It opened in a flash, The Gleam a puma’s eye.
One cycle prior, The Crater was born.
A single claw strewn amongst the pebbles catches the eye of the goose from her nest.
For the first time since the giants left this land behind, the dry season has returned to the Wanaque Reservoir. What was once a bustling lake community populated by more lakebreathers than Monksville could hope to support is now a starved, crisp desert. Orange dunes of rocky sand dot the barren landscape like boulders in a rock garden; some are long and tall, some are short and stout, some are caught right in the awkward middle – Branda nests on one of these latter sandpiles. It was an obvious choice, what with The Hatching coming up and all; Branda’s dune is very close to where the shoreline would be if the Wanaque hadn’t been smitten by whatever causes the rain not to fall; the closest, in fact. She scoured the greater area of the Wanaque Desert in search for this nesting site, and that’s exactly why this single claw strikes her as odd – she’s never seen it before. It’s as if it was placed there by some invisible force, left as a prize long ago to be found in the future… or perhaps it belongs to a sand-dwelling crustacean, a newly evolved breed of denizen, one who’s wasted no time adapting to the harsh, arid conditions of this unforgiving hardpan.
Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Of all the nesting geese, Branda has the shortest flight to the forest and therefore will have the easiest time getting food for her young once they hatch from the eggs she’s yet to lay. The claw means nothing, Branda’s already won her prize.
Many of the other geese were none too thrilled when she cherrypicked this spot right out from under their beaks, but Branda is a direct descendant of the goose flock who once stowed away in The Basin, the goose flock which originally colonized the Wanaque Res’. She is something of royalty in these lands, or at the very least she is tenured, while the other geese just kind of showed up one day. They can make all the ruckus they want, as far as Branda is concerned; she has the best nesting spot and they don’t. That’s just what it is, and that’ll have to be enough for her.
But that’s not quite enough, is it? Branda needs something more, something to really drive home the message that she is the head goose in charge ‘round these parts, something her soulgroom Braten would admire as much as all the other geese would sprout green mallard feathers over. An emblem of sorts, a family crest to denote her goslings as the cream of the Wanaque’s crop once they hatch from the eggs she’s yet to lay. A claw, a single claw, one which now lies strewn amongst the pebbles atop a stout sandy dune just a short flight away. It would be perfect… if only she could go and get it without fear of another goose swooping in and stealing her nest. Such is feasible, if not downright likely, and she’d do very well to simply roost and wait for Braten to return from his errand at the north end of the desert so he can keep watch whilst she flaps wing for what wouldn’t amount to much time at all. Braten’s more afraid of losing the nest than she is anyway, and he didn’t even tell her what he’d be doing up north; it’s obviously something to do with the floodgate the giants built way back when, but he refused to detail any specifics and it’s too late to ask him now, as the channel has long been closed. So she’ll just have to sit here until her Braten returns…
Fooey. Any goose foolish enough to attempt the stealing of Branda’s nest would be forced to face her wrath, and they’d deserve what befell them when that wrath reared its black head. Let them try to take Branda’s prime nesting dune. Let them honking try.
A dozen daring dipper ducks frolic about in the frothy waters of the giants’ isolated pocket of the Wanaque Reservoir, the only part of the lower lake where such nautical hijinks are still possible. They leap and dive and burst from the surface only to execute brilliant mid-air flips before diving right back into the water. The divers are preparing for a mission, perhaps the most important mission of their lives.
From the far shorelines they’re watched by a tribe of small giants, their eyes a’sparkle with wonder and delight – even their wrangler can’t help but gawk at the spectacle. After The Giant’s grand brawl with the gigantic unknown creature who swims in the belly of Mother Monksville – an event remembered by giants of both tribes as the Exodus of Fear and All Lower Feelings – the pocket itself hasn’t been touched by any fishcatchers worth their meddle. They all fish the Monksville Res’ these days; every morning The Giant wakes and climbs the treacherous hill with a longpole in his metal hand, and every morning his tribesmen follow closely behind. The only giants to disturb the waters of the Wanaque pocket are the small giants, for the young must hone their fishcatching technique before they can go out on the bigwater.
But today their lesson is postponed, for the dipper ducks are engaged in a diving dance; a sight this rare is a sight to be seen. A sight to be seen very well, very well indeed.
On the roadway which conceals the floodgate from above perches Dopper the dipper duck, the leader of the dozen daring divers. Beside him stands Braten, the one goose smart enough to not openly insult High Branda of the original Wanaque goose flock. In the past he had plenty to send about her, plenty indeed, and none of it kind at all. As the past approached the present, however, High Braten realized something big, something, shall we say, of nested importance: Branda’s first experience with The Hatching would shortly arrive, and she’d no doubt lay claim over the best nesting grounds. So Braten stopped sending his vulgarities while all the rest continued to mock the prissy goose princess, and when the time came for Branda to choose a Hatchingmate, she chose Braten. ‘Twas as simple as that, and now Braten nests on the prime dune.
Of course, all of that would go away in a heartbeat if this dreadful drought would come to an end – that’s why Braten stands with Dopper on this day. Dopper has always been held in only the highest regard by all wingflappers, Lake and Prey; cormorants make very good friends, especially when it comes to sharing the excess of food they can’t help but bring up to the surface. Diving is what dipper ducks do, they dive for pleasure and hunt for sport and they’re never the flock to go hungry, so Braten befriended Dopper and did so shamelessly; any connection with Dopper is a connection sent highly of, a stark contrast with a relationship forged with High Branda.
Today, Braten stands upon a kind of junction of possibilities – either Dopper’s claims of the end to the flood will be true and Braten can abandon Branda and her flooded nest for a goose with more class, or Dopper will be seeing much less of Braten during the upcoming cycle. Either way, the strategic socializing will pay off; it has to, after all – Braten’s worked too hard for it all to go to waste; but the possibilities are of no concern now. Whatever will happen will surely happen, there’s little sense in doubting that, and the show is about to begin.
Make not a mistake, Dopper does not need the channel to communicate with his dozen daring divers – he’s trained them very well, all too well, and he can command them with a single look into their eyes. The channel does open though, very narrowly, as to only encompass two, and Dopper sends nothing; not until he receives what the goose feels necessary to send.
‘Dopper, I see your dozen divers performing their dastardly dance, but still I stand uncertain of how this will end the drought. Please, if you would, explain to me again what exactly you mean to do here.’
‘I will rally my daring divers, yo Braten,’ Dopper sends, keeping his turquoise eyes fixed on his dancing divers, ‘and I will join them in the water. As you well know, the giants’ subterranean pipeline is responsible for controlling the flow from the pocket to the rest of the Wan’Res’. They removed the cap and the water should be flowing, but yet it is not. Did you peek at the dry end of the pipe when you flew over here?’
Braten nods his head thoughtfully. ‘I did, ‘twas a wall of fertile soil. Looked more like the cap was still on than off.’
‘Precisely. There seems to be a clog, a stoppage in the drain. My divers and I mean to cleanse the pipe of that which hinders it, nothing more and nothing less.’
With that, the channel closes and Dopper dives into the water, joining his daring divers and making a Dopper’s dozen. Thirteen cormorants dive into the water this day – Braten’s curious to see from which side of the gate they’ll all come out.
All at once the cormorants suddenly stop dancing. They rise and float on the surface, their oily black bodies buoyant, their straightedge yellow beaks at the ready. Dopper grunts deeply, as dipper ducks do, and all twelve of his dashing divers disappear under the surface. He looks back at Braten one last time, as if to send You may doubt us now, but never again, and then spins to face the direction of the beavers’ dam. At this point Braten, and the litter of small giants along with their wrangler, are perched on the edges of the shores, the anticipation eating them alive.
Then, it happens.
A wall of pitch-black dipper ducks, their beaks lit a blazing yellow like the falling leaves of autumn, leap synchronously from the water and then dive right back in. They leap again, then dive in, then leap up a third time. They seem to hover in the air for a moment, or perhaps that’s just the passage of time slowing itself down so the Universe may perceive this beautiful and rarely seen dipper duck dance.
As they reach the peak of their leap, the dipper ducks begin to spin like augers. As the tips of their beaks hit the water, the surface seems to bend rather than break – Dopper floats in wait, and if Braten could see the look on his dipper duck face, he would recognize it as satisfaction. The dipper ducks begin to skip over the water like rocks eroded into disks, the intervals between their skips diminishing until the Dopper dozen appears to glide atop the water like a Bird of Prey will through the air. Then, they all dive simultaneously, and for a moment, all is quiet. All is perfectly, eerily still.
