Ruler of the Reef
Ancient Bullmon stepped sedately along the path behind his fellow ancients. He steadied himself with a staff as his webbed feet sunk slightly into the damp and loamy path. The way through the jungle was marked at even intervals by round, flat white stones. These, in turn, bore arcane symbols. It took a great deal of magic to make a path so far from the shore safe. This path was, in fact, the only one maintained by the Reefkin.
Around Bullmon, the vegetation was dense, capturing the humidity in the air -- keeping everything warm and pleasantly moist. Lazily, Bullmon snatched a large beetle from a plant stem, crunching it absently as he walked.
Yes, it was irksome to be summoned by the Eldest Elder. Yes, it was tiresome to trudge along the forest path with the other five Ancients. These were burdens that Bullmon was willing to bear, for the sake of his position.
And, naturally, it wouldn’t do for all of the Reefkin to be able to see the Eldest Elder. To speak with him. Part of power was exclusivity. Bullmon would suffer for the honor of being one of the ancients, and one of the only creatures in all the world with direct access to the Eldest Elder. He was the youngest of the Ancients, true, but he was the sixth oldest of all the Elders of the Reef. Sixth most important. Sixth most powerful.
Herded ahead of the ancients were a pack of jabbering youths -- some of the least important and least powerful creatures on the Reef. They ribbeted and croaked, unable to form language, and inevitably a few strayed from the path to be devoured by the jungle’s residents. So many useless mouths. It was near impossible to imagine himself thus, but -- though he couldn’t remember it -- Bullmon had been exactly as useless for the beginning of his life. All Reefkin were. Bullmon had survived long enough to gain the Memory and become an Elder. Since then, he remembered every day he’d lived — but nothing before that.
Alas, these youths were unlikely to achieve the Memory.
Most of the youths were too big to make a comfortable snack for Bullmon, but a few of the smaller ones might have been a nice treat. Bullmon sighed. It was best not to eat what had been marked for the Eldest. No matter how tasty it seemed. Fortunately, Bullmon’s temptation was nearly at an end. They’d reached the Eldest.
It was difficult to tell what the Eldest Elder might have been in his youth. Not a turtlekin, certainly, for he had no shell. He had the smooth, porous skin of the frogfolk or a salamander. Surely frogfolk, thought Bullmon -- though there was no way to be certain. The shape of him had changed over the years. Been changed by the Ravening Stone.
The Eldest Elder was massive: so tall that his enormous bulging eyes were invisible, high in the tree cover. His girth was covered in spindly webbed arms and in limbs that were more akin to tentacles. His skin was shiny green in patches and smooth, mercurial silver in others. It was impossible to see all of the Eldest Elder in the humid jungle -- he was visible only in pieces.
The ancients slowed as they approached, herding the youths forward. As they did, a broad pink tongue dropped down between tree branches, ensnaring four small frogs with ease and then yanking them up. The whole wall of moist flesh convulsed as the Eldest Elder swallowed them.
As mindless as the youths were devoured, they did -- eventually -- recognize their peril. After the first few times that monstrous tongue swung down and captured more and more of their number, they tried to flee in all directions.
Then it was the ancients’ role to turn them around -- sending them hopping back to their doom. The ancients did not have to work especially hard to do so. This was part of tradition too -- if one of the youths were wily, fast, or strong enough to escape, they could have. If they had the presence of mind to keep to the path, they would make it back to the shore. Bullmon had seen a few do so over the years. Those that survived still had a chance of getting old enough to get the Memory and become an Elder of the Reef.
None escaped this time.
When all the youths were consumed, the leader of the ancients stepped forward, shaking his staff -- making the seashells and bells there rattle and clatter. Dranod was first among the Ancients. Oldest of the oldest people, and the one with the longest Memory. Second only to the Eldest Elder himself.
“Eldest Elder,” intoned Dranod. “Is our sacrifice acceptable?”
