The Reificant - Part Five: Brave 03.02.12 - Zack - permalink
I AM. again.
Witness of the downfall. Failed champion of my Queen. Spilled out into places that are not my own. Becoming flesh that does not belong to me. Restored to the shell of my birth. I am no more able to stop the water than a stone might halt the tide. But I must try.
Slithering upon smooth, warm stones. Freed from the membrane of my resurrection. I rise into a new place, a new air to passes into my lungs. It is humid and stinking of decaying flesh. Light penetrates into this underground place by channels of color crystal.
I stand before a two-legged animal of soft meat. Its head is supported on muscular trunk, it possesses dark eyes and short snout marked with a band of pigment. Its mouth is fleshy and it flaps when it speaks to me in strings of barking sounds. I am much larger than this creature. It is wary, but does not flee. I cannot understand its words and it cannot understand what I quill upon my back.
The sound of its cries draw more like it into the chamber. They are all of similar composition. Taller and leaner than the Mummon, their bodies more defined by musculature. They wear simple animal pelts around their midsections and their faces are painted with different pigments. Some brandish crude weapons, wooden poles with tips of sharpened bone or flint. I do not fear their weapons. I advance, ignoring them as they prod my flanks with their weapons, testing me but not attacking.
They retreat in a ring around me. I follow them out of a tunnel, slowly, my claws finding purchase on the damp, heated stones. Gradually the air becomes cooler, the tunnel narrower. The creatures crouch and I am forced to crawl upon my belly. I squirm like a larvae. It is as tight for me as the comb of my soft time.
After a long struggle the tunnel widens and I am able to walk again. Still surrounded by the upright bipeds, I emerge into a wide-open cave. Bright sunlight and the cool darkness of the shade are determined by a rough ceiling of black rock. This cave overhang is large enough to contain an entire settlement of these creatures, complete with blocky houses constructed from mud bricks, wooden beams and straw. Many walls are marked with shapes that must be depictions of local animals. Ladders connect the various tiers of structures, rising to the highest plateau upon which I now stand.
A disorganized rank of the bipeds awaits us. These are different. Some are small, juvenile possibly, others shriveled with age, still others are softer-bodied with fleshy torsos. The black hair that flows behind their heads reminds me of the banners hanging behind the desiccataphs of the ancient queens. These are not battle flags. This is the sign of mammals.
It is very quiet. I can hear my spiracles venting and the soft flap-flap of their hair in the wind that dips through the yawning cave. The discordant wail of a juvenile is shushed by an adult. I wait patiently, surrounded by the threat of their fragile spears. A shriveled biped shuffles forward. His hair is gray and not black. He is assisted by two younger individuals.
He opens a pouch of leather and empties pebbles upon the earthen floor. They are smooth and light in color as if plucked from a river. Crouching, he carefully arranges these stones into a shape of a circle surrounded by waving lines. When he has finished he points to the image and points beyond the open cavern space and to the daylight star in the sky.
"Una," he says and points to the shape in the sky.
"Una," he repeats and points to the pebble-shape on the ground.
I slowly move my foreleg, brushing a killing claw gently through the stones. I tap my foot for emphasis and, with great care, form the sound of their awkward word with my quills. The mammals gasp and murmur to one another as I repeat, "Una. Una. Una. Una."
"Una," says the gray-haired mammal.
I step forward and the bipeds part, fearfully, allowing me to walk slowly to the edge of the plateau. It overlooks their entire civilization of ladders and tiered houses hiding in the shadow of the cave.
"Una," I say once again and I gesture to the sky with my forelimb.
They shriek with alarm as I take flight, my wings beating the air and carrying me beyond the mouth of the cave and into the heat of the day. The daylight upon my shell warms my inner meat. Though the air is thin I am rejuvenated by this foray beneath blue sky.
Whirling, I see the folds of mountains and streams, white sands and table land untouched by settlements. Trackless desert and cloudless skies only occasionally spotted with the dark shape of flying creatures, far too small to be relatives of those that attacked the Mummon.
There are no other groups of these bipeds in sight. Only here, through a narrow crevasse, in the shadow of the overhanging rock, have these creatures built any civilization. Their isolation gives me hope. Perhaps the water's hold is not absolute upon this place. I circle back and buzz down into their canyon. The largest of their kind appear along the precipices, brandishing their spears, running alongside me as I slow and descend onto the rock.
"Ho Acha!" shouts the biped nearest me as I touch down. He flashes white teeth and the red of his tongue.
"Ho Acha!" I reply, mimicking his tone. He closes his mouth. Recalling my unexpected rebuke by the Mummon, I do not repeat this phrase again. I fold my wings upon my back and wait for the bipeds to surround me once more.
I hope the elder will pour out his stones again and attempt communication. Instead, he stands by and watches others bring forward a cloth heaped with something. I detect the savory aroma of cooked flesh, succulent, browned meat. Do they offer one of their own to me in sacrifice?
Unlikely. There are small animals running among them, barking at me. The pelts they wear suggest the presence of still more beasts. The bipeds, murmuring to one another, fall silent as the offering is place before me. Not just cooked flesh, but also a mash of grains and vegetables. A large clay pan of water. They fall silent once more, watching me expectantly.
I spear the steaming carcass with a claw. Their awestruck gasps are endearing to me. I must terrify them to some degree. I doubt they could stop me if I wished to slaughter them all and yet, their curiosity and confidence are such that they do not see reason to hide from me. I lift the dripping meat to my palpi and feed upon it, turning the carcass and separating the bones within. I had not considered the depths of my hunger. In moments I have stripped the carcass to a few tendons and a spinal column.
