Faoli find – Morsel 1

Margue was sweating, but the night was cool. He was perched atop a seliota stalk, which swayed under his movements. It was one of the tallest fungi in the forest, and gave him a beautiful view of the canopy. Had the moon been full, and he blessed with more time, the beauty of the greens and yellows and oranges of the fan fungi sliding between and on top of each other would have held him transfixed. They were the very reason day trips ascended the easily climbed cliffs to the east and drew so many visitors.

But the moon was not full. Already Margue had nearly sliced his fingers off in the darkness, and his incisions into the husk he was clinging to were marred with hesitation marks.

And he was out of time. The blue pigments that Margue sought in this seliota stalk were protected, and though the conservation patrols rarely ventured this deep into the forest, he was an easy mark even in the gloom, dotted as he was on a stalk above most of the canopy, struggling to get a reliable tear going along the main fibrous grains.

It was a regrettable collision of evolution and commerce for the fungus, but these hegli blue stalks poked above the canopy like the blue fingers of a hidden hand reaching through the from below.

Margue wasn’t convinced that hegli blue was actually more beautiful — he only knew that it fetched a hundred times the price of any other dye in the city. It being illegal to harvest only added to its value. The dye mongers of the market district were quick to fawn over blazing blue silks, but quicker to condemn the extinction of the stalks that provided them with their dye. In his experience the easiest way to find a potential client was to find those protesting the harvest of the seliota most vociferously.

Stripping the husks was the enjoyable part. The real work was rolling them up and transporting them to the city without being detected.

Margue took one last survey of the canopy, and confirmed the absence of any soft glow that would indicate a patrol traveling below. There had been the one ultimately comic night when he was sure he had descended into the clutches of a patrol, only to have a good laugh and a split harvest with another poacher.

That had been an easy night. And not for the first time had it made him consider a partnership. But twice the liability never translated into twice the profit, and good beginnings were bad predictors of good endings. His parents could attest to that.

And harvests were getting harder to find. Margue found himself deeper in the forest on these trips now, mostly two days journey each way. Back in the time of his parents’ parents it was an out and back job the same night. And the seliota weren’t growing back the way they used to. He hated acknowledging that the protesters had a point, and he would eventually work himself out of the gig.

But those were troubles for another time. Margue slipped the precision knapped blade out of his wrap and pulled back at the mouth of the fungus. It was puckered up like an asshole, only opening to release its spores once per season. He found one of the folds of the sphincter and slit it easily, running the knife down level to his waist. He did the same with the adjacent fold, and then pulled the flap free.

Margue tucked his knife away safely and gripped the flap firmly with both hands. His pincers pressed the sides of the stalk, holding him in place. This was something that Margue would come back to, even if there was no money in it. Something he could take a date to experience if he was looking to impress. Maybe it was an activity he could market if he used fungi that weren’t protected. Monetize it like one of those friends of the forest tours, although he doubted he would be counted among the friends with his proposal.

He let go of his thoughts and the side of the seliota, gripping the flap tight. There was a brief moment of resistance as the flap caught his fall, and then it began to tear along the fibrous ridges of the stalk, peeling off a huge strip in a perfectly straight line as Margue plunged towards the ground. Despite it feeling incredibly fast, he easily absorbed the shock by springing off near the bottom, landing on all sixes, and compressing. The forest floor was also soft and forgiving. On days where he felt particularly giddy, he would roll out of of the jump, momentarily disappointed that his profession did not allow for impressed onlookers.

Following a rip down in which Margue couldn’t help but laugh, he challenged himself and raced up the stalk, alternating arms and pincers in what he was sure was a personal record. He caught his breath, taking in the stillness of the canopy and the night sounds of the forest. Far in the distance to the north was the faint glow of the city, and somewhere in the distant sloping south he knew sat the ocean, and in the west …

Something was moving through the forest.

The panic of there being a nearby patrol seized him, but soon passed. This wasn’t the flicker of a lamp. It was a red glow, pulsing in and out. The distinctive lighting of a faoli following its trail. But this was a more rapid pulsing than any faoli he had ever seen, and it was on track to pass dangerously close to his worksite.

Margue needed to get packed and gone quickly. If there was a faoli, its handler would be close by. He managed to have the final strip of husk rolled before the red glow was visible from where he stood on the ground. He hid the six husk rolls under some low growing wide-capped mushrooms surrounded by tall grass, and carved a stylized “M”, his call-sign, into the closest stalk. They would be safe. Margue couldn’t even see them from two steps away and he knew where to look.

