Pasho adjusted her spectacles, big owlish panes of glass set in wireframes. Thanks to the soft rubber pads, they sat comfortably on her button nose. Their arms reached back into her bob of mousey brown hair and perched upon round ears. These were unfortunately not pointed to match her faerie features.
“So, the wander is said to happen only once every hundred years,” she announced to the air, which smelled of hazelnut, and she didn’t know why.
The plains of Anteluk were not only plains in the traditional sense of green grass as far as the eye could see with little more than barren ground patches and the occasionally stubborn tree jutting up from those patches like a middle finger to the natural order; it was…plain as well. Boring. Devoid of anything remotely exciting, except perhaps for the giant Hob five feet behind the young woman. It sneezed so hard that bogeys ejected from its massive nostrils and made its jowls flap. That was modestly exciting, though the Hob probably didn’t think so.
It was tall and round in the middle, flabby but with a hidden strength underneath the extra pounds that was common among its kind. Pasho kept the pack servant rather clean, a feat of itself as Hobgobs weren’t fond of smelling good or picking up after themselves. This one was no different, raising a broad and extra-long arm of corded muscle under thick hide and hair to wipe snot down the length from its bulbous, red nose.
“Bless you, Grok.”
“Fankoo,” it replied, smelling its own sinus expulsion down the arm curiously.
Pasho made a retching sound but stifled it politely. Hobs weren’t bright or hygienic. They were strong and generally not violent giantkin. This made the creatures suitable servants for the Academie Dimenssionae like her and her partner. They traveled in twos, threes if you count the Hob.
Pasho’s partner scampered around from behind Grok. He helped himself to the stores of food the hob carried on its back using an intricate, magical pack the A.D. called “The Harness.”
Anything could be attached to The Harness. No matter the size or scale, it would shrink to fit upon Grok’s back. Pasho’s companion kept a steady supply of bizarre eats everywhere they visited because of it.
Eliden Theorycrafter was tall once. Now, he tended to hunch at the shoulders, and his face carried the telltale lines of age. Particularly, those lines liked to congregate at his forehead and around his mouth and eyes. They often migrated based on his expression at the time.
At the moment, they were gathered around his munching mouth. It chomped down on a long, red cylinder settled between a tiny loaf of bread. These were drizzled with a cherry red and yellow sauce with chopped onions sprinkled over them.
“Why are you always eating?” Pasho sneered. She wasn’t angry with the man. It was the frustration of someone so used to another’s particular buffoonery that it now annoyed them enough to complain.
“Why does Grok leave ten-pound piles of steaming excrement behind every three hours like clockwork? Nature! That’s why. Besides, these “hot dogs” are delicious.” Eliden rambled off topic, admiring the food in his hand. “Neither dogs nor particularly hot. The addition of catsup and ground mustard gives the nitrate-rich sausage inside a tingling taste. The onions are just because I love onions.”
Pasho huffed, rolling her eyes. The wind of the Anteluk plain rustled through her drab wool robe bound by a leather belt at her waist. She wore leggings and a tunic beneath them for warmth and safety but rarely thought about her appearance beyond the robe. As such, she often stitched the names of the places they visited into it with aesilk, a magical thread. By now, her robe was a mystical piece of armor. So threaded with aesilk, it might as well be chainmail.
Eliden only cared about eating his way through the cosmic.
Grok stared at the thin, smoke-wisps of clouds that rolled by while scratching its backside.
“Can you focus, please?” Pasho asked, displeased.
“Yes.” Came the obvious reply, which didn’t help the situation. Eliden was fully capable of focusing, after all.
“When the suns set beyond Allpeaks to the south…” Pasho began. “The wander begins, and I would appreciate it if we didn’t miss it. A one hundred year wait is….”
“Absolutely inconsequential to us, Pasho.” Eliden interrupted. He chomped down on the “Hot Dog” and left a smear of red and yellow at the corners of his lips.
Pasho fumed, puffing her smooth cheeks out like a chipmunk. Grok disrupted the argument with a judicious passing of gas that sounded like the flutter of a flag in high wind.
