by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
Nawry stayed for the night in the castle. He slept in a downy bed under a canopy of rich green velvet, much the same color as the forest canopy itself. But the bed was much more comfortable than sleeping on the forest floor, leaned against a fallen log. He awoke to find Kassy curled up on the pillow beside him. The pillow’s soft cotton covering was a pale shade of lime, so the tiny gray cat looked like she was sleeping on a grassy hillside, just the right size for her.
Nawry watched her tiny side rise and fall with her breathing. At first, he thought he’d wait for her to awaken, but as the sunlight in the window shifted, shortening the mornings shadows, he began to worry about wasting daylight.
When the young Noodlebeast climbed out of the downy, canopied bed, he found a new pair of clothes for him laid out on a chair. A jerkin, trousers, and a knapsack with thicker straps that would spread the weight more evenly over his back. Each article was riddled with convenient pockets of every size, and made from a sturdy cloth that was surprisingly soft and the perfect color for blending in with the dappled shadows of a forest.
Nawry dressed and settled the knapsack on his back. It was heavy with provisions. Nuts, cheese, and sweet dense rolls — trail food that was sensible and would keep much better than the delicious but perishable crab cakes Benter’s guards had packed for him. When he was ready, he scooped Kassy, still sleeping, up with a gentle flipper. His new jerkin had a perfect pocket for her, right over his heart.
The castle halls which had bustled with activity last night were empty and quiet this morn. Nawry passed a few masquerade guests on his way out, but they were all snoring, sound asleep in chairs, leaned against the walls, or simply curled up on the floor. Tired out after a night of revelry. Like Kassy. He wondered what her party with the fireflies, among the leaves lining the ceiling, had been like. He imagined she’d tell him all about it when she awoke.
As Nawry forged through the forest, he pictured Kassy dancing with the fireflies, like he’d danced with Kelda. He wondered what kind of honeyed, nectar foods they’d offered her and whether she’d partaken. He daydreamed a whole adventure for her, never imagining that his daydream would be the only version of the story he’d ever know.
Kassy awoke, groggily around midafternoon, when the shadows were already stretching the other way. She demurred to all of Nawry’s questions about the previous night, insisting instead, that he tell her about his night. She listened quietly. Far more quietly than was normal for her. And by the time Nawry had finished his story, the tiny cat was already asleep again. She must have partied with the fireflies all night to be so tired.
So, Nawry sang to himself as he hiked. The trees thinned around him. The underbrush cleared and was replaced by scrub brushes with cinnamon bark and maroon leaves. He’d left the forest and entered the scrublands at the base of the rocky, red mountains which stretched above him, daunting and dusty.
By the time he set camp for the night, the sky spread over him, unimpeded by branches. Black as nothing, but speckled with points of pure white light, every color and no color at all, all at once. The scrubby carmine shrubs were too short to interfere with the sky, although they reached upward with longing.
Nawry scratched out a shallow hollow in the dusty ground and lined it with springy scrub brush branches to make it comfortable. He lay there, munching on sweet rolls, staring at the stars, and wishing Kassy would wake up. She’d been sleeping in his pocket all day, and he was beginning to worry. But there was nothing to be done but get some rest himself, and continue their quest.
His quest… She had tagged along, but the responsibility was his.
Nawry awoke after a short and fitful night of sleep. He felt the emptiness in his pocket immediately. Kassy’s tiny presence was no longer resting against his breast. He pressed a flipper gently against the pocket anyway, hoping to be mistaken and feel the small lump of her body, curled up and safe. Empty. She wasn’t there.
“Kassy?” he bellow-whispered, looking across the scrubland frantically. It was dawn, and the yellow sun had painted the horizon scarlet red.
Red like the mountains, bloodying the sky.
