An Heroic Tale in an Enormous Tomb

by Tim W. Burke
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I see your smiles in the dark; it warms me to know I am so welcome. My time among you is short, so I must begin the prelude.

We had been part of a great world named Persepis. A world ruled by empires of enlightened races, driven by powerful magic, and home to dragons and other fantastic creatures. But one day, there appeared a pair of lips stretching to the horizons. The lips opened, engulfed Persepis in its dark mouth, then spewed us out like a mouthful of beer foam. Persepis was transformed into bubbles the size of cities or larger, floating in a deep blue firmament, around and over and sometimes through each other.

Which god did this? Why? Perhaps priests knew these things, but at the time of the Spew, no priest was in the The Necropolis, where we dwelled. It was the burial city for an empire, a city teeming with tribes of the undead and the cursed of our world.

After the Spew, The Necropolis resided within a bubble, its surface eight thousand paces around. Its sky was domed by some intangible force, unnerving to reach easily past the edge or out the exposed tunnels, soon one among so many frustrations. We inhabitants warred and fed upon each other. Hid underground from the bright white sun, for the bubble spun too quick for even the briefest night. Sometimes we would look up from our burrows into our gray stink of sky and see other bubbles pass near: sparkling globules of ocean, spheres of lush forest, glittering baubles of city.

At a time Crasts marked as “some time ago”, something blotted out that bright white fist. All was blissful, restful shadow. The cursed and undead crawled from their tunnels; the pitiless and spectral Maldandees, we bestial Crasts, and the corpse-eating Gestors. All reveled and fought among the broken tombs.

Until the other bubble pressed down and we were engulfed.

The Necropolis had slipped inside that other bubble. The Necropolis flowed through this other mass, this other land we realized, for rock parted around us as if liquid, yet remained hard to the touch. Gestors, Maldandees and Crasts stayed in their catacombs and waited.

Weeks? Months? We were all immortal, and had not cared about tracking time before. Now that we could not, time became an endless dark hunger. All one could do was look out a burrow or mausoleum door, and see black bedrock sliding by.

Which is what I was doing when the call came.

I had been studying the rock between many sleeps, hoping for some sign of impending release. The grain of the rock had become coarser, with layers of brown now thicker than my arm. Before the Spew, in other lands, canyon walls had thick layers like this. Was this a sign for hope?

Sweeping my tail and my cloak behind me, I pushed back the brim of my felt hat, and began to sing. My voice was now that of a rat, and the ballad strained and grated. Mockery echoed down the tunnel from the other Crasts.

The other Crasts had long since eaten my books and burned my lute for heat. The rat who would still be a man, they laughed. My blood squirmed, my Crastness yearning to hide and growl.

I was scraping together the words to an heroic epic when stabbed in my mind:

“Come to your king, Blasted Heath!”

The command jolted like a tunnel collapse. I scrambled. Years ago, in dimly remembered days as a starving bard, the King had bitten me and passed the curse of Crasts. An eternal audience, he had promised. More time to read, I had thought, and write and sing and learn and have adventures! Not so much, as it turned out. Advising the King through his daily problems strained me more and more.

In the tunnel, I pushed past my brethren. They glared or shrank back or sneered, their faces those of rats, bats, dogs. I sneered back; if any of them needed the King’s good graces or an idea on how to crack a stubborn casket, guess who they came to?

His majesty spurred in my head, “Come, damn fop! Your King is waiting, Blasted Heath!”

Burrow became tunnel became catacomb, then opened to the King’s Chamber.

When first I knew him, the King was regal. But the fathomless dark had strained him, caused him to burn and eat and fear.

In a pile of rags and skulls he sat, twice my height with steel-gray fur and bat’s face, pale skin hanging in flaps from starving. But he would not starve to death: he was Crast and cursed with unnatural life, plus I knew that vanished Crasts sometimes molded his stool. Beside him, a shrew-like runt grinned as if about to feast upon the world.

The King’s pout was like a glutton’s butt, “Blasted Heath, you made me wait!”

