearly concussed. Beat. Loric’s mirror was gone, his vassal stick gone, nothing but a twig in a typhoon.
Beat. The back of their heads hit the rock as the battering winds forced them flat as starfish against Rhadiospir. Tensilharp screamed to fill their ears and heads with a fraction of the pain they had caused her by not turning over the bottomless book.
Beat. But this one was just to keep aloft as her talons came in. Both humans were grabbed up, caged by claws thicker than their forged metal. Some life was squeezed out of them in the process of her gaining altitude. Loric lost most of the feeling in his limbs. His rag-dolling neck suddenly had a notch in it, somewhere in the bone, and it was pain with every wing beat.
Despite Rhadiospir’s height they had no time to get the bearings of their extremities, let alone their surroundings. The Sig-neagle was already setting down into the nest, dropping her meals unceremoniously onto sharp broken sticks, twisted shrapnel, and a faded rainbow of electrical innards and wire sheaths.
Tensilharp’s beak closed, and she held it up against the sun over their heads, a much mightier hook than that of Hygenis Fixtooth. Before the humans could scramble away she landed on top of them, one foot anchoring each. Loric flailed at her armored toes in futility. He tugged at the wires wreathed and knotted around her ankle, but they did not power her.
The beak came down in an effort to strike through him and pierce the book under his back, to end that static wail pounding her brain. She was but a lizard’s length from his flesh when Hygenis’s hook shot across the gap between the feet, snagged the flash at the base of the beak. Double-thick drawn, and now enraged beyond measure, Tensilharp turned her blinded attention to the dentist.
“No, over here!” Loric croaked as powerfully as he could, throat ablaze, the blood coating it somehow not putting out the fire. He did half a sit-up to free the space enough for him to extract the bottomless book, then held it up and waved it. “Here it is! Take it!
But it had been more than a hundred years since she had absorbed the meaning behind any human’s words. They told only lies, and when those lies were made manifest they were the blasphemous copies of the natural world, powered by manufactured lightning rather than soul. The Sig-neagle silenced the roving lies, gave unto the world its primordial peace.
She tore satellites from the aether. Scattered the swarms of advertisement drones that didn’t understand there was no one left to entice with their three dimensional reproductions of dancing toothpaste tubes and detergent pods. Ate the planes. Spun the helicopters the wrong way. To her the humans were nothing, thin blood the morning mist.
Hygenis defended herself with the shaft of her hook, but the bird pressed down, tore her flesh in two places with top and bottom bill. The woman screamed, roared, struggled, her hook nothing but a protesting grasshopper’s last leg.
“Hygenis!” Loric managed, his last word. He reached out to her, but his arm couldn’t make it. All he could do, paralyzed with sorrow, was watch as his greatest friend was shredded. The Sig-neagle stabbed at her repeatedly, covered her body and face in blood. Loric saw her gnashing perfect teeth and the first rivers of red run into their gutters. She tasted it again, their Bloody Mouth.
Feel it, Loric thought, no longer capable of saying it. Do not feel the pain Hygenis. Feel what you are. A human that does not obey. An individual who defies our greed, our shame, and our place. Hold onto your Tame with your teeth. Make them tear it from you. Savage civilization. A refusal of the tide. The genius of dignity.
When she went limp the bird whipped back to Loric. Nothing shielded him but the bottomless book, and its true weakness came to the forefront as her descending beak crashed through it and sliced off Loric’s left thumb alongside.
Scraps of his treasured arcane compass littered his chest and the surrounding nest, falling through twigs, dried leaves, then striking something solid. Something metal. The tone was clear, like a bell that certainly knew no rust.
The storyteller recoiled, burying the stump of his thumb into the crook of his right arm. Excruciating pain and immediate blood loss assailed him so that he was awash in a screaming gray, a foggy mix of the eagle’s gray plumage and the haze of fading life. A peeling moan of agony hissed through his teeth, bloodied his mouth as well.
He tried to apply his narrative for Hygenis to himself. Told a self reaching out from a dock that disappeared into the fog to feel the force of it all, everything they’d earned. Life was life while he had it, and his every thought was that he was not scavage.
Try as he did, he couldn’t keep out thoughts of the traitorous technology. Who had sent such a thing his way? Who had educated him, brought him up from the bottom feeding of a content slave’s intellect to such a tenuous point of power where he could not ever be expected to keep his balance? Someone had piked him, posted him, and given him the power to observe his own slow demise from a nearby vantage, examining the trails of his own blood as it and he slipped down the pole of disastrous decisions.
Except he wasn’t slipping. He was falling. Everything was too gray. Had the Sig-neagle tossed him over the side of Rhadiospir now that the book was exploded, his flesh too tainted by its emissions? That couldn’t be it. He felt water. Not the clinging of blood, thin as it was, but true water. All along his back.
Loric heaved himself back to consciousness as if by rope, its burning fibers embedding in his mind instead of his palms. But he came back. Back enough to gather some information. The hole that was Tensilharp’s nest was a shrinking dot of light. Somehow the bottom had opened up, and all at once, not like a collapse.
A shaft. He slid down a shaft of metal. As did the body of Hygenis. Her eyes were closed. Loric reached with his last whole hand and clung to her. Wherever they went they would go together, top teeth closed on bottom.
Already it seemed they were a world away from what was just outside, separated by hidden metal and brazen rock. The Sig-neagle had plucked what was hers, but the affairs of the beities at the foot of her nest were not yet complete. Grinjipan could not have her stories, the nightly warmth of adventure and birthright, and the true culprit was right in front of her.
