“I need passage.”
“Passage?” his voice rumbled, his long tongue slipped and slurred on the ‘ss,’ like a snake, yet his voice snapped wolfishly at the last syllable.
“Yes, that’s right. I have many leagues to go, and I could make use of your speed. However, I do not wish to pressure you. After all—”
“Nonsense. It’s all pressure. Time is always sensitive, emotional and crying. Always bleeding. A rush. You can’t stop it. When you do, you get hurt.” His massive talons tapped the ground as he swirled around the traveler, half slithering on the boulders with his thick, rough scales, half walking on the ground with four legs.
The traveler tried not to flinch at the sheer size of its teeth. He had not imagined its immensity to match the pungency of its stench. It was as if someone had piled several corpses together, sawed off a few rose bushes and spread the petals around judiciously. Not necessarily bad, especially not to him, a necromancer of sorts. It was simply overwhelming.
Fear was beginning to make the traveler second-guess himself. It was the certainty that the plainstrider could tear him apart and use his ligaments as puppet strings, or trap him in his claws forever, to use him as a personal journal when he got lonely.
“You are an interesting one,” the plainstrider murmured to himself as he continued looking him up and down. “An assortment of bones. Dried. Very dried. No, seared, like a steak, or a cake, set in the oven too long. Human hands to decorate, ironically, the shoulder plates which ameliorate the tops of your shoulders. Bones for armor, now isn’t that backwards?”
The traveler spun his head around to eye him, trying to hide his shaking. It’s difficult, when the bones he wore rattled so incessantly. From each of his shoulder plates, the bones of three forearms and hands were fashioned so that they raised up like spires.
“Silence. Mmm. I do like silence. More room for thought. And oh, a mask. A rather intrusive mask. Do you not have difficulty seeing the world through it? You’ve got one skull already, stranger. Why must you wear a second one, and carved so hideously?”
“Keeps some folk I’d rather not cross paths with away from me.”
“And let’s not forget.” The plainstrider tsked and hissed many times, “let’s not forget it draws some folks in, too. Yes,” he purred, tapping his claws rhythmically, “like me.”
“With hope,” the traveler finished.
“What do you call yourself?”
“Deckas. Simirion Deckas. Some people call me Deck.”
“Like … like cards?” the plainstrider asked with such an excited hop that he shook the ground.
The ground they were on, specifically, was in the middle of a grassy plain left barren by winter. They were standing in an island of boulders with one particularly large, upright rock. A touchstone. Inconspicuous looking, these clusters of boulders are actually the way plainstriders mark their territory and plot their journeys. To stay in the shelter of one too long, without the proper precautions, is like falling asleep in a falcon’s nest with the eggs cradled in your arms.
There are delicate dances and rituals for these creatures. One must be polite, and introduce themselves properly.
So Deckas, he hunted a stag, slit its throat, carried a pouch of its blood from deep within a forest and brought it to the boulders besides the Wayfarer’s Road. Huffing and sweating through all his gear, his feet feeling the ache of many miles, he splattered the blood upon the carved insignia on the touchstone.
When he did, a low, emerald light swirled within the symbol of a spiral cut by a diagonal crosshatch. The light grew until it rose to the top of the touchstone, and remained there, glowing like a strange brazier until the plainstrider arrived shortly after.
That, at least, lessened the chances of being eaten. He hoped.
He’d gotten the advice from a quiet drunkard at an odd little inn located precisely in the middle of nowhere. Oh, how he took risks.
“Well, it can be whatever you prefer, plainstrider,” Deck replied.
“Whatever I prefer?” he spat. “Do not attempt to please me. I’m always being flattered, smothered with compliments, thrown on me like dung. It reeks of deceit. Stains my teeth. Flattery is the favored tool of the disingenuous.”
The creature shoved its massive, four-horned head against the traveler, sufficiently knocking him on his ass, snapping off a bone and sending it rattling away. All this, merely to get his massive eye an inch from Deck’s.
He stared deep into the bright colors, the swirling silver. And the darkness of his pupil. A black mirror with a simmering border of flame. Deck felt entranced.
“Do not compliment me. Not in such a passing manner. Not with such carelessness. Not with such a flutter of your heart, like it is just another beat.” While the breath of the creature stirred nausea in Deckas, the fear stuffed it down and made the color pour out of his expression.
Plainstriders are culpable for countless missing travelers throughout each year. It did not matter if folks did not want to solicit them for their journeys, sometimes, and especially on the Wayfarer’s Road, they’d simply swoop across and snatch you up in their jaws.
Fully aware that you were unique, that you had dreams, ambitions, both terrible and wonderful memories. They ravished it, with a smile.
