The enormous beast pinned me to the ring of brick around the fountain. Patrons of the menagerie fled with screams in their wake. The animal handlers fought off the titan’s acidic saliva, but one by one were consumed in the flesh-eating goo.
Above me, a maw opened, and teeth readied to sever my head. Acid dripped onto my fur. I screamed.
From my screaming mouth blew waves of stonefire. Powerful raging flames burnt blue and orange, freezing cold and brilliantly hot at once. The animal screeched and shook its thick skull. Smoke billowed past as acid saliva swirled with the beast’s ire.
I cursed. My struggle did nothing against the beast’s muscle.
Not even stonefire sorcery hurt this thing.
And it was so heavy.
“Where’s that Kaihan helmet of yours?” An all-too familiar voice squealed.
My sorcery-strength fended off the behemoth. The titan growled and licked its gums free of my scorching fire.
“He’s going to bite your head clean off, Opaline. You must be losing your touch.” The voice slithered into my ears again.
The jaws descended upon me, tongue flailing acid. Then, a shadow came over my face.
A porcelain mask. Two black lifeless eyes. A sunhat with a yellow ribbon. He looked like a child’s doll had gone through a painter’s trash bin.
Porbiyo waved to me, “Could you shift a little to the left? The acidic saliva is ruining the reflection on his jaw scales. . .”
“NO,” I growled and summoned all my strength to fend off the beast. Porb stood there as if it were perfectly normal to watch your companion get assaulted by a ten-ton predator.
“Just a little to the left?”
I growled again.
“I think he’s about to eat you,” Porbiyo said, “quite hungry, he is. The handlers in this place don’t quite understand that a predator doesn’t need the meat—he needs the hunt.”
I opened my mouth and let a hot stonefire breath scorch his face.
“Now wait a minute!” He teleported beside me, this time holding a striped bag of popcorn. He knelt just to where I couldn’t turn and breathe stonefire again, “I don’t deserve the bad end of your opal-rat-sorceries. I have done nothing wrong.”
“Will you get this behemoth off of me!”
He snorted and laughed, “You’re giving him the best hunt he’s had in years.” Porb reached his arm out and stacked popcorn on my face. “Want a snack, Ratman? Maybe if you ate something you wouldn’t be so grumpy.”
As a cosmic zoologist, you’d expect Porbiyo to call me mouse, or mouseman, or mouseling. But he never could do what you expect. He claimed “Mice do not exist, and therefore you must be a rat.”
The beast snarled, and its tongue slithered past Porbiyo’s arm to try and taste me. Strangely, the acid did not affect his clothes.
Porbiyo patted the beast’s tongue. He lovingly referred to it as, “A good hungry beastie.”
“Oh please, we can’t die, you and I! We’ll never hear that lullaby.” He shrugged, “We’re damn near immortal, given this gift.”
“More of a curse,” I said.
Porbiyo swirled on his heel, and swung his multicolored coat tails across my nose. The scent of fruit and alcohol grazed my whiskers. He skulked off towards a hot-dog stand, sat on his stool and painted on a large sketchpad against his easel.
He pulled a paintbrush from his outer coat—as he always wore six coats, making him appear quite plump when he really wasn’t—this time the green one. Normally he wore purple, not green, on the outside.
If you’re having trouble getting a picture of him in your head, you aren’t the only one. He practically changed appearance every time we blipped to a new world together. I wasn’t even sure what race he belonged to—human? Beastfolk? Other alien? He never took off his mask, his sunhat, or his plethora of coats.
The only thing consistent about Porbiyo was a male voice and a real passion for fauna. That, and the fact that he was stuck in the same Curse that I was.
A very unfortunate company.
I prayed every day he’d be left behind.
But just when I thought he disappeared, or died. . . there he was, asking me to turn the monster’s head just a little to the left for a better view.
The beast tried another bite, but I managed to kick out of the way with sorcery and swirled red and blue fire to protect myself. I slid across the fountain stone and flipped up onto the fountain lip. The beast raised onto its hind legs and batted a red-furred chest.
