One king’s fall gives reign to another.
Two beings float cold from The Dome.
Thunderclaps pale in comparison to the beating of Nudderbudder’s heart as he watches Buggaboo take flight from their hollow. The flying squirrel’s words were fierce and raw, but the ‘Budder spared an equal lack of feelings in his own; it takes two to tango, as they say, and the devil dances beneath only the palest moonlight. Very well, the race for The Crater is on then, a race whose victor was decided long before the race even began.
The great shine slips merrily to the horizon and the moon wastes no time being bright, yet the hollow is dark. It’s too big for a single denizen to occupy, far too spacious – in previous nights the unlikely pair of rodents would huddle together and Nudderbudder would make something of an igloo out of his tail for the smaller (and thus frailer) Buggaboo. It worked a treat through the spring and isn’t necessary during the summertime, but these creature comforts are not permanent. The winter nights will freeze him solid if the autumn nights don’t do it first, but that’s a long way off. There’s always tomorrow, when the great shine still blazes with a loving fury and the water of Mother Monksville is heated warm to the touch. Yes, tomorrow he will set off, tomorrow he will make his leg of the great race. Tomorrow he’ll meet up with Buggaboo at The Crater and find a hollow hidden from the starved gaze of the pair eagles who nest there now. Yes, all that and more tomorrow; tonight, Nudderbudder will sleep.
The tides churn lazily under the full moon’s early glow from its rising throne in the starpool. Mother Monksville drowses in tranquility and peace on this, the crescent moon valley’s final pleasant summer’s eve’.
The mountains have long claimed the great shine; the night air is chilled, haunted by the screeching owl.
Buggaboo creeps up to the entrance of the hollow. The bark is callusy and thick, knotty, as it were, and he pokes his snout over the lip and sniffs. Not safe yet. He crawls over to the beginnings of a nest he’s accumulated for himself – just a small tuft of grasses, enough to soften what lies beneath it – and rests his head for a moment. A small sigh escapes Bugga’s mouth but his eyes do not close, not even for an instant, even though he’s more tired than the dead. All that effort he put in to find this awesome home – and it’s so awesome; fully rotted out, high off the ground, entrance facing the water – just to abandon it for taller trees. Such is life, Buggaboo supposes; the will of Mother Monksville is very much its own, and the wind blows in whichever direction it sees fit.
Before long the eyelids of the flying squirrel meet. He curls into a ball and blankets himself with his tail; here Buggaboo finds bliss, though it is not long for this world; a terribly shrill screech bombs him awake, an owl’s screech that came from nearby. That damned phantom must have heard him sigh. Buggaboo knew this hollow was exposed to an owl’s hunting grounds when he found it and still he preferred it to the last one, at least at first. He couldn’t stay with Nudder’ anymore, not after… well, it’s all null now; another demonic screech, but fainter. It’s getting impatient. Liable to slip up. Buggaboo doesn’t even breathe.
Silence. A gusting of wind, a rustle of leaves. The distant flapping of a pair of wings – a fading threat, or perhaps an unkept promise? Again, it’s null; the ghoul’s left and returned unprovoked once – fleeing haphazardly will surely draw it back. Bugga’ needs a plan then, an escape route along which he won’t be followed by the corrupted spirit of the moon.
He approaches the lip of the hollow again, wraps his delicate front paws around the chipped bark; he can see the water all right, black as the starpool and calm as a settled snowdrift – maybe. It’s difficult to tell with his vision obscured by the trees. The flying squirrel has but two choices, really: hop off into the branches or keep low beneath the underbrush. The owl screeches inland; not close, but not far off either. Not far off at all. Buggaboo can’t stay for much longer.
The underbrush is the only real option here. The owl, as motherless as is it unfathered, reigns supreme over the star-flecked plumage of the dusk; it would be nothing short of foolish to gamble this wager in the spectre’s domain. Although, Buggaboo still must at least consider the glide. Starting from the low ground would catch our flying squirrel swimming, and the flying squirrel is no mink – his gliders don’t exactly love the water. So the branches, then… would catch him gliding through the open air at canopy level. Fuck it, he may as well swim; at least the Reservoir doesn’t have a beak.
Mounting the lip on all fours, Buggaboo checks his immediate front and smells the air. The witch doctor is in, there’s nigh a question about that, but he’s not in front. If ever there existed a moment for ‘Boo to jam, this certainly must be it – the flying squirrel leaps, stretches his limbs, and the gliders engage.
Using his tail to strafe and bank between tree branches and tall trunks, the flying squirrel glides through the forest like a leaf flits through the air: gracefully, with a beautiful intelligence guiding his movements. When he touches down, he does so with his back paws first. The menace screams from behind before his front paws follow suit.
Panic. Heart racing, losing breath. ‘I can’t think, I can’t process. It’s coming, it heard me, it’ll have me. I’m ‘munked.’
Then Buggaboo sees the long rock pile and he stops his nonthinking.
The silent flapping of starved wings looms from behind. Buggaboo can feel the presence of the thing, the harpy reject with razors for feet and a bloodlust to rival the hawks, an unfeeling feathered blaspheme who fears the light of day. Buggaboo’s a nocturne as well, but not strictly; how ironic, by mimicking the behavior of tonight’s foe he could have avoided this encounter altogether; oh well, too late now. Buggaboo makes his approach with the owl trailing far behind.
‘A painfully fruitless endeavor,’ the flying squirrel concludes after considering the efforts of his enemy. If his memory serves true, this long rock pile should extend to the shore across the Northern Leg from the larger of the two islands before sliding down into the water; this is fortuitous for Buggaboo. He’ll be gliding through the open air after all, but not quite through the sky, not up at canopy level. The devilbird will go hungry another night.
The cool mist hanging in the night air snuffed out the coals of the bonfire hours ago, yet The Giant is still awake. He lies restlessly in his bed, staring at the ceiling of his cabin and feeling the cold metal of his right hand with the warm flesh of his left.
‘Was it all worth it?’ he thinks to himself, stroking his unbending fingers permanently caught in a loop. ‘I’ve devoted my life to catching a fish, a fish I released into the Reservoir, no less. All the struggling, all the pain, all the long days of isolation through the hottest of summers and coldest of winters… has it all been worth it?’
The answer, given within his own mind, is a resounding no. The Giant rises from his bed and slips moccasins on his feet. Tucked away beneath his bed is a locked chest, the box made from solid oak and scorched ever so slightly to give it a rustic color to match the metal gildings, the gildings and slidelock crafted by none other than Black Smith. He’s a talented metalworker that one, very talented indeed. The Giant feels a hit of gratitude thinking of how enemies of old may one day become the greatest of allies, so long as the Great Spirit wills it. The Spirit, too, is a talented one, very talented indeed, though its talents extend far beyond the field of metalworking.
The Giant pushes the slides in the order Black Smith showed him and the lock goes click. The hinges do not creak as The Giant opens the lid. He reaches his hand in, the one of flesh, not metal, and from the shadowy box he pulls his secret weapon, the one tool of his trade no other giant may wield. All fishcatchers use lures – some are simple shiny hooks, some are shaped like the prey of the fish they’re meant to catch – but none have access to what The Giant hangs from his rough, callused fingers.
In the glow of the moonlight shining through his bedside window, The Giant watches the spoonplug dangle gently back and forth.
The spoonplug is the ultimate lure for catching Monksville’s apex predator. Painted to resemble an owl were an owl a lakebreather, bent to swim through the water when it’s pulled, and strapped with hooks big enough to land a whitetail if the beasts of burden were capable of a lakebreathing lifestyle, it’s the only one of its kind; if any lure will do the job of catching Monksville’s last muskellunge, this spoonplug is the lure.
