This is the third in a series of short stories set in a shared universe: Earth has been pummeled by heavy storms for twenty years, and the governments left over have adapted by genetically manipulating (and in some cases, Inventing) creatures to help them survive the onslaught of rain and wind. After two decades, the storms have diminished, but the changes are too significant to return to the status quo so easily…
Soft summer droplets plinked off of cars and roofs as the figure stalked along the road, silent and nigh invisible in the dim twilight rain. Its tongue flitted out of its lips like a lizard’s, sniffing at the air while the large frame that bore it lumbered elegantly through the brush on the side of the road. IT had been tracking something, or someone, but it had forgotten who or what. It had been tracking them for a long time, was all it knew.
As it crested a low rise, it saw the metallic forest below as if for the first time: aged structures bearing new life amidst their creaking facades; twisting vines crawling along the skeletons of the life, the time, before; brilliant splashes of colour from patches of lichen and flowering bush growing high on the bones of the past. It sat there, four pack paws sheltered under the slick carapace of the body as its forepaws dug at an itch near the head.
Must press on. The thought came to it frequently now, and over the last few weeks, it had interrupted meals, sleep and even the very task it had set it out on. It didn’t know why this thought recurred; it wasn’t even sure if it had remembered it right. Dutifully, though, it began the slow climb atop the traffic jam of the beforetimes towards the decaying city. It knew that this place would help it on its journey to find what drove it so.
The skywater was cool to the skin, and pooled in grooves along the back of the creature, being sucked downward greedily into the body of it by its many mouths. Deep gouges ached as it clambered over wreckage, and it rested when these pains proved too much. The rests gave it time to think, and to scan the horizon, black eyes alight with tiny specks of light rotating in lazy ellipses. In the fronds to the right, it felt movement, and something watching it. Its back tensed, but it otherwise remained still in the now near-dark. It wanted no trouble, and had eaten plenty in the day hence, so it waited to see whether the creature hadn’t.
Eventually, though time was difficult to tell, it felt the eyes disappear, and it shook the water coating it to warm up its skin. Padding quietly along a crestfallen bridge into the city, it too disappeared, blending into the dark corridors of the behemoths that stood watch over this forest. Creaks and groans echoed dimly in the distance, and the sound of the rain had grown from a whisper to a low moan. The wind brushed its skin and face like soft nettles, not unpleasant but less pleasant still.
It saw a landmark, as if pulled from a dream, exactly where it had felt it should be: a statue, now crumbled, but still recognized. Some figure from the past that had merited one, though to the creature it was no more than a waystone, a mnemonic spot to guide it. Pulling left, then right, as it had been taught (or taught itself?), it continued through barren streets carpeted by thick moss. Suckers in the feet left slight indents in the growth where they had pulled it away, vanishing into itself.
Cracks of lightning. Flashes of brilliance. Enough to show it that it was no longer alone. Deep rumbles. Both natural, one less comforting. It began to scale a nearby tower, suckered footpads now helping to grip the slick plants, even the tongue securing purchase on vines as it ascended. A growl, a snort; all the sounds it had feared during the travels it had made, drowned out by rain pounding against it. The wind dared to blow against it, and the sounds from below were growing closer.
Must. Press. On. The tone was insistent now, goading it onwards, spurring it into movements so swift it thought it must be safe soon, that it must get where it needed to be after so long a sojourn. The metal ached just as its wounds did, but neither could stop to help themselves; they could only continue on. The sounds behind it, those sounds that woke it in the night, that drove it from a safe place into danger simply to avoid other danger, that made its soft bones tremble as it climbed; those noises receded.
It paused nearly at the top, the rain and wind so fierce it thought the predators behind it to be sublime. Clambering in through a small window, the dark inside was deafening, all-encompassing, as if it had crawled into the mouth of a larger creature in its haste. Pushing further into the depths of that beast called Night, there were sounds of movement within, as well. Faint, barely registered above the din without, but present nonetheless.
Knowing without reasoning, it crept towards the sound, body slipping over and under debris as if made of water, the sounds masked by the emptiness of its surroundings. Deep, deep within the structure, almost impossibly so, was a light. It felt its eyes deceived it, that given no input they had made their own, but a shadow was cast along one side of it, swaying gently in the breeze as a gust of wind traveled up through the hollow bones of the tower.
Near enough now, other senses were suddenly alight: the taste of a berry, its absence just as bitter; the smell of skin, not dirty nor clean; a firm but warm voice, as if humming to the creature directly; the inked wards and writings, sharp and bright against the dull walls. All that was missing was-
The thought that drove it forward, the thought that kept it moving in spite of tranquility, against the calm fields outside, the thought that made it abandon such simple pleasures as warm burrows and fresh streams teeming with life. The thought was never gone, only softer, quieter, or louder and ever-present. But now,
it was missing.
The shadow stopped, then jerked around, and the creature felt eyes on it through the thin gauze curtain. Its body grew tense, taut; this was a trap. It could be nothing else. The thought was gone, that thought that defined it, that gave it purpose beyond simple life, taken without warning or trace. What had possessed it to climb here, at this tower, over anywhere else, was a fleeting concept as the figure rose from its seat and pushed aside the curtain.
And in the dim light, whispered, “Ohrain. There you are.” with such emotion that it overrode any sense the creature had of unease or regret. It stumbled forward, abruptly unbalanced, and felt, for the first time in what felt like time itself, a gentle hand, worn and tacky with use, against its face. And it wept with a kind of joy, a mad feeling of conflicting sorrow and wholeness. The hand never left, and the body of the figure curled into it, around it, warm and comforting in that deep tomb of the city.