He stood in the cooling night air, watching the puffs of his breath disappear and waiting for the glow to appear. From where he stood, he would be able to keep an eye on the handler, and monitor the passage of the faoli until they were safely out of sight. So much of his work seemed to be rushing until he was exhausted, and then waiting like everything was normal while adrenaline coursed through him. Finally the faint flickering of the faoli was visible; shadows lightened momentarily to a deep gray on the nearby stalks.

Margue kept the large mushroom stalk he was hiding behind between his right side and the glow, slowly walking a half-circle. Every step was an exercise in patience, doing his best to move without alerting the handler. Whoever was traversing the forest at night was likely doing so for reasons not unlike his own.

When the faoli was finally in clear view, there was no handler in sight. And the faoli was obviously injured. It was the distinctive red sphere he had expected—wide as his outstretched arms and writhing with millions of individual threads that wove through and transmitted the glow from its illuminated core—but there were dark slashes of matted fur surrounding the harness it wore, and where he suspected the beak usually lay concealed, a concave darkness existed, leaking blood in a steady trickle.

Margue had never been this close to a faoli, always observing them safely from a distance as his parents had taught, but even he could tell these were critical injuries. Remarkably, the faoli seemed to ignore the damage, as well as Margue when he stepped into the clear to get a better look.

The faoli floated gracefully around fungal stalks and bobbed over bushes and grasses, perfectly retracing the path it had taken on its original journey. It was going home.

Margue clamped a hand over his nose as the creature floated by, so close he felt the disturbance in the air that now reeked of sour drink and spoiled meat. He willed his urge to vomit away.

Though it was floating, the faoli moved fast. Margue started jogging to keep up, its silent speed having already pulled him a long way from his harvest.

He wondered which outfit the faoli belonged to, but didn’t have to for long. The embroidered “GR” on each of the two bags attached to the harness left little doubt it was from Girral’s place. Word among respectable people was that Girral was the outfitter that could guide anyone, and that anyone could enjoy.

Margue knew the oft repeated danger of the faoli. A hidden beak that could strike without provocation. And this one was injured. But did that make it more dangerous, even with its missing beak?

The stench of the animal was overpowering. Margue had to uncover his nose to keep pace, and was one overpowering whiff from keeling over in the undergrowth. He knew all the teasing rhymes the children of faoli owners were subjected to at school, but he now realized the insults were pulling punches compared to the real thing. How could anyone stand to be around these creatures every day?

The faoli continued to pay Margue no mind, even as his breathing became noisier in his struggle to match its pace. As far as he could tell, the creature had not altered its course due to his presence.

At this distance, Margue could see the long individual strands that made up the faoli’s coat. Each was a long filament that pulsed in response to the ones around it, and it seemed more like a wave of light rippling around the core than a blinking on and off.

Whatever the curiosities of the animal, or its circumstances in the forest, its cargo was stranger still.

Margue quickly untied both bags that were attached to the harness, neither of which were knotted for privacy. One was empty and the other leaked a green light when the flap to the bag was lifted. A strong light that shimmered in contrast to the soft pulsing of the faoli, and shifted within the bag as if it had sensed the flap opening.

This was going to be the most lucrative night of poaching Margue had ever experienced. He had no idea what was in the bag, only that he had never seen anything like it before. Pricing the find would be the real art, but bartering between ridiculous and obscene was a range he was comfortable dealing in. And by the Six! No one would be able to trace it back to him he had literally happened upon it! Or had it happened upon him?

In any case, Margue needed a closer examination, and he was getting tired. It was becoming difficult keeping up the with the faoli. It hadn’t sped up, but he had wearied, and the easy jog was now an unsustainable struggle.

Margue struggled to detach the bag from the harness, despite the fact that it was not fastened to a beak, and lacked security knots. Either Girral’s crew were unconcerned with theft, or the beast had been harnessed in a hurry.

Margue began to panic, worried that his big score would literally get away from him. If he couldn’t free the bag, maybe he could use a vine to secure the faoli, but he didn’t see anything accessible, and even if he did, he wasn’t sure he had the energy left to sprint down the animal once he had a leash for it.

He fumbled with the ties on the harness bag, and eventually gave up, opting to take whatever was glowing inside and forgo removing the bag itself. There was some sort of mesh inside, with a drawstring closing it off. It was stained with what looked to be blood.

Margue pried an opening big enough for his hand, and reached inside. His hand closed around an orb, larger than his hand, but small enough to be held. It was warm to his touch, and deformed slightly as he grabbed it. His fingers sunk into it, but there was a rigidity when he tried to squeeze it further.

Margue pulled it out with the last of his endurance and collapsed on the ground, rolling onto his back to keep whatever he had found safe. As he lay panting among the cool grass and looking up at the stars that were visible through the canopy, his hand warmed with an energy that felt like standing too close to a fire. It traveled the length of his arm and soon his whole body was full of the warmth.