As he removes the longpole from its hooks high up on the wall, The Giant speaks aloud to himself. “All the effort I’ve put in to catch that fish was not worth it, and it never will be worth it. Not until its scaly hide slaps against the floor of my boat.”
With that, The Giant embarks into the night. He’s headed towards the hill his tribesfolk once referred to as treacherous, the road leading up to Monksville. Tonight will be the night, and if it isn’t? The great shine will always rise, and then it will set again.
The Back Door
Buggaboo climbs through the rubble and pokes his head out of a gap in the top level of the rocks. He listens intently, smells the air – the lake’s starting to give off a fishy interference, he must be getting close. He climbs back inside the long protective shell and advances gingerly towards the Reservoir, stopping off every so often to climb up and do a little surveillance. Each scan he performs gives back no sign of the owl; by the time he reaches the end of the chasm within the rock pile, the flying squirrel is sure of one thing: the creature conceded. Buggaboo’s won the bout.
A gust of wind rustles his whiskers as he steps out on the cool crag. The wind’s always stronger over the water, Bug’ knows it to be true, but the swells rarely peak at night. It is what it is, he must work with what he’s got; there’s no going back now.
Buggaboo leaps, his patagium catch wind, and he coasts high above the open water under the glow of the full moon’s light. In this moment, the appeal of nocturneship shines clear to the flying squirrel – the night lives in a different fashion than the day, casts an entirely different shadow. The energies dance on different frequencies, the wind blows in a different direction; a scream explodes from Buggaboo’s rear as the witch doctor bursts from the treeline, his horns that of a slain demon residing in The Void, patiently biding its time until it may be released back into the realms of the living.
It’s over. Buggaboo is a flying squirrel through and through, but that is just the problem – flying squirrels don’t actually fly, they just glide on the air, glide on it very slowly, and while he can pitch and yaw with the best of ‘em, he can’t boost his speed, can’t accelerate. The screeching owl can, for it is king of the sky when the starpool looms above, and so it does, and the gap betwixt its open beak and the tail of Buggaboo shrinks like dried meat.
‘No, I refuse to be taken by the likes of that dirty bird.’
The flying squirrel has a contingency of course, as one always should. There’s always the escape hatch, always the back door, that secret exit tucked away in the corner of the room where none look and even less tread. He just has to wait for the perfect moment, for when Buggaboo takes his leave, he’ll not want to be followed.
And yet the owl follows on, and close behind at that. Very close, too close, withing striking distance and clear outside the realm of second guessing its terrible actions. As the wraith readies its weapons and bellows a victorious screech, as the monster that goes hoot in the night prepares to close its talons around Buggaboo’s back legs, Buggaboo knows his moment has finally come. The flying squirrel curls, the gliders collapse, the tip of his tail rests against the small of his back as he plummets to the water below.
The owl, faring about as well in open water as a lakebreather does in open air, debates giving chase, but ultimately decides to retreat – the channel opens, ‘I shall let the rodent go; he’s won his suicide. He may end his own lifecycle,’ and closes once more.
Monksville wets the hull of The Giant’s boat, the only one stored at the private southmost launch. When the fishcatchers of the Fishing Village wish to make a go at the mighty Monksville, they either load up a deer-drawn carriage or just foot it up the main roadway to the Minelands. From there they have a choice – either the north launch or the south launch, depending on which stretch of Monksville they want to fish in that particular moment. The Giant, however, is the alpha fishcatcher of the two tribes, and therefore he has a smaller launch close to his village, a private launch all to himself.
With his supplies loaded – all the usual stuff, plus an extra blanket in case the night air gets into his bones – his feet trade dirt for wood and the vessel is launched. The grip of the oar feels cool in this left hand; in his right hand he feels nothing. The plan of action: head first to Lure Cove, drop the spoonplug into the drink, and then paddle hard and swift over to Muskellunge Cove. If the Great Spirit’s willing, he’ll catch the muskellunge off its guard and release it before it has a chance to start thrashing about like the first one did, the one he caught so many cycles ago. Then The Giant will wait, or perhaps he’ll paddle away using only his hands, just to ensure an untimely death does not befall his catch. Not again… it can’t happen again.
As The Giant paddles into the outskirts of Lure Cove, he catches what sounds like the scream of an owl carried over the water from the north. The Giant has never encountered an owl before – he’s heard them hoot and screech, but he’s never been out on the water at night, never seen one up close. The plan changes, then – first a detour in the direction of the screech, then to Muskellunge Cove where he’ll drop his spoonplug and troll south to Lure Cove, then right back up again. He’ll fish ‘til the great shine rises and then he’ll fish ‘till it sets once more, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll do some catching as well.
Monksville’s True King
A small circular wave in the surface quickly smooths out after Buggaboo hits the water. It’s cold, shock your system cold; for a moment that stretches on far too long, he floats frozen in the grasp of the Res’. The panic’s set in and it’s set in deep, with no intention of relinquishing its hold, and yet Buggaboo persists. He is strong, he is mighty, and thus his eyes snap open. Bubbles rise sideways from his left nostril. He follows them and breeches the surface.
From the look of his surroundings, Bugga’ made it about a quarter of the way to the larger of the two islands before giving the owl the slip. He has a long, waterlogged journey ahead of him, a journey he’s not sure he’ll be able to finish. Buggaboo’s never swam before, never so much as touched the water with more than his nose, and even that was by accident – he had a thirst that needed quenching. He could turn back… no, the owl is surely waiting for him to do just that. The owl probably broke into his mind and influenced his thoughts, a sick sort of hypnosis to lure its prey back onto dry land. Despicable; no, Buggaboo must paddle across the mighty Monksville Reservoir until he reaches the safety of the larger island… but then what?
Buggaboo supposes he’ll have to figure it out when he gets there. Thus begins the swim.
As he effortfully paddles and fights the resistance he’s given by the soaked patagium between his arms and legs, Buggaboo’s soaked mind wanders for higher grounds. What had been the plan, to just glide on forever? Even in his panicked state, ‘Gaboo couldn’t possibly have believed he would make it all the way across the lake. No, there was something else, there must have been something else… Nudderbudder, his contingency. He couldn’t have decided to stay at the old nesting grounds after Bugga’ left, dude’s a ground squirrel but he’s not a total ‘munkie. His stomping grounds may have been taken by the eagles, but they have a nest now, allegedly a massive fortress; surely they wouldn’t notice two rodents living low beneath their castle. It’s decided – the race for The Crater is on. There are ample burrows out there, and even if they’ve all been filled, surely at least one tree in the forest has grown a hollow for a denizen to inhabit. Even if that hollow is too small for both himself and Nudderbudder to share, Buggaboo will find shelter. Besides, the eagles are strict diurnes, as most Birds of Prey are – if he hides his acorns right, they’ll not cross paths once. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but far preferable to the opposite.
And so Buggaboo paddles on and on, unaware of the hungry lakebreather who lurks far below in the bed of the old Wanaque River, a certain lakebreather whose father once held the throat of Monksville tight in his toothy maw; an apex lakebreather, one who has resided in the weedy bottom of Muskellunge Cove since he saw The Giant dispatch Monksville’s last king a mere season before The Beast howled forth.
Below the water bound Buggaboo trails Leonidas, Monksville’s true king, the one lakebreather to rule them all.