Dopper flaps madly and rises high from the water, his black wings spraying a fine mist that catches the great shine’s rays and uses them to paint a rainbow. Once he reaches a height greater than the roof of the tallest of the giants’ cabins, he reverses, drops a wink to Braten and his gaping beak, then begins to spin like an auger himself. At that very moment, all the other divers burst from the water and leap high into the hazy air. All thirteen of the Dopper’s dozen dipper ducks strike the water’s surface at once. The small giants go buckwild, stomping feet and whooping like hairless sasquatch. Their wrangler passes out cold on the spot.
Beneath the surface, the spinning dipper ducks all converge into the mouth of the pipe. The water is noticeably colder there, and small ice crystals begin to form on the edges of their feathers, but the dipper ducks will not be deterred. They strike the lodged black mass with the force of that esoteric thing which fell from the starpool and burned a ragged hole into the forests behind the two isles many cycles ago.
Braten hears a dense, vacuous noise which cannot be described with mortal words as the pipe is cleared of its clog. He turns just in time to see the steam rising from the iceberg as the water flows through the pipe and the Reservoir begins to fill once more. The channel opens wide, spanning across the entirety of the Wanaque, and though Branda does not like what she receives from her soulgroom Braten, she receives it very well:
‘Dopper’s done it, the dire drought has ended! The Wanaque Reservoir shall fill once more! I am free of that awful, uppity wench! Thank the Mighty Mother Monksville!’
The claw suddenly disappears under the surface of the water, leaving ripples in the vibrant reflection of the canopy. The Mink, his belly empty and his mind spinning, strikes the shallows with both of his front paws and weasels his way back to his burrow beneath the dense shrubberies on the Northern Wedge of Dino Island.
As far as landwalkers go, neither of the isles see very much action. Up until the third cycle after the giants performed their rain dance, a romp of feisty otters held claim over both Dino Island and Isla Meeney. They collectively held the title of lakewalker even though they were far from the only landwalkers to swim in the waters of Monksville. Every now and then a gray squirrel or a ‘munkie would dare to take a swim, usually in an attempt to escape the hungry clutches of one predator or another, but sometimes those predators would follow them in. Raccoons were especially guilty of this, though more often than not they would abandon their furred prey in favor of a meal more fishy, and all breeds of denizens know how the bear likes to take himself a refreshing dip. Then there’s the beaver colony, of course, but they mostly disappeared after the construction of the beavers’ dam. Only one decided to stay in Monksville after that massive effort, one beaver named Buc’Toof, but he rarely leaves South Cove. He has something of a symbiotic alliance with the vulture flock, they take care of each other; if the beaver comes across a dead body during his daily bouts of foraging, he brings it back to South Cove with him – in return, any vulture to come across the favorite twigs of Buc’Toof, the ones redolent of sugary birch when the bark is peeled back, they shear off a bundle and duly fly it back to South Cove in the evening.
But most of that would happen a long time ago, long before The Beast howled forth from The Gleam and tore Monksville a new one with the razor teeth of his jagged maw. Ever since that fateful third cycle, many of Monksville’s water faring landwalkers have left to walk on fairer lands. Even the otters left, in romps and in lodges, and a great vacuum remained in their place, a vacuum that has since been filled by a new landwalker who takes no flack from any other denizen, no matter how large that denizen may be.
In this, the spring of the seventh cycle since the filling of Monksville Reservoir, The Mink alone bares the title of lakewalker. The Mink holds burrow over the entirely of Dino Island. The Mink, aggravated at the disappearance of the big, meaty claw he had been stalking around his island since the great shine rose into the sky early this morning, holds the fate of this vanished crustacean in the pads of his paws, and The Mink is only getting hungrier with each moment he spends awake. Hungrier and crankier. The crawdad will surely surface again – until then, The Mink will nap in splendor.
The Grassy Shore
As the Wanaque begins to fill again, Dopper’s dozen dipper ducks dance and frolic wildly among the sandy waters. This cycle’s springtime has been a hot one, a real scorcher by all means, and if it serves as any sort of indication, the upcoming summer shan’t differ. The flood process is not as slow as one might imagine; as if Mother Monksville has some sort of metaphysical higher awareness about her – like many a’denizen believes she does – as soon as the pipe was unclogged she began pulling water from the Wanaque River at a heretofore unprecedented rate. The great waterfall, a gusher of a cascade as it is, exploded with a roar as torrents upon torrents of water flooded through the spillover gap of the beavers’ dam, raining down liquid life as if the monsoon clouds summoned by the giants’ rain dance found their way back to the valley.
The water is hot at first, even as the black mass sheds its icy chrysalis one layer at a time, very nearly scalding the skin of the dashing dipper ducks as they dip and dive through the pond, then the lake, then finally, when the water’s temperature stabilizes to a comfortable cool, the Reservoir. Braten, still singing his praises of the daring deeds of Dopper’s squad over the channel for all to hear, especially that uppity snakenecked Branda, flaps his wings and sways his head merrily to and fro on the south end of the North Floodgate’s roadway. Poor misfortuned Branda, she’ll be forced to find a new partner for The Hatching, and it serves her right, doesn’t it? An extended residency does not imply superiority, not in any way, shape, or form; there is nothing special about that arrogant goose, nothing that any of the other geese can see, anyway. Sure, she may fancy herself the lone bearer of prime plumage, but so does every wingflapper see themselves. Bah, enough with thoughts of her – this is a day of mirthful celebration! Folding his wings and removing his head from the lively channel, Braten carefully walks down the grassy slope and slips into the water to enjoy himself a float.
Before him, all thirteen of Dopper’s dozen grunt with supreme pleasure as they dip and dash in and out of the dark, cloudy water. All twelve of them should be very proud of themselves, Braten thinks, for they’ve done a wonderful service for all denizens today. Why, without the efforts of the eleven dipper ducks, their brilliant and fearless leader included in that count, of course, the North Floodgate would still be clogged, perhaps permanently so. No goose could have remedied the problem, nor could a swan, if they still flocked upon the Wanaque. The ten dipper ducks are… the nine, the eight, the…
The dipper ducks are disappearing.
Suddenly Dopper flings himself from the water, landing with a wet slap on the grassy shore nearest Braten. The grass is soaked and pulverized down as Dopper struggles to gain his bearings and rise to his feet, his webbed… oh, oh good Mother… Dopper’s feet are gone, snapped off at the knees, his shins replaced by babbling brooks of blood.
‘Dopper!’ Braten sends through the open channel, accompanying it with a honk of fearful shock that he wishes, oh how he wishes it so, to be feigned. He flaps wing as though his life depends on it (as you may be able to tell, it very much does) and lands on the shore uphill from Dopper.
‘Dopper, my truest friend! What’s going on, why are your divers disappearing?’ Then, after a moment of receiving nothing allows him to come to grips with the situation, ‘What happened to your legs?!’
Dopper, still flopping like a fish out of water, looks up at the goose with his gleaming turquoise eyes and sends seven words, seven terrible, menacing words: ‘Fly swift, Braten; The Beast howls forth.’
Just then, as if the blaspheme incarnate caught the thoughts sent across the channel, The Beast rears its jagged, scaly maw from beneath the opaque red water and grasps Dopper by the tail. Braten thinks fast and grips Dopper’s pointed beak within his own toothy honker and begins to pull, but the goose is no match for the unbridled strength of The Beast, The Beast of a belly so empty, a bottomless pit so rapidly filling. Braten’s teeth shatter as Dopper is yanked beneath the water, never to be seen again.
Braten lifts off and takes for the nesting ground of his Branda and the other geese, spitting shards of shattered cartilage as he goes. They must be warned, this monstrous demon cannot be allowed to take the life of another wingflapper.
Little does the terrified Braten know, The Beast follows closely behind, hidden beneath the surface, en route to his next meal.
Branda, upon receiving the cretin thought, promptly sent ignorance into the channel and closed her mind to receiving more. She now floats in the dirty rising water, the crayfish claw held tight between her folded wing and her right flank. Fine, the Wanaque Res’ has filled again; fine, Branda no longer has any hope of participating in The Hatching and finally fulfilling her dreams of rearing a flock of goslings all her own; fine, her nest built in the best location throughout the entire what was once a desert is now sunk and forever lost; fine. Branda will keep this claw, she will hold it in her wings and in her beak when she flies; she will bare this claw for the rest of her days, and if Braten dares show his traitorous head in her presence again? She will wield it to slice at his wormy snake of a neck. Uppity wench, unbelievable!
Well, at least the other geese seem to be happy, and look there! There’s even a little flock of mallards floating in this dirty water. She’s received of them before, this band of Early Birds who once flocked to Monksville before learning of how difficult it is to live amongst Birds of Prey. As far as Branda’s concerned, any Bird, whether of Prey or of Lake, is a wingflapper through and through, and all wingflappers must look out for one another. Even if her fellow Birds of Lake wish nothing but ugly misfortune on Branda, she still holds their best interests in her heart. Somebody has to get first pick at the nesting grounds – in fact, it’s often a very divisive issue, an issue which she solved for everybody! Her family flocked to this Reservoir a long many cycles ago, before any of them even knew of this magical place where freedom is sung like the songs of the smallbirds; who else should get the first pick? Feathers of the last flock to arrive? Please.