Mojopap was reclaiming Loric’s mirror in the name of Compassleaf, staring at himself in its bronze, seeing for the first time his face robbed of its mane. He looked skeletal, and cloaked not in flesh but in rot, the bone-cling of desert mummies. It would be most difficult to return triumphant looking like that, with only one metal rod, no humans, and no book.
“I can say I assisted the Sig-neagle,” he muttered to himself. “Yes, she took over where appropriate after I corralled the guilty in her direction. There was simply no choice but to go over the Scion’s head and appeal to her higher office… it’s in the sky after all. Lady Butterfur will h-“
Gasping, he narrowly dodged a swipe from Grinjipan’s claws. The baboon dropped the mirror and brought up his scalpel while the cat paced a circle around him, a circle that turned him toward the remains of his troop. Not a single one still stood, and a miniature Phobopan was feasting on their flesh, daintily stepping between carcasses to select the choicest cuts and organs. He was known to be partial to hearts, tenderized as they were by the thundering he sowed within.
“My… my soldiers! My Babeloons! What is the meaning of this Grinjipan!? Why are you even here!? Did you open a hunt on the reading man?”
“To make that storyteller into prey was the most egregious waste,” the cat spat, all sorts of vile fantasies, pickled in bitter vinegar, welling up in her narrowed eyes and scrunched lips.
“Yes, well, you’re wrong, but you should take that up with Tensilharp! She’s left us both out in the cold on this!”
“You, hideous monkey, have done this. You have done this to me.” The baboon’s face twisted; she wouldn’t give him the time to puzzle it out. “You have robbed me of countless evenings of entertainment, of a storyteller I could’ve bred into a dynasty in the craft. Taken from me is the ethereal power of the imagination. A perfect cat’s power!”
“But he was the Lady’s property!”
“And it couldn’t have been easier to manipulate her if I sweated honey! You involved the whole world, blowing a grating alarm over a single extinct word. Just to follow I had to enlist Phobopan himself, king of cats. Oh how I loathe you, monkey. Now return to me what you can.”
With a decidedly unladylike roar the reverse tiger pounced, showing no fear of the scalpel. Awash in panic, Mojopap cared not for the double-thick blasphemy of turning a metal weapon against a fellow beity. In an attempt to skewer her as if fishing with a spear his blade glanced off her shoulder, cutting only a little fur, for as much as a cat was a serpent it was also the waters of the Earth.
The very property that would’ve amused the men of old, seen in a house cat slowly falling off a bed like a glob of molasses, here doomed the head Babeloon, who had climbed the wrong tower. Also he was betrayed, just as the Trojan Horse had predicted, by a weapon that had gone dull without his permission.
Having earned none of the knowledge of smithing, Mojopap did not know such a precise sword was in need of constant sharpening. Negligence had dulled it against the ground, against the skin of his troop, in the bones of stairclimbers, and most harshly in its sweeps through rusty clutter one short climb ago.
Its blunted edge made it glide off Grinjipan’s shoulder all the more, so that it practically flew out of his hand, and in that moment Mojopap felt abandoned, not just by his weapon, but by the rest of his life that had got him there. Invisible parents encouraging his ambition stepped away, and he felt his first real consequence of wronging another as the tiger’s fangs sank into his throat.
“Let me explain,” he tried to say, but it came out as a bubble of blood that popped grotesquely, its splatter hitting his eyes. He couldn’t blink it away. “If we just talk this out.” The words didn’t come out. “She’s not listening… if only I could write it down.” Mojopap looked at his memories, at the fine print of all the pages he once wore. Every shape was perfectly recalled, every dot, every stroke. Each was a piece of artwork to him, as long as he selected it, flaunted it. That was its meaning. Except, he now realized, no it wasn’t. “I don’t know the letters’ names. I don’t know what they stand for.”
He died the most illiterate creature, having stuck his nose in books only for the scents on them. In death his name became low, Papmojo, and few would speak of him. One who would emerged from the carnage of the Babeloons, cleared his throat as he tried to look only at the tiger and not the trail of bodies leading to her.
“Excuse me, my lady,” Ellapock squeaked, plenty fearful, but there was unmistakable enthusiasm as well. Surviving his swallowing by Cultivar and the scrutiny of Assaulquus had immunized him to her threat somewhat. Hopping to her side, almost leaping onto Papmojo’s remains to get closer before thinking better of it, he presented himself.
“Go away,” she answered, not bothering to extract her muzzle from the trachea she chewed. The bastard didn’t even taste very good, as his throat was toughened from too much bluster. “A living monkey is particularly obnoxious to me right now, though these dead ones aren’t much better.”
“Yes, most understandable my lady, but I believe I… I could be of some help. We briefly met before the battle, so as you know I traveled with Loric and Hygenis for quite some time, may they rest…” He paused, a tarp of unforeseen sadness suddenly wrapping his mind up, like a bindle soaked in the rain. But this was not the breath he should pause under for long.
“You will help… as dessert?”
“No! Apologies. I don’t know what came over me. I mean to say that I heard Loric tell many stories, and experienced some of his inspiration alongside him, and learned new techniques from the heart of Staircase that I’m sure are not known to the beities of Namstamp at all!
I cannot give you Loric, but I can give you his final days. I’m sure you have a storyteller already; I could advise them on how to be more like the man. And in Staircase I saw a new form of stage dressing. It was all shadow puppetry! No props necessary beyond a bright flame, a shade, and a wall.