The Lil’ Swimmer
Guided by twilight and the smolder of stars gleaming from the starpool, The Giant rows past Isla Meeney and the Southern Expanse shrinks into the Northern Leg. He hasn’t heard a hoot nor a scream since that first one, but it certainly came from this direction… perhaps he’s gone too far? Or perhaps the owl has already moved on with a belly full of prey… oh well. ‘Twas worth a shot, The Giant decides; pulling one oar and pushing the other, he slowly turns his vessel in the direction of Muskellunge Cove.
Then he sees a disturbance in the water.
“Is it… a muskellunge, breeching the surface? A sigil, a sign from the Great Spirit?” whispered under his breath, as if not to disturb the harmony of the spheres. There’s only one way to find out, fishcatcher – The Giant turns his water carriage and, although he does not know it, he traces the Wanaque Riverbed up into the Northern Leg.
If it’s a fish breeching it’ll go down when he gets too close; if it’s a lakewalker it’ll do the same. The Giant makes his approach, does not slow his paddle, and the disturbance in the surface only continues to disturb. He can’t see it until he’s right up next to the thing, and even then it’s nothing more than a blur in the water, a blur which makes tiny splishing noises as it struggles to keep afloat. The Giant, having to reverse his sitting position as to not wet his iron hand, dips his left hand into the water and palms the tiny creature who was swimming ever closer to the great transition.
It’s impossible to identify under such shadowy light conditions, but the creature isn’t much larger than a ‘munkie. It shivers as if stricken by frostbite and, though The Giant cannot tell that it’s opened its eyes, Buggaboo believes he has been saved by the spirit of Mother Monksville herself. Leonidas doesn’t even see it happen – he took one look at the hull of The Giant’s boat and tailed it back to Muskellunge Cove; had The Giant known the muskellunge had lurked beneath, he may not have saved Buggaboo at all, he may have caught his muskellunge under the haunting glow of the great shine’s lunar opposite, but the Great Spirit works in deceitful ways, and so the life of the flying squirrel was saved.
The Giant loosely wraps his mysterious friend in the rabbitpelt blanket he’s been using as a pillow for his posterior up until now and sits the bundle on his lap. He looks in the direction the little wingwalker was attempting to swim and sees what must be Dino Island, and suddenly the picture comes together – whatever this rodent is, it was being chased by the owl, and it narrowly escaped one death in favor for another. The Giant must have been guided here for a reason then, to save this creature and help it find a home. Giants are stewards to Mother Monksville, the monks who bestowed them this valley decreed it so, and therefore they are indebted to ensuring the well-being of all her denizens, even this, the smallest one of them all. The muskellunge isn’t going anywhere, it will still be here when the lil’ swimmer is back on dry land.
The Giant paddles to the pebbly shores of Dino Island and lands his boat with ease, stepping up onto dry land. He goes to unwrap the tiny denizen, and not a moment too late – the furry little bugger’s getting rambunctious, squirming and wriggling about like a mink in a burrow; how odd it is when the wrap is undone the denizen ceases all its former movement. They look at each other for a moment, The Giant and Buggaboo, two landwalkers from very different walks of land, and for the duration of that timeless moment, everything else ceases to matter. All The Giant’s life – and such is true of most, if not all giants – he has brought little more than an end to the lives of the many denizens he’s encountered. Lakebreathers are caught and eaten, landwalkers are shot and relieved of their warm pelts and tasty flesh, and wingflappers are often brought down as well, for their feathers are to the art of fletching what longpoles are to the art of fishcatching; cooked bird is plenty scrumptious, too. Occasionally The Giant will come across a denizen and he will simply watch it be, but never before has he had the opportunity to save one’s life. Still, a life saved is worthless if said life is not returned, and so The Giant holds his left hand, the denizen palmed, up against the bark of a random tree.
Buggaboo doesn’t move, not even a little bit. He doesn’t so much as look at the tree. He was touched by divinity today and he will not flee from this high and almighty lakewalking being, not so long as his life goes unthreatened by the likes of the banshee and all those who openly toil in the realm of carnivory.
After a few moments of watching the smallest denizen not move at all, The Giant decides to return to his boat. The great shine is beginning to cast its pinks and oranges over the horizon; his village will soon stir. Such a rare occurrence as the finding of this strange creature, of being guided to it in its time of need by the screech of an invisible owl cannot merely be a coincidence; the Great Spirit isn’t so daft as that. It must be a sign, a sigil of sorts, and so The Giant knows what he must do.
The shamanfolk wake before all other giants, and it’s to the shamanfolk The Giant now rows.
As The Giant rows patiently with Buggaboo in his lap, the rest of Monksville begins to wake. The hawk flock comes to life in The Sticks and prepares to chase Hilaetos out for the day, the swans nesting on Isla Meeney trade shifts of watch, as do the pair eagles up in their fortress in the canopy of The Crater. The vultures and what few members of the gull flock remain prepare to purify Monksville of any carcasses that may have been left overnight so their decay does not spoil the water, the water which The Mink shall never taste again for better, not worse, for The Mink has found new refuge in a mysterious far-off land known only as Bynt-Rane’bough. Below the surface of Monksville, Vorcolt of the Klaww teaches his many children to hunt with only one claw, and high above the Reservoir’s surface, near the peak of the tallest mountain in the range of the snowcapped peak’s brothers, a great black bear stirs in the back of his cave. He didn’t mean to end his dreams so early, he likes to sleep until the great shine wakes him up with one of its glorious rays, but this day is different. On this day, the vagrant puma sits at the mouth of his cave, its form a ghostly silhouette, its yellow-green eyes glowing in midair like lightning bugs trapped in a jar held by the hands of a small giant.
“Rise, Merksus, time to greet the day. Eat or you shall starve.”
Merksus’s eyes snap awake. He leaps up on all fours and charges to the entrance of his den only to see the fearsome cougar has disappeared into thin air… or perhaps it was never there, perhaps no lion stalks the mountains around the Mighty Monksville Reservoir, perhaps it is only an apparition, a ghost from days past, a spirit trapped in unrest.
A blood-curdling caterwaul crashes from the sky like thunder; perhaps the puma is merely a spectre, or perhaps it is something vastly more mysterious, something that will never be understood by the minds of Monksvillian mortal souls. Regardless, its message holds true – Merksus has not eaten well in many and many’a, and his belly grows thin, far too thin – this extended hibernation has lasted long enough. Today he will eat or perish.
Buggaboo sits in The Giant’s right pant pocket with his front paws grasping the lip, just like they did to that of a hollow to which he shall never return. The Giant landed his boat but did not pull the hollow log fully out of the water, for there was no need to stash it back in the bushes – he will soon be returning to his lake. Once he returns, he will not leave it until he lands his muskellunge; this much is a promise.
Down in the Fishing Village the small giants are coming to, one by one. Like vultures to deadmeat they flock to their pocket of the Wanaque and take their morning dip; the rest of the giants are very thankful for this, as it tires the small ones out and makes them much easier to wrangle when the time for wrangling comes. The fishcatchers are loading up in troves, the bowhunters are stringing their bows and repairing what arrows need the attention, the leatherworkers are going to their tanning racks, the gardeners are tending to the crops, and the shamans, pipes loaded with kinnikinnik, stand in a circle around the bonfire pit. Though it no longer smokes, the embers are still hot to the touch – from the pit they light their sticks, from the sticks they light their pipes, from their pipes they light their lungs, and from their lungs they light their minds, their bodies, and their old, ancient souls. They see The Giant approaching through the eye in the center of their brain, and only open their exterior eyes when he has joined in the circle with them.
