They hold watch over The Beast.
It came from within The Gleam.
The ice over Monksville is thin and brittle; above, the clouds are dark and dense. The wind howls with the ferocity of a rabid wolf, but the snow does not fall. Not yet.
With a gimpy wing, a hanging beak, and a broken leg that dangles and swings like a dead twig attached only by the bark, the captain of the dayguard flaps haphazardly to the edge of The Sticks. His flight is erratic, pained, uncontrolled, he dips and rises like a feather carried by the wind; as he approaches his branch, he fears he will fall short of making perch. Behind him the croons and squawks of his gullflock clash with the raging war shrieks of the red-tailed hawks. They’ve invaded The Sticks and judgement day has come to The Basin. The channel is wide open, swollen from the heat of the battle even on this, the coldest day since Monksville’s first winter.
‘They’re here, they’ve really come,’ Choridae sends to nobird in particular. ‘I must find Lord Hilaetos, he must be warned before it is too late.’
He approaches the branch and tries to flap true, but his wing is badly clipped. Choridae drops towards the surface when he comes within a beak’s reach of the branch, and has just enough time to send a final thought of apology and gratitude to his Lord of The Sticks before he shatters the flimsy ice and joins his many brethren in the metaphorical belly of the beast. Little does he know, there lurks a real beast beneath the surface, The Beast, who awaits his fall eagerly, its monstrous maw wide open, its jagged razor teeth fiending for the taste of yet another denizen’s soul. Its hunger will never cease, its thirst for blood will never be quenched and the unfeeling pit in its center will never be filled.
Lysander swoops with blinding speed and catches the gull on his back. The Beast howls with rage, then all thoughts are consumed by the buzz. It ventures deep into the labyrinthine Sticks, eyes bloodshot and fins whipping, and begins to feast on the fallen.
Above the water, Lysandra waits on a fallen tree caught by two others, suspended in the air like a bridge built by giants. The gull hops off the eagle’s back and tries to gain his bearings, but then hobbles and teeters near the edge. Lysander catches him with a spanned wing and guides him back to the center of the log. It’s then that the eagles notice the red gash spanning the gull’s belly – the male eagle’s rendered thoughtless, unable to send a single sentiment.
Lysandra, however, manages just fine. She slowly approaches him with tears freezing as they stream down her white feathers, sending, ‘Highest Choridae, what… what happened to you?’
‘The hawks,’ Choridae sends as a steady shiver overtakes his being. ‘The red-tail flock, they’ve come. We tried to fight, high pair eagles, believe me we did, all of us. The young, the old, even I – as their captain I had every chance to escape when the feathers began to fly, I gave my orders and I had safe passage to the Northern Leg, but I stayed. I stayed and fought, I was among the first wave to respond to the assault, I had to defend my flock, but… there were too many. Are too many, the dayguard doesn’t stand a chance. Where…’
Choridae’s eyes begin to flutter and his head nods back and forth. The eagles shriek in unison, bringing their friend back to the forefront.
‘Where is Lord Hilaetos? They come for him, surely they do. We must warn him, before it is too late!’
The eagles look gravely to one another with a bitter kind of realization in their eyes. Then, from the mind of Lysander, ‘Worry not, Highest Choridae, we shall find the osprey. You’ve done well today and your work here is complete – save yourself and take flight, do not stop until you reach the Southern Expanse.’
‘The Southern Expanse?’ Choridae sends. ‘But, but those waters belong to the Birds of Lake, I cannot–’
‘You can and you must,’ sends Lysandra firmly. She bends low and gently caresses Choridae’s little head with her own. ‘Find the vulture flock, they will take care of you and provide shelter. We shall join you in due time.’
‘High pair eagles, what do you mean to do?’
The eagles look to one another again with those same grave eyes, but not in realization. They look to one another now with a sad kind of certainty and knowing, an acceptance of a fate that has long been flapping their way.
‘We mean to join you as soon as we can,’ sends Lysander. An orchestra of wild shrieks and kee-awws batter the ears of all those perched in The Sticks. ‘Yes, just as soon as we can. That is my promise.’
With his promise made, Lysander then spans his wings and takes flight to the grassy eastern shores of The Basin. Lysandra looks into the eyes of Choridae and sends no thoughts; there is no need for such formalities, not now. She helps the captain of the dayguard to his feet, placing the tip of her wing under his belly to steady him, and watches him take off. The flight is a totter at best, but he makes it to the giants’ footbridge well enough. As soon as the whites of his tail feathers (and the red rivers flowing over them) disappear under the bridge, she flaps wing to join Lysander.
Behind Lysandra, three hawks follow in triangle formation, their talons smeared a deeper scarlet than their tails, and the first frozen flakes begin to fall from the storm clouds.
Lysander is perched on a high branch in a tree that’s stood bare since before the last summer. His eyes scan the forest like the owl will scan a field lit by twilight, then his gaze is captured by his soulbride. When he sees what approaches her rear, he shrieks raging war and shatters the high branch to splinters with the force of his takeoff.
The Tide Churns
Lysandra sees her soulgroom take raging flight in her direction and then gazes backwards, unsurprised by what she sees but disconcerted nonetheless. She flaps her mighty brown wings thrice to rise and then spans her wings flat against the wind, dumping her speed and watching with murder in her eye as the trio of red-tails soar past her, their beaks hanging low, their faces tangled in a muddle. The back two face forward in time to see Lysander bear down on the front flier, his talons striking the hawk’s frail neck like it was nothing but a lowly lakebreather. Lysander rides his first victory until its body shatters the ice, and then relinquishes his grip. The Beast swallows the dead hawk whole as the other two scatter with Lysandra on their tail feathers.
The chase does not last long. The pair eagles, masters of the ways of the hunt and the scav’, cross in mid-air before the hawks and then circle back, crossing again behind them and clanking their talons in the process. The noise, strangely similar to the sound of a hammer striking hot iron, is the last real thing those two hawks hear before a sick warmth fills their throats at the same time as a deadly cold grips their soaked, matted feathers. The eagles don’t even consider landing; more hawkish war shrieks demand their attention and they give it, oh do they ever give it, and isn’t it amazing how they smile as hawk after hawk is felled into the icy drink.
The Beast eats despite the buzz, though its brain begins to bleed ever so slightly. The Dome can wait – there is a grand merry meal to be made here, and the lakebreathers of the Northern Leg will be grateful for the postponement of their deaths.
When the avian onslaught ceases, at least for an extended moment, the eagles make their way back towards the bare tree with the shattered high branch. They’re not in the least surprised to see Lord Hilaetos perched on that shattered branch, one talon gripping bark, the other gripping flayed wood. The channel, open as ever, stays ominously silent as the squall snowballs into a fierce blizzard and the ice thickens with pops and jukes below.
The osprey watches the eagles’ approach with his wings tightly folded, his eyes unblinking even against the fury of the storm. He expects to be struck down where he perches; he is not, and so he empties his lungs in a puff of steam and fills them back up with frigid winter air.
‘Pair eagles,’ he sends regally, looking down at them from his high, broken perch. ‘That was a most impressive show, you shall both be commended when this awful mess is over.’
‘We should be,’ sends Lysander, his back slightly hunched. ‘It will end with your plumage pierced by my left talon, Hilaetos; you’re either brave or stupid for showing your traitorous beak.’
Hilaetos flaps his wings twice and shrieks with his brow furrowed, taken aback. Lysandra prepares to take off and do the fiend herself, but her soulgroom raises a spanned wing. He’s lucky, so very lucky, that she loves him.
‘I had nothing to do with the slaughter of the gullflock, high pair eagles. You know as well as I those Birds of Lake had no place in our keep.’
‘How dare you?!’ sent with a mighty scream, a scream echoed by his bride. ‘The dayguard dedicated their lives to you and your keep, osprey, Choridae would have perished had I not saved him! He had the chance to escape and he stayed, he stayed and fought! He’s more honor in a single tail feather than you will ever know!’
‘You send of honor, I send of foolish pride.’
‘Pride,’ Lysandra sends, wishing she could spit. ‘He stayed for your sake, Hilaetos, he was trying to warn you! To save you! Little did he know, ‘twas he who needed saving from you.’
The osprey’s head draws back a feather’s width upon receiving this, but he makes no other move. The snow begins to pile on the ice, has long been piling on dry land. More terrible shrieks explode from across The Basin and the osprey can’t help but point his leering stare that way. The pair eagles don’t take their eyes off him.
‘He was a good gull,’ Hilaetos finally sends, his tone of thought laced with a certain twang of regret that brings a hard quease to the stomachs of the pair eagles. ‘As good as a Bird of Lake could be, anyway. He’d have done well to flee this keep along with the sick vulture flock; I cannot be held responsible for the consequences of his self-righteous actions.’
This time Lysandra leaps, and Lysander does not stop her. Hilaetos flaps quickly and dodges death by a stroke of great timing and nothing else. The eagle manages to catch his left leg though, and when she lands, she tastes the fresh blood on her talon. It tastes of scales and the flesh of lakebreathers, the blood of one who eats well while those around him starve.
‘We saw this coming and did nothing to stop it,’ Lysander sends, preparing to leap. ‘For that we will pay dearly, but first you will be made to suffer, Sea Hawk!’
