Storytime: After it Ends.

March 12th, 2014

“The world is ending,” Ikka told his parents.
“The world is ending,” Ikka told his six siblings.
“The world is ending,” Ikka told his friends and near-relations.
“The world is ending,” Ikka told them all. “And it’s ending soon.”
They all laughed at him, or yelled at him, or ignored him, and then when he persisted he was thrown off the spine for his troubles and chased away to sulk out of the eyes of right-thinking people who were trying to eat their meals of delicious parasites in peace.
All but one person. Ikka hiked himself up on his little claws and spread his wings and took himself off and along to the very edge of the world, where home ended and the Strange began.
“They didn’t listen to me,” he said.
“Told you,” said the world.
Ikka looked down into one big, black eye beneath him. It failed to focus, clouded by cataracts and the soft red glare of the setting sun. “But they should have listened!”
“Most people find talking more pleasant. Hard to talk when someone else is talking.”
Ikka scraped at the world and himself at once. He was not a very pretty person, and this did not add to his appearance; already he was criss-crossed with scratches and cuts from his own claws. “But the world’s going to end! You’re going to end! There’s got to be something we can do, but they need to listen!”
“They’ll listen. Eventually,” said the world. It blinked, slow as a glacier. “Just wait and watch. You’ll. See.”
Ikka shook himself. “Even if they listen, what do we do?”
“You. ‘ll see.”
“See what?”
The world blinked again, slower still. This time it didn’t finish.

The end of the world was much faster than Ikka had expected, but still oh so very terribly, awfully slow.
First it shook under his feet as muscles that had held their grip for decades eased into slackness. Then came the groaning as bones ground on bones ground to powder, with the uneasy whistle of moving air as the horizon slid off-center.
And last of all, there came the crash.

The Night That Never Ended started immediately, although of course nobody knew that was what it was called at the time. All they knew was that the world had ended, gone cold and cooling still underneath their feet.
Some denied it, tried to cling still and not move, hoping against hope that it was just another seizure, another sudden bout of sleep, a severe fit of the limbs. Some abandoned hope and fell down to the dirt, wings and eyes empty. Some took to the sky and spun higher and higher in crazy circles, shrieking and staring, hunting frantically for the world, where had the world gone?
Soon, the question was answered. The night grew fangs and claws and hungry eyes and poured into the void left by the world. The dirtbound were trampled out of carelessness or killed for idle sport; the deniers fled or were consumed along with the world’s own flesh; the screamers grew weary and blundered through thickets, headlong into waiting mouths and bellies.

The Night That Never Ended ended, and the dawn rose on a worldless place, a worldless place with far fewer than had seen the sun set. Ikka was huddled with them, the last of them, stranded on a treetrunk that smelled of bark and bitter leaves. He welcomed it. Anything to obscure the stench of blood that seemed to have eaten into his brain. The fear and flight of the dark had torn his stomach into emptiness, and already he was craving the taste of parasites.
“We need a world,” he told his mother.
“We need a world,” he told his two siblings.
“We need a world,” he told his friend.
“We need a world,” he told them all. “And we need it now.”
The few who could look at him looked blank. The rest stared at their feet, or the sky, or the dirt down below where the bones littered the forest floor.
And so Ikka spread his wings again and took flight into the emptiness above the dirt, looking for a world.

Through the trees and under the trees above the brush and into the glens and hollows flew Ikka, and underneath him he saw dirt and the things of the dirt. Sometimes a scuttling at the edge of his vision would fill him with hope, but then it would scurry under a bush or behind a root and he would see it for what it was: not a world at all, but a tiny thing searching for a place to hide. He felt a kinship that disturbed him greatly.
Come midday Ikka sat on a branch and probed for insects in its bark. They tasted like rot and damp, and his claws sat awkwardly on the cold brown shag that should have been good grey scales shot through with the warmth of sixteen tons of flesh.
He missed the world. He shut his eyes and tried not to whimper too loudly; his snorting was growing distracting. Then came awareness, and he looked down.
A thing was feeding at the ferns at the base of his tree. What it was he did not know, but it was bigger than he was, and right now that was all that he’d ever wanted.
“Hello?” he said.
It rolled its eyes lazily in a circle. After some minutes, one of them settled upon him.
“Are you the world?”
It shrugged placidly, sending the vertical plates along its back into a gentle wave. Its mouth did not pause in its quest to consume for a second.
“It could be that you’re the world and don’t know it. May I land on you?”
Ikka landed, and felt hide underneath him for the first time in what felt like a thousand days. If he closed his eyes he could almost imagine that the world had never ended.
…except he had to close his eyes. The moment they were open, everything went wrong. This world was too small, its back was too crowded. The plates were broad and many, and the finest places on the spine were rendered squished by them. There would barely be room for them as it were, and what about when the hatchlings came? No nest could stay stable on this narrow back. And with the dirt so near, he didn’t trust it to stay safe. Certainly not with this world guarding them. It seemed barely aware of itself, let alone him, let alone dozens and dozens of fledglings that would need a wary mind to ward them in the dark.
“I am sorry,” said Ikka, “but I was mistaken in my eagerness. You are not the world, and I will not trouble you further.” And with that he flew away, wondering if the thing had even noticed he was there at all.