“Hai, shamanfolk,” The Giant greets, bowing ever so slightly.
“Hai, fishcatcher,” the shamans return in unison.
The blind elder then speaks and the rest go silent, observing with three eyes as the Universe spirals evermore into what someday might be known as the here and now. “You do not travel alone, fishcatcher, and you come not for simple chatter. What weighs on your mind, what guidance may we offer you?”
“Shinewatcher, you speak only of truth. Late in the night I found myself unable to sleep, so I launched a boat on Monksville and attempted to land my fish.”
“Your fish, you say?” the blind elder says, his tone of voice almost amused. “You mean the one you chase though it leaves you no trail to follow? The one who may not swim at all?”
“The very one, High Shinewater, may I please say thank you. I had launched my boat and taken to Lure Cove, meaning to troll from there to Muskellunge Cove with the mighty spoonplug I was gifted by the leader of the Tribe of the Forge. If any lure will catch the muskellunge–”
“It is the lure bestowed to you by the other tribe. Yes, fishcatcher, we know your battle well. And did you land your catch?”
“I did not get a bite, high shaman, for I did not cast my line. As I prepared to sink my lure, as I held the longpole in my lifeless metal hand, I heard the distant scream of a screech owl and my blood ran as cold as the water.”
The other shamanfolk perk up at the mention of the owl, their attention stolen from the wispy smoke trailing from the deep bowls of their pipes. The blind shaman shows no outward evidence of excitement, though his heart triples the pace of its beat.
“A screech owl, you say? Please do expound, high fishcatcher.”
“I followed the screech to what I believe was its source, but the owl was nowhere to be found.” Half the shamans lose interest, but the rest give The Giant the benefit of the doubt. “Upon ceasing my paddling, I noticed a disturbance in the water’s surface; I first thought it was my fish or perhaps even a lakewalker, but as I approached, I saw that I was mistaken.”
The Giant reaches into his left pocket and cups Buggaboo once more. Buggaboo does not fight him. As The Giant reveals the lone flying squirrel to the circle of shamanfolk smoking around the bonfire pit of the Fishing Village, the very passage of time seems to halt in its tracks. Even the blind shaman’s eyes grow wide at the sight of the humble Buggaboo.
“This…” Shinewatcher begins, unable to properly speak the words. Then, “The Great Spirit has spoken, brethren, our times of hardship are over! The flying squirrel has returned to the crescent moon valley, the golden age has arrived!”
“High Shinewatcher?” The Giant asks bewildered as the shamans dance all around him.
“Highest fishcatcher, what you hold in your palm is a sign from the divine! You have been claiming the great fish famine of Monksville had come to an end, but I must tell you, none of us believed your words for a moment. You disappear onto that lake day after day, unrelenting in your search even though your hands return emptier with each set of the great shine. We’ve watched you lose weight, sanity, and even the hand off your right wrist in pursuit of this ghost fish, of this lakebreather which may not even breathe the lake. When you lost your hand we were all certain your line simply got tangled and, in your madness, you severed your own hand to make it seem as though you finally got but a taste of that which you have so feverishly seeked. But now, with the appearance of a flying squirrel… when the waters are poisoned, by drought, famine, or otherwise, the landwalkers are the last to take notice, and the same is true for the rebound. The flying squirrel is a sensitive creature, one that cannot survive unless the conditions are optimal, that will quickly flee when they are not. But now you hold one in your hand, one you rescued from catastrophe, no less. In saving the glider, fishcatcher, you’ve saved not only our village, but also yourself – go now, hand the wingwalker to me and return to your Monksville. On this day, you shall catch your stinking fish; the Great Spirit has decreed it so.”
The Giant, bubbling with excitement, hands over the flying squirrel and sprints back out of the village without another word – he’s heard all he needs to hear. The muskellunge awaits.
The shamans circle Shinewatcher tightly, unable to believe their eyes. A true to life flying squirrel saved from the waters of Monksville, here in their village. If not a sign of golden times rising over the horizon like the great shine each morning, then what could it possibly mean? The shamans have no reason to question it further.
Guided by intuition and the pinecone in his brain, Shinewatcher walks solemnly to the forest’s edge with Buggaboo cupped comfortably in his hands and holds him next to a tree. This time, Buggaboo takes immediately to the bark and climbs high to the lowest branch above the heads of the old mystic giants. They watch in awe as Bugga’ scans his surroundings and eyes his target – a birch tree with a massive hollow two giants’ heights off the ground. Without so much as a squeak, Buggaboo leaps and engages his gliders, but his patagium are still damp from Monksville’s loving embrace. He falls faster than he anticipated. The giants watch him go, all their smiles quickly fading to frowns – all but Shinewatcher, who cannot see at all.
Buggaboo collides with the base of the tree, the meeting of skull and wood producing a woody knock reminiscent of the fabled sasquatch’s favored way of communicating with mortals who stumble lost into his realm, but that’s just fine. Buggaboo is strong, Buggaboo is mighty, and so Buggaboo shakes it off like it was nothing. He climbs up the slender birch, bypassing the hollow and finding himself a higher branch, a branch to offer him a glorious view of the shinerise. On this branch Buggaboo shall sit for many long moments, and when the great shine casts high noon over the still waters of the Wanaque, Buggaboo will glide again.
The Race for The Crater
As if he heard the impact Buggaboo had on the village of fishcatching giants, Nudderbudder rises awake at shinerise. The tree’s hollow, far more spacious than he realized even after Buggaboo left, is pleasantly cool in the morning. In the coming day it shall heat up mercilessly, and by night it will be unbearable – good thing Nudder’ won’t be here to feel it.
Last evening, after their blowout regarding who would get the last acorn if the oak trees all died out, Buggaboo took flight and fled the safety of this fine hollow in search of a better home. Nudderbudder dropped hints regarding the prime habitability of The Crater, that glorious hole in the ground where those squirrels who refused to degrade themselves to a riverstalking lifestyle built a massive hive, and how that hive buzzed! The squirrelhorde within sprinted tirelessly, generating a warmth so heated it even melted the snow in the winter… but that all changed when the pair eagles came to roost. Nudderbudder escaped, and by the skin of his teeth, but the others were not so lucky… but now the eagles have their nest. Now the eagles have their eaglets, and they’ve no longer reason to leave and scour the globe in search of small game. To feed a pair of baby denizens, regardless of the medium through which the denizens may travel, requires a great lot of food, a great lot indeed – a single ground squirrel isn’t nearly enough to satiate a juvenile eagle alone, but two baby eagles? Impossible – even more so for the flying squirrel. Buggaboo’s entire body, from his head to the tip of his tail, is dwarfed by the ground squirrel’s tail alone. Surely Bugga’ would be safe there, and surely too will ‘Budder.
Very well then, the race for The Crater is a go after all! Crossing the lake should be no problem – this past winter the surface was frozen, true, but covered in high mounds of snow; if he can dig through solid water, surely swimming across a liquid kind shall not be a problem. Buggaboo may have won the great race already, but Nudderbudder knows the lay of the land. When he returns to his home he will find the perfect hollow, and it will be Buggaboo who is left behind.
Nudderbudder climbs out of the hollow and skits down the tree in a flash. Taking to the ground in the direction Buggaboo glided last night, he begins his journey to The Crater.
