This article is part of the The Reificant series.
The shaking begins to breaks loose small rocks from the ceiling. A boulder crashes down upon a Mummon shelter, flattening it as easily as an egg. The chamber booms with a roaring sound. It reminds me of the rush of a waterfall. It grows louder and louder. Darkness covers the channels that normally light the cavern.
No flying creatures enter. Instead, black serpents slither down the channels, long and muscular, probing the interior, so long their tails never even enter. They have heads barbed with hooks and no apparent eyes. They quest among the shelters and curl around stalactites and stalagmites. One black serpent coils around the bulb of my former companion's shelter. It tightens with obvious muscular action and uproots the bulb from the floor of the cavern. The shelter crumbles in its grasp and my companion tumbles out.
"Mummon!" he cries with alarm. The serpents wrap around him and muffle his panicked cries. There is a wet tearing and the serpents pull my unlucky friend apart in a welter of pale green fluid. Several serpents curl around limbs and body and drag him up through the channel in pieces. A membrane-wrapped body immediately heaves out upon the shore of the water.
There follows a roar so loud it shakes loose a massive plank of stone that crashes into the pool, releasing a tidal wave of liquid that coats and dissolves a number of shelters. The unlucky Mummon killed are also reborn in wriggling packages.
Their new lives are short. More and more stones are plummeting into the Mummon village. Fissures split the roof of the cavern. The channels to the surface, choked with black serpents, begin to break open. Like talons lifting the lid of a cage, the serpents cover the roof of the chamber and peel it back in a shower of debris.
The sky appears above, purple-black, like the sky above the Surata, Grasping and discarding the roof of the cavern is an immense beast, balanced high above on towering, emaciated legs. It is the source of the serpents, served by a beard of black tendrils. In my horror of recognition a new horror: it begins methodically breaking open the shelters and devouring the Mummon.
This body is ill-suited for climbing, but I attempt it anyway. I scale to an upper fold of the rock where the serpents have worn away the stone. My hands at least adhere easily to the stone and, though weakened, I am driven by the piteous cries of the dying Mummon. When a searching tendril passes near to me I press myself against the rock and remain perfectly still. The serpent's barbs prick at my flesh, stinging me, but I remain motionless. I am not recognized as food.
My escape from the ruptured cavern only deepens my despair. Beneath the familiar pyroclastic skies lit by flashes of static lightning I see a vast plain dotted with the broken domes of caverns, each a discrete world, ruptured like pustules, drained of their contents by the stilt-legged giants slowly patrolling the smoky wasteland. Within each hollowed cavern is the milky gleam of the water. My hopes of saving this place were misbegotten. This place belongs to the water.
I do not want this body to nourish these beasts. I will leave this place. I will return to the water and never return. I look down at the perilous fall to the cavern floor below. With my strength fading, I cast myself from the rocks and into the churning waters of creation.
I slip free from this body and I am the lightning within the clouds. I cross the yawning black. I emerge within a cavern. Shafts of crystalline light penetrate the darkness. In the body of my birth, with the claws of my people, I tear at the membrane of my resurrection.
I rise slowly. It is unpleasantly hot, but not dangerously so. I stand within a cavern. The air is thin, but I can breathe. I take in a whistling gasp through my spiracles. I flex my palps. My familiar eyes adjust to this unfamiliar place.
A bipedal creature stands before me. Its flesh the color of stone, its hair long and black. Its face is marked with a line of red pigment across its snout. It has two large, dark eyes. It recoils from me. Cautious. It does not flee.
I am much larger than it, but this creature is courageous.
The fleshy parts of its mouth move and it speaks in a complex language.
"What are you called?" I quill.
It does not understand my words any more than I understand its words, but in time I will learn what this animal is called.
He had a yellow inflatable tube around his waist, the kind with a comical duck head. There was a tiny fish in one of his hands, and a trident in the other. In the background a squirrel wearing shades was water skiing.
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