Behind the beast dozens of other animals stampeded. Bipeds, quadrupeds, animals of all shapes and sizes. The menagerie-goers cowered behind booths of stuffed animal toys and painted wooden trinkets.
Porbiyo whistled an irritant of a tune. His demeanor was more in line with a painter admiring the sunset, not watching voracious predator slaughter innocents. He tapped his feet and danced on his stool.
“Will you help me?” I drew my spear with my tail, and my saber with my paw. Blue and orange sorcery light shined from my eyes off the fountain waters.
As the beast charged, I dove back through the water in a tunnel of reflected light and unleashed a sorcery—the droplets caressed around my skin.
The water turned to crystal glass at my touch.
As I slid down, the trail sharpened further. And by the time the beast pounced, the thick water-shaped crystals pierced the monster’s shoulders.
I landed on the other side of the fountain and rolled through the courtyard, slamming into a set of thin iron chairs and a table. I tried to charge a stonefire breath again but my Aura was nearly empty. Stonefire sorcery was draining in high volume. This fight was no exception to that.
The crystal turned back into water. I cursed—one stonefire breath and I could have turned the animal and crystal to a lifeless stone statue.
Perhaps I’d get another chance? This thing was very resistant to my stonefire, though. Very few mortals weren’t turned to stone instantly.
The beast roared. I fell back into the table a second time.
A funnel cake fell onto my head. I licked away the powdered sugar and cracked my neck.
“How does that taste?” Porb teleported next to me. He ran his finger along the sugar and tucked it under his mask. “Oh, wow! Excellent! I’ll have to go and get one myself. . .”
“Porbiyo!” I growled at him.
He teleported back to his stool, funnel cake in hand, and waved, “Nearly done! Could you turn him around, please? I need a good look at his back.” He chattered, “Ah, wait! Another look at the face, please! Let me see his jaw, Opaline.”
I hate him. Present tense.
Panting, and eyes burning from such sorcery, I opened my paw. Peridot’s top crystalized above my skin.
The top spiraled a moment against all gravity and quickly fell.
I was running out of time. I needed to slay that thing before I blipped away.
“Turn him around!” Porb asked.
With a boosted jump—some fifty feet—I landed on the screaming beast’s shoulder. I slashed with my saber and drove deep with my spear. The beast waddled back and forth, trying to crush me down with two-meter-thick crab claws.
Intentionally, I kept my back to Porb, so that the animal would stay facing him.
“His back, please! Wrong way!” Porbiyo clapped like an overcompensating parent at their child’s sport game.
Hundreds of terrified citizens sprinted behind him. Animals trampled people, destroyed tents, fires broke out and stuffed animals bled fluffy stuffing into the street. But Porbiyo painted his study and clapped all the way to the finish.
Porbiyo was at home under the neon lights and beasts, but even more so amongst the terror and fright.
I couldn’t get a handle on any weak points. The skin was thick and callused. The hide seemed immune to my sorcery outside the sharp razor’s edge of a crystal spine.
“Delightful!” Porbiyo clapped his hands in excitement. He twirled into the air and lowered gently to the ground, coattails like neon angel wings in his descent. “All finished. . . I do think I even made an improvement or two. Opaline! Deary, how much time is left?”
I jumped off the beast’s shoulders and landed in the fountain. The water cushioned my fall, but my paws still stung when they smacked the stone below.
“What is this thing called?” I cried out, and spun my spear in my tail. I raised it above my head and pulled back like a great sling.
“I don’t do names, only forms.” Porbiyo said.
“What is this thing called!” I screamed.
A handler, who cowered under a popcorn booth, yelled, “Ragmot! Ragmot! A western spotted-back ragmot!”
Porbiyo quickly jotted this down, despite the fact he did not, “do names.”
Despite ragmot being the dumbest name I had ever heard for a ten ton predator, I bowed out of respect, “Farewell, ragmot.” And as the beast opened its jaws and pounced on me, I slung my spear halfway down its throat. The beast gurgled, and choked. And before it suffered I climbed up to the jaws and sent a stonefire breath down its open maw.
