First published in issue 9 of Worlds Without Master. This story is made possible only through the support of the Patron Horde. Learn more about the Patron Horde and find more sword & sorcery fiction like “High Upon the Table of the World” at www.WorldsWithoutMaster.com.

High Upon the Table of the World

by Epidiah Ravachol

Behold your legacy, child. Feel its heft and slickness in your grip. Marvel at its opalescent depths. When my own hands were younger, more able, they carved this sorrowful history upon its surface. A history you will now learn if you but promise to hear it in its entirety.

In the hot, dry afternoon of a summer years before your birth, the wizard came and summoned five of us to the hunt. Six went with him. Stout Fehha and I were chosen first, as we were a hunting pair, equal in age and endurance. I threw better, but he had the greater reach. Swift and persistent Tenyan was chosen despite her age for the tenacious adventures she had in her youth. Though neither his father nor I knew it yet, your brother also joined us, hidden within my own body. And the Kavan twins who, like their mother and father, were deaf and specifically bred for the hunt.

We were all, in our own ways, bred for the hunt. In your great-great-grandmother’s generation, the wizard sealed a pact with our people. A magnificent beast lived high upon the Table of the World, and though none alive then had seen it, even longer ago our ancestors once worshiped it as a god. They made the Table a sacred place and forbade us from scaling to its verdant plateau even as we made our homes in its scarlet cliffs. The wizard knew such a way to butcher this god-beast and harvest from deep within its chest a beating organ that granted those who supped upon it a single wish. If we consented to scale the plateau, he would teach us to hunt the beast and to teach our children to do the same. So that, one day, he would return to lead the best of us on his quest and share in his eldritch glory.

So my parents’ parents’ parents turned from their toils in the bitter earth and set about birthing a generations of god-hunters. Each generation that followed was born with harpoons in their hands and hope in their hearts. We were taught to run without exhaustion, to quell our own fears and hungers for days, to throw harpoons high and clear of the trees we only ever saw from beneath the plateau’s mur, to knot and hook the Great Cords, and to wish for the wishes of our ancestors.

By the time I was born, it had all become solely a matter of faith. None alive had ever seen the wizard. So when he strolled into the camp, swaddled in rich green robes and silver jewelry, he was almost slain and stripped of his wealth to feed our hungry tribe. But he held in the palm of his hand a tiny cage, delicately carved from ivory much like the legacy you hold now. Within its lattice walls raged a thunderhead like a bruise caught in the air.

We were stupefied. You could smell the coming storm. He promised us that he was our benefactor by way of our ancestors’ pact and as long as he remained unharmed, the rain would nourish and refresh. But any harm done to him would be visited upon us through storm and flood.

He was young to the eye in every way save his weathered and ancient hands. But it was not hard to believe him. He called the five of us by name. He knew our talents, what glories we had earned, and the line of our heritage back to our parents’ parents’ parents who stood before him and sealed our fate almost a century ago.

Since our birth, we had been taught the way to knot and coil the Seven Great Cords so that they would not tangle and their hooks would not grab each other as they unfurled. Every morning, each of the Seven would be so prepared. That evening we packed all seven for the first time on mules. Along with these, we brought our own knives, harpoons, rope, and little else. After a brief, solemn ceremony, we embarked before the sun set.

It was a precarious caravan that ascended the Table of the World by way of a slight and subtle ledge-trail discovered by Tenyan when I was a babe myself. The enormous coils of the Seven teetered upon the mule’s backs, unsuring their feet. In the blue-dark of twilight, one of the hapless creatures slipped and sped to the rock below taking Anterban’s Hope — the third of the Great Cords ever to be braided and the first untouched by the wizard’s own hands — with it.

Oh child, the wonders we witnessed there for the first three days and four nights we hunted the beast and the dreams of our ancestors! Trees so tall and numerous they blotted out the sky. Some thick with green needles and others possessing a silvery-white bark that made them look like long arcs of moonlight. When morning came, birds the size of thumbs flitted about the branches, chirping, as purple-maned lizards mimicked their cries, attempting to lure them to breakfast.