Up into the hills and over the hills and down the dunes raced Ikka and underneath him he saw the dirt vanish, replaced by blue water that he’d never imagined, as far as the eye could see. It was a river without end, and he hovered fearfully over it, looking over his shoulder for what he’d never imagined to be comforting: the sight of dirt. Then a gust of warm air from below sent him spinning head over tail, squawking with alarm.
A deep, guttural coughing sound. Something was laughing at him. Ikka peered downwards and immediately mashed his wings for height: the thing whose eyeball was leering at him was half-submerged, but its teeth were nearly as big as he was.
“Be careful!” he admonished.
It laughed again. “I didn’t see you there, little speck. And I’ve never seen the like of you before. How do you catch fish to eat when you’re nearly plankton yourself?”
“I don’t know what a fish is,” said Ikka, “and you’re being most disrespectful and unkind. I am looking for a world to live on.”
“There are worlds and worlds,” commented the thing. “Mine is this water. Yours is what, the empty sky? Don’t you get dry up there?”
“No,” said Ikka, and a wave of nostalgia swept through him. “My world is skin on flesh and bone under blood. Scales farther than I can fly on a wingbeat and a foot-tread that keeps us far above the dirt below. A place where delicious parasites pop fresh from its pores and the hatchlings nest on a back wide enough for six to groom snout-to-tail. That is my world, and it has ended, and I am looking for a new one.”
“You sound to be a disreputable lot of ride-hitchers,” said the thing. “But did you say parasites just now? I suffer from them myself, and I would be obliged if you would pick at them.” And it rolled itself about in the water so that Ikka could look at its back, which was indeed mottled with little things that were not part of the natural blue-and-white of its hide.
“Certainly,” said Ikka uncertainly, for the thing was so very large and the water was larger still. But he set down on the cold, damp surface willingly enough. It was slippery under his claws, and colder than he would’ve guessed. But the parasites were real – great crunchy things that built their own nests around them in spiral towers – and he prised them out with vigor and vim. It had been too long since he’d eaten something that felt fat and bloody.
“Ahhh….” sighed the thing under him. Its lungs were even greater than the world’s had been, and he felt nostalgia tickling at his wingtips again. “That’s better. How many of your kind are there, little speck?”
“Dozens,” said Ikka. “No. Just a few dozen now.”
“You are welcome to my back if you wish it,” it said. “That feels so much better, and you work more quickly than the little reef-fish. Will you not stay a while?”
Ikka thought it over. It wasn’t the old world, but it was a world, and that was so much more than there had been just minutes ago. “Yes!” he cried.
“To the shore, then,” said the thing. And it dove into the water with the swiftness of a serpent, leaving Ikka to drown.
“Help!” he shrieked. “Help! Help!” The sky was dropping away above him, the blue was filling up his eyes. He tried to call, but could only taste rain and a deep, bilious salt. His head was more water than air. Then the ripple from the tail of the thing swept underneath him, stronger than the currents, and he was sent flying into the air in a tangle of wings.
Ikka turned his fall into a swoop just inches from the water again, and barely found the strength to cough.
“Are you there?” said the thing, surfacing beneath him again. “You seemed to have wandered off.”
“I think,” managed Ikka. “I think. I am sorry. Mistaken. You’re not the world. You live where we never. Can.” How in the name of anything had it done that, had it brought itself under the water? Madness! You might as well travel over the sky!
It sighed, sending another warm gust of air into his wings – and a good thing too, he was still mightily wet. “Suit yourself. A pity to lose such cleaners, but worse things happen at sea. Good luck to your world, little speck.”
“And you, yours,” said Ikka. And with that he flew towards the sight of dirt, coughing whenever he wasn’t shivering.

