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Story art by Henry Szabranski.
From the author: This is the first Skink and Percher story. The next story is "Witch of the Weave", followed by "Angel Pattern".
As a young climbling, I would sit on the edge of wind-torn openings in the Motherman's chest and stare out at the other giants who stood motionless upon the horizon: the Hunter, huge net flung from outstretched hands, forever seeking his mysterious and elusive prey; the Maiden, slender arms held aloft as if to beseech the callous gods, withy tresses trailing like a stubborn nimbus; and the Hunchback, also known as the Beast, more distant but larger than the rest, leaning forward so that it crouched upon its knuckles and its ridged spine notched the sky. All of them, and others, an entire earthly zodiac, frozen in a landscape blanketed by the ever-swirling mist.
Swinging my feet half a mile above the ground, I would dream up tales featuring the giants: epic battles between the Hunter and the Beast, star-crossed romances between the Motherman and the Maiden, and all of them only pawns in a vast game between beings even more immense. Using charcoal stolen from the graves of cook fires, I would scratch stories onto withy fragments torn to resemble the perfect rectangular pages of Da's precious books. For hours I would sit, enthralled too by the strange shapes that drifted into and out of existence upon the clouds hiding the world's surface below: blocks, spires, staircases and arches; circles, pyramids, and intricate labyrinths that wrinkled the flesh-eating mist as far as the eye could see.
At first I believed the shapes to be an illusion, a phantom architecture created by my own imagination, but one evening Da found me dangling upon a ledge and he sat down beside me as I hastily collected my scraps of tales and sketches. He said to me, as though reading my thoughts, "They're real, Percher. The patterns out there."
I squinted up at him. "You see them, too?"
He nodded. "The mist is a living, shifting thing."
"What are they, the shapes?"
"Memories of what lies beneath. Dreams of the mist." Da swept his hand toward the horizon. "Used to belong to us, all this. Vast lands, cities, mountains, seas. Until we woke the Dragon and it covered the world with mist." Though I said nothing he must have sensed my disbelief. He leaned toward me and whispered, "Saw one of the giants move once, I did."
"Just a few steps. Shaking at first, as if waking from a dream. But it was moving, shedding great clumps of weave with every step." A rueful smile split his lined face. "I gave a great holler to gather the tribe. But by then it had stopped. Nobody believed me, not even Ma."
Neither did I, and I said so.
He grew serious. "Little Percher, what if they're all still walking? Just too slowly for us to see or feel?"
Unsure if he was joking or serious, I concentrated on the movement of the Motherman beneath me. Had I just not noticed his subtle motion before? All I could sense was the weave vibrating in the breeze, the normal slow sway of the huge body in the air currents. Nothing out of the usual. Nothing... deliberate.
As the sun slid into bloody ruin beneath the Dragon's mist, Da remained beside me, silent upon the ledge, lost in thought and memory. His feet swinging in unison with mine.
The night before the tribe was destroyed I dreamed a great storm raged around the Motherman. Wind and thunder shivered his body. Lightning split his withies.
But it was Ma's shouting that woke me.
She leant out of a large opening in our overnight cavity, pointing down toward the Motherman's shrouded feet. There was no sign of any storm, only a miracle clear sky, flesh-pink before the dawn.
One by one, two by two, bleary eyed and yawning, my brothers and sisters crawled out from their nests. They clustered around the rent in the Motherman's skin and stared at the murmurations, dark as smoke, twisting from his belly far below. Broc, Ma's eldest and strongest, shouldered his way to the front. Most of the others looked on him as their leader-in-waiting, but he was the least favorite of my siblings: infuriatingly stupid, scornful of my bookish ways, a bully. He glanced over the edge and made a dismissive noise before turning his back on it. "It's just the stomach tribes. Smoking out vermin."
"No." Ma swept her hands upwards. "Bugs coming. We have to climb."
From my vantage point, curled above the hole in the weave, I could see Ma was right. The black cloud was rising.
Broc sneered. "Climb. Always climb. Sick of climbing." There were nods of agreement from his gang of hunting mates and recent lay-partners, one or two heavy with child. His growing tribe within the tribe. "It's time to build a proper nest. A home place."
Ma shook her head in frustration. Broc had been sparring with her for supremacy over the tribe all summer long, ever since Da had died. "Climb now or die."
"You threaten me?"
