She was concerned.
What if something happened to her and her family went into her phone?
Perhaps she should do something about all those pictures... so many pictures of the same weird things.
The subjects of her photography are things others may find creepy, odd, and perhaps even downright repulsive.
Her photos were taken from different angles (some were quite tricky to manage), and most were taken outdoors. Some pictures even bore funny captions and stickers she had added, putting her strange sense of humor on full display.
Way too weird.
Select All. Hide.
Now, if anyone glimpsed her photo files, they would not see all those close-up pictures of the insect life she found so intriguing. Moths, spiders, praying mantis, centipedes, scorpions, walking sticks-- basically most crawling or winged creatures she'd encounter on her daily hikes.
No one else ever seemed to understand the appeal of their intricate beauty.
Nope. Not a soul. Just her.
So she would continue to keep her odd insect fascination hidden away.
The Divided Union
Note: The story is from the perspective of the bolded labels
Ren of the Bumblebee Elves
Appearance: A combination of a humanoid bumblebee (https://milk-magazine.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/melissa-bee.jpg) and an elf (https://www.worldanvil.com/media/cache/cover/uploads/images/a6a7885913ce2ded96bbae49894da9b0.PNG)
Clotted clumps of yellow fuzz stick to the clear, sticky substance that is violently splattered across the tree trunk of the Great Kapok Tree. The two thin hairs that stuck out from the lightly wrinkled bark of the tree are all that remain of the juvenile’s legs. The mutilated remains of the young Golden Protector seared into all of our minds. His name was Amal.
Image of Great Kapok Tree: https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/kapok-tree-profile-1-400x400.jpg.optimal.jpg
Kai of the Fire Ant Orcs
Appearance: A combination of a humanoid ant (https://www.reddit.com/r/characterdrawing/comments/3zwyuz/rf_humanoid_ant_for_udas_lizardman/) and an orc (https://assetsio.reedpopcdn.com/its-not-easy-being-green-a-brief-history-of-orcs-in-video-games-1580836292361.jpg?width=1600&height=900&fit=crop&quality=100&format=png&enable=upscale&auto=webp)
The Fire Ant clan erupted into absolute chaos the moment the news reached us.
A Golden Protector murdered within the forest? Impossible.
I’m pushed forth by the powerful wave of fellow Orcs against my will. As I ride the wave that is rushing towards the Great Kapok Tree, I peel my ears and do my best to gather bits and pieces of information traveling along with me.
“The Golden Protectors are bound to their promise to protect us from the styga. But can they truly do so if they cannot even protect themselves?”
“There’s nothing we can do, endless creatures of darkness lurk within the shadows and can only be vanquished by the power of the Golden Protectors.”
An elderly Orc pitched in, “It’s true, those Golden Protectors may have been tasked with protecting all of us from all those uncivilized monsters who refused to sign the contract of peace, but now all they do is fight styga and guard the borders from those pesky Termites.”
Ah, styga. Those troublesome parasites live in the shadows with no physical form until they find a living creature to spiritually bind to and control. Luckily, Golden Protectors can prey on the spiritual essence of the styga to purge them. Even the arrogant Bumblebee Elves are all buzz and no bite; they can’t do a damned thing when it comes to fighting shadow styga. Then again, neither can we.
At last, I can see the magnificent glow of the Great Kapok Tree radiating from my end of the crowd, the only light with the ability to penetrate the uncomfortably thick tension filling the air. Despite being part of a three-way peace contract, there has always been an undeniable sense of distrust and rivalry amongst the three strongest clans of the Taputini Rainforest: the Fire Ant Orcs, Bumblebee Elves, and Golden Protector Wasps. Naturally, our clan, along with the Bumblebee Elves’ is among the primary suspects for the murder of the juvenile Golden Protector. Even so, there is a sense of respectful mourning shared amongst us all. After all, whether or not we like it, we are all irrefutably under the protection of the Golden Protectors.
The golden rules of the Taputini Rainforest, engraved in the Great Kapok Tree, look more ominous than usual:
Never harm another being without good reason
Hunting for game is forbidden, but hunting for food with moderation is allowed
Major clans are forbidden from killing outside of their designated territories: Ant Orcs are restricted to the roots of the Kapok trees and Bumblebee Elves are restricted to the canopies of the Kapok trees
ALL beings are FORBIDDEN from harming Golden Protector Wasps in exchange for their protection
ALL beings are FORBIDDEN from harming ANY trees of the Taputini Rainforest
Violators of this contract will become shadows with no physical form, cursed to live forever in the darkness
Addition: Termites require special permission from Golden Protectors to enter the Taputini Rainforest
That’s right. The styga are creatures of our own making; violators of the golden rules. Nobody had expected for the styga to end up being such problematic monsters. Personally, I think the Golden Protector was killed by a styga, but I suppose it’s hard to believe since it’s never happened before.
I crane my neck up to witness the rare sight of countless Bumblebee Elves gathered in the canopies of the Kapok trees surrounding the Great Kapok Tree alongside just as many Golden Protector Wasps. The three great clans are nearly never found gathered together in the same area at once. It truly is quite a rarity. Slowly, I lower my neck and upon seeing them, I enter a further state of shock.
The Termites. Those disgusting fiends. It’s really no wonder they are banned from the forest. Those monsters are all the same. In fact, they are no better than styga. All they know how to do is steal wood from the Taputini Rainforest. If they were a part of our contract, it’s no shocker that they would violate it immediately; it’s simply impossible for them to resist their innate desire to scavenge wood. What are they doing here?
Though it is near impossible for us Ant Orcs to witness a large gathering of Bumblebee Elves and Golden Protector Wasps, it is even more impossible for us to witness a large gathering of Termites. Wait… Termites require permission to enter the Taputini Rainforest, which can only mean…
The booming voice of Rue, one of the Golden Protector clan leaders, suddenly rings in the air, “Thank you all for arriving on short notice. Now that we have you all gathered here, the meeting shall commence”
A crisp silence sweeps through the air, as the three Golden Protector clan leaders join their clan gathered atop the Great Kapok Tree.
“It is with great sorrow that we, the leaders of the Golden Protector clan, must regretfully inform you all of the death of a young Golden Protector, here at the Great Kapok Tree. This honorable location is a fitting memorial for the final resting place of such a brave, young wasp. Amal truly was an exceptional fighter, and he was always a defender to the very end. Amal, we all hope that you can rest in peace knowing that you did your best to protect this forest. Unfortunately, not much is known yet about his cause of death, but we are currently conducting an investigation in hopes of finding out the culprit soon”
All eyes drift towards the Termites, who are trying to penetrate our ranks. Then, our eyes drift over to the Bumblebee Elves whose gazes had shifted to us as well.
“Please do not point fingers until the matter has been more thoroughly investigated. We hope that this incident will not serve to form a divide within the union of our clans. We must remain strong and put up a united front in the face of adversity. Speaking of which, we have a new guest here today: the Termites”
Rue pauses for a moment as if waiting for applause, only to be met with an awkward moment of silence.
Rue clears his throat, “As of now, we are assimilating the newly officiated Termite clan into the Taputini Rainforest. They will follow our customs and abide by our rules, but will not officially sign the contract until their loyalty has been proven. That is all. This meeting is dismissed.”
Tori of the Termites
Appearance: A humanoid termite (https://www.deviantart.com/csvanstromer/art/Termite-humanoid-483518383)
I look down and try to ignore the piercing stares boring into us from every direction, full of distrust. Not that they’re wrong to distrust us. We may have been wrongly accused before, but after what we did to get into the Taputini Rainforest…
Not that we had much of a choice. Since we were banned from the forest, we had to resort to… other… methods of obtaining food. We depend greatly on the fibers of wood, but with limited access to the Taputini Rainforest, neighboring villages are suffering severely from dangerously high rates of famine and malnourishment.
At last, we have been granted full entry to the Taputini Rainforest. Though being excluded from the contract may appear to be a form of probation from the outside, in reality, it is a gift. By being left out of the contract, we Termites are free to take wood from the trees of the Taputini Rainforest without falling victim to the curse. Before, the only thing keeping us from entering the Taputini Rainforest was the Golden Protectors bordering the forest. All of us were too weak from malnutrition to have a fighting chance against the well trained wasps. Now, things are finally starting to change.
I slowly lift my head and look at the Golden Protectors huddled by the tree with pity. I can see a battle between sorrow and fear playing out in each of their eyes.
Those poor wasps. They don’t even know that the culprit is hiding in plain sight, standing right before them.
Ren of the Bumblebee Elves
I aggressively kick a pink flower hanging down from a Kapok tree, “Damned Termites, I can’t believe they had the nerve to show their faces at the ceremony like that.”
Images of Kapok tree flowers: https://media.istockphoto.com/id/1329156851/photo/blooming-cotton-tree-with-red-yellow-flowers.jpg?s=612x612&w=0&k=20&c=5mpBrKqIk21ndXlfxdFvkwmWgcsuXWDG8VQPinVZf24=
“Yeah, I can’t believe those filthy creatures managed to make their way into here. If you ask me, they’re the ones who killed Amal,” Kyo, my coworker, pauses to stare at me, “Bro, if you kick the pollen like that, it’s not gonna stick.”
“Right, sorry,” I lightly brush my legs against the fuzzy anther of the flower, and ponder for a while, “Not that I would put it past them, but why would the Termites want to kill anybody?”
“Revenge, obviously. Who are the ones keeping all those pests from getting into the sacred Taputini Rainforest? Who are the ones securely guarding the borders of the forest from threats like them? In fact, the new leaders of the Golden Protector clan just sent out a fresh batch of newly trained recruits to the borders in response to the incident with Amal.”
“Oh, really? Huh, those new Golden Protector leaders are quite capable. It’s only been about a week since they’ve replaced their predecessors, and they’re already handling the situation so well.”
“True, it’s really quite a shame that the Golden Protector clan just lost their previous lil’ trio of leaders to old age. The timing is nothing short of inconvenient.”
“Actually, it seems a little bit too convenient, especially for the Termites. It can’t be a coincidence that they were granted entry immediately after the murder of Amal. Maybe this was all a part of their plan!”
“Huh, maybe you’re right. Now that I think about it, despite their competence, the new leaders of the Golden Protector clan really are quite the fools for sanctioning the entry of those rascals.”
I hear my boss’ voice call out from the distance, “When you’re all done for the day, head back to the hive to drop off any pollen you’ve collected and pick up some scoops of nectar. Today’s delivery day, so we’re going to be trading a few scoops of nectar for wasp venom at the Golden Protectors’ nest.”
Tori of the Termites
I listen as the other two leaders of our newly formed Termite clan laugh amongst themselves while lounging upon the roots of a sturdy Kapok tree, “Haha, I can’t believe our luck! They’re fools, all of them! Only a few days ago, we were out in the wild, begging woodpeckers for bits and pieces of wood. Now look at us!”
“That’s right, if we hadn’t witnessed the murder of that little brat, we never would’ve been able to strike such a great deal with the Golden Protectors!”
“Golden Protectors, my a**! More like Golden Devils! Those poor little wasps have no idea what they have coming for ’em!”
“It’s almost funny how little those fuzz balls know about their leaders. The kiddo shouldn’t have threatened to expose his leaders on the spot. What was his name again? Amal, was it? Yeah, that kid was too honest for his own good.”
Finally, I sigh, “I pity the kid. He’s got more morals than all of his leaders combined. If he hadn’t found out about how the leaders of the Golden Protector clan are just styga hiding in the skin of young wasps, then he never would’ve been killed.”
“We’re lucky we were eavesdropping with him, though. I’d say all of this wood is worth the price of our silence.”
Sigh… We aren’t much better than the leaders of the Golden Protector Wasps. I am only able to hold the title of “clan leader” now because I chose to prioritize the lives of my fellow Termites over the life of a wasp I had never seen before in my life.