“I’m here,” a small voice said. She sounded much too old and tired to be Kassy. And yet, there she was, perched on a rusty rock, looking up at the sky. Her fur looked thin and wispy, a duller gray than he’d ever seen it, and the skin down the middle of her back had cracked open, revealing a tiny sprig of silver with two perfect green heart-shaped leaves, still furled around the edges.
“You’ve sprouted,” Nawry said, filled with wonder and horror. Had so much time passed on their journey? Was the end of Kassy’s life so close? He didn’t want to finish his quest without her.
“I’m so cold,” Kassy said.
“Most of your fur has fallen off.”
The sun was already warm. It would be a hot day.
“All I want is to burrow into the ground… The dirt looks so warm…” She trailed off, staring at the dusty ground now. But then she looked at Nawry with the same piercing gaze she’d had since the day they met. None of her fierceness had faded with age. “But I want to see the end of our quest.”
Nawry didn’t think Kassy would make it back to Aumna’s glade to write the story of her journeys into the mother tree’s bark. He supposed that, instead, she might become a new mother tree, and everything she’d learned would be known by her own kit-seeds, passed directly into their minds without the need to scratch it out in words. She would be the greatest story-teller of her generation; the only kit-seed to have travelled far enough to sprout and grow.
“We need to plant you,” Nawry said, choking on the words.
“Not yet,” Kassy insisted. Her claws, almost too small to see, flexed. “You need to give Benter’s gift to Borel and heal the world. I need to see what happens and find out what was missing.”
When she said ‘need,’ the word sounded more like an anchor in the universe, a fixed-point around which the fabric of space-time warped. She wasn’t expressing a desire; she was stating a truth, and her insistence would make it happen.
“Yes, okay,” Nawry stumbled over the words. “Let me carry you, and we’ll find him.”
“I want to sit on the cork of the flask,” she said, and Nawry wasn’t going to argue with her. He placed her carefully on the corked mouth of the potion hung around his neck, and she clung to the cork with her claws.
Resting in his pocket would have been easier, but Kassy had never taken the easy path, not ever, not once in her entire short life. If she had, she’d still be at her mother tree, squabbling for bark space without a single story worth telling. Nawry admired her more than anyone else he’d ever known, even his aunt.
So, Nawry trudged onwards and upwards, each step taking him farther from the blue ocean and higher into the dry red mountains. This was not a place where Noodlebeasts, creatures of crashing waves and moist noodle-fields, belonged. The glass flask, with Kassy clinging to it, bounced against Nawry’s breast as he walked, and he worried about the little kit-sprout. When he looked down and peeked at her though, he saw her heart-shaped leaves unfurling in the strengthening sunshine of midday. She looked stronger — at least, her leaves did. The cat-like parts of her seemed to be withering away, like a snakeskin, left behind, empty. A chrysalis after the butterfly is gone.
Nawry shuddered. He knew this was natural — even healthy — for a kit-seed. But it was hard for him to watch.
Nawry soldiered on, all day, until the scrub brush shadows grew long, even though the plants themselves were short. Argos Peak looked as far away as ever, and there was no sign of civilization on the mountainside. Forget castles; there wasn’t even a trace of a small hut. Or a ring of rocks demarking a fire pit. Nothing.
Nawry had travelled days through the ocean and days through the forest. He had no reason to expect Borel to reveal himself on the first day of his travels through the mountains. But Kassy didn’t look like she had days left. She wouldn’t make it to the top of the peak.
So, Nawry began calling for Borel. He shouted his story for the desolate hillside, scaring away small lizards and hares. A few birds tittered at him before hiding in scrub brushes, but otherwise, the echoes of his own voice were the only answer he received.
As night fell, Nawry made a decision: he would not sleep while Kassy wasted away. He forged on. The pale light of the stars would have to be enough for him to see his way.
But he kept walking.
He walked all night, keenly aware of the tiny pair of leaves, fluttering above the corked flask. At first, he worried horribly that Kassy would tire and lose her grip, but eventually he realized, peering closer at her in the starlight, that her tiny claws had grown into filaments of root. The plant she was becoming — the tiny sproutling mother tree — had rooted herself to the cork.