From the east she hears a terrified honk and has to stop herself from flapping wing and losing her new claw. It’s Braten’s honk, no other goose honks with such force and confidence, but this is not a pleasant honk. This is not a honk of celebration nor gratitude, but a honk of deepest, darkest fear, a honk of dire warning, a honk of utter doom clutching on the tail feathers of certain death. The other geese pay it zero attention.
Braten flies directly over Branda’s head and lands deep inland, safely past the treeline. He continues to honk but no goose makes a move – they’re all too busy wetting their legs for the first time in as long as they can remember, far too preoccupied with sending and receiving thoughts of bliss and oblivious ignorance through the channel. Perhaps if Braten were to send thought over the channel… or perhaps he already is. Branda opens her mind and receives the last string of thought she’d ever want to receive:
‘Dopper the dipper duck and his dozen daring divers are dead! They’ve been slain by The Beast, it comes for us next!’
As Branda wrestles with the acceptance of this most terrible, most grim news, she watches with an entirely newfound horror as her fellow geese, one by one, are pulled ferociously beneath the surface. Four geese must die before the rest take notice; as they begin to fly, The Early Birds are taken in twos, and then the unthinkable happens. The Beast, a ghastly toothy maw perched atop a slender snake of a neck sprouting from its terribly fat and scaly hide, leaps high out of the water and snatches geese clean out of the air. Its landing splash grows larger with every goose it takes and its speed is matched by none – not a single goose escapes this massacre, save for Branda, who joins Braten behind the safety of the treeline.
The channel, wide open but shared by only two (as far as those two are aware), trembles as the souls of geese passed flit through in search of safe passage to The Void so they may take their long dark rest. At first neither of the survivors send a single thing, both of them caught in a petrified tremble as the water falls off their feathers in slow, solemn drips.
Then, Branda breaks the silence. ‘My claw, no! It’s gone, I must go back!’
‘Branda, what are you thinking?!’ Braten sends, but it’s already far too late. Branda has breached the treeline.
From the waters splishing against the front shore of the Northern Wedge of Dino Island, the meaty claw rises again. The Mink does not know where the owner of this claw burrows, nor does he know where the crustacean keeps disappearing to, but he does know one thing: by the end of this day, The Mink will have a full belly and a delicious emblem to signify his claim over the great Dino Island.
Out of all the denizens of Monksville who could rightly call themselves lakewalkers, The Mink is the most mysterious and least understood. His fur coat, hydrophobic and perpetually floofy, presents a deep, rich brown color which makes fertile soil appear as snow – aside from his chin, that is. The Mink’s chin is furred a pure, pristine white, like a single cloud floating in a deep azure sky. No denizens know why The Mink’s chin is white, but they fear it all the same. Almost as much as they respect it.
Neither do any of Mother Monksville’s denizens know where The Mink came from. One autumn day during the fourth cycle after the filling of Monksville, he randomly crawled out from a burrow in the center of Isla Meeney, a burrow whose wide mouth has since vanished without a trace. At the time, The Beast still howled forth in the waters of Monksville and, though he just emerged from his phaseshifting burrow, The Mink immediately knew the danger of taking a dip. From the burrow’s mouth The Mink fled, skating over the shallow water like a water strider and following along the shore until he came upon the treacherous downslope to the Wanaque Reservoir. He remembers this journey very clearly, as if he took it many times, even though such would be impossible; The Mink did not return to Monksville until the onset of the current cycle’s spring. He also remembers a peculiar feeling of emptiness in the mouth, as if he had forgotten to carry with him something of dire importance… or failed at something, that would be closer to the truth. Even now as he reminisces while falling into the zone and preparing for his hunt he can’t put a paw on it, but that was all a very, very long time ago. It hardly matters in today’s right here and right now, the very here and now in which The Mink crouches, ready to strike, on the pebbly shoreline of Dino Island.
The Mink springs forth and pounces on the water moments after the crawdad pulls its claw back under. A small trail of dust is left in its place and The Mink, upon reaching dry land, strikes the shallows with his paws again. He will have that crawdad, he will eat the yummy meat from its claw and he shall display the impressive chitin at the mouth of his burrow by the end of this shinecycle. The Mink will not relent his pursuit, even if it kills him. The Mink shall not go hungry another night. The Mink is mighty, and for that reason only, he refuses to feel the starvation that so grips the other denizens.
The Fabled Claw
Branda flies in a wide circle above the site of her old nest in search of the fabled claw. She’s been at it for a good short while now, and though her wings do not tire, she’s beginning to get a little peeved. She needs to find this claw, it’s the only thing she has left, the only thing that matters to her anymore. The goose’s eyesight is not what it once was, however, and it was never great in the first place – she wasn’t able to see through Braten’s games and manipulations, after all. Still, she will not stop until she finds her claw, and so she circles endlessly over the water like a vulture over the soggy carcass of a drowned whitetail. Below the dense, murky surface, The Beast circles in pace.
Braten watches this from the wooded shore with a terrified pair of brownish-black eyes. He should just leave her; the insufferable wench clearly means to see herself perish. She always pulls nonsense like this, pretending she’s different than the rest of the geese, pretending her life and the things she wants are more important than what everyone else wants; the goose is dreadfully self-righteous, until she doesn’t get her way, that is; then she’s engulfed in self-pity and she vanishes from the gooseosphere for shinecycles on end. She’s an indignant creature, she’s unbearably uppity and… and… Braten loves her for it, oh how he loves her so. It may be the fact that she’s the last surviving goose of The Beast’s latest massacre, but Braten suddenly feels a deep-rooted flower of love for Branda blooming in his chest. One could say a lot about this goose, and many geese do (well, did), but her determination is admirable – she’s willing to do anything, even putting her life at risk, to ensure she gets exactly what she needs. So what if her needs coincide exactly with her wants, so what? That’s not selfish, that is merely knowing thyself, something Braten has always had great deal of trouble with. Braten was always just one of the flock, and then he was chosen by High Branda and given the title of her soulgroom. Then he abandoned her for Dopper and became Dopper’s friend, but now Dopper is dead. Now the goose flock is dead. Only Branda remains, and perhaps if she does not perish at the maw of The Beast, she can help guide High Braten to the nesting grounds of his true identity.
Braten takes flight and joins up with Branda in the circling of their old nesting ground, the nesting ground she picked out specifically for them, for their family. For him. The channel opens narrow.
‘Branda, I’m wondering if you would give me a second chance at joining you for The Hatching.’
‘Well I don’t see any other options, Braten,’ Branda sends with tones both under- and over- of irritation. ‘The rest of the flock is dead. I’ll tell you what, big boy: if you help me find my claw that was lost in all the commotion, you and I will escape to Monksville and settle down somewhere to start anew.’
‘Monksville?’ Braten sends, a bit doubtful. ‘Geese haven’t flocked to Monksville in many and many’a cycle, where would we go to nest?’
‘One of the islands, perhaps,’ Branda sends, her thoughts taking on something of a dreamy hue. ‘I’ve always held a secret desire for the island life, truth be told. But none of that will matter if I cannot find my claw. I need that claw back, Braten. I need it for our goslings.’
They continue to circle over the same patch of water, Branda seeing nothing and Braten not even sparing a look. The cadavers begin to hit The Beast’s stomach and his hunger is slowly quelled, but that means nothing. He’s to eat until no food is left, and he’s done a damn good job of it thus far – what’s two more plump, juicy geese to a hunger so insatiable?
‘Please, my sweet Branda, what is so important about this claw that you would risk the lives of your future goslings for it? We can find another claw! I’ll rip it off the crawdad myself if you demand it be done.’
Branda almost stops flapping her wings. Almost. ‘The sentiment is very kind, Braten, but I need this claw specifically. I found it here before my nest was reclaimed by the Reservoir, it is a powerful artifact.’
Braten, unphased externally by the my nest he received, sends, ‘An artifact, you send?’
‘I send it so; I cannot explain it, but that claw has a special significance. Perhaps it’s just the memory it holds… regardless, I want my damned claw and so I shall have it. Now stop sending me attempts to derail my life’s path and help me find the claw!’
Braten does as he’s told and finds the claw before they complete their current circle. He honks once to signify his findings and then spans his wings wide and tight, preparing for a dive.
