It opened in a flash, The Gleam a puma’s eye.
One cycle prior, The Crater was born.
The Head Goose in Charge
A lone 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 Res’. 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 in the awkward middle – Branda nests on one of these latter sandpiles. ‘Twas an obvious choice, 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 dune, in fact. She scoured the greater area of the Wanaque Desert in search for this nesting site, and that’s exactly why the lone claw strikes her as odd – she’s never seen it before. It’s as if it was placed there by an invisible force, left as a prize long ago to be found in the future… or perhaps it simply belongs to a sand-dwelling crustacean, a newly evolved breed of denizen, one who’s wasted no time adapting to the harsh conditions of this unforgiving hardpan.
Well, belonged. There’s no body attached to the claw.
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 Branda 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 of Monksville, 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 merely 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.
It’s not enough though, is it? Branda needs something more, something to really drive home the message that she and she alone 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 Res’s crop once they hatch from the eggs she’s yet to lay. A claw, a lone 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. Then again, Braten is more afraid of losing the nesting zone than she is, and he didn’t even tell her what he was going up north for; 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 make a move on High Branda’s nest would be forced to face her wrath, and they’d deserve what befell them when that wrath reared its lovely black head. It is the lone claw Branda wants and so it is the lone claw Branda shall have; let ‘em try to take Branda’s prime nesting dune. Let ‘em honking try.
A dozen daring dipper ducks dance and frolic about in the frothy waters of the Monks Tribe’s 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 midair flips before diving right back into the water. The divers do not perform merely for performance’s sake, though; in truth they are preparing to execute a mission, perhaps the most important mission of their lives.
From the far shorelines they’re watched by a bustling mob of small giants, their eyes all a’sparkle with wonder and delight – even their wrangler cannot help but gawk at the spectacle. After The Giant’s brawl with the gigantic creature who swims in the belly of Mother Monksville – an event remembered by the giants of both tribes as the Exodus of Fear and All Lower Feelings – the pocket itself hasn’t been touched by a single fishcatcher worth the line they cast. They all fish the mighty Monksville these days with hopes of hooking that big one again, with hopes they might pull it out of the drink to lay eyes on its scaly hide; every rise of the great shine The Giant wakes and climbs the treacherous hill with a longpole in his metal hand, and every rise of the great shine his fellow fishcatchers follow him closely behind. The only giants to disturb the waters of the Wanaque pocket today are the small giants, for the young must hone their technique before they can venture out to the bigwater.
But today the small giants’ 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 North Floodgate from above perches Dopper the dipper duck, the leader of the dozen daring divers. Beside Dopper 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, yes, plenty indeed, and very little of it kind; 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 in the land. So Braten stopped sending his vulgarities while all the rest of the geese continued to mock their prissy goose princess, and when time came for Branda to choose her Hatchingmate, she chose Braten. ‘Twas simple as that. 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 today. Dopper has always been held in only the highest regard by all Birds, of Lake and of Prey; cormorants make 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 without an iota of shame; a connection with Dopper is a connection sent highly of amongst the geese, a stark contrast with a relationship forged with High Branda.
Today, High Braten stands upon a kind of junction of possibilities – either Dopper’s claims that the drought will soon come to an end shall 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 happen, there’s no sense in doubting that, and the show is about to begin.
Make no mistake, Dopper does not need the channel to communicate with his dozen daring divers – he has 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.
‘High 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,’ sends Dopper, keeping his turquoise eyes fixed on his daring divers, ‘and I will join them in the water. As you well know, the giants’ subterranean pipe 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. Dopper dives into the water, joining his daring divers and making a Dopper’s dozen. Thirteen cormorants take to 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 cease 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 beneath 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 eager mob 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 starpool-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 too rarely seen dipper duck dance.
As they reach the peak of their leap, the dipper ducks begin to spin like metal augers. As the tips of their beaks hit the water the surface seems to bend rather than break. Dopper floats in wait; if Braten could see the look on his dipper duck face, he would gaze upon pure satisfaction. The dipper ducks begin to skip over the water like river 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 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 which 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, 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 semi-hairless sasquatch. Their wrangler passes out cold on the spot.
Beneath the surface, the thirteen drilling dipper ducks all converge into the mouth of the floodgate. The water is noticeably colder there; 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 that 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 water gushes through the pipe and the Res’ fills 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 High Braten, she receives it very well:
‘Dopper has done it, the dire drought has ended! The Wanaque Reservoir shall fill once more! I am free of that awful, uppity wench! Fuck you, High Branda! Thank the Mighty Mother Monksville, I am free of Branda at last!!’
