Greenwell: A Manifold Sky Short Story
Ovinex Island Tribal Territories
Iksunten 13th, 9964 AR
Iksunten 13th, 9964 AR
Ame Pfren was startled out of his half-dream by Ma'ala prodding him with her with the blunt end of her ba'amba staff. He hadn't heard the older freemartin's approach; her most famous proficiency might have been her grappling skill, Ame thought, but experience had shown that stealth was her true gift. Her crouched form, short of horn and not so different in outline from the Rostral grand sheep he'd helped raise as a kid, was casting a shadow in the dim moonlight which swallowed his own suppine form whole. "Wake up, young ram," Ma'ala whispered, "and get your hoof-muffles on." "They'll get dirty," Ame complained half-heartedly as he reached for the padded canvas booties sticking out of his pack. He couldn't see Ma'ala, but he could practically hear her eyes rolling. "Alright," he whispered, pulling the booties on, "The beast couldn't have waited a little longer to bed down?" "He's a rex, child," Ma'ala replied. "Hard to say what's going on in his head." She was right, of course. The Green Rex, he knew, was a 'ram rex' - or a 'mad fur,' or whatever term was in vogue for his type. What was important was that he wasn't mentally all there, a sort of throwback to a time when the ovinex species still considered clubbing one another over the head and eating the quivering brains inside to be the height of diplomacy. Ame Phren remembered what the stuffy Rostran sailor had called the ram rex when delivering the warrant for the rex's head: the "Greenwell Mangrove Monster." He quite liked how the turn of phrase differentiated Ame and his band from the barbarian they were sent to kill for the public good. Those pointy-nosed hominids sure had a way with words, Ame thought, as he rose and tucked his head into Banu and Faben Rhu's tent. He started to whisper for them to get up only to find the two males already geared up and ready to move. Ame felt bad for complaining to Ma'ala - after all, she'd left him to sleep longer than the others - but figured he'd have to apologize once the job was done. *** After quenching their campfire, Ame made a mental note of where their camp was; with no firelight and the other males' tent concealed behind a high rock outcropping, the band of Island Rangers of which he was a part might have difficulty with finding the site again in the dark. Presently, the group of ovinex peeked out from concealment behind the outcropping, watching the blood-colored glow of another campfire slowly fade within dense, swampy mangrove at the base of the hill. When it was fully dark, Ame knew, it would be time to move in for the kill; with any luck, they might yet catch the Monster unawares. Banu, a sturdy lad of around his own age, nudged Ame and gestured at something over the mangrove. In the distant night sky, Ame saw a telltale oblong shape glint and sparkle with alternating lights as it rose lazily over the smooth ocean beyond the coast. Faben had called those shapes "air-ships" once when Ame had asked before, and said the Rostrans could go "beyond the sky" with them. Ame nodded to Banu and momentarily wondered, as he had the first time, how one was supposed to get a boat to fly. Ame watched as Faben, the oldest of the group, spied on the distant mangrove with the device he called "bnoc'lars". Ame wanted a pair himself, but the prices for such unusual devices were sometimes steep back in the port towns. The gnarled old ram worked a dial at the top of the device with a grimace. "Hard to see how he got back there," Faben muttered, voice scarely a whisper. "No obvious path in. Some of the trees, though, they-," he said, his head stopping in place. "See those ones a little further in?" "No," said Ma'ala, with a surpressed chuckle. "What are you talking about, 'Ben?" "Those don't look local," Faben said, lowering the device and gesturing towards the distant treeline with a keratinous finger. "maybe there's something about them that makes him want to stay down there. Fruit maybe? He's taken some of the local villagers, but them's slim eating now that they've run off." "Maybe he's just lazy," Banu offered, "or too dumb to move? Surely he'd know someone would come looking?" "Just because ram rex can't talk doesn't mean they aren't crafty predators, young ram" Ma'ala said, shaking her head. "No, Faben is right - there has to be a reason. Also, whatever the reason, it means he might be hard to draw out. We go to him tonight." *** Thirty minutes later, Ame and the others had picked their way quietly down the hill, using depressions and outcroppings on the slope to cover their approach. They presently found themselves standing on the sucking mud shores of the mangrove itself. Ame's nostrils recoiled at the hints of vegetable decay and something metallic on the summer night's breeze. Faben stooped and ran a hand through the water near his legs, plucking a scrap of white-painted metal from the water and showing it to the group without a word. Rostran