One midday, I stumbled upon a sunlit glade, lush with ankle-high grass dancing in the breeze. Fehha and I would have wandered into it if Tenyan had not called out a swift warning. She lobbed a rock into its shaggy depths and every blade bent toward it, like an inverted ripple. We saw then that it was a field of thin green serpents half buried in the soil and masquerading as plants.

Late one evening, we watered the mules at a calm, circular lake. Even in the twilight the water was clear enough for us to peer to its distant floor. As the moon rose over us, luminescent pink-and-green bubbles lit across the sandy bottom and leisurely floated up to greet their cousins in the night sky.

We spoke very little on the hunt. The Kavan twins had their own silent language of gestures and glances. The wizard remained aloof and busied himself by examining the conditions of the remaining Great Cords. Fehha, Tenyan, and I were at turns awed and alert. The game there was huge and plentiful. We could feed the entire tribe for a month on a single day’s worth of hunting. But also great were the scavengers and predators. There were cats the size of Fehha and I combined. The few times we rested, we had to loop the Great Cords around our mules and pull them into the trees out of the reach of a wolf pack that trailed us by day. The mules would bray their complaints as we dragged them up but by morning they were so stricken with fear, Fehha and I had cut the branches out from under them to return them to the ground.

As we crossed the Table of the World, our surroundings would change in tenor three or four times a day. A blue vine-flower with a heavy scent would dominate the terrain for a morning’s hike only to be replaced with a sallow and odious fen, which in turn fell away to lichen-covered boulders that divided the trees enough to allow the orange glow of the setting sun to fall upon our faces. We had become so familiar with these gradual but distinct shifts that we did not mark the distant creaking of trees and the rising musk as a sign of anything new.

It was the stubborn reluctance of the mules to continue that revealed the beast. The Kavan twins rushed ahead, disappearing in the trees. I tried to drag the team forward. Fehha, ever at my side, pulled with me. Tenyan lashed the mules from behind with a length of rope. They frothed and their eyes rolled with fear, but we had no patience. The sinew of generations past also tugged on the reins. The pact was upon us and these animals would be made to do their part.

The panicked animals broke into a run and we led them to a clearing of bent trees where the Kavan twins stood before a rising hill covered with violet birds lazing in the sun. Before I could comprehend what we were seeing, the twins turned back to us, eyes wide and wild. They rushed to the mules and latched their harpoons to Pact Keeper, which was the first of the Great Cords, woven for us by the wizard himself, and Abundance, which was entrusted to the care of my mother and me and would have been yours to watch over if it had not betrayed us. With two perfect lofts the harpoons soared through the faded blue sky, carrying the two barbed cords along grand arcs before burying themselves deep in the fleshy folds of the hill.

The hill stood up, shattering the flock on its back across the sky.

The beast had a thick hide that folded on itself like the meat of a walnut and was covered in soft, short red-brown fur. Its massive frame was supported by six legs so stout that no two of us could reach around an ankle. If you had stood the whole party — five hunters, six mules, one wizard, and your unborn brother — one atop each other, we would have just reached the rumpled crest of its brow. Its face was flat and hid its features beneath the shadowy furrows of its skin. From its awesome lower jaw sprouted three giant tusks of opal that curled up and around its cheeks — the tip of one you now hold in your hands. It was not hard to imagine such a face peering down from the plateau at our ancestors and appearing as a grimacing god haloed in prismatic fire.

The ponderous sight held our awe, but our muscles had instincts of their own. I latched my harpoon to The Last Hunger and Fehha latched his to Mother’s Gift. Last Hunger flew high and true, striking the beast before it screamed. But Fehha was delayed by the wizard. He had stuffed his ears with clay and threw some to Fehha, yelling something no one ever heard because the beast had opened its cavernous mouth and cried out.