The lone claw 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 much action. Up until the third cycle after the giants performed their rain dance of legend, a sizeable 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 squirrel or a ‘munkie would take a swim, usually making to escape the starved clutches of one predator or another, but sometimes those predators would follow them into the Res’. 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 these days. He has something of a symbiosis 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. Since that fateful third cycle many of Monksville’s waterfaring 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 the Mighty Mother Monksville, The Mink alone bares the title of lakewalker. The Mink alone holds burrow over the entirely of Dino Island. The Mink, terribly aggravated over 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 the vanished crustacean in the pads of his paws, and The Mink is only getting hungrier with each moment he remains awake. Hungrier and crankier. The crawdad will surely surface again – until then, The Mink will nap in splendor.
The Grassy Shore
As the Wan’Res’ begins to fill again, Dopper’s dozen dipper ducks dance and frolic wildly amongst 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 flooding process is not as slow as one may imagine; as if Mother Monksville has some kind 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 waterfall, a fat gusher of a cascade as it is, exploded with a roar as torrents upon torrents of cold spring drip flooded through the gap in 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 black mass responsible for the Wanaque’s latest drought sheds its icy chrysalis one layer at a time as the dashing dipper ducks dip and dive through the pond, then the lake, then finally, when the level is up, the Reservoir. Braten, still slinging his high praises of the daring deeds of Dopper’s dashing squad through the channel for all to receive, especially that uppity snakenecked Branda, flaps his wings and sways his head merrily to and fro on the south side of the road running over the North Floodgate. 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, no more thoughts of that one – this is a day of mirthful celebration! Folding his wings and removing his mind from the lively channel, Braten walks carefully 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, even if they still flocked on the Wanaque. The ten dipper ducks are… the nine, the eight, the…
The dipper ducks are disappearing.
Suddenly High Dopper flings himself from the water, landing with a thick wet slap on the grassy shore nearest Braten. The grass is soaked and matted down as Dopper struggles to gain his bearings and rise to his … oh, oh good Mother… Dopper’s feet are gone! They’ve been snapped off at the knees, his shins exchanged for babbling brooks of blood!
‘Dopper!’ Braten sends through the bustling channel, accompanying it with a honk of fearful shock he wishes, oh how he wishes, 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 happening, why are your dashing divers disappearing?’ Then, after a moment of receiving nothing allows him to come to grips with the situation, ‘And 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 though 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 tailfeathers. Braten thinks fast and grips High 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 grounds of his Highest 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 on this day.
Little does our Braten know, The Beast follows closely behind, hidden beneath the surface, en route to his next meal.
Branda, upon receiving Braten’s Fuck you, promptly sent ignorance into the channel and closed off her mind so she would receive no more. She now floats in the dirty rising water, the lone claw held tightly between her folded wing and her right flank. Fine, the Reservoir 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 a desert is now sunk and forever lost; fine. Fine fine fine. Branda will keep this claw, she will hold it in her wing 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 the dirty water. She’s received of them before, this band of Early Birds who flocked to Monksville before learning of how difficult it is to live amongst Birds of Prey. As far as High Branda is concerned, any Bird, whether of Prey or of Lake, is a Bird through and through, and all Birds must look out for one another. Even if her fellow Birds of Lake wish nothing but grisly misfortune on High 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 amongst geese, 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 first pick? Feathers of the last flock to arrive? Please.
From the east Branda hears a terrified honk and must 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 tailfeathers of certain death. The other geese pay it zero attention.
Braten flies over High Branda’s head and lands deep inland, safely past the treeline. He continues to honk but no goose makes a move – they’re 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 oblivity through the channel. Perhaps if Braten were to send thought over the channel they would un–… wait, perhaps he already is. Branda opens her mind and receives the last string of thought she would 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! Quickly, everybody out of the water!!’
As Branda wrestles with the acceptance of this most terrible grim news, she watches with newfound horror as her fellow geese, one after the next, 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 serpent 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 one 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, it’s gone! I must go back!’
‘Branda, what are you thinking?!’ Braten sends, but it is 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 lone 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 set of the great shine, The Mink will have a full belly and a delicious emblem to signify his claim over the keep of Dino Island.
