“Long ago, before ‘Peace Cry’ territory even existed, there was an enormous and highly developed civilization-“The Split City” as it was known. It was surely something to behold- all towering spires, bound to each other by bridges– and somehow they took a slice of ocean, and placed it just below the tallest apartments, but stopping almost a half a mile above the lower city- imagine looking up at the sky, and seeing not stars, or the aged moon, but an ocean replete with wildlife – everything from snake-like , hundred finned cetaceans, to little spherical jellies that blinked like lightning flashes, but in impossible to describe hues, all glowing with the warmth of the sun, filtering through that slice of water.
“In a sense- and one that they could never appreciate, the lower city having never actually seen the sky- their firmament was vivid and alive, populated with monsters and curiosities alike- some things perched perilously close the the invisible bottom of their aquatic dwelling, perhaps as curious about the little things looking up at them, as they who gazed downwards at those whose who walked below.
“Everything was magic to them- and indeed, it could have very well be some kind of arcanism that powered the Olympian heights their caste of engineers were able to reach- they were a strange lot- the people were… not quite human like you and Irish, they had eyes of pearl and some of saffron yellow… had no ring fingers- little differences, really. The engineers were especially strange, and might have been a different species altogether- they spoke the “common” tongue, but seemed to communicate with each other in a series of weird grunts and snorts; ugly brutes- no leg and all arms, resembling branches of a withered tree. They pretty much stayed to themselves. Took orders from somebody -not the King, as I’ll explain later- and then, over a couple of nights in the upper city, or a few tides of the lower wards, something new and impossible would appear. Remember, this Kingdom was just one of the innumerable that came before- everything is built on the bones of a beast from before. I really don’t about anything before the Split City- that’s when I was born… or created… or however I came to be out of aetheric stuff and some manner of strange alchemy. That’s when the so called (though gender-less) Wisp Queen came to be as well- can’t quite remember her name… it’s been so long.
“We both had our duties- I was in my glory, leading pilgrims from outlying settlements and towns to come to the city and give offering to the little god of the split city- and then later to whatever god was in vogue at the time- the whole thing was terribly fluid. The other Wispy Queen’s job was to confuse and lead enemies or outsiders astray. All fine things, I guess, when things were intact. But of course, over the thousands of years this kingdom existed, it eventually started to decline when the next in line for the throne, a pretty-boy, pocket-mirror-wielding, me-beast, the like’s of which would put even the Greek’s Narcissus to shame took the reigns of rulership. He was a spoiled man-child by the name of Chadrys. And gradually, when his desire for a perpetual tan and ‘like, perfect hair’- his words, defense was decidedly weakened– though he was still hawkish, and obsessed with increasing his coastal territory… some say to follow in his progenitor’s footsteps, but really (and I heard this with my own ears!) To find the perfect wave.
“Being the offspring (however many times removed) of a little god- he had some manner of miraculous energies and powers and cut an Adonis like figure, which was just enough to convince his very large citizenry that he was both competent and in control. In truth, he was neither. They were able to overwhelm some little coastal tribes or agrarian villages – not without great loss- as the once proud soldiers had become castrated by their own need to carry around security bear for a mobile safe space. Then, one day, Chadrys made a mistake- one of countless thousands- he chose to truck with the wrong little settlement; a real bear of a settlement in fact.
“It was actually quite hilarious, looking back. This puerile, self- obsessed godling set his sights on a little stone city right on the coast, which was tropical at the time. The city was actually populated by these tiny, sentient bears (‘Oh ha-ha-ha,’ remarked Finnen Sarcastically, ‘A real bear of a settlement– Jay-sus.’). They looked normal enough I suppose- about three feet high, oval noses, deep black eyes, grey fluffy ears, little paws with little claws… Certainly intelligent enough to have a language and a society.”
(”Ya talkin’ bout some some city o’ koala bears like down in Oz?” asked Finnen, sobering up a bit.
(“I guess,” replied Chaim, somewhat annoyed at being interrupted, “Although I’ve never heard of this Oz before.”)