“Can we go -please-?” Pasho asked, emphasizing the last word.
Eliden inhaled through his nose loudly, which seems counterintuitive when a Hob farts. The elder investigator seemed pleased.
“Elderberry. Hint of lime. HAH! The glazed ham!” Theorycrafter chortled. Grokthnar joined him in the laughter while nodding its massive, jowled head. The giantkin looked like a hound dog, its gray eyes set in droopy sockets, and its flabby cheeks bobbed up and down.
“Uggggh.” The girl lamented, storming ahead of the two strange males.
“Come along, Grokko. We’re off to adventure!” Eliden exclaimed, following his companion. The hob trundled behind them at its slowest pace, given its great size, smiling childishly still.
Hours passed under the twin suns’ slow descent to the south. It cast long shadows of the three across the short grass plains and sparse trees. As they drew closer to their chosen vantage point, the group began to see clusters of indigenous people gathered under the shade of the occasional trees. None were particularly large, but their branches and leaves left ample shade in the dying light of this auspicious day.
The people under those trees were unlike Pasho, Eliden, or even Grok. They seemed disturbed by the presence of the giantkin more than the alien beings that trekked ahead of it. Some huddled closer to their tree trunk, and others stood in defense.
They were tall and spindly, gangly of limb, and incredibly thin. Their heads were ovoid and sat on long necks that were perfectly normal to them yet abnormal to the two humans and their pack servant. They wore skins around their waists, most likely to hide their genitalia. These were adorned with small crude tools and weapons hooked onto braided strings. Some attached brightly colored feathers, claws, and bones to these.
“The Ugotuo are amphibious humanoids, Pasho,” Eliden explained to his young colleague. “Ampho-sapiens, I call them. They are wary but generally kind people. They cultivate a sort of swamp-kelp that’s quite delicious if you like salty cabbage anyways.”
Pasho did not like salty cabbage, and she wondered over Eliden’s obsession with food. She was here for the experience of collecting data. Eliden’s ramblings often held nuggets of wisdom between his culinary fascinations, which was what the girl clung to most.
“I know that,” she muttered. “I’ve read your studies,” she added much lower, refusing to admit that she admired the strange chronicler's intellect.
Eliden continued talking, unaware.
“After each wander, the land left behind is so rich with water and nutrients from the last hundred years of cultivation beneath the Apexia; the Ugotuo people move right in behind it. Oh! Did you know that the mycelia are not only a powerful psychotropic but offer incredible rejuvenation as well? The fungus spreads through the body upon ingestion. It repairs internal damage and kills disease and infection. It even recalibrates the gut’s biometry. It’s quite fascinating, and the trip is spectacular.”
Pasho stopped, looking back at Eliden with a raised brow over her large spectacles. “Trip, sir?”
“Oh yes, I once dreamed I was a wolf devouring an entire caribou. I could feel the hot blood dripping down my face, the squish of raw meat and entrails between my teeth. It was thrilling…and the sex, Ohhh my word!” Eliden paused, closing his eyes with a most elated expression on his weathered face.
Pasho groaned, uncomfortable. “You had sex with a dead deer?” She asked despite herself.
“Heavens, no!” Eliden cried out, shocked. He scowled at Pasho. His fantasy was ruined. “An Ugotuan female, of course. She was lovely. Six breasts, each filled with m-”
“ELIDEN!” Pasho yelped, forcing the rambling man to close his mouth.
An awkward silence fell over the two until Eliden Theorycrafter recovered. “A-at any rate, the Mycelia Apexia is a coveted alchemical ingredient to our order’s chemistry department. So we must observe the wander, as you know, but also ensure it goes off without a hitch. Disruption of this delicate and long-spanning ecosystem could also have dire consequences for the Ugotuo and us.”
Pasho calmed, and a flash of outrage over Eliden’s sexual encounter subsided as he changed the subject. She hated his flippant hedonisms. And yet, his wisdom was far broader than any other Chronicler in the Academie. Pasho often wondered if Eliden’s lifestyle contributed to that, though she feared the answer. There were far too many ways to die in the cosmic multiplicity. Unnecessary risks seemed foolhardy to the girl.
