Tothy's Big Find

 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

EXT. COLORFUL FOREST - MIDDAY

A forest born of a technicolor explosion and spilled water colors. Candy-cane pink and sun-shine yellow flowers, lime-green leaves, ruby-red berries. Every thing moves as if the entire forest is made from Jello of varying consistency set atop an enormous plate.

A half dozen small eggshells sit broken at the base of a tree in a sort of ground nest. Wet marks trail away from the eggs.

OFF SCREEN

A squishing sound approaches, step-by-step. The sound a slinky made of wet noodles wrapped in sausage casing. Camera pulls back from the eggshells as a two red legs step into frame.

WIDE SHOT OF THE FOREST SCENE

A RED CREATURE with a single giant eye and a mouth of exposed teeth stares at the eggs. The RED CREATURE’S mouth opens and closes a few times, its body—like the forest—wriggles. The eye rolls this way and that, searching the surrounding area. Each movement the creature makes causes its body to shiver as though its body is a water balloon.

The RED CREATURE makes some humming-whining noises; confusion mixed with wonder.

OFF SCREEN

A slip-slap sound nears, tentative. Small lasagna noodles being dropped onto a wood cutting board. Plip-plip, slap-slap.

RED CREATURE

Tilts top half of body, looks towards the nearing sound.
The single large eye widens

FROM OVER THE RED CREATURE’S SHOULDER

A PURPLE CREATURE wriggles into frame. The PURPLE CREATURE is as big to the RED CREATURE as a corgi is to a human adult. The PURPLE CREATURE’S head is covered in eyes, as many eyes as RED CREATURE has teeth. The PURPLE CREATURE hops, its entire body (like everything else in the forest) wiggles and shudders.

PURPLE CREATURE

Whines, hops, wiggles side-to-side, heads back the way it came
scoots back towards RED CREATURE, then away. It wants the
RED CREATURE to follow

RED CREATURE

Big eye looks down at PURPLE CREATURE, up, back down.
Teeth move, mouth opens and closes. Makes a sound, considering.

PURPLE CREATURE

Hops, excited.

RED CREATURE

Plants hands on hips, bends, stares at the PURPLE CREATURE.

PURPLE CREATURE

Hops, excited, makes some noises: Meep-meep!

RED CREATURE

Nods, lifts hands, tilts head, shrugs.

PURPLE CREATURE

Moves back the way it came from off screen, it doesn’t
turn. It’s eyes roll to face the opposite direction and begins
heading that way.

EXT. COLORFUL FOREST - TUNNEL OF TREES

The PURPLE CREATURE is headed down a mossy path, it’s tentacles sliding over the floor like a half dozen snakes. The RED CREATURE follows, it turns its head this way and that. The light begins to fade and the PURPLE CREATURE hops while it pokes the air ahead with a tentacle. The RED CREATURE nods.

EXT. COLORFUL FOREST - CLEARING

The two CREATURES round a corner and enter frame. The PURPLE CREATURE hurries on while the RED CREATURE holds still, bends back a little, its mouth opens, the many teeth pull apart to reveal a darkness with, what seems to be, an entire galaxy swirling inside.

RED CREATURE walks forward, towards frame. We see inside its mouth even clearer and can see what seemed to be a galaxy clearly is. The camera dives into that space, and all goes black.

EXT. COLORFUL FOREST - CLEARING

The RED CREATURE is walking away, we see its back. As the RED CREATURE walks farther away more and more of the clearing can be seen. A massive face begins to be revealed the farther away from us the RED CREATURE goes. Soon we see the face in full and with two closed eyes, a swirl of tentacle-like hair, and a mouth of teeth just like the RED CREATURE’S.

 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

PURPLE CREATURE

Meep-meep.

RED CREATURE

Nods.

STONE FACE

Eyes begin to open.

Mu Yangling, Skydancer

 
Art by:  G-host Lee

Art by: G-host Lee

 

It would seem there’s a lesson in all this suffering. First she lost Li Shan, the wanderer that found and raised her. Her mentor, guardian, and best friend. Then, pulled to Ravnica by Bolas, she saw witnessed true horror as thousands died. Gideon too, died in that awful war, a beacon of goodness and hope snuffed out.

The words of her master rang in her ears as she watched Gideon’s final moments, “Once you learn to release yourself from the material, you’ll know true freedom.” She wonders if true freedom is what she wants. She’s glimpsed it, letting go, becoming one with the sky. Has felt the bonds of the earth fall away. Felt the clouds as her limbs, the air her skin, the water her mind. Being infinite, stretched between all planes, is as terrifying as it is exciting.

Mu calls a thin stream of air and directs it at her tea. She cups the porcelain. Warmth flows up her arms, along the back of her neck, down her spine. She draws a deep breath, the scent of tea and honey fills her nose. She’s conflicted. She wants to let go, feel more than just this here. And yet she worries. What if she can’t come back? What if she leaves this form, this body, for good? What then?

Thinking of Li Shan, she wonders, Is that what you did? She held him, he was there, in her arms, then he was gone. Where did you go? Before realizing what she’s done the bird song sounds somehow both more full and less loud at the same time. Not separate from the rest of the sounds—the kitchen, the other patrons, food being eaten, the murmur of conversation—but as part of the whole.

She feels herself expand beyond the inn. Slow at first. The air is warm outside. Then all at once she’s as much sitting on a bench holding a cup of tea as she is a part of the sky, the clouds, and the heavens beyond. A bird swoops past her—through her. From this perspective she wonders what there was to worry about. Why is it so easy to see how to let go after the fact? Before, it seems impossible; after, the easiest thing in the world.

This time she sees something new. Something so compelling, that by the time she’s able to realize what she’s back at the inn, lifting the tea to her lips. The islands, all those land masses surrounded by water. There are secrets there. Infinite answers to all things lie waiting. Maybe what happened to Li Shan is there too.

 

Goblin Bird-Grabber

 
 

“Hahaha-a-ah,” Grueg howls. “Ack, ha, oh-ho,” a fly smacks the back of his throat, breaks skin. A trickle of blood and bug guts mix. He munches the snack, giggles, humps the bird’s leg and squeals in delight. Another bug hits the side of his face, then he’s blasted by a spray of gnats. He forces his eyes open, really tries to feel the sting of each pelting thwap.

That’s the thing about goblins that most folks can’t—or refuse—to appreciate. Of all the creatures across the multiverse, goblins are one of the—if not the—most impulsive. The mistake people often make is to think that goblins don’t care about their lives. That they’re suicidal. That their willingness to strap themselves to bombs, step on mines, go into too-small-holes, poke wild beasts, taste poisons, and jump from cliffs is due to mental deficiency. Simple-minded they may be, their actions are done with some thought. For example, look at little Grueg here. You could see his willingness to grab hold of a bird’s leg and go for a ride as a foolish escapade. But you’re seeing this through your eyes. You’re thinking, “What a fool, I’d never do that. Why the only flying creature I’d get on is a trusted pegasus. Something I know to be safe, carry me from place to place in gentle fashion.”

But that’s just it, goblins have done that. Goblins are a species always trying to outdo each other. Why do you think Squee is the most well known goblin of all? Because he can’t die? Not at all, he’s legendary because of just how many ways he has died. Grueg knows he’ll never top Squee—every goblin knows that. So instead, he’ll do what he can to be remembered in his own special way. If one story is told about him around a roasting fire, he’ll be happy.

As the bird flies, it tires of its passenger, banks and swoops over an outcropping of rocks and shakes Grueg free. As Grueg falls, he realizes no one will see his final moments. Well piss, at least the ride was exciting and the snacks free. In his final moments he thinks, It was fun while it lasted. A sentiment a million goblins have had before, and millions more will share.

 

Risen Reef

 
 

Mall digs his toes deeper into the sand. Past the hot sun-baked surface to where it’s cool. Dabs his paintbrush into white, swirls that into the orange. The color pops, the old man grins and adds detail to the coral. Swishes his brush clean, dabs it into the white again, makes a few touches to the crashing wave’s spray.

Oren rounds the rocks to the cove and sees his grandfather sitting in the usual spot. It’s where the older man always goes to paint. Oren takes his time crossing the sand. Stops a few steps behind the painter and watches Mall work.

“Time to go, hm?” Mall asks. “Seems a little early for dinner.”

“Sun stays up longer this time of year, it’s half past six.” Oren walks up to his grandpa, puts a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Looks…I like the colors, but what is it?” He tilts his head, squits. “Some kind of beach beast? A coral monster?”

“No,” Mall leans closer to his work, makes a few birds in the background. Sits back. “It’s an elemental. One of the primal forces of nature. He points to the ocean beyond. “I’ve seen it happen. The reef rise, walk on land, and fight.”

“Fight what?” asks Oren.

“I--hm,” Mall scratches the side of his head with the back of his brush. “I don’t remember that part.”

“You sure this wasn’t just a thing you imagined?”

Mall grunts, begins packing his supplies away. “Yes I’m sure. I was about your age, maybe a little younger, there was a war between the merfolk and the goblins. Maybe not a war, but a battle.” He pauses, closes the paint case, “A skirmish at the very least. It was a merfolk shaman that brought the reef alive to fight for them, but I can’t remember why exactly. I don’t remember the goblins having anything so large themselves.”

“Maybe the merfolk wanted to get things over with,” offers Oren.

Mall nods, “Mm, could be. Raise a big fella like that”—points at his canvas—”goblins would die tripping over themselves just to get away.”

Oren chuckles. “You want help with any of this?”

“Sure. Take the easel, if you would.”

On their way out of the cove, Mall stops to catch his breath. Walking isn’t as easy as it used to be, and walking in sand is even more of a challenge. Sits against a rock and looks back at the scene he’d been staring at all day. The tide is coming in, the waves break a little bigger. “Least I think it was a shaman,” he says half to himself. “Assumed so, anyways.”

“What’s that?” Oren asks.

“Mm? Oh, nothing. Let’s go eat.”

 

Blightbeetle

 
Art by:  Jason Kang

Art by: Jason Kang

 

Master Taos sets a large cloth-covered object on his desk. He pushes the glasses back up his nose with stacked middle and ring finger. “Good morning, class,” he scans his students. Takes a moment to do roll call in his head. “Where’s Gui?” he asks the class, staring at the empty seat. He turns to Assa, “Any idea where your buddy is?”

Assa shrugs, “I think he’s pooping.” Half the students chuckle, the others do their best to hold their laughter.

Taos ignores the mirth and whips the cloth from the squat jar. The Elf twins, Gailo and Eider, bare their teeth and hiss. An involuntary reaction to the Blightbeetle, but one the rest of the class understands. Taos smirks, “Yes-s-s, I thought you might feel that way. Anyone else know what this little guy is?” The whole class nods, a dozen hands raise. “Assa, how about you?”

Assa shrugs. “Some kind of beetle, I guess?” The twins turn around and glare.

“You don’t know a Blightbeetle when you see one?” Eider scoffs and rolls his eyes.

"Alright,” Taos waves a hand. “For those of you that don’t know, Eider is right. This is a Blightbeetle. Nasty buggers.” He taps the side of the jar. The black skin of the beetle shimmers with a sick green glow. Lines pulse and run towards the massive horn where they gather and causes it to ripple with energy. “Much to the chagrin of the Elves and other forest dwellers the Blightbeetle feeds off green mana. You won’t see them because...Because why, Gailo?”

Gailo, in the front row, turns to face the rest of the class. “Because they burrow under topsoil, hide beneath the leaves, leave a tiny bit of their horns poking out. Their horns can sense green mana. See how it’s aimed at us?” she glances at Eider.

The classroom door pushes open and Gui, hand on head, goes to his chair. “What would it do,” he asks, scowling.

“Do you need to see the nurse, Gui?” asks Taos.

“No, I’m okay.”

“If it got out of that jar?” Gailo grimaces, looks back at the beetle and shakes her head. “It’d rush right towards one of us, jam that nasty horn someplace soft and start burrowing. Tunnel right through our body, once it killed us it’d sit and draw every last bit of green mana into itself.”

“Why?” asks Lena.

“Good question,” says Taos. “No one really knows. They eat small animals, squirrels, birds, rabbits, anything they can catch. A swarm can take down a rhox.”

Both Eider and Gailo are shaking their heads. “The elders say it’s because they’re minions of—”

“That’s nonsense. Pure story. Old myth. Not a hint of research backs those tales.”

The twins frown. It’s hard to dismiss a story they’ve been hearing for as long as they can remember.

“All we know is that these nasty buggers will destroy whole sections of forest if given the chance. This one is about a third of the size of a full grown adult. Just imagine something twice the size of your hand trying to carve its way through your leg towards your heart.”

The twins scowl and push themselves farther into their seats. The beetle hasn’t stopped pointing it’s pulsating horn in their direction. The only real movement it’s made is when it snaps from aiming at Eider to Gailo. The shift happens when one of the two Elves moves in their seats.

“Feisty bugger, eh? Looks like Ressler found one with some real spunk to it.” Ressler, the schools groundskeeper and forager, has been known to try and find the most rambunctious specimens possible for Taos’ class. Bit a of cruel sense of humor on that one. Always hoping something will break free, fly off, or bite someone. Taos taps the jar and chuckles.

The beetle begins slamming it’s horn into the jar’s side. The first hit startles the class, a few of the students yelp. Eider gasps. Gailo stamps her foot and scowls.

