Friday, July 7, 2017

The Bone Maze

It was a near thing, killing Gar. "GAR EAT!" he shouted, huge legs striding faster now, bigger than the biggest stalagmites, great feet shaking the ground. Eri ran for her life down the valley of the Bone Maze, approaching the pores where her own tribe lived. Probably the braver ones were crouched at the entrances now, expecting to see a gruesome end to the cleverest, fleetest, most redheaded kid they knew.

She looked back and gasped. Gar was running crouched over, his single great red eye fixated, mouth open in an avid smile to reveal teeth that would have shamed a dead dog. She was fast, but no one could sprint faster than a giant eighty feet tall. "GAR CATCH!" he roared, delighted with himself.

He snatched with his hand, and would have had her; but Eri leapt for the wireweed rope she had spent so much time making, these past months. Far above her on the Maze wall, where the line looped around a simple wooden spool, her best friend Tirkel dislodged the bag of rocks attached to the rope's other end, eighty feet up, which dropped down and pulled her swiftly into the air, jerking her arms so bad she thought they'd tear from her sockets.

As she flew out of his grasp, Gar batted at her like someone trying to get rid of a fly, and yelled wordlessly in frustration. When she reached the ledge she let go the rope and dropped down, scrambling for the pore-cave where Tirkel had also retreated. No sooner had she dived into the cave when Gar's enormous fingers slammed into its opening, one of them actually hitting her, sending her flying. But Gar couldn't fit his thumb in, too – they'd relied on that – and though she was half-stunned, Tirkel grabbed her hands and pulled her further into the tunnel.

"NO FAIR!" Gar shouted. "TASTY KIDS NOT PLAY FAIR!"

"What's fair about a giant chasing a kid?" Tirkel said, eyes wide with fear.

"Nothing," Eri said breathlessly. "That's why we're doing this. Quick, get the juice." Hurrying, they each grabbed a big gourd of bittermoss juice, which gave off a powerful, acrid odor, making their eyes water, and then crept along the edges of the tunnel.

"You can't catch me, Gar!" Eri taunted. "You can't even see me, I bet!"

Obligingly, Gar put his eye right up to the cave opening – it was right at his eye level – and that's when they threw the juice.

Gar's scream was truly horrible. It seemed to shake the very world, making them clutch their ears in pain. She hadn't known anything could be that loud. "GAR'S EYE! NASTY KIDS! GAR KILL!"

"The doll," Eri said, staggering to the back of the cave again. Though half-blind, Gar bashed his fist against the cave entrance, sending dust and splinters flying. But together Eri and Tirkel lifted up the mannequin they had made.

The mannequin was just Eri's size, and dressed like she was in a red-dyed smock. She'd figured Gar would remember the color of the smock, at least, if he could still see at all; but hopefully he wouldn't notice that it wasn't a kid, but just a giant doll made entirely of pop-pop mushrooms stuffed into mesh wireweed bags.

That's how she had come up with the idea, sitting by Sudsy Stream with Tirkel all those months ago, safe underground. They had brought a bunch of pop-pops they'd found outside, in a twist of the Maze far distant. They were great explorers, were Eri and Tirkel; but some days were good for nothing but sucking on lichen jerky and tossing pop-pops into the water to watch them burst.

"Do you think you could kill a giant?" she'd asked.

"Do you think you could fly like a bat?" Tirkel replied, joking.

He tossed another round mushroom into the stream. When they hit the water they would pop! and almost instantaneously grow to ten times their size. They were a fun enough toy that you could trade them for food, but mostly Eri and Tirkel preferred to pop them themselves.

"But it's not fair," she said. "The giants eat kids all the time. Gar One-Eye ate Jon Rustykin."

Tirkel shrugged. "Giants eat kids. Kids eat mushrooms. But you don't hear the mushrooms asking how they could kill a kid." And that's when it occurred to her.

Together, blinking away dust, they set the mannequin up in the holes they'd made for its "feet," just outside the mouth of the tunnel. Then they leapt away from the danger.

"I'm too fast for you, Gar!" Eri yelled from the safety of the tunnel. "I'm standing right here, and you'll never eat me!"

They saw Gar's one eye narrow, and then with a roar of delight, he snatched up the mannequin in a fist like a giant boulder. "HA! HAHAHA! STUPID KID IS SLOW, NOT FAST! NOW GAR EAT!" With great chortling sounds, he dropped the figure into his gaping maw.

Together the two kids crept on their bellies back to the mouth of the tunnel. For a minute Gar kept chuckling to himself, swallowing massively. Then the chuckling stopped. His eye widened and his face turned red, then purple.

He clutched at his throat, drove his fingers down it. He fell to his knees. After all his immense shouting, the silence of his struggle was eerie.

Finally he managed to say something. "Erp," he said, and his neck exploded.

Gobbets of giant flesh splatted against the Maze walls, some of them landing in the tunnel behind them. Nearly beheaded, Gar One-Eye fell backwards, landing with a tremendous boom on the valley floor. In the silence that followed, they could just hear the occasional pop of a mushroom expanding.

