COVER #9 BY ELIZABETH BEGLEY
“So?” I said and turned towards the herd of tiny leshies behind me. Half my height, the onion-like peoples were living plants who donned the skulls of animals as masks. Little glowing eyes peered through their sockets. They did not reply to me. I continued, “So. . . you said there was a gift?” I glanced around the thick jungle. Nothing but impenetrable bush.
“Gift!” Cheered a leshy with flower-petal collar and cuffs. The little folk came in all shapes and sizes, but most resembled floral garden gnomes.
Their inferred matriarch stepped forward. I bowed low, expecting some sort of necklace or amulet.
A shadow cast over me. I peeked behind. A flytrap large enough for a mammoth lurched down and swallowed me in a single gulp. As I tumbled down the stalk I heard the drowned out cheers of gaiety from the leshy crowd.
I was sucked down the stalk and briefly engulfed by a squishy pad. Like a trampoline I sprung up and down several times until my momentum gave out. The dank chamber smelled of dirt and rain—not the rot I expected in the bowels of such a creature.
My eyes alit in sorcery just enough to look about the dark chamber.
Dozens of small animal and tiny people’s skulls—nonhuman—glowed in the faint reflection of my sorcery. I let the light fade and snapped my fingers, summoning a small flame in my palm for a torch.
“No!” screeched a dozen baby voices. “No fire! No fire!” In seconds I was tackled by a horde of fearful leshies. The plant peoples assaulted me with nibbles from tiny soft teeth, slaps from nubby hands, and screams until the fire in my palms went out.
I couldn’t fight back.
They were too cute.
I picked each leshy from my fur. I backed away from the group and pressed my back to the wall of the giant plant’s inner chamber. With careful paws, I slipped into my Boundless Bag and withdrew a clunky electric lantern. Unnatural blue light burst through the dark with a flip of the switch.
“No fire!” The leshies showed gummy fangs. One drew a toothpick-sized leaf dagger.
“Look!” I said, dangling the lantern back and forth. “Not fire.”
When I showed them the lantern switch, the horde came forward and realized the lantern gave no heat and thus was not fire. Their little glowing eyes tripled in size.
A leshy wearing a goblin-shaped skull said, “Looks like a little bottled sun.” It reached a finger in inspection.
I said, “Here, go ahead. It won’t hurt you.”
The leshy touched the glass and took off his skull mask, revealing a chubby onion head. He cautiously opened his eyes and then smashed his head against the lantern. He did not blink.
“If you stare too long it may burn your eyes,” I said. Assuming these creatures had the intellect of a small child, I adopted an authoritative tone.
Two more leshies joined in. I gifted the leshies my lantern and the creatures tussled in anticlimactic glory over who would have the privilege of staring into my light.
We stood on a pulsating pink pad, grimy and slimy, which spewed a stringy liquid every so often. A touch of my tail and my suspicion was confirmed—this chamber was a stomach. I took a pair of boots from my bag and hoped they’d keep my paws safe. They were human boots, and scrunched my claws, but you can’t always be comfortable.
The leshies fell away from the lantern in aching succession. They collapsed and rubbed their eyes. They writhed near the acid goop. One of the smallest ones gave into the goop’s consumption. His floral flesh sizzled in the acid.
I slid over and grabbed him by the collar. He writhed and kicked.
“Let me go! It is my time!”
I dragged him away, but the other leshies recovered from their temporary blindness and snatched him from my grasp. They carried him a meter towards the goop ejector and threw him in.
He cheered and sang until he was eaten alive by the plant’s acidic saliva.
The other leshies bid their friend farewell with tearful whoops. And they continuously avoided the acid, which did not drain from the chamber. The acid’s pace was slow yet steady. In a few hours there’d be nowhere to stand or sit that would be free of the goop.
I drew my saber, and readied to cut my way out. I stabbed into the plant-wall and felt the floral musculature warp with pain. The structure shrieked. My blade didn’t go through—it seemed we were underground, as I’d stabbed straight into stone on the other side.
The leshies grappled my arm and gnawed on my sleeve and hand. I sheathed the blade and scraped them off again.
“Enough with the biting!”
“You stupid big hairy thing,” a leshy growled, “Do not hurt the Sproutmaw. You have been gifted this chance, not many are.”
I rose an eyebrow, “Uh. . . chance at being devoured by a giant fly trap?”
“A chance at something greater than yourself.” He squatted and the other leshes followed his lead. Now he adopted the authoritative tone. “We wait to be eaten, but must not give in until we are touched! Once touched, we give ourselves fully to the Sproutmaw.”
I sat down, interested in these peoples’ tradition. “Ah, so your friend touched the acid, so he could give himself over.”
I nodded, “What kind of gift is this, exactly?”
“To be a part of the greater whole! You aided us last week, did you not? You destroyed the invaders, fur-person.”
I had helped them, and spent a week celebrating victory in their bioluminescent village, before their chieftain insisted I get a gift. I told the leshy this.
He replied, “We thought it was you. Then you have been given the same blessing as all our warriors. I am commander of the Southbank force. We slew the Metal Monster ourselves.”