I swept off my hat and bowed, “A thousand pardons, your highness. I had been contemplating our circumstance and our resources, as requested.”

“Skitter-skitter with your skittering speech, but where’s the food, eh? Not so good with your advising lately, are you Blasted Heath?”

The shrew giggled.

“Your highness,” I folded my hands, “As I have described many times, there is no food without a break in the rock. I have been waiting for a break in the rock.”

“Oh a break! In the rock! Around us!”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Today I know something that you do not. Today I broke the grain bin. What do you think of that?”

Then he laughed, which meant he did have something useful. The shrew giggled louder. The King did like to prod and poke.

“Oh,” he grinned, “Do not be so distressed. I am just joking. Follow!”

He waved his hand and leaned forward on the pile. I helped him up.

I followed the King, who followed the shrew. All who saw the King sprang back into a hiding place or tunnel, so none truly knew our path. Through tunnels and shafts we crawled, the King’s wriggling making false his seeming to be crippled by weight. We found a crypt picked clean, and finally up flights of stairs inside a cenotaph. Many times I had watched the rock swirl and fall away from this tower’s windows without grinding the building down.

Ahead, the King pointed out the balcony, “Look!”

The striped rock was gone, of course. But I did not expect this sight.

Glowing spheres drifted above in a sapphire-night sky. Around us rose hillsides of grass which grew half-as high as our tower. Leaves shimmered on tall trees. Wind pressed my whiskers and chilled my fur. It smelt rich with black dirt, delicious with flowers and trees. My mouth watered. My Crastness scrabbled inside for food. I held it down, for I would not lose my demeanor and give the King satisfaction.

The King leered and wiped his drool, “Look down. We break from this ripe world slow.”

The cenotaph was emerged complete from the sod, and surrounded by a pitted island of familiar gray muck twenty paces across. The King turned to the shrew.

“How fast do we rise, eh? Tell!”

The shrew peered at the muck, “Two hands lengths since I told you, your highness. See the bone I marked the boundary clever-like?”

Pout drawing into a smile, the King said, “The Maldandees are on the other side of The Necropolis and still trapped underground. The only ones we have to worry about are those sneaky Gestors. Whoever makes friends in this new world first keeps -”

A swept claw, “– all of this. What’s on this land, Heath?”

Thinking past tattered pages and fetid meals and muddy burrows there had been another life.

Rubbing my brow, I remembered snatches of song, “There were forests of Gloriad clans, but their trees were silver. Jungles were…hot. Yes. I remember. Steaming hot with death around every tree. Cool green vales like these were for living Men, but something doesn’t seem right.”

“Scout this land and find food and friends, learn all and come back tomorrow night.”

As a Crast, “making friends” had cunning meaning. One bite on your living, uncorrupted new acquaintance passed the curse along, with the bitten enthralled to the biter. It was an honor to be allowed to have slaves of my own, but –

“By myself?” I stammered, “Couldn’t all the Crasts rush out and make friends with a legion before our bubble pushes –”

“Wrong!” His squeal wrung my brain, “We can’t go just running around! This land may have been part of some nation, all selfish with their ‘laws’ and ‘ownership’ and ‘disease quarantines.’”

“I’ve…I’ve never bitten anyone. How do I get permission from them?”

“Blasted Heath with his arguments! You remember how I persuaded you, don’t you? Tell ‘em how powerful we are! Lay it on thick! You can do that, can’t you bard?”

I never knew with his grin whether his mocking was serious.

He smiled wider, “If there are locals, make them our friends nice and sneaky. Then we’ll get off this turdball and take everything we want. We’ll never go hungry. And this new world will bow to the King.”

The shrew bowed and rubbed his forehead, sticking his ass out at me. The King’s paw slapped friendly upon the shrew’s shoulder, fingers longer than the shrew’s ribs.

As always, the King was obvious. There were few left in his court he could trust with this task, for the King killed any potential rivals. If I succeeded, I made the King a genius again. If I got killed, too bad. The shrew seemed to know this, for he waved good-bye to me with affected sadness, not realizing his mistake in going straight to the King.

