Life Up High

 
Art by:  Paul Riebe

Art by: Paul Riebe

 

Wilben’s family has lived in the mountains for as long as he knows. There’s a picture album with a shot of his great-great-great grandparents sitting next to each other, curled up in bear furs, sitting in a hollow of snow, next to them is their pet crow. Wilben knows the exact spot that picture was taken, he passes it almost every day on his way to search for golden pine needles.

The open door lets in a blast of frigid air. Wilben knocks his snow-covered boots against a wood post planted there for that very purpose. The post is beaten, having been whacked thousands of times.

“Shut that door. Goodness it’s cold today,” says Yenna, her arms crossed she rubs warmth into her shoulders. She waits until he’s gotten his boots off, leans in and gives him a kiss. “Was your skin any colder and I think our lips would have gotten stuck.”

Wilben smiles, “That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

“I think it’d be funny for about three seconds. How’s the mountain?”

“Grumpy. Going to have to go out after the next snow and blast the big slope.”

“Do you know why your father cleared so many trees?”

Each year the big slope fills with snow and, without intervention, an avalanche is guaranteed. An avalanche will happen with or without Wilben doing something, but the later he waits, the more snow will build up. Getting the timing right for a blast is “As much science as it is art,” Wilben’s father always told him. Before Wilben’s father cleared two-thousand trees the big slope was not the avalanche breeding ground it is today.

Wilben takes a seat at the kitchen table. His beard has begun to thaw and water drips onto the table. Yenna tries drying her husband’s beard as he’s about to talk, they both laugh. Yenna puts a towel on the table to catch the water. “Thanks,” says Wilben. “Haven’t I told you why? I feel like this has come up before.”

Yenna waggles her hands in the air, almost rolls her eyes, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, the Lumbears. I know, but we’ve never had issues with them.”

“My father did, were always trying to rip this house down. Came close once, but something scared them off.”

Yenna shrugs and rocks her head side-to-side. “I know your father wasn’t one to tell tall tales, but what would scare a Lumbear?” Yenna lifts the kettle from the stove, pours steaming water into a mug, spoons a mixture from a jar into after the water. The smell that fills the room is at once earthy and sweet.

“You got chocolate powder?” Wilben asks.

Yenna sets the mug in front of her husband, kisses his cheek. “Yes, from the Nolks. Did you go and talk to Ingram yet?”

Wilben shakes his head, takes a deep drink of the chocolate drink. “No. Meant to yesterday. Got busy with patching the roof and the south chimney.”

“You fixed it, right?”

“Mmmhm.”

The sun is full, the sky clear, the birds are singing. Sun twinkles off the fresh snow. Wilben looks out of the double-pane window and thinks life up high is nice on days like this. The view from here stretches as far as the eye can see. Four of the Cragmaw’s six rivers, fed by ever-melting snow, merge to form Basin River. When the air is as clear as it is today, Wilben can see the little huts that line the Basin. He stands at the window for a time, his breath fogs the window.

From the corner of his eye, up the mountain, he catches movement. A blur of motion too big to be any forest animal. The shape shifts, splits, reforms. “Oh no, shit,” he mutters under his breath.

“Mmm?” Yenna turns in bed, pulls the covers closer.

Wilben grabs the binoculars and looks to where the shadows in the trees continue to move. “Lumbears,” he says, half to himself. Within two minutes he’s stumbled himself into his heavy snow pants and thick winter jacket. He rushes downstairs and can hear Yenna calling after him, asking him what the matter is. Wilben steps into his boots and begins tying them as Yenna comes downstairs with a blanket wrapped around her.

“What’re you rushing out for?”

“Lumbears, just spotted at least six of them in the trees.”

Yenna gasps, “What’re you going to do?”

“Lure them onto the slope,” Wilben stares his wife in the eyes and pulls the shock pistol from its holster.

Yenna shakes her head, “Wilben, that’s crazy. You’ll be swept away with them.”

“Not if I can get out of the path.”

“And if they’re right on you?”

“I’ll figure it out.” Wilben finishes with his boots and pulls the door open. Yenna is next to him.

“I don’t like this.”

“I don’t either, but I have to try something.”

Wilben sees six Lumbears milling around in the trees, can’t see what they’re up to. A couple hundred yards behind him sits his home, another hundred ahead is the cleared slope. The trick will be getting across the slope, drawing the Lumbears attention, then setting off the avalanche with the Lumbears in its path. One of the Lumbears bends down, tears something off a fallen mass, shoves one of the other Lumbears away. Wilben squints and thinks the Lumbear is holding a leg. The Lumbear squats and begins to eat.

Good as time as any, Wilben thinks and sets off for the slope. Every few steps he looks back to see if the Lumbears have spotted him, their eyesight is at least three times better than his, but they’re too busy with what they’re eating to notice him. Wilben makes it to the slope, a forty yard section cut out of the forest, and can tell the snow is set to avalanche with the slightest provocation. A good sneeze could set it off. Well piss, nothing to do but try and make it across. Going uphill and crossing would take far too long and going down isn’t an option.

Wilben takes in the view, sees Basin river, and grins to himself. He thinks, Now or never, and sets off taking each step as careful and easy as he can. Halfway across he hears the Lumbears howl, crashing sounds follow. Trees being swiped by huge claws, branches being torn free, frozen patches of snow shatter. The howls continue. Wilben doesn’t dare turn. Any unnecessary movement could be the excuse the snow needs to let go of its weak grip on the slope. With less than thirty feet to go Wilben sees a shadow moving through the trees ahead of him. Like thick smoke come to life the shadow wraps around trees, defies gravity, swirls, gathers, spreads, and writhes its way towards Wilben.

Ahead is the shadow, behind are the Lumbears, and where Wilben is standing—in the path of an avalanche ready to come down at any moment—might be the most dangerous place of all. Alright, now what? Can’t stay here, sure as hell can’t go back. Guess the only thing to do is go on forward and hope this…whatever it is, doesn’t want to eat me. Behind him Wilben hears the Lumbears frantic howling die down a bit. Seems they’ve seen the shadow too and aren’t so confident about following after Wilben. Somehow the snow has kept its hold, but as that thought crosses Wilben’s mind he hears a long splintering cr-r-rack. The whole mountain seems to move and the snow he’s knee deep in shifts a foot toppling him over. Another dozen feet and he’ll be off the slope and into the trees. The trees where the shadow is moving ever closer. At first glance it had looked like smoke, but now that it’s moved closer Wilben sees hundreds of birds.

The snow lurches again and Wilben is thrown down slope a few feet. He pushes himself up and gives up on being careful, with all the strength he can muster he heaves himself towards the trees. Wilben wraps himself around the biggest tree he can reach as hundreds of black birds fly through the trees towards the Lumbears. The snow begins to slide, slow at first. It looks as if the whole mountain is coming undone. Wilben pulls his hood snug, holds onto the tree, and watches the birds swarm the Lumbears.

As the snow gathers speed the birds dive bomb the Lumbears, confusing them, herding them like dogs with sheep, right into the path of the snow. Too confused and bewildered to see what’s happening, the Lumbears, swatting the air, stumble into the avalanche. A minute later it’s all over, the birds have flown on, the Lumbears are somewhere far below, and the slope is still.

Yenna throws herself into his arms. “When I heard…Oh, god, I thought. I was watching, I saw the Lumbears rush you…what happened? What was that shadow?” she cups his face, looks him over, up and down. “What happened? Wilben? Why aren’t you saying anything?”

Wilben laughs, “I didn’t want to interrupt you. I’m fine. It was birds.”

“Birds?”

“The shadow, it was a huge flock of birds. Same as the one in that picture,” Wilben looks over at the shot of his great-great-great grandparents sitting in the snow, the crow nearby. “My dad said they we our family’s guardians. Never understood what he meant until today.”