‘Don’t you dare, you evil claw-thieving scoundrel!’ Branda sends in a shout, but it’s too late – Braten has already dove. Branda follows suit, her eyes blazing like a puddle of leafy mud struck by a burning bolt of white-hot lightning.
Braten snags the claw and smoothly arcs back into the air, Branda following close behind. The Beast nearly leaps from the surface to end this game once and for all, but he holds back, biding his time. Not yet; the chance will come, but ‘tis not here yet. The Beast continues to trail the geese, who have begun to circle again. This circle is no longer the wide flight of a search party, however; Braten now banks hard and true to outmaneuver Branda, whose honks suggest intent to kill.
Finally she acts in a civilized manner and sends a quaint, reasonable stream of thought to Braten over the channel.
‘RETURN MY DAMNED CLAW OR FACE THE UNYIELDING WRATH OF HIGHEST BRANDA, YOU TWO-BEAKED TRAITOROUS CHARLETON!’
‘Branda!’ Braten sends, vastly more afraid of his pursuer than he is of what lurks hungrily beneath the cloudy surface. ‘Do not harm me, my love, I snagged the claw for you! Cease your pursuit and I’ll happily pass it off!’
So Branda ceases her pursuit. After flying a few more tight circles, Braten does the same. Hovering in the air like a pair of expert fliers, Braten and Branda exchange the claw, the former stealing a kiss in the process. Branda doesn’t even notice; what she does notice is the terrified, regretful look on Braten’s face as The Beast’s awful maw closes around his entire body, its teeth interlocking around the base of the goose’s neck which sticks out of the gap where The Giant’s hook took its prize. He goes down wearing that look, that worn ungrateful look, that look which displays his final, undying self-pity for serving she who he called soulbride until the very end; no matter, Braten was always one for self-pity. Despicable self-pity. ‘But how I loved him so…’
Snapping back to reality as the gravity of the situation bears its weight on her shoulders, Branda stretches her wings and dives, building momentum and pressing it against the thermal acting on the surface of the water to achieve a flight speed that no goose has achieved before… but will it be enough to outpace The Beast?
‘Time will certainly tell, now flap like the wind, Branda,’ she thinks to herself as the channel closes. The tips of her wings strike the water with each of Branda’s hurried flaps, spraying droplets and mist that hang suspended in the air like the dirt and sand in the water obscuring the view of what swims below from what flies above.
The chase ensues until Branda passes over the North Floodgate – it is at this point The Beast decides to give the goose her life. Perhaps he felt she earned it for putting up such speeds, or perhaps he saw that awful, evil pipe in which he was trapped, imprisoned, frozen in a ‘berg of ice until the Universe decided to let him out. In the end it doesn’t matter what goes through The Beast’s head – his belly is full and he has a new body of water to inhabit, a vast and open sea, much larger than the crescent moon prison he had been trapped in, the prison with the pair of wardens stashed away in The Dome, nice and safe in their own glass house where The Beast could not get to them and end their miserable lives with a single snap of his jagged, toothy maw.
As Branda flies up the waterfall, believing she is still being chased, The Beast swims out to the deepest part of the Reservoir and takes the first rest of his new reign. The king of the Wanaque Reservoir has been crowned, and none shall escape the snap of his maw… though perhaps not all will be pursued like the denizens of Monksville. Perhaps this day begins a new kind of reign, a reign of benevolence, a reign of cohabitation by Beast and denizen alike. Perhaps it shall be so; perhaps it shall indeed.
From the foot of the mountains across the shallows bordering the back end of Dino Island, a tall and slender tree watches with a careful, patient eye as the crawdad jets through the water and disappears under a rock. Shortly after, The Mink flares from the bushes in an explosion of rage felt only by hunters when their prey evades them yet again.
This is an anger the tall and slender tree knows all too well, so there it remains standing, biding its time, motionlessly a’watch from the shoreline.
A Secret Thruway
Branda makes land on the rocky western beachhead of Muskellunge Cove. The claw, still clenched in her beak, opens and closes with a click as it catches every exhale the goose releases from her burning lungs. Her legs are wobbly, her wings feel like slush, and a frightful shiver envelopes the very fibres of her being – never before has Branda been in such grave danger, her life has never been so firmly placed on the line. Then again, she’s never escaped imminent death like she had to do today, so perhaps that’s something to be proud of.
Yes, perhaps it is.
Still, the anxious wobble seems to have worked its way deep into the joints of her knees and ankles – she cannot stand up straight for long and she’s far too engrossed in physical exhaustion to fly over any real distance. When she planned to come here to settle she hadn’t anticipated The Beast, nor had she anticipated the effort she’d have to put into her wingflaps in order to escape the Wanaque with her life. What’s more, she hadn’t even considered the likely possibility that both of the islands may be inhabited, may have been inhabited for cycles now. It may be dangerous to so much as make an approach… fine then, the islands will be a last resort.
In the distant past, when the last flock of geese finally fled The Basin to make a new life in the vast unexplored territory south of the beavers’ dam, a secret thruway hidden by the forest was used to make the journey to the Southern Expanse without having to cross through the Northern Leg and risk attack by the dayguard. Branda was just a gosling back then – as far as she knows, the defected gullflock has moved on entirely from the Reservoir, or perhaps they went back to identifying as Birds of Lake. Or, mayhap they came to their senses and stopped messing around with the divisive idea of factions among wingflappers, wouldn’t that be a treat! She doesn’t want to have to fight them if they intercept her with the intention of causing trouble, but by the razor edge of the claw she now wields in her beak, Branda will if she has to.
The channel opens to Branda and Branda alone – the girl must hear herself think – ‘So it’s back to The Basin then, the cycle shall continue. Very well,’ then closes again. The wobble has begun to leave her legs and she believes – yes, she truly does believe – she has the strength to fly ‘cross Muskellunge Cove to the sandy eastern beachhead. From there she’ll take to the trails and foot it as far as she can, allowing her wings to rest. If all goes well, she should stumble upon the empty dirt field where giants were sent to store and launch their hollow trees in the olden days long before today’s shineset. It’s funny, Branda was in such a hurry to cross the Southern Expanse and find a moment of safety that she didn’t even look down to see if the giants still uphold that strange, arcane practice; she always loved to receive tall tales from geese who migrated late to the Wanaque about how the giants would float in their logs and whip the air with their slender shaven branches, sometimes even drawing ‘breathers from the lake. What a time…
All right, enough recovering – Branda can rest and relax all she wants and then some when she has a proper nest to roost in. She flaps wing and flies low over Muskellunge Cove, passing by one of the giants she had missed on the flight in. He’s alone in his tree, this odd giant, floating solitary in Muskellunge Cove, grasping his shaven branch with a hand of the same color as Branda’s feathered head: cormorant black, like the plumage of the brave High Dopper. He will be missed by all denizens, weather they walk on land, flap their wings, or breathe the lake; yes, Dopper will be missed sorely by all. He was a good denizen, a good cormorant indeed. Perhaps the very best.
Branda lands on the eastern beachhead not a flap too soon. Her wings are spent – there’s a good chance she won’t be flying again until the great shine begins to set – but her legs hold strong and her webbed feet are graciously warmed by the heated sand. The claw opens and closes as she catches her breath, clicking upon every exhale. The footpath awaits.
From the middle of the shallows bordering the back end of Dino Island, a tall and slender tree watches The Mink as he prances back and forth.
The Mink bares the tree no notice, he’s far too preoccupied with his hunger. This crawdad is his mortal enemy, the very bane of his existence, the only sustenance his body needs in order to sleep through the upcoming cold night, but the crawdad is fast and tricky. The crawdad will stick its claw out of the water just to let The Mink pounce, only to jet itself back into its burrow like a coward, and of course the crawdad is a coward! What kind of denizen wears its skeleton on the outside of its body? The insect kind, and that’s all the crawdad is, isn’t it? A lowly insect, a plump and juicy insect that decided to abandon its glassy wings and grow big meaty claws and take to the waters when the smallbirds first realized how tasty the insects became when crushed between a top and bottom beak. Well insects taste terrible as far as The Mink is concerned, all of them, every single one of the crunchy munchy little cretins… except for the crawdad. The crawdad is the apex, the alpha insect, the ultimate creepy crawly with a pair of claws to boot, the perfect meal to be made by The Mink, a meal to be made and then eaten, too. Is such too much to ask for?
An agitated purr emanates from The Mink as his prance widens, taking him ‘round and ‘round the shoreline of Dino Island; with every loop completed he only gets hungrier, and the tone of his purr only deepens.
Branda followed the footpath to the flattened field of dirt which the giants use to launch their hollowed-out trees into the open waters of Monksville’s Southern Expanse. This is not where she wanted to end up, but here she is all the same.