Exasperated by Broc's oafish defiance, I wriggled free of my cranny, landing on the withy web between them. "No time for this." I jabbed my finger at the sky. "Look!"
Broc bristled at the interruption, but glanced over his shoulder. Forced a laugh. "So? There'll be good eating tonight."
Bold words couldn't disguise the new fear in his voice. He must have noticed how much the cloud had grown even in the short space of time his back had been turned.
"Percher." Ma seized my arm before I could squirm away. "Take Skink. Climb high as you can."
Under my breath I cursed her instruction. Skink, the tribe's cripple, would only slow me down. But Ma's reproachful look was as strong as her grip. I nodded and said, "Yes, Ma."
She released me and I stumbled away. My brothers and sisters were already scuttling back to their holes. Only Broc and Ma stood against the darkening sky. For a moment I dithered, torn between Ma's command and abandoning Da's precious books stashed in sacks about my nest. Then the weave began to vibrate with the thrum of approaching wings and all thoughts of saving Da's library were forgotten.
Skink lay curled alone at the back of the cavity. "Percher!" She extended her arms in sleep-befuddled welcome, the growing darkness reflected in her eyes. Without a word I hoisted her over my shoulder. The buzzing that filled the air drowned out her cry of protest.
The first razorbugs to reach us were small. Finger-size or smaller. Slick black, pincers spread; they bumped and skittered over our faces and arms, an irritation not a danger. But it wasn't long before the larger ones arrived. Dark missiles longer than my extended arm. Rear pincers glistening sharp. Claws raking flesh, drawing blood. Swarming into the opening and boiling up through the gaps in the weave. I heard a scream through the tumult and turned to see Ma and Broc grappling. I thought at first it was with each other, their true feelings exposed, but then I saw Broc pulling a giant bug from Ma's body, its pincers locked tight around her arm.
Broc suddenly sprouted a pair of blurred wings, a hideous chimera. A giant razorbug had landed upon his back, gripped his shoulders. He and Ma tottered, swaying across the withy net, barely visible through the swarm... and then were gone. Swallowed by the writhing sky.
"No!" I shouted. "Ma!"
Skink cried, "What's happening?" There were screams and shouts all around me, familiar voices. I ignored them.
It was too late to help anyone else.
At the rear of the cavity a maze of narrow arteries corkscrewed deep into the Motherman's chest. I dived inside them. Instead of a sackful of books, I bore Skink on my shoulders, her grip on me tight. I clawed through the dense weave, razorbugs scraping and biting at my heels, withies tearing and scratching at my arms and face. Behind and below us, screams rose as the maddened bugs chittered and burrowed and buzzed.
As they tore apart all flesh in their path.
In the tunnels above the heart no ray of daylight penetrated; the dark stayed only by the faint gleam of withy mold and the glow flies languid dance. Skink and I lay exhausted and wordless, savoring the silence and the reprieve from hours of endless frantic, thoughtless flight. The lack of screaming, scratching, buzzing.
For the moment at least, we had out-climbed the swarm.
In my mind I replayed the rise of the cloud. How it had destroyed and everything and everyone I had ever known. So sudden, so fast. Ma and Broc swept into the sky. How many, if any, of the others had survived? They hadn't looked like they were going to follow Ma's advice to climb. Perhaps they had found hidden crannies to shelter in. Maybe the razorbugs had passed them by. And Da's precious library, stowed in the weave around my nest, perhaps that had survived too. Maybe the swarm had dispersed already. Maybe it was safe to return now.
"Percher, we're too high."
I glanced at Skink's ill-defined silhouette; her matted hair; her pale, smudged face. Dark eyes alive with interest. Her useless legs folded beneath her. During the climb, Skink had hung like a human pendulum about my back, hindering every step, making progress through each passage more difficult. She had complained constantly that my grip on her arms was too tight, that I bumped her head, scratched her against the withies. I had taken no heed.