That cry, that horrible cry. As the beast bellowed, I felt everything I had and would ever feel. An intense love for both you and your brother, though neither of you yet to be born. The grief that held me helpless for the fortnight following your brother’s early passing. The embrace of both your fathers and all my other lovers. My own painful birth into this world. The cacophony of disgrace and pride that was the sum of the triumphs and failures Fehha and I shared on our hunts. The shock I was moments from experiencing when I would be witness to Fehha’s gruesome end. The long, blunt rage I yet carry with me for that cursed wizard. The tearful release that would wash from me as I stood upon the giant carcass of the beast. My own cool, content slipping into an eternal peace years from now.

And the fear, the great and shameful fear that the pact was unraveling. That my life and three generations of lives before mine had all been unnecessary.

The trees rattled as the beast howled and began to laboriously shamble into a run. But all other animals, save the wizard and the Kavan twins, were caught in the spell. Birds, forgetting their wings, drifted out of the sky. The mules stood blankly, refusing to even complain. Fehha let his harpoon drop from his hand. Tenyan’s face ran with tears.

Pact Keeper, Abundance, and The Last Hunger uncoiled from their mules’ backs and snaked along the ground, growing taut as their hooks snagged at the underbrush and the beast accelerated. Three of the Seven would never be enough. With five or six harpoons sunk into the beast, hindering it as they dragged their Great Cords and hooks behind them, it would not gain speed enough to pull itself free. We could then easily trail it, awaiting its exhaustion. Three were but a thorn.

The wizard was not born with a harpoon in his hand nor any heart to hold hope. He scrambled to scoop up Mother’s Gift and threw it shamefully short. One of the Kavan twins, who had assumed we were following them, returned to find us shuddering in the final echoes of the beast’s cry. The twin glared at us accusingly as the wizard yelled with futility.

Trees creaked and splintered as the beast trampled them and dragged the Great Cords across them. The first plaintive cries of wounded birds rose from the surrounding forest. The wizard shoved a jar of clay into Fehha’s hands. Then a tree that had been bent low as the Cords were dragged over it, snapped back, pulling a harpoon free from the beast and flinging Abundance the Traitor back across the sky.

It flew between Fehha and me with such force that it stripped my hunting mate of his clothes and flesh before we even heard the whip crack.

The pact was broke. His ancient hands shaking, the wizard pulled from his pouch three coins tied together by a leather thong and slung it into the air. A gold serpent with the gossamer wings of a moth swooped from the sky, catching the coins in its fangs and wrapping its long tail around the wizard before carrying him off to a land of cowards.

I will not recall the rest of that grim day, my child. I had already lived it twice. Once upon the Table of the World and once within the beast’s cry. By nightfall, we had buried Fehha and cursed the wizard. Tenyan was crippled by the kick of a mule who had been startled by Abundance’s betrayal. And one of the Kavan twins ruined a hand on one of the Great Cords that yet chased after the beast.

We released the mules and set up a camp for our injured. I made Tenyan swear to tend the fire, to keep the torches lit. So all we had to do to know they yet lived was to climb a tree and turn our eyes to their hill.

The other Kavan and I carried Mother’s Gift between us and set out on the beast’s prodigious trail. What else could we do, we who had been born to hunt it?

I had stuffed my ears with the wizard’s clay and we followed the beast in silence from a cautious distance, collecting The Last Hunger, Pact Keeper and Mother’s Gift as each of them was pulled free and spearing the beast with them anew.

We did not count the days. Eventually the fires on the hill went dark, your brother began kicking to let me know we were not alone, and I learned some of the secret language of Kavan twins. We ran without exhaustion. We quelled our fears and our hungers. We threw the harpoons high and clear of the trees. We knotted and hooked the Great Cords as needed. And we forgot the wishes of our ancestors.

One bright night in a grove of fruited trees, the beast fell at last, its final, rotting breath visible in the cold air. The Kavan and I climbed atop it and drove all of our harpoons into it, one after another, deep enough to assure us of its end. There we wept together as the predators and scavengers spilled out of the night to share the bounty.

You now hold all that has returned with us from the beast. It is yours to keep, as is this tale. Share it with your children as they should share it with theirs. Carry with it my wish: seek out and meddle in the affairs of wizards and should they make you promises, drive this tusk deep into their hearts.