Around a week ago, desperate to maintain their position of power, the elderly leaders of the Golden Protector wasps killed a small group of protestors who rebelled against the rule of their leaders. Perhaps they thought they would be excused for their actions on account of their contributions to the Taputini Rainforest. At any rate, for breaking a golden rule, all of the leaders were sealed out of their bodies and transformed into styga on the spot. In a moment of desperation, they tried to re-enter their bodies, and somehow managed to pull it off. But their brief moment of success came at a cost: they were forced to endure excruciating pain as long as they tried to remain in their corpses. Eventually, they decided to write a will including the names of each of their successors. Then they staged their deaths, making it seem as though they had all passed on from old death. At that point, each of them were free to exit their corpse and possess the body of their chosen successor. Mission successful. Anyone who raised suspicions regarding the deaths of the clan leaders were killed by them in secrecy, and the “new” clan leaders only had to claim they were sent off to guard the borders of the forest (we were able to find out their entire plan a while after Amal’s death, only after piecing together what we knew about styga and the corrupt rule of the Golden Protector clan leaders, and of course there was some guesswork involved as well).
They might have actually been able to pull off their plan, if Amal hadn’t gotten himself involved. The poor guy caught his clan leaders murdering several wasps in cold blood after returning to his nest late after a long night of patrol duty. The clan leaders must've been trying to silence another group of rebels. Instead of running away as fast as he could to inform some other clan leaders, Amal foolishly marched forth and confronted them. By the time he realized the reality of his situation, it was too late. He only made it as far as the Great Kapok Tree before he was murdered as well. Little did the Golden Protector clan leaders know, three Termites (myself included) on their way to appeal for more permits of entry had been inside the hive at the moment.
The three of us, now clan leaders, took a young wasp hostage and followed the four wasps to the Great Kapok Tree. We, along with our hostage, were able to witness the gruesome murder of Amal by the hands of no other than the Golden Protector clan leaders. At the moment, I was too focused on trying to save my family from starvation to consider the immorality of my decision to simply stand by as a young wasp was brutally murdered by his own kind. But now, his death haunts me to no end.
Slowly, the three of us (along with our hostage) approached the three wasps with caution. One of us kept an arm tightly wrapped around the neck of our hostage and another hand tightly clasped over the hostage’s mouth. The young wasp, helpless in the deathly tight grip of the termite, had already given up on trying to escape by then.
One of the Termites announced, “It is nearing daybreak. If you were to attack us now, you would not be able to finish us off along with our hostage before it is time for everybody else to come out. Even if you were to try to attack us, there is nothing stopping our hostage from running back to your nest to inform his fellow wasps about your misdeeds.”
The clan leaders were trapped and had no choice but to listen to the Termites’ demands. In exchange for the witness and the Termites’ promise to keep the entire incident a secret, the Golden Protector clan leaders signed a contract (separate from the contact engraved on the Great Kapok Tree) agreeing to openly announce permission for all Termites to enter the Taputini Rainforest. Quite the trade indeed.
I heard a little later that the hostage was taken away by the Golden Protector clan leaders, then quickly killed and buried before the ceremony announcing Amal’s death. Official news has it that the young wasp suddenly went missing the night of Amal’s death, and that his disappearance may have something to do with Amal’s death, but nothing is confirmed since no body has been found.
The Bumblebee Elves were also supposedly the first to discover Amal’s body after his tragic death.
In the corner of my eye, I can see a faint light reflecting off of what appears to be the wing of a Bumblebee Elf peeking out from behind a nearby tree root. I start to dash towards the light and get ready to stop them from escaping, but then I stop.
I suddenly remember the way the life slowly seeped out of Amal’s once bright, shining eyes, the way the pure faith he once had in his leaders was mercilessly crushed along with his body and soul.
And I let the Bumblebee Elf go.
Ren of the Bumblebee Elves
"...If he hadn’t found out about how the leaders of the Golden Protector clan are just styga hiding in the skin of young wasps, then he never would’ve been killed," I hear a distressed sigh full of pity and remorse.
My eyes widen and I lose control over my body, causing my nectar to slide out of my hands and slowly trickle down to my toes.
Who on earth would say such a thing?
“We’re lucky we were eavesdropping with him, though. I’d say all of this wood is worth the price of our silence.”
I flutter down to the roots of the Kapok trees, and I snuggle myself in between them.
Of course it's the Termites. We should never have given them a benefit of the doubt. But the Golden Protector clan? I refuse to believe that they were involved as well...
I slightly peek over the root blocking my view, and I freeze.
Damnit, I've been caught.
Without a second to lose, I break eye contact with the traitorous Termite, but not before I catch a glimpse of what appears to be... relief?
No, I must be imagining things. There's no way a Termite would be relieved that they've been caught.
But as I turn my head to look back one more time before I take off, I am shocked to see the Termite's back facing me. I can't help but crack a small smile as I zoom off and mouth words to the air that I pray the wind will carry to the Termite: thank you.
Tori of the Termites [One Year Later]
The day I let that Bumblebee Elf go, the truth about the Golden Protector clan leaders spread like wildfire. Golden Protectors immediately detained their clan leaders and went out to search for evidence of their crimes. By the next day, all three of the styga were eliminated. The body of the young wasp who was taken hostage on the day of Amal’s death was later found and given a proper burial.
Eventually, all of the clans in the Taputini Rainforest were officially dissolved, and all the beings in the forest agreed to live together in harmony as one. To ensure that no more beings would become styga, the contract between the three formerly greatest clans was officially terminated.
Up until the incident with the former leaders of the Golden Protector clan, nobody believed that anybody within the forest would actually be possessed by styga. After all, everybody had complete faith in the Golden Protectors’ power to protect us all. However, we have all come to learn from our mistakes.
As it turns out, many styga who managed to possess a living body had actually been living among others in the Taputini Rainforest undetected. Golden Protectors underwent additional training to learn how to determine which beings had multiple spiritual presences living within their body. Other species learned how to use the venom of the Golden Protectors to force styga out of their hosts. All beings living within the Taputini Rainforest worked together to defeat the styga until they were all eliminated.
Tori of the Termites [Two Years Later]
"Mama, look I can fly!," my precious daughter yells in delight, happily zipping around in the sky.
"I'm so happy for you, dear! But be careful, there are Wasps working up there today," I call out, hoping she will heed my warning, "Maybe if you stay on the lookout, you'll be able to catch your Papa in action!"
It took a long time, but we Termites were eventually pardoned for conspiring with the styga posing as clan leaders. Our efforts to get rid of styga alongside the rest of the forest gained widespread recognition, allowing others to realize that we had only worked with the styga to fight for our survival at the time.
It's been three years since the incident with Amal, and I have finally attained my long-desired life of comfort and peace in the Taputini Rainforest. I have even found the time to settle down and start my own family with Kyle, a kind and caring Golden Protector Wasp who saved my life during our battle against the styga. Ren, formerly a member of the Bumblebee Elf clan, is now my one and only daughter's godfather.
At last, I am full of everlasting warmth and joy. At last, I can look at the Taputini Rainforest not as a faraway dream, but as a place I call my home. At last, I am able to smile with pride as I reflect on my role in how far this forest has come.
Rango (aka Rue) of the Golden Protector Wasps (approximately a week before the start of this story)
I am glad it has been long since we Wasps have suffered under the oppression of those tyrannical Termites. All those who live under our protection in the Taputini Rainforest have finally learned to place their trust in us, rather than their contempt and suspicion. It seems they have long forgotten the old ways of this forest…
A voice calls in from the entrance of the nest in a loud, booming voice, “We request an audience with the leaders of our esteemed clan!”
“You may enter,” I try to reply in the strong, commanding voice of a leader and I sigh when I realize how much weaker my voice has gotten from old age.
I am shocked when I see that there are not only two to three but over twenty Termites marching into the nest, fully dressed for battle, but unarmed. I glance at my fellow leading Wasps and seek some form of understanding but I am met with nothing but equal parts confusion and fear.
What on earth is going on?
“We are here to call for an end to the clan system. We request that you dissolve the union of the three greatest clans, to let all of the beings within the Taputini Rainforest live as one,” announced who appeared to be the leader of the bunch.
Suddenly, I think of the bruises once tattooed into my back and arms from flying shards of rocks launched with the intent to keep us wasps out of the forest. I hear the taunts of all those who once ruled over my people ringing in my ears, “You filthy wasps. You are nothing but useless scum mooching off the rest of us in this forest. Keep yourselves and your venom out of our sacred home.”
I was a weakling who knew nothing beyond an empty stomach. The current generation has no idea how hard we have worked to come this far. How hard we have worked to alienate the filthy Termites. How hard we have worked to establish the contract of the unions.
I refuse to allow this forest to slip out of my hands, back into the past.
I feel anger boiling in my blood, and I struggle to hide the burning fury in my eyes as the innocent, young wasps bow their heads in respect, a sign indicating their hope that we leaders will consider their suggestion.
I try to calm myself down, but then I turn my head to my left and see that my fellow leaders of the Golden Protector Wasps share my sentiments, and so my burning passion returns, securing my resolve. I lock eyes with them. I can see that they understand what I am planning to do, and they nod in agreement.
The poor, young Wasps misunderstand our gesture and their eyes shine with gratitude, “We truly thank you for your careful consideration. You won’t regret th-”
The three of us charge forth together and slit all twenty of their throats without missing a beat. Remorse sends a chilling tingle down my spine, but for no longer than a moment.
I had no choice. It had to be done, for the good of our entire clan. And then I remembered… the golden rules.
How could I have been so blinded by my emotions? Despite being Golden Protectors, we are not exempt from the consequences of the contract. No, perhaps we are exempt. We should be exempt. After all, we have saved so many lives from the horrendous styga lurking around everywhere…
I suddenly feel myself slipping out of my body like water sliding down a smooth rock. I frantically turn to my partners in crime and give them a panicked glance, but they are too occupied to notice, as they too are experiencing the same problem.
It can’t be. I can’t have turned into a styga.
I find myself reduced to a puddle of darkness, chained to the shadows of my nest. I refuse to accept this reality. I am not bound by my own rules.
I concentrate on the essence of my spirit, then I lunge forth in an attempt to return to my body. To my great surprise and relief, I have returned to my body without so much as a scar. I see to it that my companions do the same.
All of a sudden, I feel lava running through my veins and my entire body feels as though it is burning in flames, “AHHHHHHHHH!”
I scream in agony, and I pray that nobody else in the nest hears my pained cries. Before the others meet the same fate, they quickly slip out of their bodies and return to the shadows. But I refuse to give in.
I ignore the agonizing pain that comes with each step, and I get myself out of the nest. I have no time to seek a more suitable body, and therefore have no choice but to dig a hole while in my own corpse. The burning sensation eats away at my mind with each and every single movement I make, and yet I persist. Eventually, the others eventually follow my lead. The pain leaves me begging for a blissful death but we manage to hide all the bodies in the ground in time. Within the past hour or so, I had also managed to come up with a plan to recover from this… minor… setback.
By the time I finish explaining my plan to the others, we don’t have much time left to prepare. But we manage to draft a will by the time the sun comes up and the young Golden Protectors emerge from their resting places.
“My dear Golden Protectors, my pride and joy, please gather forth,” I call out with all the strength I can muster, then I slowly sit myself down to calm my trembling legs.
“We, the leaders of the Golden Protector clan, are now announcing our official retirement from our positions in this prestigious clan”
I try to smile through my grimace of pain as I bear witness to the wistful sadness brewing in the misty eyes of my loyal followers.
“Fear not, for we have selected three very capable candidates as our trustworthy successors. Marcus, Rue, and Tengi, will you please step forth and accept your new role as the worthy leaders of the Golden Protector clan?”
I hear roars of approval and rigorous applause, and I feel satisfied with my decision. The three Wasps called forth come to us and bow their heads in acceptance of their newly given roles.
Their presence confirmed the quality of our decision… These three truly are the perfect choice…
I give them a nod of approval and they reclaim their positions in the crowd.
“There is one more announcement we must make. It is our honor as the Golden Protector clan of this forest to increase the effort we place into our avowed roles in this forest. As such, we have sent a dispatch of approximately twenty of our strongest fighters to the front lines around the borders of the forest. May we purge all the styga once and for all!”
Cheers fill the nest and slightly dull the raging pain of my curse, but I know that I cannot last in this body for much longer.
I immediately shoo everybody out of the nest except for Marcus, Rue, and Tengi. Such young bodies, thriving in their prime.
I grin at the eagerness twinkling in their eyes and tingle with anticipation, “Forgive me dears, but I can’t wait for much longer.”
Without waiting for a reaction, I swiftly slide out of my body and I hear the thump of my corpse hitting the ground behind me as I lunge into Rue’s strong, healthy body. As I strangle Rue’s spirit to take over control of his body, my actions don’t summon even a tiny sliver of remorse.
Perhaps this curse is but a blessing in disguise.
Disclaimer: Please keep in mind, the lifespans and activities of the fictional characters/life forms in this story are not 100% accurate to their real-life counterparts.
I'm up on the tight wire
One side's ice and one is fire
— Leon Russell
The world was flat. This was intuitive. It was obvious. No one fell off. No one ever had.
On a world forever tidally locked to its sun, there ran a terminator that was a 22-mile longitudinal strip of Kapock rainforest--the Taputini. Vertically bisecting this ribbon of lush vegetation on an otherwise paradoxically dead world, precariously juxtaposed between ice and lava, was a mile-wide river running north to south and separating the two co-existing civilizations--the Tenz and the Phillippi--who each shared their respective banks of Taputini forest.
There was a single moon that revolved around this world, although it caused nary a wobble in the borders within which lay the planet's only verdancy, it's habitable zone of arable land and fresh water. The lands between the borders of this lush terminator were where that fresh water was neither ice nor processed instantly into steam, but ran melodiously so slowly that it could be caught in a cup. The water was plentiful, for the River Taputini was mighty, fed by what was thought to be a glaciated ice rim at the top of--again, what was thought to be--their flat world.
The Tenz and the Phillippi were the self-named ancient peoples of the terminator between the heat and cold, and they were quite similar. River Taputini separated their homelands, their populations, their religions, and their histories. But while these separations existed, like the river itself they were fluid. There were hardly any secrets between them.
No bridge was ever built from the Tenz to the Phillippi shores, because the leaders of both felt that good fences make good neighbors, and the river was as good a fence as could be. That is, one couldn't just saunter over bridging to get from one side to the other; thus, it was more of a process, involving a ferry and no small amount of pageantry.
Going from one side to another was meant to be a big deal and not something too easy, because it was felt that the flow between nations shouldn't be such a passive process, but an active one--one that meant something. The meeting of two peoples should be for a special reason and not for something as casual as tourism.
The Tenz occupied the Taputini Rainforest that bordered the bright, scorched west side of their world; the Phillippi people were adjacent to the east side beyond which was forever shrouded in frozen darkness. Even though both currently co-existed without conflict or drama, that had not always been so. In fact, a serious conflict had occurred fewer than 18 world-years prior which had taken a number of innocent lives on both sides.
As such, there were some aspects to their relationship that were somewhat tentative. One such item was the pending marriage of both leaders' son and daughter, which had been planned since long before their births, cancelled during the conflict, and then reinstated after their war as a commitment to keeping the peace.
This union had been foretold in the religious tomes of both peoples generations prior; as each people ticked off their pedigrees, one generation at a time, the countdown had run its course to coincide with the birth of one male child and one female child on either side of the river. This was the holy sign between the Tenz and the Phillippi that symbolized peace. Now it seemed the holy texts had come to their conclusion, and the clerics of each religion knew that this marriage would usher a new age--one that required a new encyclical to be written.
Everything would change--the interaction between the peoples of the forest and even their religions.
The Tenz and the Phillippi of the Tatupini got along for the most part. There was the usual us-vs-them jingoism on each side, mostly fueled by military thinking and martial attention to security, national identity, and ethnic labeling. It was, of course, the foretold union between the two of them that would finally forever fuse the Tenz and the Phillippi. as the prince and princess were coming of age, there was an excitement in the air--the taste of destiny. Finally, life would be able to move as one world, one flat bisected world of limited flora and fauna and water.
The two heir apparents, Tesh and Phinea, were pampered from birth for their role. They had each been sequestered away from other children. They had been relentlessly schooled in their royal duties throughout their childhood and adolescence. They had been instructed on the intended genetic union of their respective peoples by their sexual biology, presented scientifically in a way that only piqued their interest in the non-scientific aspects of their destiny.
Fertility on the world was limited, probably due to the geographical constraints that had affected hormonal physiology in some type of mind-body connection. However, the leaders felt their children, as chosen by their Gods, would not suffer being childless. How could they? The leaders themselves had been chosen so long ago!
Piqued interest has a way of winning out, and with the cooperation of trusted servants, it was easy for the betrothed to meet each other, driven by a need to know what they were getting into.
As it turned out, they got into each other.
Thus, in a manner of speaking the Tenz prince and Phillippi princess had already sealed the deal, an impromptu, passionate tryst provoked by their passionate worries over a political dissolution to their arranged marriage: they were in love. They were unfailingly, adolescently, stupidly, and forever in love. They made themselves their own heads-of-state and their edict was as final as it was consummated.
The flora and fauna on this world had evolved as a result of the unique aspects of the planet, some plants and animals favoring the warmer vertical side of the river, while others favored the cooler side. Ironically, it was the cold-blooded fauna that preferred the warm and, alternatively, the warm-blooded ones that preferred the cooler side. Alternate biochemistries linked them to their respective climate preferences. It was this gravitation of species preference which established the ritualistic differences between the Tenz and the Phillippi religions. They each had their sacred animals--symbols of fertility, bravery, and destiny.
Only one known living thing seemed to frit freely between both of these zones--the juvenile Golden Protector wasp. Although it was called juvenile, it was actually just diminutive. Although it was called Golden, it had a reddish hue, the golden only revealing itself as an accidental glimpse out of the corner of the eye of someone privileged to catch it at just the right angle. And although it was deemed a protector, no one was sure of--from just what--they were being protected. The mythos that had emerged in subtly different ways between the two peoples generally involved the insect's magical control over the planet's axis, keeping the terminator zone stable.
The Tenz and the Phillippi had no idea how correct they really were in this assumption.
This mysterious arthropod was an enigma, being only one of its kind. Forever, both the Tenz and Phillippi never knew of any other of its race and, without the concept of reproduction to consider, the wasp was felt to be immortal.
The lore grew and overlapped in both peoples--that it was the Golden Protector wasp that kept the ice from the fire and maintained the Taputini buffer between east and west halves of their flat world. And even though such a thing was deemed crucial to their survival, all attempts to capture it--if only to protect it--proved futile. Finally, it was adjudicated by treaty that any attempts to interact with the wasp stop and forever be forbidden.
There came a time, much later, when it became murmured about that no one had actually seen the Golden Protector wasp for several generations. Yet, the forest still existed, the river still flowed, and the lava and ice were still separate hemispheres. This prompted an emergency fact-finding meeting of both heads of state.
"How could this be?" asked the Tenz leader, Tenzor.
"I, too, ask the same question," said Phillipp III, the king of the Phillippi.
The joint council, of whose lineage were the very ones who had ratified the Golden Protector Wasp Non-interference Accord generations earlier, mumbled in confusion, no one able to proffer a rational answer.
"It must still exist," said Tenzor.
"Yes," agreed Phillipp III, "for our peoples live and thrive still, within the merciful bounties of the Kapock trees and within the protection of the boundaries of the Taputini."
"Well said," Tenson said to Phillipp III. "Perhaps, I wonder, if the wasp felt slighted by our non-interference with it?"
"It was only for its protection," added Phillipp III.
"Here, here!" and "Well said," and "It must be so," the council attendees interjected.
"Well, whatever the reason," said Phillip III, since all is well, we should just assume the wasp lives..."
"After all, the forest still lives, as do its peoples. Still lives," Tenson agreed--
"But is lost," added Phillippi. "Such is the will of God."
"Here, here!" and "Well said," and "It must be so," the council attendees again interjected. They didn't discuss which God willed it, for each people had their own. But which God was irrelevant.
There being no new business, the meeting was adjoined.
One day the leader of the Tenz called in his advisors excitedly. Once they all had assembled, he had the doors sealed shut. "I found today, in my garden, the body of the dead lost Golden Protector wasp."
"Indeed. Our one Golden Protector wasp. The very one. Our protector. Our savior! Oh, whatever shall we do? The scorched lands will advance and overtake us."
In an extraordinary coincidence, Phillipp III had called in his advisors to tell them that he, too, had found the body of the lost Golden Protector wasp in his own royal garden. Unbeknownst to both, the one-wasp universe lay shattered in the reality of two dead ones simultaneously appearing on both sides of the River Taputini.
"Fie! the frozen death will overtake us at any time," Phillipp III exclaimed. "Certainly we should warn the Tenz."
"Your Highness," offered one of his consuls, "perhaps this is something we should address with discretion."
"How do you mean?"
"I mean to say that our one savior, our one protector, has perished on our very own land."
"Won't it appear--or be assumed--that it was we, the Phillippi, who were responsible for its death? That we thwarted its protection? That we created the end of our world?"
"Which is surely coming," the king said.
"Such infamy is neither welcome nor deserved."
Meanwhile, back with the Tenz, "Shouldn't we, great Tenzor, assume the Phillippi will blame us for its death? That's why we should not report this."
Both councils, without the awareness of what had played out, felt their respective peoples would be blamed and agreed to officially swear an oath that the dead Protector, come what may with fire or ice, should be kept a secret. If both peoples had only a limited time before their deaths during a terminator Armageddon, would it not be terrible if they spent that time warring with each other?
Each member of each council--and Phillipp III and Tenzor themselves--went home that night wondering if they were to have their last night alive on their world. If they would, respectively, die screaming encased in ice or in burning fire by morning. Was it the end of the world?
The lost Golden Protector wasp--also--was hardly a bug.
The Lost Golden Protector wasp was an infolded 3-dimensional cross-section into our world from 11-D eternity, serving here to function as a world-axis stabilizer. In this respect, the Tenz and Phillippi were right about their worldview (i.e., their doomsday view). Even though both peoples would soon discover there were two, there were not. The dimensional infolding reduction resulted in entangled wasps of the same living being after passing through the double 3-D slit on their 11-D realm. The formula for this was large enough to fill several 12-story buildings.
Were the two (one?) entangled wasp(s) entangled dead?
They had retreated safely into their remaining 8 dimensions. And while they still held some sway on their world's axis, there were some perturbations.
King Phillippi III was startled to realize he was still alive and not frozen to death; Tenzor, likewise, realized upon awakening that he wasn't a cinder. Each of the leaders summoned their stewards to check the status of each wasp respectively. Each steward, almost as if they were entangled themselves, entered the supreme bed chambers wide-eyed to report that each carcass--under the protections of the Tenz and Phillippi, accordingly--were gone!
The usual crosstalk between the peoples was suspended that day. The joint fishing hunt on the river was canceled. The wedding preparations were placed on hold, and the bride and groom were each placed under house arrest to make sure there were no indiscretions.
The respective leaders convened their consuls again.
"King Phillippi," his chief consul began, "I know not the whereabouts of the Golden Protector. I secured the vault where it lay, and I stationed two guards at the entrance."
"Most mysterious," Phillippi III said. "Is there any suspicion of our forest co-dwellers in this disappearance?"