catamaran hull, Ame thought, we're on the right track. As if readind the young ram's mind, Faben nodded at Ame and gestured deeper into the mangrove. Following where Faben was pointing with his gaze, Ame saw a trail of more debris emanating from somewhere beyond the trees, perhaps some poor lost soul's luggage - a soiled shirt here, an empty metal case there, some socks tangled among some saplings. Ame thought back to the Rostran sailor who had offered them the bounty. It suddenly made sense why the otherwise very 'hands-off' point-noses were suddenly taking an interest in Ovinex Island Tribes affairs: it was personal, or at least a matter of interest. The Mangrove Monster likely hadn't thought of the trouble he'd be bringing down upon himself, Ame thought, by hunting hominids in addition to his own ovine kin. The group cautiously started wading into the calf-deep water, Ame at the leading left flank and Ma'ala a ways off on their right flank. Faben and Banu took up the center rear. As they approached the beast's camp, Ame knew from their planning earlier in the evening, the group would have to spread into a wider chevron formation to ensure that the Green Rex couldn't easily slip past them. Faben had told Ame that ram rex were more likely to attack than flee, meaning that hunting groups could gain the rex's rear with such an arrangement. Ame and Ma'ala's role would be to funnel the Monster into Faben - the strongest practitioner of the Gam Pfa'a style in the group - before swinging in behind to complete the flank. Banu, for his part, shouldered the sole rifle in the group: a beat-up old grease gun, more rust than metal, purchased from Rostran traders. Ame doubted the weapon would work - Native Ovinex in general, and Banu in particular, lacked the technological know-how to maintain such Rostran weapons - but still hoped that it could spell the end for the Monster without the group having to actually close to melee. On some level, Ame almost feared the idea that the Green Rex would still be asleep when they reached him; that would mean melee with the beast regardless. As they made their way deeper into the mazelike copse, the scent of metal on the air only seemed to grow stronger, but now it was commingled with some acrid, smoky scent that tempted Ame to cough. It was a dirty odor, like the beast had decided to fry some mud alongside his meat. Ame was wracking his brain trying to identify this smell with the snap of a twig and a hollow splashing noice nearby drew his attention. He readied his ba'amba and scanned the darkened mangrove for some sign of activity, seeing the others doing the same. Ame held his breath for fully a minute as he watched Banu swept the muzzle of his grease gun along the waterline, searching for anything that might have made the noise. Suddenly, Banu turned his weapon on something long and moving through the water - only to have Faben roughly grab at the top of the weapon, stopping him from opening fire just long enough to point out out the form of a large branch drifting through the water. Banu shook with what Ame assumed to be anticipation, but lowered the weapon and looked at Faben questioningly. Faben looked from the branch up through the canopy before pointing up at something. Banu's jaw slackened. Ame looked back along the path indicated by the old Ranger's finger. Well, he thought, that's where the metal smell is coming from. Just off their path, strung through the trees, were a series of soft-looking objects roughly strung together with what at first appeared to be light-colored branches or more scraps of the white metal Faben had found at the edge of the mangrove. The trees themselves were oddly colored here, the squat, three-trunked plants hanging heavy with vine-draped, gray-green leaves that didn't match the surrounding folliage in shape or hue. Though the undersides of the objects in the canopy were difficult to make out for the shadows they cast in the full moonlight, the upper surfaces could be seen in muted color. He could make out torn fabric, glistening red liquid, the white of exposed bone. They were Rostran remains. Ame looked back to Faben, wondering what the old ram planned to do about this situation. Faben, for his part, said nothing, merely making a gesture with two fingers pointed towards his eyes then back along their direction of travel. Ame kicked himself as he realized that, for far too long already, he and the group had been standing in a small clearing gawking at these corpses. He could almost hear what Faben's admonishment would sound like in any other time: Don't get distracted. The enemy could use your shock and our lack of cover to his advantage. Keep moving! Still shaken, Ame acknowledged Faben with a nod and turned to continue on into the woods. *** A few minutes of picking through some dense submerged undergrowth brought the group to a small clearing where, just beyond a wall of trees, a small patch of raised, sandy terrain hove into view. Two large, oblong shapes of light-colored material lay