Skink was our frailest, our last and least. Found abandoned in the weave years ago, limp and blue, her legs all twisted and wasted, she had been left to rot by some more ruthless (or perhaps more sensible) tribe. If it hadn't been for Ma and Da's mercy we too would have left her behind or sacrificed her to the mist for good fortune. When she first joined the tribe, I had felt sorry for her. Helped her out from time to time by offering a few precious flakes of dried heart-meat, or handfuls of freshly pinched-out withy grubs. Talked with her, even read to her a little, a few precious words from the Dictionary each day. When Ma grew tired I helped carry her (at that time Skink was lighter than the library I bore upon my back). It was little enough, really, but more than most. Truth is, part of me only wanted to spite those other members of the tribe -- Broc chief amongst them -- who mocked and shunned her. Skink had become a proxy in his struggle for control; he made Ma out to be crazy for taking in a cripple, someone that slowed us down, drained our resources. It didn't seem fair to me, for Skink to be used like that.
"Percher. Are you listening? We're too high."
"We're safe now." My voice cracked a little, throat dusty and dry. There had been no time to gather supplies before we escaped: no food, no water.
"We shouldn't be so near the head," Skink repeated. "There's creatures up there worse than razorbugs."
"The clevers? Just stories."
Skink rocked back and forth on her haunches, staring at me. "Not stories. I seen 'em."
"Go back down, then. Ain't stopping you."
She continued to stare at me.
"I'm thirsty," I said. "Going to find water."
I stood and staggered along the tunnel, leaving her alone in the gloom. Even as my anger rose, I regretted my harshness. Why so furious? None of this was her fault.
A dark form obstructed the passage ahead of me. I slowed, Skink's warning fresh in my mind. The clevers were supposed to dwell in the Motherman's skull, feasting on his brain and the victims they captured. Some said they were the original creators of the Motherman, others that they were another tribe just like us. I only knew I did not want to meet one; not here, not alone.
In the dim mold-glow, I glimpsed segmented armor, a cluster of eyes, frozen spinnerets. I relaxed. Only a weaver. This one not much bigger than me. It appeared dead, or at least motionless. Generally the giant spider-like weavers were too busy patching up the Motherman's structure to take notice of us. I leaned in close. Why wasn't it moving? Perhaps, like Skink, it hadn't been born right. I shivered. It seemed like a bad omen. But then the omen was too late, wasn't it? The worst had already happened. Ma falling into the mist. The screams of the tribe drowned out by the buzz of the razorbugs...
I blinked back tears. No time. No time now for remembering or thinking.
I squeezed past the tangle of limbs, farther along the passage, to where moisture hung in the air. And something else, a dark tang that barely registered, too faint to identify but enough to disturb at some primal level. But I was too distracted by the sound of water to pay it more attention.
A stream spilled through the mossy crevices and withy channels; cloud-drift and ice-melt all the way from the snow-capped head. My re-awakened thirst raged. I cupped my hands in the cascade, gulping the icy water. Even as I did so, I felt a twinge of shame. What about Skink? She couldn't easily move without help; a sitting target for whatever she feared roamed above the heart. I braced myself for the anger that awaited me, for her crumpled despair -- but as I turned to go back I found her dangling behind me. Like a shadow of my guilt, hanging from the weave of the tunnel roof by her arms, her face twisted with effort and determination.
"What?" she demanded of my shocked expression. "You think I can't make my own way around?" She brushed past me, swinging from one ceiling withy to the next.
"Be careful," I warned, but she had already reached the stream and dunked her head into the cascade.
I turned away, my anger returning. Had she known she could lift herself, all the times I had carried her? Those arms. Tapestried with pale withy-cut scars, muscles strong and wiry; tone only achieved through long practice. Why hadn't I noticed? Had she deliberately hidden her strength, or had my presumption blinded me?
I looked back at her, still annoyed. "What?"
Her hair glistened wet, plastered in tangled rivulets about her face and shoulders. She sniffed loudly. "Can you smell that?"
The fear that had filled me since I first saw the razorbug cloud returned like a physical blow. Of course I could smell it. I had for some time. Only now it was strong enough that the source was obvious.
It was what had caused the razorbugs to flee their territory in such vast numbers. It was what made return to the tribe's home now impossible.
Somewhere deep below, in the Motherman's belly, a threat rising far worse than any razorbug swarm.
Of course there had been fires before -- lightning strikes or cook fires run amok -- but the Motherman's bulk had resisted their spread. Melt water and the moisture of clouds, not to mention other, less obvious fluids, beaded his withies. To ensure the integrity of the Motherman's structure, armies of weavers quickly converged on flare ups and dampened them down. But already this fire was much worse than any I'd known. Smoke curled through the weave like an acrid ghost, stinging our eyes and the backs of our throats, the air barely breathable. Unless we reached open sky soon we'd choke long before any flames reached us.