‘I think not, pair eagles,’ as he spans his wings. It is now Lysandra who holds her partner back, and thank goodness she does; three hawks, four, even five hawks they could take on without problem, but the flock that dives from above and surrounds Hilaetos is much greater in number than five. The pair eagles would die to avenge Choridae after what the poor gull’s been through, without hesitation and with joy in their eyes, but they would rather live to fight with him another day.
No, they won’t be taking down the Sea Hawk, nor will they be slaying any more of his dastardly little cohorts, not those with the evil red tails nor the one perched beside Hilaetos, the one with the scarlet plumage adorning his shoulders. There will be no more bloodshed under these dark storm clouds – as long as the gulls are already all dead, that is. Both bald eagles shudder at the thought.
‘We will leave The Basin, Hilaetos. The Sticks is yours to share with the hawk flock, as you so clearly prefer it that way,’ sends Lysander, his beak clenched so tight the keratin strains not to crack, especially with the outside world as cold as it is. ‘I must know one thing first, so long as you’d send it – why? Why have you forsaken the vultures, why have you forsaken the gulls, why have you forsaken us, Lord Hilaetos? We who have perched by you since the day we flocked to The Sticks?’
The hawks all trade glances, their eyes lit and cheerful with the sparks of humor and victory. For a moment the Sea Hawk sends nothing, merely looking down at this pair of bald eagles he once risked his own flecked plumage to save. Why has he forsaken them? Or, better yet, why does he allow himself to believe their lies, to receive their false blame?
‘Nobird evicted you from this kingdom, pair eagles – the hawks have… well, had qualms with the gulls, as all Birds of Prey have with all Birds of Lake. You have forsaken yourselves with your gross, unprovoked mauling of your fellow Birds of Prey. Now, begone! And feel fortunate for being given the chance before my new flock and I change our minds and strike you down where you perch.’
The pair of bald eagles need no further convincing – they’ve known the osprey was mad, yes, they’ve known it for many shinecycles now, but they never thought it would come to this. They never thought the fool capable of flapping so low, but as one may say, the tide churns, the wind blows, and the seasons will always change. Best to change as they do.
The pair eagles flap wing and leave The Basin behind. The channel closes as they swoop low under the giants’ footbridge. Behind them, a mighty victory shriek is drowned out by a demonic chorus of kee-awws, the terribly high pitch of the Red Hawk Flock’s shrill cry bringing cracks to the ice below.
The Giant, his old wooden sled filled to the lip with equipment for the catching of fish through solid ice, prepares to head north up a hillside once deemed treacherous. He stands under the hide awning of his cabin, the only awninged cabin in the entire Fishing Village, and calmly smokes a bundle of kinnikinnik rolled in a preserved leaf. He enjoys smoking during a snowstorm almost as much as he enjoys indulging in the act during a rainstorm – when water falls from the sky in any form, it’s best for smoke to rise.
Bundled in many layers of whitetail hide, one of the shamanfolk approaches, the cuffs of his pant legs soaked from trudging through the snow.
“Hai, shaman,” The Giant says, nodding his head upwards. The shaman replies with an upwards nod.
“Hai, fishcatcher. Do you mean to set out on the Wanaque?”
“Nay.” He tokes on his herbs and flicks the worm of ashes building on the burning end. “I go north to Monksville, just as I do with every rise of the great shine. Do you care to join me, Shinewatcher? Perhaps you may bless my venture and I’ll return with ample loot.”
The shaman leaves the storm and ducks under the awning. “Why do you persist with the Monksville Res’, fishcatcher? It has been cycles on cycles since any catch was pulled from that deadzone of a lake. The fish swim freely in the Wanaque, why not make it easy on yourself?”
The Giant tokes again, deeply this time. He only exhales when the smoke begins to claw at his lungs. “Because, shaman, so much is my duty. I released two muskellunges into that lake many cycles ago, and since then I’ve only caught back one. And the one I caught…” he trails off, lowering his gaze to the dirt. He takes another toke and says no more.
“I remember it well, a fine meal it made.”
“‘Twas not meant to be a meal, high shaman. They were meant to hold a sacred balance, and I killed one of them. I need to find the other, to make sure it’s still alive. To make sure I’ve not done irreversible damage to this ecosystem with which we thrive or die.”
The shaman nods his head up and down whilst stroking his long, white beard, the hair tough and course like dried stalks of wheat. “The one you caught was male, correct?”
The Giant lifts his eyes to meet those of the blind shaman’s, those cloudy aquamarine orbs, and nods in agreement.
“And the other was female, as spawning pairs must be. Perhaps the buck offed the doe, if you don’t mind my getting out with it.”
“Not at all, though I won’t accept it as truth.” The Giant tokes again then flicks the roach, his fingers scorched by the heat of the embers. The snow is piling up in the village, the tracks the shaman made on his way over have already vanished, consumed by the frozen blanket. “I mean to set off now. Shall you join me and bless my voyage?”
“Is the ice even thick enough to fish?” the shaman asks with concern. “The southern half of Monksville is wide and expansive, and very slow to freeze, as I’m sure you’re very aware. Especially out in the middle.”
“I am, and it is. And if it isn’t? The coves surely will be.”
“And if they’re not?”
The Giant nudges his sled with the toe of his moc’. “Then my sled shall float, it’s buoyant enough for one. Perhaps even two; I ask again, shall you join me and bless my journey today?”
“Nay, fishcatcher. I shall not run a fool’s errand, no matter who the fool may be.”
“Off with you then, may your walk back be swift.”
They bump fists and the shaman takes his leave, The Giant watching as he treks. When the old crone is safely back in his cabin, The Giant grasps the cold sinew lead and begins to pull his wooden sled, leaving a deep trench in his wake.
The pair eagles reach the North Cove and take perch inland, resting on a low-lying branch. The snow had begun to accumulate on their wings despite their heated flapping, melting as it froze to form a heavy coat of ice. Lysandra breaks the shells off Lysander’s wings and shivering back, and then he returns the favor. Finally, with their wings unencumbered, they take a moment to roost up and catch their breath properly. The blizzard – though even that word pales in comparison to the unrelenting swarm of snowy butterflies hatching from their chrysali in the skies and fluttering down to the world – only seems to get heavier with each passing moment. When they left The Sticks they were able to see the shoreline and follow it here; now it seems as though they’ll have to walk when they return to… return to where? They no longer have a home in the petrified jungle in which they’ve taken roost for all these cycles. Never has the snow fallen with such virile and intensity, never have the temperatures fallen so low, so fast. Before the storm, Monksville’s cap of ice was no thicker than a feather – now, it could likely support the weight of the black bear who lives the cave in the mountains.
The channel opens narrow and fluctuates with the snowfall, creating a thick warbling effect in the transmission of thought. The pair eagles pretend not to notice, but it hits their brains like the talon of a diving eagle into the neck of a hawk.
‘Highest Lysander, it seems we’re stranded. What are we to do?’
‘I do not know, Highest Lysandra.’ He peers out across the lake but sees nothing, not even the surface. They could be resting on the canopy for all they can see. ‘How could he do this to us? To the vultures? To High Choridae and all his gullflock? It’s twisted, it’s downright blasphemous, it’s, it–’
‘I know not, my love,’ Lysandra sends, clenching her beak. It feels like her brain is larger than her head; the eagle can feel the snowstorm’s frozen touch through her feathered skull. ‘There’s no use in asking ourselves what the traitor himself could not answer. Would not answer, for he was clearly swept up by the wavelength of the cult’s channel.’
With trembling feet and numb talons, Lysandra inches closer to Lysander. He opens his right wing and takes her under it, shielding her from the harsh whiteout. They roost together like this for a moment, remembering the good times they shared in The Sticks, remembering all the surfaceswimmers and ‘munkies and all the other prey that fell to the weight of their talons. They regret but a single thing: that Hilaetos is not among the memories of those fallen.
‘We cannot stay here,’ sends Lysander when the channel ceases its snowy bucking. ‘The canopy is collecting the snow for now, but soon it will outweigh what the dormant branches can handle. They will break and we will be buried.’
‘But where are we to go?’ sent weakly and without opening her eyes.
The pair eagles consider this quandary until the snow gathers on Lysander’s beak. They come up with nothing, and then…
She stands straight and hops over to the right, allowing her soulgroom to fold his wing and feel his own warmth.
‘High Choridae! He escaped, Highest Lysander, we sent him off ourselves! Did you see any gulls resting dead on the ice while we flew through the storm?’
‘No, but… would we have? He was in tragic form and his feathers are whiter than the snow. Surely we would have missed him.’
‘We could have missed him, I believe you mean to send. His beak and his web-footed legs are as vibrant as our own beaks – if he had perished as he came here, we would have spotted him easily! Highest Lysander, do you know what this means?!’
He doesn’t, at least not until the muffled squall of a certain wingflapper with a lack of feathers on her dome breaches the storm. It comes from the south – what the pair eagles think is the south, anyway – and it sounds off twice more before relenting.
‘The Vultress? It had to be. No other denizen is capable of a cry so deafening.’
‘Deafening? I could barely hear it. Had she not repea–’
Lysandra stands tall and spans her wings, issuing a mighty scream. A moment of nothing passes, the eagles staring intently into the blindness around them, their minds deathly quiet and their mighty eagle hearts beating with force against their ribcages.