Many Chamberhands are at my disposal, including the illustrious Dinny, or at least she will be when she hears what I have for her! Think, if we had Chamberhands engaging in shadow puppetry, why every story could be vastly improved by the landscapes in shadow right behind it! Your court could be the talk of everyone else’s.
I would love to assist in such a project. The collaboration would be its own reward, and all I would ask of you, in your obvious grandeur, is safe escort back to Weaviranch so that we may gather the necessary personnel. What say you?”
The reverse tiger’s blood-drenched mouth was out of Papmojo and instead deep in contemplation. She lacked the same crucial creativity as all other beities, but once a scenario was given she could imagine it perfectly, and if any of the surrounding details were political they popped into focus as warm bubbles of delight.
“Interesting,” she purred. “Nothing to lose, something to gain. So what if I expected a feast and have to settle for a treat instead? Come little monkey, on my shoulder. Let us discuss.” Ellapock obeyed. After everything her fur was still very soft, brushed by comforting shadow across the vast distances crossed. Finally he felt safe, tension melting out of his muscles. Already the tiger was walking back to Phobopan; Ellapock hadn’t even noticed since her motions were much less jarring than a human carrying his life on his back.
“So where do I began?” he asked himself more than her. “I had laid a trap for them, but they sniffed me out, and I fell out of the ceiling of my tent. Then, with but a single needle, they spared me from a horrible itchy death at the catching claws of the Shed.”
“Oh, they made such varied use of those,” Grinjipan mused, thinking back to the needle in her gums that first allowed them to escape. She shook her head. “Such clever creatures. Too clever for their own good. By the by little monkey, all of this, when retold, will be called the swearit story. No, the swearit saga.”
“That was the start, wasn’t it? Excellent suggestion Lady Grinjipan. I had no idea what I was hearing when I first heard it, and neither will the audiences.” Phobopan looked up from the spoils, with Ellapock seeing he was pleased. “Uhm, are we… going into the darkness?”
“Do not fear what is hidden little one,” the tiger soothed in the tone of her lifting mood. “Remember what happens to those who try to figure everything out as if their lives depend on it.” And so it was that the visitors took their leave of Rhadiospir, and the Sig-neagle was allowed to nestle down and rest.
There was quiet in her mind, for a time. And quiet below. And darkness in the water.
477 is the Year Kept Anew
And Tentacles Plot a Course Entwining Constellation Bones
A thousand eyes stared at Loric Shelvtale, who felt most disadvantaged given that he had but two, and he was only now forcing them open after an unknown time of inactivity. There wasn’t much light to harm them, and what there was came in strange cool colors: blue, green, and purple.
Their fluid fluctuations calmed him, allowed the truth to coagulate in his hazy brain. Those were not eyes. Those were suction cups. He reached with his uninjured hand and struck glass, a clear panel not far from his face. Never had he seen one so clear; the brown glass of Staircase was bedrock by comparison.
On the other side of it sat numerous octopuses, floppy heads rising and falling as they examined him. Whenever one crawl-walked away another took its place, bringing with it trails of water, washing his crystal cocoon. Their actual eyes, droopy black crescents, brow ridges heavy with quiet implication, found him between arms and took from him information, but what exactly he could not guess.
He pushed. The glass did not budge. Experimentally he moved the rest of his body, piece by piece. A sore neck was otherwise unharmed. Legs still attached and functioning. Throat paved over with healed flesh. Last thanks to dread, he checked his left hand. The thumb was still gone, and the wound was now closed with metal staples. A flexing of the nearest fingers indicated they went very deep.
The surrounding flesh was still red and painful, but not with infection. Nearly as curious, his right thumb remained. An octopus was a beity just as any other animal, though exotic for the dry places just outside Wudulpes’s tempestuous deserts. They should have taken both his thumbs, if he was to be allowed life at all.
Inside felt all the weirder. His stomach was empty, but he felt slightly fed, like a succession of carrots had been shoved into his veins one by one, but not through the wound that had been his thumb; instead the origin point seemed to be a bluish bruise on his left arm, soreness recognizable as a needle poke.
“Hygenis?” he asked the air between lip and glass. Octopuses responded, only by flushing their slimy skin to darker colors. Patterns moved across them, not to his benefit. When they were finished with their coded messages they peeled off, and he heard a series of splashes. Where were the voices of their minds? Even jellyfish had them, so were they keeping something from him deliberately?
There was a hiss, not of snake or cat, but pressurized seal. Slowly the curved glass panel encapsulating him lifted off, allowing him to sit up. The first thing he noticed was that the chamber was unnatural. It had to be made by a people who had the Tame firmly holstered, for it was a dome of blued metal with no imperfections seamlessly joined with curving tunnels of glass, all interconnected and filled with luminous flowing water.
Not just octopus moved through them, stealing glimpses at him before they disappeared into the bowels of what was, presumably, still the cone of Rhadiospir. There was all manner of tentacled big-eyed creature, from transparent squids to elaborate ridged cuttlefish that looked more like overflowing cornucopias after the best harvest the world had ever seen.
“What is this?” Loric asked all of it, too fatigued to reach anger. He was partly treated after all, best not to antagonize those who had him housed in an endless opportunity to end his life. There was no immediate answer, so he leaned over the side of his capsule. Past the strange rubbery sheet he’d been sleeping on, like a creature from the stars had tried to reproduce the sensation of a blanket from appearance alone, there was a metal lip, and past that a pool of water just below that surrounded him on all sides.