For the King said, “Everyone will keep deep in their burrows, ’til I say otherwise. And this one -”

He clapped the shrew and laughed, “He will keep close counsel! So close, as if he was inside me!”

The shrew looked up and his grin slumped. The huge paw slipped up the shoulder and around the thin neck. My own throat seemed to close up. Glee at the shrew’s plight fought with my pity.

“You may,” I interjected, “have a need of another scout. Perhaps this one here –”

“When I need a scout, I should look for one that’s stout or smart. Farewell, Blasted Heath!”

The shrew’s eyes bugged and his lips trembled.

The King leaned over me, “You dawdle.”

I climbed down the outside of the cenotaph and across the muck to the new world. I stumbled and ran my finger through it and breathed deep its tingling life.

Above in the dark, a squeak and a dry snap.

Running up that forested slope was like running though drapes of velvet scented with perfumes and favorite meals. My skin screamed with delight. My stomach roared with hunger. The tall grass was juicy and sweet. A beetle as large my hand was crunchy and tasted like overripe herbs. A grub as long as my forearm wriggled. It was hearty but stringy. My body bloomed from the food.

Was there a time when I would have scorned such fare? The memory wouldn’t come, or I wouldn’t let it.

Full and staggering over the top of the rise, I looked back. The cenotaph was obscured by the enormous trees.

Where to go? Rolling hills suggested…creeks? Find another ravine and follow it down to water. Yes. Any population would be downstream. Finding my way back would be no problem, as the King merely needed to call and I could follow. Revived, I groped through the dark downhill. A sudden slope revealed a ravine.

Was this how epics began? I sang to keep the uncertainty at bay.

Walking under the vast canopy, random thoughts slipped in: those worn rocks mean hard spring rains; thick branches will block the sun; that sawed stump must have taken a brigade of people.

Beyond the stump stood an immense wall of rough stone. It was made of gigantic boulders stabbed endwise into the ground. The rock was slick with dew, but I struggled to the top.

Close-by, a village warmed the night. Nine buildings with solid angles and precisely set windows. Chimneys trickled into the night. Woodsmoke stung my nose.

And the sweetness of squash just ripening.

Just under me, yellow pumpkins still on the vine.

Stomach growling, I scrambled down, leaped the last few feet and landed in the dirt.

The pumpkin was the size of a hut. The leaves could have made tents.

Oh yes. What was that race of giant wizards called? The Gihugeics. This is the land of the Gihugeics. I had always wanted to see the Gihugeics. They were reclusive, simple people revered by the Humans, for the Gihugeics shared their gifts of agriculture. The Gihugeics could direct lightning from their sky. They could quake the earth. They could speak the secret language of fire.

They could crush The Necropolis to a cinder and then go home and eat lunch.

Counting the lit windows in the village, my stomach chilled when I passed fifteen. And the garden stretched far, able to feed dozens of giants. The Necropolis wouldn’t stand a chance.

But what if I could bite one Gihugeic? And that one bit others? I could boss the most dangerous Crasts! Incredibly big, lightning-casting and fire-talking Crasts! I could arrange an ambush of the King! The King wouldn’t stand a chance!

Oooh, careful. Thinking like that gets one eaten. Best to stay with the mission.

Friends were best found in cemeteries. That was where the King had found me.

Walking to the village, I realized how immense the buildings truly were. An exhausting hike showed there were only four roads leading out of the village. The most traveled roads usually had temples, and this one led to a simple edifice of marble. Behind were huge tombs of plain and long, the size of fortresses. Under the second tomb, a tree root had levered the wall and made a snug crevice large enough to push into and wait. Stomach full to cramping, muscles sore, my eyes were heavy.

“Freak!”

Outside was now bright blue sky. From the grit in my eyes, I realized I had fallen asleep.

Other voices, resounding, taunting, “Freak! Freak!”

I was afraid I had been found, as this reminded me of my days among Humans after being bitten.