Through dense knots of weave we climbed into the Motherman's throat, where the fibers and arteries pinched together around the spine and esophagus (a void we dared not enter). Skink was swifter through the weave than I thought possible; I would trail her, cursing and spluttering. Eventually I learned to conserve my breath and simply follow. Until, half-blinded, I almost ran into her. She had stopped and was swinging one-handed from the weave.
We had reached the skin again. Around the corner, through a series of ragged windows in the weave, fresh air spilled through, the daylight painfully bright after so long inside the Motherman's chest. Shielding my watering eyes I looked down at the great woven body below.
Smoke billowed out from the belly, mingling with spiraling flocks of gulls, razorbugs, and other less familiar beasts. I groaned in despair. Alongside me, Skink's face was pale with fear. Her free hand gripped my shoulder. "There's no sign of rain," she said.
She was right. Apart from the smoke and the birds and the ever-present mist below, the sky was agonizingly blue. I looked up. The Motherman's chin rose like a thundercloud, the only relief from the dizzying emptiness.
"Climb," I said, feeling oddly hollow inside. Echoing Ma's final words. "Keep climbing. That's the only thing we can do."
Skink didn't reply.
We both knew that if we kept going, no matter what else we encountered, we would eventually reach a point where only the sky remained above us.
We spiraled into the head, into the vast, bird-infested cavern of the mouth. I had always wondered what the head's interior looked like, hoping that one day Ma or Da's foraging expeditions would divert toward it, but they had always avoided the higher regions. In the event, I was too busy keeping ahead of the flames below to pay any attention to the scenery. I was climbing so hard -- concentrating on trying to outpace Skink, who kept surprising me with how much stronger, faster, tougher she was than I first thought -- that I didn't notice the clevers standing in the weave above us until it was too late.
Three big, brawny males, grunting and chittering.
I immediately froze, heart pounding, but the clevers' grunting only grew louder. All around, stirrings in the web, dark eyes focusing on us with a new and fierce interest. The stories Ma used to tell, of the clevers and their gruesome deeds, flooded my mind. Just stories, tales to scare young climblings...
"We need to go," Skink said. "Now."
A face poked out of the web directly in front of me. I gave an involuntary cry. Button eyes glittered above a missing nose in a leathery mask of a face; a hairless scalp covered in intricate wormtrail patterns as if creviced by the evil thoughts harbored beneath. The gargoyle screamed; a high-pitched hiss, stinking of rotted flesh. A sinewy-strong arm reached out, nails curved like talons.
"Down!" I cried, but Skink was ahead of me, swift and sure as a weave-monkey, dropping down through the tunnel we had just climbed. I brushed past grabbing claws, chasing after her.
She shouted, it seemed half in fear and half in frustration. The way back to the mouth was blocked. Too many creatures. All around.
A great bellow came from below. What new threat was this, rising out of the cavern of the mouth? The direction we had come from. The direction we had hoped to flee.
Another bellow; an almost human roar. Along the huge molars a figure bounded into view. It hurled clevers out of the open mouth, into the sky, or else into the inescapable cavity of the throat. I cowered behind Skink's shoulder as the new arrival thrust a path through the fleeing creatures. Skink and I remained frozen, caught between fear of what awaited us in the upper reaches of the head and the approach of this new threat. We willed our breath to be silent, our hearts to be still. Perhaps we could remain unnoticed.
"There you are," it cried, pointing at us huddled together, and began to climb. The muscular silhouette seemed familiar. The voice, too.
Beside me, Skink gasped, "No!"
As the figure stepped closer, into the light, it became unmistakable. Unbelievable.
It was my sky-lost brother.
It was Broc.
"Bug grabbed me."
He twisted to show us the ugly-looking pincer wounds on his arm and shoulder. Grinned at the looks of horror and disgust on our faces.
"Another joined it, then another. Three of them, lifted me right up."
He dangled his chunky fingers in imitation of his plight. Wriggled them.
"Thought they would drop me into the mist, but all they did was pass me between themselves. Like some sort of game. One missed and I landed on the Motherman's shoulder. Rolled away, hid deep. They burrowed after me but in the weave I was strong."
He clenched his big fists, grin widening.
"One by one, I tore off their legs and squished them apart."
"Ma?" Skink asked, hopeful.