Out of all of Monksville’s denizens who could rightly call themselves lakewalkers, The Mink is by far the most mysterious and misunderstood. 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 and 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 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 mouth has since vanished without a trace. At the time, The Beast still howled forth in Monksville’s waters and, even though he just emerged from his phaseshifting burrow, The Mink immediately understood the danger of taking a dip. From the Meeney burrow’s mouth The Mink fled, skating over the shallow water like a water strider and following along the shoreline until he came upon the treacherous downslope to the Wanaque wildlands. The Mink remembers this journey very clearly, as if he took it many times, though such would be impossible; The Mink only returned to Monksville at the onset of the current cycle’s spring. He also remembers how, after crawling out of the burrow, he felt a peculiar feeling of emptiness in the mouth, as if he had forgotten to carry with him something of dire importance… or fled from something, that would be more accurate. Even now as he reminisces whilst falling into the zone and preparing for his hunt he cannot put a paw on it, but that was all a very long time ago. It hardly matters in today’s here and now, the very here and now in which The Mink crouches low, 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 the shore, 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 the current 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.
Flap Like the Wind
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 off. 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 turkey buzzard over the soggy carcass of a drowned whitetail. Below the Wanaque’s murky surface, The Beast circles in pace.
Braten watches from the treeline with a terrified pair of brownish-black eyes. He should just leave her behind; the prissy wench clearly means to see herself perish. She always pulls nonsense like this, Branda does, 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 piteous 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 Branda is the last surviving denizen of The Beast’s latest massacre, but Braten suddenly feels a deep-rooted flower of love for her blooming in his chest. One could say a lot about this goose, and many geese do… well, many geese did. Before they were consumed. 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 are not mutually exclusive of her wants, so what? That’s not being 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 Braten to the nesting grounds of his true identity.
Braten takes flight and joins up with High Branda in the circling of their flooded nesting grounds, the nesting grounds Branda 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 exactly see any other options for myself, 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 doubtfully. ‘Geese haven’t flocked to Monksville in many and many’a cycle, where would we go to nest?’
‘On one of the pair isles, perhaps,’ Branda sends, her tone of thought 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, High 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 are 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 our 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, High 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, pretending not to be phased by the my nest he received, sends, ‘An artifact, you send?’
‘Yes, I send it so; I cannot explain it, but that claw has a special significance to me. Perhaps it’s just the memory of the old nest… 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 then spans his wings wide and tight, preparing for a dive.
‘Don’t you dare, you horrible claw-thieving scoundrel!’ Branda hurls, 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 fabled claw and smoothly arcs back into the air with Branda following close behind. The Beast nearly leaps from the surface to end this game once and for all, but then holds back, biding his time. Not yet; the chance will come to take them both, 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 FABLED CLAW OR FACE THE UNYIELDING WRATH OF HIGHEST BRANDA, YOU TWO-BEAKED TRAITOROUS CHARLETON!’
‘Highest 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 hummingbirds, 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 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. Braten goes down wearing that look of his, that worn out ungrateful look, that look which displays his undying self-pity, which casts blame, not love but blame and regret upon his Highest Branda; 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 out 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 tell; flap like the wind, Branda,’ she thinks to herself as the channel claps shut. The tips of her wings strike the gritty 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 within it from what flies above it.
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 mayhap 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 was once trapped in, the prison with the pair of wardens stashed away in their The Dome, nice and safe in their little 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 godking 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 mountain range 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 beneath a sizeable rock. Shortly after, The Mink flares from the bushes in an explosion of rage felt only by predators when their prey evades them yet again.
This is an anger the tall and slender tree knows well, all too well, so there it remains standing, biding its time, motionlessly a’watch from the shoreline.
High Branda makes land on the rocky west beachhead of Muskellunge Cove. The fabled claw, still clenched in her beak, opens and closes with a soft click as it catches every exhale the goose releases from her spent, burning lungs. Her legs are wobbly, her wings feel like hot slush, and a frightful tremble envelopes the very fibres of her being – never before has Branda been in such grave danger, her life has never been so firmly laid on the line. Then again, she has never had to escape imminent death like she did today, so perhaps her exhaustion is something to be proud of.
Yes, perhaps it is.
