by A.F. Ashes
A tale of young men challenging the rule laid upon them
The wild above
Streaming wisps of steaming dankness floated in the atmosphere making the already musty cavern reek of damp putrescence. The group of amphibious toad men sat the comfortably in the essence of it all. Home is what they called this mucky, wet space. The slimy goo between their toes made them want to swoon and the thick spore filled air was sweetness and sweat, a struggling dragonfly trapped on the tongue, squirming just enough to tickle the senses as it came towards the open mouth.
The three wart covered, bug eyed creatures toiled happily, making the three tools needed most by men of their trade. Tarterois wove baskets out of saw grass and birch bark. Marino honed stone into the sharp shivs and scrapers then attached them to hafts of wood, and Fonlee made climbing gloves out of the fur ,sinews and teeth of small rodents they had fought and slain on the journeys to the above.
They were farmers. Not of the soil beneath there feet, but of the world above. That bright, open, airy, place that was the opposite of their home. They gathered the mosses and fungus that would not grow under the earth. The things that needed light from the blinding eye. Tarterois, Marino, and Fonlee were strong young men, their thick skins painted darker by the touch of the eye. They were happy, content with their perfect home and chosen trade. They were confident in there abilities, sure of their movements, ready for almost anything.
Their trek to the surface was one of crawling and scraping through narrow almost nonexistent tunnels. Wriggling worms and slugs were the traffic they fought through as they went. Plant roots and ant homes were the obstacles as they pushed ever upward to poke their grime covered heads from the swampy over growth.
Here they had to be careful. Many creatures prowled above ground. Flying creature and slithering ones, even their larger cousins were prone to accost them. But the biggest threat came from the vermin. The furry little beasts that proliferated the area as if they were insects themselves.
The three toad men emerged from under a rotting log with shivs out and bulbous eyes on hinges. There small nostrils flared tracing out the odors of fetid water and muck for the underlying scent of fur and skin, spore and urine. All signs of nearby predators.
Finding nothing close threatening they moved slowly through the cluttered growth toward one of their favorite growing spots. A place of rot with just enough moisture and sunlight to grow thick with moss and fungi. Marino wandered the surrounding area as a ward to danger. Tarterois went to gather the fungus, cutting pieces from the larger specimens while simply plucking the smaller. While Fonlee went to work with a hoe, peeling and rolling the moss off the rocks or logs into tight bundles to be dragged back to their home.
They feasted on the abundant insects all about them as they worked and after long hours of toil when the bright eye was taking its gaze off the lazy forest they trussed up what they could carry, stashed what they couldn't in a safe place and began the joyful walk back to their tidy home. Full bellies and a fitful day of work made them bloated with purpose and there large feet carried them surely through the dense mire of fallen trees and brush and reeds to the log that would lead them safely into the earth.
The three toad men were comfortable in the permanent darkness below the ground. Down there the dangers never changed, one time of day was just as perilous as the next and their perfect little home was well guarded against all known enemies. But above ground the night seemed to bring about such violent change as the darkness called out all the worst predators of the world and set them to the kill.
So their grandfater had learned, and so decreed a curfew for the three brothers. They had never before broken this rule, but on this evening as they were so close to safety, Marino looked about him at the dusky peaceful trees and the boggy undergrowth and thought 'what harm if I stay to see what lies after the blinding eye is gone'. Marino, master of the shiv, more hunter than farmer set his load of moss upon the ground and boasted to his companions of his intention. Tarterois and Fonlee looked at him in fear as they begged him not to make his plans real, but Marino just turned his back on them and with eyes gleaming with courageous fire he moved away from his brothers to await he bright eyes departure.
Tarterois and Fonlee were not meek or cowardly and so after a moments hesitation, shrugged their shoulder free of the days long toil to go stand next to their brother. Together they watched in rapt silence as the glow of the eye settled ever nearer to the rim of world. As it sank lower and lower they felt an urge grow in them, building within there sated bellies. It spread up their throats to their tongues until out of their mouths erupted a glorious unrestrained roar. Over and over it came in unfettered freeness telling the world that they did not fear, that they were here, and that they welcomed all challengers.
The challenge was answered of course. In a wild, unforgiving place such as the swampy forest only the strongest survived and those strong ones did not take kindly to being ridiculed by these three soft, untested, nesters. So the owl swooped from the dark sky on feathery wings. So the mink prowled trough the trees like grounded lightning. So the massive gar thrashed his snout in the water and darted towards the pesky sound hoping he might get at chance at the offenders. On came these and many more, knowing rage and bloodlust.
Luckily for the toad men they were not the only ones letting out this cry of triumph. For out of the almost complete darkness of the forest erupted thousands upon thousand of such voices. Some similar to their own calls, but many others croaking and twittering and almost laughing into the night. A brilliant, chaotic, yet somehow beautiful music.
Then the owl came flying low overhead to splash its talons at something nearby. A giant splash could be heard in faraway stream. And upon the three of them came a weasel, its eyes beady like a rats, its whisker quivering, it's long torso and tail sliding silent and sleek through the night.
It set upon Marino first it teeth flashing at his head so quick he had no time to defend himself. The weasels mouth closed on his face and they stumbled backwards towards Fonlee and Tarterois who moved as fast as could to their brothers rescue. Marino's thick skin saved him from an instant death but teeth and claws shredded his body as he jabbed with his shiv at furry body atop him.
Tarterois and Fonlee did the same as the strove to pry the weasel off Marino. They finally managed to with a stab that was deep enough to startle the beast into fearful alertness. It leapt off the mutilated Marino and reared up on it's hind feet to face the other two.
Fonlee and Tarterois stood their ground. Not daring to go to Marino. Not daring to race for the safety under the log behind them. The irritated weasel struck again, going for Fonlee hoping to catch him quick and finish him. But Fonlee leapt high, clearing the weasel's head to land upon it's twisting back. There he clung to its fur and stabbed wildly with his shiv as Tarterois attempted vainly to give aid. Stab after stab from Fonlee pierced the weasels back until it whipped its head around snatched his leg in its teeth and flung him off its back.
Tarterois ran to Fonlee and stood protectively in front of his prone body. The weasel ignored them, snatched up Marino's body and retreated back into the reeds. Tarterois stood shocked and devastated, unable to even think of going after it. Their grandfather had been right. Darkness above the ground was a nightmare. His eyes darted wildly at the place he had called home and he felt a terror so deep growing in him that the only way to release it was to let out yet another deep, strangled roar of defiance.
When finally he felt somewhat better the call died on his tongue. The sounds of the forest returned to his ears and he couldn't help but feel insulted by the uncaring nature of it. The drone of insects, the croaks and chirps and hoots went on as if nothing had happened. Yet one of his brothers was dead and the other lay broken at his feet.
Fonlee roared again and again and again into the night. Rage and loss, rage and loss, fear and hatred.
Then something else emerged from the dense foliage, moving purposefully towards him. Fonlee watched it approach with a sense of dreaminess. A female. An angel come to save him form desperation. A plug for the gaping hole he felt in his chest. Their was a purpose to it all as he stepped forward to meet his mate. They greeted each other boldly, both knowing how easily their existence could be ended. Then together they took care of poor Fonlee, gathered up what they could of the supplies the three brothers had gathered and then sank back under the earth to the now foreign safety of the tidy home that waited.