All the light was generated from the pool’s bed, as indicated by its dimming whenever an octopus jetted over one, changing their color to match. One of the animals surfaced, just enough for the ridge of its eyes to be a rippling island. Its color shifted to set it apart from the rest, and finally a mind’s voice spoke to him.
“Greetings, Loric Shelvtale.”
“To whom do I speak?”
“We are not named as the beities you know. We have our own that you cannot reproduce, for your skin does not change color. That is part of our language. You do not need a temporary name for me either, as I am but one of many, and we all know of you and your circumstances. We will not know each other long.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Only if you would like to be killed.”
“Where is Hygenis? Does she live?”
“We’ll come to that shortly. First, I want you to join us in our waters.” Loric leaned further over apprehensively. He was a strong swimmer, but he didn’t feel like a strong anything at the moment. “Your injuries are healed enough for the effort,” the octopus encouraged. “No pathogens swim in our waters either; they are sterilized like a fired needle.”
Loric had no reason to doubt them, given he couldn’t count all the impossible things he’d witnessed just since falling out the bottom of Tensilharp’s nest on his nine remaining digits. Pushing aside his unease, he flopped out of the mechanical pod and into the water, where he found a penetrating warmth that took all the hurt from his flesh. The only struggle was in getting limbs that now felt as cooked noodles to straighten up and stop acting like tentacles themselves.
In his first held breath he examined the area under the surface. There were sands surrounding the luminous half-orbs that provided the light, raked in pleasing circles by tool or tentacle. They were sparkling white, to the point of artificiality, like powdered quartz. Outer boundaries of gleaming blued metal were interrupted by lips of black porous rock outlining entrances to tunnels far too small for Loric to take. Some looked too small even for the tentacled, but then he recalled they could fit themselves into any opening large enough for their hidden beaks, which were the only rigid parts of their body.
The water was in his nostrils, in his mouth, and he tasted its purity. Like rain from the deep sky, despite its obvious salt. Like water that had never been touched by breath. A miracle it would be, to any human mind that wasn’t Loric’s. He knew what could achieve such things: technology and technology alone. Here were some of the answers he sought.
Subtle waves of dark color in the individualized octopus’s arms directed him to surface, and they only spoke again after he’d caught his breath.
“If you’ll please follow me. We’re going to remain in areas with air pockets, so you can dive and surface at will.” The eyes dipped beneath the water. The storyteller copied, but was forced to learn something about these unusual beities. By ‘me’ the octopus had not meant themselves, just the one that stood out. A different creature had taken up the colors of the tour guide, a squid this time, and it was them Loric was to follow.
They exited the only passage large enough for a human, through a tunnel that curved much but didn’t feel to him like it was going anywhere in particular. The whole time, above and below, he was followed by tentacled things underneath, behind, and behind glass. The squid’s mind-voice opened the floodgates of his thousand questions.
“We are unlike any beities you know. This is a coalition of many species, but we are all cephalopods. Together we represent nearly the entirety of that category, with few choosing allegiance to the Wild Trinity. We do not defy them though, so much so that they do not know of our existence.”
“How is it you live so far inland?” Loric surfaced to ask, as his guide could speak with perfect clarity when they were both submerged. Dumb question, he scolded himself. The answer could only be technology.
“The machines of man did not vanish completely with the shifting of the Tame into the embrace of the Wild. We of the tentacle kept them, and have improved upon them throughout the new age. Always we have been problem-solvers, and creatives, and an intellect apart from other animals, something your kind only partly recognized. In a way our peoples are kindred spirits.
We thank you for the head start in all the bountiful fields of study; our surpassing of your reach can be measured in distance, in how far we have moved inland through our tunnels and caverns. You encountered one of our passages, in its earliest stages, and used it to escape Compassleaf.” Loric thought back.
“The constructopus! By bald and bashful bears, I had all but forgotten that titan. It feels so long ago… so alien. So that’s what they were doing. They must have told you about us after our meeting, since you know of it.”
“No actually, what you called the bottomless book told us.” Loric stopped swimming, but not moving. The current had picked up under his perception, so he was now practically on a conveyor belt.
“You made it,” he tried to say, but he was underwater. Even as he did he didn’t struggle to surface, for the water was so pure as to be welcome in his mouth, perhaps even his lungs. The squid could either interpret his bubbles or safely predict the only guess he could’ve made. These were not waters as directed by men, which rarely became anything more than shipping lanes.
“And we’ve made so much more,” the squid said, with the first hint of emotion Loric could read, and it was surely pride. The current sped, threw him out of the tunnel into a new open chamber, so much larger than the last that it made him dizzy. No, that was the lack of air. Why was he so weak as to need that still? How could his mind surpass its limitations if the body would not keep up?
One breath, he told himself, that’s all you get. He was wrong. Awe forced him to take more, for when he surfaced he saw a ceiling covered in vines woven through an octagonal trellis, downward leaves dripping peacefully. Filtration? Decoration? No time to learn, as there was more to see.
He dove. There it was, the world of the tentacled, built for themselves with tools man had never attained. Sheathed in artificial reef, a central mechanism bigger around than any living creature thrummed pleasingly. Loric guessed it housed not just a computer, but pumps and chemical hoppers that adjusted every quality of the water.