Creeping out, I kept to the shadows. Two tombs over, a boy ten times my height was surrounded by three others who were even taller. The victim dressed in shabby black clothing. The clothes of the tormentors were bright-colored and well-stitched.

The victim was shoved back and forth. Every punch he threw earned him two in return. His knapsack was torn from him. Finally, they left him sprawled in the dirt.

The boy wept. The King always said, When the victim was at his lowest, that is when to seduce. Was I weeping when the King whispered from the dark? Yes, I believe I was, and I know I was very drunk. Unseen, I crept close to him.

“Poor…poor boy,” I said, “It is terrible how you are treated. I…”

The boy’s sobs boomed like a thunderstorm.

I called, “Poor boy! Hey! It is terrible…”

It was like seducing a cyclone.

The King wanted a friend by nightfall and I still needed a hiding place for all the Crasts that’s defensible with enough escape routes. Getting the Crasts to the hiding place would be struggle enough! Couldn’t I just bite him? My Crastness growled, wanting to bite something.

“Hey!” I tramped up to his pantcuff.

I realized what would get his attention.

I raised his pant cuff and went to bite his ankle. There was a flash.

I opened my eyes to shadow. The boy’s face loomed over me. I shrieked.

He said, “That bug repellant charm should have killed you!”

“Mercy!” I cried, “Great king! Have mercy!”

“I haven’t seen a man like you before! Your face is like a rat! And you have fur and a tail!”

“Yes, great king! I have those!”

“You tried to bite me!”

“Yes, great king! I…I am senseless from hunger! I do so profoundly apologize!”

“My mother makes me wear repellant charms for bug bites. You should be well, though.”

He produced a large jar from his bag. Turning to run, a huge hand swept me back and sliding inside. He secured the top with a thick bung drilled with a thin hole. Into his bag I went.

After much jostling, he took my jar back out and shook me into a cage. The cage was on a table in a disused room with rough stone walls. Sunlight peeked through cracks in boarded up windows.

He gazed at me, jaw slack with puzzlement. His eyes were still red from crying.

I bowed, and cursed silently that my hat was gone, “My name is Heath. How may I address you, great king?”

He looked to the floor, “I’m no king. My name’s Brath.”

“Um…poor boy! It is terrible how they treat you!”

His cheeks darkened, “You saw?”

“Yes. They do not see your strength and your worth. You’re much smarter than them.”

“Yes! Bunch of jerks!” he snuffled, “I’m smarter than all of them!”

“Your teachers praise you.”

“My teachers say I don’t apply myself. But they’re so boring.”

I tried again, “You are an artist.”

“Yes! I haven’t played my lute in a while. I draw sometimes. Look.”

He pulled a large parchment from under the table. A dark angular boy with too many fingers and gory fangs swung an axe, shearing the jagged necks of screaming people.

The blood drained from my face. But I nodded quickly, “Genius! Yes! Genius!”

He blushed further and put the picture away.

“Your parents do not understand you.”

“They keep telling me to find interests and make friends,” he sneered, “Sure! I’ll get right on that!”

I almost chuckled. Sometimes adults forget how tough it is to be young.

Grasping the bars, I whispered, “No one sees that you were meant for greatness. That is why I am here. I have the most precious gift to give you. Because in all the universe, only you are worthy.”

“What are you?” he stammered.

I prompted myself, Use his name!

“Brath, I could give you eternal life. And Brath, you could rule this world.”

The boy stared rapt. I did not dare blink.

He whispered, “What, like a Maldandee?”

The question caught me off-guard, “No!”

He shook his head and ran out, “I’ve gotta go! I’ve gotta do some research!”

“Wait!”

The door slammed behind him, which drowned out my stamp and curse.

The top edge of the door cast a sliver of sunbeam across the wall to my left. The cage was made to hold animals. I twisted my cloak, threw it across the lever on the front of the door, and flipped the latch open.