When choosing a venue from which to pull his food, Merksus has many an option. He can stalk the shores of Monksville and wait for a lakebreather to breech the surface, he can creep through the forests in hopes of running up on a lame whitetail, or he can play it safe and sample the Wanaque River. In the past the river has treated him very well, but he abandoned it as a cub, preferring the taste of hot deermeat to that of stank fishmeat – but today the whitetails are all tamed, brainwashed, controlled by the giants, and fish don’t often make it to the surface before they’re snatched in the jaws of that long and slender thing lurking beneath the Reservoir’s surface. It seems Merksus’s only option is the Wanaque River, and that’s exactly where he’s headed.
The walk is long and arduous. His body is not what it used to be – a pristine black fur coat is now shaggy and patchy in places, his once taught skin now droops low from a far too skinny body which once boasted the largest muscles in all the land. His once shining white teeth are now browned and littered with holes, as if he tried to bite the wrong side of a porcupine, and his claws? Well, his claws are black and sharp as ever, capable of felling a tree in a single swoop, though the feet to which they’re attached no longer stomp the ground with great force.
In the olden days, if Merksus came within eyeshot of a horde of ground squirrels they would scramble and vanish without a second thought; today, as he approaches the Wanaque River, the river which has flowed under the grasp of the ground squirrels ever since the hawk flock took control over The Sticks, the squirrelhorde does not move an inch. In fact, more and more of the twitching things seem to appear with each halfhearted step Merksus takes. Around him, he begins to notice, many of the trees are bare, as if they’ve gone dormant, but this is peak summertime, the trees should be rich with life. Many rocks are shattered and splattered with dried blood, deadfalls are prevalent, and the squirrels are now popping up out of the ground, their heads dirty and their eyes crazed, as if they haven’t seen shinelight in Mother knows how long.
One squirrel, a particularly plump thing with a tail that won’t stop convulsing, walks on the heads of the others and approaches Merksus. The bear stops in his tracks and watches as the squirrelhorde slowly pile on top of each other, building a ramp so the head squirrel may meet this invader at eye level, and that’s just what he does. A dark and gloomy tide of feelings which Merksus has never felt wash over him as he stares deeply into the empty, soulless eyes of the head squirrel – all at once, he realizes he made a terrible mistake.
Bloodtooth Twitchtail, the reigning head of the meat-eating squirrelhorde, he who convinced the rest to abandon their omnivorous ways and walk only the path of the carnivore, churrs psychotically at the top of his tiny lungs and leaps at Merksus, aiming his single remaining buck tooth (the tooth sharpened to a razor edge) directly at the bear’s hungry eyes.
Merksus opens his massive maw and catches the squirrel between his jaws, ending its life with a single half-assed crunch.
The rest of the squirrels attack. Merksus’s entire world becomes an ugly, gray, writhing culmination of biting, chirping, scratching, whining, bleeding, and unbridled pain, the likes of which no landwalker has ever encountered before. The stinging of the buck teeth ripping through his fur, the slicing of claws tearing through his flesh, it’s too much. Merksus, with the entirety of the Wanaque River carnivorous squirrelhorde latched onto him like ticks on a sweaty fawn, charges forward and leaps into the raging river, catching his back leg on a jagged rock. He roars in pain, but the first of the squirrels detaches itself – it’s hard to eat a bear when your stomach is hanging off the sharp end of a rock – the first of many to come. As a bear, Merksus has much bigger lungs than the tiny little squirrels, and so he dives beneath the surface and snaps his maw tightly shut, allowing the current to take him and the twitching parasites for a long ride downstream.
When he breaches the surface of Monksville in the back end of The Sticks, whatever squirrels are still attached are waterlogged and dead. Merksus crawls up on dry land and shakes his fur wildly, dislodging squirrels and tufts of hair this way and that. When the roaring of the pain begins to fade and the black bear can perceive his surroundings again, he’s almost shocked to see half of the entire hawk flock, including none other than Queen Jemcis and her lackey boy Laentus, perched in the trees, staring down at him intently with hunger in their eyes. Hawks are lousy fishcatchers, and aside from desperate ‘munkies, not much landwalking game still flocks to The Sticks. But here they have a severely weakened black bear, and even better, a whole pile of slain squirrels ripe for the picking.
After a moment of uneasy eye contact with the hawk queen, Merksus wades back into the water and begins to swim away. The hawks flap wing but do not mean to divebomb the bear – he has left them a great offering, and for that, he will be allowed to live. The pile is decimated, bones and all, by the time Merksus climbs on to the leafy shore on the other side of the giants’ footbridge that quarantines The Basin from the rest of the Northern Leg. He’s exhausted, sopping wet, and although the squirrel king was plump good eatin’, Merksus’s belly is not full. Not far from it, but unfull nonetheless; one more rodent should do it, so long as that rodent isn’t a ‘munkie.
His nose blind to smells due to starvation alone, Merksus walks west along the shoreline, knowing in his big bear heart that there will be morsel if Mother Monksville wills it. And if she does not… well… the great transition awaits.
The Little Swimmer
Nudderbudder comes upon what he believes is truly the perfect tree hollow – fully rotted out, high off the ground, entrance facing the water – and is relieved when the place reeks of Buggaboo’s scent.
‘He must have stayed here through the night,’ Nudderbudder thinks to himself as he approaches the tuft of grasses his friend the flying squirrel likely used as a pillow. As he moves the tuft aside, though, he’s overcome with dread.
‘These are… these are bones. An owl sleeps here.’
It is at this point that Nudderbudder slowly gazes up through the tree and sees the makings of a nest, supported by crossed branches suspended over the base of the hollow. He almost growls out of fear and fear alone – almost – but in doing so he’d wake the owl, and that cannot happen. It may be day, but an owl disturbed is a hungry owl indeed, and a fearsome one at that. Slowly, soundlessly, moving like a puma in the night, Nudderbudder creeps out of the owl’s hollow and scurries down the tree.
Up in his sanctum, Lúaloch closes first one eye, and then when the sound of the intruder climbing down the tree dissipates into silence, he closes the other and drifts peacefully back to sleep.
From the bottom of the tree Nudderbudder picks up Buggaboo’s faint scent; it’s like a bear tracking a mangy coyote solely based on the bundles of hair left behind whenever it rubs up against a tree to satiate that terrible itch that just won’t go away. Not that a bear would want to eat a mangey coyote, that is, but you get the idea – the trail is not a clear one, and Nudderbud’ loses it multiple times before he finally stumbles upon the long pile of rocks that leads to the rocky shore opposite Dino Island. Buggaboo’s scent is potent here, very pungent indeed, but rather than slipping into the cracks and crawling through the chasm held within, Nudderbudder climbs on top of the pile and scampers all the way to the end where the rocks begin to fall into the water below. He stands on his back legs and sniffs the air with virile; it is here where the trail goes cold, but Nudderbudder can see what transpired well enough anyway – Buggaboo, the confident bugger he is, took up a home in the owl’s den. The owl sniffed him out, or perhaps the banshee heard his breathing, or mayhap it sensed him on a metaphysical level; regardless, the owl chased when the flying squirrel fled, and the only reason ‘Boo lived is because he ducked into this long rock pile. When he reached the end, he must have jumped and tried to glide to the other side.
‘Buggaboo, you’re a flying squirrel but you cannot fly, surely you must know that… surely you’re not crazy enough to attempt to glide across the Reservoir.’
Ah, but surely he is, and Nudderbudder knows it all too well. One of two fates took his friend, then – either Buggaboo made it across the Reservoir and he’s sleeping soundly out in The Crater, or… well… he’s sleeping soundly somewhere else. Somewhere else entirely.