From the inside out, the flesh cooked in sorcery.
The ragmot was nothing but a stone statue, now.
The broken fountain poured out into the courtyard like blood from a fresh slaughtered prey. I collapsed. Acid sizzled in my fur, and on my gambeson, and even my scarf. I’d patch the holes later with a red cloth I’d found in the markets a day prior.
“Curses,” I flipped open my Boundless Bag. In the depths of that pocket dimension, a set of glass seashells was ruined by a drop of acid that had sept through.
Porbiyo waddled over, “Those were a gift! From that nautical world. . .”
I eyed him and threw the shells into a trash bin, “You let that thing out of its enclosure.” I motioned to the entire menagerie, where a pack of giant fanged penguins chased an oversized three headed groundhog (which also had frilled ears and an especially plump behind). “You let every last one of these monsters free.”
The menagerie handlers who survived subdued the penguins, though the large-booty groundhog used this distraction as a chance to first eat the hot dog cart and secondly burrow into the sewer lines, though his rump did get stuck, as he was too thick to crawl beneath the manhole.
The penguins jabbed the groundhog’s rump like a clan of ireful woodpeckers. Eventually the rodent kicked itself down, and the penguins pursued one by one.
Porbiyo shrugged and clutch his sketchbook tight to his chest. “These places are prisons. I refuse to take records of confined, malnourished, socially inept animals. Look at that one!” He pointed to a particularly aloof fanged penguin. It nibbled a sign which said, “No skating.” Porbiyo continued, “Imagine the brilliance of this animal in the wild. And here it is, reduced to a sideshow buffoon.” The penguin choked on the sign, but was revived by a stampeding scaled buffalo which so happened to run over its chest.
The penguin was then flattened by an entire herd of the scaled buffalo. He survived, but his life would never be the same.
Porbiyo said, “Look at this torture!”
“People died here, today.” I slapped the stone behemoth, “This thing—.”
“Western spotted-back ragmot.”
“Whatever it is, this thing killed a dozen people. Not to mention what else killed in other parts of the park. . .” I sighed and stood. I dusted off my bum and sheathed my rapier. “I’d cut you down right now.”
Porbiyo cocked his head, “We both know who’d win that fight,” he flipped through the pages of his sketchbook. Hundreds of drawings, which moved like a three-dimensional image. Thousands of animals perfectly captured by his work. This included a moving-picture of the western spotted-back ragmot.
As I stretched and tried to aid the animal handlers, Porbiyo drew portraits of the fanged penguins, the giant three headed groundhog and all the other beasts of the park. The particularly injured fanged penguin, called a lilibop (another ridiculous name), was painted directly into Porbiyo’s sketchbook, soul and all.
“Did you eat anything yet, or still a grump?” Porb teleported beside me as I sifted through rubble.
“I’m still angry with you.”
“It’s not healthy to hold a grudge.” He giggled, “Think about it this way, you were—.”
A city square. Far above a river. Down below, skyscrapers, flying cars. Night time. Speeder-bikes and speeder-scooters zoomed past. Pedestrians, not human but some blue-skinned version of a humanoid, stared in awe.
Porbiyo completed his thought, “Think about it this way, you were here, and you stopped the ragmot from killing any more people. You gave it one last glorious hunt. A great way to go!”
I tried to punch him, but he teleported behind me.
With a sigh, I said, “I don’t care about the ragmot, Porb.”
“So you don’t care about helpless animals fed horrifying diets and forced to sit in one place for mortal-kind’s amusement?” He summoned the lilibop from his sketchbook. The pathetically injured animal twitched on the ground and made a horrible moan with a twitch of its flipper. “See what captivity does?”
“I care. I also care that you released everything into a crowded park and let it kill dozens of people. Ask me next time and we can take your animals to some natural habitat.”
“The ragmot was hungry. The park was full of food.”