Then, ‘Praise the Mother, you two survived. The channel is not stable in this storm, I can already feel my brain swelling. Sending over such a distance is not sustainable, not right now. You must find your way to South Cove. Sanctuary awaits.’
The channel then closes, giving the pair eagles no other option. Lysandra looks at her soulgroom with eyes that seem to ask how they’re meant to get there. Lysander gives his soulbride a look which suggests they walk along the shore and hope they are not buried. Then, the channel opens and closes in a split second, the pair eagles catching the following thought in the interim:
‘Avoid The Crater at all costs, lest you be trapped in the chasm.’
The eagles know not what a chasm is or even what it might be, but they take the hint nonetheless. The blizzard then relents slightly for a few miraculous moments, gifting the pair eagles their sight. The snow is piled high across the entire reservoir and higher yet in the canopy of the forests on either side, but the grounds are bare enough. Not snowless, but bare enough, though that may not even matter – if they launch now and beeline down the last stretch of the Northern Leg, they cou–
The blizzard immediately picks back up and the eagles are blinded again. They did not see nothing though, and they know what they must do if they are to reach their promised salvation.
The pair eagles take flight into the snowblast and cut southeast across the Reservoir. They come to the Minelands and find a wide dirt road, a footpath used by giants. They follow the beaten path south, hoping the mystic did not misguide them.
Long Dirt Roads
Two tip-ups, a jiggin’ rig, a lidded bait bucket, and the mighty auger, its spiral blade untarnished despite multiple cycles of use – these are the supplies loaded into the sled which The Giant pulls uphill through the storm. The once treacherous climb has long been made mellow by the construction of the giants’ dirt roadways, but that means nothing to the blizzard. The blizzard is a force of nature, a wrathful being with a will of its own sent by the Great Spirit to wreak havoc on the giants and all other denizens of Mother Monksville’s keep for the inexcusable crimes they’ve committed against her time and time again. Denizens eating other denizens, giants stomping supple grass until it lies dead in long dirt roads, and The Giant, perhaps the most despicable of all, he who killed the very apex ‘breather he released into the lake in the first place. This blizzard has been a long time coming, The Giant is sure of that, and he deserves every frozen flake that falls upon his raw, numbed face.
Though they’re not really flakes, are they? Were these crystals colored in yellows, oranges, and reds, he would mistake it for late autumn when the trees shed their leaves in swathes, almost as if they plan it, almost as if they communicate with one another through their roots in a way unfathomable to beings with eyes in their heads. But it is not autumn, it’s the dead of winter and the beginning of a new cycle, ‘tis furious snow that falls from the sky in clumps on this dark day. Still The Giant presses on, his moccasins strapped with metal claws so he does not fall victim to the slope. The sled follows obediently behind him, its strap heavy in the numb dead hands of its puller.
‘It’ll be a blessing if I crest this hill,’ The Giant thinks to himself as his claws dig into the frozen ground. ‘A miracle if any of the bait survives.’
It’s a miracle The Giant has any bait at all – as per usual, he was the last one to set out of the village this morning. Many giants fish the tamed stretch of the Wanaque day after day – the Fishing Village would perish if they did not – but only one auger was ever crafted, and the mold was broken after it was done. Not Black Smith’s most brilliant play, but he did it out of respect for The Giant – in his eyes, no other member of his kind is worthy, or capable, even, of wielding such a powerful tool. So, every shinerise, The Giant follows his fishcatchers onto the frozen stretch of tamed Reservoir – hot air rises and cold air sinks, and the waterfall only helps with the freezing – and he drills their holes. Then he returns home, visiting the hatchery on the way to gather his own bait, and loads his sled. His choice of bait is normally not extensive, despite the respect his villagers claim for him (he does not blame them, as he’s the last to dip into the reserves), but today there were a triad of ample shiners, and even a freshwater eel. A traveling merchant traded the slimy snakefish for a bucketful of bass before setting off for the Southlands a few shinecycles passed; The Giant knows not where this merchant found the eel, but he does know one thing: something in Mother Monksville is going to take it. Something big, and it shall take it very well.
Hauling his loaded sled up the once treacherous climb is a daily routine for The Giant, but never has the climb been as difficult as it was when he was a small giant migrating from the lowlands to the high valley. Not until today; the snow continues to fall, in clumps, not in flakes.
The footpath running through the Minelands is a well-traveled walk, but the eagles remain oblivious to this fact. The snow begins to pile despite the cover of the canopy; the way ahead resembles a certain kind of tunnel, except no light lies at the end; only more snow, falling in clumps and tall mounds as it weighs down the branches above.
At first they walked, thankful to give their frozen wings a break. Then, as the snow accumulated past their ankles, they began to trot, running almost like turkeys except significantly less graceful. Now, when they can no longer bend their knees, the eagles cover distance with fluttery hops, their feet only touching the ground when it’s totally necessary. By the time they decide to just fly, well… if one were to walk this path meaning to track the pair eagles, they would fail spectacularly and likely be taken by the momentous snowdrifts and frozen to death, left to be discovered come the spring thaw.
At last they come to the final bend in the trail; the only reason they’re able to recognize it is the sudden lifting of the claustrophobic feeling that comes with traveling through a long tunnel. The walls and ceiling open to dark clouds and thick, white air. The eagles perch on a bare branch, a rare commodity during this trying storm.
The channel opens very narrow – they have to huddle close together in order to share thoughts.
‘Do you know where we are?’
‘I’m unsure,’ admits Lysandra coldly. Ever since they arrived on Monksville, the pair eagles have kept strictly to The Basin, with the occasional odd flap along the Northern Leg to hold palaver with the witch doctor in North Cove. On those occasions, they would gaze down the stretch of water where the drowned riverbed splits and north expands to south, and they have seen South Cove from afar before – it’s like The Sticks in that a once thriving jungle was submerged by water and left to petrify – but they’ve never faced a storm like this. Perhaps they could find it if the skies were more clear, perhaps even if the snow fell reasonably, but in a snowblast like this? And they followed the giants’ footpath, they were never even aware of the footpath before today. For all the pair eagles know, they’ve made their way to the Wanaque Reservoir.
‘As am I. I suppose we wait then,’ sends Lysander. ‘This storm can’t last forever.’
‘And neither can we,’ with a very clear sense of worry in her thoughts.
Lysander can sense his soulbride growing colder and colder by the moment, and he is too. They can’t last forever in this storm, they can’t last more than a shinecycle. They won’t last until shineset at this rate, and the storm may very well pick up in intensity. It may also weaken and thin out, but to experience a miracle is one thing; to rely on one’s occurrence is very much another, and so the pair eagles begin to look for a way out.
Then, another muffled squall booms through the blizzard, this time coming from the southwest. This time louder, this time closer.
‘Did you hear that?’ he sends, but of course she did. She’d have to be lame to have missed that, even with the deafening white shroud in the air.
Lysandra turns to her soulgroom, looking excited. ‘We must take the risk, Highest Lysander. We must fly through the storm.’
‘But Lysandra, my love, if we falter…’
‘We must not. There’s nowhere else for us to go, nothing else to do. Our home has been taken from us by the very one who provided it – if we don’t cross this lake now, we may as well have stayed and tried to fight off those hawks. We may as well have let them vanquish us with the gulls. Those poor, defenseless gulls… we owe it to High Choridae.’
Lysander contemplates this with a heavy furrow in his frozen brow. ‘We must,’ he agrees, if not a bit reluctantly, ‘for High Choridae, we must. I shall lead the way; follow close behind, my love.’
But Lysandra’s already taken off, and Lysander wallows in the channel alone. It closes as he leaps from the forest’s last bare branch and flaps wing into the blind and frozen hell falling over the Res’.
In the aftermath of the great battle at The Sticks, The Beast floats in The Basin with a belly full of soaked feathers. Many brave wingflappers fell on this day, ‘flappers of feathers both brown and white, and they were all swallowed whole by The Beast’s insatiable maw. He didn’t have a choice in the matter, though that’s not to say he didn’t enjoy every piece of flesh pierced by his jagged teeth, the bent stalactites and stalagmites lining his dark cave of a mouth – the buzz commands him, the infernal vibration, this sick love song of The Dome that plays and plays and never relents, it stalks his every thought, delivers his every movement. Ever since The Beast swam through that brilliant orb of yellow-green light, ever since his vast ocean gave way to this internment pond he’s heard the grinding buzz, and ever since then, the spectral wail has commanded him.
A Wooden Cave
The vulture flock hordes around the pair eagles and smothers their shivering bodies in heated feathers and wings. When the last two survivors of the Red Hawk Flock’s massacre finally begin to warm, they are allowed to see the light of day.
Having wasted no time since their fleeing of the old nesting grounds this past autumn, the vulture flock has transformed the once unclaimed South Cove into a safe haven for any Bird, of Lake or of Prey, that happens to be set a’wander across Monksville. Many trees still stand, but some have been strategically felled – Pecker and Woody of the woodpecker flock helped with this, as did Buc’Toof the beaver – in the formation of a wooden cave just past the shoreline. It looks almost as if a giant had built the structure, the resemblance to their early lean-to shelters is utterly uncanny. Outside the snow is piled high, but beneath the roof is dry ground. Frozen ground, with patches of mud trapped and suspended in spires of ice, but dry ground nonetheless. The snow continues to fall, now in flakes, no longer in clumps.
