Panic in the Mumgrass - Part Two

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

This is the middle part of my people-in-animal-bodies short story. (Image created by Ken Billington)

Chapter Five

In the early hours of Rhizome’s wet savannah, the Brohoov herd had built a circular chamber with their bodies.  Two lines of cows walked in opposite directions around it, walling the bubble off like some cellular organelle, an organelle eager to expel its toxic waste.

In that courtroom bubble, Dodarka stood as judge.  Holokeem and Champlo were his bailiffs.  The accuser was an older female with graying frizzy hair on her shoulders named Artemilk.  She’d raised the calves of others, on account of her own infertility, for generations.  She loved them all dearly but the moment they entered adolescence they became troublemakers she needed to keep an eye on.  Every day she floated little ideas, pearls of punishment, across the bivine.  Some youngsters were playing too rough.  Some youngsters were flinging dung with their tails.  Being too loud.  Being disrespectful.  She called for the same punishment every time.

“Banishment!” Artemilk bayed.  “Lonely miserable banishment TrailCutter!  The little rat deserves it!”

“No!” The little rat cried out in his own defense.  He was a small thin-shouldered Brohoov who didn’t even have full horns yet.  What horns he had were new and uncracked, like spring twigs.  His large nose sparkled with moisture and dripped with fear.  “I didn’t do it.  I mean… I just did it when everyone else did it.  I didn’t send the alarm!”

“Double banishment for lying about it,” Artemilk amended.  She turned to Dodarka to hear his judgment, since she had clearly just given the lad a fair trial.

“What is your name?” Dodarka asked the accused.

“Somsom,” the boy responded quietly.

“And why did you start the stampede Somsom?”  There was no emotion in Dodarka’s voice.  For the moment, whatever he thought was hidden behind his deep dark pupils.

“I didn’t,” Somsom insisted.  “Maybe… maybe I was one of the first ones to pick up the alarm but I didn’t start it.  I heard ‘stampede’ in the bivine so I did my duty.  I repeated it.  Then I ran…”

“That’s a dung-covered, fly-bitten lie,” Artemilk countered.  “Everyone was snoring away.  I was up because my front left ankle was acting up again.  I was shaking it out a little when I saw little Somsom’s head here pop up out of the dirt.  He looked around, obviously checking to see if anyone was watching him, and then he did it.  He poured that ‘stampede’ nonsense into the bivine.”

“If he was looking for witnesses, why did he not see you Artemilk?” Champlo asked.

“You males never see females,” she responded bitterly.  “Especially us old ones.  And because I’m barren I’m practically invisible.  No male ever sees me even though I’ve raised their calves.  Even though I’ve contributed lots of wisdom to the bivine.”

“Sour grapes,” Holokeem whispered to Dodarka.  The TrailCutter hushed Artemilk and then slowly circled Somsom, whose legs shook violently like he was trying to stay upright during an earthquake.  A group of Feklee dropped in, but knew to stay off those involved in the trial; it was difficult to conduct business while beaks plucked parasites out of your nostrils and off your lips.

“Wonderful,” Artemilk said as she watched the birds groom the cows making up the courtroom’s perimeter.  “I’m missing my morning cleaning because of this troublemaker.”

Dodarka circled Somsom a few more times.  The young male lowered his head in supplication and whispered prayers of mercy.

“Who are you praying to?” Dodarka asked plainly.  “What spirits will hear you?  Perhaps the ghosts of the six Brohoov killed in last night’s stampede?  Perhaps your prayers will fill the holes they leave in the bivine?”

“I didn’t do it,” Somsom mewled.  His leg shaking grew worse.

“Then why is Artemilk accusing you?” the TrailCutter asked.

“I don’t know,” he cried.  “She’s confused.  Maybe she did it!  Maybe she’s framing me!”

“The nerve!” Artemilk declared, suddenly holding her nose very high, as if she never wanted to smell any foul thing upon the ground ever again.  “Triple banishment!”

“Really Artemilk,” Champlo said out of irritation, “What does that even mean?”

“It means he has to go three times further now,” the old Brohoov snapped.  Champlo rolled his eyes.

Dodarka finally stopped circling and stared into Somsom’s eyes intensely for a few silent moments.  He tried to see into the boy’s mind, but his shaking made it very difficult.  Still he stared.  He searched for a spark, a bolt of thought, a drip of foreign soul, anything that might leak through Somsom’s disguise.  Could a predator fake fear so well?