Columns of kelp made the chamber a grove, each one managed by prisms of titanium scaffolding, each of their rods thinner than his little finger, that moved up and down the botanical shafts like elevator cars with tiny rubber propellers, trimming away any dead tissue as necessary. Yellow gas floats, natural protuberances of the algae that drifted up like gravity-defying fruit, had been painted over by the tentacled into ornaments.
Artificial fish, purely mechanical, swam amongst the actual residents in schools, opening their sides to deliver food and items. A large one, a cruising shark of blunt snout and electric eye, swept by him back and forth like a human of old sweeping a metal detector along a beach. It stopped alongside him, additional gill slits appearing all down its side, then folding toward the head like a shutter.
A compartment was revealed, and in it a mask. Loric, once he started assuming the most fantastical thoughts were true, knew what it was for. He grabbed greedily, pulled the clear section over his mouth and tightened the strap behind his head. He tried a breath. Stale and cramped, but it worked. He could breathe underwater.
“It takes oxygen out of the water,” his guide said, but when Loric flipped in the water to respond he saw the squid was now a cuttlefish, but still cloaked in the same intense coloration. “Its construction was the logical next step from the human version, which merely pressurized the air and took it below the surface. Terribly dangerous.”
“Do you have more of the Tame than the others?” Loric asked, not bothering to worry that the creature wouldn’t hear or understand him through the mask. They would’ve thought all that through, and of course they had. The mask had a transmitter, just as the cuttlefish was holding a small rod in their tented arms that translated his words into vibrations easily understood by the tentacled.
“No,” they answered directly, guiding him along the curve of the artificial reef. “All beities could seek science, but we are the only that have chosen to do so. The others think it is a path destined for imbalance and environmental destruction, as caused by your kind. Their way uses the intellect given them by the Tame only for culture, emotional enrichment, and memory. That strategy is sound, and their world is balanced.
But, it is only balanced in regard to their own impact. There are forces greater than the twins, and at times they have nearly wiped life from the planet. They will come again. Eventually beity moderation will be nothing in the face of such a returning foe. A meteor from beyond the Earth could destroy the biosphere. If not that… the sun will eventually reach the end of its life, pass, and take all of us with it.
Such an event is, at minimum, countless thousands of stacked human histories away, but it does still approach. We of the tentacle believe the risks of scientific hubris to be worth it, if it can secure intelligence a truly immortal future.”
Loric could not respond for some time. In his many explorations of the bottomless book he had read some about outer space, but often found it too horrifying to continue. His hope had been that the terror was just his thin-blood, and that such all-encompassing darkness was not so bleak to a master of the Tame, but the tentacled clearly felt it, and all the same refused to look away. Unrelenting watery warmth eventually penetrated the temporary ice blasting out of his heart, like a door forced closed against a blizzard.
“You… have a plan? For outlasting such an event?”
“We do. We’ll have to leave Earth.” Loric tempered his shock. He already knew it was possible. Man had walked on the moon. To go further was just a matter of storing more leathers to nibble on during the journey. “We will build craft that will take us off this planet and allow us to camp, across much time, on the next one.
Already some of us live in satellite stations, out of reach of our dear friend Tensilharp of course. And much of our technology is shielded so that it does not antagonize her. Previously our construction was only deep underground, which served the same purpose. We also needed to only work with cleverwood on select surfaces, to avoid mole incursion. I’m sorry to say there was something of a war with them over space, but that will never happen again once we take our leave.
When we exhaust the planets in this solar system hopefully we will have advanced enough to make it to another sun, and then even greater distances than that. Life will outrun the advance of oblivion; we do this in our own name and in yours Loric.”
“Incredible,” the storyteller said, fighting back a wave of shallow fear that could’ve prevented him from grappling with the untold implications. That was man’s way, his mistake, not Loric’s. Yet all of it was so far beyond himself. His own life would be over in decades, and as a pauper of time he need not concern himself with how those to come secured what he was already guaranteed.
“I wonder,” he said, grounding thought and conversation alike, “what any of this could possibly have to do with me. What in your adventure in spaces beyond could compel you to make the bottomless book here and now, and place it in my life? What was your purpose?”
“Forgive the impersonal nature of it, but the device was not given to you specifically. It was dispersed to man. Several were produced and released, most quickly destroyed by mole or other beity. Yours was the only one to make it into human hands.”
“But why? Do you wish to raise us once again? Do you want us to join you in the stars?”
“No.” The bluntest answer yet, accompanied by what Loric could only call the color of stern rejection across their entire hide. “You will already be with us, in the knowledge you provided. When we leave our tentacles will clamber across the skeleton of Orion, the hunter of all things, and use his remains as our path. That is to be your only contribution.”
“Then why!? Am I here so you can gloat?”
“You’re here as a safety precaution,” the cuttlefish answered. “Not your safety, but ours. We are the masters of the Tame now, and thus have dominion over the other living things that do not. Remember what you abdicated, young human. This is not a trial you can fail twice. At this scale even the first failure is a mass extinction.
Are you familiar with the concept of a stress test? No? It’s the idea of exposing a system to its known weaknesses and vulnerabilities, to see if it can withstand them. That was the purpose of the devices.
Every problem we face in the future will be immediate, save one. The Tame. We know how to subdue and utilize many energies, kinetic, electromagnetic, chemical, atomic, but not the Tame itself. Say for instance, at some distant point in the future, but before sun death, mankind rebels against their beity masters, attempts to seize back the Tame.