The cork was hers now. A part of her. The first piece of land she’d rooted in — but she would need more. Real land. A true patch of ground where she could grow deep roots. She would become an inhabitant of these dusty red mountains.
The sky lightened in slow degrees, without the impressive, glorious, sunrise of the day before. Instead, black softened to an in-between shade; a color that Nawry didn’t quite have a word for.
“Kassy?” Nawry asked, and the kit-seed shifted her head, but she didn’t answer. The split down her back had widened, reaching all the way to the base of her tail and up to between her ears. She looked up at him and blinked, maybe smiled, but Nawry didn’t think she could speak anymore. Her two heart-shaped leaves were completely unfurled, and he worried they’d begin to wither and shrivel along with her kit-seed body without the nutrients they needed from real dirt.
“I can’t take you any farther,” Nawry said. “I’m going to stop here and plant you.”
Her eyes blazed at him, but still, she said nothing. And Nawry took that as proof that his plan was right. If she didn’t have the strength to fight him, she needed to be planted. She needed to be planted right now.
The young Noodlebeast knelt down in the dusty dirt and began scraping a hollow for his ancient friend — so recently as young as him — with his flippers. The dirt scooped away almost too easily. Each flipper-full brought Nawry one step closer to burying Kassy’s kit-seed form and being separated from her forever.
When Nawry’s flippers felt cool, moist dirt instead of dry dust, he knew the hole was deep enough. He held the flask of Benter’s potion away from his breast and looked at Kassy, resting on the cork. She looked too peaceful.
To Nawry, she was dying. But to her… she was no longer really inside of the kit-seed body. The soul — the essence; whatever made Kassy Kassy — had already passed into the quivering leaves that rose from her back (there were four now; two pairs) and the straining roots that had grown from the tips of all four of her paws, grasping for more than merely a small cork to sustain them.
Carefully, Nawry uncorked the flask.
There was nowhere safe to put the flask down on the dusty, slanted hillside; Nawry couldn’t risk it being knocked over and spilling the precious fluid inside, and he worried about it tipping as it hung from the cord around his neck. So, he clutched the open-mouthed flask with one flipper while placing Kassy and her cork in the hollow he’d dug with the other. He scooped dusty red dirt over the cracked, withered body of her kit-seed self. He watered the new seedling with his tears. He didn’t have milk for her.
When all that was left was four heart-shaped leaves, basking in the dawn sunlight, quivering slightly in the light breezes of the chill morning air, Nawry knelt in front of them, holding the flask in both flippers now, and feeling like he should say a few words.
But he had nothing to say; Kassy was wordless now. Why shouldn’t he be without words too?
Maybe in a year or two, her trunk would be wide enough to host essays scratched into her bark by her own future kit-seeds. Well, maybe just short poems and haikus to begin with… Her trunk was as thin as a strand of vermicelli. Although, much more resilient — neither brittle nor soggy.
For now, Kassy was silent, except for the wind rustling her quartet of leaves. Nawry shared the silence with her.
Until a roar — sudden, deep, booming, and furious — rent the melancholy air of the morning. The roar formed into words: “How dare you!” A red-brown boulder in the distance uncurled, revealing itself to have been a bear — a russet-furred bear that was actually a god — all along. An angry bear god who could summon volcanoes and was standing far closer than Nawry had been prepared for. The young Noodlebeast wondered if Borel had been following him, listening but not answering, throughout the night.
“You would plant an unfamiliar, potentially invasive new species of flora on my mountainside! Infidel! Blaspheming heathen!”
Or perhaps, Borel had been summoned to them by feeling Kassy’s roots invade the earth of his mountain.
Nawry leaned his body over Kassy’s delicate quartet of leaves, shielding her as best he could. A sprout of green and silver in all the vast redness. His shoulders shook, and Nawry had to work at steadying his flippers enough to keep from spilling Benter’s potion. He could shield Kassy; but there was nothing to shield him. And he would prove a poor shield if Borel decided to attack him. Or summon magma from beneath his feet.