sprawled across this little island, forming a 'v', and Ame quickly recognized them as the shattered remnants of two of a Rostran catamaran's usual three hulls. The metallic smell was gone now, but the smoky smell was stronger than ever - a fuel fire, Ame realizd, seeing that there was a charred outboard motor lying in the water amidst and iridescent pool of leaking oil. Straining to make out some debris he saw laying in the opening formed by the two intersecting hulls, he saw the faint glimmer of a still-red ember beneath a pile of blackened branches. It was the Monster's campsite! Ame made a fanning gesture with his spread fingers, warning the others to spread out. In his peripheral vision, he watched Ma'ala start gingerly stepping around towards the backside of the sandbar and out of sight; Faben and Banu separated, but stayed back. The Green Rex hadnt' awoken, it seemed; it was up to Ame and his freemartin compatriot to move in for the kill. Heart thundering in his ears, Ame grasped his ba'amba tightly and moved forward, the muffles on his hooves rendering his steps bat-silent as he emerged onto the damp sand. Each step felt like it took an eternity to make as Ame crept forward. The deeper he looked into the crotch between the hulls, the more of the large pile of dirty laundry he saw piled up in the crotch. It was a nest of some sort; the depression in the center of the pile seemed to indicate that it had been slept upon or otherwise depressed by the weight of something ovinex-sized. A clump of several trees at the center of the bar, near the vertex formed by the two hulls, would have provided someone sleeping here with cover from the rain and sun. Ame was both relieved and horrified when he realized that the only movement here was that made by the wind stirring the torn tails of the cloth debris. The Greenwell Mangrove Monster was nowhere to be found. He left this camp, Ame wondered, but why? Did we spook him? A crash of water, a roar of bestial fury, and Ma’ala’s sudden, shocked cry shattered the silence. Ame whirled around and saw the creature sinking it’s half-rotted teeth into Ma’ala’s neck just above the collarbone. The Green Rex was a fearsome sight, a powerful, twisted tower of taught muscle and sinew beneath a matted coat of algae-stained wool, his massive, protean cranium crowned with a pair of dark-stained horns. His eyes were feral and wild, his gaze snapping to Ame in hungry anticipation even as his first prize still hung in his mouth. Then, the Monster snapped his head sideways like a crocodile, ripping a hunk of flesh away from the screaming freemartin. She quivered for a moment, eyes agape with horror, then fell away. Even before she hit the water, Ame knew she was already gone. A single loud ‘pop’ rang out, followed by a series of hurried clicks as Banu’s old grease gun jammed. Ame heard Banu shout some unintelligible invective and start wading away as fast as his legs could carry him. Coward! Ame thought with disgust, but he didn't turn to look for fear that the creature would be on top of him if he dared hesitate. Gripped in fury at the sight of Ma’ala’s demise, Ame swung his ba’amba hard at the Monster’s neck, hoping to fell the creature in a single stroke. The haft of the ironwood weapon bowed, then broke against the powerful arm the had creature had raised to counter. Ihe impact shook the two halves of the sundered polearm from Ame’s grip. Suddenly disarmed, Ame fell back on old Faben’s lessons in the unarmed arts of Gam Pfa’a. Driving his hooves hard against the ground, he sprang forward, unleashing a barrage of one, two, three – four punches into the face of the monster with every bit of strength he could muster. For his part, the Green Rex seemed more inconvenienced than injured by this assault, each strike rattling his head without actually halting his own advance. Ame found himself overextended in short order, slipping immediately into the onrushing right hand of the creature. The powerful, hard-tipped fingers of the Monster bit painfully into the sides of Ame’s neck, squeezing darkness into Ame’s eyes as they crushed his carotid. Then, Ame was thrown upside-down, head cast against the muddy bed of the mangrove, his mouth filling with the mingled tastes of copper, dirt, and oil-tainted water. Ame flailed madly at the Monster’s grip as he was held beneath the surface, but found no space between his neck and the Monster’s fingers. As Ame’s eyes bulged and crackled with the pain of bursting capillaries, some fading part of his conscience wondered if anyone would tell his tale after the Monster was done feasting on his body. A dull thump reverberated in the water, reaching Ame just before unconsciousness could take hold. Suddenly, he found himself roughly hoisted up again into the cool night air. The Monster was reeling backwards. Dropping from the Monster’s grip and staggering backwards to face his attacker, Ame caught a glimpse of Faben Rhu at the terminus of a swing with his ba’amba, apparently having caught the Monster squarely