His tiredness vanished. He sat up, and fully examined what he has holding. It was an orb of some sort, made of a clear, malleable material Margue had never seen before. It was illuminated from within, and at its core swirled a deep green, like ink poured into water. The means of its manufacture were completely beyond Margue, but that only meant that payment for it would also exceed what he dared to consider asking.

He was going to be rich. So rich he would never have to poach again. Or work. Or put in any effort for companionship. Everything he wanted from now on could be bought. All he had to do was make it to the city and take the orb to the right buyer. He already knew he would take it to Merhed. A wahd with the money to afford it and an equal measure of discretion.

He needed to get back to the city. He felt alive again, invigorated. Running was easy now. Effortless. Had he really been so tired just moments ago?

The orb stuck to his hand as he pumped his arms—he barely needed to grip it. Warmth ebbed and flowed through his body. And then a strange thought gripped him. A question really. And it was coming from the orb.

The understanding startled him. How had he known? And beyond that, how had he understood? The orb was asking for permission, there could be no doubt. It was asking for his consent.

To what, Margue couldn’t say, and neither did he know how to respond.

But it mattered not, as the orb somehow understood his questioning. And then, more than a feeling, words themselves flashed into his mind. “To bond, to bond.” The thought came to him as if he had called it up himself.

“To bond?” thought Margue, too stunned to force his mind into any sort of analytics.

“Yes, as in the old ways.” The orb’s thoughts ricocheted through his skull.

“The old ways?” thought Margue, dimly aware of his inability to do anything other than echo.

“The old ways.” Margue sensed something like laughter ripple through his mind. “Are you not the one I was sent for? The old ways are not for all minds.”

Margue had no idea who the orb was referring to, he only knew he was not about to release his grip on it. And then the most disconcerting realization of all came to Margue. Her. Not it, but her. The orb was not some unknown artifact, it was a living being, and it had told him who she was.

Margue’s mouth went dry and he felt like passing out. A sentient, previously unknown animal would be worth more than any item people could manufacture. But then a worrying thought came to Margue. The orb had asked if he was the one she had been sent to. And she had obviously been packed onto the faoli for transport. Someone in the city was awaiting receipt of the orb. Margue would need to sell it—her—and disappear before the intended recipient knew she was missing.

Margue’s head was spinning. In this moment, nothing was certain. Too many new experiences in too short of a time. What were the old ways? He needed to be sat down and lectured to, to have everything explained, though he doubted that was in his future.

“I don’t know what you mean,” thought Margue. “But I want to,” he added.

“Your kind sent a declaration of truce. A release from captivity of the last of our kind held prisoner. An indication that we could revert to the old ways. Is this not true?”

Margue was completely out of his depth, but was not about to jeopardize his payday. “Yes. It’s true,” he lied, hoping the deception could not be perceived.

“Where did you come from?” thought Margue, desperate to get a hold on the situation.

Margue sensed amusement. “Is there no memory? Have the wheils not returned to power?” the orb asked.

The mention of the wheils confused him. That religion existed only in history classes, and was taught as a cautionary tale of the terror that radicalization could bring.

The confusion that Margue was nearly drowning in was overcome by anger that was not his own. “Our skins are in contact, yet you do not intend to bond? So far from sea, a daughter without her mother. To be handled without intent—there is no impropriety greater! And yet you do not consent to the bonding? Then we shall both perish here in the forest. I will ask a final time. Do you consent to the bonding?”

“How can I consent to something I don’t understand?” thought Margue. As soon as he had, a heat within him erupted. A burning in his hand where it touched the orb, like hot bone fragments threading themselves into his body.

Margue tried to drop the orb, but it stayed firmly adhered to his hand. He panicked, and waved it furiously, trying to throw it off, but it was affixed. He used his other hand, trying to pull it off, but it couldn’t be budged. Burning threads weaved themselves farther up his arm, shooting jolts of pain as they did.

He attempted to cut through the base of the orb with his pincer, but it simply deformed, and his pincer became engulfed in pain as though he had jammed it into a furnace. He bludgeoned the orb with his closed pincers, boxing at it from both sides, but it simply absorbed the blows and sent jolts of fire through his limbs.

Margue looked in horror as deep green lines spread from his arm and threaded their way to his torso. The burning crawled up his neck and breathing became difficult. He stopped flailing his limbs. His thought flickered briefly to the faoli that would return to the city without its cargo. He was drowning in the cool night air of the forest.

He opened his mouth in a vain attempt to draw air. His tongue was on fire, lashed to the roof of his mouth. His eyes stung, the divisions of each facet a pulsing thread of pain. He could not close his eyes.