Broc shook his head. His grin did not falter. "She fell."
"Are you sure? Did you see?"
"Sure I saw. She's dead." He stretched, and although it appeared casual the move emphasized his size and strength before us. "Tribe belongs to me now."
Skink and I exchanged glances. I knew Broc had coveted the leadership of the tribe, thought Ma too weak after Da's death... but this coldness, this celebration... I'd hoped the shock of our circumstances would give pause to his brutishness.
Skink said, "Tribe doesn't exist anymore."
"Today we start a new tribe. I saved you. You follow me now."
"Follow?" I said. "Follow where?"
"Follow where I lead. Do what I say."
Skink laughed. "The Motherman's burning. There's only one thing we can do now: climb. Even that isn't going to save us."
Broc stared at Skink with a dangerous new interest. "Little Ma, if we climb, it's only because I say so."
"Don't call me that."
"I'll call you what I like."
"Now wait." I stood to intervene. Before I could say another word, Broc planted his meaty hand upon my chest and pushed me down into the weave, hard.
"I decide," he said. "Where we go, when we go. What we do. What you're called. I do. No one else."
"But that's --"
He planted his foot on my throat. His leg seemed as solid and immovable as the Motherman's. I could only gurgle, my arms flapping uselessly. He turned to Skink. "You do as I say, Little Ma. Everything. Without whining." He pressed his foot harder onto my windpipe. My vision darkened, and I barely heard his next words.
"Or just like the other bugs, I will squish your friend."
The weave above the mouth and behind the nasal cavity -- the Motherman had no nose, only a gaping tall gash where it should be -- was riven by chambers and hollows. Above the rifts loomed the cold mass of the brain, visible at last through a thin filigree of skull and a sparse forest of supporting withies. Frozen weavers dangled like bizarre ornaments amongst the stretched-out withies, their lack of motion another sign of some catastrophic malfunction.
"Keep climbing, or I'll throw you to the clevers."
I shot Broc a furious glare. My throat still ached where he had stood upon it; each time I swallowed or tried to speak I winced in pain. But I still climbed alongside him (or slightly below, where he said he could keep an eye on me). He had threatened Skink if I disobeyed. Besides, there was only one direction we could go. At least the clevers scrambled out of our way now, mewling in the shadows as Broc approached, still in fear of his lumbering form. For that if nothing else, it was still worth following him.
Skink clung to my back, silent, tense. I accepted the pressure of her arms around my bruised windpipe and her weight upon my back; we had a wordless agreement to keep Broc ignorant of her climbing ability.
A chamber opened up directly beneath the dark roof of the brain, a continuation of the cavity of the nose, its sharply sloping floor littered with a coarse powder I first mistook to be snow. It wasn't long before I began to notice the stench. Not smoke this time, but a rich, meaty, rotten smell.
Great clouds of flies and crows and gulls circled and pecked at the exposed underside of the brain. The sight shocked me. How long had they been doing this? How was it that any meat survived? Death and decay seemed everywhere.
Some of the birds flew erratically: in tight circles; looping, or else falling, hopping and flapping uselessly at our feet, as if stunned by a blow. I leaned down to examine one, and realized the grey mulch through which we climbed was a thick drift of tiny bird bones and old feathers, stained dark here and there by the freshly fallen dead and a dreadful guano that dripped from above. The sea of crushed bone pulsed with vague rustlings and stirrings from beneath and I shuddered, not wishing to disturb the source of the movement nor have it revealed.
"Keep climbing," Broc snarled. "Or do you want me to take your Little Ma away?"
"I'm not his," Skink said, but I just shook my head and bent my back, ploughing up the slope after him.
Pillars of fungus sprouted from the mineral decay. Broc stopped as we passed a column and broke off a fleshy, shelf-like outgrowth. Skink groaned in disgust.
Broc glanced at her, defiant. "It's just meat. Like heart-meat. Gift of the Motherman."
"It's gone bad," she said. "Can't you smell it?"
Broc lifted the dark meat to his mouth and took a bite. "It's good," he declared, chewing furiously. He thrust the wedge toward me. "You try."
I shook my head. The reek turned my stomach.
Broc laughed. "Go hungry then."
We rested as Broc ate. I was utterly exhausted. My limbs ached from the ceaseless climbing; my lungs struggled to fill with the cold, thin, smoke-infested air. Through the gaps in the weave, the evening sky remained clear. No sign of approaching rain, just as the smoke pouring from below showed no signs of dissipating. Slowly, surely, the Motherman burned away beneath us.