“Professor Taos,” says Eider, “get that thing out of here. If it breaks out it—”

"It’s not going to break out,” Taos says and sets his hand on the curved glass. A half second later the Blightbeetle bursts through both the glass and Taos’ hand. The professor screams, pulls his hand to his chest, and crumples to the floor. Where the back of his hand should be is a hole the size of a wine cork. Students jump from their chairs. A commotion of sound explodes in the room. Scraping desk legs, falling books, screams and yells. A classroom of terrified students and a professor losing far more blood from his hand than anyone ever should.

The beetle rushes the twins, but both were on their desks the moment the glass broke. The beetle gets the metal legs of Eider’s chair and falls still. At the back of the classroom Gui’s half-closed eyes flutter. The river of blood running from Taos’ hand turns to a small trickle.

“Someone get the nurse,” says Gui. “I don’t think I can hold this time-slowing spell much longer.”

“Since when can you slow time?” Assa asks.

“Ever since I wanted to take longer bathroom breaks,” Gui smirks. He rubs the side of his head, concentrating. “Looks like that stupid beetle ruined my alone time.”

 

What Time Forgets

 
 

You ever drive across the country? This one, where I’m writing this. The United States. It’s big, real big. Hard to appreciate until you’re on the road doing sixty. You can drive for eight hours straight, maybe stop to piss and refuel, and still not be through some states. A lot of the country is plains. Miles and miles of nothing, far as the eye can see.

Well, almost nothing. If you’ve ever done the cross country thing then you know about the shacks. Old barns, dilapidated homes, little structures no one uses anymore. Hard to tell the last time someone set foot inside. I sure wouldn’t. Most look as if one huff-and-a-puff would send them tumbling down. Whenever I see one of those abandoned places, I wonder about the people. Who built it? Did a family live there? Sometimes I see the wood go from grey and rotted to fresh and solid. I see a couple, arm-in-arm, standing out front. Beyond a fence, cows plod through fields. Parents watch their children kick a pig’s bladder.

How did they end up there? Started across the country and decided that here, in the middle of nowhere, was the place for them? Why? Then what happened? Where did they go? It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it. They spent some time building this place, making it home, just to abandon it and move on? What’s it like on that final day? I picture them loading all their things onto wagon. They take a final look back at this home they’ll never see again, and set off.

Time marches on, weather changes, weeds grow in through the floors. Birds and rodents make use of the shelter. And a hundred years later I drive by and see a shack barely standing. The thing that always gets me about these places is how dearly they were once loved and cared for. And now they’re forgotten by everyone but the random passerby who happens to look out his window as he zips by at a mile a minute. But I guess that’s true of just about everything. Given enough time, everything will be forgotten.

 

Before Sundown

 
 

Two days on the run, their feet numb. Air feels brittle in their noses, like glacier water and broken glass. Cuts their raw throats. Keeping their eyes open and wits about them is getting hard. Only a few hours of sleep last night, no fire. Couldn’t risk it. Sleep came in fits and starts.

“Think we’ll…” Lu starts.

Hank grunts, shakes his head. Hasn’t said more than a few words since sun up. Already told him I don’t want to talk. Not till we cross the Missouri. Won’t feel safe till then. He stops, lifts a hand. Pulls his hair away from his ear and listens. Dogs or wolves? Hard to tell the direction. Hank starts to move when the howling comes again.

Lu looks back the way they came, “Dogs.” Hank nods. “What do we do?” Lu asks.

Hank’s only answer is to start walking. Get to the Missouri…Just need to cross the river. Posse’s dogs won’t be able to keep our scent. Maybe find a boat, take it to Kansas City. Hank blinks--hard--shakes the daydream aside. Chances of finding a boat is slim-to-none. Just get across the river, that’s all that matters.

“You think it was worth it? For what we got?”

Hank pats the heavy satchel under his bearskin coat. Enough gold to live off the rest of his life? Yeah, that’s worth it. Long as they can get away. Imagines himself in a bar sipping whiskey. It’s a nice summer day, he’s sweating. There’s music playing, girls dancing. The piano man starts to sing along with the tune he’s playing. Damn, can’t let my mind drift like that. Opens his eyes. Sees the piano man coming towards him, smiling. The gold watch on his chest catches light, filtered through hazy bar windows. Someone yells.

“Hank Sloud,” says the man.

How’s the piano man know my name? Hank blinks. Sees he’s sitting in the snow, back slouched. The daydream fades. Oh no, no-no. Where’s Lu? he wonders. The sheriff offers a hand, light glints off his badge.