"Well," the chief consul mused out loud, "it couldn't have been any of us Phillippi. After all, they are them and we are us."
"Here, here," was launched from several mouths. Phillippi III wrapped the fingers of both his hands simultaneously on the consulate table.
"It may be time to make the announcement to the Tenz authorities?" he said tentatively, raising his voice on the last syllable, as if it were a question.
"No," the chief counsel answered. "Especially if they are involved."
"How? The vault was sealed and there were guards."
"I don't know, Sire. But you know how they are."
Meanwhile, Tenzor was investigating the similar disappearance under his own watch. "No, counsel, I don't know how they are," he said. "Tell me."
"We have no reason to distrust them except that they are very cold people."
"Here, here," from the table.
"I'd like to go with my gut," said Tenzor, "and I'd like to make a surprise visit to King Phillipp." The table went completely silent. "Make this happen, counsel."
The counselors were supercilious beyond the number of actual raised eyebrows, but their leader had spoken and the preparations began.
High above River Taputini two Golden Protector wasps danced on the breeze that blew over the forest canopy that stretched over both sides of the water. They exfolded into multiple dimensions, then shot up high into the jet stream. Below, the heat that bordered the Tenz and the cold that contained the Phillippi began to move toward the central vertical river.
Tenzor, as he ferried across the river to see his counterpart of the Phillippi, noticed something never seen before in the world. Looking coldward toward the Phillippi he saw a layer of red light on the horizon. He felt it strange, because the cold side horizon seemed to be glowing, as if with severe heat.
Phillippi III's intelligence corps was excellent, so he knew about the pending visit from the Tenz leader. Standing on the shore of his side of the river, he noticed something he had never seen before. People on other worlds might call it dawn or dusk. But with the recent scare of the dead Protector, Phillippi realized the world was in motion.
"This is how it ends," he said out loud. His ferry crew lost the color in their faces. "Stop!" he commanded. The oarsmen dutifully obeyed. "We're in the middle of the river. Whatever is approaching us from the horizon comes here last. I am your leader, and I must be last to perish."
By this time, Phillipp had concluded the episode the same way. "Fetch my daughter," he commanded. His entourage started shifting their feet nervously, otherwise immobile--otherwise not off to fetch anything. "What! Why aren't you off now? Fetch my daughter!"
"Sir," the head armed escort began, "she is currently not available."
"Why is that? Is she with the Moon?" as the quaint saying went.
"No, sir, she is with the Tenz prince."
Phillipp's face blanched, then reddened in rage. He began formulating a plan for quick and harsh punishment for his guards when there appeared in the distance a sailing vessel to the north of them ducking in and out of a rolling mist that was moving toward them. This was puzzling, because any movement issued forth from the East or the West, between the two peoples settled in the forest. North and South simply were not directions of action in their world.
Tenzor stood on the bow of his official state ferry and noted the southbound vessel, too. He listed skillfully with the boat, in amazement, as the mysterious vessel continued on an intercept course with his ferry. Murmuring ensued among the two sets of contingents. Truly this was unprecedented: someone who was neither Tenz nor Phillippi--not traveling East or West.
All life on the planet seemed to stop as the sailing vessel approached. Finally, Tenzor ordered his ferry to continue to Phillipp's shoreline; he felt whatever was coming required both of them, unified, as the stewards of their world. The mist that shrouded the mysterious boat allowed only identification of how many sailors there were on it, but not any features.
True to the novel circumstances, what finally arrived was neither Tenz nor Phillippi. It was both, for the leaders would soon be surprised to see their children.
Phillippi III's dock had received the Tenz state ferry, but there was no conversing between the two leaders. All eyes were fixed on the mist rolling in from the North.
As if to make an ostentacious entrance, the mist parted like curtains being drawn, and a rope was thrown from someone on the bow. That someone was Tesh, the Tenzor prince and heir apparent to his people. Phinea, the Phillippi princess, stood behind him smiling the smile of naïvité that came with such puerile unions.
Tenzor lowered his head and when he raised it up again, his eyes were glaring at his guard contingent. They snapped into battle readiness with the shuffle and slapping of sudden posture arrangement and grasping of their weaponry.
Phillippi just stared at Phinea in disbelief. These two children, as he regarded them, were together alone, and they had been alone for some time, all of it clandestine and in the privacy of their sailing vessel. No one else was aboard.
"Father," began Tenzor. Tenzor held up his hand, forbidding him.
"No!" shouted Phinea to Tenzor. "Hear him, sir." Tenzor's grimace didn't exactly soften, but it did reach a type of neutrality.
"I have news from the other side of the world, Father. And," to Phillipp III, "your highness."
"The other side of the world?" Tenzor blurted in disbelief. "There is no other side of the world. The world is flat. It ends to the north where the river overflows the top edge and to the south where it overflows the bottom." All in witness began laughing at how unnecessary it was to explain such an intuitive truth. It was axiomatic, figuring into the religious instruction of both the Tenz and the Phillippi.
"No," Phinea said defiantly. "That is all wrong now. We have seen it. We have sailed south from here, found the great iciness at what we thought was the end of the world, and the tide from the Moon opened a channel through it, and going farther south became for us sailing north."
"How is that possible, daughter?" Phillipp III asked in ridicule. "This cannot be true, or you would have fallen off!"
"Because our world is round, not flat."
All laughed until abruptly stopping at the upraised hand of Tenzor.
"It's true," agreed Tesh, in confident affirmation.
Tesh reached down to pick up a small box and presented it to all there. He slowly opened its lid and from it a pair of Golden Protector wasps fluttered out.
Tesh and Phinea each held out a hand and a wasp lighted on each. This was no less astounding than a religious vision. All people on the shore fell to their knees.
"Our world is saved," said one of the Tenz soldiers when all saw the two Golden Protector wasps ascend out of site.
"By this union of Tesh and Phinea," a Phillippi guard added.
The two fathers stood in silence and trembled. It remained awkward until Tenzor walked from the dock to Phillippi and extended both of his arms. The two men embraced each other tightly to the cheers on both sides of them. Then they released each other and turned to the young couple. Tenzor embraced Phinea, his new daughter-in-law, and Phillipp III embraced his new son-in-law, Tesh.
While the rest of the two kingdoms were getting more and more inebriated, Tenzor and Phillipp III sat in arduous, focused negotiation designing a new world order. The nations were now joined in sacred bonds, and the couple symbolized the new unified realms on either side of River Taputini. After two days of wanton debauchery outside their doors, they were ready to receive the new couple upon whom the entire all-encompassing document relied.
Both Tenzor and Phillipp III would sign, but so should the miraculous couple who single-handedly ushered in a new wonderful age; and the fact that they brought with them two Golden Protectors and not just one--as it was believed to be, only gave an additional guise of magic to their union. Surely the world was safe from the fire and the ice.
But what of this other side of the world?
The religious prelates of both nations had also met to issue a joint encyclical, which coincidenatlly was completed at the same time as the sovereign governing edict.
From the Clerical Council of the Church of the Tenz and the Basilica of the Phillippi:
Our great books did not say our world was flat. They only implied it by stating that the holy among us will never fall off. Truth revealed, no one has. And although the land appears flat, Tesh and Phinea have insructed us otherwise. Their tales of another realm of forest on the other side of the world can only mean we live on a sphere so big it only appears flat to us. Otherwise, anyone on the other side of a flat world would fall off, and our royal prince and princess returned intact and in the flesh. Our Supreme Being--whichever one of our two is the true One, works in mysterious ways. Nothing falls off, except the lost Golden Protector wasps, but they fall up. It is not up to us to interpret the Supreme Being, only to accept what appears to us as truth until a new truth replaces it. This is called Faith, and the lack thereof may still risk falling off this sphere, as it is. No shapes are more adherent than others. Whether flat of round. That's what we have learned by this God-given epiphany.
As expected, there were some growing pains in the new world order, but over the months the unification matured peacefully. When all seemed as if it were going smoothly, portending for a glorious river civilization spanning both sides, the bottom dropped out.
"The royal couple are gone!" shouted a handmaiden. The couple had rotated residencies on either side of the river, so it was the Phillippi guards who alerted Phillipp III. He immediately was ferried to Tenzor's residence for a meeting.
When he arrived, he was shown into the proclamation room, whereupon Tenzor presented the letter from Tesh and Phinea. Although they both had signed it, it was obviously Phinea's penmanship.
Dear loving parents,
This is the hardest thing to do, since both our mothers had been killed in that great stupid war. We've come a long way, have we not? We think so. Suspicion is extinct and ill-will between our peoples is a relic of unhappier times. The Protectors live on as does our way of life between the lava and the frozen-over desert. The River Taputini is clear, clean, and replete with the swimming life that helps sustain us. The fruit is plentiful and the ground fertile. Our natural environment is stable and expectations of each day are never disappointing.
There is a whole new world. Our exploration and surveillance of the continuing river on the other side, and its own lush forests, have shown it to be uninhabited by being such as us. And the animals and plants are according to an entirely different plan. Perhaps there is only one God there, and he must be mighty. Or she?
There is a particularly lovely garden where fruit trees stand tall and plentiful. We have set out for it and wish to settle it. If we haven't returned by the time you read these words, you should assume the South passage was still patent. Although we could hardly fit past the North one when we had returned months ago. We believe this to be a once-in-a-millenium phenomenon. If it remains open, we will return with our family (I am with child now); we will visit. But we will return there, for that will be our home. Our world. Our future. We will be fruitful and multiply and fill that world. If the passages seal, perhaps in hundreds of generations our two peoples will meet.
Tenzor handed the letter back to Phillippi. "We should set out an expedition at once to retrieve them," he said. "Our unification is fragile."
"No," Phillippi replied. He could hear his daughter's voice in the written words said out loud. It was a benevolent voice and portended benevolent things.
"You are right," Tenzor said. "They are with child and that is the confirmation of their independence to act as they want. I wonder if we should confer with the clerics on this."
"Oh, no," Phillipp III blurted. "Don't involve them in anything important. If there be any catastrophic repercussions, certainly the wasps will be back. And God knows what else."
"Then we should be careful," Tenzor urged. "We've run out of sons and daughters." Phillipp nodded in agreement.
"Is it me, or is it getting cold in here?" he asked Tenzor.
The Old World and the New World were ready. They were poised to assume their geographic destiny. The entire globe trembled. Then it shimmied. Then it began moving in a spin. The whole process taking a world-year.
First the winds began, and the river peoples had to batten their windows and doorways. Many domesticated animals were lost and much vegetation was battered beyond salvage. Above them, the people witnessed the stratospheric meeting of fire and ice, day and night for months. High above were the explosions of mutually exclusive elements, forced into sublimation. A rosy fog covered the lands, filtering the sunlight into a moire pattern of shimmying rainbows that crisscrossed themselves, inventing new hues never before witnessed.
Next, the dawns and dusks flickered on both sides of the River Taputini. The Tenz and the Phillippi had never seen such horizons to the East and the West.
Even more miraculous was the moving of their outlying borders. The lava receded and hardened; the ice melted and water flowed over the salt beds that had lay hidden immemorial. As the lava cooled, mountains erupted upward with thunderous noise and ground-shaking; as the salt beds mixed with the melted ice, an ocean brewed.
Ultimately, dawn repeated according to the circadian rhythm of the Tenz and the Phillippi; dusk came for every day's end. An age of unaccustomed fertility ensued, and the intermarriage between the two river peoples became fashionable. Soon, an ocean lay to the East and a continent lay to the West. There would be an explosion in population with many places for them to migrate.
PART THREE: 800 world-years later
The ancient patriarch and matriarch, Tesh and Phinea, had been fruitful and had multiplied. The long-perished Tenzor and Phillipp III rest in peace in the history books. The North and South Passages had never returned to patency, now covered with miles-high glaciers. Thus, an ocean separated the New World from the Old World on one side, and a dense forest continent on the other. The way was also blocked by at the ice caps.