At the mouth of the cave The Vultress waits, the channel comfortably open. ‘Welcome to our sanctuary, highest pair eagles. We’re honored to have you among us.’
Lysander bows without sending a single thought. Lysandra thanks The Vultress profusely, then joins in the bow.
‘Up, up! There’s no need for such formality, those days are past us now. My hunters should be returning soon with the means to have a Rite of Renewal. Please, join us pair eagles. You must both be very hungry.’
They are indeed, and so they do stay. The feast is ravenous and quick, even the bones are consumed.
‘It is a shame my dayguard has fallen on this day,’ sends Choridae with a beak full of gull breast, ‘but I am thankful some landed on the shores when they fell.’
Following the meal, the pair eagles perch at the mouth of the wooden cave with The Vultress. Inside, High Choridae is keeping the greater vulture flock entertained with stories from his days as a seabird, detailing past dealings with giants who made raised roadways out of wood and small mountain lions that would take refuge under these platforms. It’s been decided that Choridae will flock with the vultures until his wounds properly heal and he can fend for himself; whether that time comes in the spring, the summer, the autumn, or a cycle in the distant future matters not. They did not see it first wing, but the vultures are all aware of the bravery the mighty gull displayed when the red hawks came flapping. He’s a welcome addition to their flock.
As would be the pair eagles, the expert scavengers that they are; would be, that is, if staying was a real option.
‘That’s… quite unfortunate,’ sends The Vultress.
She gazes across the meadow of frozen cotton that stands where a Reservoir may flow come the spring thaw, her face heavy with the perception of many trillions of possibilities. From every passing moment branches infinite potential futures, each of these outcomes birthing hoards of infinite universes while simultaneously bringing an end to just as many; what may once have been and what may still come to be are fickle things, The Vultress knows it very well, and for the longest she’s had a clear perception of what she believed was her destined future: to rule over her flock until an untimely death at the jaws of a terrible monster, one not inherently evil but cursed with life all the same. Upon her death, the flock would be handed over to the pair eagles and they would quickly claim perch over all of Mother Monksville, ushering in a new age of avian evolution that would bring Birds both of Prey and of Lake to an equal footing with the giants – where things would spiral from there was always clouded in the fog of uncertainty, a few moves too far ahead to see, perhaps. But now, everything is foggy; those visions never included the gull Choridae, his survival of the massacre was an unprecedented, unpredictable quirk of Existence, the metaphorical flap of a moth’s wing to veer off in pursuit of the moon rather than being engulfed by flames in its desire for light. The future of her flock is now up in the air; The Vultress doesn’t like it one bit.
‘And you’re both sure your staying here with my flock is impossible?’
‘Yes, High Vultress, I’m afraid such is so,’ sends Lysandra. ‘We are eternally grateful that you took us in and fed us, we wouldn’t have survived the worst of the storm without your sending of thought up the Northern Leg. But Lysander and I, we want to start a family. The Hatching comes every spring and we have never been able to participate, The Sticks was never large enough for us to build a nest suitable for raising eaglets.’
‘We need a fortress,’ sends Lysander, seamlessly continuing Lysandra’s stream of thought. ‘Something similar to what your flock has here but up in the trees, ideally just below the canopy. We’ll be invisible from the sky and inaccessible from the ground, and our chicks will be safe from whatever may seek them out, whether feathered or furred.’
The Vultress takes a moment to feel this out. ‘And you’ll remain on Monksville?’
‘Of course,’ they send in unison. Then, from the mind of Lysandra, ‘We wouldn’t dream of leaving the Reservoir, we’ve too much history here. History and friends; ‘twould be a shame to leave either behind.’
The Vultress smiles faintly at this, as much as her beak will allow. The fog is beginning to clear, but not all of it – simply in a tunnel, like the giants’ footpath through the Minelands. At the end of this prophetic tunnel lies a long and happy life for The Vultress, a life of much renewal and a strong, able flock. A future that does not include The Sticks in any way, shape, or form, a future lacking in a scaled threat constantly hidden behind a wet, murky veil. The tunnel vision disturbs The Vultress, yes, disturbs the mystic very greatly, but she supposes she sees what’s meant to be seen.
‘Where will you build this fortress? The giants have colonized much of the forests already, and surely you don’t mean to share space with them.’
‘Decidedly not,’ sends Lysander, with a nod of approval from Lysandra. ‘We do not yet know, but we will figure it out. And soon, if Mother Monksville is willing. In truth we’d like to shove off when this storm relents.’ In truth he hadn’t mentioned this last bit to Lysandra, but she has no complaints. She loves the vulture flock, but their nesting ground has never emanated the most pleasant of odors, and having the scavengers all congregated within a closed space only makes the decision easier. ‘The clouds have already shed their blackness; soon the skies will be blue once more. The sooner we go the better, as we do not know what the hawks are planning next.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about them,’ sends The Vultress, and finally she turns to face them. Tunnel vision or not, there is one lone detail which has never been a concern regarding the Monksvillian future of the vulture flock, and that detail is the red-tailed hawks. ‘You have no idea where you may take your permanent roost?’
The pair eagles offer one another a look, as if to thoughtlessly send You got anything?
Then, from the mind of Lysandra, ‘No Vultress, we do not. We’d like to stay in the Northern Leg, buh–’
‘You shall go to The Crater, high pair eagles.’
‘The Crater?’ asks Lysander, gazing out to the north. ‘You told us to avoid that chasm at all costs, did you not?’
‘Aye, but only on your journey here. In truth, high pair eagles… in truth I wanted you to come here. No, I needed you to come here, I needed to be sure you survived the great folly of the Sea Hawk. There was something else, but…’ she trails off, grasping at a memory that only fades with each clutch of her astral talons. ‘Perhaps there wasn’t. Regardless, I warned you of The Crater because I knew you if you found it before you came here, you would not have taken shelter and shared in a Rite of Renewal with us. Plus, Choridae requested you make an appearance. I didn’t want to disappoint the great and powerful captain of the dayguard.’
The eagles glance back into the wooden cave and see Choridae standing on the back of a crouching vulture, flapping his wings as he sends to the flock the tale of his narrow escape from the clutches of a trio of hawks, the very same trio the pair eagles vanquished after aiding in his escape. He drops them a sly wink and then goes on sending. The vulture flock swoons at his suavity.
‘What waits for us at The Crater, then?’ receives The Vultress from the mind of Lysander.
Then, from Lysandra, ‘Yes, Vultress, what could be so great that we would flap there before regrouping with you flock here?’
The Vultress smiles again, this one as vibrant as the great shine in summertime. ‘All will be revealed, highest pair eagles. For now I shall send only this: many things change as the seasons do, but one thing shall always stay constant.’ She pauses, adjusts her wings, then, ‘That one thing awaits you, as it does all of us at one time or another, though this time ‘twill not be egregious.’
‘What is that one thing?’ sends Lysandra, looking rapidly from soulgroom to mystic.
‘I shall send no more – come, pair eagles, join me in receiving Choridae’s tale. The blizzard will be a mere squall soon, and then you shall take flight.’
The pair eagles venture deep into the wooden cave on the tail feathers of The Vultress and receive High Choridae’s tale; it is a fine one indeed, a yarn woven of bravery, courage, and undying loyalty, a tale to be sent and received by the4 Birds of Monksville for cycles to come, long after its original teller has passed on. Life does not end when the long curtain is drawn, as you may or may not have been sent; there is merely a great transition, a passing through of sorts. Mayhap one day you shall wake as a turkey vulture under the perch of The Vultress – or maybe as a turkeygull in the Southern Expanse – and you too shall receive this tale. Mayhap you will, small giants. Mayhap you will.
As they approach The Crater, thermal winds bask the wings of the pair eagles in a gentle warmth and lift them high above the canopy. The coating of snow melts off in steamy drops, leaving only a thin track of powder stretching from their heads to their tails like the stripe of a skunk. They do not expect it, but they greatly welcome the sudden reprieve from the falling frost – Lysandra even does a barrel roll to melt the snow off her back. Lysander keeps upright, his wings flapping steadily, his eyes trained on the approaching hole in the canopy.
‘Isn’t it wonderful, Highest Lysander?’ Lysandra sends as she sways through the heated air. ‘It’s as if a rouge spring wind has formed just to find us!’
‘It is,’ he sends flatly, his mind preoccupied. ‘Look ahead, Lysandra, and tell me what you see.’
Lysandra levels herself out and flaps wing even with Lysander. Ahead of them she sees the canopy of the mountains rising behind the two isles draped in white; set back in the space between them is a large hole. It seems to be coated in ice, as if the snow fallen there is trapped in an unending cycle of melting and immediately refreezing.
‘I see it, but… what is it?’
As they flap closer, they begin to hear a kind of buzzing – not the buzz which taunts The Beast as he shreds the lakebreathing population of Monksville; that buzz is only audible to a monster with a heart as cold as the blood in its veins – rising from The Crater. There seems to be a dome of shimmering air capping the odd landmark, a plume of hot air heated enough to evaporate the snow as it falls. The buzz becomes louder the closer they approach, and they begin to pick out noises – barks, chirps, chitters, churrs – the noises of a trillion bumbling squirrels, live rodents in need of a carnivore’s belly to fill.
Finally they reach the chasm. As they circle over the mouth like buzzards over a slain carcass left to rot in the heat of the great shine, the pair eagles are greeted by a sight equally terrifying and exciting – the indomitable squirrelhorde, buzzing and yipping as they tirelessly sprint and hop from tree to tree, branch to branch, back to tail and head to back, entranced under the spell of burning ice, generating body heat as they ceaselessly dash ‘round and ‘round in an endless loop of motion. At the bottom is a pile of dead rodents, some squirrels, some ‘munkies, who must have perished from starvation, dehydration, or simple exhaustion.
‘The squirrels, they–’
‘They do their dance just as the rest of us, my love,’ sends Lysandra, both her starving eyes fixated on the gyrating mass of fur and squeak. They circle over the top of the caldera for a short while, long enough to heat the hollows of their bones but not long enough to outlast the fading storm.
Then, Lysander sends and Lysandra receives.
‘Highest Lysandra, I do believe we’ve been found by that thing which shall always stay constant when all else changes as the seasons do.’
She receives it very well, yes, very well indeed, but still she sends her question, as if the bald eagle needed to confirm the law of nature. ‘What has found us, Highest Lysander?’
The eagles scream in unison before divebombing into the center of the squirrelhorde, shrieking all the way through the cyclone.
A single squirrel escapes the massacre unscathed and burrows through the snow, finding safety in the dense forest surrounding Muskellunge Cove, the very forest where the screeching owl makes his roost in all seasons but the winter.
Three fishing holes drilled in equal distance from one another surround The Giant in Lure Cove. The first tip-up is set and the second is primed, all it needs is bait. The water in the bucket is cold, but not as cold as the water of Monksville, nor the ice which seals it, nor the snow which covers that icy seal. The blizzard seems to have passed, for the time being, at least – by the bite of the air against the giant’s red-tipped nose, he knows the winter has just begun and Monksville is due for many more storms.
But that’s the future and this is the now, and now, The Giant has bait to drown.
He hooked the first one cleanly enough, watched it swim about when he dropped it in the water; the second one is not so lucky. As he inserted the hook, a sneeze took him and sent a wily twitch through his hand – the spine of the shiner was skewered and the little thing died instantly. As he watches the corpse sink down into the murky water, two bald eagles fly from South Cove in the direction of the two islands, but The Giant does not see them. He could not see them, even if he was looking their way – the snow still falls in a squall, and though the visibility is greater than it was as he trekked out here (when he crested the treacherous hill he found himself lost in a cloud, surrounded on all sides by impenetrable white), he still can’t see to the other side of Monksville. All the same he knows giants from the Mining Village are likely out on this Reservoir somewhere, using their pickaxes and shovels to break huge holes in the ice; he hopes they can forgive him for allowing them to poke holes for themselves today.
Remaining in the bucket are a single shiner and the freshwater eel. The Giant initially opened the bucket this third time with the intention of skewering the eel on the hook of his jiggin’ rig, but now he takes a pause. Drowning bait is one thing, but to sink a corpse in hopes of attracting something large? That’s just not feasible. To catch a muskellunge one needs to approach with care – just using bait is not enough. The apex lakebreather must be enticed, it must be attracted to bait by more than the scent alone; the bait must have guile, it must be animated, it must be capable of giving the muskellunge a fight, an obstacle to overcome, a reason to swallow whatever that shiny thing that protrudes from the back of the shiner may be. Besides, he cannot jig with the eel on his line, the snakefish is much too large for that.
The Giant pulls the second tip-up and reels the line by hand, as one must when fishcatching with tip-ups. The lake water is just as cold as it was a moment ago, as cold as it shall be until very late in the spring when leaf buds have long since bloomed and lost the vibrant green hues of their birth. He drops the slain shiner in the hole and, as it sinks untethered to the mortal realm, The Giant fishes the slick eel from the comparatively lukewarm bucket and skewers it true – he watches it slither down into the depths before resetting the tip-up for action.
On the hook of his jiggin’ rig the giant skewers his last shiner. It squirms in his hand even with the hook in its back, as if it doesn’t feel the pain at all.
‘Good,’ he thinks to himself as he drops the line into the third hole and a pair of eagles screams in the distance, ‘this one shall be a fighter. On this day, the last muskellunge of Monksville shall be caught.’
What little light pours through the hole in the ice fades as the freshwater eel swims further and further into the deep, murky waters of Monksville’s Lure Cove, by far the deepest cove south of the Wanaque Riverbed. A few slow-rising air bubbles pass him as he dives; the lake is otherwise devoid of motion. A cold chill which has little to do with the temperature of the water swims through the eel’s spine – the eel has an eerie sense of isolation about him, as if he is among the last of the living lakebreathers to flap their gills in this lake. He eventually reaches the bottom, then tries to swim along the downslope to leave the corona of light shining down from the hole only to be tugged back by the barbed hook The Giant pierced through his ribcage.
In the distance the eel picks up two shafts of light shining down from the ceiling of ice just like the beam illuminating him from above. Tiny, bony little shiners swim in these beams, shiners that would make a wonderful meal, as the eel hasn’t eaten anything but mushy pellets in as long as he can remember. Given, the memory of the standard freshwater eel isn’t the greatest, but to forget the taste of fresh meat is a travesty regardless of how well one can recall what has come to pass. He slowly waves his ray-finned tail in an attempt to coax the line into stretching, perhaps even bringing it to breaking strain, but the eel has no such luck. The fishing line, a Black Smith special, is made of metal, of three iron wires of a minuscule gage woven together into an unbreakable rope. The Giant means to draw forth a grown muskellunge from these frigid waters; though the muskellunge is a mighty apex predator, it is just a lakebreather all the same. A simple lakebreather cannot snap a metal line, and though the eel is no simple lakebreather, he cannot snap the line either.
But he tries. Oh does he ever try, he tries and tries and tries some more until his long, slender body is gripped by the hand of exhaustion and the barbed hook of lost hope is thrust firmly through his ribcage, narrowly missing his spine. At a certain point even a baitfish knows when its day is approaching that long, endless night; after spending enough time tethered to a fishcatching contraption, even a shiner will realize it would have been far better off if The Giant’s hand slipped and its spine was severed – at least in that case the death would be immediate, not drawn out at the mercy of whatever may fancy a free meal. The eel could perish at any time down here; he’s trapped, a sitting duck; no, a floating duck, one afloat in The Sticks, the proud leader of The Early Birds in the last, fleeting, final moments before Sea Hawk Lord Hilaetos swooped low and decapitated him for little reason other than the fact that the duck prefers to float on the lake rather than to perch on the branch of a tree.
Not a current flows by. The bed of the lake is bare here, devoid even of coontail weeds.
What’s worse, the eel won’t just die an unpleasant death in the belly of Mother Monksville – first he’ll be stalked, watched by a lame predator, made to play a certain sick kind of mind game until the finwhipper decides it’s time to eat, then, schluup. Down the hatch he goes.
This thought doesn’t immediately occur to the snakefish, not until he’s exhausted himself fully. He’s a wily bugger; perhaps if he played the waiting game from the get-go he could dodge the snapping strike at the last moment, get the iron line caught between the hunting fish’s jaws and hope for a miraculous stroke of luck, or at the very least he could use the metal line to bring a reversal of fate upon his upcoming slayer. Then he could win his last meal, and maybe – just maybe – if the corpse didn’t immediately float up to the ceiling of ice or drift daintily out of his spotlight prison, maybe he could eat it, too.
Dreadful fatigue grips the eel’s gills as he realizes his time has run out. A pair of hollow, ghostly eyes stare him down from the edge of the cone of light. He doesn’t see a mouth, nor a fin, nor a tail, not that he would see the tail – he only sees a ghastly pair of dead, emotionless eyes staring at him from the inky blackness, the dark grody orbs reflecting what little refracted shinelight they can catch down here in the murky depths of Monksville. There’s no telling how long those eyes have been staring at the eel, no telling how much longer they’ll be staring at him. He only knows his time has come, or at least it is coming, slowly but surely until it ramps up and then, well, schluup. The owner of these eyes clearly means to devour him on the spot, why else would it be stalking him from the edge of concealment like a mountain lion does a certain small giant when dusk gives way to darkest night?
But the eel has one final trick up its gills, a last resort it was hoping not to use – to be slain by a lakebreather larger than himself is one thing, but to convene with it? To converse, to share thoughts sent across the channel? So much is often unheard of to a lakebreather… then again, the eel was ripped from his river just as he meant to close his jaws around a particularly plump and juicy nightcrawling worm who tunneled through the Earth until the dirt got suspiciously wet. Once a predator made to eat pellets and now reduced to prey – yes, so much of what goes on in this world is unheard of, but yet it goes on all the same.
Normally the channel will only open for the likes of wingflappers – it’s a metaphysical tool commanded by the mystics and wielded by all birds who may flap on wings around the greater keep of the Monksville Reservoir – never for a fish; but the eel is not just a simple fish, he is a mighty snakefish, a charmed sort of lakebreather, and as that ghastly pair of lifeless eyes floats ever stiller just outside the doors of the eel’s perception, the channel opens and thoughts are duly sent.
‘I see you there, brother, fellow flapper of the gill and breather of the lake – I see you very well. You mean to bring an end to my life, do you not?’
The being behind the eyes offers no answer, no indication that it has received what the eel has sent.