Anyhow, the anxious wobble seems to have worked its way deep into the joints of her knees and ankles – she cannot stand up straight for much longer and she’s far too engrossed in physical exhaustion to fly over a distance. When Branda 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 Res’ with her life. What’s more, she hadn’t even considered the likely possibility that both of Monksville’s 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 for themselves in the vast and unexplored territory beyond 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 defected dayguard. Branda was just a gosling back then – as far as she knows today, the miscreant gullflock has moved on entirely from the Monksville Res’, or perhaps they went back to identifying as Birds of Lake. Or better yet,mayhap they came to their senses and stopped messing around with the divisive idea of factions amongst 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. ‘So it’s back to The Basin then; the cycle shall continue. Very well.’ The channel closes again. The wobble has begun to leave her legs and she believes – yes, Branda truly does believe – she has the strength to fly across Muskellunge Cove to the sandy east beachhead. From there she’ll take to the trailways 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 are said to store and launch their hollow trees long before today’s shineset. It’s funny, High 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 really uphold that strange, arcane practice; she had always loved to receive tall tales from the geese who migrated late to the Wanaque about how the giants would float in their logs and whip the air with slender shaven branches to draw ‘breathers up from the lake. Such wonderful stories. What a time…
All right, enough recovery – High Branda can rest and relax all she wants and then some when she has a proper nest to roost in again. She flaps wing and flies low over Muskellunge Cove, passing by one of the giants she had missed on the flight in. He sits alone in his tree – the tales were true, then! – floating solitary in Muskellunge Cove, grasping his shaven branch with a hand of the same color as Branda’s feathered head: a sleek cormorant black, like the plumage of the brave High Dopper. He will be missed by all Monksville’s denizens, weather they walk on land, flap their wings, or breathe the lake; yes, Highest Dopper will be missed sorely by all. He was a good denizen, a good cormorant indeed. Perhaps the very best.
Branda lands on the sandy east 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 warmed by the heated sand beneath them. The fabled 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 prance back and forth.
The Mink bares the moving tree no notice, he’s far too preoccupied with his hunger. This crawdad is his mortal enemy, the very bane of his enigmatic existence, the only sustenance his body requires 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 before it jets itself back into its burrow like a coward, of course the damned crawdad is a coward! What kind of denizen wears its skeleton on the outside of its body? The insect kind; that’s all the crawdad is, isn’t it? A lowly insect, a plump and juicy insect who decided to abandon his 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 do, every single one of the crunchy munchy abysmal little cretins… all except for the crawdad. The crawdad is the apex, the alpha insect, the ultimate creepy crawly with a pair of meaty claws to boot, a 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’s throat as his prance widens, taking him all ‘round the shoreline of Dino Island; with every loop completed The Minks only grows hangrier, and the tone of his purr only deepens.
Branda followed the footpath to the flattened field of dirt the giants use to launch their hollowed-out trees into the wide and open waters of Monksville’s Southern Expanse. This is not where she wanted to end up, this is the polar opposite of where she must be, but she’s here all the same.
The journey here was not a simple trek. The footpath started out deceptively flat and docile from Muskellunge Cove’s east 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 into the Wan’. She had to resort to flight before coming to 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 Existence spiraled around her. The great shine was not quite as high in the sky by the time she opened her eyes; high noon had come and gone, and the night drew 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, as she keeps reminding herself, but thinking about such things will not bring her any closer to her goal. Misery and positivity both go a long way; the difference is the direction they take you.
Branda 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 myriad layers of leafage below it bestow the trail – which is more of a dim tunnel through the trees, if Branda is 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 is alleviated. 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 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?) traversed it so many times the Earth crumbled beneath their feet. As Branda ascends the mountain, the divot’s trough rises until it finally comes 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; were this 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 time when bees buzz and treefrogs chirp and the days are as warm as the evenings are cool. ‘Tis the time of The Hatching, the annual extravaganza of avian procreation which poor Branda will have to pass on again for the umpteenth cycle in a row now. It is her life’s mission to rear a healthy flock of goslings before the day comes when she shall pass through the great transition, even if doing so delivers her straight to the gates. Could she sigh, she would. Mayhap next cycle.
High Branda sees a denizen waiting for her as the hill plateaus and her feet find level ground, a denizen perched on a fallen tree suspended over the path. A denizen who may bring her tail to those gates himself.
As Highest Branda crests 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, lowly Bird of Lake,’ he sends warily across the channel, open wide enough for his thoughts to be intercepted by they who dread his return in the bowels of The Sticks. ‘You approach Bird of Prey territory; you’d do quite well to turn your soaked tailfeathers around.’
Branda cranes her neck back to find her tailfeathers drier than the dirt upon which she walks. 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 correctly.’