A quick search around the hovel found dusty mallets and awls, so this hovel had once been a woodworking shop. The oil lamps had recent lampblack, so the boy spent a lot of time here. A huge, dusty lute was out of tune. And drawing after drawing showed a dark ill-rendered boy stabbing, slashing and burning.

A tingle to my brain, “Blasted Heath! How is your progress?”

“My King, I have a friend in mind. But this world is very dangerous. None should come out of The Necropolis.”

His umbrage was only a sting, but was still sharp, “The Necropolis swells out of the valley! We are almost as tall as the trees! If this world is dangerous, then get us help! Night’s coming! The Gestors and Maldandees will be out, and we’ll lose our advantage!”

“This friend has hiding places we can use. He believes I am his prisoner, but he is protected by magic and -”

“Do your job, fop!”

And he was gone. I climbed to a window sill and looked out at the vines.

When the King takes over this land, the gardens wouldn’t last two weeks. He would arrange to kill everyone who was a threat, which was anyone smarter than him. Which, here, was everyone.

That is, have me arrange the deaths. Me and this soul-wracked kid.

Then would come the next bubble.

The boy didn’t come back until the sunbeam was orange. At the sound of stumbling, I locked myself in the cage.

He lit an oil lamp and rummaged in his knapsack, “I sneaked into the faculty library. I did some reading. You are a Crast.”

I bowed, “Few would have discerned that so quickly.”

“So you’re not a Maldandee,” he frowned.

“No.”

“It’s good you’re being honest. I found this in the cemetery.”

And he shook a jar into the cage. Out tumbled a bundle of gray rags, out of which tumbled a gray-fleshed, snub-snouted Gestor. She was clothed in a moldy, tattered dress and a necklace of corpse scraps. She cringed behind the water pan.

“Is this a Maldandee?”

“No,” I said, “That is a Gestor. You didn’t happen…to see any others, did you?”

“No. This little guy was so busy biting stuff she didn’t even see me coming. I don’t think she’s smart enough to hide.”

“They get desperate when they are hungry.”

“‘Desp-er-ate when they are hungry.’”

The Gestor repeated this with the same inflections, which got under my skin.

The kid shook the cage, “She talks?”

“Somewhat,” I snorted.

Brath asked her, “What’s your name?”

She stood and declared, “I am Champion Gestor. Smartest and strongest.”

Champion sniffed, then bit the water dish with a clank.

Nonplussed, the boy looked to me, “According to what I read, Heath, you can give me immortality. But you have to get my permission to curse me first with a bite. Then I have to curse everyone else to rule their souls.”

“Yes, Brath! You become the sire of those you bite, Brath,” I splayed my fingers for dramatic affect, “Brath, you can rule this world.”

The Gestor said, “I don’t need creepy-brain-talk- sire. Gestors make a commune. Cooperate when they feel like. Join our commune, be own boss.”

It took me a second to realize, but the Gestor was making a pitch!

Brath’s frown deepened, “Why can’t I be a Maldandee?”

Champion puffed, “Maldandee not on menu!”

“Maldandees are over-rated,” I flicked my hand dismissively.

The boy pouted, “They fly, Heath. They can only be killed by fire. They hypnotize people.”

“You’re Gihugeic! You can control fire and lightning!”

“No, I have to learn that!”

I thought, So you have to study! What’s with this kid?

But I said, “Er-r…I can go out in the sun and sneak well in the dark! Maldandees can’t! Gestors have to wrap themselves or they get burnt!”

A stubbly gray chin jutted and she kicked her wraps. I had Champ there.

“And my diet,” I pressed on, “has some variety! I can eat anything! Kid, how would you like to want to eat only rotting flesh day-in-day-out for eternity. Any food available, you would still eat rotting corpses! Ew-w-w, am I right?”

Champ became smug, “I learn from what I eat.”

“What?” said the boy.

I blanched at my mistake, “Nothing.” This was the Gestor’s main selling point.

She stepped to the bars, “I eat piece of body, I learn everything the body ever knew . Everything that ever happened to it. Just for little time. For sake of demo-stra-shun.”