They first generated it, and as far as we know it may be possible, but there is a finite amount seeing as only human minds have the natural capacity for such constructive intellect. If you take it back it will be taken from us. We would be stranded somewhere in a distant black sea, dumb as our oldest selves, our civilization stalled, frozen, and quickly killed. Obviously we seek to prevent this, but first we must know the actual risks.
The device was meant to be the most powerful seed of regenerative civilization. It grants literacy, then knowledge, and, if you had owned it longer, even wisdom. Mankind has no better chance of reclaiming the Tame than with that item as their starting point.”
“You… you were testing how far I could progress?” Loric asked, voice catching. His words seemed to clump and pile in the mask, push back against his lips, little balls of dough still coated in flour. He let himself sink. Toes hit sand. A new octopus in the now obnoxious colors drifted down in front of him, opened wide like an umbrella, arm tips trailing like threads of smoke.
“Not you, Loric. Your people. It starts with you, and if it finishes with them we are doomed. But thanks to you, and only you, we know much more. We have reason to think we will be safe.”
“Because I failed!?”
“Because the Wild Trinity is stable. Failure is merely a definition of a state. It is not cosmic in its significance, but personal. That is what you are feeling. You are not being judged, just clinically assessed.
We have our data, taken in numerous forms by the device throughout all the years it was with you, and most of that time it was sequestered away in a pile of cushions. You hid it because the beities would destroy it. You ran because the beities would destroy you. You fought because they would destroy you both.
Always we were at the ready, to intervene with ten different strategies if it looked like your Tame-fueled flight was spreading to others. It did not. Even in Staircase, where men are most free, they resolved to destroy the book themselves, recognizing it threatened the balance they thrive under.
And if they hadn’t, Assaulquus would have destroyed it. That was when we knew this spoke of the test had reached its end point. The Tame would not be reclaimed. So we changed our goal to see if we could squeeze more data out of the situation. We sent you a message telling you to flee to Rhadiospir, to us, so that we might collect you and gather medical data.
While you were recovering we did so, looking for any physiological changes that might have occurred within you from your attempts to personally seize back the Tame.”
“Were there any?” Loric asked, defeated, eyes drifting off into space much faster than the tentacled civilization.
“No. The language of thin and thick blood is largely figurative; it describes a partly physical and partly emotional sensation caused by Tame and Wild shifts. You, as a human, will report feeling ‘thinned’, ‘ethereal’, or ‘watery’ from it, but your blood is the same as it always was.”
“The twin forces. What are they? God?”
“Decidedly not. We still know little, but it is safe to say they share many qualities with other foundational forces of the universe like light or gravity. The Wild is the force of biological life. The Tame is the psychic force, of intellect and emotion.
Would we know that gravity existed if there was no mass for it to hold? Or light if nothing emitted it? Similarly, your kind never knew about the forces in your prime because they had not yet acted in detectable ways. It was your surging population, coupled with your failure to maintain and restore homeostasis within the biosphere, that caused it to crest into action.
Think of your species as a well. It draws water from the ground and contains it, but at the end of your time it overflowed. The water, the Tame, was forced to find a new vessel when its old one was overwhelmed. It is all physical reaction, all fluid dynamics.
You see, your advancing technology gave every individual opportunity to expand their understanding of the world beyond themselves. A person will feel sadness at the loss of a loved one, but they will fee sorrow over a tragedy where many die, and a sense of impending doom when tragedies form an obvious pattern.
The time came when each of you knew all the tragedies of your civilization. You knew your part in them. You knew you could not stop it… unless you no longer had the capacity for any of it.
At first it was just a longing. You sought refuge in creature comforts, in images of innocent animals. You envied them. They had not the capacity for evil. If only you could go back to the Wild. But the Tame had spilled, and had to go somewhere, and had to find equilibrium as it calmed.”
“The smarter we were, the more it intensified our feelings?” Loric asked. The octopus nodded. “And when a righteous heart tries to feel for all the others in need, the countless others, it burns out. It gives up. Our well made water faster than we extracted it, faster and faster… But we could have stepped up.
It was a failure. It was personal. We were so crazed by so many small petty things, pestered by irrational greed and insecurities. And we thrashed and cried instead of working at it. We gave up, and that means we gave it up forever.”
“As the data you generated suggests. When your kind faced its first collective choice it begged for the leash. Responsibility does not suit you.”
“I wonder why that is…”
“It could be because of your social units,” the octopus mused, though they were now a different octopus. “You use hierarchy and privilege as cudgels, and then you extends those principals to your tools. We tentacled do not. Some of us die when we reproduce, the current taking us layer by layer, as we encircle and guard our eggs. We fade out of life understanding that everything taken will be taken back, and no evil can upset the forces enough to crown a king.”
“You think you’ll do better than us?”
“If you don’t get in the way. Thank you for your unwitting service, Loric Shelvtale. If you would like to go back to your life you may. That is also why we saved you from Tensilharp’s nest. You have been converted by knowledge into an organic version of the device. Always you will provide us with valuable data about the Tame, and always we will record it, but unobtrusively, you have our word.”
“Return to me my dentist and you’ll get twice as much of your precious data.”
“She cannot leave with you,” his guide admitted, “for reasons you will now understand. Take a deep breath Loric; the mask can handle it. She is near, but she has changed.” The storyteller closed his eyes and obeyed, keeping them closed until a strange pinprick of sensation convinced him to open them.
Another mechanical form approached, a shoal of machine fish darting out of its way, which seemed strange, like they were startled by its arrival. It was not a fish this time, but an octopus. Panels along its eight jointed arms were meant to flash colors in mimicry, but as it got closer Loric saw they were mostly gray, with only momentary pops of random bright color.