The bear god approached on heavy paws. Each step thundered through the mountainside, making Kassy’s leaves shake and quiver. When he reached Nawry’s side, he stood easily four times as tall as the Noodlebeast, even if Nawry had been standing tall instead of cowering on bent knees.
“Please, Borel–” Nawry’s words burbled through his whiskers and slipped past his curved tusks. “–my friend needs earth to grow. She’ll die without it.”
“Then let her die!” the bear roared and lifted his arms high, seemingly preparing to attack. His claws were sickles; his teeth a jagged saw. He wouldn’t need magma to tear the Noodlebeast limb from limb. “Back away, so I can rip this invader out of my skin!”
“She’s not an invader!” Nawry cried, still shielding Kassy’s leaves with his body. His own body, so bulky compared to hers, felt small and fragile in the face of a bear god’s splayed claws and bared teeth. But the claws didn’t fall on his back, and he didn’t feel teeth tearing at his neck. He couldn’t bring himself to look up at the angry god, more fearsome than any of the other gods he’d met. Instead he stared down at Kassy’s heart-shaped leaves and tried to ignore the giant bear paws on the ground so near to him. For the moment, Nawry’s body remained a bulwark.
Finally, the words that had eluded Nawry earlier — the words of eulogy for his friend — came pouring out of him: “Her mother-tree grows in Aumna’s glade, and she lived her whole life on a journey to heal this world. She was one kit-seed among hundreds, but she was the only one who travelled to Benter’s kingdom under the ocean or danced with fireflies at Kelda’s masquerade. All she wanted was to complete our quest before her journey ended–”
Nawry turned his face upward and stared with blazing eyes at the angry bear god, returning anger for anger. The bear’s own anger seemed to quail in the face of a young Noodlebeast’s fury.
“All she wanted at the end was to live long enough to meet you,” Nawry continued, “but you don’t deserve the blessing of her roots in your mountainside! You’re a brute! And I understand why Kelda was afraid of you, but I don’t understand why Benter was so sorry for hurting you!”
Nawry felt childish and foolish as soon as his outburst was over. Yet the shadow of the bear god descended; the giant red-furred paws backed away a step, then two. Borel sank to the ground, looking much smaller than he had before, and crouched in a pose similar to Nawry’s. He seemed to have shrunk to only twice Nawry’s size. His fur was shaggy and red as dried blood. And his muzzle twisted into an expression of bewilderment that looked entirely out of place on the face of a god.
“You’ve come from Aumna’s glade?” the bear asked.
“Yes.” Nawry didn’t shift his defensive pose. Though he did splay the webbing of his flipper hand, shielding the sight of Kassy’s vulnerable, spring-green leaves from this brute of a bear.
“And Kelda says she’s afraid of me?”
Nawry hesitated. But it seemed unwise to lie to a god, especially when he’d already artlessly blurted out the truth. “Yes.”
“I never meant to frighten her. She is still a daughter of my heart, no matter who Benter is to her.”
For a moment, Nawry wondered if this god was waiting to be reassured, forgiven for a tantrum he’d thrown before Nawry had been born. But Nawry could not reassure him — Borel was frightening.
Borel sighed deeply. “May I see this pilgrim from my elder daughter’s glade?”
Reluctantly, Nawry withdrew his flipper. Sunlight fell on Kassy’s leaves and they quivered, almost gratefully. A third pair of leaves was already budding beneath the first two. She would grow fast here. If Borel let her.
The whole sky had turned yellow with early morning light. The world was two halves — yellow sky above and red dirt below. The way Benter had described the world being, before he’d come.
“Your friend will not grow well here,” Borel said matter-of-factly. The bear looked sad, but his words stoked Nawry’s anger.
“She will, if you let her!”
