This article is part of the The Reificant series.
Whirling, I see the folds of mountains and streams, white sands and table land untouched by settlements. Trackless desert and cloudless skies only occasionally spotted with the dark shape of flying creatures, far too small to be relatives of those that attacked the Mummon.
There are no other groups of these bipeds in sight. Only here, through a narrow crevasse, in the shadow of the overhanging rock, have these creatures built any civilization. Their isolation gives me hope. Perhaps the water's hold is not absolute upon this place. I circle back and buzz down into their canyon. The largest of their kind appear along the precipices, brandishing their spears, running alongside me as I slow and descend onto the rock.
"Ho Acha!" shouts the biped nearest me as I touch down. He flashes white teeth and the red of his tongue.
"Ho Acha!" I reply, mimicking his tone. He closes his mouth. Recalling my unexpected rebuke by the Mummon, I do not repeat this phrase again. I fold my wings upon my back and wait for the bipeds to surround me once more.
I hope the elder will pour out his stones again and attempt communication. Instead, he stands by and watches others bring forward a cloth heaped with something. I detect the savory aroma of cooked flesh, succulent, browned meat. Do they offer one of their own to me in sacrifice?
Unlikely. There are small animals running among them, barking at me. The pelts they wear suggest the presence of still more beasts. The bipeds, murmuring to one another, fall silent as the offering is place before me. Not just cooked flesh, but also a mash of grains and vegetables. A large clay pan of water. They fall silent once more, watching me expectantly.
I spear the steaming carcass with a claw. Their awestruck gasps are endearing to me. I must terrify them to some degree. I doubt they could stop me if I wished to slaughter them all and yet, their curiosity and confidence are such that they do not see reason to hide from me. I lift the dripping meat to my palpi and feed upon it, turning the carcass and separating the bones within. I had not considered the depths of my hunger. In moments I have stripped the carcass to a few tendons and a spinal column.
I drop these with a clatter upon the stone and in a few more moments I have devoured all they have laid before me. At last, I lift the clay to my face and drain the water. It tastes heavily of minerals, but does not bear the taint of the water that has brought me to this place.
There is no hesitation to learn and communicate with me. Before the light of day has fled I have learned a dozen words of their vocabulary. As darkness comes they create a fire from pieces of fragrant wood and I sit upon my belly and listen to their voices. They raise them in a peculiar way, in unison, the sounds rising and falling. By the firelight I am nearly hypnotized by the sound and the soft detail of their faces.
I sleep among them, on the stones, awakening to find a new offering of food laid out before me.
These bipeds are called men. They are male and female, equals like the Mummon, but with deference to age and wisdom. They are peaceful but have not always been so. They tell me there are others of their kind far away, beyond the sands and in different places.
I take wing in daylight but I discover no trace of these other people. I do discover an animal in the mountains during my exploration. Seeking to repay the generosity of the men, I swoop down and seize this animal. It is long and covered with hair, its body muscular and powerful. I snap its neck quickly. It dangles limp from my killing claws. When I return to the village with this creature I am met by the men. They seem impressed with the animal I have brought them.
"Cougar," says the elder. I repeat the word. I soon learn that this animal is the most dangerous predator of their environment. They do not hunt it out of both fear and respect. The elder calls me "Brave" but decides this description is inadequate.
"Winged Brave," he says, daring to touch my wings with his hand.
I am lured into a sense of community with these mammals. They teach me the words and syntax of their language, I teach them pieces of mine. I help them hunt, spying animals on the table land and reporting its location back to them.
"Winged Brave," their juveniles - children - call to me as I return from the hunt. "What have you brought us?"
And I have brought them something. I return with unusual stones or strange birds I have caught in the air. They repay me with more words and, eventually, with stories of the great beasts that have created this place and their people. Their stories are incredible, but I have seen strange enough things to believe them.
‘Toad coin?’ wondered the traveler as he examined the pebble. It did not look all that different from any other pebble, and certainly nothing like a coin. ‘What manner of coin has no head or tail, and bears no seal or flag? Who backs this toad coin, the toad bank? The toad treasury!?’ The traveler laughed, but the toads croaked sternly back at him.
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