“Anyway, these things were, to the godling Chadrys, weak diminutive things… and while smart, wholly unable to defend their coveted ocean-side territory. As far as Chadrys was concerned, the land was practically his, and he could use the stony village as either a source of rental income property, a zoo, or perhaps both– but more than anything, he would sunbathe and surf to his heart’s content.
“Having caught wind of Chadrys’ conqueror’s machinations, an ambassador from their priest class of these little ‘Ko-ah-lers’, as Irish called them- oh the theologian bears were weird looking things for sure- the thing had the torso of one of the regular bears, but in the manner of a Minotaur, had the body of a hairless Corgi.”
(“Grody,” interrupted Finnen.)
(“Grody indeed,” agreed Chaim.)
“So the bear folk sent this odd little ambassador to the King Chadrys himself in order to sue for peace, or at least coexistence- the little bears valued their autonomy and sovereignty too much to cede their territory and their freedom to end up as butler’s in some weird timeshare. And it wasn’t like they had nothing to offer as trade partners- textiles, artwork, fishing- could have been a lucrative relationship to a competent god- King who didn’t pound down stein after stein of mead before passing out in the sun. Unfortunately for the Ko-ah-ler/corgi thing, the bears were decidedly not dealing with anybody even remotely competent.
“A day or two later, their ambassador returned, completely shaved, slightly inebriated, and had crudely drawn, squirting phallic symbols painted all over his body. To add insult to injury, when the ambassador awoke from his stupor, he was told by Chadrys himself, ‘Bro, you all got 24 hours to get on out of your city, for seriously’- conquest, it seemed, was immediate.
“This naturally didn’t sit too well with the bear-folk of the stone-city, so they formed a battle party of thirteen little furry things, led by a a fierce knight by the name of ‘Higglerunt, Bear Warrior’. He and his twelve compeers were dressed somewhat…anticlimactically. They wore little, peaked, paper hats and carried swords made of driftwood and leaves, bound together with harmless twine. Nevertheless they stood there, all in a row, Higglerunt standing in front of the group- all with a look of adorable, though decidedly grim determination.
“Naturally, Chadrys and his band of 300 elite, fully armored, ax-wielding warriors saw the little things and doubled over laughing- they had been briefed that they would have the honor of participating in the ‘cutest little slaughter in history of the empire’- but this, it seemed, was too funny, even for them.
“The light of dawn, added an eerie glow to the lingering fog, and the ubiquitous palms shaded the sparse growth on the ground, as if intended to blush with the blood of the fallen– like a silent witnesses to a hopelessly outmatched battle… And this sentiment wasn’t incorrect, necessarily, but perhaps prepared to weep for the wrong side.
“Higglerunt, stepped forward, bowed, and spoke in a strangely low-pitched voice.
‘We will give you one last chance to return, lest there be bloodshed- bloodshed that can be avoided, but once spilled, can never be undone.’ But little Higglerunt’s words were only greeted with more derisive laughter- the little bear’s scowl deepened, and the derisive laughter must have certainly hardened his heart; though, despite this, he seemed not the least bit shaken.
“Chadrys, after laughing so hard as to vomit, stepped forward, golden locks falling about his face, head covered with his homemade crown (a sort of cap with a faded, flat brim, always somewhat askew), and made this proclamation.
‘And what are you gonna do bro? Like, I want your land, and I’m totally going to take it- so just give it up, a’right?’
‘Never,” replied the bear, grasping his tiny sword so hard as to crack the handle, ‘You have failed to heed my warning. You wish to resort to violence.’
“Here, a particularly brash young soldier poked a Ko-a-ler with a stick shouted, ‘Come at me bro!’, raising his hands above his head as if to ask how the bear would respond.
‘Very well,’ replied Higglerunt.
“And so the promised slaughter began.”
The three were now seated in a little anteroom in overstuffed chairs, listening in rapt attention.
“All battles have some manner of an ‘ebb and flow’ like the ocean’s tide. This battle, however, was quite different.