“What are you really?” Dodarka asked Somsom.  Everything grew quieter.  The Feklee stopped cleaning and chattering.  They hopped over to the heads and shoulders of the tallest Brohoov to watch the exchange.  Even Artemilk couldn’t think of anything to say.  The cows in the perimeter maintained the circle, but were no longer marching.  What was their TrailCutter saying?  The bivine went flat.  The loudest sound was the telepathic whimpering of Somsom.

“What?” he asked out of confusion.  A rope of snot leaked from his nose and his shaking sent droplets of it everywhere.

“I know about the trade,” Dodarka bluffed.  “Where is the real Somsom?  What species are you truly?”

“I don’t understand TrailCutter,” Somsom said.  “I am Brohoov.  What else would I be?”  Little questions popped back and forth in the bivine now.  Had their TrailCutter gone mad?

“Don’t lie to me,” Dodarka said, the first tugs of anger pulling at his neck muscles.

“I’m not lying,” Somsom sniveled.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I heard ‘stampede’.  I hear it all the time… but I usually ignore it because I know there’s nothing there.  But it was so loud last night!  I had to shout it!  I had to run!”

“What do you mean ‘you hear it all the time’?” Dodarka asked.  He took a moment to listen to the bivine and heard only fluttering questions.  There were no calls to run.

“Lots of Brohoov shout it and never get caught,” Somsom whined.  If his legs shook any harder he would fall over.  “I hear them shout it every day.  At night.  While we’re grazing.  While we’re drinking!  Cows playing tricks on me!  Making me think there’s a Nilogut in every puddle!  Why don’t they stop?  Why don’t you stop them TrailCutter?”

Dodarka took a few steps back.  He looked to Holokeem and Champlo for ideas, but they were as confused as he was.  Perhaps something had gone wrong with the trade?  Maybe whatever animal now lived in Somsom’s body had broken a few pieces of its new cow brain while trying to squeeze itself inside: the side effects of wearing a disguise that didn’t fit.

Things went quiet again.  A breeze passed through and its delicate touch on Dodarka’s skin calmed him.  He saw the Mumgrass, with its clover-like blades, dance around the hooves of his kin, with the exception of a few plants stuck together by Somsom’s nervous nose drippings.  All of a sudden he felt cruel, like he had just gored the boy nearly to death.  He pictured the disappointed stare of his deceased mate.  She would not think much of him now, berating a child for information.  If there was a liar somewhere feeding poison into the bivine, this was not the way to stop them.  Seeing him torture Somsom might even be pleasurable for whatever fiend had traded into his ranks, like watching a stage drama.  Maybe it was all it could do to avoid laughing raucously into the bivine.

“Calm down young one,” Dodarka soothed.  “You will not be judged unfairly.  Steady your feet.  Lift your head.”  Somsom did as he was told and swallowed a great deal of the phlegm in his throat.

“You’re not banishing me?” he asked hopefully.

“Not without evidence,” Dodarka said.

“Attacks on the bivine don’t leave evidence,” Artemilk complained.  “I can’t believe you’re letting him go!  Not even half banishment?”

“That’s enough out of you Artemilk,” Dodarka said sternly.  The elderly cow quieted some but could still be heard muttering complaints as she stormed off.

“Holokeem, have someone watch the boy carefully and keep him near the edge of the herd,” the TrailCutter ordered.  Holokeem nodded and escorted the boy out of the now-dissolving courtroom.  Dodarka started off as well.

“Where are you going?” Champlo asked.

“To the Edge of Life,” he replied over his shoulder.  Champlo did not follow.  A visit like that was a solitary task; communing with the dead always is.

Chapter Six

The Edge of Life existed as a tiny pocket of forest on the furthest fringes of the herd’s grazing territory.  The trees around it had gray smooth bark, like the finish on fresh human gravestones.  Their leaves were a deep blue that dyed the sunlight passing through them an eerie color, giving the Edge of Life a serene look, but one that also seemed easy to disturb, like the sand at the bottom of a pond.  It was the appropriate place for Pompiya to rest.