“I’m hungry, but I don’t go around stealing food or killing people’s pets!” I stomped to the railing to get a good look at the city. I tossed the top into the air. A long spin, it hovered above the cityscape a moment. Beautiful. “We have a lot of time here. Days, maybe weeks. Going to go find a place to bunk.”
I stomped down the street, through crowds of pedestrians a meter taller than I. Porbiyo skipped beside me—taller than the average human male. His pockets jingling beside my ears with paints and brushes.
“Just like the good old days, wouldn’t you say?” He gave a long breath. “Before the gremlins, and all that time spent in one place. . . tired me out! What, fifty-four cycles on one planet?”
“Yeah, fifty-five! But here we are, WorldWalkers again. More beasties, more magics, more abusers to be culled by their own pets. . .”
I said nothing.
“That top of yours. . .” he twirled his finger in mime to the trinket, “she gave you that as a gift, didn’t she? She’s never given me a gift. Never! Not once.”
“I wonder why.”
“Because gifts are for pity. I am nothing to pity.” Porbiyo nudged me. Even being touched by him annoyed me. “Speaking of pity gifts, where is that study I gave to you?”
I stopped in the street.
“What?” He slouched, “You didn’t lose that, did you! It took me months to pull that off. It’s not easy to grab a soul from death and bring it back.”
With a big smile, I reached into my trouser pockets on my bum and brought out a scroll buttoned inside. I kept a lot of things in my Boundless Bag. This scroll was more of a pocket item—to keep close.
The scroll was no bigger than my paw palm. A nice, mouseling-sized sketch. Unrolled and the minuscule drawing was a divinely detailed masterwork of a beep—a bee sheep.
Porb wiped the “sweat” from his mask. The gesture was entirely unnecessary. He said, “I’d thought you lost it for a moment.”
A tiny, fluffy sheep with bumblebee colors, wings, and antennae and eyes three times the size they should have been, my Beep had been with me since the beginning. Since the very beginning, before I met Peridot.
“Killed me, to see the poor thing die like that, all to save you,” Porbiyo shook his head, “glad the magic worked! Us sentients should be the ones sacrificing our lives, not the animal kingdom.”
I tapped Porbiyo’s painting and the Beep manifested before me. Somewhere between the size of a sheep and a bee, the creature stayed about as large as a housecat. No legs. Only fluffy wool and wings. The poor side effect of some human experiments to mass produce honey and wool on my homeworld. She hovered in the air, bahing and buzzing in circles around me. I gave her a big hug.
I had spent so much time contemplating my new path, and mourning the old one, that I forgot about my trusty Beep.
“A pity gift,” Porbiyo motioned to the Beep, “Peridot and I have both given you presents. Return the favor?”
“I thought you weren’t to be pitied?”
“You should pity the fact that I have never been given a gift.” Porb shrugged, “Besides. . . maybe painting Beep’s soul was less in pity for Beep’s death, and more to make sure you two could be together. You were so glum in her sacrifice.”
My mouth dropped, “You did something for me? For anything other than an animal?”
“You are a rat at heart.”
“I’m a mouse.”
“I know a rat when I see one,” Porbiyo teleported into the air above us. He gestured to the many confused pedestrians walking the concrete square, “To all these onlookers, here is your Ratman.”
"Porb? You are an asshole."
He contemplated the unfamiliar curse, then said, "That doesn't make sense."
"It does where I come from."
His flying carpet—adorned in a particularly graphic stitching of animals stampeding over humanoids—kept him above our heads. He saluted his sunhat and said, “I’ll be off now, my resilient rodent. . . this city is quite wealthy. I’ll bet they have a fantastic zoo! I cannot wait to watch it burn. . . to see beasties climb these skyscrapers and leap from flying car to car! All the predators shall feast tonight. Toodle-do!” He flew off on his flying carpet.
“Sting him, lots of venom this time,” I patted Beep.
Beep pursued, thrusting her stinger. Porb kept teleporting out of the way. Beep buzzed with voracious enthusiasm. Porb insisted, “I painted you back to life! I can take it away!” But these were empty threats.
If there were one thing in the multiverse that Porbiyo would never harm, it was his own damn painting.