“The thirteen bear warriors became a figuratively, furry rogue wave. All in unison, the little white bellied things were cuddly no more- they lifted their paws to the sky, shouted something in an unknown tongue in unison, and began to change- and the change was hardly gradual. What started as a line of frankly adorable, little waddling fisher-bears turned into something well-nigh unholy. With the snapping of sinew and cracking of lengthening bone, the bears almost instantly shot up to a height of seven feet. Their eyes enlarged, and turned to an unwholesome, greenish yellow; the overall shape of their face stayed roughly the same, but the placid little looks were replaced by gaping maws filled with rows upon rows upon rows, crooked, dangerously sharp teeth.
“Shoulder’s broadened, backs strengthened, legs lengthened and overall, their fluffy bodies emerged into a hundreds of pounds of pure muscle– then rows of ivory spikes emerged from their spines. Their arms were possibly the most terrifying sight of their new aspect- frighteningly long, wrapped in thing, ropy muscle, and terminating not in anything resembling a paw, but rather something with long, curved claws, including a opposable thumbs.
“Chadrys, as one could have predicted, ran immediately- some say, even before the actual transformation had started- but the eight or nine survivors of that ill-fated attempted annex described an absolute bloodbath. The man who had referred to Higglerunt as ‘bro’ and bid him to ‘come at him’ was almost immediately bitten in half; his legs wandered around aimlessly as if looking for an ass to kick. And no matter how hard they fought (valiant was not an adjective one would ascribe to these soldiers), the could not face the raw power and sheer, violent determination of the were-bears.”
(“Is it actually a Lycanthrope if it just turns into a bigger version of itself?” asked Petka, perplexed)
(“More of a dire Koala, if anythin’” interjected Finnen.)
(“Oh, dire indeed,” Chaim agreed.)
“But- how did we get so off course? In any event, they were bears who, by invoking the name of their bear-god, turned into bigger, pointier, and yes Finnen, more ‘dire’ versions of their former selves. After the battle, the bears resumed their previously adorable forms, carried the enemy survivors back to the sprawling Split-City, where (to their surprise), a full surrender ceremony had been conducted in absentia. Chadrys, its now erstwhile king had fled to parts unknown, leaving only a note behind in his exodus.
“Take the City or whatever. I was bored anyway.”
“Apparently- according to old records- Chadrys was carried away by some enormous crow, and he was not an entirely willing participant in his unexpected flight. His exact fate remained an impossible to solve, but nevertheless amusing mystery.
“In any event, the bears proved to be peaceful to the civilians once the strange, mostly hairless bipedal things no longer threatened them with extinction, even if it was a threat that could never truly be carried out. Given their strange dichotomy of hug-me cuteness and feral, bone-snapping fighting abilities, the Kingdom continued on as it always had, and the customs of the peaceful bear-overlords were adopted by everyone to some degree. People were granted autonomy, with the exception that all public statues of the late Chadrys- often poised in a classic Frisbee-Golf or ‘Frolf‘ stance were to be torn down and replaced by the god of the koala’s which was, oddly, neither a koala nor a bear of any kind, but rather a sentient, glowing cube whose name was a series of clicks which the human-ish population couldn’t hope to replicate.
“In order to acclimate the existing populace to their new cuddly Czars and their Cube god, many spirits were created- strange things like lumpy potatoes. They weren’t quite sentient, but had a script, and busied themselves flying about the kingdom spouting various musings. They were nice enough, but you couldn’t have a conversation with them. Then there were the old guard like myself and the the Wisp Queen. Fortunately, though management had changed, we were graciously permitted to continue to exist; I, still a glorified tour guide, and she with her duties as protecting the kingdom from outsiders– to safeguard the New Koapolis.”
(“Ah, the real name is lost to history I just thought of that- pretty good, right?’ aked Chaim hopefuly- Petka and Finnen nodded in agreement, impressed.)
“The Wisps were experts at misdirection– essentially they existed to keep the city from prying eyes and wicked hearts; to keep potential interlopers from the outside either lost enough or indeed dead enough to pose any threat to the Split Kingdom, now joined with the stony, seaside kingdom.
“The Wisp Queen? I didn’t envy that amorphous blob one bit- I don’t have the stomach for it, though- and quite disturbingly- she not only had a singular stomach for death, but she also for just about anything else that wandered into her eating zone. But me? I was just a naive Spirit of the Lively Hollows- oh, they were back then! Under new management with everything to prove!”