The journey to get here was no simple feat. The footpath started out deceptively flat and docile from Muskellunge Cove’s eastern beachhead, a straight walk into the dark forest which gave way to a massive uphill nearly as steep as the craggy cliff over which the waterfall spills. She had to resort to flight before reaching the halfway point of this hill; by the time she reached the fork in the trail, both her means of transport were spent far past their limits. So she sat there for a few moments, sat and dozed, fading in and out of consciousness as the world turned and turned around her. The great shine wasn’t quite as high in the sky by the time she opened her eyes; high noon had come and gone, and the night draws ever nearer. Branda had to keep moving.
On the bright side, from the top of the tall hill the path ran flat until it sloped steadily down and spilled out at the corner of this dirt lot. She’s on the southern side of the snowcapped mountain, the very antithesis of where she needs to be, and she knows it very well, but thinking about such things will not bring her any closer to her goal.
She turns to face the trail ahead of her. Instead of messing around and pretending it will be an easy walk, the footpath immediately goes up a hill, though the hill is not as steep as the first. The way the great shine’s beams penetrate through the canopy and the many layers of leafage below it give the trail – which is more of a dim tunnel through the trees, if Branda’s being honest with herself – an ethereal yellow-green glow. The longer she stares into the tunnel the more entranced she becomes, and before long, all the strain in her legs and wings are gone. Branda starts up the trail one step at a time, the only way she knows how. Her webbed feet splash in the muddy puddle at the forest’s entrance, but just like when she crossed it hardly a few moments before, she doesn’t even feel the sensation. The Minelands have her, and they will not let her go until she’s seen what she must see.
The first part of the path is a rut, a trench carved into the mountain as if the giants (or perhaps male whitetails in rut?) walked it so many times the Earth crumbled beneath their feet. As Branda ascends the mountain, the divot grows shallower and shallower until it’s finally level with the rest of the leaf-covered ground. Flowering berry bushes sprout in thicker and denser thickets with each feather’s length she climbs; if this were the summertime, she could grab herself a cheeky nibble or two, but lo, ‘tis merely spring, the time where no greenery has begun to fade from the harsh shinelight, the balmy time when bees buzz and insects hum and the days are as warm as the nights are cool. The time of The Hatching, a magical annual extravaganza of procreation which Branda will have to pass on again for the umpteenth cycle in a row. It is her life’s mission to rear a flock of goslings before the day she passes through the great transition, even if doing so brings her straight to the gates.
Branda sees someone waiting for her as the hill plateaus and her feet find level ground, someone perched on a fallen tree suspended over the footpath. Someone who may bring her to the gates himself.
As Branda crests atop the smaller of the two hills she’s been made to climb today, she locks eyes with Sea Hawk Hilaetos, Lord of The Sticks.
‘Tred no further, you lowly Bird of Lake,’ he sends warily across the channel, open wide enough to be intercepted by those who dread his return in the bowels of The Sticks. ‘You’re approaching Bird of Prey territory; you’d do quite well to turn your soaked tail feathers around.’
Branda cranes her neck back and sees that her tail feathers are drier than the dirt upon which she walks. As she turns back to face the osprey, ‘Do you not recognize me, osprey? My flock gave you and yours quite a bit of trouble back in the early cycles, if my memory serves me correct.’
‘If I do, I do not care to send on it,’ replies Hilaetos, the hunger in his eyes hoping the goose does not heed his warnings. ‘Turn back or face the wrath of the Red Hawk Flock.’
‘The Red Hawk Flock, you send?’ Branda sends inquisitively. ‘Whatever happened to the vultures?’
Hilaetos flaps his eagle’s wings thrice and shrieks a fearsome kee-aww. ‘Do not send the name of those traitorous blasphemes! They have long abandoned their keep, they with heads so blistered and red, th–’
‘All right, all right, enough already,’ the goose sends casually. ‘Your plumage was whiter when I was a gosling, much more pristine. I can almost remember your name, what was it… Harlot-something?’
Another booming kee-aww pitched to deafen any and all ‘munkies who may be meandering around the area, bringing the mood down with their presence. ‘My name is Sea Hawk Hilaetos, Lord of The Sticks and captain of the Dayguard! You shall bo–’
‘ You’re captain of the Dayguard?! What happened to the gull Choridae?’ Branda sends, clicking the claw in her beak.
Hilaetos, seeing exactly where this is going, does not shriek again. This time he just lowers his gaze to the forest floor and slowly shakes his head. He hears a fluttering of feathers and decides to ignore it at first, but then it goes silent and he looks up, fearing the goose had fled. Hoping the goose had fled, that is, so he could give chase, make a quick meal, and bring an offering to Highest Queen Jemcis, this seeing his daily quota filled.
The goose is gone, the footpath is empty, and just as he’s about to take off and do the goose like he did the leader of those pitiful Early Bird mallards this past autumn, Lord Hilaetos hears a chitinous clicking to his left.
Branda perches at level with Hilaetos. The osprey doesn’t like it one bit.
‘Receive this thought and receive it well, goose: do not be seen wandering through The Sticks, nor in the greater keep of The Basin. I have done you a kindness today, one that shall not be paid forward by those who patrol the crown of the Northern Leg.’
With that, Lord Hilaetos takes flight, screeching in victory despite the ongoing heartbeat of his prey.
Branda watches him go, thinks to herself, ‘Well so much for that,’ fills a groove in the bark of the log with a steaming, grassy turd, and then starts back along the way she came. It appears as though she’s out of options – it’s time to head for Dino Island.
From the shoreline of the back end of Dino Island, a tall and slender tree holds a steady gaze over The Mink as he initiates a prowl across the beachway.
The Mink has the crawdad cornered now, there’s no way it could escape. It doesn’t seem to be aware of The Mink’s presence – up until now, every time the cocky (not so) little crayfish has left the safety of its hidden burrow, it has raised up a single claw and punctured the surface of the Reservoir in a show of dominance over those who may wish to see it eaten. Each and every time the opportunity presented itself, The Mink pounced at the claw, and each and every time the claw wound up being a taunt. But this time is different – now there is no claw sticking out of the water. The crawdad rests there in the shallow waters, his antennae feeling out the flow of the current, his beady black eyes scanning restlessly for plankton or whatever it is the crawdads eat that gives their meat that distinct flavor, that wonderfully sought-after palate of the shelled thing, equally delectable as it is desirable, like mouse meat seasoned with fish scales and marinated in the blood of all those who would do The Mink as The Mink would do the crawdad.
Will do the crawdad, that is, for The Mink is not one to be trifled with in such a gross, defiant manner. White chin to the ground, The Mink prowls with a deftness heretofore unheard of; he doesn’t even leave footprints in the pebbly sand.
As he approaches the water’s edge and gets a good clean look at the target of his pursuit, The Mink’s eyes widen and his prowl comes to a halt. His fur stands up on end. His purr lowers drastically in pitch, resembling a growl. His back legs tighten, ready to pounce, but not to decimate his prey. The crawdad he hunts right now is not the devious crawdad with an unhealthy obsession with taunting his predators, is not even a crawdad at all, merely the molted shell left, nay, strategically placed in the shallow waters where The Mink would see it best. Placed there to lure The Mink into a false sense of security, to make the furry creature lower his guard so he wouldn’t be able to see from the eyes in the back of his head. A daring plan, as heinous as it is well thought-out, and it almost worked, too. If today’s sky had not been so clear, the great shine not shining so brightly, the surface of the water not so calm, reflective, and still, The Mink never would have seen it coming.
In the water’s reflection, The Mink sees a tall and slender tree standing over him, grayish blue wings spanned, stilted legs bent, long and slender beak shut and primed for the strike. In the moment before he leaps to the water, The Mink realizes something of dire importance, something he should have realized much earlier in the shinecycle, something he will never make the mistake of misidentifying again.
In the reflection of Monksville, The Mink focuses his eyes on Hyrdios the great blue heron, the mighty dinosaur of Dino Island. Its beak impales the sand, catching a single strand of fur from The Mink’s tail as he hops like a rabbit and disappears into the water like a weasel into the bush.
Sand and pebbles spray in the air like a thick fog as Hyrdios draws his beak back and frawnks with rage and hanger. With a flap of his wings he clears the divide between land and lake and plants his sinister black taloned feet deep into the soaked sand.
Thus the jabbing begins. The water runs brown with clouds of dust, but no blood is spilled. Thus the jabbing continues.
On the other side of the island, The Mink leaps from the water like a dipper duck with a beak full of fish. It sees the heron mercilessly slaughtering the water and all the nothing which inhabits it, and can’t help but purr in satisfaction – the great blue beast which haunts the two islands like the screeching owl does the night has finally faltered, and by what but the talented paws of The Mink, no less. This is easily The Mink’s greatest accomplishment, never before has he escaped such certain death… but yet it’s not enough. This heron may have stalked these shallow waters since the Reservoir was filled, but this island belongs only to The Mink now; he will not have an interloper on his shores.