with a blow to the unprotected lower spine. The blow had redirected the creature’s attention just momentarily, but in doing so, it also caused him to forget about his previous prey – he was open to attack! Ame cast about for some piece of his broken weapon in the murky water. He found that both halves of the polearm had fallen and been lost in the scrum, but his bronze camp knife was still his belt. He seized hold of the grip and, with a desperate swiftness, dove forward again to plunge the blade up under the Monster’s sternum. All at once, Ame felt the blade sink hilt-deep into the Monster’s wooly flesh, saw Faben raise his ba’amba high to deliver a lethal vertical stroke – and felt the Monster’s ram-horned skull crash down on his own, driving Ame’s consciousness away with titan force. *** It was nearing dawn when Ame became capable of organizing his thoughts again. Laying against the one of the shattered hulls in the Monster’s camp, he groaned at the aches in his head and neck as the pink-orange hues of the early morning light kissed the tops of the swaying mangrove trees. The cool air reeked of something metallic again, though he dared not contemplate the source. “Good,” said Faben Rhu from somewhere nearby, “your eyes are going straight again. I was afraid the Green Rex had scrambled your brains with that last hit.” Ame only groaned in response, still rattled from the experience. Presently, Faben waded into Ame’s field of view, hauling the crumpled body of the Monster up beside him onto the firmer ground of the campsite. The old ram was noticeably favoring one leg as he circled the body on dry ground, eyeing it as though it might leap back into motion at any moment. After a pensive moment, Faben pulled Ame’s bronze knife from its place beneath the Green Rex’s ribs and began sawing away at the creature’s neck – the Monster’s whole body, Ame thought, must’ve been too heavy a prize to drag back to the port town for confirmation. “I have something unfortunate to tell you,” Faben said, not pausing to look back at the stricken Ame. “The others didn’t make it. Ma’ala, you saw, but Banu…” He wiped a bit of wet detritus from his brow with the back of one hand, a hollow expression on his face which made Ame shiver. “It was the trees, Ame. The trees.” “What do you mean,” Ame stammered. “He tripped onto something sharp?” “No,” Faben said. “the weird ones, they – “ He paused again, apparently casting about in his head for the right words. “They’re what the long-nose call ‘Meantwigs,’ Ame. Meat-eating plants. When they’re young, they can walk, can move around and hunt. When they find a good spot they root down, get ready to make seedlings, but they don’t stop taking swipes at things that come by.” A realization fell into place in Ame’s mind. “…the Green Rex was feeding them,” Ame offered. “That’s why he camped out, wasn’t it? No one knew they were hiding in the mangrove. They catch some ram rex hunters coming for him and villagers who don’t know better. He eats the ones that slip through. He gets defense and easy trapping, they get a steady supply of game.” “And no one would have known, Ame,” Faben replied. “They’re not from around here. This has to be the only bunch of meantwigs in all the Ovinex Islands. No one would have made it out to warn the others.” “So then, when Banu ran, he didn’t know that we’d come in on the only safe path...” Again, the dark expression creased the older ram’s face for just a moment. “He’s a little ways to the east,” he muttered, “up in the canopy now.” He unceremoniously dumped the now-severed head of the Green Rex into a burlap sack and turned to rinse his hands. *** A few minutes later, now clean, Faben walked over and sat next to Ame. The two sat in silence for a long time, listening to the slow, rhythmic lapping of the water through the mangrove as the morning breeze rolled in. Even while the pain of his encounter with the Monster began to fade, he felt a pressure welling up in his chest and throat. He thought of how he had complained about Ma’ala waking him, about how he had enjoyed dinner beneath the moonlight with her and Faben and Banu just the night before. The images still burned livid in his mind like the bruises forming around his throat and eyes were livid. “It hurts,” whispered Faben Rhu. “I know. They weren’t the first to go down in the service of the Island Rangers. I know it doesn’t help, young one, but they’re spirits now, and they can’t hurt anymore. They’ll watch over us.” Ame said nothing. He was afraid of what might come out if he did. Faben sighed. “I’ve been there, Ame. No one is around to judge. If you have to let it out…” “I can’t… I can’t…” he protested. But then Ame felt the old mentor’s hand grasp his shoulder, and the torrent of his grief overflowed the barricades and poured itself out until only the sting of salt remained in his eyes. Neither ovinex spoke until well after they had retraced their steps out of Greenwell Mangrove, leaving the sight of their horror and lament a verdant speck on the horizon.