A smile spread across Chaim’s wolf-like face as if remembering better days, acting on a stage of wistfulness and fond memories.
“My job was still educational in nature and I was damn proud of it! I was to take pilgrims from outlying settlements to the Kingdom of Koapolis, get them acclimated to the furry bears that would rule over them with a gossamer paw -unless, of course, you made them angry, and the baffling-ly cube-ish god they had come to worship- a thing from parts unknown, though wherever that was, I imagine it would have been oppressively dull- you’ll understand in a moment.
“Anyway, offerings to the Elder-Cube or Aether-Cube had to be square- dice, little wooden carvings, et cetera– even the money was replaced with cubes- made it a little unruly, but being a spirit I had no need for it, so no fur off my rear. Then… things changed one day.”
“What happened?” asked Petka, stifling a yawn with all his willpower. Finnen had long ago fallen asleep.
“Well, what always happens, of course,” replied Chaim with a shake of his head, “I remember it very clearly. The hitherto unseen cube god had called all to the ‘Plane of Knowledge’ – which in reality was nothing more than blacktop marked with glowing runes, where everyone sat cross legged and struggled to stay awake where a coma-inducing sermons were read. A rare appearance indeed, as the Ever-Cube apparently moved amongst his followers- bear or no- but once per year. He was hardly original- pontificating on right and wrong, basically a rehash of natural law- hells, but at least it benign. The sermon itself? Oh, it went something like this:
‘Dearest Cubites, who now sit cross-legged in all directions of I, the Cube of Ages, the square of three dimensions, have called you to listen with your imperfect, yet lovingly crafted circular hearts and brains and ears- but, be sure, you all have a cube-ish soul, something with near perfect edges and yearning for perfection. For though everything in nature desires to be a circle, and indeed, your primitive, stinking ape bodies have evolved in the same folly, I am here to tell you how to achieve a spiritual cube.
‘It is wrong for one to covet, and by extension, engage carnally with another person’s spouse. (“You mean…coitus?” asked a bearded citizen, who was left unanswered.)
‘It is wrong to use the pointy end of something to poke at and therefore extinguish the life of another such ape-beast.’
“This went on for quite some time, the cube speaking as if this were some grand revelation that did not exist before the strange being decided to enlighten all creation in what would eventually became nap-time. Then, many painful hours later-”
‘For all we not called to treat somebody as the cube within, rather than the exterior you, rounded monsters are shackled with? I say, kindness is paramount! For inside, we are all square.’
“Which is”, added Chaim, “patently false.”
“Anyway,” said Chaim with a yawn of his own, revealing his wolf-like teeth, “If you were to pick out the bits about angles and shapes, he made some pretty good points- and I suppose he was as benevolent as an also-ran little god could be who refers to his supplicants as ’rounded ape-monsters’ could be. But then, the inevitable happened.
“As the cube continued pontificating on whatever nonsense entered into what passed for his head, a gigantic, one story tall, deafeningly flatulent pig monster arose from the sea- pale as to almost be translucent, and obese as if he were on a personal mission to expand his girth to rival that of a heavenly body. He was clothed in shipwrecks and seaweed and, after a mighty belch, he vomited upon the docks and shores and piers an army of similarly repugnant, though decidedly more armored and less squishy battle-pigs, tools of war inexplicably held fast in their cleft-hooves as if by some strange, porcine magic. They stood eight foot tall, and their armor- sharp, rusty metal and riddled with spikes- were accented with skulls of all shapes and sizes, indicating that this was clearly not their first rodeo.”
“Frightening for sure,” said Petka, elbowing Finnen out of drowsiness, “But how was that normal?”
“Well the pigs themselves, and their translucent and singularly revolting progenitor was new, at least to us, and not normal to anyone considered sane, but it’s the same old cycle all over again. Something strong and old and magic takes power, conquers the squishy things, and things are OK for a while until something bigger, and stronger takes over and the cycle begins anew- the circle- is unbroken– the bigger thing steps in, takes over, rules over the populace somewhere on the spectrum of abject cruelty to a sort of benign, milquetoast narcissism. They never quite quite get the hand of it, but then again, how could they? They’re flesh and blood too, despite their outward appearance, and no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be true divinity- like the one that exists outside of the fishbowl.
“But for us in the fishbowl? Well every so often a new big fish comes in, eats the slightly smaller, previously existing one, and all us brine shrimp have to do our best to appease a creature with the impossible fever dream of true godhood, though it is decidedly unsure of what exactly that truly entails.”
Here Chaim laughed aloud.
“I’ll never forget what the cube-god-thing did when he saw that ‘bigger fish’- that porcine menace. It turned around and looked- as much as a glowing cube with no distinct facial features could look- first at the pigs, then at the sleepy humans, then at the pigs again, as if frozen and unsure of how to act. Then, the briny, gross pig thing- oh, and it had these short little arms with hooves that flapped up and down like- have you ever seen the rubber pencil trick? Like that, and it said through the din,
‘Surrender to my porcine warriors, for I am your god now!’
“It’s voice was nasally, though so low as to feel it under one’s feet and it was all quite unpleasant– and the flapping of its little arms inspired in me a disgust I can’t quite explain. Imagine animate gelatin- sort of like that- making the sound of a boot being pulled in and out of mud.”
“Gross,” said Finnen, trying desperately to suppress the image.
“Yes. Gross.” Replied Chaim.
A few minutes of silence hung in the air before Chaim smoothed out his cloak, straightened his pin and continued.
“Naturally, there was a skirmish between the ‘dire’-koalas and the piggy invaders, but the bears were quickly defeated, and the sea pig, sitting on it’s enormous rear end in the bay said- all the while posturing with what had to be the most smug look in recorded history up to that point. ‘What say you now, Cube!?’
“Well?” asked Finnen, draining another glass of fermented unicorn milk, “What did the Cube say?”
“He said, and these were his exact words, ‘Fisk it. They’re all yours.’
“And again, we spirits were obsolete. I still patrolled my grounds in the Lonely Hollows, trying to help travelers who the wisps had gotten lost get un-lost, and that gross mound of Wisp Queen decided to unionize her little purple minions- no, not the wild ones- they aren’t capable of organized action, save for a poorly executed prank, or childish, phallic vandalism. And their leader? Ugh. The last time I saw her- here, here’s the imagine for you- imagine out of a five foot tall, five foot round, fleshy-pink maggot with drooping tennis-ball-in-socks-mournful mammaries, flopping in front of you. Now imagine a wide mouth- lots of gums and sporadic teeth, an nose curled up almost to a point, two wandering eyes, and a regular mess of a hairdo with a party in the back. And I’ll bet my bottom dollar that if you were to descend into the twilight below, her underlings will do everything to stop us.”
“A good fight?” asked Finnen, sitting up.
“No. Even worse.” Chaim let the heavy silence hang in the air for a moment, then added,
“They’ll be on break. For eternity.”
“How do they get anything done?” asked Fawcett, palming his forehead in disbelief.
“They don’t,” replied Chaim, “At least it’s not high on their list of priorities. And when you have eternity to squander, ‘priority’ kind of loses its meaning. Really, the whole thing has become a mixed bad of androgyny, narcissism, and an unbearable cloud of smugness.”
“How long has this been going on, Canid?” asked Finnen, with a look of disbelief spreading across his scarred face, “How can a universe operate in such…chaos?”
“Well,” replied Chaim, “I’ve been around for a millennium or two, and the world existed and was peopled for a few millennia before that, so … forever, I guess. The world- that is our planet, plus the universe- it’s all far older than one would think. And our planet? Not counting all the way-points, pocket-places, and secret kingdoms- the world has changed her face so many times…it’s all quite staggering.”
“One question for ya, Chaim- what’s all ‘dis talk about gods? By Agnes Dei and Stella Maris, there’s but one livin’ God if I know a damn thing at all.”
“You’re right and wrong, Finnen. The Cube? The Pig? The Chadrys-Narcissist? All little divinities, “little-g” gods. When the universe came into being, everything sort of coalesced into an infinite number of iterations, and all mortals make a common mistake- they mistake age, size, perceived strength and arcane ability for divinity. The truth of the matter is actual divinity doesn’t feel the need to show off like the Chadryses of the world.
“True divinity is so subtle, that it might not be recognized at all; its touch is so gentle it is hardly recognizable, hardly to be said to have been there all- much taking away a fire, but leaving in the warmth. You can get fire from whiskey- but warmth? Infinitely more valuable; infinitely harder to find. The little gods of the world differ from the big ‘G’ in one important way, aside from their insufferable smugness- it can create something without losing a little bit of themselves in the process– can create without diminishing itself in any way, and has no need for anything material.
“Divinity is warmth. Divinity is the love between a mother and her child. And love is a simple thing- the rules don’t change- easy to understand, difficult to practice. Anything or anyone proclaiming the absolute need for any building or shrine, or city-no matter how great is just a little god, for better or for worse- sure, a lot of good has come from these mortal gods, but it’s like a coin toss- you get the good or you get the bad, and in the middle is the immutable law Finnen keeps talking about. You know it without knowing you know it. It’s really quite incredible.
“In any event, above it all, or perhaps outside it all is the true tinkerer, tending to some great clock and all its gears and springs and glorious cogs; as it ages, cogs or springs need replacing, or some grow redundant, or perhaps the whole of the machine needs a good coat of oil to keep it churning along smoothly, to keep the stuff of reality in motion. And as for what the whole ball of works is for? I don’t know, and quite frankly nobody knows, so don’t bother asking. So as far as your Virgin Sea of Stars and Broken Lamb? Well, I’ve never had the pleasure, but seeing as how they didn’t simply arrive as something bigger to either obliterate or annex something, then the better for all of us. I’d say that’s a damn sight better than the things I’ve seen in my time. The fact that there’s some being out there tending to the clockwork whole- the gears themselves…it’s oddly comforting; though perhaps I say that partially in relief that I will not simply dissolve into oblivion once my clock stops ticking, whenever that will be.”
“So time served does not a god make?” asked Fawcett, bearded chin on his fist in a thinking position.
“Correct,” said Chaim, “They are lower-case g’s capable of astounding feats of wrath and prestidigitation, but their clock is ticking as like any other mortal thing. It just ticks slower, and louder. And it’s far more insufferable. The hollow drum, Mr. Fawcett, beats the loudest- and this world is full of Chadryses, cube-beasts, pigs- all as hollow as a drum could possibly be.”
“But the law,” interjected Finnen, “There’s no way some ponce-cube came up with natural law.”
“You are correct, of course- he didn’t- he just took credit and used saccharine cube-centric platitudes to make it seem like he had a hand in something so important. The truth is, there is an order to everything- always has been; always will be. It’s just that every little g gets it into his or her or its head to stir up the pot. The cube-god outlawed circles, for example.”
“So we’re clearly dealing with a critical thinker,” huffed Finnen, who was clearly done wasting words on heady, theosophical babble.
Motioning for Petka and Chaim to follow, Finnen led the two outside the tavern, and, just outside of the town’s limits indeed existed a great, overgrown field of yellow grasses terminating in the southern edge in a steep cliff; on the northern end, a towering mountain dominated the landscape and at its feet lay a cluster of ramshackle, overgrown and indeed burnt-out cabins. Petka pointed to the broken down dwellings, but Finnen, as if anticipating his question shook his head and muttered, “No. Later.”
“Oh that’s OK Irish, I was done talking anyway,” said Chaim with a roll of his eyes, putting away his cap and button.
“Sorry Canid. But it seems to me like you said all that was needin’ to be said. Me head’s spinnin’ fit to leave me body, and your wisp talk got me ta thinking.” Finnen rubbed his eyes, then his head vigorously as if trying to get all the strange talk out of his ears, “I’ll get to that, but first, we should finish the tour. I should show ya the rest o’ the Rest.”
Then Finnen looked back at his companions.
“I’m hungry again too. Anybody else hungry? I could eat a horse.”
His words would have a disturbing truth that Petka could never have guessed at.