Another hour of marching passed, an hour in which the smears of catsup and mustard dried on Eliden’s cheeks. Soon enough, the three travelers came upon crude pavilions. They were clustered together in tight circles. Each is made of skins bound with the Ugotuan braiding and draped over tall sticks dug into the dirt. They provided shade to the tribes that gathered for the wander celebration.
“Grok, stay here,” Eliden said.
The hob nodded, then flopped back onto its behind to sit with a thump. It shifted this way and that to smooth out the dirt and grass under its rump.
“Get your book out, son,” Theorycrafter said after the hob had settled. “Practice, Practice, Practice!” He intoned, waving a finger above his head.
Pasho stared at the encampment with wide-eyed wonder while Eliden handled Grokthnar. Her heart fluttered at the chance to learn about the Ugotuo up close. She craved the knowledge of witnessing the hundred-year migration. Now, she wanted to know more about the Ampho-Sapiens too.
Grokthnar pulled at a pouch on the vest of his harness, opening it. Two fingers plucked a Hob-sized tome from inside that shouldn’t fit in there. The giantkin opened it to a page marked by a bright yellow ribbon. It squinted at the page.
“Sssssssseeeeeeeee…grrrrrrrrrokfffffffnarrrrr rrrrrreeeeeeeeed.” It groaned.
“Ah, no, no, no. Not fff. Th. Th.” Eliden lisped, showing his tongue between his lips to the hob. "Fuh sound comes from biting your lip. Th sound comes from the tongue.”
“THHH!” Grok intoned, spraying spittle.
“Yes, excellent. Practice!”
“O-kay,” Grok said, lisping spittle all over himself while trying to master the noise.
Pasho smiled back at them as Eliden caught up to her side, satisfied. The older man brushed a hand through his hair in a lazy effort to compose himself. He adjusted his own plain verdant green robe. Eliden kept his unfolded, worn more like a long coat than a closed robe unless it was very cold out. Underneath, he wore an off-white tunic and brown breeches with thick leather boots on his feet. His belt carried a small harness of its own, dimensional pockets and all.
“Shall we?” Eliden asked, offering his hand to the girl as if he were asking her to join him on the dance floor of a formal ball.
Pasho blushed despite herself, slapping the hand with her palm instead of taking it. Girlish excitement overwhelmed her, and she jolted forward to run toward the encampment. Eliden called out to her to stop. The Ugotuan guards at the perimeter lifted stone spears, wary of her rapid approach.
“Calm down!” Eliden said, drawing nearer calmly with his hands held up. He made a bubbly, gurgly noise that the guards reacted to with surprise. Their frog-like eyes blinked, round domes of a greenish gray, milky swirl. They burbled to each other and then relaxed stances.
Eliden bowed low, sweeping his arms back and out at his sides. Another gurgling emitted from his throat. The Ugotuan defenders stood, nodding their heads.
Pasho meekly sidled closer to Eliden. “Sorry…” she murmured.
“Quite alright. They understand who we are and why we’ve come. So long as we do not provoke them, we may celebrate in peace.”
Pasho let Eliden take the lead as they walked through the circle of tents, now wary of the Ugotuan people and their crude but deadly weapons. That fear subsided as a sound rose from the gathered. She turned about with shining eyes to witness all the ovoid heads around her lifted up. Flat, wide mouths were round now, each individual emitting a single tone in glorious harmony.
Pasho’s heart beat fast in her chest. The language of the Ugotuan was nothing like this. It was beauty in simplicity and community. All voices as one.
Tears began to form in the lids of her eyes as she listened, though they spilled free when she turned her full circle. At the end, she found Eliden had sat down on the ground; his legs crossed and tucked under him to hum the same pitch.
The girl clamped her hands over her mouth to avoid making a sound that might disrupt the joyful noise. The resonance of the divine.
