Inga sat with her arms folded and her legs crossed on the creature’s sternum. It was a precarious perch for someone her age, but she needed to be certain it would notice her when it woke.
Luckily, it didn’t keep her waiting long. Its first drowsy groan prompted a sigh of relief. Her tactic hadn’t been the riskiest, but there was always a chance that such a technique could kill by accident.
It lifted its head to look at her; its snout so long that its front teeth almost reached her legs. She was both relieved and amused that it went to the trouble of straining its neck to see what was on its chest: if it had ignored her and just sat up, she might have broken any number of her brittle bones.
Inga didn’t waste any time. Her target wasn’t the simple sort of beast that the tamers were used to, but the noise of higher thought would be diminished while it woke. This was the best time to attempt communication.
I mean you no harm. She focused on the phrase, tried to feel it as much as she thought it. Those who couldn’t tame sometimes believed that tamers and beasts could read the other’s thoughts, but the truth was much more mundane.
Some beasts understood through smell, some could read emotion on a human face as well as any person could, still others got their cues from posture and muscle tension. To let one’s emotion show through every possible avenue at once was to communicate without language. Taming was simply a matter of giving off every possible cue at once. If the listener wanted to understand, they would.
The beast raised its right arm and gently scooped Inga into its hand.
“Elder!” she heard Nuray cry out in alram.
“Hush,” Inga replied. She tried not to feel impatient about having to repeat that request. They’d had to render the beast unconscious to get its attention on her, she didn’t want to lose it again.
It let her down an arm’s length away and began to sit up. Inga was sure this would go well as long as nothing distracted them. The clan had lost much to this creature, but with enough time, it might be able to make it up to them.
As it regained its feet and looked down into her eyes, Inga decided that it would need a name. Every beast in their herd had its own name, and this one amounted to much more than any of them.
“Chomp.” Inga declared. That’s how Idris had described its enormous, permanent smile; he’d said it had a chomp like nothing he’d ever seen. It was simple and inelegant, but only the bearer could make a name disgraceful. “You are Chomp.”
Inga doubted it understood, but it was more for her sake than his. She turned towards Nikhil and beckoned for Chomp to follow.
It always took a little longer to interpret what she was seeing when heat was her light. Inga had been harvesting lummush for years, but she’d never seen either of its ingredients glowing in the wild. Once she got over the initial surprise of seeing the glowing plants, she had immediately understood what made these plants different than any she’d seen before.
Chomp had lain Nikhil down to one side of the three bushes and the surrounding mushrooms. Two of those bushes were just sprouts, so she could still recognize Conan and Gelilah. The shrubs had taken root where their lummush patterns were drawn thickest, on Conan’s chest and Gelilah’s midsection. The mushrooms were growing along the rest of the patterns.
The middle bush, by far the most mature, had taken root in the chest of a vaguely human-shaped pile of compost. Kadmus must have died long before the other two; Inga couldn’t tell if Chomp had killed him or if it had simply found the body and discovered that the seeds in the lummush were using the corpse as fertilizer. Either way, Chomp had stumbled upon a new source of food and gone looking for more.
This couldn’t be permitted.
Inga knelt beside Nikhil, then draped herself over his chest. She encouraged the grief she’d been holding back. Everyone in the clan was family, but her position was unique. All of them were her children; not biologically, of course, but the clan made no distinction when it came to who birthed whom.
Nikhil was a mischievous boy, but he preferred the affectionate kind of mischief. He’d start fights then immediately be the one to try and make peace. That sort of contradiction became a theme for him, and though it was maddening, it was also endearing.
More clever than the average hunter, Inga had always wondered if it was a mistake to let Nikhil join them. He was smart and sociable, they could use him elsewhere and out of harms’ way. Nobody shared her doubt, though. Nikhil refused every other duty.
“You idiot,” she sobbed into his chest. “You knew revenge was wrong. You knew you were outmatched. You knew that, if it got Kadmus, it would beat anyone who tried to fight alone. But you loved too much, you got too angry when you saw the face of their killer. How am I supposed to go on without you around to be the devil’s advocate?”
Inga heard a low, pained moaning from above and behind her. She didn’t need to try anymore, the grief was overtaking her whether she liked it or not. Now that she had his full attention, Chomp was forced to understand what his hunting had done. It was a lesson that could only be learned by suffering, and Inga regretted its necessity, but Chomp needed to know what he had been taking from them.
The lesson was in suffering, and Chomp was being a model student. Usually limited to single and sporadic grunts, his vocalizations were frequent now. At first, he moaned like an anxious child seeking its mother’s comfort. She could feel the weight of its hands hovering above her, flexing nervously, like he was certain they needed to be doing something but he couldn’t determine what.
Eventually, Chomp seemed to find his answer. He turned away from her and took a deep breath. He threw his upper body into the roar, and its power could be felt as much as it could be heard. When he finally stopped, his voice continued reverberating through the nearby mountain range.
He balled his fists and began pounding the earth, ignoring the certain agony in the finger that Evan broke. The impacts sent clods of earth flying and tremors rumbling. The ground was as unbreakable as ever, but Inga expected that was the point: Chomp knew it was the only entity strong enough to harm him.