When maritime progress finally allowed long voyages, it was the people of the Old World who would venture to their counterpart first, as they were a millennium ahead in their history, knowledge, and even existence.
They had heard the mythos of the antediluvian Tenzor and Phillipp III, and how the Golden Protector wasps had ascended above the heads of the betrothed Tesh and Phinea, high enough to take with them the Grand Attractor that was their anchor to an unchanging hellish day and forever frozen night.
The Tenz contemporary scientists would call it an axis, for they had long separated the science from the mythology. They understood that this axis wasn't functional until whatever the lost Golden Protector wasps symbolized set the torque about it into operation. Thus, their science, far advanced from that of the New World, would measure the tilt of this axis to explain seasons.
The New World mythos, however, explained it differently, appreciating the nature of the Golden Protectors but not necessarily understanding the science. It was no matter, for it was--for the New World--that science and religion were the same.
Their Good Book's first lines read,
In the Beginning, Father Tesh and Mother Phinea came to the New World at the behest of the Golden Protectors, who had absconded to establish the VOID that then was filled with the World Motion that begot night and day. The nature of the Golden Protectors is one of the Mysteries, which we celebrate as fertility in the newly returned Warmed Months each World-Year, and from which we ourselves take part in body and in blood. Blessed are the Golden Protectors, for They allow the World to sustain our bodies while they sustain our very Souls.
There came the day that the ships from the Old World reached the shores of the New World. The ship captain, as now recorded in the history tomes, had told the seminal story of first contact:
These are primitive people, yet they possess wondrous things--novel foodstuffs, amazing beasts of burden, and precious metals. Their men are strong and can lift mightily, and their women are seducing for childbearing. This find is Our find, and we can benefit greatly by settling here in this New World and shaping its future.
It is evident that these primitives need the guidance, leadership, and direction of our Old World to steady the rudder of their journey toward our combined destiny.
Far away in other dimensions, a pair of Golden Protector wasps circled this discovery of the New World by those from the Old World and re-envisioned an axis stayed in its rotation; re-imagined the impurities of the age purged by fire and ice. High in the stratosphere, they fluttered their wings in indecisiveness: whether to tidally lock this world in termination of fire and ice.
They call you a loveliness, but I don’t think that’s true.
Yes, you look splendid in your spotted red coats, with wings poking out in a hint of black lace, but your splendor does hide something wicked beneath.
You are a monster, truly.
I release you into my garden, not because I like to look upon your colors, but so you will destroy.
I want you to feast on other small green, and white, and red little bodies.
I want you to devour their young until they are obliterated in my small corner of the world.
Oh, how I hate a purposeless insect.
But you are not that.
You are my wicked little friends.
You are the only creature with six legs permitted to crawl along my skin without being promptly batted at or, more likely, murdered without a second thought.
Your friend the mantis is also allowed to live, but never to touch, for her devouring spirit is not cloaked in pretty robes of red– her monstrosity is plain to see. She need not hide her true intent, being such a large, battle-adorned creature. But you are small: lovely.
You must be unassuming as you crawl across fingertips and freckled cheeks, for if one knew your true nature, surely such a little thing would not be allowed to live? To feast on soft bodies?
Yes, you look lovely, but the red on your back may as well be blood.
It is at the very least armor.
Perhaps that is why in every iteration of your name, they call you lady.
A pretty thing.
Unassuming armor to hide a hungry monster.
You in mass form are not a loveliness, but rather a lethality– at least to the other garden bugs.
I do know you. Deeply. You and I are not so different, are we?
That is why when I let you out, I found myself alight in genuine surprise…
Because I did not think: Monster. Beast. Cannibal. Destroyer.
I did not smile my usual wicked grin at the havoc you would unleash upon my garden foes.
Instead, as you crawled across the fingertips and forearms of my own little ladies, I could think of but one word:
The Picasso Moth
Deep in the heart of a lush jungle, lived a tiny and elusive creature known as the Picasso moth. Its wings were a marvel of intricate design and bold colors that seemed to have been painted by the hand of an artist. The locals whispered that it was the spirit of the great Spanish painter, Joan Miro, taking the shape of a moth to bring light and beauty to the world.
The Picasso moth was a rare sight, as it only came out at night. It fluttered its wings as it danced around the little flowers that bloomed in the dark, catching the attention of anyone who was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it. Its wings had an array of geometric shapes which seemed to change from one moment to another, making it seem as if the moth was alive and moving to the music that only it could hear.
One day, a young girl named Isabella was exploring the jungle, and she saw something move in the shadows. As she went closer, she saw a tiny creature fluttering its wings. Isabella's eyes widened, for she had never seen such a beautiful moth before. She watched it with wonder as it flew around her, and her heart was filled with a joy that she had never experienced before.
Isabella went back to her village, and she shared the story of the Picasso moth with everyone she met. They listened to her intently, and some even thought that she had made it up. But Isabella knew what she had seen, and she was determined to prove to everyone that the moth was real.
Days passed, and Isabella came back to the jungle every night to see the Picasso moth dance. She also brought a camera, hoping to capture its beauty and show it to the world. But despite her many attempts, the moth was too quick, and Isabella could never take a clear picture of it.
One night, as Isabella was walking through the jungle, she heard a rustle in the bushes. She thought it was the Picasso moth, and she scrambled to take out her camera. But when she looked up, she saw a big cat staring at her, ready to pounce.
Isabella froze, her heart racing with fear. But then she remembered the beautiful moth that had brought her so much joy and that had inspired her to be brave. She stood her ground and held up her camera, hoping to scare the cat away.
The cat took one last look at her and then bolted into the jungle. Isabella breathed a sigh of relief and smiled, knowing that the Picasso moth had given her the strength to face her fears.
From that day on, Isabella went on to share her story with everyone she met, inspiring them with her bravery and the beauty of the Picasso moth. And although she never did get a clear picture of the moth, the memory of its vibrant colors and intricate wings stayed with her forever.
A nod to Spanish painter Joan Miro`'s colorful creations.
The year is 2097.
The city is but one of few left standing in the Midwest since the big disaster in 2021. That was the year the two world powers went at it tooth and nail for all of eleven hours, and within the pressing seconds of two phone calls, the majority of the world went up in a huge ball of nuclear scintillation. After nearly seventy-seven years, what is left of the human race is no longer the majority.
My name is Eddie McCabe. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones if you could call me that. My mother was born in 2053, but was also born without legs, thanks to the fallout. She gave birth to me in 2074, and two years after my birth, she went away, and I never saw or heard from her again.
As a child, I had asked many questions but was told that one day I would find all the answers I was looking for, but until then it was best not to ask.
During the course of my upbringing by a small group of men and women, we were constantly moving from place to place, trying to find the safest, if not warmest places to live. The explosions had changed the weather and living conditions considerably. I had heard from the Elders how summer was hot, and winter was cold; how the days were clear, and the nights were dark but filled with tiny crystals in the shadows of blackness.
Now, none of that is the same. Winter is almost every day. The winds blow a heat that chills my bones because of the radiation. Ever since I was a child, there has never been anything more than a hazy light during the day. The ozone layer has dropped so badly, what sun we can see, appears to be nothing more than a dull-gray circle nearing death.
I had heard what it was like before the destruction; about the technology, science, medicine; even a thing called a television. Would you believe some magician was able to put people in a small box and make them perform for other people to enjoy? They wouldn’t perform until you pressed a button, and they would come to life and act all sorts of weird things. That’s scary.
Whatever there was before is gone now. As I got older, I learned from the Elders why we move so much. We are a portion of the last of the human race. In my group, there are nearly two thousand, with another four or five thousand elsewhere in the country; maybe a hundred thousand left in the world, but our numbers grow smaller each week.
A few years before I was born, the Other’s of this world have gained full control and have become the intelligent, dominant race. They control the law, politics, and have virtually become the New Establishment.
The Elders have told me the only hope we have is to wander forever and that I should pray I die from either natural causes or by what’s left of earth’s environment as we know it.
The Others have adapted to the air and have taken over. The Others are animals.
Not the larger ones, but the smaller ones. Those animals that do exist are constantly at war with each other to attain complete domination, but the ones we run from are eaters of human flesh.
Because of the radiation fallout, those who search us out are white rats, flies, and cockroaches. They have mutated to a thousand times their original size. As a child, I was shielded and protected from them as it became evident small children are the best meat they can eat.
For now, we are camped near a dry riverbed that separates two cities that prospered a long time ago. Almost all the buildings stand in disarray while the rest are nothing more that dusted rubble. They were once known as Council Bluffs and Omaha.
The Elders motion to me just now that a sighting has been made of nearly a hundred rats approaching from the east, and coming from the north, a swarming sound of another hundred or more flies approach us. Several hundred cockroaches were seen marching from the southwest. It looks as if my dying naturally will not happen.
One of the Elders mentioned it is Wednesday. It is always on Wednesday the deaths of my people occur. Every Wednesday at three o’clock like clockwork. Why Wednesday? Thursday is the big supermarket special. Every Thursday, the supermarkets (what we really call food suppliers), advertise their daily special of freshly cut and quartered Grade H (for human) meat.
We have become their favorite meal.
I’m going to leave this letter under this old iron plate in hopes one day someone might find it and learn a lesson from what death and destruction causes. But who will learn if we are all dead? Hope is all that is left, and there isn’t much of that left either. One day we may be able to defeat the Other’s, survive the fallout, and make a life for all people again. That won’t happen today.
Looking around, I know, along with the Elders, we can’t win this one. The new race of the world has us surrounded and have begun to herd us into cages to be shipped back to the slaughterhouse.
I hope one day, someone can find a way to defeat them and regain our freedom from this tragedy that has befallen the world. If man doesn’t survive, if we can’t prevail and move on to a better, if not more tolerable existence, then it won’t matter.
Periodical cicadas- screamin’demon bugs
I live in Mississippi. Back in 2002 we were invaded by these horrible looking bugs. They made loud noise and had big wings and just all together freaked me the hell out. I would not leave my house unless I absolutely had to. Friends would pop in and if one got in the door way I would scream bloody murder and have someone get it out. One day one was on my car and I didn't want to get out of my truck and that thing get near me- so my crazy ass gets on the interstate...climbing speeds trying to knock that sucker off with the wind. Did it work? Nope. That thing rode with me through 3 different towns and back. Finally my friends mom just knocked it off like it was nothing. Another night during this nightmarish event we stopped at the Bowling Alley to speak to the on duty cop that was working. He walked up to the car and they were crawling all over him and he was just OK with it...mean while I screamed for my friend to roll the window up. I had a diary at the time and drew pictures of my hatred for these things. I was terrified. Finally, one night, I was getting ready to go out and one landed on me. I started screaming, ripping my clothes off out in my front yard, tumbled down the hill and was so stressed I started my period right then. LOL After that, they slowly started to go away...but they will be back- AND I WILL NOT BE ready. Just saying.....
A Tale of Braavos (GoT Fan Fiction)
“Will she struggle?” asked Ceart Gu Léor, owner of the Braavosi tavern, The Hairy Pig. Fingering his dark chest hair, he leered as the new barmaid whose tiny bosom was peeping out leaned over his desk to pour him ale. His gaze wandered to the blond bun bound with colorful, thin wooden hair pins like those they wore on the Summer Islands, far to the south of Braavos.
“What say you, Horatio?” Léor grinned wolf-like. “Will she or will she not?” Horatio shrugged, undressing her with his eyes, ripping off that blue dress to see and caress the long, tantalizing legs peeking below the hem.