‘If I do, I do not care to send on it,’ replies Hilaetos, the hunger in his eyes hoping the plump goose does not heed his warnings. ‘Turn back now or face the wrath of the Red Hawk Flock.’
‘The Red Hawk Flock, you send?’ High Branda sends inquisitively. ‘Whatever happened to the vultures?’
Hilaetos flaps his eagle’s wings thrice and shrieks a fearsome kee-aww. ‘Don’t invoke the filthy 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, I am 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 merely lowers his gaze to the forest floor and slowly shakes his tired 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 a suitable offering to Highest Queen Jemcis, thus 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 dirty goose like he did the leader of those pitiful interloping Early Bird mallards this past autumn, Lord Hilaetos hears a chitinous clicking to his left.
High Branda perches at level with Sea Hawk 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 which shall not be paid forward by those who patrol the crown of the Northern Leg.’
With that, Sea Hawk Hilaetos takes flight, screeching victory despite the ongoing heartbeat of his prey.
High Branda watches him go, thinks to herself, ‘Well so much for that,’ fills a groove in the bark of the log with a steaming turd, 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 chewed up and swallowed. Each and every time the opportunity presented itself the hungry 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 into the air. 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, a taste like mousemeat 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 up with a deftness heretofore unheard of; he doesn’t even leave footprints in the pebbly sand.
As he approaches the island’s edge and gets a good clean look at the target of his endless 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 now is not the devious meaty-clawed crawdad obsessed with taunting his predators, it’s not even a crawdad at all, it is merely a 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 Reservoir not so calm, reflective, still, The Mink never would have seen it coming.
In the water’s sharp 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 razor 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 brush.
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 powerful grayish blue wings he clears the divide between island 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. 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 cannot help but purr out 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. Evading such a monstrous wing’ed beast 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 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 which builds up into a ragged death scream. He sinks his tiny but deadly 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 great blue heron frawnks in agony and abandons his venture. Droplets of 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 still he covers a great distance with each of his gale-force wingflaps.
The Mink relinquishes his grip on the dinosaur bird’s dry and bony thigh halfway across the Northern Leg, long before he could be carried 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 keenly from one of 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, one of Vorcolt’s many molted shells. Wingflappers and landwalkers are queer creatures, very strange creatures indeed, and though they routinely bring bloody decimation to one another, none will ever catch the final original member of the old guard, Mighty Mother Monksville’s last line of defense against the most wicked, dangerous threat of all: not the unrestrained reproduction of smallfish and algae, but the piles of corpses the species leave behind.
The many feathers of the turkey vulture flock like to fancy themselves the greatest scavengers in the keep of Monksville, but buzzards are merely crayfish of the sky. The crayfish clans have been servicing Monksville since the days it was a grassy valley with a great roaring river tearing through its middle. Before the days of The Basin and the Northern Leg and the massive Southern Expanse there was the Wanaque River and there was Beech Brook. The shellbacks used the shallower brook as a spawning ground and a central hub for all their activity; a healthy population of crustaceans would live there cycle-round to ensure the species never went extinct. The crayfish had many and many’a predator across the few districts of the Wanaque 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 interconnected burrows beneath them, or mayhap it was the sheer size of the crawdad bastillion; regardless, Beach Brook was a grand crawdad haven; all crawdads were welcomed there without fuss, regardless of which clan they claimed in the greater river.
Alas, this wonderous sense of unity and camaraderie amongst crayfish went swiftly away when the crawdads ventured out to the Wanaque River. The river was divided into three districts: North Bend, which stretched from the forest behind what is now called The Sticks to the break in the flow south of what is now revered as North Cove; Upper Flow, which began at the aforementioned break in the flow and kept north at the western fork, 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 where the beavers’ dam now stands. Lower Flow was patrolled by the Tailwhip clan and Upper Flow by the Tennae clan, leaving only the Klaww clan to hold watch over North Bend.
In the Beech Brook safe haven, all was well between crawdads, division and tension were things of myth and legend; along the Wanaque River, however, 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 savage way of life is how the crawdads originally came upon the ancient art of scavenging.