Skink huddled close, sharing a wordless moment of... companionship, I supposed. Sure knowledge of a shared fate. Her callused fingers squeezed my hand. Her touch felt good. I closed my eyes, and for a moment I allowed the fear and dread to fade.
Broc was squatting a little distance from us. He abruptly doubled over. Black fluid gushed from his mouth.
Against my better judgment, I lurched toward him. "Are you all right?"
He paid no attention, shivering, repeatedly retching. No recognition in his eyes as I approached. Skink pulled me back.
How could I? Despite all his brutal flaws, Broc was the only family I had left. Skink didn't count. She wasn't even from our tribe, really. None of us had much longer to live, if the fire below raged unabated. Shouldn't I try to offer some comfort, even if I knew he would never do the same in return?
"Please." Skink tugged my hand. "Let's go. While we can."
I hesitated. She was right. Broc wasn't safe to be around. Especially for her. Calling her "Little Ma". I knew exactly what he planned, should we survive. His single-minded desire to create a new tribe.
"Look." Skink pointed at a large column rising into the frontal cortex, the weave around it twisted into a stair. "There's a way up."
Broc broke into another wet heave. The sound, sight, and smell were terrible.
"I can't just leave him."
"He's gone bad. There's nothing you can do." Her face twisted in disgust and anger. She released my hand. "Stay, then. Go bad too."
Broc had become limp. I could feel the fever radiating from his slumped body.
I turned. Skink already stood at the foot of the column. "Wait!" I began to run. "Wait for me!"
In our world of grey-green weave, I'd never seen such brilliant color. Glinting reflections, refractions; red as the bloodiest sunset. A great crystal sphere, so large its curvature wasn't immediately obvious. As Skink urged me closer I could see the pattern of cracks, segments shattered and missing, the crow and bat nests, the centuries-thick patina of dirt and dust and shit. But none of it dimmed the great orb's beauty.
"The eyes of the Motherman," Skink whispered. "Do you remember Da's stories? How you were supposed to see the entire world through them?"
Despair returned despite our magnificent location. Home burned beneath us, and mention of the lost only stirred more dark thoughts.
Skink took my hand and drew me from the great eye, back toward the narrow galleries of the brain through which we had climbed. "Where are we going?" I asked, but she was already far ahead. She used mainly her hands, and I my feet, which suddenly felt awkward and cumbersome in the constricted space.
She was following the crystal of the eye, as it tapered into a cable-like structure, winding deeper into the brain, were it combined with its twin and finally branched around the walls of a small chamber that shimmered with rainbow colors.
About to enter the glowing chamber, Skink gave a cry of surprise and halted. I peered over her shoulder and saw it already held an occupant.
But no longer a living one. Sitting on the chamber floor, a body so withered its age or race was unguessable. I couldn't tell whether it was male or female, human or clever or something entirely else. Its yellowed teeth were bared in a grin; only wisps of hair remaining on its moonscape scalp. But although withered, half-mummified, there were few other signs of decay. Perhaps the thin, icy air had preserved it. Perhaps it had only just recently relinquished all grasp on life.
Skink crept into the chamber. She poked the body's skeletal arm. The limb was stiff, wax-like, hardly moving.
"Don't touch it," I warned, refusing to enter the cavity.
Skink shoved the body and it clattered to the floor. "Look!" She waved at the chamber's veined, tightly woven walls.
At first I didn't see anything, my attention still on the crumpled body, fearing it would leap back into vengeful life. Then my eyes adjusted, and I began to notice the faint glimmer upon the chamber walls. A watery blue above, a murky darkness below. The more I looked the more the distinction grew solid. A horizon.
"It's the outside," I said.
I climbed in and stood beside Skink. She was nodding and pointing. "More than that. Look there."
At first an indistinct bump on the horizon. As I concentrated it became clearer. The Hunter. I easily recognized the giant's muscular silhouette, the pattern of his frozen, half-thrown net. And as I looked, it seemed suddenly that we were traveling, flying over the mist toward him. I cried out in fear. Skink's fingers tightened painfully on my arm, but she was laughing. "We're not moving, Percher. It's just making him look bigger."