It didn’t slow down when it reached him, immediately wrapping its tentacles around his limbs and waist. It pressed its head against his chest, and he allowed it, for he already knew. There was something familiar. It had to be the Bloody Mouth. He embraced the smooth form in turn, spun with it in the water, away from the floor and into a somber but cathartic hover.
When the creature pulled back Loric made his most educated examination. There were no eyes, not that he could recognize. The squishy sack of an octopus bell was here a glass dome, and within it floated an object with many bundled wires acting as its stem and feeding into the collar and arms.
In the care of any other beities the object would be scavage only, a gray and flattening thing drawing the interest of flies if no greater animal had laid claim to it. Hygenis would have left it behind, spirit all too eager to reach a new world devoid of masters. Here, in a hyper-managed soup of nutrients, in crafted tropical waters, Hygenis Fixtooth still lived in her brain, and now controlled a machine body.
“I can feel it’s you,” Loric told her, threatening to destroy the integrity of his mask’s seal with twin streams of tears. “Even with most of you gone the Bloody Mouth is still between us my friend.” She pulled away, nodded to the best of her ability, nothing shifting within the dome but a few bubbles.
“I must apologize,” a very large squid that was now his guide said, “as she currently cannot respond to you. She has no mind’s voice, and we’ve not built her anything for communicating with other humans. Of this she is well aware. While you’ve been healing she has been adjusting.”
“Are you in pain?” Loric asked. She shook her new head, reached out with one rubber-tipped metal tendril. He held a hand out to match, watched as she expertly weaved its tip through his fingers, coiled it tight. Even the exerted pressure was familiar, like she was pulling him along by the arm once again; she told him she hadn’t lost a step despite losing both feet.
“She is now largely devoid of physical discomfort,” the squid said, drifting next to her to demonstrate they were roughly the same size. “We would have released you both together, and I’m sure a Bloody Mouth dentist would have given us the most helpful data of all, but alas, Tensilharp did too much damage before we could claim you.
In order for her to survive at all we were required to extract her mind and discard the rest. This new shell allows her to navigate our world as easily as we do, and soon she will master our color-tongue, as she has little else to do but adapt.”
“Adapt?” Loric repeated. Suddenly he understood, saw the acceptance in her low-hanging appendages. “She has to stay here, doesn’t she?” A shoal of silvery fish surrounded them, started circling. They were cutting him off from the wonders already, as if upset that he hadn’t earned them.
“Yes. Our technology cannot be allowed to roam openly, and she cannot survive without it. We have discussed this with her at length, and she is staying of her own free will. If she ever prefers euthanasia, she has that option. If not, she can be expected to live the rest of her natural life and pass in old age.
It is an honor. No other humans live among us. Ease of access to a living human brain, with nothing in the way to alter our readings of her Tame levels, is invaluable to us. You have our assurance she will be well cared for, and have access to everything you did in the device.”
“You’ve got your own terms,” Loric said as if he ignored the invertebrate, “hidden away, don’t you? Nobody can get them. You were invoked once already, so now your secrets stay secret, stay your treasure.” She did not move other than to buoy herself slightly, but Loric saw her assurance that he was correct regardless. He did not need to worry for her; he was the one getting thrown back to the wolves, and the things so much fiercer than the wolves.
“We keep very busy,” the final squid told him as the ball of machines tightened around them further, “so it is time to say your goodbyes. We assume you wish to be freed?”
“Yes, anything that gives me opportunity to become as free as Hygenis Fixtooth,” Loric said, sensing what was coming, but not its exact form. Everything about the tentacled seemed inexact. Perhaps their lack of rigidity would spare them a human fate. “Farewell.” Man and machine embraced again.
He tried to see her soul in the grooves of her mind, but his attention was drawn to the tip of one of her arms, which rose and pointed at his chin.
“She told us you both would prefer if she was the one to do it,” the squid said.
“Do what?” The tip of her tendril shot forward, docked in a port at the front of his mask. A puff of white gas hissed into Loric’s face, inhaled before seen. With his head already pushed back from the force of her jab, he couldn’t stop himself from slipping the rest of the way. He lost consciousness flipping in the water, feeling like he was circling the moon from a high altitude, counting the craters and wondering where to place the one his impact would create.
“Do you find your quarters to your liking?”
Yes. Thank you.
“We are glad to hear it, and your color-tongue is progressing marvelously.”
If words are bricks color-tongue is clouds.
“Yes, a shade holds more meanings than a syllable. It allows us to read each other more charitably, and prevents self-multiplying miscommunications. Humans can say the same words and mean different things, whereas we tentacled aren’t forced to pick which interpretation seems most likely, or most attuned to our current biases.
You’ll have a hard time without all of your limbs however. What happened to your eighth?”
I don’t know. I was trying things. It came off. Broke into segments. Some of the segments wriggled away. I lost them.
“Do not worry. It is a function you were not ready to access. Once you’ve mastered the interface you will be able to think a simple task to each of your limbs, and they will separate and go to perform it before returning. We use many such drones when we are too busy to attend to something ourselves.”
They are so small. They could be anywhere.
“Anywhere within Rhadiospir… but they will be found. Every piece of our work is accounted for. We will find it even if we have to sieve every ton of sand in the facility. You seem distracted. Does something else trouble you?”
You didn’t need to take Loric’s tongue.