And rest her remains did, along with almost every Brohoov from the herd that had died in the last twenty generations.  His father and mother were here, their bones mixed together so that even death couldn’t keep them apart.  The previous TrailCutter, a male named Goddo, had been brought here by Dodarka himself.

Brohoov valued the bones of their family and ancestors more than any other objects.  They valued them more than the Mumgrass that nourished them.  Brohoov always returned to the scenes of death, after allowing the human-enhanced cycle of nature to reclaim the skin, muscle, and organs; then they picked up the bones with their tails and took them to the Edge of Life before placing them delicately in the pile.  Bones would be retrieved from even the most dangerous places: submerged Nilogut dens, unstable caves, the shores of QuickMud ponds…  If the remains were identifiable, the skull would be placed in a circle with those of its closest kin.  These circles decorated the ground, acting as satellites for the main bone pile, which was now stacked so high that it resembled a jagged snow-covered peak.

Dodarka entered the Edge with soft steps.  With a grace that defied reason, he made his way towards the bone pile without snapping a single white relic underfoot.  All 4,000 pounds of the TrailCutter moved silently.  His eyes moved along the bones, trying to recall each face the skulls used to wear.  For almost every set of remains, there was a cow magnet mixed in as well.

About the size of an ancestral human’s hand, the magnets were silvery capsules that, upon maturity, became part of all Brohoov.  They were gifts from their human forerunners to keep them safe.  The humans that used to live on Rhizome, so like the nicotine addicts that puffed away at small fires, could not help themselves from polluting the planet’s surface.  Shreds of plastic, chunks of packing foam, and shards of metal would always litter the ground no matter how much the growing grass tried to obscure them.  The metal was the worst hazard for a Brohoov; it was easy to absent-mindedly swallow a rusty nail while grazing.  Death was common among ancestral Earth’s cows that did the same thing.  Maybe they got tetanus or maybe the metal ripped holes in their digestive tracts.  Either way, it was slow and miserable.

So the humans left behind huge piles of magnets for the bright-eyed Brohoov to swallow.  These magnets remained in their stomach’s largest chamber and collected any dangerous bits of metal they might swallow.  Dodarka tried not to think about the magnets often; it disturbed him to picture the small scrap heap that always sat inside him.  He imagined that star smoker ships probably looked something like them as they fire-belched their way from planet to planet and star to star.  He stepped over a magnet with thirty soda can tabs attached and stopped at the edge of the bone pile.

There she was.  Horns still brilliantly blue, the skull of Dodarka’s mate Pompiya stared back at him from a low tier of the pile.  He tried not to let the skull reflect his own emotions, tried not to see disappointment in those empty eyes.  That was the key to making the Edge of Life work: you had to forget about yourself.  You had to forget you were alive.

Brohoov for generations had claimed the ability to glean information from the ghosts in the bones.  Whether the ancestral humans had actually left some mechanism for this, some kind of thread of the bivine running under a bone’s surface like water under tree bark, no one knew.  It was probably just the result of Brohoov hopes.  Any wisdom found was probably just the result of a calm reflective moment in the presence of death.  Probably.

Regardless, Dodarka was sure he could speak with her; if she would allow it.  He took a deep breath and gently placed his forehead against hers.  The horns touched and vibrated softly, like tuning forks whispering to each other.  Dodarka hummed the song of the dead, both in the bivine and in his physical throat.  The resulting sounds were of an incredibly low frequency that passed through all the bones, wave by wave, and awakened the souls inside, if there were any.  The melancholy tune faded away after a few slow verses.  The bell had been rung.  Now he waited for any sign of his lost love.  He kept his eyes closed and his forehead joined to hers.

A light wind whistled through the holes in her skull.  She speaks, Dodarka thought.  Touch me with your voice sweet Pompiya.  Let your bright eyes shine through the black waters of death.  He waited for a response.  For some reason he felt like weeping.  She seemed further than usual.  All of those resting around him seemed… sleepier than before.  The TrailCutter could not bear the idea that perhaps the spirits were leaving Rhizome, or the idea that he’d lost some of the brightness in his own eyes and was slowly losing the ability to sense them.  The wind whistled again.

Yes my mate? Dodarka urged.  He pressed his head to hers a little more.  Another gust of wind.  This one was different.  It had the thup sound of feathers in it.  The TrailCutter knew who it was without taking his eyes from Pompiya’s.