Without looking up, the barmaid kept pouring, even when Léor’s one-eyed accomplice shut and locked the door to Léor’s office behind them, dropping the key into the front of his pants with a salacious wiggle of his eyebrows, an action made all the more threatening by the black eye patch covering his absent left eye, a gambling debt he had paid while penniless and living on the uncaring streets of Braavos. The new barmaid finished and looked back at them with silent blue eyes.
Léor tugged at a tuft of hair near his nipple, grunted once, then burst out laughing and pointing at the new barmaid.
“Oh, ho! A quiet one, Horatio! Beware the quiet ones, my father said.”
“So he did,” replied Horatio. “So he did.” He cocked a head at the barmaid. “She’ll not struggle.”
Léor’s face crumbled in mock sorrow.
“In my line of work,” he replied, “’tis always more fun when they do, the new ones. What say you, pretty lass?”
The barmaid broke out a sultry smile. She put down the pitcher of ale, then sauntered around the desk, swung a leg over his ample lap, flipped her blue dress up to allow him a glimpse of her thighs, and straddled him. Grabbing her tiny firm buttocks, Léor let loose a loud laugh and a louder fart. Horatio barked approval with crude laughter and approached the desk, crotch in hand.
Placing her index finger in her mouth, she sucked on it, pulled it out, put it up to his lips in a gesture of be quiet, then started tracing two marks over Léor’s heart with her warm saliva, twirling and tugging his chest hair with a skilled finger.
“There are only three things someone like me needs to know in my line of work, good sers,” she said. “One: always do your job well.”
She slid her pelvis a little closer to Léor’s crotch, causing the two men to cackle with the heady promise of lascivious fun.
“Two,” she continued, pulling the hair pins out of her hair, shaking it, letting its sweet perfume escape, and freeing it to cascade down over her shoulders like a waterfall of gold, “The customer must be satisfied at all costs.”
She leaned forward so Léor could lick her bosom. Arching her back, she looked over her shoulder and saw Horatio already satisfying himself with one hand and steadying himself on the desk with the other. The barmaid winked, inspiring him to rub with frenetic vigor. She turned back to Léor, smiling again, as his hands slid down the barmaid’s legs to the hem, his fingers tightened around it as he inched it up, preparing to yank it fully.
“Last, but most important of all, my good sers, is this. Three.” Her smile disappeared, replaced by an icy grin. “Taoba dore brozi eza.”
Bringing the right hairpin down onto the shiny X marked onto Léor’s chest, the Faceless Assassin pivoted around to find a surprised Horatio, who lost his life and his eye as the left hairpin skewered it like a grape.
Shedding the wig, he ripped off the barmaid’s face and the blood-soaked dress, rolling his entire disguise into a tight ball. He ran his fingers through his short, brown hair and straightened the simple dirty tunic he’d worn underneath.
“Valar morghulis,” he said to Horatio. Then to Léor, “Valar dohaeris.”
Climbing out the window he had left open the night before, the Faceless Assassin exited the alley, headed for the dock where he dropped his balled up package into the murky waters, and disappeared into the crowded, uncaring streets of Braavos, leaving the hue and cry of the gory discovery ringing behind him.
1 Taoba dore brozi eza is High Valyrian for “A boy has no name.”
2 Valar morghulis is High Valyrian for “All men must die,” and served as a greeting and farewell in Braavos.
3 Valar dohaeris is High Valyrian for “All men must serve,” and served as a greeting and farewell in Braavos
Nayoki peered lower, crouching much closer to the forest floor. Her body moved deftly through bushes, vines, and even past some wild critters in the jungle.
She let out a soft gasp, and stared at the sight of a strange looking figure. His body looked as white as snow, and his hair looked as straight almost like blades of grass, quite the opposite of her thick sun loc twists.
Whoever, or whatever this being was- it had many bruises that were a size of the pebbles used in a game of chiyato. She guestimated that if she tried to, some of the pebbles lying across the dark silver sandy beach would be able to fit right in this being's wounds.
One of her close friends, Zena, yelled from the top of her lungs. "Eybo. You know ye need to alert the warri, and let them know there's an intruder bo. Why does he look as if he has been dragged right out from an inferno, or as if he swam into and out of the ring of fire?"
Nayoki stared at the stranger, and then back at Zena. "Let's try and help him. Now. Do not just tower over me looking at me like your clan has not been in charge of understanding which plants to use as medicinal herbs, Zena!" Nayoki barked.
Zena quickly grabbed a bunch of flowers, several twigs that were lying on the loamy ground. Nayoki placed the mix of plants in a clay pot that she carried in her sack bag, and used a donkey jawbone from the same bag to crush the assorted herbs.
The stranger lay quietly. His stillness almost made Nayoki think that maybe her efforts in trying to help him were in vain.
She asked her dear buddy to help take the stranger to the senior healer. At least she would know what to do and how to effectively treat this not quite alive being.
When they arrived at the healer's hut, she approached the two pals, and greeted them. "Yo. What ya got there you two chums?"
The woman oinked, her face started to change shape into that of suidae. Her nose changed shape, and sharp canine teeth began to emerge from the sides of her lower mandible.
She let out another cry, and then began to clap her hands. "This is a sign from the gods. Here comes the one that will come seeking our treasures, coming to tear us from our ancestors, woe to him, or her that lends a helping hand to the one/ones that step onto our land all the way from a nearby star that seems to be slowly losing their minds and continue to long for additional places, other stars to explore, to take charge over without showing any mercy to the inhabitants of that sector."
Nayoki tsked. "Ah, come on, not this again. Every time that we bring you a wandering still body that is close to the brink of death...you begin again with the recitations of the warning that you claim to have had in one of your so-called 'visions'.
"Please, just assist us with helping save one more soul. Guide it back to this body."
The senior healer sighed, and snapped her fingers. A beam of golden light shot forth from the heavens. The golden light passed right through the stranger's chest, and hit his heart's natural pacemaker. That generated a surge of electrical impulses that caused the stranger's heart to begin to contract.
Within a short time, what seemed like a zeptosecond, the stranger opened his eyes. He placed his hand over his heart in shock. The sound of seagulls not too far brought him back to reality. He blinked and stared around him. His eyes landed on a map. On that map he had set a course for the nearest star.
A knock on the door made him slightly jump in his seat.
His eyes met with a young sailor who seemed glad to see the Captain.
"Captain...we are almost at our final destination, and in good timing, too."
"Wait, hold on.
"Let us set a new course...much farther away from this star, and sector."
The Captain placed his hand over his chest once more, and shuddered for a brief moment. Then he replied, "Set a new course to another star. Let's survey another star past this sector."
The sailor took a hold of the doorknob and gently shut the door leaving the captain to his thoughts. He looked back at the star that shined with a golden light. His heart skipped a beat, and then he thought to himself, "Maybe I might try to check out this star for myself...but not until I can obtain much better intel about it."
#IzaNgomsa (c) 21.05.2023 Sundae
Even Demons Cry
ONI NO ME NI MO NAMIDA
A tale by Chibouk the Stray
I sit at the edge of a lush streak of green, a grassland growing eastward with nary a hill to halt its advance to the horizon, in a plane colloquially known as the Sward’s Breath. Behind me lies the woodland of Tahan Nafas, a dense forest that crawls over windward hills before plummeting down to the Chasm of the Sunken Holts – a submerged forest veiled between the Great Dombaro Mountains and the Breath, both of which serve as the inspiration of painters and artistes alike to compose their magnum opus. The weather is temperate and the sun hides behind the clouds, much to my liking. The wind plays with my beard and tickles my nose. I am assured by my host the grassland is never still. He pours me strawberry tea from a makeshift clay pot into a makeshift clay mug and presents me with grapes in a makeshift clay bowl. He sits beside me as I drink. He is a most hospitable host, calm and gentle. He is a thinker, he proclaims.
He is also an Oni.
He calls himself Furīdamu. His resemblance to masks I’ve seen used in traditional kabuki performances is uncanny: great black horns grow from just above his ears, which still have holes from where earrings once dangled. His jaw juts out like a sharp rock, and pointed teeth align his mouth, with canines that jut outward and upward. His brow is thick like that of a neanderthal and slopes down in an expression of perpetual melancholy. His hair is black and untamed and waves in the wind. The whole of his leathery skin is dyed a bright red, while the creases and wrinkles are a deep maroon. Faded scars criss-cross his chest, his arms, his legs. He wears naught but a loincloth. In the isolation of the Sward’s Breath, I cannot help but wonder whether he does so out of decency or out of habit.
She will be here soon, he assures me. His lips curve into a smile, showing his pointed teeth. I nod, but not from comprehension. We met by chance in the woods. I was lost, and when I came upon him, I was taken aback by his imposing figure. But Furīdamu was quick to alleviate my worries, and knowing the trees by heart he guided me downhill to the valley where we now rest.
When I ask him how he got here, so far from his native lands, he laughs. His shoulders bounce as he does. He says he came here more than a hundred years ago and has to laugh again when he sees the look on my face. He claims to be twice as old, but a dozen times wiser.
I ask him what he means.
Furīdamu inhales deep and breathes out with such force that steam jettisons from his nostrils. What do you know about Oni? He asks. I shake my head, confessing I am not privy to much knowledge at all about his kind. I refrain from saying I believe the word to mean ‘demon’. His smile is tender, if downcast. He looks out over the meadow that stretches ever on, then begins his soliloquy.
Oni are born of fury, he says. Some believe us to be the reincarnation of those whose deeds were so wicked, so vile, that they shape their reincarnation. Others say we come from Kimon, the Demon Gate, which leads to Jigoku, the nether regions of the afterlife, where Oni forever torment the most despicable of people. Regardless of our origins, Oni are fierce creatures, wrathful and wild. But there is one important distinction to make: Oni are not evil. You must remember this above all else you learn today, for what you learn is not for the faint of heart. Oni bring calamity. Our size, our strength, our spite, spell doom and destruction to the land. Some Oni cause the earth to shake, others bring forth deadly plague. Some instil terror through thunder and lightning. All Oni are destructive, and all relish the taste of human flesh. I was no different. For many decades I was the scourge of the Japanese countryside, ravaging the peaceful villages unfortunate enough to lie on my path. My cries of rage turned hearts to stone, and all would flee when they saw my approach.
To demonstrate his power Furīdamu stands up, stretches his massive arms, and claps his hands together with such force that the sound carries over the field, reverberating so loud it is as if he corresponds with thunder. The ground rumbles underfoot. Tendrils of smoke slither from the corners of his mouth, and for a moment his eyes shine the colour of brimstone and fire. I am reduced to a hapless child in the face of his ferocity. Then his eyes cool and he sits cross-legged next to me, positioning his hands on his mighty thighs. He pours me a second cup of tea before continuing.
I was young, then, and ignorant. I heeded not the suffering of others, only my own desires. And why not? I was powerful, and the people I tortured were weak. Yet I was angry, always angry. Why did such rage fuel my very being so? There is a proverb I have come to favour: shiranu no hotoke. It means, ‘to be ignorant is to be Buddha’, referring to the peace of mind not-knowing can give. But then why are Oni not at peace? I knew nothing of happiness, but I knew of peace, of quiet, of a tranquil state of mind, for in my heart of hearts, in the moments my rage was not a blinding, hot, white noise, I sensed there was more in me – or in actuality less in me – than what little else wrath permitted. And this intrinsic sense I felt grew as the decades passed by, until at last I left what constitutes as adolescence behind. The impulse for violence, that hunger, was there, but so was something else, something new.
