The Nature of the Beast

Part Two

I chased after him, but he ran like a wild beast – at a breakneck speed no elf could match. I cursed myself and I cursed him, with every crude oath I had learned from Tufts and Drell. The rain-starved ground was already solidifying after the downpour; his tracks were drying out. But I could still follow them well enough. Whether by chance or design, Beast was running straight for Yosha’s home.

I caught up with him at Bottle Gulch. The cursed fool had crossed paths with the Pride.

Of course the hunters were out in the narrow ravine; the first rainfall of the season invariably flooded the uplands and drove a torrent of foaming water downhill. Over the ages, the softer rock had eroded, forming a tapering gulch, like the neck of a fine clearstone bottle. And any animals unlucky enough to be caught in the flash flood ended up at the narrowest point in the ravine, a feast for scavengers.

The tuftcats had already laid claim to the drowned crescent-horn, but Maleen and Shasu were vigorously defending the three klipspringer corpses as their own catch. Bekah waded through the sticky mud, stabbing pod-frogs with her spear. Coppersky and Tufts calculated the meat available and Sust stood on a rock, looking every bit the proud male tuftcat – strong and handsome and utterly useless without the support of his pride.

And hiding in a notch cut into the canyon walls, Beast watched the whole scene play out with a child’s fearful excitement.

They hadn’t seen him yet, and the tuftcats were preoccupied with their feasting. For a moment, I hoped I could reach him before any damage was done. I floated myself down silently until I was only a few paces out of reach. If I could only touch him, I could put him to sleep. But I doubted I could do it without attracting unwanted attention.

And then Maleen straightened her back and turned to call Shasu over.

“Help me get this one trussed up.”

Beast let out a roar of anguish at the sight of her, at the sound of her voice. The sound was heart-rending – and utterly alien: a lion’s roar mingled with an eagle’s screech. Maleen gasped in alarm. The tuftcats looks up from their feast. Coppersky and his daughter dropped into a combat stance, their weapons drawn. Beast flinched at the sudden movements, and from my vantage behind him, I could clearly see the morning light falling on the ruined side of his scalp.

Maleen saw it too. She screamed. Coppersky let flew his dagger, and Tufts loosed an arrow. Beast fled back into the shadows, scrambling at the rocks to haul himself out of harm’s way. Too late I saw the way. I couldn’t reach him without exposing myself, but I could reach the rock. I made the stone fold over him, sealing him into a soundproof pocket. Not a moment too soon, for Coppersky was close on his heels.

Be still, Beast, I commanded silently. Oh, if only he could hear my sendings. There was nothing for him to fear – really, it was no different that being sealed inside his cave. He had plenty of air to breath if he did not panic. Door had once sealed Skywise in a similar pocket, and he had been perfectly fine afterwards.

“What was it?” Coppersky demanded of Maleen.

“I don’t know. I only caught a glimpse.”

“Then what did you see?”

“I don’t know. A head… wrinkled skin… maybe a limb. That noise – what made it?”

“I think I know.” **Melati!** he sent openly. **Is this more of your work?**

I saw no alternative. In a moment the tuftcats would pick up my scent. The longer they tarried, the more likely their mounts might hear Beast’s struggles. I stood up and stepped to the lip of the canyon edge.

“I knew it,” Coppersky growled.

“Troll-scat!” Sust cried. “What are you playing at now, cub?”

“I’m not a cub.”

“Was that another one of your playthings? Last time it was lizard-ravvits – now what – turning klipspringers into bats?”

Not a bad idea, really. For a Go-Back, he had some imagination after all.

“A pod-frog into a sunsprinter, actually.” I lied. “Do you like the sound? I thought it would be a good deterrent for wandering humans.”

 “A good deterrent for our prey, more like,” Coppersky sneered.

“That was larger than any pod-frog – or sunsprinter!” Maleen insisted.

“Of course I had to make it bigger. You need lungs large enough to make that sound.”

“Where did it go?” Sust demanded.

“I don’t know. That way somewhere,” I pointed east. “You frightened it.”

“I’d like to skewer it. I thought we agreed no more shapechanged.”

We didn’t agree anything, Sust. And you don’t command me.”

“Lord Haken will hear of this.”

“With you ravvits chittering away, I don’t doubt it. I’d take that meat in before it starts to molder.”

“Where are you going?” he demanded as I turned away.