The ground squirrel closes his eyes and squeaks out a tiny sigh, lowering his head and taking his right paw in his left.
Then, he thinks to himself, ‘Buggaboo, you best have survived,’ and leaps off the rocks, landing in the lake with a small splash, not quite as small as the flying squirrel’s splash, not quite small enough to evade the perception of Leonidas, but small enough for a little landwalker who should never attempt to breathe the lake. He’s good in the water, good enough to know he won’t drown, but Nudderbudder is the little swimmer in this very big lake, a lake occupied by ‘breathers more than happy to fill their belly with whatever may break the surface.
Nudderbudder is halfway to Dino Island when he feels a massive fin brush against his soaked tail. ‘No,’ he thinks to himself, swallowing a gulp of murk when he tries to gasp. ‘No, please Mother Monksville, do not ‘munk’ me, I have so much left to give!’
Changing his course to land him on the bent shoreline between the two islands, Nudderbudder begins to whip his tail back and forth like he’s seen the surfaceswimmers do so many times before, and this helps his case, this actually speeds him up and propels him closer and closer to his destination. In the distance he hears a soft but rhythmic splashing, like tree branches hitting the water, but he can’t pay any mind to that now! There’s something under the lake, something chasing him, something born from the murky depths, something that shies away from the shinelight out of not only choice but preference, something evil… there’s… something… good Mother, there’s something waiting for him on the shoreline. Something huge, something black like the starpool, something that’s just hungry enough to consume one more soaking wet ground squirrel before he returns to his cave to rest his head again.
On the bent shoreline between the two islands, Merksus the black bear sits on his back legs, mouth drooped open and tongue dangling, waiting for his second meal to deliver itself to him.
A booming kee-aww explodes from the sky above Nudderbudder. He cranes his head up and sees a kind of plumage no red hawk could dream of bearing on its belly, a white plumage flecked with black specks from which brown eagle’s wings spread. The plumage of an avian fishcatcher, of the one true Sea Hawk.
‘Buggaboo… you ‘munked me, Bugga’, you… well, I suppose I’ll be seeing you again soon, old friend. Yes, very soon indeed.’
But how soon? Nudderbudder does not know. Can not know, for he is a mere mortal, a landwalker in a Universe where land, sea, and air make up a fraction of what there is to see and where there is to go, a ground squirrel in a valley flooded by the mad dance of the giant tribe, a lost soul well on his way to The Void. But Nudderbudder keeps on paddling ahead, he swims and swims and swims, never relenting, never giving up, let’s see that cursed bear try to catch him, he’ll hop on the shore and dash up a tree and then hop from branch to branch until he finally reaches The Crater, The Wonderful Crater, the homeland of his family before they were all torn down in a fury of feathers and clumps of snowflakes – Nudderbudder dodged certain death that day, he made a bargain, cheated his own demise and escaped with his life but death always comes to collect; all things have an end and the long curtain must always be drawn, but still Nudderbudder swims, still he tries, still he gives this life his all because the ground squirrel doesn’t know where he was before he was born, he doesn’t know where he’ll go after he dies, all he knows is he lives forever in this moment, in the here and now, this moment is all he’s ever known and for it he will fight tooth and claw, he will fight for The Crater, he will fight for Buggaboo, Nudderbudder will fight for his l–
A Meeting of Three Kings
Lord Hilaetos circles high below the clouds, meaning to take the squirrel for himself, but then he shrieks in hungry despair and flies away, signifying this most monumental of events, a meeting of three kings. The first of the last great battles to be fought in the waters of Monksville has begun.
Merksus watches the ground squirrel disappear under the water, leaving nothing but bubbles in its place. His eyes grow wider than the great shine and he’s suddenly up on all fours, his mouth now a’dangle for an entirely different reason than it was as he watched the ground squirrel swim. A mighty guttural roar escapes the black bear’s maw, a roar loud enough to throw the waters of Monksville into a churn, a churn which rocks The Giant’s boat to the point that he must stop his rowing and grasp tightly to the sides in order to keep from falling overboard.
The bear roars again, then again, then one more time, and then he leaps into the drink and disappears beneath the surface of the water between the two islands. That damned snaggletooth muskellunge will not take his meal, the black king of the landwalkers will not allow it. Not today, not ever again.
Leonidas, sensing the vibrations from the bear’s heavy splash, immediately faces surfacewards from the Lower Flow of the Wanaque Riverbed. He sees Merksus struggling to gain his bearings, but then they lock eyes and their gaze holds them both steadily in place, the black bear floating high and silhouetted by the great shine, the muskellunge floating low and hidden amongst the dark, murky depths. The Earth then resumes spinning and Merksus snaps out of his trance.
Swinging paw after paw through the cool water, the black bear swiftly advances towards the stalled muskellunge. Leonidas only has one option – fleeing to his home in Muskellunge Cove would be foolish, would be asking for a sudden death in the middle of the night. No, he must take to the hidey hole and he must take to it quickly, before the swimming bear gets any closer.
Deep in the water between the two islands sits a massive boulder with edges smoother than any other rock. For a long many cycles this smooth rock was unblemished, a perfect dome, some may say, but late in the spring, something happened. Some say two beings inhabited The Dome, some even gave them names, but only one thing is for certain: something happened to them, something which caused a hole to be blown in The Dome’s outer shell, allowing the Reservoir to flood in. The hole is blocked by two large black masses, but they are not stuck to the ceiling of this strange structure; quite the contrary, actually, as Leonidas has hidden here many times before. With the black bear closing in, the muskellunge wedges his nose into the small gap between the two masses and begins to flail, much like he saw his father do on that fateful day Leonidas was crowned as the child king of Monksville. The masses drift slightly apart, making a gap just wide enough for the muskellunge to swim through, and swim through he does. Leonidas has never been able stay inside The Dome for long – the more of this blackened, stagnant water he breathes, the more intense the burn in his gills becomes – but he won’t be hiding down here forever. Merksus is a landwalker through and through, he must resurface eventually, and when he inevitably does, Leonidas will make his swift escape back to his cove.
So too does Merksus know he must resurface, and soon at that, for his lungs now burn in an entirely different fashion than the gills of the muskellunge, but he’s swam all the way down here, he must at least try. The water is murky, dense, cloudy, impossible to properly see through, but he can see well enough. He knows as he approaches The Broken Dome that the muskellunge disappeared inside, he knows when he’s found the hole blown into the thick glass by a bullet which shall never be made in a future which shall not come to pass, and above all else, he knows he has enough strength left in him to widen that jagged hole. It won’t be wide enough for him to slip through now, but the surface is not that far up. He can breech, fill his lungs, and return to finish the job with ease, and so he will, but first he must show the muskellunge the king landwalker is not to be trifled with.
Bellowing a roar into the murky depths, a roar powerful enough to bring a wild sway to the trees protruding from both The Sticks and South Cove, Merksus draws back and clobbers the cracked outer shell of The Dome with his right paw, decorating it with a spiderweb and raining glass down on the head of the mighty muskellunge with its belly so full of the landwalking squirrel.
The single strike proved enough to widen the gap far past what Merksus needed, but I would be lying if I were to say he did not expect that. Not many know the true strength of a starved, enraged black bear, but Merksus knows it well, for he is the one to doll out his particular brand of clawed punishment. What Merksus doesn’t expect, however, is the black mass which floats up towards the surface, locking its eyes, its dreadful, rotted, dead eyes with him as it floats cold from what was once its aquatic mausoleum; nor does he expect the putrid miasma that spews from the gash in the second dead mass’s side as it catches a ragged shard of glass – a shard broken in the shape of a crescent moon – on its way to the surface, taking the Reservoir’s healthy green murk and flushing it deep with a brownish black spew, a spew which reeks of foulest death even underneath the water.