They say growth cannot occur without experiencing pain. I still remember the moment when I began to grow. I trudged past the paddies of the southern prefecture of Shikoku, drawn to the tapered steps that adorned the hills and valleys, noticing, for the first time, how the midday sun sparkled in their shallow waters. I stopped, staring at the ripples that broke the illusion that the sky was in fact on land, wholly unaware of the farmers who had seen me and began to scream and run. I just stood in the moment, with the sun overhead and the hills below, and felt… calm. The rage that I had come to define myself by was pushed far back, and I longed with all my heart to hold on to this new feeling, for it was pleasant and allowed me to actually think. Of course, the farmers, whose village was nearby, had summoned a samurai, and his battle cry forced my eyes away from the tapestry of God himself. Bathed in the golden glow of the undern my opponent looked no more menacing than the rice fields themselves, and as I turned to him, I saw his blade quiver. I was thrice his height and ten times his strength, yet though he wavered he was steadfast to defend the people who called such divinity their home. He raised his katana over his head. My anger resurfaced – an instinct after half a century of deciding my every action – and so I roared in return, raising my kanabō to the sky. My voice rattled his armour, and I was ready to strike. But when I saw the fear of death in his eyes it was I who wavered, for a split second, before sending my club down. It did not connect with my adversary. Instead, I raised my leg and forced the club to collide with my knee, breaking the thing in half. The pain I inflicted upon myself made me howl, and I felt the trees shake at my might, heard thunder crash through the canopies, as if nature bowed to my suffering. Then I ran, my strides greater than that of a wartime horse, crashing through the forests like a deranged yōkai. I cried and cried and cried as thunder and lightning collided. But it was not pain that caused me to wail. I cried because I had finally broken free from the anger and hatred that had me in shackles my entire life.
But although my cell had opened I had yet to escape my prison. Anger no longer forced me down the path of destruction, perpetuating itself through the righteous furor of the people I encountered, but it had not gone either, and was quick to resurface at the tiniest inkling of adversity. Just the sound of swords clattering, or arrows whizzing was enough to rekindle the flames of fury, and I struggled to avoid it becoming a wildfire. I needed time – and time I found at the summit of Mount Ishizuchi, itself the ruins of an ancient volcano, called the Stone Hammer of the Gods. Atop the mountain sat a shrine, older than I am by over a thousand years, and the pilgrims who stayed there were startled at my approach. They were even more startled when they saw me kneel and bow, touching the Hammer with my forehead, pleading for them to help me douse the flames that burned me from inside. It was my tears that swayed them, for they had never seen an Oni cry.
Furīdamu pauses, and as I look at him, I see his eyes glisten. It is as if he recalls the scene with great clarity, the way his expression dances from sombre to exuberant. A part of me wishes I could experience it as he has, if only to feel what he feels.
So it began, he says, my tenure as an apprentice to the practice of patience. I could not fit inside the confines of the shrine and its abode but was permitted to stay in front of the entrance, before the mountain slopes perilously steep. This was fine for me, as Oni are used to sleeping under the stars. The first few weeks the monks conversed with me, satiating their curiosity at my apparent benignity. I am certain they wanted to ensure that my claims would hold true, that it wasn’t an elaborate ruse of mine. Or perhaps they thought it a divine test coming from the mountain gods themselves. And upon the peak, so high above the world, above the people, above the paddies, at the mercy of whatever cosmological entity turned the very stars, I began to wonder the same.
Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. Meditation confounded me at first, and my frustration was quick to surface. My mind was too primitive, too emotional, to grasp the notion of something as simple as sitting still. But the monks, masters of the mind, guided me with keen insight and understanding, and so, slowly, I began to learn. Meditating is not just to sit, but it is to be mindful of your immediate surroundings and yourself. To focus on one thing, or nothing, and to withhold judgement of its value. To be, rather than to bear. I still got angry, yes, for this was my nature, but no more did I resort to violence. Shouting helped, and from the sharp edge of the Hammer’s tip my cry would thunder over the lands. Every episode lasted shorter than the one before, and the spells of time between my eruptions grew longer and longer. The first true revelation came after having lived with the disciples for five years. I had lived off deer and bear or other woodland animals rather than feasting on human flesh, and often these creatures had to endure my wrath – until one day they no longer had to. I no longer rampaged, and instead I hunted; my goal was not to satiate my hatred but rather my hunger. I felt elated that I had succeeded in overcoming my wicked nature – but of course this was merely the beginning. The monks knew that my time atop the Hammer’s head knew nothing but tranquillity, whereas the world below would see me a fiend, and treat me accordingly. The monks devised methods to steel my mind, to cage the tiger, for, as they said, a tiger could never be tamed. They would provoke me on purpose by yelling and slinging insults. As time went by, they would cast stones or prod me with sticks. And whenever they saw the agitation grow, they told me to focus on something else – to straighten, for my hulking stance was not conducive to allow energy to course freely through my body. They taught me breathing techniques for when I’d feel rageful, and to see the world through the lens of pity, not fury – for the people feared me and did not understand I was transformed, but this was not their fault. More years passed, with some failures but with many successes, the biggest being the fact that I had not hurt anyone in close to a decade. It was at this time, towards the end of my tenure, that I realised something: my time to leave was nigh.
The final day of my stay on the peak my rest was interrupted when a sizeable boulder hurled over the shrine and landed against my shoulder, knocking me out of my meditative state. I merely needed to stand up to see that bandits had appeared with a catapult from the path down the slope, readying bows and arrows, and were rushing the shrine. Some monks fled, others were forced to fight with what sticks and stones they had. Blood hung thick in the air – and my rage emerged, banging against the cage in which my mind kept it imprisoned. I bellowed at the intruders, which drew their attention, but they seemed unabashed by my presence and charged me head-on. They were dressed in red armour and wore devilish masks, mocking my very form with their childish display of brutality. It would’ve been so easy, so satisfying, to raise my foot and stomp them, to revel at the sound of bones breaking and flesh squishing – or to snag them in my mighty hands and squeeze the blood from their eyes and mouths, or to tear them in half and suck out their organs. The old Oni longed for this familiarity. But I no longer was this version of myself, and so I calmed like the monks had taught me, even as swords and spears pierced my skin and stones pummelled my head. Instead of harming them I shoved them away with the back of my hands, or plucked them from the shrine and placed them at the precipice – enough to scare them, but not to kill them. I had to repeat these motions multiple times before the bandits grew tired and stopped, and at last remained where I put them. I stood before them, gazing upon them like a mighty ape observing little termites. Stop this fighting, I said, for nothing good can come of it. Those with power should protect the ones without, not cause further harm. This I have learned during my time with these monks. Perhaps, if you desire the shrine so, you should learn the same.
One by one the bandits fell to their knees. They bowed to me, as if I was a deity worthy of worship. Then they cast aside their armour and revealed they were not bandits at all – but fellow Buddhists from the shrine at the foot of the mountain. The disciples of the Hammer had requested their aid in their ultimate test – to see how I fared in unexpected chaos and combat. The blood I had smelled was spilled of goat and ox, not man, and so their ruse had been complete.
I had passed their test. I was a demon no more.
That night there was a feast, with dance and song and boar and wine. I was given an indigo scarf of silk, originally meant to adorn my neck, but as it proved too small, I wore it as a ribbon in my hair. The act moved me to tears, as I had never been gifted anything other than pain and anger to reflect that of my own. And after the festivities were over and the monks had fallen asleep, I left, as quietly as these giant feet would allow. I wished no grand farewell ceremony, nor feel the heartache leaving these wonderful people behind – yet stay I would not.
I can see Furīdamu’s smile is genuine as he pauses and takes in a deep breath. He offers me a third cup of tea, before realising I have yet to start the second. I ask him what happened of the ribbon he was given. He says that will come when shearrives. When I tell him I was meaning to ask about this mystery person he wags his finger and tells me I will see for myself soon enough. He then glides his hand over the grass and plucks a daisy from the field, holds it up to examine it, and smells it.
Truly, beauty can be found in the smallest, simplest of things. My descent from the Hammer confirmed as much. I saw divinity in each tree, each leaf, each scuttling insect. I even began to muse on the divinity in me – which presented quite a paradox, for wasn’t I supposed to have been born of malice and hatred? I still find myself pondering the notion, and I’ve yet to find an explanation that satisfies. Perhaps there is no answer, but oddly I cannot accept that. But I digress. I walked down the mountain in awe of its many wonders and remembered the day before – the audacity and bravery of the monks and their test – and was tempted to climb up again, if only to wave goodbye. But no, though it would please me and perhaps even them, there was more sense in a quiet retreat – and I quite liked the romance in the idea of leaving a mystical impression behind. Soon dawn broke and golden rays of light bathed the forest and mountain in a wealth unmatched by even the richest of emperors. I caught a deer and prepared it, having learned to roast its meat rather than to eat it raw, and drank from a cool stream. I felt one with nature and was content.
It was a couple of days later that I brushed with life outside the shrine for the first time in a decade. A group of hunters saw me at my bonfire one morn and could not help but cry for help. I decided to remain as I was, and only smiled at them. Of course, with tusks like these even a simple smile can turn savage, and so it was not surprising that the hunters returned with more of their kin – and more heavily armed. Imagine their surprise when they were not met with unbridled rage, but with a friendly wave! And as I stayed calm and seated, seemingly disinterested, they approached me, lowering their weapons, and asked me for my name. It was then that I realised I had never given thought of naming myself, and the freedom of this choice gave birth to Furīdamu. I invited the men to join me and offered them venison, and soon I spoke at length of my transformation at the Hammer’s head. Morning turned to noon in the blink of an eye. When my tale ended the men looked at each other, and hesitantly asked if I would help them in their need. They would have me stay with them in their village, but asked I would only arrive at dusk, for if I were to march with them the villagers would surely not believe their claims that I was a friendly Oni, and would likely attack me or flee; no they needed to persuade their fellows and prepare them for the entrance of an ogre whose intentions were pure. I agreed, despite not having been told of the troubles that required my aid. I suppose I was eager to prove to them and to myself that I was not a being of violence anymore. Perhaps they needed me to assist them in the construction of a new house, or to fortify their village by planting a sturdy gate. A builder Oni – the thought was greatly pleasing!
The truth was, alas, nothing so simple.
Following the men’s instructions, I arrived at village under a red sun. Bathed in such twilight I must’ve looked like a devil wreathed in flame. Yet the villagers remained composed – it seemed the hunters had succeeded in preparing their people for my presence. I bowed to the villagers, and asked them not to fear me, for I meant no harm. I bore three deer as gifts, and placed them in the centre of the vill, before sitting cross-legged on the ground. In return the womenfolk presented me with fruits and rice, and though I had little taste for such food I accepted it, not wanting to insult the first people I had met since my time atop the mountain. And as we ate and spoke, I could not help but be moved at the fact that even the children came closer and wished to touch my skin – their curiosity being of the purest, kindest sort. Never in my life would I have been able to imagine finding myself the subject of nervous giggling and laughter of younglings.
Dinner came and went and as the children were put to bed, the men stayed to relate to me the woes they faced. And woes they were, and of the greatest kind at that. I should’ve known, of course, that my fantasy of benign labour was just that, for the village, and the surrounding villages as well, were at the mercy of an Oni. The hunters and men must’ve seen my reluctance as they dropped to their hands and feet and begged me to assist them. Their tormenter would appear once a month at a new moon, to trample their homes and snag unfortunate souls to be devoured whole. Even the strongest of samurai, sent by the local lord, were unmatched against the demon, whose rage tore them asunder as if they were but origami figures in a storm. And though I did not know how I felt having to face another Oni, I could not turn my back on these people, not after having already agreed to help – and certainly not after having been welcomed so hospitably.
It would be three days before the next new moon, so I decided to prepare the villagers for the Oni’s arrival. I helped dig trenches and a tunnel into the mountainside, where the women and children would hide. But that was not all. The men would lure the Oni to a trap we prepared – a pit, deep and wide enough for him to fall into without being able to climb back up. I pulled down trees and strip them of their bark, broke them into pieces and sharpened the edges. I planted the spikes in the pit, and when it was done, we covered the hole with an old net, and used leaves and dirt to have it blend with the ground. We felt prepared, at least somewhat, but in truth nothing could’ve prepared us – prepared me – for the clash that was to come.