As he pounces forth from behind the heron, The Mink lets rip a threatening hiss that evolves into a death scream. He sinks his teeth into the thigh of the heron and relishes in his first taste of heron blood, a fishy taste he may never experience again.
The heron frawnks in agony and abandons his venture. Drops of both water and blood rain down from his flailing legs as he lifts into the air, taking The Mink with him. The heron does not fly high, not high at all, but he covers a great distance with each of his gale-force flaps. The Mink relinquishes his grip on the dinosaur bird’s dry, bony leg halfway across the Northern Leg, long before he could carry him over to the rockslide of a shore that waits on the other side. As he splashes into the water, The Mink purrs with a vitality which causes the surface to dance like tree leaves in a monsoon. The island is won, the menace is evicted. The Mink, swimming stealthily to avoid being seen by the next wingflapper who dares to test his wiles, makes his slow return to Dino Island.
The Old Guard
Vorcolt of The Klaww watches from one of his many interconnected burrows as The Mink dives for his life and wiggles for deeper water. A moment later, the heron lands in the shallows and begins to strike the sand into which it planted its decoy, the crawdad’s molted shell. Wingflappers and landwalkers are such strange creatures, very strange creatures indeed, and though they routinely bring bloody decimation to one another, none will ever catch the last active member of the old guard, the mighty Mother Monksville’s last line of defense against the most dangerous threat of all: not the unrestrained reproduction of smallfish and algae, but the piles of corpses they leave behind.
The many feathers of the vulture flock like to fancy themselves the greatest scavengers in the keep of Monksville, but vultures are merely crayfish of the sky. The crayfish clans have been servicing Mother Monksville since the days it was but a grassy valley with a great roaring river tearing through its middle. Before the days of The Basin and the Northern Leg and the Southern Expanse, there was the Wanaque River and there was Beech Brook. The shellbacks used the brook as a spawning ground and a central hub for all their activity; a healthy population of crustaceans stayed there year-round to ensure the species never went extinct. They had many predators across the few districts of the river – raccoons, otters, riverfish, all the like – but they were seldom bothered in the gentle flow of Beech Brook. Perhaps this was due to the abundance of rocks in the water and the burrows beneath them, or mayhap it was the sheer numbers of the crawdad bastillion; regardless, Beach Brook was a safe haven; all crawdads were welcomed there, regardless of which clan they claimed in the greater river.
This wonderous sense of unity and camaraderie among crustaceans all went away when the crawdads ventured out into the Wanaque River. The river was divided into three major districts: North Bend, which stretched from the forest behind what is now known as The Sticks to the break in the flow south of what is now recognized as North Cove; Upper Flow, which started at the break in the flow and kept north when the river split in two, coming to an end at the eastern fork; and Lower Flow, which began at the western fork and kept south through the eastern fork, halting at the spillover point where the river gave way to the mighty waterfall. Lower Flow was controlled by the Tailwhip clan and Upper Flow by the Tennae clan, leaving only the Klaww clan to hold watch over North Bend.
In the hub of Beech Brook, all was well between crawdads, division and tension were things of myth and legend; along the Wanaque River, territory was highly disputed and bodies were often laid to rest in piles until the current of the river pulled them over the edge of the waterfall. It was a barbaric time, as most old times are, and Vorcolt only knows so much of it through stories he was sent through his mother’s tail before he hatched from his egg; according to those stories, this savagery is how the crawdads originally came upon the ancient art of scavenging.
Originally, according to the high matriarch of the Klaww clan, crawdads only ate that which was still among the realm of the living. Anything incapable of escaping the grip of their claws was duly and swiftly brought to stoppage and pinched apart into bite-sized pieces; smallfish, algae, riverweeds, aquatic insects, incompetent amphibians, twigs, pebbles (if they got desperate enough) were all sheared and stuffed down the hatch and the crawdad race was propagated, but eventually the territory wars led to the piling up of bodies above the river’s surface, and something had to be done. None will say for sure which clan started the trend, but cannibalization of crawdads passed spread like hot wildfire after it was accepted by the shellders, the eldest of the crayfish who kept to the waters of Beech Brook from winter until autumn. Before too long, the cannibalization extended far past the realms of scavenging, and what were once simple territorial disputes quickly spiraled into something else, something much more terrible, something not deserving of a name, for words are symbols which dictate reality; even though crawfish don’t speak, they’re more than capable of thinking, and if one could tap into the consciousness of a crawdad, one would find the Universe’s most exquisitely developed lexicon of labels, terms, and definitions, one that far surpasses the complexity and intricacy of our own.
The same can’t be claimed of their social behavior, unfortunately, and before too long, living crawdads became a main staple of the crawdad diet. Those were days of the darkest times, the darkest times indeed; fortunately, when the giants settled the valley, the cannibalization slowed down drastically. I’d like to say it was because of a massive movement of unity once the crawdads realized there was a new lifeform populating the valley, an apex lifeform at that, but I’m not one to blatantly lie in the yarns I spin – the giants simply began to capture and consume the crawdads, and so the tiny lobsters decided to work towards the survival of their species rather than against it; as legends say, all it takes is a grand threat to bring peace to a warring populous.
Of course, all of this ended when the river dried up and the crayfish were forced to swarm back to Beech Brook; the giants were not the only creatures to feel the impoverished struggle of Monksville’s last and final drought. When the rain finally came and overstayed its welcome, the bastillion disbanded and the crayfish scattered like dust in the wind, or rather, like sand in the water. Few of the crawdads from those days remain today, but Vorcolt is one of them, and he proudly carries his lost heritage with him by baring the name of his clan, not out of a want to go back to the dark days of old, but as a badge of honor for getting through it and living to tell the tall tale. Vorcolt of the Klaww is the last of the Klaww clan, the last active member of the old guard, and the last of his family to occupy the burrows around the shores of Dino Island.
Vorcolt’s bride, with all their brood safely glaired on the underside of her tail, fled Dino Island many shinecycles ago, shortly after the myriad of eggs were transferred from her insides to her outsides. She tried to convince Vorcolt to join her, that staying at Dino Island would mean certain death, but he’d have none of it. He had spent the last cycles of his life’s prime here, digging out dozens of burrows underneath every viable rock, not to mention the subterranean tunnel system which links them all and allows a safe escape in the event that predators come and start flipping stones. He tried to convince her it was safe, perfectly safe, designed with safety and nothing more in mind, but that time, ‘twas she who had none of it. She took to deeper waters in the direction of that gargantuan boulder with the smooth surface which appeared the night the mountains trembled; he means to join her eventually, before the eggs hatch at the end of the spring, surely, but that’s a ways away. Vorcolt still holds his domain over the shallows of Dino Island and he’d like not to give up his grand magnum opus until he no longer has a choice in the matter… but the nights are getting longer and lonelier with each new setting of the great shine. So long, and so, so lonely…
He’ll know to flee the island when the time to do so comes, and until it does, Vorcolt shall relish in the entertainment inherent in watching a duel between Dino Island’s two greatest terranean predators, the only reasons his family left the island behind. To see one pick off the other would be a treat, but to see them decimate one another, to see a stalemate be reached? That would be a prize.
As the heron takes off with The Mink clamped to its slender leg, Vorcolt of the Klaww loses track of them completely. Now would theoretically be the perfect time to flee, when neither of his predators are there to see him, but… then he wouldn’t get to see the victor. He’ll flee when he learns who won the bout, for the sake of having a story to share with his children as soon as they learn to interpret meaning from the clicks of his claws. Yes, he’ll flee just as soon as one of the predators returns to the island, he’s very sure of that… until he sees the goose.
Just north of Dino Island in the small stretch of water between the Northern Wedge and the mainland is a large boulder protruding from the lake like the trees in The Sticks, but more moundish. The rock is a deep gray with specks of black dotted throughout and the sides are very steep, but a divot eroded into the top provides the perfect plateau for any Bird, whether of Lake or of Prey, to make a temporary roost and rest their wings in the middle of a busy day’s hunt. Or, in Branda’s case, while en route to scope out what will hopefully be her new nesting grounds.
The waypoint rock is warm to the touch. Branda nestles down in the heated divot and gazes across the reservoir’s wavy surface. There doesn’t seem to be any movement in the underbrush, nor in the wall of various trees which rise from it. She can’t see squat from this sitting position no matter how comfortable it is – this goose has no other option. She’ll have to do an aerial sweep.