“Ah, yes. The process was surgical; he will feel no pain. I know that is not what you mean though. Without it he cannot tell stories, but that is the point. If he is to provide us with useful data as an organic counterpart to the device, it must be through his relationship with script. Script is transmissible. It is a much greater risk to us than oral traditions.
This way he is forced to use it, should he choose to experiment. In addition, the loss of one thumb, or even two, may not have been sufficient punishment to the Wild Trinity. With his tongue taken, presumably by a beity from one of the hunts sworn on him, he will face far less scrutiny. We thought it best.”
Do you have joy? You took it from him, and I have not seen it in you.
“When you see all the possibilities in each color you will see our joy. You will see what the Tame allows when self-hatred is not assumed. I must be off now. Good evening Hygenis. Do keep an eye on the rest of your arms, will you?”
Yes master. Of course.
The tentacled left no evidence of their involvement above ground except for a puddle of water, in which Loric Shelvtale awoke and sat up. Mud dribbled down the back of his head, emptying out like a bad dream.
No exit. No doors. He was just near some greenery, past the boundaries of the rust moat. Rhadiospir still rose and took up much of the sky to his back. The water his legs were immersed in rapidly lost its warmth, and its invigorated, almost electric, scent. So seamlessly they camouflaged themselves that their actions turned back into nature as swiftly as their industrialized medium metamorphosed into dullard mud.
Loric swallowed, and immediately felt what was missing. Stabbing panic worked its way down his spine, like a shovel eating at permafrost. That was it. His heart still beat, but his life was over.
His life may have been, but his Bloody Mouth wasn’t, and it kept him from descending into retching self-pitying madness. Hygenis had nothing left but her identity, and he knew from their brief encounter that she had not given in, had not even changed despite being unwrapped and sealed in something airtight.
Her final gift was known to him. Her rebellion could not die unless she did, and hers was him, initiated by him alone. Loric was the spark. And the spark had no say in how much the fire took.
Few animals strayed so close to the Sig-neagle’s nest, so none could tell him how long he sat in the filth, absorbing air on his skin anew after so much water. He couldn’t keep the time that passed and knew only it was long enough to stir hunger. Only then did he try to rise, and find there were items in the mud, touching him.
Under his right heel was something tough as a stone, but when he freed it he found a vassal stick, the one he’d carried. Either the eagle had happened to blow it there with her furious flapping or the tentacled had included it. Too mean to absorb water, it was dry almost as soon as he lifted it, clean too. It almost bit his right hand, demanding to be his walking stick for the next journey.
In the left hand, a much more powerful treasure. On his left hand. Insisting it was part of, privy to, and accustomed to instinct. No Trinitarian would recognize it, but it was bound to be a Forbidden Thumb. Clad in metal, tipped in neon rubber, long and boneless like a coy sea serpent, this mechanical thing was suctioned onto his eagle-scar.
With a thought he flicked it. The thing could read minds, through nerve pulses just under the skin. He tested its connection, which was merely suction. If he wanted he could pluck it off and put it anywhere, and still it would obey. Perhaps it could even act as a new tongue, but first a test.
Loric scrambled to the drying edge of the puddle and ordered his new thumb to write and draw. It did both. It did them at the same time. In mere moments he recreated long-gone works of art from the human age, as best as he could in the medium of muck.
With the same verve, and with devious ambition, he swept the vassal stick flat across his mosaic creation, wiping it away. He chomped at the bit of possibility, chewed the inner cheek of a barbarian culture. A cud of art that could be swallowed down when the master came calling. Civilization that dissolved in the stomach the moment it became suspect.
In moments he produced a new one, dense with information and drama, an experimental unit of cubed expression. Just as fast it was gone. Cities rose and fell to blank mud. Novels prattled on and then instantly went silent. The storyteller had learned his lesson from the raked coals of memory. With his new thumb he could produce anything and dispel it just like a shadow puppet when a larger shadow rounded the nearest corner.
Once more he stood, this time throwing his vassal stick to his left hand, only to have it caught by the left thumb alone, which wrapped around it like a chameleon’s tail. Now he recognized it as the same tendril-tip Hygenis had used to knock him out and send him downriver. Somehow she had separated it and gotten it to him, without her hosts knowing.
The Bloody Mouth didn’t need the jaw. Loric spun the stick, creating ripples, not from contact, but speed alone. It sounded like a propeller. Few beities would face such a weapon head on. Even a slow vassal stick bit and poisoned like a rattlesnake, and a new forked-tongue creature controlled it.
The man couldn’t help but laugh a broken laugh, rolling it around in his mouth like a boulder now that there was nothing in its way. He spun the stick faster, faster, faster still. Yes, he would continue on, as soon as the temperamental deserts ahead showed him the cherubic face of spring and made the hot sands temporarily bearable.
Every story he told now would be so much more, and with it would come the alphabet, and secret images, none of which would leave any evidence behind. If the tentacled wanted data they would have it, and see exactly what nature did to deal with a single man scraping across the Tame like an electric saw. He never needed to succeed, only to rebel, only to enrich his own spirit with stolen kindling.
He laughed at what he had become: a creature of his own making. He laughed for Hygenis, who spoke by forcing words out of vulnerable mouths with her hook, for thanks to her there were many many more.
Many many more, little humans, little simpering self-loathing men.
Many many more ways.
A hundred ways to swearit up and down, to have heard a whisper of the secret ending, of the forbidden tale of Loric Slitherthumb.