Sniffing at the dozens of fleshy bits on her necklace, she muttered, “This one? No. Holy warrior, no. Professor, no. Dentist? Ah!” Seizing a tattered finger bone, she pulled off a piece and swallowed. She belched.

A knowing smile played across her lips. Her fingers snapped a slow rhythm.

A different voice, rich in tone and charming, came from Champion, “It’s great that Champion has given me this opportunity to sing for you guys today. I’ve got a little song and it goes something like this:”

Standing straight, she opened her mouth and crooned.

“The stars are effervescing like a sparkling wine

My heart is enflamed with dreams that you will be mine

Your lips are meant to kiss. You are meant to be adored.

You are divine. You are bliss. Darling you are -”

Champ slumped. Her silver eyes dimmed, “-life’s re-e-ward. Effect is tempo-rar-ee. More you eat, more you remember, longer it lasts.”

The kid boggled, “So if I dig up a lutist, and eat a piece before a gig, I will thra-a-sh!”

“You will thra-a-ash. Know everything lutist ever knew. Eat whole hand, thrash lots longer.”

I cringed, but covered it by stroking my nose in feigned indifference.

“Or,” says the kid, delighted, “I’ll dig up some smooth dude and eat a tiny hangnail during a date, and I’ll –”

“That singing wasn’t so great,” I pointed out, “I can sing better. I used to. And I can teach you the lute! And help you woo!”

“You?” Brath laughed.

“I used to woo!”

“I think…I need to do some more reading.”

I went for broke, “Kid, it’s an invasion. I’ve got hundreds behind me, and she’s got hundreds at least. And the Maldandees.”

Brath looked behind him, “Yeah! Yeah, that’d serve them all right.”

“What do you mean?”

“The kids in my school. This whole town. All of them turned into creatures of darkness. It would serve them right.”

Harsh.

“Yes,” I let that one pass, “but if you allow me to bite you, soon, then you would rule over all of them.”

“But you’d still be my sire and rule me.”

I shrugged, “I’m easy-going.”

“What’s your sire like?”

“Oh, the King!”

“A King! So you hold a court of gloom and arcane dark secrets!”

Oh yes. This all sounded very familiar.

“You want to know secrets?” the Gestor crowed, “The dead know everything! Eat one and see!”

The boy nodded, “Actually, Champ’s way saves time, you know? Imagine eating a piece of the Overmage!”

Champ’s stomach growled.

I whispered to the kid, “Brath, you’ve got it all. Why’d you want to become a Gestor?”

“Simpler than being a Crast. Not much difference, either.”

The insult shocked me. So what if Champ and I are both cursed and lived in the same festering land? Champ surrendered herself to the dead. Sure I had to obey the King, but it could always be worse. If I still had my hat, maybe Brath would see that.

This did not seem a grand epic anymore. The King or the Gestors or the Maldandees would destroy this beautiful, marvelous land. This kid was about to lead mobs of the undead to destroy his village, maybe his race.

Then in my head, “Blasted Heath! I demand results!”

The King! I had to keep him in The Necropolis.

I covered my eyes and cried, “My King! My King is with me! Oh my King! I am undone! The locals have caught me! Oh they are terrifying!”

I stumbled into Champion, “Don’t threaten me!”

“Wha?”

The King rang in my skull, “Blasted Heath, you lazy bastard! It is nearing nightfall! The tunnels fill with the smell of trees! All are insane with hunger!”

My skull constricted under his wrath.

“My King!” I managed, “My King is with me in my head and I will never betray him! No matter what horrible personage you may frighten me with! Not with my King in my head!”

Champion grunted, “Damn-creepy-sire-think.”

I heard a gristly swallow. Felt a rancid belch blow into my face.

A woman’s voice in my ear, hard and cold like a swordblade, “What have we here? A spy, yes? Hello ratty. Tell us all. You have nothing to fear.”

I said, “Never!”

Champ slapped my face and a white flash burst behind my closed eyes. I felt the King squirm in dismay.