According to the high matriarch of the Klaww clan, crawdads originally only ate that which still roamed the realm of the living. Any lifeform incapable of escaping the grip of their claws was duly and swiftly brought to death and pinched apart into bite-sized pieces; smallfish, algae, riverweeds, aquatic insects, the more incompetent amphibians, twigs, pebbles (if they got desperate enough) were all chopped up and stuffed down the hatch and the crawdad race was propagated in full. Eventually though, the territory wars led to the piling up of crawdad bodies above the river’s surface, and something had to be done about it. Noclaw will say for sure which clan started the trend, but cannibalization of crawdads passed spread like wildfire after it was accepted by the shellders, the eldest of the crawdad species who kept to the gentle waters of Beech Brook from winter ‘til autumn. Before too long, the cannibalization extended past the realms of scavenging; what were once simple disputes over boundaries quickly spiraled into something else, something carnal and not so deserving of a word, for words are symbols which dictate reality; even though crawfish do not speak they are more than capable of thinking, and if one were to tap into the consciousness of a Monksville crawdad, one would find Existence’s most extensively developed lexicon of labels, terms, definitions, and words, one that far surpasses the complexity and intricacy of our own.
The same cannot be claimed of their social behavior, unfortunately; before too long, living crawdads became a main staple of the crawdad diet. Those were the darkest days of Monksvillian crawdad history, the darkest days 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, and an apex lifeform at that, but I’m not one to blatantly lie in the yarns I spin – the giants simply began to catch and consume the crawdads, and so the little lake lobsters decided to come together and work towards the survival of their species rather than against it; as the wise giants say, all it takes is a grand threat to bring peace to a warring populous.
Of course, all this ended when the river dried up and the crawdads were forced to swarm back to Beech Brook; we giants were not the only denizens to feel the poverty and struggle of Monksville’s last and final drought. When we danced for days and the heavy rain came down, the bastillion disbanded and the crayfish scattered like dust in the wind, or rather like loose 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 tale. Vorcolt of the Klaww is the last survivor of the Klaww clan, the final active member of the original old guard, and the only part of his family to occupy the many interconnected burrows around the shores of Dino Island.
Vorcolt of the Klaww’s bride, with their brood safely glaired to the underside of her tail, fled Dino Island many shinecycles ago, shortly after the myriad of healthy eggs were transferred from her insides to her out-. She tried to convince Vorcolt to follow her, tried to convince him that staying at Dino Island would mean certain death, but he’d have none of it. He had spent the last prime cycles of his life here digging out dozens of burrows underneath every viable rock and the massive subterranean tunnel system which links them all and allows safe escape in the event that predators come and start flipping stones. He tried to convince her it was safe to stay in the burrows, perfectly safe, the burrows were designed with safety and nothing more in mind, but that time, ‘twas she who had none of it. Vorcolt’s bride took to deeper water in the direction of that queer 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… though the nights are getting longer and lonelier with each new set of the great shine. So long, and so, so lonely…
He’ll know to flee Dino Island when the time to do so comes; until it does, Vorcolt of the Klaww shall live in the moment. For right now, that means he shall relish in the entertainment inherent in watching a duel between Dino Island’s two greatest terranean predators, the 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 reached? That would be a prize.
After 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 many children as soon as they learn to interpret meaning from the clicks of his big, meaty claws. Yes, Vorcolt of the Klaww shall flee just as soon as one of the predators returns to the island, he’s very sure of that.
Until he sees the goose.
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 during a busy day’s hunt. Or, in Highest Branda’s case, to regroup before scoping out what will hopefully be her new nesting grounds.
The waypoint rock is warm to the touch. High Branda nestles down in the heated divot and gazes out across the Reservoir’s wavy surface. There does not seem to be any movement in the island’s 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 shall have to do an aerial sweep.
The majority of Dino Island’s canopy is spotty, patchy at best, reminiscent of a giant’s face between the times of receiving a name and choosing an occupation. The south edge of the island is the perfect zone for building a nest – flat, grassy, with easy access to the water; between there and the beachway could be described as mountainous if a lame ‘munkie were to climb it, but even then it would be an exaggeration; the canopy over the Northern Wedge of the island (known as such only by The Mink, who now waits patiently in a cavity in the isle’s underbrush, his tail whipping to and fro to calm 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 found my home.’ 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 beneath 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 of Lake from the unguarded nests and devouring the larger insects the geese themselves meant to eat; they’re also territorial. Very territorial. If the great blue heron was living here it would still be here now, 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 partnerless goose during The Hatching, especially one armed with a mighty fabled claw.