She was right. The image of the Hunter was magnified, sharper and closer, as if viewed through one of the telescope devices I'd read about in Da's books.
Skink frowned, and the image wavered. I wondered if she was controlling it, somehow. Was this the power of this place, that you could truly look through the eyes of the Motherman? I glanced again at the chamber's previous occupant. At what cost, this ability?
Soon Skink was able to turn and focus the scene at will: the Maiden, the Beast, all of them shown in amazing detail. Despite my fears I gawped at the images. How my young climbling self, perched on the edge of rents in the Motherman's skin, would have loved this power.
"What's that?" I asked, pointing to just above the horizon. Farther than could easily be seen by the human eye, a sharp-edged dark line.
Skink gasped. "It's land!"
And as if in response to this revelation, the whole Motherman, our entire world, suddenly shuddered around us.
I'd never felt anything like it, not even during the strongest storms.
Had the fire finally eaten away some essential element of the Motherman's structure? Were we about to tumble to our deaths? The brain trembled again, the whole Motherman swaying. I looked at Skink, thinking perhaps to reassure her -- but her face was lit with joy, not panic.
"It's me. I made him move!" She closed her eyes and screwed up her face in concentration.
This action, her expression, scared me more than all the razorbugs, the clevers, all the burning flames below combined.
"I can move him. I can make him walk!" Her lips twisted in effort. The vibration in the weave increased.
"Stop!" I cried, horrified.
The chamber made another sickening lurch. I tumbled against the wall, flung first one way and then another. Great crashing, groaning sounds come from all around. Clouds of dust and insects erupted from the withies; a millennia of mossy accretions shaken from the Motherman's bones.
Skink's face burned with triumph. In that moment she seemed utterly, terrifyingly beautiful.
"He. Is. Walking!"
The Motherman shuddered. I felt sick not just from the violent motion, but from the very idea that our home could move.
"Stop!" I shouted.
But there was only grim determination on Skink's face. She was absolutely not going to stop. Not stopping even though her actions would tear the Motherman apart.
The lurching steps came quicker, their pace picked up. Thump thump thump. Perhaps Skink had become more confident; perhaps the Motherman had been seized by some renewed urge to move, desperate in case the chance now offered would never occur again. Perhaps he was just more stable at speed. Either way, my bones shook as his giant feet repeatedly uprooted and replanted themselves. The horizon swayed as if the world itself was breaking apart. I was flung onto the passageway floor.
"Stop before you shake us apart!" I cried.
But Skink did not stop. If anything, the pace accelerated. Thumpthumpthump. I choked on centuries-old dust.
"I see something!" she cried. Her face slick with sweat. "There's something ahead!"
A huge wall loomed out of the mist, a curved section of rock, a tower upon it... a scene familiar from children's picture books in Da's library: a harbor and a lighthouse rising from the sea of mist.
"Oh no! No!" In a sudden reversal, it was Skink rather than me who was screaming, "Stop! Stop!"
I couldn't believe my fear could increase, but it did now. "What? What is it?"
Skink didn't answer. Instead she cried, "Oh no!" again.
The Motherman's steps slowed. Thumpthumpthump thump... thump --
A mighty crash.
For the first time since I was a young climbling, I lost my grip upon the weave. Hurled from the chamber, through the loose web beneath the rotting brain. My outstretched hand caught a passing stem, but I was tumbling too fast. The withy tore, unable to hold me.
For seconds, it seemed, I flew. Then pain exploded across my back.
My body had stopped. But my mind kept falling.
"Shhh." Skink's hair caressed my face, her dark eyes luminous with concern. So pretty. Why hadn't I noticed before, how pretty she was? "Don't move. He's still raging."
I tried to respond. Only a hoarse groaning noise emerged. I lay half-buried in bird bone gravel. My back ached, but I could wriggle my toes.
"Shhh." Skink frowned. "Lay still. Don't draw attention to yourself."
Other sounds began to register. Enraged shouting nearby: screams, weave being torn apart.
Not only I, it seemed, but Broc had awoken, too. I must have fallen back all the way into the nasal cavity below the Motherman's eyes.
"It's not right!" Broc shouted. His voice seemed odd. Choked with anger. "The pattern isn't right!"
What pattern? Why was it wrong? Slowly, slowly, I levered myself onto my elbow to get a look at the commotion.