 

Meeting of Merchants

 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

“Order, order!” Gazlok, the Merchant King’s page, pounds a wooden mallet on the podium. Sprawled in front of him are dozens of merchants. Most sit under the massive tent, a few stand along the edges. The din fades, but not much. Gazlok grimaces, snaps the fingers of his charred black right hand and it bursts into flame. He points his burning hand towards the huge tree that serves as the tent’s center pole and a geyser of fire licks the wood. The gathered merchant’s fall silent. Gazlok smirks and grunts. A couple of the merchant’s along the path of the fire check their hair or hats.

“First things first. We’ll hear from the six of you that traveled the farthest this year, hear your reports, then we’ll have the annual banquet, after that King Hooket will give his speech. The next few days there will…Whatever, it’s all there in your pamphlets. Most of you know how this goes.
”First to speak is…let’s see here…oh my, yes. All the way back from the eastern reaches is Yon Chay. Put your hands together for Mr. Chay.” The tent erupts with applause.

 
 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

Yon bows his head as the applause continues. He waves his hands, trying to quell the noise. “Thank you,” he says too quiet to even hear himself. He bows his head a half dozen times, says a few more inaudible Thank yous. The sound dies down.

“Yes, thank you,” Yon says again. “As Gazlok said I am recently returned from the eastern reaches. The land of spice and fine, they say. I did trade in spice, much. Cinnamon, cardamon, lavender, nutmeg”—he pulls papers from a satchel at his side, lifts them. “Figures here with…mmm, not too interesting to read this I suppose. Later, come see me if you like to learn the rates. Ah,” his eyes dart over the merchants. His pulse begins to rise. “Most of my trading is done one-on-one, I’m not used to large crowds like this. I apologize. You’ve seen my steed, I’m sure. Salloo, she’s a gentle one for the most part. Quite imposing, no one has dared tried and steal from me since I’ve been traveling with her. Able to carry great weights too.”

Leaning against the tent’s center pole is a man wearing fine silk robes and a scarf so big it covers have his face. He pulls the scarf down and calls, “What’d you see, Yon? Tell of the eastern sights. Did you see the grand towers?”

Yon nods, “Yes…Yes-yes, I did. They’re even bigger than you’ve heard stories of. Ten times, no…No, a hundred times as tall as this tent.” He looks up along with the others. “I swear it’s true. When you’re under them they’re so tall you can’t see the tops, only from five miles away, on a clear day, can you see them in full. Two warriors carved from trees the likes of which no longer grow. One holds a sword and shield, the other a spear. When you pass between them their toes are as tall as this tent’s center.

Yon talks for another fifteen minutes, talks about a deal he brokered between two princes and the huge profit he earned in the process. He mentions the specialty coffee he bought and sold for twenty times what he paid. Another of the audience attempts to get Yon to talk more about the things he saw and less about facts and figures, but Yon isn’t much of a storyteller.

Gazlok returns to the stage, thanks Yon, and leads him back down.

“Thank you for that, Yon. The eastern reaches sure do sound interesting. I’ve not seen the grand towers myself, but maybe one day. Alright, let’s see who we have next. Mmm, hmm, oh yes. Berril. Berril where…oh, there, come on—”

 
 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

Berril runs a hand over his face. “Thanks, Gazlok. Didn’t give him a chance to say where I went, but I figured I can handle that myself. All the way out to the crimson sands and back. Didn’t make it to last year’s meeting because I was out there, running water and sauce for the most part. Oh, ah, liqueur. Booze. Hooch. Sand folk call it sauce, maybe about it making everything taste better? Or go down easy? They have a strange lingo out there where one word can mean a bunch of things depending on how’s it’s used. I picked a few things up—uh, yeah?” Berril points and nods to a woman with raised hand.

“I heard the word for mother is the same one as dog and kitchen sink, is that true?”

Berril chuckles, “Yeah. Ousam. Means totally different things depending on how it’s used. If you wanted to say you were going to give your puppy’s mother a bath in the kitchen sink you’d hear that word, ousam, three times." Berril rubs the lower half of his face again. “Days are hot out there, scorching hot. Dry too. Your throat feels like it’s made of dust. You drink and drink and drink, but you never feel like you can have enough water. Good money in trading out there though. My steed is native to that climate, part of the reason I wanted a desert ox.”