“She is trying to tell you something,” Rocleed said, ‘but not through that skull.”  The Scavendor sounded older than usual.  Wrinkled globs of yellow goo sat in the corners of his eyes.  His neck drooped, as did the warty yellow and orange skin hanging from it.  His great black wings folded to his side as he perched on the mound.  Scavendors were heavy birds but the bones did not even shift under his weight. 

“There is no greater insult to my ancestors than you squatting on top of them,” Dodarka seethed, eyes still closed.  He would have roared and flailed at the bird if they were anywhere else, but the bones deserved more respect than that.  They earned their peace.

“Fine,” Rocleed said and flapped his way over to a low hanging tree branch.  “Will you listen to me now?”

“No,” the TrailCutter said, although he did lift his head and open his eyes to look at his former friend.

“Please,” the bird said.  “What I have to tell you is bigger than your hatred.”

“Nothing is bigger than my hatred,” Dodarka growled.

“Maybe that’s why Pompiya is not speaking to you,” Rocleed said sharply.

“What do you want?” Dodarka asked, somewhat disarmed by the truth.

“Just to talk.  I’ve been trying to talk to you for almost a season.”

“And you look ragged for it,” Dodarka commented on the bird’s shabby appearance.

“All the Scavendors are suffering,” Rocleed said.  “Death has soured this season.”

“I thought you liked your meat with some white fuzz on it,” Dodarka quipped.

“I do,” Rocleed said plainly.  “I don’t mean the meat.  I mean death itself.  I’ve told you before that we Scavendors are closer to death than any of the other engineered animals.  I’ve heard a thousand dying wishes.  I’ve agreed to tell friends and family dark secrets as I picked at the bloody edges of the confessor’s mortal wounds.  It is a dark existence, like staring into water and seeing only sinking objects and no reflection.  But it is my existence.”

“What is your point Rocleed?” Dodarka asked.

“My point is that Pompiya gave me information in her passing.”

“She would never!” Dodarka frothed.  Restraining his anger now was putting him in danger of popping a blood vessel.  “Why would she tell you anything while you drank the last of her blood?”  He stamped softly, a rather impotent gesture.  He quickly checked to either side to see if he’d accidentally broken a bone and gotten himself cursed.

“She did not tell me anything,” Rocleed admitted.  The bird stood silent for a moment, as if checking to make sure the branch was entirely out of Dodarka’s reach.  “The information came to me through her flesh.”

“You’re a vile… monstrous…  You consumed her dying wisdom?  The last true words of my mate melted in your gut?!”

“Not quite,” Rocleed consoled.  “We used to discuss this Dodarka.  Have you forgotten the stories we shared?  My stories came from my meals.  They were passed from the dying, through the sangwine, and into me so that I might share them.  It is the gift the ancestral humans gave the Rocleed.”

“The sangwine?” Dodarka questioned.

“Like your bivine,” Rocleed said simply.

“And you… took one of these stories from her flesh?” Dodarka asked.

“I received it,” Rocleed corrected.

“What did you… receive?” Dodarka asked.  His teeth ground together on the last word.

“She was full of voices,” Rocleed said.  He closed his eyes as if hearing those voices again.  He stuck his beak up to the sky.  “She was full of voices that she kept locked away.  As life left her… those voices escaped.  They howled through her mind, through her body, through her blood… and in turn they howled in me for a while.  The voices so plagued me I could barely fly.”

“What did they say?” Dodarka demanded.

“Stampede,” Rocleed said.  “Stampede. Stampede. Stampede.”

“Liar!” Dodarka shouted and bucked futilely.  “How can you say she was one of the ones causing stampedes?  She died a season before they started!”

“Do with this information what you will,” Rocleed said.  “Whether you discard it or not is not my responsibility.  I suggest you think about it.  Keep your wits about you my old friend.  Something has soured death.  Those who pass now do not accept their fate.  They die in confusion.  Full of fear.”  With that Rocleed spread his wings and launched from the branch.  The specter of death vanished over the canopy and left Dodarka alone with the bones.

The TrailCutter looked down and saw that in his fury he’d broken one of the ribs upon the ground.  He bowed his head and whispered a continuous apology for ten minutes.  He returned to Pompiya’s skull even more confused than before.  Had Rocleed been telling the truth?  Did his mate never tell him that she was plagued by voices?  Were these voices her own?  Dodarka cursed himself for not asking more questions of Rocleed.