Broc was staggering, aimlessly, not far away. His appearance shocked me. Black ooze still dribbled from his mouth, but more than that: his teeth had become yellowed, many fallen out. A tarry substance trickled from his ears. His face was wrong; all wrinkled, mask-like, as if it were about to slough off. Great clumps of hair had fallen or been pulled out from his scalp. His nose... his nose was a mess.
He bared stump-like teeth and hissed with a lustful fury. He had spotted us. "Little Ma, Little Ma! Start a new tribe, you and me!"
I staggered to my feet, my legs trembling. We were near the open gash of the nose, the sun setting over the dark, flat mass of land before us. The Motherman's arms were clamped upon the cliff walls, now become two huge bridges. A crooked, half-collapsed tower faced us -- the lighthouse I had glimpsed earlier -- and crows and gulls from the Motherman's skull now mingled with the winged natives of that ancient construct.
"Come here," Broc rasped. He charged clumsily at Skink. She dodged easily away, swinging upon the loose web filling the cavity.
"Leave her alone!" I shouted. I picked up a fallen, mummified gull and threw it at him. Despite hitting him square in the face (more luck than skill on my part), it seemed only to enrage him. He stumbled toward me, face bulging, stretched fingers talon-like.
I tripped as I back-pedaled. Suddenly he was upon me. He opened his foul, blackened mouth and shrieked. Far below, I heard the faint answering cries of the clevers that had so far been held at bay. Perhaps that was why they had fallen back before him? Not through fear, but in the knowledge that soon enough he would be one of them; the leader they had waited for.
A blur of limbs. Broc staggered back. Skink swung around, hair billowing in the breeze. "Leave him alone," she snarled. "Leave us alone!"
Broc bellowed, wordless. He lumbered after Skink as she swung from withy to withy down the slope toward the nose cavity's edge. She somersaulted over the struts. This open area was perfect for her; her feet barely touched the weave as her wiry-muscled arms powered through it.
Broc roared in frustration, accelerating as she slowed, arms outstretched like a razorbug's pincers. My heart skipped a beat. He was going to shove her over the edge. But Skink swung over a horizontal strut -- and her twisted feet landed firmly on his back. He fell forward, arms pinwheeling, an expression of surprise upon his ruined face.
I crawled over to the edge, to make sure he wasn't clinging below the lip of the opening, or that a swarm of razorbugs hadn't miraculously swooped in to save him a second time. But there was no sign of him. Only a sheer drop, directly above the mist that forever lapped the Motherman's feet.
It was just us on the plateau, at first. No other people, least none we could find. Not even the clevers, who clung inside the Motherman's smoldering skull despite the certainty of their doom.
It was cold upon the unyielding ground. At times the wide sky became too much, and we scuttled to find shelter from the all-seeing, unblinking blue above. Skink huddled beside me in the ruins of the lighthouse, shivering, dazed, lost even more than I in this unfamiliar world. Outside, the ground was smooth and hard, with no withies to grab onto or bony spurs to swing upon; suited best for sturdy feet. But she was determined, much more so than I. And there was space now, at least. What to do with it all? So much empty space and time stretching ahead of us.
There was food. Trees heavy with strange and delicious fruit, rivers full of darting silver meat, wholesome fungus sprouting straight from the ground. And there was weave, of sorts, strewn across the surface, far as the eye could see: huge, haphazard spheres and hollow cylinders, strange twisted shapes of enormous size, scattered without perceptible pattern or design, like toys discarded by careless giants. Many of the weave constructs were damaged: crushed or exploded outwards, signs of some ancient conflict, the warring parties long since departed and forgotten.
The morning after we scrambled onto the plateau, there came a vast rumble. We crawled out from our stone shelter to find the Motherman collapsed, his remains a smoking ruin at the foot of the cliff. Hands entwined, Skink and I stared down at the blackened wreckage. We stared for a long time before we turned our backs and left the edge. Home and all we knew was gone. Ma, Da, the tribe; enemies and friends; lost forever.
Only memories and the future remained.
The sun was rising, its red beams filtering through the gigantic weave artifacts scattered across the plain ahead of us. Skink began to limp toward the nearest, a tube as wide as the Motherman's arm that snaked into the continent's mysterious heart. Her shuffling, pained steps became swifter, more eager, toward the new horizon.
She always surprised me. Always stronger, more resilient, more determined than I thought.
And I followed.
This story originally appeared in DreamForge Magazine.