I drop these with a clatter upon the stone and in a few more moments I have devoured all they have laid before me. At last, I lift the clay to my face and drain the water. It tastes heavily of minerals, but does not bear the taint of the water that has brought me to this place.
There is no hesitation to learn and communicate with me. Before the light of day has fled I have learned a dozen words of their vocabulary. As darkness comes they create a fire from pieces of fragrant wood and I sit upon my belly and listen to their voices. They raise them in a peculiar way, in unison, the sounds rising and falling. By the firelight I am nearly hypnotized by the sound and the soft detail of their faces.
I sleep among them, on the stones, awakening to find a new offering of food laid out before me.
These bipeds are called men. They are male and female, equals like the Mummon, but with deference to age and wisdom. They are peaceful but have not always been so. They tell me there are others of their kind far away, beyond the sands and in different places.
I take wing in daylight but I discover no trace of these other people. I do discover an animal in the mountains during my exploration. Seeking to repay the generosity of the men, I swoop down and seize this animal. It is long and covered with hair, its body muscular and powerful. I snap its neck quickly. It dangles limp from my killing claws. When I return to the village with this creature I am met by the men. They seem impressed with the animal I have brought them.
"Cougar," says the elder. I repeat the word. I soon learn that this animal is the most dangerous predator of their environment. They do not hunt it out of both fear and respect. The elder calls me "Brave" but decides this description is inadequate.
"Winged Brave," he says, daring to touch my wings with his hand.
I am lured into a sense of community with these mammals. They teach me the words and syntax of their language, I teach them pieces of mine. I help them hunt, spying animals on the table land and reporting its location back to them.
"Winged Brave," their juveniles - children - call to me as I return from the hunt. "What have you brought us?"
And I have brought them something. I return with unusual stones or strange birds I have caught in the air. They repay me with more words and, eventually, with stories of the great beasts that have created this place and their people. Their stories are incredible, but I have seen strange enough things to believe them.
"I will tell you of White Painted Woman," says the elder, who is called River Stone for the way he is untroubled by difficulties. "First there was woman, who came to be filled with child by the rays of the sun and her child was called Killer of Foes. And she became filled with child by the drops of rain that fell upon her and she gave birth to an entire tribe. But there was a great evil stalking her sons and daughters. Killer of Foes went out to battle it."
The story, like all of their stories, is filled with layers of meaning difficult for me to decipher. River Stone tells me of the battle between Killer of Foes and a giant who fed upon his people. Killer of Foes was victorious and his people lived in peace. White Painted Woman became old, so she taught her daughters to give birth.
"'Do not leave us,' pleaded her daughters and sons. 'I will not,' said White Painted Woman. When she became too old to go on, White Painted Woman went towards the sun. On her way through the desert she came upon herself as a young woman. She took the hand of her younger self and they became one. She returned to the village a young woman and was greeted by her daughters with great joy. Whenever she grew old she would always return just the same."
I do not like this story very much. Though I suspect it is a tale meant to describe the natural lifecycle of these mammals, it reminds me of what must be done. The next day brings another reminder. I am using my killing claws to remove the pelt of an herbivore when a young man approaches me.
"Hello, Winged Brave," he says. I do not know him and so I quill that I am sorry, but I do not recognize him.
"I am River Stone's brother," he says. "I hold his memories. I come from the water."
"This is not good," I say to him.
"The water has given us many brothers," he says and gestures to the village.
I admit to difficulty telling one man from another - only the handful of juveniles are easy for me to distinguish because of their size. The adults have no fixed patterns and rely on temporary items like feathers and beads and bands of dyed cloth to distinguish one from the other. Now, surveying the tribe, I realize that this difficulty is not merely my unfamiliarity with their species. At least half the tribe seems to be duplicates.
That night, I seek council with the elder River Stone.
"Tell me how you found the water," I say to him.
"I knew you would ask this," he answers. "Very well. Sit down."
We sit beside the fire and he ignites a long pipe filled with fragrant herb. The cup glows orange with each intake of breath. After several long inhalations, he offers the pipe to me. I have no means to smoke this substance.
"Many years ago, when I was young and strong, I was a scout for my people. We were seeking better lands. We had been defeated in battle by the Red Rock tribe and many were hurt among us. I found this place by reputation. We were told to avoid the black rocks here, but it was desperation. My people were dying."
"You were their champion," I say.
"There seemed to be no hope, even here, until I saw the white dog. It came out from the mountains and led me straight to this place. I often wonder what spirit lived within this animal. Its eyes were blue as the sky. It took me into that cave and...it was many days in the desert. I had to have a drink."
"How many have been in the water?"
"Most," he admits.
"You must prepare your people for a grim task," I tell him. "You will continue to pollute this place with all who have been in the water. It will corrupt you until terrible things emerge from the water."
"Winged Brave comes from the water," he says. I feel chastened, but do not surrender the point.
"I have seen what other things will come. Every living thing will be their prey. The sky will turn black and the mountains will break open."
"It has happened to your people?"
"Yes," I say. "Any sacrifice is worth preventing this fate."
"What sacrifice do you ask?"
"It will not be easy. You must trap yourself in the water and never return. I think there is a way."
He exhales a long stream of purple smoke. His eyes are heavy with its intoxicating properties.
"This is a terrible thing you ask of me," his words are slow. "There are animal places in the darkness of the water. Spirits of great violence in my dreams of death. To condemn my sisters and brothers to this is a great evil. It is a greater evil to go on as we have and bring destruction to this place. What must we do, Winged Brave?"
I do not want to answer him.