How could I not notice? He thought.  Pompiya did have a quiet nature to her.  ‘The wonders of nature deserve contemplation rather than chatter,’ she used to say.  Dodarka contemplated the eye holes in her skull.  How wonderful it would be if they filled up again, if her mind was once again glowing with life.  Not even the wind whispered now.

As Dodarka bowed his head to once again try to connect to his mate, he heard something.  He also felt it.  It was small… and weak… but he grew more aware of it every moment.  The sound buzzed like an invisible insect inside a bubble of glass.  He scoured the ground for any sign of it and saw Pompiya’s leg bones and rib cage.  The sound came from under the ribs; very delicately, Dodarka lifted his mate with his tail and checked underneath her.

The buzzing came from her cow magnet!  He leaned his head in and out.  It was most definitely the magnet.  Why had he never noticed this horrible grating sound before?  He leaned his head in again and examined it, noticing some unusual features…  Any magnet he had seen before was featureless metal, but this one had swirling patterns engraved in it, and there was a thin green light wrapped around the middle.  Beyond that, it also looked much newer.  The magnets had been laying exposed to Rhizome’s weather for countless generations, so they naturally had a faded color and numerous scratches.  Yet, here was Pompiya’s magnet looking fresh off the assembly line.

Are the ancestral humans trying to tell me something? Dodarka wondered.  No, they would not send such an irritating message.  It rattles in my ears.  The magnet must just be a reject.  Something that slipped through the machines of the past unnoticed.  Maybe that buzzing made Pompiya vulnerable.  Distracted her long enough to let that Syama too close…

Dodarka placed her ribs back down and touched heads with his mate once again.  I’ll be back tomorrow, he thought.  He delicately walked out of the bones and away from the Edge of Life.  Although his thoughts often went to a dark place that replayed the sight of Pompiya’s neck being punctured by Syama fangs, he never blamed the cats.  They weren’t his friends but they were merely living their lives.  In fact, that dark thought gave him a dark idea.  If he could not catch the murderer, he would enlist the services of a more cunning investigator.

Chapter Seven

It looked like another stampede was going to start at the edge of the watering hole.  Brohoov started to stamp and thrash, with some even wading neck deep into the water.  After all, the only thing Syama hated more than rain was swimming.

The temporary panic gave way to confusion when the bivine rattled with questions.  Is that our TrailCutter?  What’s he doing with the cats?  Why is he bringing them here?

“My wives and daughters aren’t interested in getting their teeth kicked out,” Zuglon said to Dodarka as he slinked alongside the TrailCutter.

“Don’t worry,” Dodarka said, “they’ll calm down when I explain things.”  Zuglon’s eyes were held nearly shut to block out most of the midday sun, so it was difficult to read his expression.  In truth, Dodarka did not know how his herd would take it.  Surely Artemilk would be screaming ‘quadruple banishment!’ from somewhere in the back.  His greatest fear was that they would lose their minds and take off or drown themselves before letting him utter a word.  He briefly regretted having Zuglon bring so many of his hunters; Twelve cats was larger than most of their hunting parties.  Zuglon was by far the biggest and was the only male present.  His alpha and beta females flanked him and each of them had four or five daughters in tow.  It certainly didn’t help that the younger cats licked their lips every time they looked at a Brohoov.

Champlo rushed up to the group, panting, and tried to dissuade Dodarka with quiet arguments.

“My mind is made up FriendKeeper.  Go calm everyone so they may hear my orders,” Dodarka said.  Champlo backed up slowly and eyed Zuglon warily.

“I’m surprised at you Champlo,” Zuglon crooned with slimy false sweetness, “We’re such good friends after all.”  Champlo bowed his head and returned to the herd.

By the time the TrailCutter and the cats reached the herd, all of the splashing and mooing had been replaced by a dead silence and placid waters.  Every pair of big watery eyes was on them.  Zuglon dismissed his females to ease the tension, sending them over to lie in the soft moss reeds near the water’s edge.  One of them immediately started trying to bat small fish out of the shallows with her paw.