In a disgusted and terrified fury of movement, Merksus scrambles for Mother Monksville’s surface. Leonidas, wasting no time, flees the shattered Dome and jets his way to the Wanaque Riverbed to regroup and flush the rancid water from his burning, stinging gills.
The Big Swimmer
“In all my days floating on the Monksville Reservoir, I thought I’d seen it all,” says The Giant from his boat as he watches the back end of the chaos unfold. “I always knew my muskellunge was big, but that? That right there is the big swimmer if ever there was one.”
He watches the black bear maul the water as it frantically swims to the shoreline, leaving a massive trail of bubbles in its wake. The waves soon hit his boat and set it rocking again, but this time The Giant does not close his eyes. He can’t, he’s utterly unable, for he now sees what the bear has seen: two deaded black masses, about the size of giants, float up to the surface and linger there half-submerged.
“They surely can’t be breathing, whoever they are,” The Giant mutters as he takes the oars in his hands. Once the bear climbs back onto the shore and lumbers off into the forest, The Giant paddles almost leisurely over to the two floaters. When the smell hits his nose his entire face crinkles, but still he presses on. A terrible, ominous feeling wraps his gut in the very wire fishing line which removed his right hand last winter, and it only tightens as he gets closer and closer to the cadavers. Finally he pulls up and drops the oars to wretch over the side of his boat, but he does not lose last night’s supper. The Giant is strong, not impervious but strong nonetheless, and it only takes a moment for him to steel himself.
He was right about one thing – the masses are the size of giants, the bodies the same, too: two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, except their skin is black, even blacker than the bear’s coat, blacker than the starpool on those rare eerie nights where the clouds are so dense they block out even the moon’s ghostly glow. Their fingers and toes are webbed with a thin white membrane, as are the gaps between their arms and their torsos, as are the gaps between their legs. They float face-down and The Giant feels no urge to flip them over, not that it would make any difference. The faces of the monks were shrouded the day his tribe met them in this valley, and though he will never know what they looked like, somehow he knows these two bodies wrapped loosely in their dark cloaks are the empty husks those foreign giants left behind.
The smell of putrid death soon becomes too much to bear. The Giant grips his oars and splashes them in the water, noticing how off the color is, feeling that wire tighten evermore around his guts, feeling the dread oozing within him.
The Giant paddles fast and hard, he puts as much distance between the corpses and himself as possible before he can contain himself no longer. Floating above the western fork of the long-drowned Wanaque River, The Giant leans over the edge of his boat and hurls with a force into the water, the murky green water, the water that’s yet to be soiled by whatever sick poison seeps from the veins of those things which floated cold from The Dome.
The Giant falls back and wipes the watery vomit from his lips. He takes a deep breath, and then another, holding his eyes tightly shut against the fetid reality around him. The waters will be soiled, ruined forever; the rot will be taken by the current of the riverbed and cascaded down the waterfall to the Wanaque Reservoir, it will seep into the soil and travel far and wide until the entire planet succumbs to the toxins. All the giants, whether of the Monks tribe or the Tribe of the Forge, all the giants drink from this Reservoir, rear crops from this soil; their livelihood is ruined. They’ll have to move again, they’ll have to pack up the villages… and all their many structures. They’ll have to build an entire fleet of carriages, tame another herd of whitetails. They’ll have to close the mines and dig the forges out of the ground, and…
“We can’t leave anymore, it’s too late. Our roots are ingrained in Monksville’s soil. The endtimes have found us, there’s no way to escape.”
The Giant lays on the floor of his boat for a good short while there, toying with his own mind, fooling himself into believing there may be another way. The shamans claimed the flying squirrel was a sign from the Great Spirit of good things to come… they’ll soon learn how wrong they were. The Giant must return to them, he must warn his tribesfolk, he must… he must prevent the inevitable, he must fight the will of the Great Spirit. He must sprout wings and fly, or better yet, sprout gills and take to the Wanaque like The Beast, the demon he just had to let loose from its box. No, there is only one thing The Giant must do now, one thing he’s ever had to do.
The Giant must catch his muskellunge, before it’s forever too late.
Gripping his oars with a desperate determination, The Giant spins his watercraft around and takes the longpole in his right hand. He casts the line, lured with the mighty spoonplug, the only one of its kind, and drops the hooked thing into the water above the riverbed. Then, once the pole is securely fastened to the mount at the tail of his boat, The Giant takes the oars and begins to paddle. He paddles as though he’s never paddled before, outpacing death, racing against time, and dragging the spoonplug behind him.
The Last Muskellunge
Far below the surface of Mother Monksville, Leonidas floats petrified as he watches the sick dark miasma of death and ruin spread through the water like rage through the mind of a king bested by forces he cannot understand. Then, a flashyshiny flies past his eyes and Leonidas immediately forgets about whatever it was that so disturbed him a moment ago. He is the king of Monksville, the last muskellunge, and he will bring an end to that blasphemous pretty object.
The chase is intense and lasts until both parties have moved deep into Muskellunge Cove. The Giant paddles hard, swift, and true, but no landwalker can possibly hope to match the speed of a swimming muskellunge. Leonidas grasps the spoonplug in his toothy maw and the hooks sink in deep – all at once he remembers his father Anaxandridas, the mad king of Monksville, the first king of Monksville, and that awful dread of repeating a terrible cycle sinks its teeth into Leo’s scaly hide.
Though The Giant does not hold the longpole, he senses when his lure has been taken. He drops the oars and lunges forward, gripping the pole with his left hand, struggling to remove it from the boat’s mount so he can secure it in the one perched on his right wrist and give this muskellunge the fight it deserves. The handle of the pole slips through his looped fingers and The Giant closes his left hand over the handle of the reel. Suddenly he’s up on two legs; the boat is rocking, the waves are churning, his feet are soaking wet, but he does not relent, and neither does Leonidas, the hooks sink in deeper and deeper, the barbs shredding flesh and the point digging into his jaws, but he does not feel it, does not acknowledge the pain, this giant killed his father and so Leonidas must return the favor, he’ll pull the landwalking monster into the water and drown him, he’ll close his maw around the hairless thing’s neck and skewer him with his own hooks, he’ll bring a fitting end to this damned fishcatching giant even if it kills him. For Anaxandridas, Leonidas gives everything he has.
But it just isn’t enough.
The Giant reels hard and true, the longpole arcs like lightning, it bends but does not break; finally, after cycles upon cycles of traversing these waters and bringing nothing back to show for it, the force opposing his pole gives out, the muskellunge bursts forth from the water’s surface in a mad thrash, and the great shine stares down at the denizens in awe. The Giant catches Leonidas in both arms and nearly buckles at the knees, but despite the muskellunge’s flailing about, The Giant holds his ground.
Leonidas stops flailing as his gills begin to dry, and soon his mouth is gaping, gasping for water. The Giant falls back and lands on his seat, still holding the longpole in his closed metal hand, and rests the muskellunge on his lap. For a moment he can only stare at it – the lakebreathing giant is massive, as long as a landwalking giant is tall and heavier than a small giant four cycles after receiving a name, but though he savors this moment, he knows it will not last. It cannot last, in fact, for he’s already brought an untimely death to one mighty muskellunge, and one muskellunge slain is two too many. Working with deft hands and a concentration to peer into the mind of another being, The Giant reaches into the king of Monksville’s mouth and carefully, so, so carefully, removes the black hooks from the lakebreathing beast’s fragile, toothy maw. The work is not easy but it’s swiftly complete, and the spoonplug may come out dripping with the muskellunge’s blood, but what matters is that it comes out at all.