The Metal Monster in question was a lumberjack. Not a lumberjack in nickname, but a literal lumberjack—a mech constructed for deforestation. The robots resembled lizards. Bulldozer claws, grinding, shredder teeth, and chainsaw tails. Easily disabled for me, but these leshies weren’t built to fight steel—they were hunks of vegetable.
“You were given this ‘gift’ after winning a battle? What is this greater good?” I kept my eyes on the acid spewer. Still quite slow an excretion. I eyed the ‘throat’ from where I’d fallen. I could possibly crawl back through that way.
“We shall be reborn!” The main leshy danced. He petted the heads of his friends. “Our hero souls shall be returned to the Seedrealm and our bodies absorbed into the Sproutmaw, who will bring forth new life from the flesh of forest kin.”
“No such sin. We engage in Rebirth! The forest will gain a new soul, and ours moves on. Just as your flesh will turn to dust and your dust will feed the grubs, our flesh is devoured and reformed to a new body.”
“You sacrifice yourselves to move onto the afterlife. Brave.”
“It is not sacrifice. Sacrifice means we compromise, give in, let go of that which is important. But we have already done that which is important. We have lived, and been noble in life.”
On the wall, a tiny crying head popped like a zit. The wall birthed an entire body with diminutive limbs. The leshy cried and cried and then climbed up the walls and out of the throat.
“He has been reborn!” said a leshy. “Go off to the village and be schooled in our ways, little one.”
The little leshy’s bum pushed him up into the throat and he disappeared, beginning his journey into his new life. That stalk was the way out. Excellent.
“See? We have lived our lives, and lived them nobly. We will be Reborn. Reincarnation,” he spat, “what sin.”
I smiled, “At the foundation, I think all peoples can agree with noble lives.”
“But us most of all, in our virtue.” He patted his chest.
I tried not to laugh even in earnest as to not offend, and said, “Yes, you most of all.”
Not knowing quite what to do, I spent an hour in dialogue with the leshies, conversing on their intriguing traditions. From dances to philosophy, to the way the lumberjacks demolished and devoured their home. In the end I watched them all get eaten by the plants. As the last baby leshy shimmied his way up the Sproutmaw’s throat, I followed.
I slumped out of the flytrap’s mouth and landed in the thick brush.
A priest stood there in awe of me. “You have been. . . reborn? Have you felt the Rebirth?” He grabbed a bone-tipped spear and jabbed my leg. “He remembers his past! Sinful Reincarnation! The furman has come back to life.” He curled his fists and vines sprouted from the ground, ready to tear me limb from limb.
I panicked, and let my ears drooped. I fell onto the ground and started to whine like a mouseling child.
These creatures had never seen a mouseling before. Their leshy babies were the same size as adults, why wouldn’t mouseling “furman” babies be the same?
“A miracle!” cried the priest. “The fleshy has been Reborn!”
I was carried into town and given feast with the other newborns. Within a week, I grew quite tired of pretending to be young—but if they found out I was the same person, or reincarnated, I could have badly ruined their culture, or at the very least be a monster to them—which I did not want to be.
That is the issue with all of this “blipping” between worlds. I am an invader. Even in my trying to help peoples, I invade. I step on traditions. My presence shakes foundations of religion, and power, and can change entire cultures without my ever having to deal with the consequences.
To these leshies, being eaten by the Sproutmaw was glorious. To my mammalian brain this was cultist, and strange. But what am I to do, kill their Sproutmaw, or even kill them? Once more I’d send shockwaves through an entire region. Even my being a “hero” or a “miracle” was equally as wrong as the contrary.
But what am I to do, nothing?
I choose who I aid, and stick to the decision, for good or ill. And in this case, helping a bunch of onion people from mechanized lumberjack beasts felt better than other decisions I’d made.
About a week into staying with the leshies, and learning of their ways, I marched out into the forest for some fresh air and solitude.
Then I grew tired of solitude, and wanted company of a similar mind.
“Peridot?” I called.
A few moments later, and a tiny purple dragon glistening in green lace appeared. Like a minuscule moth she landed on my knee as I lie against a tree.
“This is a nice planet,” she said, “quite primitive.”
“There are murderous lumberjack robots taking the forest.”
“Well, besides that.” She eyed the village behind us, “You’ve been here in this village some time, haven’t you?”
I nodded, “Top indicates we have a few days left, too.”
“Porbiyo is off in a far desert. He’s cataloging an entire list of flying fauna that make the dunes home.”
“Sounds productive.” I said, “Where are the others?”
“Causing terror and mischief as they so desire. . . though Yizzimis and Bigklau are enjoying a baker’s hospitality on a southern coastline.”
I wanted elaboration on this “baker’s hospitality,” but elaboration evaded me.
“Oh no,” I said. A metal beast skulked in the distance. All of a sudden, a war band of leshies charged through the wood.
“Come, Furman!” The chieftain called.
I cursed. “Well, see you—,” I said, but Peridot was already gone.
We killed the mech quickly. I cut the thing’s head off.
“Now, it is time for your gift!” said the chief.
I groaned, and marched to the Sproutmaw. I spun my top. Only a few days left on this plant planet. I was eaten by the giant flytrap and crawled out same as last time.
And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
I wasn’t about to interrupt the cycle. It wasn’t mine to interrupt.