The night of the new moon was upon us, and the village was empty save for the hunters and some of the men that had volunteered. The plan was simple: the Oni would target the men, who would flee and lure him into the trap. Once inside, distracted by the spikes in his feet, I would appear, and with rock and dirt would bury him alive – or kill him by ripping off his head. Thus, we waited, the men in the village and me in the trees.
It was dead-quiet, as if the forest itself held its breath, and each minute crept by slower than the last. Until suddenly, there he was, lumbering towards the village, smoke trailing from his mouth and nose as he grunted and snorted. He was red like me, but his bulk dwarfed mine. He spotted the men, and when he roared the heavens roared back – and finally I understood the fear that would freeze the hearts of men. In three great steps he stood in the village, and the men fled as planned into the woods ahead.
The Oni pursued them and stepped onto the net – but he didn’t fall in the way we had anticipated. Instead, he managed to clasp the sides and pull himself up, and his fury at this failed attempt to rid of him turned his pupils bloodshot. His massive, muscular arms swept forward, and without intervention he would’ve swatted the men like they were flies. When instead his hands collided with my ankles the Oni looked up in confusion. He could barely register the fists that slammed against his crown so hard it forced him to the ground. I turned to the men and shouted at them to hide in the trenches – a mistake, because the Oni wrapped his arms around my legs and dragged me down. I could no longer mind the villagers; our fight had begun. The Oni clawed his way on top of me and aimed his fists at my face. His first blow struck me like a boulder and almost broke my nose. The second blow collided with my forehead, and the pain that blossomed almost made me black out. His third blow would connect as well, but I tilted my head just in time so that my horns pierced his hands when he brought them down. He howled, and as he moved his palms upward, I saw I had drawn blood. I felt the Oni was unstable, and with a quick heave I caused him to lose balance and I could push him off me.
Both of us scrambled to our feet and stared at each other, and at last I could take him in proper. He was taller than me, heavier, with fat muscles rippling under his skin. His eyes shone so bright red they left a trail whenever he moved. His hair clung to his shoulders and his beard seemed like spikes. And unlike my expression, which borders on dolour, his face had knotted and twisted into the embodiment of hate. Steam escaped from the corners of his mouth as he panted, waiting. Then he tensed and roared, and as he sprung forward, I felt the very mountain rumble. His charge was forceful, fast, and though I dug my heels in he crashed into my shoulder, attempting to topple me again. His fists were planted under my ribs and his horns scraped against my own while he pushed. Again, he punched my sides, and again, each blow stinging more than the last – and inside of me the tiger clawed at its cage. I dug my nails in the Oni’s back and tried to lift him, but I couldn’t, so I pummelled his shoulders to little avail. I could only escape when he moved his head back, allowing me to smash my head into his nose. I heard it crack, and I grinned knowing I had succeeded where he had failed. The advantage was mine, and as he stood dazed, I threw in haymakers of my own. I was not as strong, but I was lean, and speed was on my side. I got a few good hits in before he regained his senses, and soon his fists clashed with my own.
Over and over, we struck one another like berserk boxers, each harrowing blow harder than the one that came before, until each collision shook the foundations of the land and made the sky tremble. But his ferocity and strength were greater than mine, and what enraged him even more was that another Oni, his own kin, dared stand in his way. When at last came a lull in the storm we stood yet again facing each other, panting like mad dogs. The village we stood in was in ruin, and I could only hope its people had made it out in time. There was little time to catch my breath. The demon screamed, thunder clapped, and as hatred and malice consumed him his hair burst to flames. I realised that if we’d stay here, the village – no, the whole valley – would be no more, so I turned and ran. The Oni’s pursuit was feral; I could hear his snarls and roars, could feel the ground quake with each step – could feel the tiger in me gnaw at its bars. More than once he lunged at me, but his bulk betrayed him and I dodged his leaps, running until I could run no more, for ahead of us lay the precipice of a cliff. The Oni slowed down, knowing there was nowhere for us to go, and when he stood before me, he looked like a fiery beast dragged from the depths of hell. The sky above crackled with electricity, and the wind howled in sorrow. The hellfiend balled his fists and bellowed a war cry that echoed over the ravine. We both charged each other, and under thunderous heavens we warred. I could feel my anger rising – could feel the tiger empower me – but years of freedom had subdued me, whereas the flaming Oni was only rage and death. I would not survive the assault of an Oni whose punches would smash rock and whose breath was the fire of hell. If I were to live, I would have to fight smarter, not harder.
Now understand that Oni are not warriors. We are not trained in the fine arts of combat, for we have no need for them – we smash or grab or stomp anyone with little to no trouble. But at that moment, on the edge of the cliff, I knew I had to learn. I stopped trying to punch or grab the flaming Oni and instead brought my forearms to my chest. I stepped backwards more, sideways more, evading more than attacking. I ducked at blows that swung high and pivoted at thrusts of his knees. I studied the Oni’s movements, and slowly began to realise that he relied on the same motions again and again. He would flex and pull back his left arm before mowing his right or roll his shoulder before a quick punch. He always tried to grab me by the shoulders before attempting a kick or a shove of his knee. And the more I learned the less his attacks would connect, and the greater his frustration, the clumsier he became. I also learned I could force him to reposition, and thus began to turn the tide of battle.
My counterattack commenced. With the rough swing of his right arm, I got in a quick jab from the side, pressing the hollow under his ribcage, forcing him to step away. He always followed with a lunge from his left, which was slow and easily dodged; I forced my elbow in his neck, causing him to stagger. He tried his haymaker swing again, hitting nothing but air. In response I grabbed his wrist, held his arm straight, and brought my elbow down on his joint. It did not break, but his howl told me it had hurt. His shoulder rolled – a quick kick to his shins disrupted his attack. In rage and despair, he thrust his head back and roared at the sky. I silenced him with a punch to the throat – then one to the gut, and another, and another, until I had beaten the air out of him, and he doubled over, clutching his stomach. That’s when I grabbed him by the horns, planted one foot against his crown, and pulled. With a snap they broke off, fizzing and steaming ink-black smoke. The flaming Oni’s screech of pain was disturbing; I hope never to have to hear such a sound again.
By breaking his horns, I had broken his pride – and his seething hatred soon broke the rest. The flames of his hair spread outward until his entire body blazed like an inferno. Still, he got up and continued to punch, to kick, to claw, blind, unable to even find me. In his frenzy the precipice ultimately took him, for too late he realised he had teetered too close to the edge. His shriek called forth one last thunderclap, and its lightning smote him mid-fall, ending his reign of terror. I dropped to the ground, bruised and bleeding, and when I began to cry the sky released its waters to wash away my tears.
Furīdamu looks away and wipes one arm over his eyes. He shivers, and I ask him if he is alright. He nods, but it takes him a moment to face me, at which point his smile does little to hide his sorrow. I bring the cup he made to my lips, only to find it has gone cool. Whatever became of the people? I ask, drinking cold tea. The gentle giant shakes his head.
I never returned to the village. In fact, I never returned to the valley, to Ishizuchi, or to the paddies, for I could foresee my future, and did not like it at all. I would be praised, perhaps even hailed. News would spread of the Oni that killed another Oni, and soon another village would come and beg me to help with their Oni. And if I’d survive, which was not a guarantee, more requests would follow, and not long after I would be known as Oni Killer, or the Good Oni, forced to forever kill my kin. Whether out of rage or out of compassion, my life would exist of bloodshed – and I simply could not agree to that, not after my metamorphosis.
So, I fled, resolved to steer clear from people, passing through the land as a crimson shadow. For years I wandered alone, and apart from the occasional encounter with lone hunters or travellers I met no one. Some wanderers would flee, others approached and would hear my tale. But I would permit none to walk with me, nor would I offer my help to those who asked. And though I was not happy, I was content – for a while; one can only be without company for so long. So it was that after rage I knew peace, and after peace I knew sorrow, and after sorrow I knew loneliness – which was not a companion to keep. Would I seek out humans after all? Or was I to settle down somewhere? I even thought of finding another Oni to try and teach them the ways of meditation – but none of these ideas would stay. Without my anger I had lost my purpose, and without purpose what was I meant to do? Ah – she arrives!
My host laughs and waves at something in the fields – I do not immediately see it, but after a few seconds I detect a little dot flying just above the waltzing grass. I soon realise the dot is a pixie, clutching a sizeable strawberry. She wears a skirt and top made of faded indigo silk. Her hair is short and golden, and with an adorable giggle she brings the strawberry to Furīdamu and deposits it on his outstretched hand. She rubs her tiny nose against his before resting on his shoulder, pointing at me and chittering into his ear. Furīdamu nods and smiles.
You wished to know of whom I spoke, the Oni says, cocking his head to one side to better hear the pixie’s chitter. Wait a moment Fay, allow me to first introduce you. This here is Fay, my companion – my family. This surprises you! Indeed, when I came upon Fay, I was rather surprised too, not in the least because pixies are not from my native lands. It turned out that Fay here had flown through a gate from another realm – this realm – quite unwittingly. She can be rather mischievous, this one. Hey – don’t pull my ear! We happened upon one another by sheer luck. I was tracking a deer for lunch when Fay here zipped by me, followed by a… what do you call it, the one that looks like kitsune? A fox, that’s right. She was chased by a hungry fox, and though I did not quite realise what Fay was, I knew that I wished to save her – and perhaps to make the fox my supper. At the latter I failed, but Fay I could save just by shouting, which caused the fox to flee. Fay meanwhile had managed to get herself snared on the thorns in a thicket, and at first was greatly distressed at my enclosing hand, until she realised I released her from the thorns and provided her with berries to replenish her energy.
I think we were both intrigued by one another – such a small creature meeting such a large one – and we tried to communicate, failing spectacularly at first. Pointing and gesticulating was marginally successful, and Fay brought me to the gate she had flown through. It was embedded in a torii, a traditional Japanese arch, in front of an abandoned forest shrine, and it was a most fascinating apparition: I could see the forest around and behind the gate, but when I stood exactly straight in front of it, I could see an endless field of grass, with no sign of human life. Curiosity took hold of me and, squatting to fit, I went for the gate with the pixie in the palm of my hand. As I passed through, I could feel a strange sensation pressing on me, as if I had suddenly become twice as heavy and was wading through mud. Then I was freed, and I stood in that field – this field, where we now sit and chat. The torii had gone. In its stead stood a stone structure I’ve learned is called a dolmen, functioning much the same as the portal from which we came. Except suddenly the forests of my home disappeared, and the gate never opened it for us again. I was alarmed at first, but the peace of Sward’s Breath stilled me. We still go there, Fay and I, from time to time, although more out of tradition than a desire to go back.
The pixie slides off the Oni’s shoulder and jumps onto mine, twittering words too softly for me to make out. Then she pats my bushy beard and flies back to Furīdamu and wriggles her way into the hole of his earlobe as if it were a miniature swing. Her actions make the both of us laugh.
As I said, a mischievous one! When I learned her language, I also learned of her misère, for she had lost her family to a group of owls that swooped in on them during one fateful night, many moons ago. She was lost and alone for years, not unlike me. Perhaps it was this commonality that drew us together, but we both agreed that our chance encounter was the best thing that ever happened to us, for the both of us live long lives, and wish to live them in peace. And together we found new purpose, for and with each other, and for close to a hundred years we have been in these fields and woods, together.
I cannot help but smile at this vista before me – the culmination of years of struggle and amazing transformation – an Oni finding peace with a pixie. A gust of wind makes Furīdamu shiver, and as he does Fay falls from his ear in theatrical fashion, and all three of us laugh. I am invited to stay for dinner, and to see the dolmen from which they emerged. I happily take them up on their offer. And as the Oni pours me another cup, I find myself musing on the kinship they found in such an unexpected circumstance.
It is enough to even make demons cry.