Dino Island’s canopy is spotty, patchy at best, reminiscent of the faces of giants between the times of receiving a name and choosing an occupation. On the southern edge of the island is the perfect zone for building a nest – flat, grassy, easy access to the water; between there and the beachway could be described as mountainous if a ‘munkie were to climb it, but even then it would be an exaggeration; the canopy over the Northern Wedge (known as that only by The Mink, who now waits patiently in the underbrush, his tail whipping to and fro in a cavity within the flora as to stifle the purr that wishes to escape from his gullet) is rather solid, and Branda can’t get a good look at the terrain from above.
The channel opens, ‘Nothing could be living there, if one were to inhabit this island they’d do so on the bigger south end. I believe I have my home,’ and closes again. Branda’s wings flutter as she descends to the beachway through a large bald spot in the canopy.
The pebbly sand is smooth under her feet in some places and rough in others. She sees the tracks of a large and menacing wingflapper, possibly a great blue heron, but she cannot be sure. The great blues were a menace back in Branda’s gosling days, always stealing unhatched eggs from unguarded nests and devouring the larger insects the geese themselves meant to eat; they’re also territorial. Very territorial. If the heron was living here it would still be here, but something must have chased it off. Maybe it was Branda, maybe the heron saw her approaching from the north and decided not to test the wiles of a lone goose during The Hatching, especially one armed with a mighty claw.
Entering into the Northern Wedge, Branda is overcome with a certain sense of serenity. The trees block any wind which may wish to gust by, and the canopy, full and lush, filters the rays of the great shine in such a way that casts an emerald glow upon the entire sanctuary. The grass is soft and supple, with very few rocks dispersed throughout. A thick layer of underbrush, shrubberies, and berry bushes rise to the height of Branda’s shoulders and give way to beech and birch trees, even a single oak. If she had not seen the southern end of the island first, Branda would undoubtedly nest here, but she had and so she won’t. When a goose’s mind is made up there is no changing it; they are denizens of their own decree and they stick to whatever path they choose to follow, no matter where that path may lead. Branda takes one last look at the gorgeous oasis beneath the trees and then turns to begin gathering supplies for her nest.
The Mink springs from the underbrush, purring all the way, and latches on to Branda’s back. Her honk is muffled by the claw, and when she begins to flap wing and lift, The Mink digs his claws into her supple meaty back. Together they rise up through the canopy and into the clear blue sky. From below the surface of the waters crashing against the beachway, Vorcolt of the Klaww watches with wide eyes; when the canopy eclipses them, he moves into deeper water and, with a single flick of his densely armored tail, jets himself up onto high-piled rocks to get a better view.
The Mink, in all his mysterious life, has never pulled off such a daring pounce. His prey is very often of the lakebreathing variety – occasionally he’ll snag a ‘munkie and other smaller landwalkers, and rarely he’ll catch himself a smallbird when it’s paying more attention to its song than the world around it – but to have a full-blown wingflapper clutched between his paws? This is unprecedented! He knows he will not bring it down, as such a feat needs many rounds of practice before it can be accomplished, but this is as good a start as any. He’s more defending his land than looking for a meal anyway, so he’ll drop into the water as soon as such is feasible. Yes, The Mink will let the goose go this time… but not without taking a trophy, and he doesn’t want the goose’s claw.
Branda blows another muffled honk when she feels the back paws of whatever the hell is attacking her right now grasp one of her tail feathers and yank it skywards. Branda honks again when that feather is ripped away from her tail, but as a consolation, her attacker is gone. She doesn’t even hear the splash when The Mink hits the water – the crawdad hears the splash, in fact the crawdad sees the splash, and when the bubbles and froth have cleared from that splash, The Mink sees the crawdad; The Mink sees the crawdad very well.
Branda’s plucked feather floats to the surface as its original owner flies quickly away to Isla Meeney.
White clouds form over Isla Meeney as Branda flaps wing in approach. They darken to a rocky gray when she hears the first honk; the waters begin to tremble when she hears the second. She knows what those paired guttural honks signify, she knows from what wingflappers they resound, but she continues with her approach anyway; there is no home for her in The Basin nor on Dino Island; Isla Meeney is Branda’s last option. She will nest there, or she will die trying.
Both honks combine as one and the gray clouds spoil a sick black. The whirlwinds begin and a small maelstrom forms at the shoreline of the tiny island. From the dense thicket of trees growing along the island’s edge pokes out a slender white head with a beak as orange as the great shine upon setting. The rain begins to fall when the second head joins the first. Lightning strikes as they spread their wings; a clap of thunder announces their takeoff. Branda’s eyes widen as the swans fly towards her with a whirlpool following obediently beneath them.
Branda has made a terrible mistake.
A brash bank to the left spares Branda suffering the opening strike. From behind her the swans honk again, this time in unison; the untamed force of their deuxhonk splinters one of the bones in Branda’s right leg, but she does not falter – home or no home, she will escape with her life on this day.
Turbulent winds whip Branda back and forth over the middle of the Southern Expanse, the rushing of the air in her ears so loud that she almost doesn’t hear the splash – almost. Craning her neck down, Branda sees the whirlpool spinning faster and faster, rising from the surface into a waterspout. Whatever giants were floating on the lake in their hollowed-out trees have long taken to the shores. The wooden cave of the vulture flock is clamped tightly shut, though Branda has no knowledge of its existence, and all lakebreathers have taken refuge in the deepest of waters. Another deuxhonk pierces the storm and the pair swans explode out of the liquid tornado, backs pressed together and necks extended, dispatching the twister and raining mist down on the reservoir in quantities that could be described as raindrops. Their wings are folded, but they need not flap to fly; the swans have executed the flying white torpedo, and they’re headed straight for Branda’s heart.
With the winds whipping and swelling as they are, an idea sparks in Branda’s spinning brain. The cove east of South Cove, the very bend in the shore which the giants know as Lure Cove (named for all the innumerable lures that wash up there cycles after Mother Monksville originally claimed them) is curved in such a way that it captures thermals and boosts them to launching capabilities. High Branda is not a lightweight wingflapper – not by any stretch of the imagination, especially with the fabled claw weighing her down – but were the bloodthirsty swans to blast through the cove first, the speed of their spin should push the winds to a gale force and Branda should – should – be able to grasp the thermal and slingshot clear past the snowcapped mountain and into The Basin. Making such an entrance would surely ward off any hawks wishing to take her life, and as for the osprey? Well… if he was going to do anything, surely he would have done it back in the secret thruway.
Branda leads the swans towards the cove, and though her wings burn like the great shine above, she keeps flapping, she does not relent. She can’t, her life quite literally depends on it, and she can rest when she’s either safe or dead. Another deuxhonk booms from behind her and suddenly, she no longer cares about the outcome of this battle. She just wants it to be over.
Flapping at the speeds of a war-screaming eagle, Branda hugs the shoreline and follows it perhaps a quarter of the way through its curve. When she feels her tail feathers being pulled by the force of the swans’ rotation, she lurches her feet forward, fans her wings at full span, and dumps every inkling of speed she has flapped so hard to attain. It works like a charm – the swans burn right past her, the heat of the flagrant spin evaporating the mist which hangs perpetually around them, and they crash beak-first into the garden of cattails at the shore. Seeds heated dry seasons before their time rise into the air in plumes, and Branda, taken by the pull of the wind, sails around the curved shore and shoots clear over the snowcapped mountain. She doesn’t flap once until she crosses the bridge built by giants, and that flap only serves to slow her down and give her a descent unlike that of the swans.
Hawks shriek faintly in the distance as Branda touches down on the grassy eastern shoreline of The Basin, the very shoreline where a certain pair eagles hunted game on the daily before their lord the osprey betrayed them. The hawks may come for her, hell the osprey may even make an attempt, but none of that matters to Branda. Let them come – she has escaped the swans, the most feared wingflappers in the entire keep of Monksville, and she deserves to take a rest. Perhaps she’ll go east, follow Beech Brook inland, or perhaps she’ll feed the queen of the hawks. Only time will tell – you’ll have to draw your own conclusions, for it is here we leave Branda the goose. She bested not only The Beast on this day, but also the pair swans and their earth-quaking deuxhonk; what’s a flock of hawks to Monksville’s second greatest escape artist?
Yes, Branda is but the second greatest escapee to frolic in the waters of the Monksville Reservoir; as for the first, well, that is to be decided. The contestants are in place, the shores of Dino Island are more than a quick swim away, and The Mink’s eternal hunger is matched only by Vorcolt of the Klaww’s dire need to see his family again.
Let the battle begin.
Monksville’s Murky Depths
The crawdad flees into Monksville’s murky depths, and the hungry mink follows.