Deckas swallowed as the plainstrider parted its jaws. A forked tongue came and lapped over him, patting him all over his body.
“You reek of Death, Deck,” he said. And you can imagine his disappointment.
“Yes.” He got that quite often. “I am drawing away from the insult I dealt you, attempting to flatter you. It was my mistake. Drawing away and … choosing my words—”
“Good! Pick them like you would pick them for a king. A wise king. A king that executes people for their foolery.”
“Are you a king?” Deckas shot back, rather unthinkingly.
“No, I am lowly animal of the lands. How dare you.”
Deck had never heard sarcasm so loud, yet so relaxing before. He dared to chuckle. The creature lifted an approving brow and grinned. “Well, what is your name?”
“Yes, what do others call you?”
The feathers lining his sides brushed against Deck as he swirled around him again, ruffled over a shallow layer of fur. They passed through the spectrums of black and white, with a splash of silver on some stems. But where his scales jutted out like teeth, bright refractions of jade and violet caught the sun, gleaming against his awe-struck expression.
“Names are strange things, Deck of Cards. We give them here and there. We throw them around. Titles, especially, get mistaken for meaning. I’ve been called many things, and found, by the next passing of the moon, those things did not match me. I am tired of names, Simirion. Delirion. Kimirilius. You see? You could be all or none of those, it doesn’t matter.”
“Then again, names have pasts, my friend—”
“Friend?! You dare slip a noose around my neck and drag me to your height? Choke me to your state?”
“My state is well and calm,” he said slowly. “Why would you not join me?” Deck said, squinting while the plainstrider’s jaws were gaping over his head, his hundreds of teeth dripping a venom which slid down the sides of Deck’s mask, sizzling as it ate through the bone.
The plainstrider hesitated, then snapped his jaws just an inch from his head. But no, Deckas did not let himself sigh. “I suppose,” he admitted, “that is not altogether a bad state. Yes, my friend. I could call you that. And you could call me Tooth.”
“Tooth? I thought that creatures such as yourself had longer names.”
“You heard wrong,” Tooth said. His giant, bright eyes were set in the scales of his head, arching rather like a reptile’s, where his forehead and snout grew to a healthy bed of feathers. Two great, dark, drooping tendrils fell on either side of his jaw, decorated with purple markings. Upon his scaly crown that expanded outwards like wings, two sets of horns on either side swirled and circled so many times, it made you dizzy just to follow them around.
Immediately, his demeanor mirrored Deckas’. Not only murderous, striders’ personalities copy those they interact with, prone to erratic behaviors throughout the melding process. “Our names come and go with our partners. For they are no good if they are shared around. Creatures whose names are known, in the plainstriders’ circles, are considered worthless.”
“That seems …”
“Odd, does it not?”
He nodded and relaxed, leaning back and resting on his hands. He thought, if he was just moments from being eaten, he might as well enjoy the strange conversation and look at the sunset.
Deck patted his three, oar-shaped tails on the ground many times, each one flapping and making a satisfying smack until he considered the ground sufficiently smashed, so that he could rest his hind on it, and join him in sunset gazing.
“Indeed. It is odd,” Deckas agreed.
He then sank low to his strange talons, though they resembled paws, armored with shells much like a tortoises’, but more contoured to his wrists and arms.
With his head that low, he was almost side-by-side Deckas.
For awhile, the creature was lost in thought. It seemed as if he was just another beast again, gazing with that hallow observance many animals share.
“The sky is melting, Deck. The colors remind me of so much, yet nothing in particular. Brimming, but empty. Can you fathom it?”
“That is called ‘thinking with your heart,’ and I do it quite often. I can, my friend.”
They fell to silence. The sky, like Tooth said, was melting from the sunset, the clouds swirled around the blazing half of the orb, gently pushing it down, down, down …
Deck could smell the ichor again. “Tooth …”
He shut his jaw, and shook his massive head. “I apologize.”
“No need for apologizing. You must be hungry. I just would rather not be digested today.”
“I understand. Maybe another day.”
“Maybe. You never quite finished your thought about the other striders.”
“My thought? Well, it was more of a feeling. We are not bound to names. If we were, the ‘lady’ striders, as you might call them, would become bored. They do not like striders whose names are known to many. They see it as weakness. To be alone, to have not a long past with others, it is highly praised. It shows your strength.”
Deck played with one of the fingers hanging from his spaulder, then cursed as a droplet of ichor stung his skin. “There are some women whom are like that …”
“Truly? Of your flesh, Deckas?” This fascinated him.
“Oh, yes. Of my flesh. Surely. The problem is I never meet them.”
“Oh.” Tooth lapped at a lone daisy unsuccessfully. He grew annoyed and ate it instead.