When the tantrum finally passed, the woods were even more silent than before. Inga hoped the outburst had scared some of their audience away. Countless eyes had been attracted by the scuffle, and many belonged to creatures she didn’t want near her children. It wouldn’t do any good to think about it now; she needed to continue grieving, needed to be certain Chomp would never hunt her children again.
“E-elder?” Dahlia sounded tepid.
“Hush, lass,” Nuray said. “She’s fine.”
“What happened?” Dahlia whispered.
“ ‘e’s…” Evan hesitated. “I think ‘e’s sorry.”
Inga thought so too, and that was all she needed. Still, the grief wasn’t a simple taming spell; it was something she’d been fighting down out of necessity, something she’d unleashed when it was convenient. It took her a full minute to wrestle it down enough to begin the next stage of her plan.
When she pulled away from Nikhil’s body, Chomp was on hands and knees. He stared into the ground, his eyes blank. He seemed oblivious to the world until Inga approached and gently grabbed one finger in both her hands.
It took him a moment to comprehend, but Chomp was obedient. He rose to his feet and held his arm up so Inga could lead him to the bush growing out of Kadmus’s remains. Once there, Inga plucked two berries and a ripe mushroom. She sealed her hands around them and began squeezing with slow and steady pressure.
With some careful massaging, the berries bled their juice into the mushroom, and the solid bits blended into a single paste. It was a tiny batch, but when she opened her hands, even Chomp was able to recognize it as lummush. He grunted in epiphany, then began gathering the remaining crop with his oversized hands.
After mimicking the process, he opened his hands to reveal a much larger batch of lummush. Normally, Inga would need to communicate with the latent light in both plants as she blended them. It had never occurred to her that the berry seeds and mushroom spores would still be fertile after being ground into lummush; now that she’d seen these specimens, it seemed obvious that they’d grow with their light already awakened.
Every living being had light inside them. It was something the body naturally gathered and stored, whether the organism willed it or no. It could be awakened and spent, but to exhaust it was to die. These awakened lummush plants were probably able to thrive because they had the nutrient-rich remains of her children to feed on.
“Ah, no,” Inga scolded as Chomp brought the lump of lummush towards his snout. “Not for eating. For planting.”
Again, she doubted he understood the words, but the message seemed to get through. He lowered his hand and followed her to an enormous, freshly-fallen branch. Inga began to spread her lummush on the bottom of the log’s interior so she could be certain the bush took root in the soil underneath.
Chomp considered, then began to mimic her on the log’s opposite end. He even did his best to match the shape, the same swirling pattern she used to paint the warriors. When they’d both depleted their lummush, Inga pointed at the bushes growing out of her children, then at the patterns they’d drawn. She repeated this until Chomp surprised her with a nod and another sad moan.
This was going well. He hadn’t needed to kill her children to enjoy the lummush berries and mushrooms, and now he knew that. It could be grown from any compost, any plant or animal that had passed. All it needed was a batch of lummush and a source of fertilizer.
Chomp moaned again, then gently laid his hands under each of Inga’s arms. He lifted to bring her to eye level and looked her in the eyes. His snout opened and closed, single tones escaping with each breath, like a criminal trying to repent but failing to find the right words.
I forgive you. Inga performed the full spectrum of taming, but expected Chomp’s cue came from her eyes. She watched his inspection of her merciful gaze, could feel his disbelief and grateful humility.
“Okay, Chomp. Put me down, we have a lot of work to do.”
As he obeyed, she took one last look at the bodies of her children. Back in her old country, back when light touched this place, they’d have been sure to bury the bodies. It wasn’t a ritual that benefitted the dead in any way, but it pretending it did seemed to help the survivors. The clan had no time for such things, had to prioritize survival and accept that it was better for everyone if they left their dead for the scavengers and grass. Still, the thought of leaving saddened her.
“Come, children,” she called. “It’s time to go.”
“We may need ta do some thinkin’ about that, elder,” Nuray replied cryptically.
Inga scanned her surroundings. There was still a large number of onlookers, but they were keeping their distance.
“Chomp will be walking us home, there’s nothing to worry about,” Inga spoke with more certainty than she felt. “It’s going to be a long trip, though. We’re going to be painting the forest as we go.”
“O-kay,” Nuray sounded like she didn’t understand, but seemed to recognize that she didn’t need to. As each of Inga’s schemes had worked, her children had become proportionately more obedient.
“Awh,” Evan grumbled. “I almost hoped I’d get some sleep t’night. Ya sure it can’t wait, elder?”
Elder, elder, elder. They use it like it’s a real title, not just another way of saying I’m older. I wonder if they even know my name?
Inga shook her head to clear the cynicism from it. “You know we can’t, Evan. Perk up, and divvy out the lummush. The sooner we start, the quicker we finish.”
1.) Did you feel anything, or did you feel disconnected from the characters' emotions? You can apply that question to back chapters; at least, I'd like you to. Do you sigh when they're sad, smile when they're happy?
2.) Any trouble with language? Words ya didn't know, sentences you had to read three times?
3.) Are you satisfied with how the conflict with Chomp resolved?