Ancient Bullmon waited impatiently for the ritual reply. The first time he’d come here, he’d been overawed, of course. But in five or so years, the Eldest had always given the same answer. The Eldest accepted the sacrifice and wished for a nap after his large meal. The ancients could go back to leading the Reefkin for another month before the big bastard was hungry again.
The Eldest Elder belched -- the skin rippling before their eyes like a sheet of sail cloth.
And then, he said, “I need more to eat. The time for which I’ve prepared approaches.”
The Eldest Elder’s voice shook the forest and Bullmon’s bones. It took all the Ancients a moment or two to understand the words.
“Time?” asked one. “What time?” Mutters rose.
Dranod shook his staff for quiet again.
“The Ravening Stone has done it’s work?” asked Dranod. “You’ve consumed its full power?” Bullmon detected equal parts rapture and fear in that question.
“Soon,” rumbled the Eldest. “Nearly. I shall require more sacrifices. New ones every day. I am leeching the Ravening Stone’s power more quickly now. I shall need more to succor me. Better sacrifices. You will bring more tomorrow.”
Three days later, Bullmon trudged wearily down the path again. He did not have the energy to grab a quick snack as he walked -- herding yet another group of youths to their doom. His legs hurt. His back ached. He wasn’t built for such drudgery.
With Bullmon was Ancient Dranod. The Eldest Elder needed so much feeding that the ancients had begun to bring him meals in shifts. And some of them, Bullmon was certain, were shirking their duties. He hadn’t seen Ancient Bresh all day yesterday -- and Togug seemed to have run off after his last shift as well. Huh. Some ancients. Some leaders. It was most irksome. Bullmon wondered if he could do the same. Or, perhaps, he could use their dereliction of duty to the Eldest to improve his own standing.
On this walk, Bullmon had asked Ancient Dranod about the Ravening Stone. The other ancient had explained that like many of the artifacts possessed by the Elders of the Reef, it had come to them from the sea. Some fool human had it amongst his treasures. The wretched man had been the only one of his crew to survive the strength of the Reefkin’s attack, and only because he swore he possessed a powerful magical artifact to exchange for his life, one that required a secret to use.
The human was brought before the eldest of the Ancients, and Dranod described it thus from his perfect Memory: “The wretch was shaking and wringing his ugly pink hands, and he begged for us to spare him. The fool. With him was the Ravening Stone, a silver pearl of great size and beauty. When he’d stopped sniveling for a second, the human said that it conferred great power. You could wear it or hold it to access that power, but the truly worthy could swallow it -- and with it, they swallowed the strength to swallow the world.”
Bullmon croaked incredulously.
Dranod shook his head. “No, my friend. The Eldest Elder shall eat the world.”
Bullmon gulped, trying to arrange that sentence in a way that made sense. “Eat the world?” he asked finally.
Dranod nodded impressively. “The magic contained in the stone will seep into him, and make him grow. It began almost immediately, and he chose to be removed to the forest, to ascend in seclusion. Soon now, he shall eat our enemies. Devour them whole. The more he feasts, the more his power grows. He shall consume all other life and leave the Elders of the Reef to rule the world -- as the oldest should. No more elves or dwarves looking down at us. We shall master all continents. And you and I shall see it, Bullmon. It is a great time to Remember.”
Dranod chuckled and said, “What was most amusing was the human. When the Eldest Elder ate the Ravening Stone the human smiled -- he believed himself safe. The ancients fed on him, naturally.”
Bullmon turned the tale over in his mind. Surely it was hyperbole -- for what would he eat, if the Eldest ate everything?
The two ancients and their herd of sacrifices reached the massive creature, the Eldest Elder. The bulk was writhing. He was larger -- the silver and green flesh flexing, more active, pulsing with a watery, reflected light. It was a long time since Bullmon was nervous in the presence of the Eldest… now he was.
As always the youths clustered forward and were eaten. This time though, there was hardly a pause as each group was hoisted to their deaths. The tongue was bigger -- snatching up five and six youths at a time now.