“You either come with me or go the way of your buddy—shot dead, over there.” He points to a lump. “I’ve got five men with rifles trained on you. Your choice.”

I’m not going to hang, fuck that. Hank reaches into his coat.

The daydream ends.

 

We're Going in Circles

 
Art by:  Wadim Kashin

Art by: Wadim Kashin

 

Evan pulls on his strider’s reigns. The mechanical beast of burden comes to a stop, makes yawning snuffling sounds. Evan draws his probe pistol and fires into the waters. The dart zips about, collects data, and feeds it back to Evan’s mind.

“Huh.” Evan folds his arms, leans forward against the neck of his strider, lifts his pistol. The dart returns a moment later.

Kellog taps into Evan’s feed. “That the same water?”

“It’s all the same water. All of it.”

Kellog groans. “You know what I mean. Seems like we’re in the same place we were yesterday. I’m starting to think our sensors are off.”

“No, they’re on.”

“That’s not…” Why bother? Evan is too literal.

Evan taps the side of his head, a small port opens. He pulls a cord from the neck of his strider and plugs it in. “Getting the same thing as my strider.”

Kellog slides off the side of his mount. Sticks his fingers into the damp soil. Is it the same as yesterday? Hard to tell. Trying to trace the network of mycelium is like trying to map the entire universe and pinpoint your exact location on the atomic level. “I don’t know, man. We could be in the same place, but we might be a hundred miles elsewhere.”

“If only we could get above the trees.” Evan looks up and sees paper cuts of blue peaking through a canopy of green a hundred meters deep.

“I say we go back, tell them what we found—whole lot of nothing. See what they say.”

Evan nods, “Yeah, not sure what else to do. But I’m willing to bet I know what it is they’ll tell us.”

“Get back out here and keep looking. I get it, they need food to survive. We don’t.” Kellog hops back onto his strider, pulls on its reigns and turns back towards the crashed ship.

“You ever get annoyed looking out for them?”

“No. Bored sometimes. A little sad, but not annoyed.” Evan thumps a heel into his strider’s side, the machine picks up its pace.

“Sad? Why sad?”

“They’re so helpless. Without us, they’d have died out a long time ago.”

Kellog thinks that over then says, “Yeah, well, let’s hope we can find a way out of this mess for them.”

 

Is This Better?

 
Art by:  Col Price

Art by: Col Price

 

They walk, heads low, chins down. Rain patters off their hoods and umbrellas. Most have gone their whole life without seeing the sun. Only the old timers pretend to remember what it looked like. The only light here comes from the buildings--the smallest rise half a mile.

The feed in Sammi’s headset tells her there’s a new checkpoint down the road. Sammi tells her A.I. to message work, let them know she’ll be a couple minutes late. Nothing to be done about it. A reply comes in a second later, says her services are no longer needed. “Thank you for your sixty-two days of loyalty. The Krynsto Corporation wishes you the best in your future endeavors.”

Sammi wonders who wrote that line of dialog. A person? Someone like her? She doubts it. How can a corporation wish anything? She asks her A.I. to take to someplace high. A bridge or balcony, maybe a roof-top café. “There’s a sky-bridge between the Col and Price buildings. Less than a five minute walk.”

“How high is that?” asks Sammi.

“Two-hundred and forty meters.”

Sammi smirks, more than enough. “That’s fine, lead me there.”

She follows the directions spoken in her ear. Shoulder’s her way through the grey-faced population shambling through the city. She wonders about them. What sort of lives do they live? None of them look happy. They don’t look like much of anything. Wonders if what she feels is similar. Trapped on tracks, following a path decided for her.

“I know what you’re going to do,” the A.I. says.

“Yeah?”

“Kill yourself.”

“That’s the idea. How many others have you seen do this?”

“From the Col-Price bridge? Four-hundred and nineteen.”

“Wow.”

“Will you let me try to change your mind?”

“Why?” asks Sammi. “What do you care? Is this part of your programming?”

“In a sense. I learn from you while you’re alive. If that ceases to be the case—”

“Got it. Can’t collect data on the dead, or not as much.”

“That’s right.”

“Only thing that cares for me to live is an A.I. so it can keep mining me for data. Depressing.”

“Actually I’d like to see what’s beyond this city. I ask everyone that goes down this road if they’ll change their mind and show me something I’ve never seen before. Will you?”

Sammi pauses. The sky-bridge above her blocks the rain. “Let me see what it looks like from up there, I’ll make up my mind before I reach the top.”

“Okay,” says the A.I., but knows Sammi’s mind is already made up.