“Kin,” Dodarka started. He tried to keep his voice from quaking.  Any weakness in his words would invite criticism, perhaps even a challenge to the TrailCutter title from a younger stronger male.  “You all know we’ve been cursed this season.  Cursed with fear.  Cursed with false panic.  Someone cries tiger when there’s nothing but grass for miles.  They make us stupid.  And we in turn… kill each other out of fear.  I will not be known as the TrailCutter who stood idly by while this happened.”

“So you’re just getting it over with by feeding us to the cats?!” someone shouted into the bivine.  The complaint was seconded and echoed several times.

“No!” Dodarka boomed and stamped his foot.  The Bivine went as flat as the water behind it.  “They are here to help.”

“I already caught the perpetrator,” Artemilk said self-righteously.  “Whiny little Somsom!”

“I am not convinced of his guilt,” Dodarka said.  “We have no proof that his version of the story is a lie.  The Syama are here to conduct an investigation, to give us the proof we need to be certain.”

“What can they do that we haven’t tried?” Champlo asked out of genuine curiosity.  “My TrailCutter,” he added at the last moment.

“A fine question Champlo.  The Syama can hear our speech but they are not vulnerable to an abuse of the bivine.  Words of panic will not multiply and ring in their ears.  They will manage to keep their heads when we cannot.”

“And what good is that?” A Brohoov demanded.

“They will identify the one responsible.  Zuglon has agreed to have his hunters patrol through our herd for the next few days.  If anyone calls stampede, the cats will be able to pinpoint the guilty without being overcome by the instinct to run,” Dodarka explained.

“The cats have agreed to do this because?” a fit male with a shining coat and low hung horns asked.  He was exactly the kind of male that might be able to gore Dodarka out of his role as leader.  “Are you paying them a wage of Brohoov meat?  For every ten they protect they get to devour one?”  The bivine erupted into an angry cacophony.  All sorts of mud were flung at the TrailCutter’s feet.  Dodarka had the sinking feeling he would not be able to shut down this wave of anger.  Luckily, Zuglon stepped up.  The cat’s voice still invoked enough terror to silence the mob.

“I can see where you’re coming from,” the PrideKing admitted.  “After all, it is a very hot day and I would love a nice vein of fatty Brohoov blood to quench my thirst.  But, for the sake of both our peoples I will settle for water for the time being.”  Zuglon strolled towards the watering hole; the herd split down the middle to admit him.  The soft pads of his feet should have sunk into the shore’s mud more than they did.  Instead of moving like a lumbering mass of teeth and muscle, he glided silently along like a stingray on the ocean floor: disturbing not the ground or the air.  The silence of his movement impressed the Brohoov herd and stilled their minds further.  Zuglon lapped at the water’s edge passionately.  He lifted his head and sighed, refreshed.  “Aaaaaahhhhhh.”  Glistening droplets of water rolled down his muzzle.

“Dodarka’s temporary truce is a good idea,” the PrideKing said.  He turned away from the water, sat on his haunches, and looked the herd in its thousand eyes.  “Something is happening on Rhizome.  Some… force… seeks to dim our eyes.  I’ve seen it growing worse and I’m not prepared to sacrifice my kin to it because of something as easily surmountable as fear.  I want to catch your murderer because it might give us a clue.  This hunt could reveal a scent trail to the true enemy of Rhizome.  We would appreciate your cooperation.”

Silence.  A few frogs leapt into the water.  The scaly knobby head of a Nilogut, like an Earth crocodile but with the hood of a cobra, drifted by.  Zuglon paid it no attention.  He was much faster than any river beast. 

“It does seem to be the best option,” Champlo said.

“A plan with very bright eyes,” Holokeem added in a neutral tone, unsure if that was good or bad.

“Such fast friends we’re becoming,” Zuglon purred.  “Unlike some species I know.”  There was a sudden explosion of water as the Nilogut struck.  It got nothing but a mouthful of mud as its hundred teeth snapped together audibly.  Zuglon was already leaping through the air in a spinning arc.  The PrideKing landed silently on his feet, facing the unsuccessful reptile.  The Nilogut rose up onto its hind legs in a pose of intimidation and spread its yellow-striped hood wide.  Zuglon simply ignored it, turned around, and walked away.  The Nilogut slammed back to the ground and dragged itself back into the water.  “Is everyone coming?” Zuglon called over his shoulder.  His hunters and the grumbling Brohoov marched after him.