‘If you believe you are hidden from me, brother,’ the eel sends with determination, ‘you are so sorely, sourly mistaken. Your eyes glow like the full moon in a cloudless night sky and the vibrations from your stomach rumbles my own. I ask again, you come here to devour my very body and soul, do you not?’
The being behind the eyes only continues to watch. The luminous hollows do not drift, do not rise, do not sink; this evil onlooking thing merely floats there stagnant, like a dead bird on the surface on an inert turtle pond.
‘Do you not receive these thoughts I send, brother?’ the eel sends furiously, the blood in his veins boiling. If the tables were turned and ‘twas the eel haunting a skewered shiner, he would at least have the decency to claim his ownership over such savage convictions. Especially if the baitfish called him out. ‘Receive this, then, and be damned to wash up on sandy shores – my name is Arguinos, and I was stolen from my home by a massive hand with skin rougher than a crawdad’s shell. I was carried many miles in a waterholding prison with walls I could not see, walls which held me nonetheless. At first I believed I was abducted by the ones who swim in the starpool, the mysterious beings of an otherworldly glow, but I see now I was sorely and gravely mistaken. I was stolen from my home to be used as bait, as a sacrifice so another may eat well, may eat far better than I ever have. My death was planned so another may live; you’ve won nothing.’
The being behind the eyes floats forward slightly, one sluggish finstroke at a time, revealing to the eel a mouth hanging open, the bottom jaw weighed down by smooth conical teeth, teeth as spaced out as the look on the demonic thing’s face.
‘Do not for one moment believe that other is you, walleye; if you wish to bring an end to my life then move forever forward, but know this – as my life ends, so too will the life that brings an end to it. Do you see the flashyshiny protruding from my back?’
The walleye’s empty, anemic eyes drift slightly upward, then immediately dart back down to meet those of the eel. Its jaw hangs low and its gills flap in a slow rhythm, the leisurely heartbeat of a denizen untethered to the will of those who walk the land.
‘I’ll take it you do, and I know now that you receive what I send. You may consume me, walleye, digest my scaled flesh, crunch my bones and relish in the surely uncommon sensation of a belly filled in this lake so devoid of life, but know this: what reaches skyward from my dorsal side will stay reaching skyward, but from your mouth. Aye, the line shall swim in the gaps between your vicious fangs.’
The walleye, now halfway revealed by the feeble cone of light, floats motionlessly and continues to watch, his gills still flapping, his jaw still a’dangle, his eyes as empty as a cloudless blue sky.
‘And do not fool yourself, not even for a second, into believing I lie to you out of spite, out of jealousy that your life may continue when my life shall surely end,’ sends Arguinos the eel, the first and only eel to swim in Monksville Reservoir. ‘Do not trick yourself, walleye, into thinking it’s possible for you to make a meal out of me without being taken by that which took me; the line is attached to me by a piece thicker than it, aye, a piece bent and ending in a barb tipped with a razor and butted dull as a stone smoothed by the flow of a river. When you take me, as you surely mean to do, that bent piece will pierce your frozen cheek and you will be taken as I was taken, as so many have been taken before, I must assume: by the hand of a giant. Do you receive what I send you, walleye? Do you see the direness of my situation? Do you understand that I have nothing left to lose?’
The walleye’s full body enters the cone of light. On its top and bottom are dorsal fins laced with spines sharp enough to shear the fins clear off the tail of any lakebreather who dares test the walleye’s guile. The eel, slick as a snake in the burrow of a ‘munkie, swims to the very edge of the shinebeam and coils into a tight spiral, ready for the final battle of his life. The walleye stares blankly at this strange snakefish with a certain look in his eyes, a look mistaken by the eel for an insatiable kind of hunger, a hunger that cannot be satisfied by mere food.
The look in the walleye’s eyes is a look of fear, a look of lost hope to rival that of the dead shiner as it took in the last glimpse of the great shine before the giant’s twitch’ed hand severed the defenseless thing’s spine; a look of witnessed apocalypse buoyant with the knowledge that there is no longer any stopping what is surely on its way.
The snakefish begins to send more verbose taunts through the channel, but the walleye, its mouth as open as the channel, sends the following in a whisper:
‘My name is Senvir, you foolish, thoughtful brat, and you’d do us well to quell your rampant sending. There is a reason no lakebreather dares to open the channel, let alone use it to exchange our highest of thoughts.’
Yes, there is indeed a reason, a terrible reason, a monstrous, beastly reason, a reason not of this lake but a reason which swims here regardless. A reason strapped with an everstarving maw, a reason torn internally as it struggles between dueling streams of intersecting command, a reason which appeared one fateful night when the brilliant yellow-green glow of The Gleam unleashed a false god, the titan of slain kings, upon the Mighty Monksville Reservoir.
The Beast swims feverishly up and then back down the southern stretch of the Northern Leg, his fins numb from overflapping, his neck bent and contorted like a knotty piece of driftwood. For four cycles now the buzzing of The Dome has commanded his every move, his every breath, every thought that booms and rattles through his reptilian head. The Beast did not ask to be abducted, to be stolen from his life, to be ripped callously from his family, to be plucked from his oceanic environment like an eel from a river, but he was, aye, he was taken haphazardly, grabbed by that effervescent shining light, consumed by it only to be reborn in different waters altogether, and the buzz has stalked him ever since. The infernal buzz, the hellish black noise that drives cracks in his skull, that grinds his jaws in such a way that his teeth may shatter under the pressure. The buzz has reduced the once proud and spirited and zestful for life Beast into an unhinged killing machine, into a lost soul damned to toil in this crescent moon Reservoir, to live until he dies, never reaching his full size, like a goldfish stolen from its massive pond and trapped in a glass prison fastened by giants.
Yes, the Dome’s infernal buzz haunts The Beast, drags him up and down the Northern Leg, commands him to stay imprisoned in the submerged jungle where he must buck and weave through waterlogged trees, lest he wishes to level them all. But there is something else in the water now, something like The Dome’s buzz but of a different wavelength, something more serene, a vibration which invites rather than commands – a vibration emitted from the Southern Expanse where The Beast is made to toil from the onset of spring until the cool end of autumn when Monksville’s waters are still heated from the hot days of the summer.
As you very well know if I’ve done my job at all, The Beast is not a denizen of Monksville, he was not born here but brought here from a time and space far off from what we know as right here and right now; like the two beings who inhabit The Dome, The Beast knows nothing of the channel; it cannot send thought, nor can it receive. However, unlike those who inhabit The Dome and use all the many buzzing instruments constantly at work beneath its thick and tinted glass shells, The Beast can sense the channel, so long as it is opened by those who share in the breathing of lake.
There is a reason no lakebreather dares to open the channel under the waters of Monksville – though thoughts are sent through a wavelength so benign and serene, The Beast knows nothing but slaughter. It’s been forced to murder and consume ever since it howled forth from ocean to Reservoir, its brain has been washed and all the color has seeped out, leaving only a void, a void so unfillable no matter how many fall to the ungodly snap of its toothy maw. While the buzz causes pain, the channel causes pleasure, and fear can only rule over the mind of a living being for so long. Even if The Beast shall only be further bent under the will of The Dome when the serene vibration is silenced, it will gladly take its reprieve when such is offered.
As The Beast tears past The Dome, the buzzing only intensifies, but the creature pays it no mind. The channel has been opened in the waters of Monksville and it is shared by two lakebreathers, a duo soon to be a trio, a trio which shall quickly reduce to a single tortured monster of a maw most terrible and jagged.
The Giant sits lotus on an exposed patch of ice. He cleared the snow with the bait bucket which now sits empty in the sled, devoid of both fish and the water needed to sustain them. The snow has ceased its falling and the storm clouds have parted to reveal a skyscape that resembles a work of art more than it does a natural phenomenon; brilliant scarlets and lavish pinks slash the blues of the daytime sky and usher in the encroachment of purple dusk. Soon the day will fall and the starpool will fill with glorious sparkling gemstones, cut diamonds embedded in the smoothest rough imaginable. What the shamans say is true, then – following every storm that brings dark clouds to the skies is a period of calm so tranquil it could quell and sooth the most savage of beasts.
Well, the first half is certainly true; as for the second, we’ll have to wait and see.
For a great long time, The Giant stares into the sky with his jiggin’ rig in hand. When the snow still squalled he jerked the line in a perfect rhythm, if only to keep his mind off the temperature falling with the snow; now, the pulls are sporadic and unplanned. The shiner hooked to the end is dead, long dead, drowned bait in prime form; though he’s no way of knowing it, he knows it to be true all the same. This is not the first unsuccessful ice fishing trip The Giant has taken on Monksville and it surely will not be the last, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t give it his all regardless.
After a while his neck grows stiff, so he removes his gaze from the kaleidoscopic sky and returns it to the snowy surface of the lake. That’s when he sees it – he doesn’t know if it just flew up now or if it’s been waving in the sky for minutes, possibly even hours, but he sees it nonetheless.
He sees it very well.
“Flag up!” shouts The Giant as he rises to his feet, dropping the jiggin’ rig to the ice with a hollow clack as he begins to trudge without caution into the high-piled snowdrift, the only thing which stands between him and landing the catch of his life.