That reminded Deckas of the second half of the ritual. “I brought the horns,” he admitted, too nervous to hold it off for long. “Would you like to see them?”
Tooth didn’t respond right away. His eyes narrowed. “Aaaah, I see. I finally see. I’ve known it, but I finally see.”
Deckas knew where this was going. Before the creature could lash out again, he replied, “I told you, remember? Yes, I would like to use you. I need passage, but only with your permission.”
His warm belly rumbled with satisfied purrs, and Deckas could hear him settle back onto his paws comfortably again. “Honesty. You are an honest Deck of Cards, my friend.”
“I am. I have some ambitions I would like to chase after.”
“Is that all?”
“I am not certain. I am always open to wherever my paths take me.”
“As am I.”
Deckas turned his head and looked at the creature. There was a likeness there. “I also feel a companionship between us,” he admitted.
“As do I.”
“Do you say that to all of those who have ridden you before? Don’t hurt my heart, now.” Deck got to his feet, collected the ankle bone that snapped off earlier, and strung it up with the other loose fragments on his belt. He stared through the cracked and acid-chewed holes of his skull at the sad countenance of Tooth.
“There were precious few,” was all he said. He opened his jaws to say more, but then shut them, and shook his head.
“Well, then.” Deck trusted him. Striders are notoriously honest, and viciously so. They do not enjoy those who beat around the bush, in fact, they reward that kind of behavior, if it persists long enough, by letting them see the insides of their intestines.
So Deck slipped his pack off and took out the stag’s horns. They were long and straight, very much unlike Tooth’s.
Nevertheless, the creature’s eyes lit up like a cat having found a mouse to play with. “These are wonderful!” he exclaimed and hopped around, his awkwardly long body and four legs struggling to find a rhythm. The ground shook. Deck fell in another heap of bones, laughing.
When he’d finished several rotations of circling his three flapping tails, he seemed to calm himself, though his eyes kept the same jubilance. “Are you certain, Deck of Cards? Truly? You would choose me?”
Having just been inches from decapitation by teeth, Deck found it difficult to empathize with the tears brimming in Tooth’s eyes. Still, he did his best, and rubbed his snout.
“Why, of course. Why not?” he asked with a shrug. “You are delightful.” He laughed again, and the three skeleton hands on each shoulder waved carelessly, expressing that it was their pleasure, as well.
A silence grew, and in that, Tooth looked hard into Deckas, as if for the first time really deciding whether he’d help him or not. “This bond is greater than you may think, stranger of bones.”
“They always are, aren’t they?” Deckas tossed the antlers into the air, only to be snatched up by Tooth’s tongue, and shot back into his mouth.
“Do you have many great bonds?” he asked with the priceless trophies crunching to pieces.
“No,” he admitted. And the sadness was replete in just that word. “And the ones I had, I … they ended.”
He swallowed. “In my circles, that would be a blessing. However I can see how you might be greatly burdened by this. The size of your heart is small, compared to mine. So where are you off to? Running away from these bonds, I imagine.”
Deck craned his neck to meet his eyes and found that more of the fear had melted. “I would not call it running away. I would call it chasing the ones I’ve yet to discover.” He nodded his head, satisfied with the answer, and the bones rattled to affirm.
Tooth’s outstretched talon, as inviting as it may have meant to look, was beckoning with five nails sharper than the average dagger, and even the ones that were splintered made the stakes for thieves look like forgiving cushions.
Nevertheless, he carefully placed his boot between the nails, and clambered up the arms, grabbing handfuls of feathers, then armfuls, until he was able to stand and walk along his back.
He managed to reach his head, nestling himself between the horns and grabbing one firmly. “I like you, Deck. You are like the skies. You come and you go. You splatter yourself over everything, but sometimes you just sit there and watch.”
“You are bad at analogies, Tooth. That is honesty.”
The creature rumbled, and for the first time, Deck was graced with hearing his laughter. A bird-like chirping and squawking mixed with a deep, thunderous chuckle. It was incredibly silly. Deck could not help himself from laughing, too.
“So, where are we off to?” the creature huffed with eagerness. “I am famished.”
“Someplace where it is still winter. I have business yet to be finished in that time.”
“North!” Tooth exclaimed, stomping his legs and spinning around. “It is a long way, but we’ll find your winter soon enough. You’re not a hard traveler to please.”
“You’d be surprised,” Deck murmured.
The words were left on the blood-spattered rock with Tooth’s markings. They sank away in the distance, as Tooth warmed up to speeds that ships could not dream of, that even some demons envied.
The Making of Tooth and the 'Stranger of Bones'
For those who are interested, here is a direct look into what heart strings I tugged on to create the odd melodies of this short story.