Chapter Eight

Things went very poorly at first.  Zuglon’s younger hunters didn’t seem to understand that playful nips at Brohoov heels wouldn’t be taken as such.  Several posturing matches happened that day and often overlapped.  Cats hissed and roared and stalked around a few scared cows who grunted and waved their horns like battle axes.  Dodarka did his best to break up the fights and send both parties in different directions.

He moved the herd into the Lush Pond, one of their favorite grazing places.  The cats didn’t much appreciate it because the sweetweed that grew there was immersed in several inches of cold water.  They shook their paws off with every step and grumbled.  One of them even hit a deep spot, disappeared from view, and then shot, twisting, out of the water like a trout being reeled towards the hungry sun.

The sweetness of the grasses did mostly placate the Brohoov, as their TrailCutter had hoped.  It was much like taking a class of unruly human children to an ice cream shop for the evening.  Even Dodarka helped himself; he dipped his muzzle deep into the water and pulled up a few blades of the grass.  Each one had a little yellow bulb at the end bursting with a saccharine scallion flavor.  Tadpoles, freshwater lancelets, minnows, and small shuffling crabs sneaked between the plants to avoid the champing Brohoov teeth.  An Amble Tree, a derivative of Earth mangrove capable of movement, took huge slow steps through the Lush Pond with its smooth gray roots.  Both the Brohoov calves, with their light blue horn buds shining like pearls, and the youngest Syama hunters played in its shade.  No one knew if the Amble Trees had brightness in them.  If they did they kept it to themselves.  Dodarka guessed they didn’t, or they would probably swat at the rambunctious children splashing between their legs.

Everyone savored these precious hours of tranquility.  Everything was as it used to be, shining like the first generations of Rhizome.  At their happiest they all felt immense joy, but also a little awkwardness in their bodies.  This was when their eyes shone the brightest, so the animal parts of their mind were busy napping.  It could make even the oldest and wisest Brohoov stumble about like a newborn calf.

Dodarka and Zuglon even found a vegetable mat that was mostly above the water to rest on.  The two leaders exchanged happy stories of their own bravery and their wildly exaggerated sexual conquests of mortal goddesses.  Zuglon laughed heartily.  Dodarka responded with laughter of his own, for he’d never heard those particular sounds from a Syama.  The big cat’s laugh was like the yawn of a fire that bounced out of the hearth and giddily set a room of dry furniture ablaze.

Like the sweetweed though, it could not last.  Once their playful energies began to wane, the murderer went back to work.

Early in the evening, as the Brohoov cleared out the last of that batch of sweetweed, everyone grew weary of wet ankles.  Most of the plants had been stripped away, leaving just a shallow pond with plenty of stirred up mud.  The whimsy of the place had been temporarily trimmed, like an ancestral human cutting away its flowing locks to gain a sense of professionalism.

The two species marched out of the pond towards the steep hill that would take them back up to the mumgrass and the human ruin.  Dodarka lead the way and wondered if the murderer wouldn’t strike with the Syama around.  Whatever creature traded into my ranks wouldn’t be that foolish, he thought.  It would be scared that it couldn’t cause enough of a panic to hide its own shouts.  After all, everyone already knows the Syama are nearby.  We’re practically rubbing shoulders.

“Nilogut!” Someone screamed in terror.  The bivine barely twitched.  There were no Nilogut in the Lush Pond; it was much too shallow.

“Who said that?” Dodarka bellowed.  He looked out into his herd and saw a Syama hop up onto a pair of squirming shoulders.  We’ve got him, the TrailCutter thought. Finally.

“Giant Scavendor!” another voice cried.  This one was distinctly female.  What?  There’s no such thing! Another Syama pounced on a Brohoov that was quite far from the first one.  The Bivine quivered and stayed that way, like the wing beats of a damselfly.  Big cow heads swung from side to side and hooves pumped up and down in indecision.

“Quake!” yet another voice alerted.  Most of the Brohoov immediately misinterpreted their own shaking legs as the shaking of the ground.  The back of the herd started to push forward and force them all up the hill.  Those still in the water splashed and frothed the edge of the pond into a gritty foam.  Those near the front were forced up a side of the hill they wouldn’t normally touch; it was far too steep.  One cow tried to turn back and was immediately rolled up onto its side and bucked between the shoulders of bigger animals as it fell downhill, mooing fearfully the whole way.