“She won’t. It’s too dry. She’s not my kind of creature–” He gestured at the scarlet-leaved scrub brushes, clinging to the dry earth with roots like craggy fingers. “She needs a world with all the chaos of water, cycling from the ground to the sky and back, but Benter… He is our water, and he keeps far away from here. Ever since I… frightened them all with my anger.”
The description seemed like an understatement for a furious battle between gods, waged with magma and tornados.
After a long silence, Nawry said, “I don’t think they’re all afraid of you.” He clasped the glass flask with both of his flippers, feeling its smooth surface against his fur. “Benter… sent a gift for you.” He unhooked the flask from the cord around his neck and held it out toward the bear. It seemed like a paltry offering — an uncorked glass flask with a bit of blue liquid inside it.
In Benter’s kingdom, the liquid had looked like an entire tiny ocean, but out here, under the yellow sky and the red mountain that rose upward, reaching, ever reaching toward the sky, the vial seemed like nothing but a few drops.
Borel reached out and took the flask. In his paw, it looked even more pathetic. How could it possibly have been important enough for Nawry to swim for days, hike through a forest, and climb this steep mountain all night, just to bring it here?
“What is it?” Borel asked, holding the flask gingerly in his massive paw.
Nawry shrugged. “A gift. That’s all he said.”
Borel held the flask up to his nose and sniffed. Then he tilted it from side to side, watching as the sunlight gleamed off the glass. It cast a blue patch of watery light on the red dirt, where the sun shone through it.
For a moment, Nawry thought Borel would drink the potion, but then the bear poured it out onto the palm of his paw where it pooled in the central pad and leaked onto the thick fur surrounding it. He pressed the paw to his breast, firmly, and when he pulled it away, there was a wet spot over his heart. Borel’s russet fur turned darker, more of a mahogany, when it was wet. “I accept the gift.”
A stain over the bear’s heart spread, wetting down his fur far more than the few droplets of potion could account for — if it had been a normal fluid. After a few moments, individual droplets of blue began to rise off of Borel’s shaggy fur, lifting the hairs up like the bear had been electrified.
Nawry shivered; he could feel the electricity — the unspent potential — crackling in the air. And the humidity grew to where he felt it in his own fur.
Above them, the sky darkened. Rainclouds rolled in, coming from the coast. The air twisted, spinning the droplets into a tornado around Borel. The bear cried out from inside, and lightning flashed, so close that Nawry saw it snaking like a tree of light, connecting the storm clouds above to the dusty earth beneath.
Borel fell, prone on the ground, and his back split open, like Kassy’s had. Except from beneath the shaggy red fur, instead of leaves, emerged a pair of feathered wings — each feather was a different shade — lilac, pansy, violet. Colors that Nawry had never seen in this world before. Colors he only dimly remembered and Aunt Jeminee had tried tirelessly, fruitlessly to paint.
But here they were. The color that had been missing from the world.
The purple, feathered wings stretched out, and then fully-formed, a new creature — the son of Benter, begot on Borel — emerged from the bear’s back: a be-winged satyr-like creature, who stepped onto the mountainside with hoofed feet and stared up at the sky with a long, equine face, but his hands and arms were like Aumna’s.
“Who are you?” Nawry asked breathlessly. He heard a rustling, and he looked down to see Kassy’s six heart-shaped leaves shaking — in mirth. He was sure that his friend was laughing at him from beyond her grave. Because, of course, she recognized that this new creature was who they’d been looking for all along. They had made it to the end of their quest.
She had made it all the way with him. She was here for the end.
“I’m…” The winged-satyr hesitated. Then he looked down at the bear whose back was already healing, sewing itself back up.
Borel rolled over on his side and moaned. “Chira’li — I name you, my son, for the movement of a cloud’s shadow over the land.”
And with Borel’s words, torrential rain began falling from the wine-dark clouds that now filled the sky.
Continue on to Chapter 6…