When it concluded, the Ugotuans lowered their heads and fell to a single, shared moment of silence. Eliden joined them, familiar with the practice, while Pasho observed still. Soon, the burbly, gurgly croaks of chatter returned. Pasho watched her companion gather himself up off the ground.
Eliden lifted. He stretched his arms over his head and splayed his fingers out wide.
”The Wander has begun,” he announced, wheeling his limbs before they fell to his sides again.
Pasho waited with bated breath for him to say something else, drawn in by the tone and timbre of his voice.
The enchantment broke, and Pasho staggered.
Eliden seemed not to notice, approaching one of the dried reed baskets under a skin-tarp. Two Ugotuans sat beneath the tarp beside the basket. A male holding the webbed hand of a female who nursed four of her babes at once.
“Erm, may I? It’s been so long since I’ve had some,” Theorycrafter said, motioning toward the basket with a long index finger.
The male bowed his head with serenity, waving his free hand.
Eliden mimicked the bow, plucking a few dried and salted kelp leaves from the top of the basket’s pile. “Thank you. Thank you. And my condolences. Eh! I mean…”
He gurgled and burbled at the two solemnly while Pasho watched. Both Ugotuans responded to his sound. Each expressed a shared sorrow in their large eyes as they looked at each other. Finally, they looked up at the human traveler again with warmth.
Eliden excused himself, backing away with the kelp in hand. He offered one to Pasho.
“What do you mean ‘my condolences’?” Pasho asked, accepting a long leaf and pushing a small piece between her lips. It was surprisingly crunchy and salted but not overwhelming.
“There’s a reason Ugotuan females have six breasts, as with the Earth Pig and its many teets. Ugotuan females birth sets of six, though some do not survive! Weakness, gestational failure, predators, even illness if the mother has not supped on the Mycelia Apexis in some time. It is common to have deaths amongst a litter. I thanked them by sharing in their grief.”
Eliden spoke firmly of all this. His words were flavored not with salt but with a staccato rhythm that finished on the strongest sound of each word as he explained them to Pasho. She understood, empathized in a way only a female could, and looked back at the mother.
Theorycrafter crunched kelp like potato chips, which he was also fond of, and walked to the head of the gathering circle. Here most of the Ugotuan people had come, including the leaders of the tribes.
Each one wore a headdress of sticks and feathers, signifying their status. Pasho was surprised that half as many tribal leaders were female as male. They croaked, gestured, and gurgled at each other quite animately. She assumed they were deep in negotiations as leaders of groups often were when together.
Beneath the loud chatter of kings and elders, there was a vibration that she mistook for the tone of the tents and the way the Ugotuan people communicated. After witnessing the communal call, she could not fathom any sound more incredible. However, the vibration grew louder from a soft hum in the dirt under their feet to rumbling like a landslide.
Its arrival hushed the tribe leaders. Their heads turned toward the offset horizon. That is to say, the darkening skyline the twin suns did not lower toward. Pasho lifted on her tippy toes, trying to see.
Eliden chuckled, munching dried kelp with a tickled humor spreading his lips.
“Here it cooooooooomes…,” he sang.
The canopy of great trees from that horizon line came, spreading into the deep blue night like creeping vines up a wall. They heaved from left to right, a loping, slow dance that heralded the trunks and stalks of the Apexis. The ground shook beneath it. The earth cracked and was slashed open by the tendrils of the mystical tree. They snapped out and slapped down, then pulled to drag the mass across the plains.
From a distance, the tree tops that jutted from those massive root tendrils waved and wiggled like pennants and pom-poms, giving the wander a festive appearance that delighted Pasho. She clapped her hands together and squealed with glee. The sound drew the eye of a few Ugotuans who were not accustomed to such high-pitched sounds.
“Shall we take a closer look?” Eliden asked.
“Oh! Can we?!” Pasho cried out; her voice awed and breathlessly hopeful.
“Only for a minute, Pasho. My defensive aural will not last longer than that. I’m afraid your aesilk armor will not protect you from a tree branch the size of a totem pole landing on you. Give me your hand, and I’ll co-locate us.”