When all the youths were gone, Dranod spoke to the Eldest: “We shall bring more sustenance for you at sunset,” he said. “Is there ought else? How can we serve you, my lord?”
The flesh shook, and the Eldest Elder let out an angry rumble.
“Yes!” he declared. “Yes, there is more! And perhaps you shall be more obliging than the other so-called ancients! You, who should serve me! Do you serve me?”
The voice was wrathful. Dranod and Bullmon looked at each other in fear.
“Yes!” called Dranod. “Of course, we serve you, Eldest Elder!”
“I need more than these thin, meager, creatures you bring me,” declared the Elder. “I must consume thoughts and fears, wit, wisdom and love. I must have Memory. Bring me those with Memory. I need their strength -- without it, I cannot gain my own.”
Dranod and Bullmon met each other’s eyes. They were shocked and scandalized. Eating youths was one thing. There were hundreds born every day. Thousands and thousands of Reefkin growing in the crater nurseries. Hundreds hopping every which way without a thought in their heads. But those with the Memory were Elders. They could recall all that had happened to them since they reached maturity. They were the Elders of the Reef, the oldest, greatest people living on this earth. It’s chosen people. The Eldest Elder was contemplating murder, not merely another meal.
Dranod shook his staff -- the sound of jingling shells and bells meant to calm himself, since the forest was deeply silent.
“My lord…” said Dranod, trying to find the words to refuse the Eldest Elder. To beg him to reconsider. The oldest being on the Reef. The one they all owed their allegiance to. That was as odd and shocking to Bullmon as the Eldest’s request.
“You will not do it,” said the Eldest, voice cold.
“I cannot,” admitted Dranod. “Let me bring you more youths now. Surely enough of them will--” Out of the leaves came the Eldest’s tongue, wrapping around Dranod and then carrying him screaming through the branches. His voice was cut off abruptly -- becoming muted as he was hurled into the great, unseen mouth above Bullmon and then finally silenced.
Bullmon stared at the staff Dranod had carried, lying on the ground where he’d dropped it.
He took a step back -- and then the tongue dropped back down, wrapping tightly around Bullmon. He gasped as he was lifted off the ground -- leaves whipping his face, slime dripping over him. With all his might he yelled: “Wait! Wait!”
The tongue slowed and Bullmon looked down the gullet of the Eldest Elder. It glowed pulsing blue, malevolent magic like a whirlpool. Dranod was right. The Eldest would eat the world -- starting with his own Reefkin.
“I’ll bring you all you need!” cried Bullmon. He tried not to ribbet in anxiety.
He hung suspended over the Eldest’s mouth a moment longer… and then the great monster brought him back to the ground, releasing him.
He heard the enormous mouth smack closed and then a slurp as it moistening its throat to speak.
“You will bring me those with Memory?”
“I shall. As many as you need,” lied Bullmon. He did not dare run. Running now would get him eaten.
Silence, and then the fleshy wall of skin before Bullmon relaxed.
“Do it now,” commanded the Eldest.
“Yes,” agreed Bullmon, backing away down the path.
“You are Bullmon?” said the Eldest.
Bullmon did not deny it.
“Fail me,” said the Eldest. “And you’ll wish I’d devoured you first. Dranod was a friend. You are nothing.”
For the first time in a hundred years, Bullmon ran -- leaping along the path as fast as his legs would carry him. What was he going to do? Could he run away? No. No. He was sure the Eldest Elder would come after him. Obey the monster? Bullmon considered it. Certainly, Bullmon found some of his fellow Elders irritating. Irksome, even. Tempting as seeing them eaten was though, he discarded the thought. Even if Bullmon survived the first meals, he knew that this Eldest Elder did not intend to eat only some of the Elders of the Reef. He meant to consume them all — and then the world after that.
So, Bullmon went to the fishers.