Entering the Northern Wedge, Highest Branda feels 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 to cast 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 did and so she will not. Like her mother said, when a goose’s mind is made up there is no changing it; they are denizens of their own decree and they stick to whichever 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 then springs from the underbrush, purring all the way, and latches onto Branda’s back. Her honk is muffled by the fabled claw, and when she begins to flap wing and lift, The Mink digs his own claws into her big meaty back. Together they rise through the canopy and into the clear blue sky. From beneath the surface of the waters crashing against the beachway, one Vorcolt of the Klaww watches the ambush transpire with wide yet still beady eyes; when the canopy eclipses the two, 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 all too often of the lakebreathing variety – occasionally he’ll snag a ‘munkie or another smaller landwalker, and every now and then he’ll manage to snag himself a smallbird when it’s paying more attention to its song than the world around it – but to have a full-blown flapper of wing clutched between his paws? This is unprecedented! He knows he will not bring the big goose 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 first, 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 tailfeathers and yank it skywards. Branda blasts another honk when said feather is ripped free of 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 air bubbles and froth have cleared from that splash, The Mink sees the crawdad; The Mink sees the crawdad very well.
Branda’s plucked tailfeather 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; Monksville’s waters begin to tremble when she hears the second. She knows what those raw guttural honks signify, she knows from what wingflappers they resound, but the goose continues her approach regardless; 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. Whirlwinds whip up 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 in troves when the second head joins the first. Lightning strikes as they spread their wings; a booming clap of thunder announces their takeoff. High Branda’s eyes widen as the swans fly towards her with a living 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 left leg, but she does not falter – home or no home, she will retain 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 cacophonous to the point that she almost doesn’t hear the splash – almost. Craning her neck down, Highest Branda sees the whirlpool spinning faster, rising from the surface into a waterspout. Whatever giants were floating on the lake in their hollowed-out trees have long returned to the shoreline. 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 raw deuxhonk pierces the storm and the swans explode out of the liquid tornado, backs pressed together and necks extended, dispatching the twister and raining heavy 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. They’re heading 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 lake which the giants know as Lure Cove (named for all the innumerable lures that wash up on the shore cycles after Mother Monksville originally claimed them) is curved in such a way that it captures thermal winds and boosts them up to launching capabilities. Branda is no lightweight wingflapper – not by any stretch of the imagination, especially not with the fabled claw still clenched in her beak weighing her down – but were the bloodthirsty pair swans to blast through Lure Cove first, the speed of their furious spin should push the winds to a gale force and Branda should – should – be able to mount the thermal and take a ride 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 woodland tunnel.
Branda leads the swans towards the cove, and though her wings burn hot like the great shine above she keeps flapping, she does not relent. She cannot relent – her life quite literally depends on it. Branda can rest when she’s either safe or dead, and she ain’t go’n’a die today. 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 with the speed of a screaming eagle, Branda hugs the shoreline and follows it perhaps a quarter of the way through. When she feels her tailfeathers 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 thick mist which hangs perpetually around them, and they crash beak-first into the garden of cattails sprouting from the shoreline. Seeds heated dry entire 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 does not flap once until she crosses the bridge built by giants between the Northern Leg and The Basin, 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 High Branda touches down on the grassy eastern shore of The Basin, the very shore 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 the mighty Monksville. 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, High Branda is but the second greatest escapee to frolic in the waters of the Monksville Reservoir; as for the first, well, that is yet to be decided. The contestants are in place, the shores of Dino Island are more than a just 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 alpha crawdad flees into Monksville’s murky depths, and the hungry mink follows.
A hazy feeling clouds the spinning mind of The Mink, the very same haziness which surrounds his lack of any and all memories of his life before he emerged from the phaseshifting burrow of Isla Meeney, the very isla where a pair of deuxhonking swans take nest. As he follows the alpha crawdad deeper and deeper into the murky depths the haze intensifies but still goes dwarfed by The Mink’s hunger, The Mink’s undying and insatiable hunger – he’s chased the crawdad so many times now, he’s repeated his cycle of pounce and miss, pounce and miss, pounce and miss more times than any respectable landwalker would care to admit. It’s now or never; The Mink chooses now.