Pasho did so eagerly, damning the consequences. Ever since she took the job of Chronicler alongside Eliden Theorycrafter, she saw the impossible. Though he annoyed her endlessly with his deviations and odd obsessions, there was no finer guide nor mentor in the whole of the Academie Dimenssionae than Eliden the Blue Mage.
Eliden spoke the ancient tongue, a language the Ugotuans could not even fathom, much less hear. The air around the two humans crackled with aetheric energy. As the spell was cast, they shimmered like a glitch in a video game.
Seventy miles ahead, Pasho and Eliden reappeared amidst the crashing root tendrils. Pasho shrieked like a child on a roller coaster. Frightened but excited, she ducked behind Eliden for safety.
Above them, the Apexis Core hovered. A great bundle of branches housed the heart and soul responsible for the plains of Anteluk. Ahead of the core, attached by a supple branch like a mammoth's trunk, marched the front of the Apexis Tree. Its first copse. Trees taller than the tallest towers and wider still thumped upon the ground.
Root limbs like octopus tentacles smashed into the dirt and dragged the mass onward. The left and right copse heaved, alternating, so the core was not rocked too much by its crab-like trundle. Behind, the last copse swept along the dirt and, in its wake, left the marshland that Eliden spoke of.
There was so much noise around them that Pasho couldn’t ask questions or even be heard if she screamed in Eliden’s ear. Between the slap and drag of tree roots, the boom of actual trees lifting and landing, and the creak of wood having to mobilize itself anyways, there was no room for small noises from small creatures like them.
The Apexis Core did not glow, yet it pulsed. Like the steady beat of a calm heart, it pulsed amidst the chaos of its trees and roots, ambling across the plains. Pasho could feel the resonance more than hear it. She was soon overtaken by an irresistible urge to reach out toward the tone. She wanted nothing more than to connect with it.
A single vine wiggled down from on high, like the tip of a God’s finger extending toward the grasping hand of a mortal. The Apexis Core welcomed her to join with it and know eternal peace. Yet before enlightenment was granted to the girl, before the vine penetrated Eliden’s shield and touched Pasho’s shaking fingertip, the world jerked like a rubber band snapping back to shape after being stretched.
Pasho shuddered, hand still raised up toward the sky. The Apexis Core was no longer above them; only open sky painted in black and blue on one side. On the other were deep red and orange hues where the suns faded past the peaks. Eliden scowled at the girl until she put her hand down sheepishly.
“What is the first rule of Chronicling, young lady?” he said with all the haughty disdain of a school principal.
“Observe only. Do not engage.”
“Mm. Quite. The Apexis Tree may be beneficial to this world’s ecosystem, and its mycelial network brings us health and invigoration, but!” Eliden snapped the final syllable, ensuring Pasho paid close attention to his scorn.
“It is still a fungus, and its primary objective is only to propagate itself, which requires what?”
“Organic tissue to feed on….,” Pasho admitted, lowering her head. Her mind was no longer clouded by the pulse of the Apexis Core, and she realized her mistake. ”Forgive me. It was a lapse in judgment.” The young magus lowered her head.
Eliden softened the instant her head fell, knowing full well he’d hit his mark to impress upon her the danger. As such, he reached out and mussed the girl’s brown hair up but good.
“You’re a fine student, Pasho. I’d rather not see you devoured by fungus…or anything else for that matter.”
Pasho giggled under the affection, pushing her spectacles up onto her blushing nose bridge. “Thanks.”
“Now, Chronicler. Observe!” Eliden said then, withdrawing his hand and sweeping a gesture outward.
Pasho quit thinking selfishly. She looked around, noticing that the two had returned to their spot in the circle of pavilions again. Not only that, but the gathering place had turned into a celebration. Ugotuans played instruments as crude as their weapons. Some rattled the insides of tortoise shells with bones to make twinkling tones. Others pattered at skin drums. Some shook bones and shells on braids attached to short sticks while they gyrated and stretched about in intricate dances.