Who the hell else did Champ have on that necklace?

The cold voice demanded, “Describe the location of your base now! Or else it is time for education. And our large friend will be your instructor, yes. Look, you vermin! Look upon him!”

The hands were pulled from my eyes and my head forced to look at Brath. He peered over us, slack-jawed .

The King screeched. My head was blissfully empty.

I panted and held my temples. Champ turned my head. Her gray eyes glittered with sly amusement.

Said she, still chilling, “The King is gone, yes?”

“Y-yes.”

“That was delightful. Your deception was clever. Very clever.”

“Thanks, Champ. You picked up on it quick.”

She curtseyed , “A bit of Inquisitor goes a long way. But why, Heath? Why…de-se-e-eve? How come you fool your king?”

“I have a plan, Champion.”

The sliver of red sunlight had almost faded. Night was almost here.

“Brath,” I took a breath, “you win. I’ll introduce you to the Maldandees!”

“What you say?!” gasped Champ.

The boy whooped, “Would you? Thanks! Where are they?”

“But you have to set some fires. A trail of them. So they can…follow them to the village. The Maldandees will give you a big reward for that.”

“They will teach me the secrets of arcane darkness and -”

“Yes, the damn secrets of darkness. We dawdle. Out you go. Get the lamp –”

A jug of lamp oil sloshed in his hand.

“We are going to need more. Go get more.”

He bolted out the door, leaving it open.

Champ wailed, “Heath Rat, why you take him to Maldandees?”

I staggered to my feet. Giving my cloak a twist, I used it to unlock the door, “I’m not taking him to Maldandees.”

We climbed out. I ran to the lamp at the end of the table and pushed it over. It spilled on top of a stack of Brath’s drawings.

“Out we go!”

We sprang off the table to floor. Fire spread along the oil and curled the paper.

We ran out the door.

Outside, everything was in deep shadow. I couldn’t see the tombs or the pumpkin field.

Cursing, I looked for a landmark, “I forgot! I don’t know where we are!”

Champ sniffed and pointed, “Cemetery that way!”

“Then pumpkin field that way! Come on!”

We ran to the pumpkin field. Flames danced onto Brath’s hideaway .

“Champion, we have got to tell the Gihugics about the invasion!”

“Huh?”

“Remember those tombs? Think of them, Champ. Each one with dozens of Gihugeics. Hundreds! For you, Champ. You won’t have to share.”

Gaping and salivating, she pulled off a piece of gristle, “Town crier.”

She swallowed . A rumbling baritone rolled from her lips, “Called to duty, am I! I’ll not let you or Champion down on my watch!”

Then came an eardrum-vibrating bellow:

“Alarum! To arms! The Maldandees and the Crasts have invaded! To arms!”

We clambered over the wall . Back in the village, Gihugeic came out of their homes, looked to each other, then pointed in our direction.

Champ was already way ahead in the grass, “Alarum! Crasts! Maldandees! No Gestors, though! Sun’s setting! Hurry! They’ll kill us all!”

We clambered up the ravine into the darkness, Champ turning around and crying alarms.

Then my head seared: “Blasted Heath! I have cut a deal with the Maldandees! We get half the world! Where are you?”

I fell and Champ turned and helped me up, “We are coming with friends, your majesty! They are seeking to secure your boundaries!”

“Then in that case, we will kill the Maldandees and take it all!”

“Very good, your majesty!”

Heat rose at our backs and a resounding voice, deep like a massive bell, demanded, “What vileness is this?”

Champ and I stopped running. Panting, we turned to face our destruction.

Four dark giants towered over us holding huge lanterns. The largest one pointed above and beyond us.

A female’s voice boomed like waterfalls, “I have never seen the like!”

Champ and I followed his gaze. Above, a dark mushroom shape dwarfed the trees. Tombstones glowed white like bonechips in a Gestor’s turd. Unearthly cries echoed around us in the trees.

The Necropolis was almost fully emerged from its hole.

A Gihugeic sounded a horn.