So too does the mind of Vorcolt of the Klaww fog over with a haze, but this haze is entirely unfamiliar. His bride and their batch of eggs took to these murky waters many and many’ago, he has always known he would join them. Perhaps the haze is from the pressure of the increasingly deep water through which he jets now, 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 sight. Vorcolt sees it first, as he was expecting it to pop up. The Mink is very much startled when he first catches a glimpse. The color of the thing is dark, darker than the rest of the water, yet faint lights dance and shine from beneath 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 hold The Mink for long – an anomalous underwater object, no matter how smooth it may be, is not enough to distract The Mink. With his keen mink’s eyes The Mink 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 giant 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 great 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 murky waters boiled and smokescreens of steam rose into the dark 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 of it nonetheless. That is, until the first great bang echoes through the murky water and the inner shell of The Dome is shattered, as if it were 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 holds the valley. The Mink means to turn away, he always turns away, the sound of a contained explosion is enough to break any mighty landwalker from the trance of chasing prey, but this time is different. This time The Minks’ hunger is too great, his need to see that crawdad slain is too powerful. The Mink, throwing caution to the residual current from the ghost of the drowned Wanaque River, swims with force to the hard lip of The Dome where glass meets metal, the very lip upon which the crawdad clicks his claws in early victory.
Vorcolt of the Klaww doesn’t see The Mink coming until the last moment. He flicks his tail and jets swiftly, but not quite swiftly enough – The Mink’s jaws, toothed by tiny 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 at 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.
Vorcolt 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; as the shellders said, 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, an end much unlike the end which shall soon come – aye, very soon indeed – to The Mink.
Inside The Dome, two 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 being spun around and took his shot, and his shot was aimed well. Barciro fell as the inner shell was shattered and shards of thick glass rained down on The Wikler’s devastated head. He stood motionless for a few moments, long enough for The Mink to finally overcome his fear and win his claw; now he slowly proceeds to his slain comrade, his partner in crime, the being who thought up the idea of the black cloaks in the first place. The Wikler cannot return to the future alone, he would be tried for the worst of crimes and sentenced forever to the gaol at the bottom of the Mariana Trench… no, he brought this on himself. His pet is gone and so is his partner, the cycle is truly broken, the giants shall never evolve to be live beneath the water’s surface, and The Wikler, without purpose, without a certain future to return to, pulled the trigger on his one and only friend. Now, with Barciro’s cannon, he shall pull it on himself.
A hole is punched into the outer shell of The Dome but the structure does not shatter. The rogue lead slug beams through the murky 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 impact – there is only a strange and 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.
The Mink is surrounded in black darkness, engulfed in an emptiness comparable to that of The Void during a long dark rest. 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. He’s blinded when he reaches its source.
The vibrant reds and oranges of trees falling slowly into dormancy greet his eyes. Reborn at last, The Eternal Mink emerges from a burrow in the center of Isla Meeney, a burrow which only opens for a slippery 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 Eternal 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 the waterfall cliff, The Eternal Mink travels along the Wanaque Reservoir’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 Eternal Mink finally satiates his hunger with the meat of the crawdad, the crawdad he’s pursued through both time and space over cycles immemorial. When the shell is hollowed out, The Eternal Mink leaps his full brown belly into the water and swims beneath the surface to the second submerged dune of sand he comes across. It is here where he buries the fabled 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-like state.
Satisfied with his efforts and the breaking of a tired cycle, The Eternal Mink flees from the Wanaque to spiral anew. In the spring of the third cycle after the burying of the fabled claw, when a mighty drought shall 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 lone claw strewn amongst the pebbles.
It is over, small giants; the cycle is broken. We are saved from ourselves, for the foreign giants who bequeathed us the valley in the shape of a crescent moon, the mysterious cloaked beings who stood where a split river rejoined and became one when our tribe first crested the treacherous climb, were a pair swimming giants come from days yet to pass. They arrived 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 duly repeat the cycle. But the swimming giants have perished, the cycle is forever broken. The Eternal Mink carried his meaty claw through the phaseshifting burrow of Isla Meeney. At long last we are saved from ourselves, small giants, we are saved from a future which shall never come again.
The spring ends within a few shinecycles of the great and sudden storm brought on by the raging swans, and on the first day of the summer, giants of both villages convene ‘round a grand bonfire to share 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 murky waters. The Giant, his metal hand unblemished by the likes of common 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 summer are hot and dry, though the Reservoir’s water only rises in level. With The Beast long gone the spring season saw the return of many lost denizens to the Monksville Reservoir, including a specific flavor of landwalker which glides gracefully upon the air like a proper wingflapper. This wingwalker, if you dare 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 discovered a massive tree hollow in which to bunk west of Muskellunge Cove. But the food is not plentiful there, and the ground squirrel’s tales of the splendor of The Crater are too grand, are too promising to remain strictly in the realm of legend. One balmy night, after a fierce and violent argument about who would get the last acorn if all the oak trees were to die off, Buggaboo the flying squirrel leaps from the 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 yarn I shall ever spin.