Pasho’s eyes widened, drinking in the festivities before her. “Wow!”
Eliden watched as well, having seen all these many times before but never once taking it for granted.
To Pasho’s surprise, Theorycrafter jumped out from her side and joined the dancers. His arms and legs wheeled about, following the rhythm of the Ugotuan around him. He was only a half-step behind the routine. Laughter erupted from the man like a volcano fit to burst. It resounded from deep inside him where his most potent emotions lie.
The girl with the spectacles watched her companion gyrating amongst aliens as if he were one of them. One of Eliden’s most coveted traits was his great intellect. Yet if Pasho Pyr wanted to learn one thing from the Green Wizard? She wanted to learn to live like him. Like a child, seeing everything he’d seen before with fresh eyes and excitement.
Pasho roamed around the dancing circle, keeping one eye on Eliden until she had no choice but to turn her back on him. She left him to his reverie. Her gaze settled on the horizon, where the Apexis Tree rumbled across the line where sky and land met. So far away now, yet magnificent all the same. A great colossus of change transforming the arid plains of Anteluk.
She couldn’t wait to share her memories with the Mnesis Machine: where all Chroniclers deposit their thoughts and remembrances to benefit the infinite generations.
Grokthnar and the Ugotuan Games
When Eliden and Pasho returned to the Hob outside the tentcampment after the wander had passed, the two were surprised to find that the giantkin had acquired not only a necklace of rainbow-colored shells and feathers, meaning some sort of status among the Ugotuan people, but the Hob also held a six-foot club carved from a petrified tree. It was meant to be a walking stick for an Ugotuan, but Grokthnar was so big that it had the dimensions of a cane or umbrella in his hands. Burned down the length of the club were symbols that Eliden marveled at.
“Ugotuan script??! How ever did you come by this spectacular treasure, Grokko?!”
Grok shrugged its round, bare shoulders. The necklace clattered and clunked musically.
“Grok read book. Skinny frogmans make one noise. Lots of skinny frogmans come. Skinny frogmans fun-fight. Grok like fun-fight. Grok play too! Grok Win! Skinny Frogmans give Grokfff….” The giant paused, pursing its thick lips, its greyish tongue tip poking through. “Tthhhnar pretty necklace and-and-and stick! See!” He lifted and shook the necklace, making more music with it, then showed off his stick.
Pasho clapped for the simple creature and how happy he was.
Eliden looked over the writing burned into the wood, grinning from ear to ear.
“Well, my guess is that this is the champion’s pole. The strongest on the plains of Anteluk bears this rod, which he may make into a spear if he so chooses. It looks like you’re now the great plains warrior, Grok!”
This concerned the giantkin, whose face screwed up in dismay. Its lower lip pouted, and its bushy, thick eyebrows lowered over its eyes.
Pasho was perplexed. “Grok? What’s wrong?” she asked, stepping closer to the hob.
“Grok not be champion. Grok go with Eliden and Pasho?”
Eliden smiled warmly, understanding. “We would never leave you behind, dear friend.”
Pasho nodded, smiling up at the creature as well.
Grok’s flabby face smoothed. Its lips spread before it heaved up onto massive flat feet and thumped toward the encampment. Pasho almost ran after, but Eliden held her back with an arm.
The two observed Grokthnar, Champion of the Plains of Anteluk, stride to the tentcampment. He turned his head this way and that way to the shock and worry of many an Ugotuan. The hob seemed to find what he was looking for. It thrust the pole out toward an Ugotuan warrior with an old scar down his chest.
“Grok keep necklace. You frogman, strongest frogman. You champion now. Grok go with friends!” It bellowed proudly, leaving the bewildered Ugotuan people behind.
As the childish giantkin bounded toward Pasho and Eliden, the Green Wizard chuckled. “I imagine we’ll hear all about the legend of Grok next time we come round….”
“Next time? The wander won’t be for another hundred years,” Pasho reminded him.
Eliden Theorycrafter shrugged. “Absolutely inconsequential to us.”