The Giant reaches and removes the longpole from his right hand, tossing it to the floor of his boat. Then, he takes one last look at the biggest catch of his life, the beautiful lone muskellunge, its scaly hide a faded emerald green and painted from head to tail with wavy psychedelic stripes which seem to dance all on their own like leafy trees in the wind – legends tell of how muskellunges grow their stripes, one for every lakebreather they slay, but legends tell of all sorts of things, don’t they? – its fins a burning orange, its mouth lined with teeth as long as The Giant’s fingers are wide. If there was ever a moment that should last forever, this moment would be the one, this moment shared between the victorious fishcatcher and the bested king of Monksville, floating on the lake in the final days before all hell broke loose and the long curtain began to draw across the valley shaped like a crescent moon. But moments cannot last forever and so The Giant does what he must do: bends over, gives Leonidas a kiss on the crown, on the very spot where his oar struck the fish’s father all those cycles ago, and tosses the muskellunge overboard.
Leonidas floats there, just below the surface of the water, seeming lifeless as a piece of driftwood, and for a half of a moment The Giant fears the worst, but then the king muskellunge’s tailfin twitches, then his dorsal does the same, and then he’s gone, vanished into the murky green depths that will all too soon spoil a rotten, virulent black.
The Giant lays back in his soaked boat, draws a deep breath, then whoops at the top of his lungs. The whoop carries across the water and is caught by all the many giants in the land, all the giants who once belonged to the Monks Tribe, the stewards of this glorious lake, of the greatest Reservoir in the world, and in that moment, a certain harmony falls over the fabled valley shaped like a crescent moon. A harmony to be remembered by all until there are none of us left to remember it.
Yarnspinner slowly opens his puffy, swollen eyes and meets the gaze of a small giant, the only one to make it to the end of his tale.
“Hai, small giant, and thank you for hearing my final story. Thank you so, so very much.”
The small giant manages a slight smile, the strain evident on his face.
“Thank… you… Yarnspinn… fishcatch… fish…”
The small giant slumps over backwards, his head hitting the ground with a thump.
Yarnspinner stands up from his lotus position and walks slowly beside the small giant. The boy’s skin is coated in awful black splotches, dotted with bleeding lesions, and though his breath has stopped, his limbs still tremble as if bolts of lightning spewed from his fingertips. Yarnspinner reaches his hand down, his own splotched hand, and brushes his fingers over the boy’s eyelids, sending him off to the great transition. With his final story told and the small giants seen off, there’s only two things left for Yarnspinner to do, and one must be done before the other.
Hanging above his bedside window is a curtain, a long curtain which extends to the dusty floor of his cabin, a curtain made of deerhide and mended tight with metal fishing wire. Yarnspinner draws the long curtain across the window and blocks out the last beam of light, forever sealing this house of the dead in the darkness which has so consumed his village, the darkness which has consumed the many lives of all who once lived ‘round the two Reservoirs. Then, he walks out the door and closes it shut behind him.
The black sickness came quickly and did its work without mercy. The old tribesfolk – the shamans, the wranglers, the expert fishcatchers and bowhunters – were the first to go. For them it started with a cough, then the black splotches appeared in their mouths, took their tongues, and then traveled to the rest of their bodies. And then, they went to sleep. For the young it was different… the young didn’t seem to be affected at first. No cough, no fever, not even as much as a sniffle; one day, one terrible day long after many of the giants had already perished, they’d woken up to find their skin spotted like the chest of an osprey. Before that day was done the lesions began to open, and eventually they’d go to sleep. Like it was nothing, like it was some big joke played by the deceitful Great Spirit. Well it’s a terrible joke, a joke most unfunny. A joke Yarnspinner is very happy he’ll not live to tell.
As for Yarnspinner, the lone storyteller in all the keep of the crescent moon valley – perhaps the most valuable member of the villages, but perhaps the most useless – he fought the sickness the longest. He was the first to see it coming and he did warn his tribesfolk, he even warned the folken of the Tribe of the Forge, but nobody cared to listen. After all, who would believe prophecies of doom told by the lips of the fishcatching teller of tall tales, the odd giant who cried muskellunge? Well they’re all dead now, they’ve all passed through, the long curtain was drawn upon all of them and Yarnspinner is the last one left, the one cursed to see the small giants perish, the one blessed to calm the nerves of the last survivors with the tallest tale he’s ever told, to help them forget the world as it crumbled around them; the one damned to leave his beloved Fishing Village behind for the final time. The sad giant destined to draw the long curtain. The last giant, the one to go it alone.
Yarnspinner leaves the Fishing Village without looking back and walks along the road which winds up the hill the tribes once called treacherous. At the summit of this hill lies another hill, a foothill, and at the summit of this low foothill Yarnspinner stares out across his mighty Monksville Reservoir, a booming ecosystem turned black and putrid by the blood of two foreign giants who once inhabited The Dome. Dead lakebreathers float alongside dead wingflappers, and though he has not seen sign of them, he knows the landwalkers have all perished too. In the back of his mind he hopes to see that mountain lion again, the one who ambushed them on the first journey up, the one who haunts his dreams with its glowing yellow-green eyes, but he knows he will not. This sickness is of a different kind, a terrible, merciless kind, a kind without eyes or the sense to use them even if it had them, a kind that doesn’t care if you breathe lake, flap wing, or even walk on the land, an evil black sickness which deals death ‘til there is no death left to deal. Yarnspinner takes one long, final look at the most beautiful lake in the world, then continues his slow walk to his special private boat launch. There’s only one thing left for Yarnspinner to do now, and it’s waiting for him at the water’s edge.
Mustering far more strength than he thought remained within his ill-stricken splotched husk of a body, Yarnspinner launches his boat and hops in without wetting his feet. He grips the oars, one in his hand of flesh, one in his hand of metal, and rows across the Southern Expanse. He continues to row until he enters Muskellunge Cove, the cove he named after the greatest memory of his life, and it is here where he drops the oars over the side of the boat. Next he drops his jiggin’ rig, his spiral auger, his last remaining tip-up, and then, with reverence, he sends his longpole off to float forever in the black lagoon.
Now, Yarnspinner can do that last thing, the only thing he’s left to do.
Sitting in his boat with him is a large anchor, an anchor he crafted for himself. Yarnspinner is not a metalworker, he’s certainly no Black Smith, but he is a crafty giant nonetheless; before gathering the small giants who still took breath into his cabin to spin for them his final yarn, Yarnspinner collected each and every lure he could find in Lure Cove, then from both of the villages, the villages so needlessly divided right up until the bitter, black end. Using his fishing line, his special metal wire, he bound all the lures together into a large mass, a lump of heavy metal fit to sink an entire island. Dangling from the bottom of this mass of lures is Yarnspinner’s prized possession, the spoonplug, and from the head of the spoonplug runs a simple rope, a yarn woven of grasses and whitetail sinew. With deft hands and a concentration to hold back a torrent of tears, Yarnspinner ties the rope around his neck and tightens the noose with a knot which shall never come undone.
Taking his anchor in his hands, the fishcatcher stands and gazes out across his Muskellunge Cove one final time, and finally the tears are allowed to flow. The last landwalker utters his final words, then tosses the anchor overboard.
“Hai, Mother Monksville.”