“I’m getting out of the rain,” I called back. I walked well out of sight of the elves in the ravine below; then I opened up the ground underneath me and sunk a hole down towards Beast’s hiding place.

I could feel the vibrations in the rock from his helpless thrashing, but I forced myself not to rush. I sealed the shaft behind me, lest Coppersky try to run me down. Then I shaped a horizontal tunnel until I freed him. I could hear his screams even before I peeled back the last layer of rock. He flew at me in the dark, pummelling me with his fists, even as he wept with relief. I took his hands in mine and held him close until he could calm himself.

“You’re safe now,” I whispered. “You’re safe. They can’t hurt you.”

Slowly, I walked him back through the tunnel. He moaned and sobbed, but I refused to listen to his pleas for light. When we reached the bottom of the shaft I bade him sit, and I snapped  my fingers to create a spark. It only burned for a moment, but it was long enough for him to see that he was in no danger of being crushed by the walls.

“See? Safe.”

“Why?” he demanded. “Why they want to hurt me? What did I do?”

“They were frightened. I told you they wouldn’t understand.”

“Don’t want a beast,” he repeated my thoughtless words. Then he cried desperately. “Elf. Like you. But not. Hair black! Who? That face – I know that face! Who is that?”

“She’s your… she’s Yosha’s mother.”

“She saw me. She was fright’d. Why?”

“She didn’t know you.”

He seized my shoulders in the darkness. “Why do I know her?

I didn’t have an answer for him.

.* * *

I was no hurry to return for my public scolding. And I had to see Beast settled away first. So it was midafternoon before I showed my face in the council chamber. At least I was spared the entire council’s censure: Ahdri and Grayling were absent. But Sun-Toucher was there, as was Grandmother – positively aglow with malicious joy to see me in trouble again.

It went much as I had expected: Grandmother gave me another lecture about the evils of flesh-shaping – wagging her finger for emphasis, until Lady Chani – spirits bless her – scolded Grandmother in turn for being so close-minded. “For a healer, you are remarkably reluctant to use your gifts.”

Door and Spar had no objections to my work, while Lord Haken was clearly torn between wanting to praise my inventiveness and preserving his authority. “What was the animal, exactly?”

“A sunstrider, originally. But I removed its beak, then grafted a pod-frog’s voice bag onto the bird’s throat. Then I enlarged the whole creature until it was… the size of a small elf-child.”

“Small!” Maleen interjected. “I swear, it looked almost as big as me!”

“Well, you didn’t get a really good look at it, did you?” Door smiled indulgently. “Where is the animal now, Melati?”

“I don’t know. After all the fuss the hunters made, it took off.” I shrugged. “It will probably die soon. The first attempts usually do.”

“‘First attempts’ – listen to yourself, child!” Grandmother Leetah wrung her hands. “How many animals have suffered needlessly for your curiosity? My lord Haken, how can you continue to indulge her. You call the Wolfriders savages, but even they would chastise a child who tortured animals for sport.”

“It’s not for sport!” I snapped. “It’s for knowledge!”

“But knowledge of what, my dear?” Chani asked. “What do you mean to accomplish by these trials?”

“Everything! I want to unlock the mysteries of the flesh… to make it obey me as easily as green-growing things heed Meerkat. Imagine the possibilities: zwoots that eat half the feed yet give twice the milk; flightless rock quails the size of boulders.Look at the jackwolves – Fennec says their blood has run so thin fewer than half the cubs born live to become mounts. He mounts dangerous live-hunts to find new breeding stock – but what if I could fix the ills with a simple touch? Why should we need the Pride or the Jackwolf Riders to patrol for humans, when I could create beasts that would scare the five-fingers away for good?” I turned to Haken. “You said our kind used to grow new shells – that spirits could slip into fresh bodies as easily as donning new clothes. Imagine if we could do that again!”

“It can’t be done. Not on this world.”

Don’t tell me ‘can’t!’” I shrieked. My own vehemence startled me.

“We can do it,” I insisted. “It only takes time and practice. We can… grow gardens of flesh and harvest it like any other resource. When Bonebat wanted his wings, it took my sire months to stretch his flesh… a little bit at a time. Windkin’s father paid for his wings with agonizing pain and brittle bones. But what if we could simply grow new parts and shape them like clay, then graft them to the body?” I turned to Maleen. “What if I could grow a new shell for Yosha–”

Don’t! Don’t you dare use him – my Yosha would never consent to become one of your monsters!”