Margue collapsed onto the forest floor. He managed to rub his face against the cool grasses, but they provided no relief. Soon he could not move.

One eye fixed on the stars, a member of the Six above him, and he felt the burning threads sew their way deep inside, into the cavern of his thoughts.

The threads began probing. He was helpless. He would die in the forest like this, as soon as its inhabitants sensed an easy meal. It wouldn’t be long before the larger animals arrived. At least he hoped they would be the first to arrive, because they would at least be quick. It was the small animals, and their multitude of tiny bites that turned his stomach.

There was no choice left.

“I consent. To the bonding,” Margue thought. “Please. Let us bond.”

“I accept the proposition. As it is written, a daughter of the sea shall find a wheil to raise her to motherhood.”

As the echoes of the bond faded, Margue was renewed. Energized. He stood. The forest was clear. Daylight had broken—or rather, everything was visible. He could sense ripples in the energy of the forest, following the tracks of the mycelium under its surface. He had become part of something.

The faoli. Gone from sight, but he could feel it. It was dying. He had known at an instinctual level, but now he felt it. Tracking would be easy.

For those clarifying moments he had forgotten the organism inside, but now it spoke. “Bonds are like thread, they join two ways of knowing. Our kinds have not joined since before the separation. But now, the offer of peace. Of reconciliation. We have been bonded. The old ways are once again ours.”

Margue’s hand warmed once more, but not painfully this time. An urge to throw the orb overcame him, so he did. She launched free of his hand, the adhesion gone. A thin thread, green and glowing, unfurled behind her, spooling out as it went. Margue also felt the unsettling ripple of thread pulling through his arm, keeping the tether taut.

The orb flew a straight path, like a gliding bird, not the parabola of a tossed stone. He gave his arm an instinctive slight tug to the left, and the orb cut a path through the forest in the same direction. The trailing thread was set to catch on a thick stalk, so he jerked his arm back, hoping to recall the orb.

She did come back around, but not before looping around the stalk he had meant to avoid. To Margue’s surprise it did not get stuck. There was a brief moment of friction, and the thread gave a brief flash, like a blown ember if fires burned green, and pulled through the fungus without any discernible effort. As it did, the portion of the fungus above the thread swayed in response to some canopy breeze that Margue could not feel, and toppled over.

The giant crashed its way through the layers of canopy and undergrowth before landing with a reverberating thud; a giant hand punching into the forest floor. The night air was filled with the scent of freshly turned soil and the fallout of brittle decay aerosolized by the crash.

Margue did it again, felling another stalk with an easy toss of the orb. She followed his will, adjusting her path to his desires. He cleared a small area, until faint beams of moonlight were overcome by fine particles that made him sneeze.

Perhaps willed by the consciousness within, or perhaps as an independent thought, he hurled the orb and she rebounded off of nearby stalks, tracing a green horizontal gash like a lightning strike through the forest, but causing no damage.

Margue threw the orb at a freshly fallen stalk, and she encircled it as he willed. He pulled the stalk to him with ease, as if it weighed nothing. There was endless possibility, and everything had been so easy that he wondered if the orb could help him climb.

A gentle toss later and the orb had affixed herself to the underside of a tall capped mushroom, stuck between the gills without need of an anchor. Margue gave a testing pull but the orb held firm, the tether invisible in the night.

“Yes,” the orb thought, assuaging his doubt. Margue jumped, and was lifted gently to the underside of the mushroom, spinning slowly on his ascent. His arm tingled where the unseen thread retracted.

With a little effort, Margue hauled himself to the top of the mushroom cap, not worried of a potential fall. It wasn’t the same as the view from the tall seliota, but the wide circle was a comfortable space to sprawl out on, and soft. The perfect place to bring a lover. And it would be so easy now. They wouldn’t even have to be able to climb—he could hold them gently as they spun their entwined bodies up through the night to their cushioned bed on the canopy.

And poaching. It would hardly be a risk anymore. But he wouldn’t need to poach. He knew he was just beginning to see what was possible. What he could do. “What they could do,” came the thought unbidden.

There were some people in the city Margue wanted to find, now that he had his new companion. Women to seduce.

He no longer wanted to sell the orb; wasn’t even sure if he could, now that they were bonded.

But he was confident there were now no insurmountable obstacles, no desires that would go unmet. He would make his way to the city. He would make his fortune in other ways.

That night Margue found his way to seduction, but it had to wait its turn behind revenge. And focused as he was on the city in the distance, and the unnatural speed at which he ran through the forest, he did not notice the cocoon when it began to form and weave its way around his hand.