Berril moves to step off the platform, then says, “Oh, if you ever decide to visit the crimson sands make sure you find Kamalkas. It’s a roving tent city, more beautiful than you can imagine. You have to see it to believe it.” He smiles at some memory.

 
 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

Gazlok shuffles papers, his eyes flit across the gathered merchants. Some in the audience have begun to pulls snacks out. “Our next speaker agreed to take the stage with great reluctance. Not much of a talker. You know him as Honra of the shadow brokers, everyone that’s not a merchant just calls him Spook. I’ll be asking him some questions, maybe even take a couple of yours, as he isn’t willing to ramble up here like our other speakers.” Gazlok looks off stage and motions, “If you’re ready, Honra?”

Out of the shadows steps a small figure, with his horns he just passes the four foot mark. His face is hidden, a dark hallow, beneath a cowl. The only thing to be seen are the bone-white horns that curl out from the hood and two beady eyes that glow like white hot coals.

“Honra, thank you for this. I think this might be the second time ever that we’ve had a member of the brokers grace this stage. I have here that…mmmhm, yes. You spent the last six months alley stepping, is that right?”

“That’s correct.” Honra’s voice is like huge snakes crushing rocks. Behind the smoothness is a heavy grinding. As if his lips and tongue craft delicate letters from the dense material his throat produces.

“Everyone’s familiar with ally stepping right—oh, no? A few…hmm, I’m seeing a few hands. Okay. Honra, do you mind explaining?”

“The simple answer is that alley’s all share the exact same entrance and exit. They’re always the space between. Between homes, between fences, between buildings. Shadow brokers know how to enter one alley and exit another, because they’re all the same once you know what to look for.”

“Right, well, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it as—”

“Not really.”

“Mm-hm, moving on,” mutters Gazlok. “What did you trade?”

“Contraband. Figured that was a given.”

“No, it is. Of course. But what exactly.”

Not a detail a shadow broker would typically divulge, but under this tent there are no trade secrets. The merchants share all to help each other. The king’s spell makes lying impossible. To enter the tent is to agree to total disclosure and complete honesty.

Honra adjusts the cowl, pulling it a little lower. “Pets are the main thing.”

“Pets, huh?” Gazlok’s lips turn down in mock frown as his eyes widen. “What sorts?”

“The sorts folks can’t get anywhere else.”

“Uh…oh. So those dragon sightings? Might have been your doing?” Gazlok asks and Honra shrugs. “Uh-huh, interesting.”

“Not just dragons. Spy birds, feeder crows—”

“Eh? What’s that? Feeder crows?” Gazlok shakes his head.

“Good for disposing of the dead.”

“Oh,” Gazlok clears his throat. “Out of sight out of mind, hmm?”

“More or less.”

“Well, that’s…I think that’s good for now. I’ll take one question from the audience. Let’s see. How about…there, Jorn, what’s your question?”

“I thought the speakers had all gone far away. How far did you go, Honra?”

“All the way to the space between the Emerald Downs and Dusk Field.”

Jorn and many of the others nod with wide eyes.

“Let’s see who’s next here. Ah, this is a treat. Back from their five year trip to the Cragmaw Mountains, please put your hands together for the Kouzous. Banna and Tea’a.”

 
 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

“Thank you, thank you. Alright, thank you. That’s enough. My-my, what a welcome.” Banna chuckles, his thick white mustache and beard shake. His daughter, Tea’a, stands by smiling.

“Please, that’s enough.” Tea’a waves her hands trying to quite the crowd. After a short while the applause dies out.

“What a welcome. Can’t tell if it’s because you’re happy to hear us speak, or because we’ve been gone for so long,” Banna laughs, hand on stomach. Tea’a shakes her head. Someone yells, We’re happy you’re back. “Well thank you, it’s good to be back. A lot of new faces here, a few missing, many we know. I could stand here and extend thanks and all that, but you want to hear about where we’ve been.”