Her words were a slap in the face. One of my monsters… is that what I had made him into?

Sust brought us all back to the matter at hand. “After that we found that scaled ravvit, Melati swore she would not make any more monsters–”

Anger flared in me again. “It was a harmless little creature and you killed it.”

“Harmless? It took a bite the size of my fist out of Shaggycat.”

“I healed your wretched cat. What more do you want?”

“I want you to keep your word. As you promised Haken. There is one lord in Oasis, and we all know what happens to elves who defy him.”

I heard the bitterness in his voice. He is a Go-Back; he was not born to wear a yoke like a zwoot at the plow. But he has chosen to honor Haken as his “chief” – with all the sacrifices involved –  and if he can find it in his pride to bow down, then everyone else should too.

Scouter couldn’t. My wild wolf-blooded grandsire – just thinking of him makes me feel dirty, as though I have inherited his disease. Sometimes I even dream of a blood-red wolf that stalks me. But I always kill it with a touch, just as I did when I was still in my mother’s womb. I pushed the wolf away from me, out of every cell in my formless body. Lifetaker, my mortal father calls me, but he’s wrong. Before I took my mother’s life, I saved my own.

Sust’s pronouncement discontented Haken. “You did swear not to make any more creatures without my permission,” he reminded me.

“I did, my lord. But I should not have. I cannot abandon my work. I cannot abide ignorance.”

“No one wants to keep you ignorant, child. We simply want to see you properly guided–”

“By who? Grandmother? She won’t do anything more elaborate the piercing ears! By you? With respect, my lord,” I added hastily, “but you have no experience, and no desire. You won’t even try to grow a new arm!”

Everyone drew in a gasp at that, as if it was so shocking to speak the truth. Savah’s crown, he lets the human call him the Maimed One! And though even Chani widened her eyes at my daring, Haken simply smiled tightly. “Flesh is finite, little one. And I have no wish to be as short as you, just to spare the meat to make a new arm.”

“But don’t you see – it doesn’t have to be that way!”

“Enough. Myself, I have little objection to you making these little creatures – though I suspect they are less stepstones to discoveries than they are an artist’s fancy. I admire art – I do. In the days of the Homestar, we had many like you, who created masterpieces of flesh. But your art is disturbing the others, and Oasis must remain a place of harmony.”

I saw the way. “Then grant me leave to make them away from Oasis! I’ll go north… not far… only a walk of an hour or two. I’ll build a cave or I’ll stop up a canyon and make a pen where I can keep my projects. Where you can come and inspect them. You direct me, lord Father, and I will make whatever creatures you think will best serve Oasis.”

 “And what of your healer’s duties?” Leetah demanded.

“You can handle them well enough on your own.”

“And your lessons? You still have much to learn.”

“I learned all you could teach me when I was five!”

Haken’s mouth twitched in a smile, I knew I had won the battle. The rest was just details.

* * *

Beast had thrown another fit while I was away. I returned to the cave to find broken pottery and torn blankets. I found Beast himself sitting by the spring, staring glumly at his reflection.

“Well, that was ungrateful,” I announced as I sat down next to him. “And after I worked so hard to convince them you were nothing but an overgrown pod-frog.”

Beast swatted at his reflection with his crippled right hand.

“What’s the matter with you now?” I asked meanly. After the day I’d endured, I had little patience for his moods.

“I look… dif-fer-ent,” he pronounced with effort.

“You look the same you always have.”

“Not like other elves.” He pawed at the scar tissue on his scalp. “Why? Yosha – he looked like this?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Why these?” he indicated his scars. “Others don’t have them.”

“They show where you were hurt. They show where I fixed you.”

“Where he was hurt!”

“Where he was hurt,” I corrected.

“You fixed death. Why did you not fix these?

“I… I suppose I didn’t want you looking too much like Yosha,” I admitted. “I wanted to remind myself that you’re Beast now.”

I thought the answer might please him. But he only stared at his reflection critically. “Not beautiful,” he pronounced at length.

“Don’t say that!”

“Beautiful… feeds the heart. You said. But this… this feeds no hearts.”

I touched his chin, turned his face to force him to look at me. “It feeds my heart,” I told him firmly. And I meant it.

He blinked uncertainly. Then the worry melted from his face, and he stared at me with a look of helpless adoration.

“But I can change it if you like,” I offered. “I can make you look like whatever pleases you.”