Past the shore and over the dunes and into the basin flew Ikka, watching the plains roll by underneath him, scanning for any hope of a world. Here was where the world had wandered when his mother was born, he recalled. He’d heard stories of it, of places where no trunk dared rear itself, where the sky was in sight at all times. It made him feel nearly as small as the water had, especially when the sunset caught the clouds on fire and painted it all red as blood.
He needed a roost, but there was nowhere high at all. Then luck – a crag of stone, toppled and unmoving in the crimson of the evening. Only barely better than dirt itself for a lair, but he could squeeze himself into a crevice and call it enough for the night.
The crevice opened an eye as he alighted next to it. “Hello,” said Ikka, after he remembered to breath.
Muscles moved underneath his feet and he felt that whatever-it-was was smiling. “Hello,” replied the thing. “What are you doing here, so far away from home? Where is your flock?”
“Hiding,” said Ikka. “I am searching for a new world for us to live on, as our old one died. Do you know of any places such as that?”
“Worlds…” mused the thing. “Tell me, what kind of worlds are these?”
“Huge ones,” said Ikka. “Strong bodies on strong legs with tails that are as big again as the rest combined and muscles that never tire. And delicious parasites.”
“Mmm,” it purred. “Well, perhaps we can help each other. I am strong, strongest of all I know. My legs are the swiftest of these prairies, my tail is my rudder that controls my sprint. I can hound and harry for hours if I must, but if I must I have failed for my kills are measured in minutes. As for size, I have a large pack whose backs you may also claim besides my own – ah, you will have room for sixteen children each unto sixteen generations before you run cramped! But there is one thing, one very small thing you request where I falter: I cannot help you with parasites. My kind are cleanly.”
“Oh,” said Ikka.
“But perhaps I can give you other meals,” it continued. “You could be very useful to me, and that would be repaid in foods richer than you know. Tell me, how high can you fly? How far? How fast?”
“Very, widely, and speedily, respectively,” said Ikka. “Why?”
“I am strong, and I am fast, but I cannot move forever without rest,” said the thing. “If your kind finds my meals for me, I will feed you on the scraps when the kill is done and my young have consumed their last. You may think parasite a fine meal, but I swear to you that you have never fled on flesh bred from bones. The young are tender, the old are meaty, and both produce a mountain of meat beyond your imagining! Swear to serve, and I and mine will provide for you and yours with bounty.”
Ikka couldn’t believe his luck. Not only a world found, but a world of endless feasts! Not only would there be room enough for all and then some, but on a family that would grow even as their two families prospered! Even as they hunted, even as they killed, even as they brought low… others.
“What will we hunt?” asked Ikka.
“Prey,” said the thing. “Vaster than us, but slower and clumsier. Broad of back and small of head. Their limbs are pillars and their brains are as trickles of water. Scarcely worth mentioning.”
Ikka felt the spring that was his own mind freeze solid. “They are worlds,” he said.
“I told you twice and I tell you again: they are prey.”
“I tell you now and forever,” said Ikka, “I tell you this: they are worlds. And you want to kill them. How many of my own people will we render worldless and alone if we aid your hunts? How many more families must take up service as your pets for shelter and food?”
“They are not your pack, and not your concern,” said the thing. “Your moral qualms are tiresome. Swear unto me.”
“I am sorry,” said Ikka, “but I was mistaken. You are no world. You are a world-killer, and I will not have other worlds die so that my family can claim one. No, I will not swear to you. Not now, not until the never-ever comes.”
And because Ikka was not entirely empty of sense he said this as he flung himself skywards, which was just barely fast enough for the teeth of the terrible thing behind him to clash at his tail-tip rather than his neck.

Across the endless plain flew Ikka, wings struggling to capture any hint of dying thermals as the night cold rushed in, eyes searching the growing dark for a place to land, any place to land at all that wasn’t the dirt where the awful thing with the teeth and the glowing eyes and most importantly of all legs that seemed as tireless as it had boasted.
“Yield,” said the awful voice that seemed to have death seeped into its every word. It was below – where? He couldn’t see.
“No,” said Ikka. He might not have said it at all; his ears were numb with aching cold and tiredness.
“Yield and be forgiven. Continue and be made a toy. My children learn to hunt. Wingless, you would be a useful plaything.”
Ikka tried to put breaking bones and tearing membranes out of his mine and continued forwards, ignoring the ache in his limbs. He’d flown too far and fast on too little. His stomach was screaming even as his muscles trembled, and his mind was fast-filling with a fog as thick as the blackness that had eaten up the night sky. Even the stars were gone, as vanished as if they’d been consumed by some awful beast.
Then it hit him.
Ikka slid down it and fell down to dust, his snout feeling half-cracked. At least he could see the stars from below down here in the dirt, where there was nothing to block the sky and break his face against.
The stars vanished again, replaced with teeth.
“Your last chance,” said the world-killer. A single toe larger than Ikka and his siblings put together shoved him against the obstruction that had ended his flight, pinning him above the dirt by half against his own body length. “Swear to me and swear utterly, and you will keep a wing. And swear now.”
Ikka stared past the teeth and tried to think about things that weren’t now, about times gone by when the only teeth there were belonged to the world. Simple, humble pegs that stripped leaves clean from stems and never spoke hard words at you with hot breath that stank of meat. A mind at a head on a neck that made trees seem small, that could stretch farther into the sky than six wingbeats could take you.
The sky was moving.
Ikka giggled into the teeth of the world-killer.
“What answer is that?”
“Both,” said Ikka. “I will not serve you. But I have done as you asked.”
The world-killer may have said something to that. It may have denied it, it may have inquired of it, it may simply have cursed and bitten off Ikka piece by piece.
But it did none of those things, because that was when a tail with the weight of a world behind it came sweeping down from above and struck it across the side with a sound like lightning breaking in half. Ikka’s ears nearly bled from it; the world-killer went spinning into the dark from it, and he started laughing and laughing and laughing.
Something large moved, and he was looking into a smaller, kinder set of teeth that were deeply familiar. Younger, but familiar.
“Hello,” said Ikka. “I am looking for a world to live on.”
“Hello,” said the world.
And Ikka knew it would be alright.

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