From their perch upon the frozen rim of The Crater’s canopy, the pair eagles hear The Giant’s wild, frantic shouts. They’re tempted to flap wing and join him in landing his catch, but they know they must not go. They would want a piece of the take, hell they would want the whole thing, and while they’re sure The Giant would happily oblige and feed them that which they’ve not yet the opportunity to catch, they’ll let the strange creature have his day. Before they left the humble home of the vulture flock, The Vultress told them she’d seen The Giant out on the ice every day since her flock left The Sticks behind; every day he ventures up the hill of the waterfall pulling his sled behind him, every day he sits in the cold underneath the burning fireball in the sky, and every day he returns to his Fishing Village with a bait bucket as empty as his stomach surely is. Yes, this time they’ll let The Giant have his day. Perhaps he’ll leave them a scrap in return. Perhaps he won’t, but perhaps – perhaps – he will, and so he is given the chance.
“Flag up, fish on!” screams The Giant to no one in particular.
The snow is piled up high in drifts fit to topple a cabin were they to be taken by the wind and cast over the waterfall, but The Giant moves through them like a heated knife through deer butter. It has been two full cycles now since his tribesfolk have joined him on the ice of Monksville, but still he shouts his rally cry as if he was followed by dozens. The metal claws strapped to his feet leave great meaty gashes in the ice as he plows his way from one point of his triangle to the next, parting the snow pinked by the shineset sky and leaving a deep trench in his wake, a trench far deeper than that carved by his wooden sled.
He drops to his knees immediately upon reaching the tip-up. The flag has stopped waving at this point, and as he pulls the wooden contraption up from the water, shattering the thin layer of ice that resealed the hole shortly after the tip-up was planted, The Giant sees he’s neither a moment too early nor a second too late – the spool is nearly spent, the wire nearly pulled to full length. Something big took the bait on this tip-up, but which tip-up is this? The cold has worked its frigid way into his mind, he cannot remember if this is the hole in which he planted the eel or the in which he planted the shiner…
‘But it doesn’t matter, does it?’
No, decidedly not; whether this tip-up was baited with the eel or the last shiner, something took the bait. Something massive, something fast, and by the speed the reel is spinning, something strong. There will be a fight, he can tell this much easily, and so he dips into the pockets of his pants and reveals to the none watching a pair of thick deerhide gloves, fishing gauntlets made specifically for the handling of wire line on the coldest of days where fingers exposed to the frozen air and icy water may turn a venomous blue as the sensation is slowly pulled from them like meat from a crawdad claw left to simmer over an open campfire.
With his gauntlets strapped on and not thrown down, though they really might as well be, The Giant grabs hold of the line with his left hand and loops it around his right, anchoring him into battle. He feels a raw pull, then a jerk, then a downright tug as he’s lurched forward by whatever beastly thing may be on the hook end of this line. Lying beside him is the tip-up, crossbeams still crossed and ready to catch on the surface of the ice cap, a last resort if the line is slipped from his gloved grasp. His vision, once blurred by the snowstorm and then by the tears frozen to his eyelids as he ran through the snow, is now pristine and clear, and his blood runs hot as the bonfire he will spark when he returns to the Fishing Village victorious.
But that much is not guaranteed, and none know better than The Giant that to drill a proper hole, one must first work the auger; first, he will have to land this lakebreather.
First, he will have to win the battle.
The Battle for Monksville
The Battle for Monksville first began long, long ago, a great deal of time before The Giant baited his tip-up and sent Arguinos the eel on his final swim. The battle first began in the third cycle after the filling of the Monsville Reservoir, the battle waged on for four torturous seasons of pain, death, and famine felt by all and missed by none, and on this arctic winter day, as the great shine sets and the moon illuminates the starpool like The Gleam illuminated the murky water between the pair isles all those cycles ago, the battle will finally be decided.
There can be only one victor; though Monksville bows presently to no king, she kneels before two gods, one false and malevolent, one true and pure of heart. That’s not to say The Giant is a true god – goodness no, he’s a simple giant very much like you and I – and neither is it to say The Beast is any sort of higher being – don’t even dream of it, he’s just a lost soul, a monster from another realm, displaced and torn from his home never to return – but such things are clear to us alone, small giants, for we walk upon this world with an infinity spinning inside our skulls, we are capable of seeing things not necessarily for what they truly are, but certainly for something close to that truth. At least, that’s what I’d like to think, but I do so very often digress; to us and the other giants, the difference between god and denizen is a simple one to discern, but to the denizens of the mighty Monksville themselves? To such lakebreathers as the walleye, who swam for murkier water while The Beast howled forth and tore through the open Southern Expanse en route to Lure Cove, such a difference may not be as clear. Nay, may not be as clear at all, may in fact be murkier than the cloud of muck Senvir whipped up as to shield himself from impending doom; to Senvir, two gods wage war in the waters of Monksville on this day, and the valley in which those waters sit trembles under the strain of the conflict.
The Beast took the eel in one foul gulp. He did not harm the eel, did not puncture the eel’s slick and slimy form with his jagged, rotten teeth, he merely swallowed the snakefish whole. If another were to tell you this tale, they may spare your feelings and say the eel still lives, that Arguinos swims in the belly of The Beast as The Beast swims enraged in the belly of Monksville, but I cannot in good conscious tell such a lie. When The Beast consumed the eel, he did so with such a force to tear the eel’s body clean off the barbed hook. As the dying eel fell into the blackest pit any denizen should ever have the misfortune of knowing, the line and hook writhed about in the maw until the barbed point lodged itself into The Beast’s bottom jaw, impaling the monster’s gums and striking his jawbone like a rattlesnake may strike a ‘munkie. This pain, entirely unlike the pain of the buzz inside The Beast’s head yet just as sickeningly painful, shoved The Beast into a new state of insanity. Even monsters have their limits, and for this deranged scaly bastard, that limit was not just reached but broken, shattered, and set to a new height, a height which, if whatever gods watch over The Beast are willing, will never be reached again.
As soon as he felt the hook chip his jawbone, The Beast screamed in a way that forced The Dome to cease the broadcast of its buzzing for a short little while, a few minutes or perhaps just a few seconds, but it was long enough. With a clear head, The Beast realized this was his chance for escape, possibly the only chance he will ever get, and there is only one way out – through the spillover gap of the beavers’ dam.
Then the few seconds ran out. The Dome resumed its broadcast, The Beast resumed insanity, and the never-ending cycle seemed to churn on, even with the dubious presence of The Beast, the pet of those two beings who inhabit The Dome beneath the waters of Monksville.
What was once a straight line and a foolproof plan of exit is now a tangled mess of bent and knotted wire, a psychotic weaving of The Giant’s metal fishing line around rocks and boulders, through great forests of sunk driftwood, and under the sunk corpses of fishing boats made with mismatched cuts of wood warped by overuse until leaks sprung and they were claimed by the mighty Mother Monksville. The Beast trailed the line every which way he could, the pain of the hook blinding him while the roar of the buzz tore him further and further from the safe beaches of pleasant sanity. When he finally finds the dam and realizes what he was made so quickly to forget, the metal line is pulled tight, the spool is spun out, and The Giant’s right arm is submerged up to the shoulder in the hole his auger drilled into the ice.
The ice which is now beginning to crack.
The Giant feels nothing from his right wrist to his shoulder; his left hand scrambles for purchase on the slippery soaked ice while his right is undoubtedly bitten by aquatic frost. There may be a muskellunge on the other end of this fishing wire, or there may be something else, something bigger, something badder, mayhap even the very thing which has brought so much pain and suffering to all those who frequent the world’s greatest water hole, that brilliant, beloved lake filling the valley shaped like a crescent moon. From his shoulder to his wrist The Giant’s right arm is numb, the sensation gone like dust in the wind, but he can feel his right hand very well, yes, very well indeed; he feels the metal fishing line as it tightens its grip around his deerhide fishing gauntlet, the very well-made gauntlet, the hard leather gauntlet soaked through past the hand and straight to the bone which refuses to give out under the razor bite of the wire, the very gauntlet that bites into The Giant’s frozen flesh like the teeth of a carnivore. The frothy water beneath the fishing hole takes on a stomach-churning crimson as The Giant’s hand is crushed and maimed.
The otherworldly sound of a crack moving its way through solid ice rings in The Giant’s ears and he realizes, all at once, that his current position is not sustainable. If he doesn’t draw his arm back out of the hole, not only will his catch surely escape, but he’ll be pulled into the water and doomed to drown, claimed by that which he so dutifully serves and protects, that which he has been a steward over ever since he was a small giant of five cycles who had not yet been given a name.
The Giant must pivot and he must do it now, before more than just his fingers are lost, and they surely will be soon – the knuckles of his pinkie and pointer fingers have just touched and the bones of his hand are beginning to splinter.
A scream of bloody murder escapes The Giant’s throat and shakes the snow off the trees from the mouth of the Wanaque River all the way down to the North Floodgate at the southern end of the Fishing Village. He loosens his left moccasin with his right foot, using the metal claws as if they were part of his body all along, and flings the shoe into the air. It lands just out of reach of his left hand and The Giant screams again, but not quite as loud; a scream fueled by rage is a terrible sound indeed, but a scream fueled by pain is a noise of an entirely different magnitude.