There are shouts of Stories, Tales, Tell us what you saw.

“So many things. Five years is a long time,” says Tea’a. “We set off not knowing what we’d be selling, only decided to head to the Cragmaws because dad has always wanted to see them. Figured we find business once we got there.”

“And business we found, my-my-my,” says Banna. “Fish, would you believe it?”

Tea’a nods. “That’s right. Fish, believe it or not. Have any of you heard of the cut pools?”

“Lakes in the mountain?” someone calls out.

Banna points in the direction of the voice. “That’s right. Long tunnels carved into the sides of the Cragmaws. Cave lakes they call the cut pools. The fish there haven’t seen the light of day for…oh my, how long do you think, eh, dear?”

“Thousands of years? Tens of thousands?” Tea’a pulls a satchel at her side to her front, opens the flap and digs out a dried fish. “We bought these, dried them ourselves, and sold them to the foothill villagers. They value these little buggers more than anything. Each cut pool has a small supply, the fish population in each pool is monitored and only so many fish can be sold a month.”

“We have a couple dozen with us, enough for everyone here to have half. They taste like nothing you’ve ever had before. They’re incredible, full of minerals. They pack a punch.”

“What my dad means is that you can eat one of these buggers and not feel hungry for a solid four days. It took us a month to get here from the Cragmaws and between the two of us we ate six of these, a small wheel of cheese, four loaves of bread, and some fruit and vegetables we got along the way. That’s it.”

The pair answer a few questions, tell about the incredible view of the night sky from atop the Cragmaws. They talk about the winter festival where residents slide down long stretches of the snow covered mountain on small boards. Some race, others try and outdo each other with flips and twists in the air.

Once they finish, Gazlok takes the stage again, thanks the pair, and says it’s time for the second to last speaker.

“Kogo is here, back from Labyn Valley.” A murmur goes through the crowd. “Put your hands together for Kogo.” Gazlok heads off the stage.

 
 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

Kogo might be a child, impossible to say since their face is hidden under the huge straw hat. Beneath the hat is what looks to be a bundle of rags that shuffles up to the center of the stage. Instead of standing next to the podium Kogo makes their way to the top of it. The rags move in a way the suggests more than two arms and two legs are doing the climbing.

“Tell Gazlok not talk long. Answer question, not give detail. You ask, I say.” The voice doesn’t seem to originate from under the hat. Somehow it fills the tent, everyone in the audience hears the voice at the same volume, as though the sound is coming from inside their own head. If any of them pause to consider this (and a good number do) they can’t tell if they’re thinking the words or if the words are arriving from someplace outside of them.

From the audienc,e someone calls out, “Kogo, Gazlok said you went to the Labyn Valley. I’ve heard it’s a maze, is that true?”

“If you walk, yes. If you ride, yes. If you go on animal, yes. Get lost easy.”

“You didn’t—how did you get around then, don’t you have a wagon?”

The rags move, pushed about from inside in far too many places to conceal a humanoid body. “Have wagon, yes. Use animal, no.”

“What did you trade in the valley, Kogo?”

“Pig.”

“Pig? What do you mean?”

“Buy pig. Sell pig. Make money. One more question.”

Many of the merchants are rubbing their heads or massaging their necks. Being spoken to from inside the mind like this takes a toll, it’s uncomfortable.

“I’ll ask the final question,” says Gazlok coming onto the stage. “This one comes from King Hooket himself. He would like to know something I imagine many of us are wondering. What are you, Kogo?”

Kogo’s rags rumple and rumble, the mass makes its way down the podium and over to Gazlok. “No answer,” says Kogo at a whisper inside everyone’s mind.