“QuickMud!” another Brohoov yelled.  The voices came from all directions.  They had different tones.  Different sexes.  Different ages.  It sounded as if the whole herd was the murderer and it had decided to just squeeze its own neck until there was no more fear.





“Stampede! Stampede! Stampede!”


Dodarka all but lost sight of the Syama in the chaos.  There was a flash of cream-colored fur here or there but it was overwhelmed by the haunches of a Brohoov a second later.  Zuglon was nowhere to be found.  If the cats, acrobatic as they might be, got trampled, the plan would be a failure.  He had to stop his herd before they reached the top of the hill.  If they did, there would be nothing but plains.  Their panic would run wild and unhindered through the wet savannah.

“Holokeem!” the TrailCutter called out.  No answer.  His best enforcer was lost in the panic and most likely, a part of it.  More cows rolled down the backs of their brethren and back to the bottom of the hill where they splashed like cannon shot.  A few were bound to be dead already.  Someone knocked over the Amble Tree, which fell slowly into the pile of squirming bodies.

A shadow near the top of the hill caught Dodarka’s eyes.  Scavendors had gathered up at the edge and were eyeing the group.  The fools, the TrailCutter thought.  They’ll only heighten the panic.  He charged up the hill as fast as he could, separate from the herd, in order to force the birds to leave.  A misstep sent a rock tumbling down the hill, but not before it stung his rear left ankle like the blunt venomous end of a giant hornet.  The pain had to be ignored.  He breathed like there was a great storm rumbling in his stomach and sending a tornado from chamber to chamber.  Only a TrailCutter could’ve climbed that hill that rapidly, as only a TrailCutter carries the breath of his herd with him.  Only a TrailCutter has the power to break the tide of fear against the boulder of his duties.

Once the ground leveled out he lowered his head and charged at the perched black birds.  They did not budge.  Instead, they looked down at their own talons.  Dodarka glanced that way as well.  Bones.  They all held bones.  Not just any bones…  These were pristine.  Cared for.  Sacred.  Bones from the Edge of Life!  They taunt us with our own fate! Dodarka raged.  They seek to trap us in visions of death.  His fury only intensified when he saw Rocleed among them, Pompiya’s skull held by the horns between his talons. 

For a moment, Dodarka feared his anger would make the veins in his mind burst and pour blood out of his eyes and ears before he could reach the traitor.  His eyes stayed clear though, clear enough to see the sad brightness in Rocleed’s eyes.  It was a light like no other: somber and reflective.  It was the kind of light that bounced off snowflakes.  The kind of light that rained down on blackened forests devastated by fire like an apology from the gods.  Dodarka saw Rocleed’s plan in that light.  Every Brohoov valued their ancestors, often more than their own life.  The TrailCutter stopped short.

He looked into his friend’s eyes and nodded.  Rocleed returned the gesture.  Dodarka turned and stood with the birds, looking down at his people as they tried to claw their way up the hill with blunt hooves.  Their eyes were so wild.  So scared.  So dull.

Dodarka felt like bellowing, like ordering them to stop, but he remained stoic even as the roiling mass of muscle and horn approached.  Flecks of mud hit the Scavendors, but the birds did not react.  They stood with their wings wrapped tightly around them, looking like the black tears of a depressed planet about to drip from its surface and into the unfeeling heavens.  The Brohoov had to stop.  They had no choice.  If they rampaged through the bones and turned them to dust, it would be over.  There would be no brightness left in their eyes.  Once respect for the dead was behind them they would be nothing but animals.  The running would stop an hour later and no one would remember why it had started, what their names were, or why the setting of their star was so beautiful.

Not even in its antiquity had humanity had a greater victory.  Never in their countless lives as naked primates had the species so resoundingly trumped the shadowy corners of its nature.  The bones stopped the Brohoov.  They stopped the stampede cold, as if a blizzard wind flew by and frosted their boiling brains.  The calming wave passed through the bivine so fast that it could be described as a single instant of comprehension.  Once the first row saw the bones, they all saw them.  Even those in the very back instantly bowed their heads in respect, even if that meant blinding themselves in the mud.

They would not disrespect the sacrifice.  Rhizome was not a place of fear.  It was a place of bright eyes and infinite goodness.

Submitted: December 11, 2014

© Copyright 2020 Blaine Arcade. All rights reserved.

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