Slowly all the kids of Eri and Tirkel's tribe, the Greenfaces, came out of their tunnels, hundreds of small figures in their smocks and loincloths and rags. Their faces were awed and wondering. They crept up to the body, which nearly filled the valley floor, and the braver among them poked the giant's hairy flesh. Then they looked up at Eri and Tirkel, standing upon their ledge high overhead. Suddenly someone whooped, and like a dam breaking, the whole tribe broke out cheering. It was even louder than the giant's voice.

*

The cheering was cut short by the sound of enormous footsteps coming closer. Like rabbits dodging for cover at a hawk's shadow, the kids scattered, diving for their holes. That sound always meant danger for kids.

High as they were, Eri and Tirkel saw the giants first, coming around a bend of the Maze. There were two, both well known: the female Groma Bigtooth, and the particularly ugly male, covered in pustulant sores, called Deek Rotflesh. When Groma saw Gar's body she stopped dead, with a comical gasp, so Deek stumbled into her. He almost knocked her over, and she scrambled back, perhaps afraid of falling onto Gar's body. "Gar!" she said.

"Gar!" Deek echoed, in amazement and fear.

"Neck all blown up," she observed.

"How Gar dead?" Deek asked, looking around suspiciously. "Who kill Gar?"

"We did!" Eri declared, stepping forward to her ledge, so they could see her.

"Giants kill kids," Groma argued. "Kids not kill giants."

"Well, these kids do!" Eri set her hands on her hips. "And we'll do it again! We have a new weapon – a magic weapon that can blow a giant's head right off!"

The two giants looked uncertain, which was a rare look for a giant. "Look at Gar!" Eri commanded. "If you don't want to end up like him, you and the other giants will stay away from this part of the Maze from now on! Understand?"

The two exchanged a glance, but Gar was far more persuasive in death than he ever had been in life. "Deek not want head blown up," Deek said, and turned to go.

"Giants not die in Maze," Groma persisted. "Giants die in Heartcave."

"Get out of here!" Eri screamed suddenly. "Get out and don't come back, or I'll blow your ugly heads off! Right now!"

With a last frightened glance, Groma turned and followed Deek away.

*

Those were good days, unlike any the kids had known before. They went out in daylight – well, what passed for daylight in the Maze, a sort of lessening of the gloom – and gathered bubblefruit from nearby. The more courageous went and swam in the pool by Dimm Falls.

Many didn't, of course. They murmured that it was unnatural, that soon the giants would come back, angrier and hungrier than ever, and it would be hell for the Greenfaces. Those doomsayers stayed in their deep caves, seeing by the purple light of glowcaps, eating breadshrooms and grakka worms like they always had, venturing outside only in darkness.

Eri and Tirkel were treated like a king and queen, and in fact some said they should be king and queen, though the Greenfaces had only ever had a Head Kid. Others muttered that the two were getting too big for their britches – literally. Everyone knew what happened when a kid got too old, and the greymoss got a hold of them. Then they would stand in the middle of the Maze, right out in the open, and either get eaten by a giant, or just wander away somewhere, lost forever. And Tirkel was ten, and Ari almost twelve. Not many made it to fourteen.

Eri thought of this and other questions. One day, as they were lying in the daytime warmth by Dimm Falls, she asked Tirkel, "Where do giants come from?"

"You ask the strangest questions," Tirkel said.

"But where?"

He waved his hand at the world, at the five-hundred-foot-tall white walls of the Bone Maze. "From out there."

"But they have to be born."

"Do they?" he asked rhetorically. "Mushrooms don't."

All the while, Gar One-Eye's body lay where it had fallen. Of course, by the end of the first day, it was already showing a thin layer of felty white mycelium. Dead things never lasted long, in the cool, perpetually dim valleys of the Maze. Things grew.

In two weeks, the new fungus had completely engulfed the corpse, cocooning it in ropy white threads. No one had ever seen a fungus quite like it, but then, no one had ever seen a dead giant before.

Nine months it lay there, the fungus growing thicker and harder, until it was a chalky irregular shell. Then, one cool morning, Tirkel came and shook Eri awake. She was resentful, warm in her bed-hole, but he kept shaking her. "Get up, Eri. And grab a spear! Something's happening!"

Bleary-eyed, she followed him outside, spear in hand. A few dozen kids were already gathered there beside the giant's body, some also holding weapons out in front of them, looking apprehensive. "What are we –"

She stopped mid-sentence, mouth hanging open. Nearly overnight, something had changed in the hard shell of the giant's body, the white cartilaginous material softening and sagging into a white membrane. And from inside, something was pushing out, or many somethings, like maggots.
She backed away, pointing her spear. What now? Who knows what monsters came out of a giant's corpse?

The membrane stretched, and stretched – and tore. Collectively they held their breath.

What came out was a little hand. It was a perfectly shaped hand, with five fingers and dark brown skin. A little kid followed it – a very little kid, rubbing mucus out of his eyes as he looked about the world for the first time and tried to stand upon the dewy grass. More followed, of all colors and shapes, like beans spilling from a sack, and it was hard to say who was more astonished, the naked toddlers staring at the world they had just entered, or the kids staring at a mystery revealed.

1 comment: