Three Gifts Given Back

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#2 in the mythological creatures collection. A young boy embarks on a quest after receiving a strange mark.

 

Negasi’s mother liked to tell him that he was a gift given back.

“When you were just a tiny baby, a leopard stole you from our home,” she would say to him, often while she waited for bubbles to form in the injera on the heated clay plate. “But do you know what? He gave you back.”

“Why did he give me back?” Negasi would ask, hugging his skinny knees to his chest.

“Because you tasted terrible,” Negasi’s mother would say, and then she would smile, and wipe red dust off his dark cheek with her thumb.

Negasi liked these moments, because he had seven older brothers and sisters, and it wasn’t often he got to spend time alone with his mother. But even that small time had to go away as he grew older. One day his father told him that it was time for him to begin working in the field.

“It will not be hard for you,” he told Negasi. “Take this noisemaker, and if a baboon comes to steal our crop, make noise and chase him off.”

Negasi was sad to have to leave his mother’s side, but also proud to begin helping his father. He took the noisemaker and chased baboons all day, and when they went home his father laughed and clapped him on the back.

“My strong boy,” he said. “Just like you defeated that leopard when you were only a baby.”

“I thought the leopard didn’t like how I tasted?” asked Negasi.

His father raised his eyebrows. “He did not like the taste of your punches and kicks. When he took you we thought we had lost you forever, but then you came back, smiling. A leopard does not let go of his prey easily.”

Negasi did not say anything, though he felt warmth rising to his face- embarrassment, because it was such a silly story, and further down a bit of pleasure.

The next day he went with his father and brothers again to their field. This day there were few baboons, so Negasi found himself staring at the waving green lake of teff, with the stalks, burdened with grains, dipping low. Soon it would be time for the harvest.

His father and brothers had gone to tend the cattle, and Negasi paced the perimeter of the field, feeling bored but self-important. No baboons dared penetrate his domain; they were all surely intimidated by his display from yesterday. After all, he was the baby who had defeated a leopard. Maybe the baboons spoke of it amongst themselves.

He fantasized that it would start with the mothers, clutching their big-eared infants to their chests, taking their stubby hands up to their mouths to whisper to one another. “Don’t go to that field, the leopard-beater waits there.”

Then the big male would saunter by, and say, “I’m not afraid of any boy,” and the females would say, “You fool, he killed a leopard when he was only a baby; what do you think he can do now?”

Then the male would say-

Negasi paused his fantasy, and tilted his head to one side, for he had heard a very strange sound.

It came again. It sounded a little bit like a baby crying- a thin, mournful sound across the flat plains.

Negasi walked slowly around the corner of the field, clutching the noisemaker tightly to his chest. The sound continued. He was not sure that it was really a baby, now that he was listening properly. More like a baby animal. Maybe a calf.

If a calf was crying, perhaps that meant that something had gotten into his family’s cattle and dragged one away. Negasi’s heart beat faster. The loss of a calf would be an awful blow. If he could recover it…

He held the noisemaker tight and looked back at the field, then he climbed quickly over the low stone wall his mother had long ago constructed. Beyond it lay scrubland; long grass, thorny bushes, twisted trees. Wind whispered through the leaves, carrying with it the pitiable cries.

What could have stolen the calf? A leopard? Well, he certainly had no reason to fear a leopard.

A lion, though, that was a matter much larger than a leopard. Negasi swallowed.

He came to an area where there were a scattering of small trees. The crying came louder, more insistent now. Negasi moved very slowly, inch by inch. It occurred to him now that the better thing to do would have been to run to tell his father about the noise. But if he left now, the calf might be dead by the time he came back.

Inch by inch.

Finally he came around a bush and saw the calf: a miserable thing, soaked in mud, struggling to get out of a water hole.

Negasi dropped his noisemaker and laughed. There was no predator here, only a foolish calf that had gotten itself into more trouble than it was worth.

It looked so pathetic, though, crying and struggling and putting its thin legs out, that he had to try and help it. He left the noisemaker on the ground and went to and grab the calf by the head. It slipped and squirmed right out of his fingers, falling back into the mud with a loud schloop, It bleated again, pitifully.

Negasi walked all around the water hole, as he had done around the field, deliberating carefully. The calf made a few more weak lunges for the slippery, muddy side, but it always fell back down. It seemed to be becoming more and more exhausted, for now it staggered.

Negasi came around and got onto his stomach in front of the calf, reaching his arms out. When the calf made another lunge, he hooked it behind the forelegs, pushing up on its chest. His arms shook, and a flailing hoof knocked him on the side of the head, but it was enough: the calf got purchase on the higher ground. Negasi scrambled back on his knees, his arms coated in reddish mud, and tugged hard on the calf’s forelegs, dragging it as it bleated and struggled and finally squirmed upwards and out from the mud-slicked side of the water hole.

They both rested for a moment, Negasi on his stomach, the calf with its front legs bent and its back legs straight. It seemed too tired to move anymore. Negasi rolled over and pushed himself up, scrubbing at the mud on his arms. Now that he could see the whole thing properly, this did not look like a cow calf. In fact, he was not entirely sure what kind of calf it was.

Underneath all the mud there were four skinny legs, a ropy little tail, and a big, drooping head- but at the end of that head was a type of snout he had never seen on anything but a pig. The calf’s mane, coated with mud, hung low over its face, and he could not see its eyes.

“You are not lucky,” he told the calf. “Where is your mama? Did she leave you in that water hole? What should I do with you?”

The calf did not respond, just stayed there with its piggish nose a centimeter away from touching the ground.

Negasi considered his options. He would have to do something with the calf, now that he had gotten it out; he couldn’t just leave it. Perhaps they could put it in with the cattle. Or perhaps it was a type of animal they could eat. Negasi did really want to kill the calf, but he had been raised to be pragmatic about that sort of thing.

Either way he would have to take the calf with him. A passing breeze, cool with the oncoming night, made him shiver. He’d left the field. For all he knew, the baboons could have razed it to the ground in his absence. If he brought home nothing to show for it…

Negasi swallowed.

The sky was darkening by the time Negasi came across the low dark line of his mother’s wall again. The calf, which was walking ahead of him, seemed to hesitate at the sight, and he tapped its rump with the stick he was carrying to get it moving again. It moved along easily enough, at a plod, its head still swinging low to the ground. He wondered how it could see with all that hair in its eyes. Perhaps it was blind; it did seem to bump its piggish nose against a lot of rocks.

He drove the calf along the length of the wall, glad for the darkened sky in one sense- he could not see his family’s field very clearly. It did not look very damaged in his peripheral vision, but he was afraid to look closer. He remembered his earlier fantasies about frightened baboons with shame, and tears welled up. It took effort not to cry.

His father and his siblings would be back in the hut by now, eating the injera his mother had baked. They hadn’t even sent someone out to wait for him. Surely his father was furious. He swallowed and wiped his eyes. Well, he had saved a calf. Wasn’t that enough reason to leave the field?

He looked at the muddy, draggled creature walking in front of him and found his imaginary version of his father unconvinced.

There was his hut, and behind it, the rising moon. Negasi took a slow breath, using the stick to scratch his own arm. Crusted mud fell off in flakes.

He pushed past the drooping calf and pulled aside the flap that was their door. “Father, I brought you-”

He stopped, and the flap fell closed behind him. His hut was dark, and there was a strange smell to it. The air was hot and humid and he could hear someone’s heavy breathing. He blinked rapidly, trying to get his eyes to adjust.

“Father?”

Soft movement.

Negasi backed up a step, reaching for the flap.

“Mother?”

The breathing hitched.

Negasi pulled the flap open again, letting moonlight spill into the hut, and gasped. The hide fell out of his hand, blackening the interior again at once, but he had seen a horrid sight for just a second.

The curve of a back, nearly touching the ceiling.

Unblinking eyes that showed yellow.

Open jaws with white teeth and a red, red tongue.

Negasi trembled with fear, unable to move. The beast was huge. His head and shoulders could surely fit between those jaws. He was not sure how it had even gotten into the hut.

The beast took a breath, and he felt the fetid air crawl across his face as it exhaled. Movement again, scraping sounds, coming closer. Negasi put his hands out in front of his face and cried, “No!”

The beast opened its jaws- he saw the pale flash of its teeth- and let out a high, shrieking laugh.

Negasi lowered his arms in amazement, flinching as moisture struck his face. The creature stopped laughing and closed its jaws. It moved closer again, so close that he could see the faint shine of its eyes.

He stood still, utterly petrified.

The beast spoke.

“I will come back for you soon.”

Something cold and wet touched his forehead- the creature’s nose?- and swiped across. Then a column of warmth seemed to pass by his side, and moonlight flashed into the hut as the flap wrinkled up. A tail whisked across his chest, and then silence.

As the interior of the hut grew colder, degree by degree, Negasi realized he was alone again. He tried to move, but his knees buckled, and he fell forward.

He was breathing and shaking so hard that he didn’t realize for a while that he was kneeling in damp dirt. His hand, groping in the darkness, touched something soft and large.

Negasi withdrew his hand, closing and opening his fingers. He fumbled on the ground for a moment before his hand came across the little box where his family kept flint and tinder.

He struck a light, and realized that the beast was not as large or as tall as it had appeared. It had simply been standing on the pile of his family’s bodies.

Negasi dropped his light with a whimper.

Father, mother, sister, brother… All with second smiles in their throats, white blank eyes gazing upwards. His oldest sister, one arm crossed over her breasts, her jaw slack. His strongest brother, his head turned to one side, his eyes half-closed, blood smearing his chin. And his smallest sibling, closest to him in age, was at the top of the pile, her small body curled up, her face a ruin.

His father was at the bottom of the pile- Negasi saw the top of his shaved head. And next to him, he saw a hand; that was his mother’s hand. The hand she had once used to wipe red dust off of his dark cheeks.

Negasi was crying. That strange smell, that had been the smell of blood and death.

It seemed like time held still, yet when someone roughly woke him, sunlight was peeking through the cracks around the hide flap. He had laid with the bodies of his family for hours.

“What happened?” someone was demanding. “What did you do- ugh!”

The person who had been shaking him reeled backwards, one hand over his nose.

The man’s face held disgust and horror as he looked at the bodies of Negasi’s family. Negasi got to his feet, dreamlike, and then charged the man, swinging his fists.

Other men came in, grabbed him, dragged him out into the brilliant sunlight. Negasi flinched, his eyelids fluttering, and then sagged in their grip. There were men all around, shouting. He recognized them in a hazy way: they were men from their village. He knew them all. Yet now they were unfamiliar, looming, dark and menacing.

“What happened?” they kept shouting. “What happened? What happened?”

“What is this animal?” cried another man. Negasi heard the calf bleat. So it had stayed. He wondered that the giant beast had not killed it.

“Don’t touch it!” shouted another voice, and everyone else fell silent.

Negasi raised his head. Pushing through the crowd was a man whom he could blearily remember was important. One of their headman. A short, solid man with a thunderous frown, but when he put a hand on Negasi’s shoulder, it was gentle.

“I am sorry, boy.”

Negasi looked up at him. His eyes ached, but no tears came out; perhaps he had wept himself dry.

The headman drew his eyebrows together and took Negasi’s chin, peering at his forehead.

“What is this mark?”

The words seemed meaningless, and Negasi stared, uncomprehending. The headman let go of his chin.

“Take him to the village center,” he commanded. “Give him water. We must get him to talk.” He drew up to his full height. “And that calf- take stones and drive it away. Do not meet its eyes.”

A word came up out of Negasi, cracked and weary. “Why?”

The headman looked at him a moment and touched his head. Another man picked Negasi up and began to walk, carrying him. Negasi twisted around in his grip and saw the first stone hit the calf. It flinched.

“Don’t hurt him,” he whispered, and now more tears did come. The calf turned, plodding away, head low, not giving a single bleat as the stones bounced off of its hide. The mud on it body had dried and cracked in the sunlight and was falling away from its back. Negasi caught a glimpse of something shiny glinting underneath.

The man carrying Negasi took him to the village center and gave him cold water from the well. Negasi drank it silently. Some sense was beginning to return to him, though he still felt dull, as though everything had grayed. Nothing seemed to be real.

A man walked by them, also carrying something in his arms, something with limp floppy limbs. Negasi flinched, and then realized it was the body of a dog.

The headman saw him looking. “Half the dogs in the village were killed by something last night,” he said. “The other half have disappeared. But it was strange- not one of them ever barked.”

Negasi searched for a moment, then found his voice.

“Was it the beast?”

The headman knelt before him, looking into his eyes. “Did you see it, boy?”

Negasi found he could not hold that gaze, and looked to the side, blinking rapidly.

“It was… large… teeth… and it spoke.”

“It spoke?” The headman’s voice had gotten very sharp. “What did it say?”

“It said…” Negasi’s gut roiled as he remembered. “It said, ‘I will come back for you soon.'”

The headman drew away from him for a moment, his face darkening.

“And it gave you that mark, didn’t it.”

“What mark?” asked Negasi.

The headman pointed. “On your forehead, there is a white mark. The beast really does mean to come back for you.”

Negasi touched his forehead and felt only skin. Fear was prickling all over him. Those white teeth- his family’s gaping throats-

He scrubbed at his forehead with his fingers, scratching, cutting lines across his skin. The headman grabbed his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That kind of a mark will not go away. It was made by a crocotta.”

Negasi tugged feebly at his imprisoned hand. “A… a what?”

“A giant, terrible beast,” said the headman. “It can mimic human speech, and it eats corpses. It hates dogs and will kill them whenever it finds them. They say it is like a hyena, a dog, and a lion combined.”

Negasi thought back to the image he had seen in the moonlight. A hunched back, dark fur, a huge mouth.

“Did you see its eyes?” asked the headman. He let go of Negasi’s hand.

“Yes,” said Negasi, recalling their yellow gleam.

“Be careful,” said the headman. “I have heard that the crocotta can enchant people with its eyes. But if you remove the eyes and eat them, you are said to gain strange powers.”

Negasi looked at him blankly. The headman shook his head.

“That is all I know about the creatures. Crocotta are not usually said to attack humans. I don’t know why it went after your family, or…” He trailed off, but Negasi understood his unsaid words: Or why the crocotta had left him alive.

He touched his forehead again with two fingers. The skin ached, but that was from his earlier frantic clawing.

“I can only think that it wanted vengeance for some slight,” said the headman. “But I cannot imagine what that might be. However, we will not stand for more death. If the crocotta tries to come back, Negasi, this village will protect you. This I promise.”

Negasi gazed up at him and wanted to cry, wanted to enfold himself in the man’s strong, warm arms.

“No,” he said. “No, I have to leave. I don’t want the crocotta to hurt anyone else.”

The headman gave him a hard stare.

“The crocotta probably wants kill you,” he said. “It has a cruel nature. It may just be playing with you first.”

“Then I’ll let it play,” said Negasi. His chest was hollow. What did he have left in the village, anyway?

“Negasi,” said the headman, “I can swear to you that we will protect you. There are other things besides the crocotta outside the village. Lions, leopards…”

Negasi smiled bitterly. “I have nothing to fear from leopards.”

The headman did not try to convince him after that. He turned to one of his men and ordered that a spear and supplies be brought at once. Then he took a little clay pot and dipped his fingers within.

“Tilt your face up,” he said, and Negasi did so. The headman brushed his cool fingers across each of Negasi’s cheeks.

“I have given you my own marks,” he said. “I believe that they will be stronger than the crocotta’s mark. You are a strong boy.” He paused. “And you have been lucky before.”

“Do you think the crocotta will give me back like the leopard did?” asked Negasi. A small tremor had entered his voice.

“The leopard did not give you back, child,” said the headman. “You just appeared one day, smiling, and walked into your mother’s arms.”

“Walking?” Negasi shook his head. “No, I was a baby.”

“Yes,” said the headman, “you were when the leopard took you. But at least a year had passed before you came back. And you had changed very much…” He lapsed briefly into silence.

“I’ll ask you again,” he said. “Stay in the village under our protection.”

Negasi picked up the spear. It was a man’s weapon, very heavy in his hand. He knew he’d never be able to raise it in time to kill anything.

“Thank you for the mark,” he told the headman.

“Return again to us, Negasi.”

Soon enough Negasi found himself back in the scrublands, climbing over the wall that surrounded his family’s field once again. He felt as though the day before had been a dream; no, his whole life before now had been a dream.

Not many people from his village had come to see him off. Most acted almost frightened of him, as though he were cursed. Well- he was. He touched his forehead again, then his cheeks, where the headman had laid his own marks.

They had given him a basket of food, a knife, a blanket, and flint and tinder for fire. Negasi considered abandoning the whole thing, for it was even heavier than the spear. It may as well have been rocks for all he needed it. Crocottas aside, there were plenty of other things that could kill a man out here; spending a night in the bush, alone, was close to suicide.

The shrill, metallic cry of a drongo made him glance up. The small black bird was sitting on the branch of a tree, which was waving a little from the wind.

Drongos did not like people being near their nests, and this one was fixing Negasi with its beady eyes. He backed away, smiling a little. This tiny creature could survive out here, yet he wouldn’t.

Negasi walked aimlessly through the scrubland for a long time, the spear and basket growing heavier with each step. He had no idea where he was going, except, in a vague way, further from the village. So that the crocotta would be further away when it killed him. Though- would the beast know? Negasi stopped. This had not occurred to him earlier. Would the crocotta be able to find him, or would it return to the village and think he’d run away?

The bushes in front of him shook and he jumped and dropped his spear. A curious long-necked creature with large ears stepped though and stopped short. A gerenuk.

Negasi heard the drongo calling again, in the distance. He bent down to pick up his spear. The gerenuk watched him, mouthparts working.

“Go away,” Negasi said, and took a menacing step forward. The gerenuk blinked. Then it jumped and twisted and crashed away through the bushes.

“Good!” Negasi hollered, shaking his spear in its direction, and then yelped when something brushed his back. He nearly fell forward but supported himself with his spear.

A familiar-sounding bleat came from behind him, and Negasi slowly turned around. The calf with the pig snout, muddy as he’d left it, was standing there with its shaggy head lowered.

“Oh, you,” said Negasi, but he felt strangely… happy. It had found him again. He patted the shaggy, filthy neck, and the calf’s snout twitched.

Negasi and the calf traveled a little further through the scrublands, spear in front, calf behind. It was almost exciting, if he could manage to forget how he’d gotten here. They saw a patas monkey and a warthog and a female firefinch. They saw a diminutive klipspringer, observing them from atop a rocky crag. They steered well clear of a large group of mongooses, digging in the ground with their fine little paws and looking around with their beady eyes.

The sky began to darken, not with nightfall, but with gray clouds. Negasi felt pressure building in his ears, and he worked his jaw. In the distance, lightning flashed over an open plain. Then with a growl of thunder the rain began.

It was a typical rain; that was, it poured immediately with no degree of transition from dryness. Negasi ran to squat underneath a bush, which didn’t help much, and nearly stepped in a pile of scat. The calf plodded after him, its soaked mane trailing in the mud. Apparently the rain didn’t bother it.

The mud on its back was washing away. Negasi stared at it. The calf’s back seemed shiny- and bald. Well, not exactly bald. More scaly. Like a snake.

Negasi stood up slowly. The calf had a pattern of green, yellow, black and brown scales on its back, almost pretty, aside from the fact that it resembled a venomous snake. The scales went on to around the calf’s knees, where it had plain brown fur, and partway up its neck, where that long mane protruded. It was like armor.

Pig snout, thought Negasi. Buffalo body, scaly back, heavy head… He had heard of a creature like this, and now he understood why the headman had ordered it to be driven away. It was a catoblepas. A catoblepas calf.

The calf’s head swayed a little near the ground, and Negasi flinched, turning his eyes away. Catoblepas were deadly creatures; it was said that meeting their eyes could kill a man. He was lucky that the calf’s long mane blocked them from view. But traveling with such an animal was terribly dangerous. The wise thing to do would be to drive it away again.

And yet. Negasi couldn’t help himself, he looked back at the calf, standing there sodden in the pouring rain. He had helped this calf, and now it was following him. Surely it bore him no ill will.

He reached out with cupped hands and let them fill with water.

“Here,” he called. “Come here.”

The calf’s small ears turned his way, and it took a squelching step forward, then another. Its soft nose touched his soft hands- Negasi had turned his head away, swallowing. The calf began to drink, its warm tongue flicking over his fingers.

When it had drunk all the water Negasi held his hands out again and caught some for himself, and then gave more to the calf.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the dim area with stark brightness, and Negasi jerked to his feet. He had seen a pair of yellow eyes.

But now in the dimness he could not see the creature behind them. He fixed his eyes on the spot where he had seen them- through a bush- and stood perfectly still. The calf bumped its snout against him, searching for more water.

Thunder rumbled, and a second flash showed him the leopard, now standing almost directly behind the calf.

Negasi did not think. He lunged for his spear, fingers digging through the mud, and howled, slashing in front of himself with the bladed tip. The leopard hissed, showing him its long canines, the calf bleated and stepped sideways and away.

For a moment everyone stood there, boy and catoblepas and leopard. Shafts of sunlight were beginning to show through the clouds, and one crept over the leopard’s twitching tail.

Then the cat took one step backwards, its soft-looking paws spreading in the mud, and then sprang away, back into the bushes.

Negasi let out a thick breath. Rain was dripping from his nose and the tip of his spear, but now the sun was emerging again, shafts falling on the open plain. The calf stepped closer to him and bleated again.

Suddenly he grinned, shook his spear, and let out a wild yell. He had actually done it! He had driven away the leopard! He had terrified it!

He laughed and slapped the calf on its scaly side, which it didn’t seem to feel at all.

“You could have taken it,” he said, mock-scolding. “One look! That’s all! But I guess even you don’t have eyes on your back, do you?”

He rubbed the scales with the heel of his palm- they were smooth and supple. And warm.

“You stay with me,” he told the catoblepas. “I’ll take care of you.”

Laughter drifted through the trees, warm woman’s laughter, cutting through his exultant mood. Negasi twisted around, staring up at the dripping branches, but saw no one.

“Who’s there?” he called.

The laughter faded away into silence. Negasi’s skin prickled. He picked up his basket.

“Let’s go,” he told the calf. “If you see a crocotta, take a good look at him.”

They set out across the open plains.

The plains were full of dry grass and marked with a thousand scats. Animals had squatted here to relieve themselves for countless years as they traveled. Even now Negasi saw a small herd of kudu drifting through, tossing their heads with their heavy, twisted horns. Now and again two males would turn and lock them together with a loud clock noise. But it didn’t seem to be very serious; perhaps it was only the very start of their mating season.

Negasi scuffed his foot in the crumbling soil, which was already drying out from the rain in the bright sunlight. Some of the kudu looked at him, in an assessing way, and then lowered their heads to graze again. Negasi was no fool- he kept a respectful distance away from them as he began making his way across the plain, calf in tow. A predator was dangerous when you couldn’t see it, less so when you could, but the grass-eaters were the opposite. More men were trampled by buffalo after venturing too close than had ever been eaten by lions.

Negasi’s father had been the one to tell him that.

Suddenly he fell into a crouch, hugging his knees, and pressed his head against them. The spear and the basket fell to the ground.

It seemed that a little time had passed with him just sitting there, rocking slowly, when something soft touched his shoulder. He reached back and felt the calf’s twitching snout.

“I’m all right,” he said, wiping his eyes with his other hand. “I’m all right.”

He grasped the spear and stood up, using its length to lever himself. The herd of kudu had moved further away, their haunch muscles flexing under their striped hides as they walked. There seemed to be a certain urgency in their gait. Negasi shielded his eyes and looked upwards. A few vultures were circling high up in the sky.

The kudu would know what other eyes watched for vultures, and what sorts of animals would soon be in the area. Negasi had an idea, too, but after his moment of weakness a sort of mulish feeling was beginning to grow in him. Let the meat-eaters come. Perhaps the crocotta would be with them! Why else had he come here, if not to meet it?

He walked towards a nearby tree, the butt end of his heavy spear dragging in the dirt, skipping against rocks and dung. Angrily he cast it down and kept walking. The calf, plodding after him, jumped sideways a little at this motion, then increased speed to keep up with him.

Negasi flung himself down to sit underneath the shade of the small tree, crossing his wrists over his knees, brooding. The calf walked slowly to stand beside him. Its nose bumped some scat on the ground. Negasi brushed it away with his toe, revealing a squirming mass of ants.

He picked at the ants, squeezing them between his fingers so that they could not sting before he ate them. The calf stood there swaying for a moment before it bent its knees and lay down. Negasi reached out and rubbed its warm head between the ears.

He woke up with no memory of having ever fallen asleep. It was dark; stars splattered across the sky like spilled teff. Insects rasped. Something else was making his ears hum, and he put his hands up to them.

The calf bleated. He pushed himself up and saw that it was standing. Its head was as low as ever, but its hairy little ears were pricked straight up.

That deep, vibrating sound came again, shuddering through his bones. Negasi swallowed with a dry throat. He felt for his spear, then remembered how he had dropped it in the grass. He’d never find it again in this light.

The sound thrummed in the air one last time, then faded away completely. Negasi blinked rapidly. A tear fell from his left eye. The sound was the roaring of lions. Many lions.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the calf, leaning back onto the tree. “I wanted to last one night.”

If he shut his eyes and held still, maybe it would be over faster. If he shut his ears, maybe he wouldn’t hear them coming. But he could not stop himself from hearing every rustle, every crackle, every movement; even the wind sounded earth-shatteringly loud. The calf bleated again.

“Hush,” he said, opening his eyes, and then he sat up. They were already here.

Two- no, three lionesses. He could barely make out their outlines in the darkness. Two were simply standing there, their tails curling sideways to swat mosquitos away. The third had her eyes fixed on him, her shoulders moving under her skin in a liquid way as she crept forward.

The calf made a loud sound, like baa-aa-aa! It stamped a foot. Negasi, still teary-eyed, looked over at it in amazement. Was it actually trying to defy these lions?

He felt that prickle of shame again, like the time he had abandoned the teff field. He stood up, stamped his own feet, and shouted, “I am Negasi the leopard-killer! If you come closer, soon I will be Negasi the lion-killer!”

That got the attention of all their lionesses; he thought he even might have seen some surprise in their expressions. It made him smile. The calf bleated once more, and he added his voice again.

“I am the leopard-killer! Soon I will be the lion-killer! Three tan pelts to wear over my back!”

All three lionesses were walking towards him, ambling, really. His voice quavered a little this time.

“Teeth for my necklace! Bladders for my brothers! I am the leopard-killer! Soon I will be-”

He was interrupted by loud laughter, the same feminine laughter that he’d heard before, coming from directly above him. He jerked his head back. The dark branches of the tree were shaking against the starry sky, as if something had just jumped out of them.

At the next moment, he was knocked sprawling, and weight like nothing he’d ever felt pressed him into the dirt on his back. The lioness was on top of him. The lioness was on top of him! He screamed- her claws were digging into his arms. She tilted her head, gazing down at him, her pink tongue swiping out to lick her nose.

Perhaps she was young, and perhaps she had never killed a human before, and perhaps she was more curious than hungry. Whatever the reason, she did not put her teeth around his throat right away, just stood there with her weight crushing him and giving his head what she must have thought were light taps with her paw. His ears were soon ringing.

He heard a scream- the calf. A lioness had jumped up onto its back and was bearing it down, though it kicked and bleated and struggled.

“No!” cried Negasi, and he used his one free leg to jab his lioness hard in the lower belly. She gave a loud grunt and got off of him, peering downwards under her foreleg. Negasi rolled over and scrambled forward on his knees in the dirt, clutching his bleeding shoulder with one hand.

“Get away! Get away!” he shouted, dragging himself towards the struggling calf. The lioness, with her claws sliding along its armored back, turned her head to look at him. Negasi fumbled around in the dirt until his fingers found a bit of dung, which he threw at her head. It bounced off, making her twitch an ear, and she slid the rest of the way off the calf.

The calf ran back to Negasi’s side, quicker than he’d ever seen it move. He shoved himself upwards, back onto his feet, and pressed a hand against its smooth back.

The third lioness, largely forgotten, had been sniffing his abandoned basket near the tree, and now she put a paw on it and dragged it apart with a crunching sound. Everything spilled out, including the meat Negasi’s village had given him. The other two lionesses trotted forward, their bellies swinging, eyes attentive. Their sister growled at them.

Negasi squeezed the calf against his side, then began stepping backwards, very slowly, one step, then another, then another. The calf turned to follow him, walking in front of him, matching him step for step. The lionesses finished devouring what little was in the basket. They looked at him in the calf. One started moving forward.

“I am the leopard-killer!” Negasi shouted. “Soon I will be the lion-killer!”

The lioness sat down. She licked her lips.

It was the beginning of a strange stalemate for Negasi. So long as he kept his eyes on them and shouted, the lionesses did not move, but neither did they leave. And no matter how far he tried to walk backwards and away from him, they would still follow, step by creeping step. They did not seem frightened of him, only… perplexed. Perhaps nothing had defied them before.

Negasi hated to think of what would happen when they got bored of watching him.

The sky was beginning to turn pink, and Negasi was clutching the calf’s neck to keep his balance, his eyelids drooping, his feet aching. The lionesses had gotten very close. One had raised a leg to lick herself. The other two were lying down, tails twitching, their eyes filled with the patience of predators.

“I am the leopard-killer,” Negasi rasped at them. He shook his head, willing the tiredness to go away. One of the lionesses got heavily to her feet and stretched.

The little catoblepas calf bleated. It was still standing beside him, that head drooping low, the first rays of sunlight making its scaly back gleam in a dull way.

“I will soon be the lion-killer,” Negasi told the lioness, which was walking slowly towards him. His chest ached, his eyes ached, his heart ached.

She was almost to him. Everything about her spoke of power, from her heavy head, to her broad, spreading paws, to the way the flesh on her belly swung with assurance with every step. And what was he? A bundle of brown sticks made to look like a boy.

Negasi took a deep breath, as deep as he could, and bellowed into the lion’s face, “CROCOTTA! COME AND GET ME!”

She stopped and put her ears back. Her sisters jumped to their feet. Negasi sagged a little, staggering.

The lioness looked back over her shoulder. Negasi blinked slowly. Her sisters were looking, too, at something that was moving through the grass a distance away, something large and dark. All three lions moved closer together.

The calf began bleating, bleating and bleating, and Negasi had to grab its neck again to stop it from moving forward. His heart was hammering with fear. That giant dark shape: had the crocotta heeded his call?

Sunlight was shining off the back of the huge creature as it thundered closer. Negasi’s jaw went slack. It was not the crocotta, that was for certain. It was like a giant, scaly buffalo, puffing and snorting as it charged, squat horns slicing from side to side, overturning rocks, trees, everything in the path of its lowered head. It was an adult catoblepas.

The lions were tensed, their tails lashing from side to side. Two broke and ran, but the third was too slow. Faster that Negasi thought possible, the catoblepas reached her and the lioness fell down. That was all. She simply fell down and didn’t move anymore.

The catoblepas raised its horned head, piggish nostrils flaring as its snout flexed. Between the strands of its long, coarse mane there was the slightest hint of the glint of small eyes.

Negasi let go of the calf, and it ran towards the adult, bleating loudly. The catoblepas’ huge, flat snout twitched and snuffled, its long mane trailing over the calf’s back as it inspected it. It opened its mouth and licked the calf’s scales with a massive thick tongue.

Negasi breathed out a long, slow breath.

The adult catoblepas’ ears turned towards him, and slowly it raised its head. Negasi flinched.

But the catoblepas merely sniffed in his direction before lowering its heavy head again and nudging the calf. The two of them began to walk away together; the calf’s little tail wagging from side to side as it trotted to keep up.

Negasi gazed at the two of them, then took a tentative step forward. At once the catoblepas swung its heavy head and gave a stamp. Just one stamp. Negasi held still, next to the dead lioness.

Mother and child moved away from him. The calf never looked back.

Negasi slowly put one hand to his forehead, which was beginning to pound, and fell into a squat. The sky was flushed red now, red and orange, the mist on the ground shimmering as the rising sun boiled it away. Steam puffed out of the mouth of a lioness as she let out a growling rumble.

She and her remaining sister were walking back, towards Negasi. One licked her chops. Negasi couldn’t help but let out a desperate laugh, squatting there on the ground. He could still see the shapes of catoblepas and calf, walking away together, until a lioness crossed in front of them.

“It hurts, doesn’t it,” said a soft voice, near his ear. “That lack of gratitude. That selfishness. That abandonment.”

Negasi’s breath seemed to lock in his throat. His back felt warm- there was some source of heat directly behind him. Warm air brushed down his neck and shoulders.

The lionesses, too, seemed startled, showing their teeth and jerking backwards. One bumped into the other, her eyes rounded.

“You’ve been left here to die,” hissed the voice, and Negasi shuddered as damp air hit his skin. “Again.”

One of the lionesses opened her jaws and let out a sort of grunt-roar, sounding unsure. The thing behind Negasi replied with a high, shrieking laugh that made him clap his hands over his ears.

The lionesses ran away. Negasi slowly turned around to face the crocotta.

It grinned down at him, white teeth flashing in a gray-black pelt of coarse, stinking hair. It took no form that he was familiar with- there was something of a hyena in it, but the muzzle was even shorter and broader, and the jaws extended far back, father back than it seemed they should, with blunt yellow tusks like a warthog. Its humped back sloped downwards, with thick hind legs, while its forelegs were longer and more slender. The stench of it was almost painful, and Negasi had to blink his teary eyes rapidly as it hit him in waves. It smelled like rotting meat and sour dung.

“I told you I would come back for you,” said the crocotta.

Negasi’s voice was stuck in his throat, and he had to swallow a few times.

“Why?”

The crocotta tilted its massive hairy head. Its ears were small and round.

“Why,” Negasi repeated, “why… why did you kill them?”

The crocotta let out a shrill giggle.

“Oh, oh!” it cried. “Oh, Negasi! You have forgotten everything! I shall have to teach you again. But that is all right. We shall have time, now. I won’t let you out of my sight this time.”

“This time?” said Negasi, his voice rising.

“What did you call yourself,” said the crocotta, “leopard-killer?” It laughed again, but this time there was a seething, hissing element to it. “My weak little child, Negasi. Now come with me.”

Negasi shook, eyes burning, body aching, but the crocotta’s words still stung.

“No,” he said. “Don’t play with me. I won’t move, so just kill me here.”

The crocotta drew back slightly, becoming a dark mass against the reddened sky for a moment.

“Kill you? Oh, no, Negasi.” Then it grinned again, teeth flashing stark white. “At least not here.”

Then the crocotta lowered its head, so that they were nearly forehead-to-forehead, and looked into Negasi’s eyes. Out of its dark face came its bright eyes, shining with a tranquil clearness that defied the rest of its vile form. There were no pupils, no irises, just an opalescent sheen in the depths, shining different colors- delicate green, pale yellow, soft pink. Negasi felt strangely calmed, looking into those eyes, as though his face were pressing into a clear pool of water, sounds dulled, movements slowed, seeing only the faint reflections of light on the bottom.

He slumped forward, and the crocotta took him by the back of his shirt and carried him away.

Negasi came back to himself in warm, pressing darkness that smelled like blood. Great breaths carried him up and down, and he could feel the beating of a giant heart.

For a moment he thought that he had been eaten alive, and he screamed.

The crocotta’s giggle seemed to shake the ground, and he jerked to his feet. It seemed that he’d been curled up against its belly. He could now see the pale gleam of its eyes in the darkness.

“Be calm, my child,” said the crocotta, though its tone was mocking. “I have brought food for you to eat. I will nourish you.”

Negasi was breathing hard, blinking. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness- there was a very faint light, coming from above. He reached up and found a low ceiling made of dirt that crumbled down at his touch.

The lumpy, massive outline of the crocotta was beginning to become visible. Here in the darkness it seemed even larger, more intimidating, as though it were spreading out into the darkness itself.

“Eat,” hissed the crocotta, and something cold and damp slapped against his chest. He jerked and caught it- it was small, but weighty. It smelled like blood. He could feel crusted fur against his arms.

“What is it?” he managed to ask.

“Food,” said the crocotta, but there was amusement in its tone.

“I…” Negasi hesitated, then took a careful step back, feeling in the darkness with his heel. “I thank you, but I need fire to cook it with.”

“No fire,” said the crocotta, its voice dropping to a gurgle. “You eat it fresh, drink the blood, like you used to.”

“Are you saying,” said Negasi, and he took another measured step backwards, whatever it was still swinging in his arms, “that we’ve met before?”

The crocotta gave that seething, hissing laugh again, and he heard its claws scraping in the dirt. More dropped from the ceiling and went down into his shirt. Negasi swallowed, and then turned and bolted, scrambling up the tunnel on his knees, one arm still clutching the meat against himself.

He clawed his way to the surface like a mole, blinking in the harsh daylight as he wormed his way out of the hole. With hazy vision he noticed he was somewhere rocky, with much green grass and brush. He could hear the distant call of a drongo.

He looked down at the thing in his arms and dropped it with a shout. It was half of a dead dog, the tongue grossly blue and swollen.

“Eat it,” came the crocotta’s voice, and the beast itself emerged from the hole, almost slithering, grinning white and red. “Eat it, Negasi. It’s from that place you called a village.”

Negasi backed away as the rest of the crocotta’s bulk emerged from the small hole. “Why are you doing this?” he gasped. “Why- what grudge do you have against me?”

The next moment he was sprawling in the grass, his head smarting. The crocotta had struck him across the face with its paw.

“Grudge, you say,” it growled. “Grudge! No, no, Negasi, no grudge; a wound, a deep wound. Every moment I am near you it grows deeper, every moment I am away, it becomes more infected. What have you done to me?”

“I- I haven’t done anything,” said Negasi, then cried out as the crocotta pressed a paw down on his back, squashing him against the ground.

“Lies,” it hissed. “You lie. How dare you. You owe all of yourself to me. Yet you chose to stay with them?”

“What are you talking about!” shouted Negasi, struggling- he thought he could feel his spine grinding. “I don’t understand!”

The weight on his back lessened slightly. The crocotta gave a great sigh.

“I should just kill you,” said the crocotta. “But then I would still be unhappy. What shall I do with you, Negasi?”

“Just tell me,” begged Negasi, the smell of crushed grass in his nose where he lay. “Tell me what you’re talking about. Please.”

The crocotta pulled its paw away from his back, and he gasped with relief.

“Please,” it repeated. “I- find I like the sound of that. Very well. I’ll tell you what you have so obviously forgotten.”

It rose and paced slowly around him, hunched and dark and hulking, its brushy tail swatting his face as it passed.

“An infant, I found, a mewling cub. The leopard was stalking its cries. So weak, Negasi, such a frail little sound. I heard it. It captivated me.” Negasi caught a flicker of the crocotta’s liquid eyes for a moment. “Deep in the brush, I found you, with a leopard poised to eat your heart.”

Negasi’s fists clenched around the grass.

“Do you know what I did, Negasi?” whispered the crocotta. “I fed you that leopard’s heart instead. And I named you, poor thing, and I fed you from my own breast. Soon you grew strong, and your little hands-” Its voice broke, for just a moment. “Your little hands, they would clutch my fur, and you would look into my eyes with love.”

Negasi felt nausea and bile building in his throat, and he swallowed hard. The crocotta did not seem to notice, caught up now in its own melody. It raised its coarse head towards the sky.

“But you grew slowly, as your kind do. I could not take you everywhere. When the time came to visit the mountains, where the maned baboons and the red rat-eaters live, I had to leave you behind. Somewhere safe, for my dear child. So I sent you back to your own kind. ‘I will come back for you soon,’ I told you.

“And I went to the mountains, and I hurried, and I came back just as I had said. But what did I find? You, my child, you would not come back to me, even when I called you, and when I tried to come close to fetch you my hide was filled with arrows and spears. And there you were, my little cub, laughing amongst the ones who had abandoned you-”

“Why do you say that?” exploded Negasi. “No one abandoned me! The leopard took me!”

There were one, two, three beats of silence, and then the crocotta said, “Ah,” as though it had just discovered a well and drunk deeply.

The sound of it made Negasi swallow again.

“They never told you,” said the crocotta, with almost a purr to its tone. “My poor, poor Negasi. Would a leopard carry you, alive, so far from the village? No, my dear, my sweet. No. The leopard heard your cries, as I did. The cry of a child, left to die, out in the bush.”

“No,” said Negasi. “That’s not true.”

“When I took you to the village,” hissed the crocotta, “I could smell them again, the ones who had last had their hands on you. The ones who had abandoned you. They had so many children. Perhaps they did not want one more. Especially with what you were. I changed you to a form they would find more fitting, and I called out to them. I told them I was calling upon them to watch over you while I was gone. I told them not to harm you. And I told them I would be back, to fetch you again-”

“They didn’t abandon me,” said Negasi.

“How shameful,” said the crocotta. “They all must have known. I could taste their guilt when you walked back to them, with your little arms out.”

“No,” said Negasi.

“When they would not give you back, I warned them,” said the crocotta. “I warned them that they had lost their claim to you. They did not listen. But I thought when you grew, you would return, so I stayed myself, and I waited.” Rage crept into its tone. “I should have killed them from the start.”

Negasi felt like something was clawing at his insides. “You’re a monster,” he spat.

The bulk of the crocotta seemed to draw back, and in a way that was almost hurt, it asked, “Why don’t you love me anymore?”

Negasi lurched to his feet, sucking in a breath, and then bolted forward, shoving through the brush. He kicked and struggled forward, through grass and bushes and trees and thin shafts of sunlight, and then he finally chanced a look back.

The crocotta was following him, leisurely, at a slow walk, its massive strides eating up the ground. Its eyes seemed to be burning like pale flame.

“I’m coming, Negasi,” it said.

Negasi’s heart seemed to palpitate with terror, and he turned and plunged back into the bush. Some gap- some tiny hiding place where the monster could not reach- he recalled the sight of it slithering out of that hole and shuddered. Was there no escape from it?

“I’m coming,” hissed the crocotta, and it was closer, right behind him. Negasi gasped and stumbled forward, no longer caring when branches and thorns cut into his arms and legs, blindly fighting his way forward.

He tripped and fell forward into a grassy patch of bright sunlight. A hare, startled, sprang away into a bush.

He could hear the crocotta walking slowly, a little distance behind now. He rolled on his side, his arms shaking, and then winced. Something was biting into his skin.

He reached under his shirt and drew out a single large scale. He stared at it for a moment, uncomprehending, before he realized- it was a catoblepas scale, a yellow one. The calf must have left it on him at some point.

The scale was almost the size of his palm, and very shiny. He tilted his hand and blinked when it flashed reflected sunlight into his eyes.

With a crunch, the bushes ahead of him parted, and the shaggy head of the crocotta thrust into view.

“Are you waiting for me, my child?”

Negasi gripped the scale tight in his palm, then rose to his feet. The crocotta stepped out from the bushes, blinking in the bright sunlight, leaves caught in its fur.

Almost thoughtfully, Negasi turned his palm outwards, so that the sunlight reflected off of the scale flashed into the crocotta’s pale eyes.

The crocotta drew back with a shrill scream, shutting its eyes, almost seeming to diminish in size. Negasi scrambled backwards, sucking in a breath. The great beast seemed to be shuddering in pain, scraping its tusks and muzzle against the ground. It gave a moan.

Negasi decided not to wait for it to recover. He ran.

He ran for a long while, stumbling and crashing through the bush, gritting his teeth, ignoring his raw, painful skin. It was futile. The crocotta would easily be able to follow his trail, once its eyesight had recovered, and it was doubtful it would give him the chance to blind it again. It would be angry- very angry.

This thought spurred Negasi to run even a little quicker, so that when his feet suddenly hit mud he skidded and fell straight into a wallow.

The water went up to his knees, a shock of stinging cold on all his cuts, and he gasped and fell back onto the bank. His elbow sank into the slick side.

Negasi paused, his chest fluttering and his heart hammering, and looked around a little. Something about this muddy well seemed terribly familiar.

The air filled with laughter: warm, female laughter, nothing like the shrill sound of the crocotta. Negasi jerked his head up. There, lying in the lower branches of a wizened old tree, was… a cat.

A large cat, but not a kind he recognized. Too large to be a leopard, but though it had the heavy head of a lion, its pale hide was marked with reddish rosettes, its flicking tail tipped with white. It was lolling there with its chin on a paw, gazing at him.

Negasi backed away, trying to push himself back up onto the back, but he only succeeded in slopping himself back into the mud. The cat opened its jaws and laughed again, its eyes closing and its ears flicking with mirth.

Negasi felt heat rising to his face, and he snapped, “What are you?”

The cat opened its eyes, and raised itself up into a luxurious stretch. Then it shook itself, and to Negasi’s astonishment, that red-spotted hide fell back like a cloak, revealing a naked woman on all fours.

“Don’t be rude to me, little boy,” she said. “Not with a crocotta after you.”

Negasi was quite unable to say anything. The woman set the hide beside her, draping it over the branch, and then sat down next to it, her legs swinging.

“I am a marozi,” she said, “or maybe here you would call me an abasambo. Either way I am a spotted lion, and I have great powers in my hide.” She raised her arms in another stretch, arching her neck, and Negasi tried to look anywhere that wasn’t her breasts or pubic hair.

“You’ve been following me,” he said, fixing his gaze lower down on the tree trunk.

“A little bit,” admitted the marozi. “But I was following the catoblepas calf first, you see. The crocotta took it and put it in that well, where you are now. I found that very curious. Now I find it very ironic.” She laughed, flashing her rather-sharper-than-normal canines at him. Negasi felt wary, and he abandoned modesty to look at her again.

“What do you want?”

“Well,” said the marozi, “I wanted to see what the crocotta wanted, but it was only a little boy. So I thought I would eat you, to make the crocotta angry- but oh, then I saw you shout at that leopard! It was so funny!” She flashed him a savage grin. “And oh, then those lions! What do you think you are, little boy? ‘I am the leopard-killer, soon I will be the lion-killer!'”

She burst into laughter, holding her stomach, as Negasi burned.

“I can’t kill someone so funny,” she said, wiping an eye, as she recovered herself. “No, definitely not. And besides, it will make the crocotta angrier if you are still alive, but it can’t get to you.”

Negasi worked all this out in his head. “So… you are going to help me?”

The marozi swung herself down from the tree in a liquid way that reminded him unpleasantly of the stalking movement of the hungry lioness.

“I am going to play a trick on that crocotta,” she informed him, and moved to squat beside the well. “Now come out of there and I will show you.”

Negasi was not feeling very reassured, but he steeled himself and turned around so that he could squirm his way up out of the mud back onto solid ground.

When he looked up again, on all fours, the marozi was standing directly in front of him. She roughly grasped his chin, tilting his head back, and examined him.

“Ah, you are so dirty, but there’s no way around it,” she said. “Take off your clothes, little boy.”

“Wh-”

“Do as I say,” the marozi smiled, and Negasi felt the sharp prick of claws underneath his chin before she withdrew her hand.

Negasi felt he had little choice, so he removed his stiff, filthy clothes and dropped them on the ground.

“Better,” said the marozi, nodding critically, and Negasi had the distinct sensation of being sized up like a cow at market. She picked up his clothes and tossed them into the well.

“Why did you do that?” cried Negasi, turning around. His sodden clothes were half-sunk into the mud.

“I’d kick more mud over them, if I were you,” said the marozi, who was walking back to the tree. She pulled her hide down from the branch. “But I don’t think the crocotta will look very hard down there, so never mind. We’d better hurry now. Come here.”

Negasi was still looking sullenly down at his clothes. “Why must we hurry?”

“Because I can smell the crocotta nearby, moving closer. Now, come here like I said.”

Negasi went over to her. She eyed him up and down once more, and gave a very long, resigned sigh.

“All right,” she said, and then swung her hide over top of him.

Everything was confusing and dark for a moment, and then Negasi blinked hard and found himself staring at the marozi’s knees. He seemed to be on all fours.

“What happened?” he said, or tried to say; all that came out was a sort of growling sound. Negasi blinked and worked his jaw. Then he moved his ears back and forward. Then he lashed his tail.

“Come, my little kitten,” purred the marozi, and lifted him up under his arms, so that he hung in front of her face. “Oh, not bad! You will be handsome when you grow up.”

Negasi squirmed, and then looked down at his feet- no, his paws. He had paws now. Paws like the marozi had had earlier, except his were slightly smaller.

The marozi tucked him under her arm and then sprang back up into the tree. She sat on the branch, pulling him into her lap, and stroked him between the ears.

Negasi tried to pull away, but her other hand, resting on his shoulders, had a grip like iron. He tried to ask her what she was doing- the crocotta was coming, shouldn’t they run away? But all he could do was grunt and growl, making awful utterances as the marozi snickered.

He had to give in, though his tail lashed hatefully, and he glared at her thigh, which was all he could see. It made him notice, for the first time, that there were very faint rosette patterns on her in this form as well- paler brown against the near-black of her skin.

His nose twitched, his nostrils flaring slightly. He could smell something foul. The marozi’s petting stopped.

“What’s that you have, marozi?” asked the crocotta.

“A little cousin of mine,” said the marozi, relaxing her grip on Negasi so he could push himself up and look down. “Is he not a handsome little fellow?”

The crocotta, standing below, narrowed its eyes slightly. Negasi thought they looked a bit raw.

“I’m searching for something,” it said. “Have you seen it?”

“Seen what?” asked the marozi, her legs swinging. “What have you lost this time?”

“A child,” said the crocotta, its lips drawing back into a too-large grin. “A very naughty child. I must discipline it. Perhaps I will take away its legs, so that it cannot run away again.”

“That does seem to be an oversight,” agreed the marozi. She took Negasi’s front paw between her fingers and wriggled it until he jerked it away. “Well, crocotta, I did see a boy, and he did have legs.”

“Oh?” The crocotta’s ears turned forwards. “Which way did this boy-with-legs go?”

The marozi leaned forward, a coy smile on her face. “What will you give me in exchange?”

“I won’t eat your cousin,” said the crocotta, and gave a shrill giggle.

“Oh, fair enough, but you know what I’d like even better,” sighed the marozi. “He went in the direction of the village. I expect you should be able to catch him before he gets there.”

“That I will,” said the crocotta, and it rose up and began walking again. It passed by the well, moved towards the bushes. The marzoi’s legs swung, and she fiddled with Negasi’s ear.

The crocotta paused.

“It’s interesting,” it said, still facing away. “I put a mark on the child, so I could always smell where it was. And the smell isn’t coming from this direction.”

“Isn’t it?” said the marzoi. Her voice was coy as ever, but her grip had tightened on Negasi’s ear. “Where is it coming from, then?”

The crocotta turned around and looked up at her, its jaws grinning, its eyes alight. “It’s coming from you, my friend.”

“How strange,” said the marozi. “Have you marked me, too?”

The crocotta moved closer, step by step, until it was almost directly underneath the branch, craning its head back.

“Very strange,” it said. Then it burst upwards, teeth flashing, and its jaws snapped shut just inches underneath them.

The marozi raised her legs up, while Negasi dug his claws into her skin in alarm. She did not seem to notice- she was laughing.

“Oh, again, again, crocotta!”

The crocotta gave a kind of yowling snarl and ran in a circle before leaping again, but it came no closer, though those jaws came together with an awful thud. It ran to the trunk of the tree, trying to claw its way upwards, but soon fell back.

“Oh, oh,” said the marozi- the crocotta had sat down. “Did you give up?”

Negasi noticed that the crocotta’s eyes were less red, fading towards yellow, almost a sickly green.

“You’re hiding him somewhere,” it observed.

“Perhaps,” said the marozi, glee in her tone. “What are you going to do?”

The crocotta’s eyes thinned again.

“I’ll trade.”

“Ah, will you?” The marozi shook her head. “That’s worth more than the life of my cousin, you know!”

“I’ll give you want you want,” said the crocotta, and slowly winked at her.

Negasi felt the marozi go stiff underneath him, and tilted his head back to look at her face. An expression of greed was growing there.

“Your eyes?”

“Only one,” said the crocotta. “You will have to win the other for yourself.”

“One,” said the marozi, hungrily. “Perhaps, for one eye, I could… point you in the right direction.”

Negasi could not stop himself from giving a garbled yowl at this, but she merely lifted him up and set him on the branch beside her.

“Well?” said the crocotta.

“Hm, hm, now,” said the marozi, tilting her head to one side. “Give me the eye first.”

“Very well,” said the crocotta. “Come down here and take it from me.”

The marozi licked her lips, gazing at the crocotta, and grasped the branch above them. Negasi lunged forward and bit her ankle, growling, but she kicked him off and swung down to the ground.

“The eye,” she said, her grin stretching wide.

The crocotta leaned towards her, turning its face so that one pale eye bulged in her direction. The marozi reached towards it with her left hand, her nails becoming more sharp.

“Wait a moment,” said the crocotta.

“You can’t change your mind,” said the marozi, and jabbed forward. The crocotta turned its head and caught her arm in its mouth. Negasi heard a sharp crack and the marozi howled.

“I said wait,” the crocotta said calmly. “I need to punish you first, for stealing what’s mine.”

The marozi gave a catlike yowl, but it was too late, she was too close, and she could not get away when the crocotta bore her down and with a great rending crunch opened up her chest and ribs. Her heart thudded before the crocotta wound its red tongue around it and yanked it out.

“Look, Negasi,” it said, the heart dripping between its teeth. “I will feed you this, too.”

Negasi hissed and growled, clutching the branch with his claws.

“You refuse?” The crocotta tilted its head, and then with a hideous slurping sound the heart disappeared down its gullet. “Well, you do not deserve this gift. I am very disappointed in you. Why would you run away? I was only just starting to repair my own poor heart. And now look what you have become.”

Negasi let out a yowling, hateful utterance, though he trembled up there on the branch.

“Hm,” said the crocotta, and it began to pace back and forth underneath the tree, whisking its short tail from side to side. “How will I get you down? I suppose I could wait you out. But I would rather not. If only…”

It tilted its head, then reared up and slammed its forepaws on the trunk. The tree shuddered. Negasi hunkered down and gripped tighter, glad for his new body.

“Won’t that work?” wondered the crocotta, and it circled around the tree once more. “Negasi, why won’t you come down? I don’t want to hurt you.”

Negasi hissed again.

“It’s true,” the crocotta said, sitting back almost mournfully. “You keep making me hurt you. You’re the one who has done this. You’re so cruel to me.”

Negasi crouched there, tail flicking, and the crocotta’s eyes blushed with red again. It rose to its feet.

“I saved you!” it cried. “I saved your miserable little life, you weak creature, I gave you my love, what no one else got- I gave you my heart. But I was used. Used! You turned your back on me for the scum that cast you out!”

The crocotta reared up and snarled, slamming against the trunk again. Leaves drifted down as the tree shuddered.

“Anywhere you go,” it spat, “I’ll kill them all again, I’ll pile the bodies for you to see, I’ll let you know that all you have is me- but you won’t have me again, no, I waited too long for that.”

It slammed down again, and the tree creaked this time. Negasi heard something splinter. He glanced upwards, tail lashing.

“Will you keep running, Negasi?” the crocotta asked. “Maybe I would like that. I would see you like a wounded kob, dragging its back legs, struggling. I’ve always liked the way that looks.”

It pushed the trunk, wriggling, in a more calculated way. Negasi heard more splintering. A dead branch above him was beginning to lean downwards.

“Ah,” said the crocotta. “Ah, ah, I see it. Will you come down now? I might forgive you. Come back to me, Negasi. Say please again. Be a good child.”

It reached upwards with its paw, tone wheedling, eyes paling again. Negasi saw their clear depths and flinched, turning away. This seemed to enrage the crocotta, for it yowled, and slammed itself once more against the tree. The branch above Negasi splintered and cracked and crashed downwards. He leapt away, to the next branch- his claws just caught, his hind legs clawing empty space for a moment as he scrambled on- and then with a horrid yank the crocotta’s jaws caught his tail and dragged him downwards.

He hit the ground hard and lay there, stunned. Beside him he could see the outstretched arm of the dead marozi. Then a shadow blotted out the light, looming over him; the crocotta’s jaws flashed and closed around him.

Negasi gave a cry, for their grip was viselike, but the marozi pelt seemed to protect him- they did not break the skin. The crocotta made a displeased sound that rumbled through him, then began shaking its head furiously. Negasi’s head spun, and then he himself fell backwards, on his hands and knees, collapsing on the ground. The crocotta held the marozi hide bunched up in its mouth; it distastefully flung it aside.

“Now,” it said, advancing upon him. “Would you like to run again?”

Negasi pushed himself up slowly. His chest ached, especially when he looked at the poor ruined body of the marozi beside him. Her face was twisted up with fear, frozen that way for eternity. He, too, was naked now; his clothes in the mud, and the catoblepas scale with them.

“Why won’t you just kill me?” he asked the crocotta.

“Why do you say that?” hissed the beast. “You think I want to kill you? Am I such a monster? I love you. You loved me, once. Look at me.”

Negasi shut his eyes, and the crocotta rumbled. “Look at me!”

He kept his eyes shut, tight, and the air seemed to grow hot, and the crocotta to swell with rage.

“LOOK AT ME!”

Negasi clenched his fists and kept his eyes squeezed tight, though his entire body was shaking. The earth itself seemed to be rumbling. The crocotta shrieked.

Then it was silent.

Negasi counted five, six, seven of his own breaths before he dared to open his eyes a sliver. The sight of the huge dark body in front of him made him squeeze them shut again at once. But something was wrong. He had to peek again.

The crocotta was slumped over dead.

Oh, it was certainly dead, though Negasi could hardly believe it: its eyes were glassy, its red tongue hanging out. Its hairy chest did not move, its foul wet breath no longer came forth.

Standing above the corpse of the beast was the catoblepas. The adult catoblepas.

It sniffed the body, that snout flexing; then it sniffed the marozi’s body. It ignored Negasi entirely. It stumped towards the well and extended its head down inside. Negasi heard the snuffling echoing.

“Thank you,” he said.

The catoblepas did not so much as glance at him. Negasi swallowed, reached out a hand towards that scaly back, and then hesitated. The catoblepas had turned an ear back, and he could just barely make out a glint behind that long mane.

Negasi withdrew his hand and looked away. The catoblepas continued to sniff the well. The well where the crocotta had imprisoned the calf; the place where the catoblepas had found the kidnapper and disposed of it. Like it had disposed of that lion. Negasi realized that he himself did not matter; he was hardly part of the equation.

Strangely enough, the thought made him smile.

After it had thoroughly sniffed everything, the catoblepas walked off, its gait heavy and ponderous, its head swinging along the ground. It never so much as turned an ear in Negasi’s direction. There was no connection between the two of them. Negasi had to smile a little again.

When he was alone he stood up, and took the marozi hide, and some of the large scales left behind on the ground, and then he crouched in front of the dead crocotta.

He almost said something. Almost, while he looked at it; the big ugly form, with those beautiful glassy eyes.

He said nothing, in the end, but he took the eyes. A gift given back.

 

Thanks to kylafrank for suggesting crocotta, tedbelmont and thelimemeridian for suggesting catoblepas, and jokercat for suggesting a marozi.

Fanart by shaydradraws.

Fanart by shaydradraws.

Story #1 in this collection was The Carnival. For a full novel, try Darkeye.

About Koryos

Writer, ethology enthusiast, axolotl herder. Might possibly just be a Lasiurus cinereus that types with its thumbs.
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One Comment

  1. That one was twisty and convoluted. I am wondering what Negasi’s original form was, that the crocotta changed to be more fitting?

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