But that moc’ is The Giant’s only chance, he can’t possibly sling his right moc’ over his left shoulder, that would leave both feet damned to freeze, as his right hand already is. The Giant reaches, pulls on the line with all his might, gets some slack, thanks the Great Spirit, and then nudges himself ever closer to the stray clawed moccasin. He pulls, nudges, pulls, nudges, and reaches a final time, but it’s still no good, it’s just barely out of his reach, the tip of the glove on his left middle finger scrapes against the stiff leather of the moc’ and he knows, in that moment, that he needs but one more pull, a single burst of effort. The water on the ice is soaking into his chest and pants, he feels the true wrath of winter on every inch of his body, he feels the ice cracking and sinking ever so much lower with each beat of his heart, but he has to do this. For his village, for the Tribe of the Forge, for Mother Monksville and for himself, he has to do it.
The Giant pulls on the wire line one final time. Though he does not hear the crack as his right hand snaps and the bones fold together like a leaf bent in half, he feels the pain clearly, and again he screams, The Giant screams with all his might. But this is not solely a scream of pain – this is a wail of victory, for now The Giant grasps the clawed moccasin in his left hand.
With the strength of a black bear defending its cubs from the glowing eyes of a cougar, The Giant slams his clawed moccasin into the ice and shatters a hole much deeper than the width of a single feather. Purchase is gained; he stands up on three limbs and rips forth the fourth from the hateful grasp of the wintry Mother Monksville. With one final pained scream, The Giant whips his right arm and frees his battered hand of the untorn deerhide gauntlet before tilting over and falling back into the snow, leaving the imprint of a wingless angel.
The wire-wrapped gauntlet flies into the hole, followed by the tip-up. At first the wooden thing, as well made as the gauntlet, grabs hold of the ice with its crossbeams and struggles against the mighty force of the deranged Beast beneath the ice, but the boughs begin to bend, and they break soon after. The tip-up, flag and all, is sucked down into the hole, never to be seen again.
All at once, the battle for Monksville is decided.
The small giants hear the first scream through the closed doors of their cabins. The large giants, those who’ve proudly carried names for cycles innumerable, hear it over the roar of their nightly bonfire. As the snow plummets from the trees, they allow themselves a moment of plausible deniability – surely the Tribe of the Forge is celebrating some new innovation into the field of metalworking, surely The Giant hasn’t had a fruitful day on that damned deaded lake.
Then they hear the second scream and confuse it for a rally cry. Three giants – Bass Watcher, Walleye Slayer, and Whitetail Breaker – rush from the bonfire to the cabins to ensure the small giants do not wander off into the hungry darkness of winter.
When The Giant frees his ruined right hand and unleashes his third and final scream, the three giants crest the treacherous hill and begin to follow along the shallow trench left behind by The Giant’s sled.
Suddenly the force acting against The Beast gives up its righteous fight. With nothing acting against him, The Beast rockets forward, pulling the line along. At some points along the tangled path, most specifically around the rocks, the line stays taught; the driftwood and sunken boats, however, shatter to pieces and scatter splinters in clouds of murk. This gives The Beast just enough slack to propel himself to the dam.
The water around the dam’s spillover point does not freeze solid in the winter, no matter how low the temperature drops; where water moves it cannot go still. As the three giants work their way through the mountainous snowdrifts, The Beast angles his swim and leaps from the water like a dipper duck with a beak full of fish and clears the spillover gap without brushing his scaly hide against the rough, beaver-chewed wood. As soon as his stout nub of a tail leaves the waters of Monksville behind, The Dome’s buzzing vanishes from The Beast’s mind, gone as quickly as it arrived, as if it was never there at all.
Lo, but there’s still the matter of The Giant’s iron hook, the hook attached to the unbreaking metal wire wrapped tight around boulders thrice the size of The Beast. The breaking of the sunken wood provided enough slack to clear the dam, but not enough to clear the waterfall; as he plummets towards the open pool beneath the roaring wall of cascading water, The Beast’s head (perched atop his long snake’s neck) is jerked back, but his body continues to fall. The weight of his falling body, hidden by the dark from the sight of the giants of the Monks Tribe dancing around their great bonfire, gives The Beast that extra bit of pull needed to free him from his final prison – the hook rips free of The Beast’s hateful maw, stealing a tooth in the process, and The Beast lands with a mighty splash in the Wanaque Reservoir.
The fall does not phase The Beast, and neither does the landing – his head clear of the infernal buzz, The Beast gets a sense of the flow of the current and follows it south to the North Floodgate. It is a simple mechanism – simplicity is the ultimate complexity, as those wiser than I most definitely say – a pipe with a heavy clay cap, a cap to be removed if and when the waters on either side of the floodgate begin to sink to dire levels. The cap has never been removed since the floodgate was built and now sports a heavy growth of freshwater mussels, the makings of a supremely easy meal for The Beast. After eating his first morsel as a free denizen, The Beast does not dislodge that cap; he could do it, make no mistake, but he does not, for The Beast has been through quite an ordeal on this day, quite an ordeal indeed. He shall push that cap and swim freely on the other side, no matter how large or small that body of water may be, but first he must rest. Yes, he shall settle down and sleep soundly in the stagnant, icy water inside the pipe, just until the great shine illuminates this dark lake once more. Just until then, he shall sleep.
Just until then.
A Wingless Angel
As The Beast takes his claim of a rest so deserved, the three giants approach the hole in the snow in the shape of a wingless angel. The snow around The Giant’s right hand is soaked thoroughly with blood, but The Giant still breathes. He breathes faint puffs of steam, but The Giant breathes on nonetheless. For a moment the three are stunned – what on Earth could have happened up here? What could The Giant have possibly hooked in this lake where all the fish are dead?
Finally, Walleye Slayer steps forward and bends low to ask The Giant to tell his tale, to brief them on the events surrounding his most mighty of rally cries. The Giant utters six words in a whisper, then falls deep into an unconscious slumber:
“Exodus, brethren; the cycle is broken.”
A Giant of Metal
The winter of the Battle for Monksville is not an easy one for either of the divided villages, but the giants manage to pull through. Not a single giant of either tribe sets foot on Monksville for the rest of the season; following his legendary duel, The Giant was brought to the Mining Village and Black Smith took him in with open arms. The fishcatcher’s right hand was mangled beyond repair, truly ruined; when he woke up the next morning, it had turned a disconcerting purple-green color and was throbbing in rhythm with his heartbeat. Only one thing could be done: The Giant’s right hand was amputated at the wrist. Black Smith, a giant of metal and meddle alike, went to the mines and drew enough ore to make five augers, but that mold has long been broken and will not be filled again.
Black Smith is, among other things, a brilliant inventor, so he crafted The Giant a new hand, one composed of metal to be fastened to his stump of a wrist, a hand perfectly shaped to grasp the handle of a fishing rod, whether that rod be a mighty longpole or a simple jiggin’ rig; a hand perched on a swivel so it may easily be turned during use. When it was done, all the giants of the Mining Village paraded down to the Fishing Village and the tribes came together for a supreme celebration lit by a towering bonfire that lasted all night; never since the days of the village on the river have the giants felt such a sense of unity between the two tribes of Monksville, and in the back of The Giant’s mind, the hope for future unity burns on, hotter than the blaze of the bonfire.
Just as it began, the first season of the seventh cycle since the filling of the Monksville Reservoir ends with mild, balmy weather. Spring arrives in force and the spring thaw frees the greater keep of Monksville from any and all remaining piles of snow and ice. The trees produce buds which burst with vibrant green leaves and the forests return to full life; the flowers bloom in wide fields, the insects buzz menacingly, and the once sluggishly chilled waters of Monksville begin to heat and churn again.
The remaining lakebreathers of Monksville, as limited in number as they are, begin to mate, and The Spawning takes place for the first time since The Gleam opened in the stretch of water between the two isles. The landwalkers and wingflappers, though not directly aware of the power shift beneath the surface, notice the increased numbers of surfaceswimmers, and they slowly drop their pretense about avoiding direct contact with the water. The Mighty Monksville Reservoir is finally on the rebound.
The pair eagles, with their new fortress in The Crater, finally get to participate in The Hatching and produce two healthy eaglets, one boy and one girl. Like the giants, these small eagles will not be granted names until they are of an age where they can send them through the channel, and this is how I’ll have you remember the pair eagles. We may hear them chirp once or twice in the upcoming seasons, but then again, we may not; they are parents now, and eaglets require quite a bit of attention. Neither Lysander nor Lysandra will be getting out much anytime soon.
With every influx of goodness, small giants, there must be a reciprocal wave of utter misfortune – as Monksville enjoys its newly found splendor, a severe drought takes hold of the greater Wanaque Reservoir. The pocket claimed by The Giants is still full (though the giants of the Fishing Village no longer pull catch from it by default), but south of the North Floodgate the entire lake has dried into a desert-like state. The wingflappers who have long taken roost along the shores of the Wanaque Res’ place blame on the giants’ floodgate; even though a great many of them watched the giants remove the sealing cap, the water does not flow. The pipe seems to be clogged, stopped up with a great black mass that chills the water at the mouth on the wet side.
One day, a certain wingflapper who swims in the water like a lakebreather decides he’s had enough. Dopper the dipper duck and his dozen daring divers flock to the giant’s pocket of the Wanaque, meaning to end the drought once and for all. Braten the goose follows closely behind, leaving his soulbride Branda to sit and wait in their nest.