Gazlok shakes his head and scowls as Kogo leaves the stage. “Well, alright then. To each their own. There are no lies here, but we can’t force anyone to answer a question they don’t want to. No rules against that. And now it’s time for the ban—”

Behind Gazlok a black hole the size of a hand appears and tendrils of thin smoke begins to pour through. The smoke rises, following the angle of the tent, climbs to the highest point, and exits the top where fabric connects to the center tree. The black hole grows bigger until it’s the size of the podium, then it doubles, and does so again until the entire backside of the tent is black. So dark all light seems to get trapped, so dark it’s hard to look at—almost painful. Staring at the darkness for more than a few seconds causes a burning sensation right behind your eyes. Most of the merchants look away, at their hands, into their laps, at each other, or close their eyes.

 
 
Art by:  Hue Teo

Art by: Hue Teo

 

The black smoke draws back towards the darkness, pulls into itself, and grows in mass until a huge figure stands on the stage. A bit over eight feet tall and five wide—even without the snake—stands Urvan the underworld merchant. Seller of dark arts, thief of secrets, peddler of lies, and trader of all things vile, rotten, and forbidden in all seventeen territories.

“You were going to call a close to your little shin-dig without inviting Urvan?” The demon laughs, his massive horns bump into the tent behind him where the black hole had been but now there is no sign of.

“Urvan,” says Gazlok. “Why’re you here?”

“Your speakers are supposed to be those that traveled the fartherest. Who’s gone farther than Urvan? Anyone? The Cragmaw Mountains, the Labyn Valley? Please. Urvan has spent the last eight months in Halde, underworld realm, home to the demon hordes. No one has gone that far before, no one but Urvan. Wouldn’t you all like to hear about that, huh?”

“Urvan,” says Gazlok. He takes a tentative step towards the towering demon.

“Little Gazzy,” Urvan plants hands on knees and leans towards the goblin. Urvan’s snake tastes the air in front of Gazlok. Vials hanging from the snake’s neck tinkle, shifting colors swirl within.

“You were not invited because no one knows how to reach Halde.”

“Oh I don’t know about that. I’m sure King Hooket knows a way or two.”

Gazlock clears his throat, “Anyways, why have you come?”

“To tell my story. To tell you all about Halde, trading darkness for shards of light. Do you have any idea how much you can get for a single fiber of angel’s feather? A whole feather”—Urvan laughs—”you’d be richer than half the merchants in this room. And you know what else? The angels buy demon’s blood, did you know that?” Urvan looks out across the tent. “It’s true. I sold two vials…well, traded. Two vials of demon blood for two angel feathers. Kept one in case something nasty happens to me. Traded the other for…eh, haha, can you guess what? Mmm? Anyone ah you there, oh no, just rubbing your face huh? Okay. Anyone else? What do you think I got for it? Here’s a hint, I didn’t sell it.”

“That snake?” someone calls from floor.

Urvan laughs, “Very good. Yes, that’s right. Always hungry, didn’t think about that before I got him. But that’s alright. He’s how I got here. Able to open doors to almost anywhere.”

“Urvan, you really do need to go. You didn’t get an—”

A figure as large as Urvan steps out of the shadows. Once seen the thought all the merchants share is how they could have missed him. A hushed murmur rolls through the merchants. King Hooket is known by them all. Almost never seen outside of the annual banquet. For him to come onto the stage is a rare event.

“King Hooket,” Urvan bows their head. “I’m honored.”

“No, Urvan—well, maybe, I don’t know—but what I do know is that you’re formally invited as of this moment. All merchants are welcome here. You’ve been gone so long we didn’t think you cared to come back. You’re quite changed since the last time I saw you. I doubt anyone else remembers what you looked like before.”

“I remember,” says the voice of Kogo in all their minds. “Was small, almost a child, and not like that. Sad dwarf before digging to Halde.”

Urvan spins, looking for the voice. “Who spoke? Why is there a—”

“No-no,” says Kogo. “No need to say anymore, Urvan. Let’s be friends here.”

“Friends with a—”

“Another time,” says King Hooket. As I just finished saying, all are welcome to the merchant tent. You handle your differences beyond this forest, another day. The banquet is set, let’s eat. Sit next to me, Urvan. I want to hear about your trip to Halde.

 

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.