He smiled, almost shyly. “No. What pleases you, Mel. Ever what pleases you.”

The knife twisted in my belly again. My heart was racing in a panic. He said those words hours ago, yet I can still hear them echoing in my mind. I shiver all over just thinking of that moment. I’m as sick at heart as I was the night Yosha died. But at the same time I was to sing for joy. Why? Why?

High Ones, is this love?

Bloomtide – one year since revival

I have been expanding the cave, making work rooms for my experiments, and hidden chambers underneath for Beast. Haken will insist on visiting often, I am sure of it. He has already come by several times to inspect the progress, but he cannot sense Beast lurking in the hidden chambers below.

Beast needs little persuasion to stay hidden. He has lost all his interest in other elves, since the morning in Bottle Gulch. He is far more curious about the wrens, all aflurry to breed in the short season of flood-and-flower.

There is one young male near our cave – Beast is convinced it is the one I healed last winter, and will not be corrected. It’s a yearling bird, entering its first courtship. Beast loves to watch the bird build its mock-nests in the hollows of the pricker plants, loves to listen to its nightly song.

“A little lass-wren will hear his song and come,” I explained yesterday. “And if she likes the nests he’s build for her, she’ll choose whichever pleases her most and make it her own. And then they’ll be lovemates.”

“What is… l-love-mates?” he asked curiously.

“You know… when creatures come together for breeding… or just for comfort. For pleasure. Like Mother Moon and the Daystar. They already had their child, but they still join at every eclipse. That wren: if he finds a lass who likes him, she’ll stay with him and they’ll live together and have baby birds.”

He nodded, deep in thought. He looked at me as if he want to ask me something, but he couldn’t find the right words. And I: I felt myself dismembering every word I had given him. Creatures coming together for comfort and pleasure… a lass who likes a lad…

* * *

Beast came running to me this evening, as I was making our supper. “Mel! Mel! Come see!”

He dragged me outside and motioned for me to be quiet. Silently we crept over to the cactus where our little lad-wren has made his nest. A female was perched at his side, and the two birds were grooming each other’s cheeks with little pecks of their beaks.

“They’re kissing,” I remarked, and my voice did not sound like my own. It sounded… lighter, younger… quite repulsively sentimental, to be honest. But it was such a sweet sight: these two tiny birds sharing a moment of joy, quite oblivious to the frailty of their existence. Strange… to think such simple beasts understood something of love.

* * *

When I came to the cave tonight, I found Beast had redecorated.

I had brought many wool blankets with me over the moon-dances, to soften the simple stone slab where he slept. Now I found them scattered about the cave like carpets, each ornamented with some small token – a clay pot filled with edible flowers, the gamepieces for siege, the beeswax tablet and writing stylus. Beast grinned at my confused expression.

“Ever which pleases you,” he said proudly.

Bloomfall – fourteen months since revival

I have raised a large rock wall around my cave, three times the height of an elf, and quite impenetrable. One needs to be a rockshaper or an airwalker to enter my domain. The walls enclose a space perhaps the size of Oasis’s inner courtyard – plenty of room for Beast to amuse himself within while I am needed elsewhere.

I suppose I have to actually create that sunstriding-frog, just to show Haken. It should be done easily enough…

Bloomfall – fifteen months since revival

I can come and go from Oasis openly now. No one opposes me. No one questions me. I no longer need to seal the door when I leave – I trust Beast to limit himself to the rocks nearby, and I trust no other elf will come wandering by.

I do not always return to Oasis every morning. Sometimes I pass the time working on my experiments, and watching Beast sleep. He has many dreams; I watch him twitch and kick in his sleep nearly every day. I ask him about them. Sometimes he tells me they are good dreams. Sometimes he says nothing.

He dreams of Yosha’s memories! The sights he is  willing to describe are all those Yosha saw. I am more convinced than ever that Yosha’s soul is inside him. But it is buried under so much scar tissue of this creature’s limited brain… I imagine it must be forever dreaming the memories Beast sees when he closes his eyes.

I hope so. If I think of Yosha’s soul awake and conscious, but trapped as Beast was in my rocky mantle, I feel stricken with horror and disgust.  Sometimes I think Beast feels the same. When I see him bolt awake after a bad dream, I imagine he feels like he is being hunted, like Yosha’s spirit is clawing at his mind, trying to force itself free.

We never speak of Yosha. But he’s always there between us.

* * *

I have made a promising creature. I took a rock quail and traded its dull plumage for the bright colors of a rainforest bird. I shaped its tail to grow feathers like a fan-tail. It is an utterly impractical creature, too heavy to fly, and too slow to run. It is purely decorative, and it is just the sort of thing the Gliders and the Sun Folk would adore.

Haken is pleased with the result. He says I can bring it to Oasis to show the others.

[several entries begun, then erased. Remains illegible]

Beast had another nightmare yesterday. I was sitting by his bedside and watching him sleep as I often do. I find it oddly meditative, watching his chest rise and fall, timing my breaths to his. But then he began to thrash again, and moan into his pillow. “No, no,” he whimpered. “Mel… no… don’t… no – unh!” He flailed helplessly against his blankets, crying out in pain.

“Beast, wake up!” I shook him until his eyes open. He saw me leaning over him, and he scrambled to sit up, to bury his face in my neck, to cling to me like a helpless child. He gasped for breath. I could feel his heart hammering.

“Don’t leave me!” he cried, and for those three words, his speech was clear and precise. He spoke with Yosha’s voice.

“Shh, I’m here. I’m here, Beast. Poor Beast, were you falling again?”

He nodded vigorously. “Always fall… fall. Rocks… so many rocks! I try to hold on, but can’t. I want to fly, but I fall.”

“I know. I know.”

He falls! Not me. Him – him – him!”

“He was you, once.”

“No no no!” he weeps. “No more. No more falling. No more Yosha.” He looks up at me helplessly. “Make him go away!”

“I’m so sorry, Beast. I don’t know how to reach him. If I could… I’d bring all the good memories up, and wipe all the bad ones away.” I closed my eyes tight. I didn’t want to remember that night, and my part in his violent death. If only I hadn’t closed my mind to him. If only I hadn’t let him go.

 “You were there…” he said at length, as if he could read my thoughts.

“Yes…” I admitted. “And I let you fall. I’m so sorry. I didn’t –” my voice broke, choked by unshed tears. I feel salt scratching my eyes. “It was all my fault. I let you die. I failed you – I’m a lifetaker, just like he always said! I destroy everything I touch and I destroyed you, Yosha, and I’m so so sorry for it–”

It took only a moment for our positions to reverse. Suddenly I was the one sobbing in his arms, a broken bird in need to healing. I was lost, adrift in sorrow. And he held me, and stroked my hair, and murmured my name against my ear until I slowly came back to myself.

He made me look at him. His eyes were red-rimmed, but his gaze was steady. “You… saved me,” he insisted in his halting speech. “I… breathe – I think – I feel… because of you!”

His voice was so full of gratitude, I could feel my heart breaking all over again. “Oh… Beast,” I whispered, as I kissed his brow. Poor simple Beast, who thought the half-life I had given him was anything to treasure. I pressed my lips to the jagged scar over the bridge of his nose. I stroked a tear off his unblemished cheek and kissed the trail of moisture it had left behind.

He pounced, swift as a cat. His crippled hand came around the base of my skull. His mouth covered mine, forceful, demanding. When I gasped in alarm he only deepened the kiss, and when I braced my hands against his shoulders, his other arm came around my waist, holding me fast. This wasn’t the chaste little peck of courting wrens, and High Ones knew this was nothing like the shy advances Yosha had ever attempted. This was a dying elf clawing for life. This was a predator savaging his prey.

And I never wanted it to stop.

When the kiss had left us both breathless, I found the will to restrain him, if only a little. “Wait, wait!” I stammered. “Beast – this – this is only something for lovemates.”

“Love you!” he cried fervently, and I knew he meant it. How – how did I know it, when I couldn’t touch his mind? And how could we join bodies, when I knew that great chasm would always exist between our souls? It was wrong. It was unjust, to me and to him. But it was all we could have.

He reached for me again, and this time I did not resist.

I always imagined joining would be something… poetic: a tender, beautifully unfolding dance. But this was clumsy and brutal: two bodies desperately trying to become one, since two minds never could. This was bloodsong run amok.

It was perfect.

On to Part Three

 Elfquest copyright 2014 Warp Graphics, Inc. Elfquest, its logos, characters, situations, all related indicia, and their distinctive likenesses are trademarks of Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Some dialogue taken from Elfquest comics. All such dialogue copyright 2014 Warp Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved. Alternaverse characters and insanity copyright 2014 Jane Senese and Erin Roberts.