These were youths -- somewhat older than those usually fed to the Eldest Elder, but still without the Memory.
They’d brought in the first catch of the day, and there was an Elder directing the division of the seafood: Crabs, eels, and fish sorted into baskets. Off to the side lay a small pile of roundfish, to be discarded.
“I need all of these,” said Bullmon, pointing to the poisonous roundfish.
The Elder in charge looked shocked to be addressed so, and then scared when she recognized Bullmon.
“Y-yes, Ancient,” said the lady.
“Have you seen any of the other ancients?” asked Bullmon, briskly.
Bullmon looked around, wondering… could he actually be… No. No. They could not all have been… Bullmon thought of that great pulsing gullet. He swallowed hard.
“Help me get these youths organized,” he said. “Each with their nets. Yes, like that. All the roundfish, and the rest with eels. And come with me. Come quickly.”
A short time later, Bullmon was returning the way he’d come. He herded the fishers along, each with their catch, many with bags of roundfish. Bullmon’s heart was pounding. The fishers went docilely to their doom.
The Eldest Elder had grown in Bullmon’s short absence. Tentacles and thin arms lashed the trees. The Eldest roared and burped and writhed.
Bullmon bellowed, sending the fishers forward -- with their bags of eels and poisonous fish. The enormous tongue rippled down and snatched up the fishers.
Bullmon stood back, out of the way of the Eldest’s tongue and watched as his crowd of thirty-odd fishers vanished in moments.
Then the Eldest roared, rattling the forest. It took the ancient time to interpret the roar:
“Bullmon!” the Eldest cried. “These have no Memory, traitor!”
Arms and tentacles and things in between stabbed down into the moist earth, pushing the Eldest towards Bullmon.
“I need Memory!” rumbled the Eldest as Bullmon began to run again. The blue glow of the Ravening Stone’s magic lit up the forest. The Eldest’s slimy tongue lashed down and uprooted a tree. Bullmon made an undignified hop sideways into the underbrush, only to see his cover torn away a moment later.
The ancient scrambled away from the Eldest, eyes torn between watching the hulking, misshapen body and trying to see where that monstrous tongue would strike next. Before him, the Eldests’ porous skin stretched with labored breath.
“What--?” huffed the monster. More trees toppled, cast aside by the Eldest’s arms.
The pulsing green and silver skin flexed, billowed, trying to breath.
Bullmon continued to move back, as the Eldest listed sideways -- paralyzed by the toxin in the roundfish he’d consumed.
The sound of tearing vegetation and falling trees filled the air as the Eldest crashed down. Silence followed.
In the days that followed, Bullmon discovered that he was indeed the only ancient to survive. He was now the oldest Elder and Ancient, the Lord of the Reef. While all the Elders had the Memory, could recall all they’d seen and been told, it was up to Bullmon to tell them what had happened… and he did not.
Bullmon lied, saying that a great monster had attacked the other ancients. He showed the massive body of the Eldest as proof, and it was left to rot where it fell. Bullmon spoke of how he’d slain the monster himself through his cleverness and agility, after seeing poor Ancient Dranod perish.
It was not so strange a story. Monsters abounded in the jungle.
The last ancient still took sacrifices of youths into the forest -- a gift to the Eldest Elder, he said. He let them loose far from home... and if more survived than had before, no one commented upon it.
From the corpse of the Eldest, Bullmon retrieved the Ravening Stone -- a luminous silver-blue pearl, alive and hungry. He’d found it inside the Elder, after the body was picked clean by the jungle. He remembered all that Dranod had said concerning the Stone and wondered what the captive human’s last smile had really meant. Ancient Bullmon wore the Ravening Stone on his breast from then on, and he too gained power from consuming others. But he did not grow over much. He did not access the Ravening Stone’s true power.
Perhaps he would devour the stone one day. Perhaps, one day, he would see if Bullmon was meant to consume the world. Perhaps. If ruling the Elders of the Reef became too irksome.