A hazy sort of feeling clouds the spinning mind of The Mink, the very same haziness that accompanies his lack of memory of his life before he emerged from the phaseshifting burrow of Isla Meeney, the very isla where a pair of swans now nest. As he follows the alpha crawdad deeper and deeper into the depths, the haze intensifies, but is still dwarfed by The Mink’s hunger, The Mink’s undying, insatiable hunger – he’s chased the crawdad so many times now, repeating his cycle of pounce and miss, pounce and miss, pounce and miss more times than any landwalker would care to admit.
So too does the mind of Vorcolt fog over with a haze, but this haze is entirely unfamiliar. His bride and their batch of eggs took to these waters many and many’ago, he’s always known he would join them. Perhaps it’s the pressure from the increasingly deep water through which he jets, propelled only by his tail, fueled by the fear of finally being caught by that wicked water weasel who calls himself The Mink.
Finally the smooth boulder comes into clear sight. Vorcolt sees it first, as he was expecting it to pop up, but The Mink is very much startled when he first catches a glimpse. The color is dark, darker than the rest of the water, and yet faint, dim lights dance and shine from within the smooth surface. The Mink is hypnotized at once and for a choice moment, he loses track of the crawdad altogether, but this trance does not last long – an anomalous underwater object, no matter how smooth its exterior may be, is not enough to distract The Mink. With his keen mink’s eyes, he spots the massive crawdad flicking its tail in the direction of what appears to be a shelf at the base of the smooth surface of the strange boulder.
But it’s not just a boulder, is it? Vorcolt knows it’s not, knows it very well, as he was there the night it crashed. This thing, this dome-like structure, was not always present in the waters of Monksville – it came in a ball of fire from the starpool in the dead of night, a ball of fire which burned a hole into the canopy and planted a deep crater into the feet of the bordering mountains, the brothers of the snowcapped peak from which giants draw their metal. From there The Dome grew four massive legs, legs all too similar to those of the crawdad’s, and it crept its way from dry land into the stretch of water between the isles. Today The Dome is cool to the touch of Vorcolt’s feet, but on the night it crashed, the waters boiled and smokescreens of steam rose into the sky like the exhaust from the bonfire pits of the giants.
The Mink knows naught of this dome, for he made his appearance two cycles after it crashed, but he is unafraid nonetheless. That is, until the first great bang echoes through the water and the inner shell of The Dome is shattered, as if struck by a piece of technology that shan’t be discovered – or should I say rediscovered – by the giants once the flood that took the valley takes that which rises and holds the valley. The Mink means to turn away, he always turns away, the sound of a contained explosion is enough to break any landwalker from the trance of chasing prey, but this time is different. This time his hunger is too great, his need to see that crawdad slain is too much. The Mink, throwing caution to the residual current from the ghost of the Wanaque River, swims with force to the lip where glass meets metal, the very lip upon which the crawdad clicks his claws in early victory.
Vorcolt doesn’t see The Mink coming until the last moment. He flicks his tail and jets swiftly, but not swiftly enough – The Mink’s jaws, toothed by razors, grip the crawdad’s claw at the base of his arm where the chitin is weakest. Terrified, Vorcolt whips his tail thrice in rapid succession as the same instant The Mink whips his head, and the crawdad escapes yet again, though this time, for the first time ever, he is missing his mighty right claw.
He is reunited with his family shortly after. His bride smells the scent of crawdad meat, it consumes the burrow before he even enters it, but she does not make an attack. Her children will hatch come the end of the spring and they will need a father, and one claw is better than two. Besides, Vorcolt’s left claw was always just slightly bigger than his right; he’ll be able to hunt just fine, and it is here that the story of Vorcolt of the Klaww comes to a timely end, a sort of end directly opposed to the untimely end which shall soon come – aye, very soon indeed – to The Mink.
Inside The Dome, two cloaked beings who once held watch over The Beast engaged in a duel. In their hands they gripped compact cannons, each shaped like broken bows without the strings, each automated like the rest of their blinking and buzzing machinery, each loaded with a single slug of toxic metal. Six paces were taken but only one spun around and took his shot, and his shot was aimed for truth. Barciro fell as the inner shell was shattered and shards of thick glass rained down on The Wikler’s devastated head. He stood there motionless for a few moments, long enough for The Mink to finally overcome his fear; now he slowly proceeds to his slain comrade, his partner in crime, the one who thought up the idea of the black cloaks in the first place. He cannot return to the future alone, he would be tried for the worst of crimes and sentenced forever in the gulag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench… no, he brought this on himself. His pet is gone, the cycle is truly broken, the giants shall never evolve to be amphibious, and The Wikler, without purpose, without a certain future to return to, pulled the trigger on his one and only friend. Now, he shall pull it on himself.
The outer shell of The Dome is pierced, but the structure does not shatter. The slug beams through the water without concern for the furry little mink with a big meaty claw grasped between his jaws who swims in its path, and it’s through the heart of this mink which the bullet makes its final pass. The Mink feels very little of the strike – only a strange, ethereal warmth blooming like a rose in the center of his chest – before the water around him grows just a shade darker. Then another shade. Then another shade.
Then The Mink is surrounded in black darkness, engulfed in an emptiness comparable to that of The Void. It is dark for The Mink, it is dark for a very long time; then, he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. With the briny taste of mousemeat seasoned with fish scales and marinated in the blood of the one who did The Mink like The Mink almost did the crawdad, The Mink crawls and wriggles towards the light and is blinded when he reaches its source.
The reds and oranges of trees falling slowly into dormancy greet his eyes. The Mink emerges from a burrow in the center of Isla Meeney, a burrow which only opens for a moment hidden from time on one autumn day in the fourth cycle since the filling of the Monksville Reservoir. A certain haze sets in over his memory of his entering the burrow, of where he was before he took his refuge, but that doesn’t matter. The Beast howls forth in these waters and they are not safe to swim in, and Dino Island is quite a distance away. The Mink skips through the shallows behind the back end of Isla Meeney and traces the shoreline of Monksville until he finds the dirt road which giants follow to make a certain climb much less treacherous.
From the base of this cliff, The Mink travels along the Wanaque’s shoreline far past the Fishing Village until he comes to a clearing hidden just behind a wall of trees. It is here that The Mink finally satiates his hunger with the meat of the crawdad, the crawdad he’s pursued through both time and space over cycles and cycles immemorial. When the shell is hollowed, The Mink leaps his full brown belly into the water and swims down beneath the surface to the second submerged dune of sand he comes across. It is here that he buries the claw under a small layer of pebbly sand, a layer which will be stripped when the water level falls and the Reservoir dries out into a desert.
Satisfied with his efforts and the breaking of a long cycle, The Mink flees from the Wanaque to spiral anew. In the spring of the third cycle to pass after the burying of the fabled claw, when a mighty drought will grasp the Wanaque Reservoir by the floodgate installed by giants, a lone lady goose will be nesting on the dune closest to the shoreline, and from there, her brown eyes will be caught by a single claw strewn amongst the pebbles.
It’s over, small giants; the cycle is broken, and we are saved from ourselves, for the foreign giants who gave us this land, the mysterious cloaked beings who stood waiting where a split river rejoins and becomes one when our tribe first discovered the valley in the shape of a crescent moon, were merely two swimming giants from days yet to pass. They came from the future to ensure our kind prospers and evolves into them, and when the future from which they came became what we know as the present, we would send two back and repeat the cycle. But the swimming giants have now perished, the cycle is forever broken, and The Eternal Mink took his meaty claw through the phaseshifting burrow of Isla Meeney. We are saved from ourselves, small giants, from a future which shall never come.
Spring ends within a few shinecycles of the great and sudden storm brought on by the raging pair of swans, and on the first day of the summer, the giants of both villages convene ‘round a grand bonfire to share their stories of the fish they’ve pulled from the waters of Mother Monksville. Walleyes, bass of mouths small and large, even pike and trout were caught, but not a single muskellunge was pulled from the water. The Giant, his metal hand unblemished by the likes of common red rust, is not deterred – he must catch that last muskellunge, he must be sure that it lives, and when he does catch it? He will not be so swift to drop his oars in the water.
The opening days of the summer are hot and dry, though the Reservoir’s water only rises in level. With The Beast long gone at this point, the spring saw the return of many lost denizens to the lake, including a specific flavor of landwalker which glides through the air gracefully like a wingflapper with stiff wings. This wingwalker, if you’d be daring enough to consider him as such, met up with a ground squirrel, the only squirrel to survive the past winter’s massacre at The Crater, and the two found a massive tree hollow in which to bunk north of the western beachhead of Muskellunge Cove. But the food is not plentiful here, and the squirrel’s tales of the splendor of The Crater are too grand to remain in the realm of legends. One balmy night, after a fierce argument about who would get the last acorn if all the oak trees were to die off, Buggaboo leaps from the massive hollow and glides into the evening alone.
Stay seated, small giants, listen well and hear me true: thus begins the final chapter of the final story I shall ever tell.