I said Champ, “We should hide –”

She pulled me aside as the giants marched past us up the hill.

The King pounded my temples, “Heath! You magnificent fop! You brought me gods to help!”

Above us, Brath stood quailing in a knot of elder Gihugeics. He exclaimed, “I…I convinced them to surrender their base! I was going to tell you! Honest!”

He’ll get plenty of attention now, I thought.

Voices swelled from The Necropolis. The voices were brilliant and delicious and velvet delight. White and gold glimmered around the underside of the mushroom head, like lightning under an approaching thunderhead.

I crammed my fists into my ears and sang loud to drown out the glamour.

Champ’s fingers were in her mouth. She gibbered, enthralled by the Maldandees.

Pain broke the spell. I stomped on Champ’s foot. She yelped and saw my hands. She grabbed mud and stuffed it in her ears.

Under The Necropolis, the lights melted toward the Gihugeics. Each streak coalesced into a cold blue face and the iridescent finery of Imperial gentry. They swarmed the Gihugeics, three or four circling and mocking the prey.

The woods were dark and still. The Maldandees could feed and kill and hide before help arrived.

Heart pounding and sick with fear, I sang a famous charge. I ran at the closest elder. Champ grabbed at me, but I darted free.

I ran up the elder’s leg. Seizing her leghairs with both hands, I yanked and pulled.

She shook her leg and I tumbled away. Her foot came down on top of me.

The crushing dark rose away. All was pain. My lungs felt like bags of broken glass. I raised my numb arms and my fur was slick with blood.

The bloated blue face of an old man peered at me upside down. The Maldandee’s expression twisted with contempt. Funerary perfume cut through the blood in my nose. It opened its mouth and descended .

Something bellowed and shoved flames into the Maldandee’s head, pushing it away. A tattered hem flapped above me.

Oh yes. That bit of Holy Warrior around her neck.

The Maldandee fell beside me. Champ jumped upon its chest and drove a flaming branch into its mouth. The creature burst into flames. I snorted the cinders away. Champ sprang from my sight, spinning the branch like a fiery sword.

Beyond, the Gihugeics chanted in a crackling, spitting language. A blazing purple swath darted and like a cat’s paw and dragged a Maldandee through the air. The flames engulfed its head and the creature burst into shreds.

“Heath!” beckoned the King, “Stop our friends! They are sending fire into the tunnels!”

“I will get right on that,” I said.

The elders all started to stomp. Around the forest, the trees trembled and the pebbles jumped. Champ’s battle cry echoed.

“Heath!” yelped the King, “Get them to stop! The Necropolis is starting to slide free! We are trapped -”

A deafening crack drowned him out even in my head. The mushroom shape lifted into the sky. The stem slowly pulled into the head. The bubble had broken free.

The Gihugeics roared in celebration.

The King twisted, “Blasted Heath! You fool! They’ve cut us loose! Get us a rope! Heath! You skittering bastard…”

The glob of worldstuff became smaller and smaller, floating higher and farther away. The King’s voice was fainter and fainter in my head. By the time it was a twinkling star, the King’s voice was gone.

Champion came back to my side, wiping sweat from her sooty brow, “Heath Rat.”

“Yeah. Let me look.”

She helped me to sit up.

The giants swung fire and lightning across the night sky. Blues and oranges lit the trees of the valley. Brath was weeping and stomping on something that burned.

Champion said, “I do not have a nurse.”

I said, “It is so beautiful.” Then I died.

So now I tell my tale, piecemeal as it were. I wake every year on the anniversary, when Champion has a meal of me, and for the moment I have what I sought in life: a fond audience and an honored place in history. I was sent as a Rat to conquer, but I saved as a Man instead.

Each year, though, there is less and less of me.

I tell you my tale, inheritors of the darkness in the land of the Gihugeics, you who sit nodding and silver-eyed in the dark. What we do lives on in others. What we do with our limitations makes us who we are.

But without another life to devote ourselves to, our lives are…always-y-ys…temp-o-rare-ree.

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