• 04 Sep - 10 Sep, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Book was the one who knew this stuff. Book would know its common name and its epithet and which foreign zoo dared to keep one and which of their scarce weapons could crack it open and destroy it.

And Book had not had a chance to inspect it.

"Go back to Book's tree," she told it. "He'll know how to kill you. Go on."

It can't understand you,

Crystal thought.

I know!

The demon, which after all couldn't understand her, circled the trunk of her tree. It emitted a yowl-roar, which Holly could vaguely imagine was frustrated. They ate souls and couldn't starve to death and only ever got to hunt a handful of stupid explorers, it had to be ravenous.

That did not mean she was going to let it eat her.

"BOOK!" Holly yelled at the top of her lungs. "BOOK, CAN YOU HEAR ME?"

There was no answer. Or none that she could hear.


–Eleven harvests ago–

But you like him, Holly thought. It's in all the fact sheets; you don't cohabit with your friends.

It doesn't matter if I like him, Book thought. It's better if I don’t; afterwards I never get to talk to him again,

You like us, though, Holly thought.

You I had better like, hadn't I? You I'm awake at the same time as, we read each other's minds, that's not going to be how it is with me and Lightning.

We'll miss you.

I'll still be around. We'll hang out all the time! But I - I can't do this anymore, I want to be him, I want people to look at me and see that, please understand.

Holly understood. So did Crystal, who was less inclined to complain in the first place.

Are you going to go live in his father's house? wondered Holly.

Book thought, I might hang out there sometimes. I'll still keep my books and things in our storeroom. Unless you want to kick me out of it.

Never, Crystal thought.

Holly agreed, not ever.

You pay a third of the rent, Crystal teased.

But when the day came, Holly wouldn't walk their body into the room where the move would take place, and Book had to shove her out of the way and stomp through the door himself, and Crystal was faded far with trepidation.

His sisters hung back, listened to him think, waited.

The troporter who would be making the transfer looked nervous. She was consulting a checklist. "You are - Book?" she says. "Book and his cohabitors, and you're moving with no physical alterations in with - Lightning?"

Book nodded.

Lightning was late. Book sat. The nervous troporter re-read her checklists. "Have you considered the risks?" she said.

"Yes. It's - it's important," says Book. "We all understand. But it's important and I need you to try."

The troporter's mouth was a thin line. "You realise if something goes wrong it's not only you."

"My sisters understand," said Book.

Your sisters will miss you, thought Holly.

"They'll miss me but they understand."

"And Lightning?" said the troporter.

"The risk to him is much smaller - right?" asked Book.

"Yes, but I can't claim there is none."

"He understands too, anyway."

The troporter asked no further questions.

Lightning arrived half sand late. His father was with him, which one Book couldn't tell for sure. The father hung back and Lightning came forward.

Soon Book would get to see that face in the mirror, just exactly him, the way he'd look if he weren't crammed in with.

It's not like we're ugly, thought Holly.

But, thought Book, you're a girl.

Don't let these be the last things we think to each other, pleaded Crystal. We love you, Book, and we're happy for you.

I love you too. Hey, he added, soon I can hug you, won't that be something?

Holly couldn't laugh aloud with Book in front, but she could think it.

Book was smiling when he nodded to the troporter that he was ready.


Holly had all the mice. When Book's soul got tired, Lightning could take over. When their body got tired, they needed her mice - unless they could catch a wild animal alive while stuck in a tree. Book might be able to troport food; he had the samples and Holly was just the best troporter, not the only person in the party capable of it. Holly, if she had to, could kill and open up a mouse and turn tree bark into quantities of... raw meat (except Book had her checklist, but she didn't need her checklist). She dearly hoped it didn't come to that. She had no idea where Tiag had gotten to but the fox ought to be the least of their worries...

Book, quite reasonably, was staying up in his tree, presumably not wanting to be caught off guard by the reappearance of the demon, but if he could hear her, she couldn't hear his replies.

Holly started evaluating her ability to get from her tree to an adjacent one without falling straight into the demon's claws. If she could even get a few trees over, close enough for Book to hear her, she could tell him where the demon was and he could have freedom of movement while it was busy cornering her.

She'd come from that direction. The next tree over had bad handholds or she'd have climbed it instead, but its upper branches looked plausible.

It might be that he could hear her and she couldn't hear him. Before she risked it, she hollered,


There. Now to follow through.

I'm scared.

"Me too, Crystal," Holly muttered, "me too."

Her time sense was okay, but Crystal's was better. Crystal faded forward to count rapid heartbeats and watch shadows of the quickest nearby sun (low, blue, and fast) lean from hubward to rimward.

It's been about a tenth of sand. But - but wait - I'm…

"I'm scared too," said Holly, and she inched along the branch towards the other tree.


–Eleven harvests ago–

Lightning was awake first.

Crystal hadn't known to expect that Lightning would be awake first. She'd expected to be able to confirm right away that Book was there, that he was okay, that he was comfortable.

And instead she and Lightning were sitting together awkwardly, under the dreamward until it was confirmed that both of them could swap as necessary and stay awake.

It's so empty in here, Holly thought.

It's emptier for other people.

That doesn't mean it's not... empty.

"You feel okay, right?" Crystal asked Lightning.

"I feel - normal," he said. "I guess we won't know for sure whether it worked until I need to sleep. I hope I figure out how to transfer consciousness soon."

"Oh, yeah," said Crystal vaguely. "That takes practice, doesn't it, for most people?"

"Yeah. Maybe Book will be able to do it just as easily with me as he could with you, but - I can't."

But I want to talk to Book, thought Holly. I miss him, I miss him…

I miss him too. "People figure it out even without practice by the time a few days have gone by, don't they?"

"Yeah." Lightning sighed. "All my friends are going to want to know why I don't look different."

"Did you want to?" asked Crystal. "You look handsome, Book picked you out specifically."

"I didn't - need to. I just thought it'd be more of a negotiation. I didn't lose anything. I got a perfectly good cohabitor without having to compromise and make tradeoffs and I think a lot of the lectures I got about it were wasted."

Crystal giggled.

"Was that funny?" asked Lightning.

"It - yes, a little. It just means that you and Book are a good fit, you see? He didn't have to compromise either. He got his very first choice. He wanted to look like you. You work other ways, too. I'm excited for when he wakes up and - and does. I miss him and so does Holly but we're glad he's going to be happy and - and thank you."

"You're welcome," Lightning replied, sounding unexpectedly touched.

"When do you think you'll be able to sleep?" Holly asked.

He blinked.

"I faded in, I'm Holly," she said impatiently.

"Oh. I don't know - two sands?" He hesitated, then said, "If you want to come back to my house to wait you can."

"Thank you," said Holly.

It was about a sand and a half.

And then Lightning blinked and Book opened his eyes.

Holly could tell instantly and they met in the middle, trying to hug each other; he misjudged the length of his arms and clonked her on the ear but finally figured out how to manage his elbows. "Book. You're okay?"

"I'm…" Book shook his head. "I'm good, Holly." Pause. "It's - Holly, right? I never had to tell from the outside - wow, your voice sounds so…"

"Yes, its Holly, don't be silly of course you can tell…"

"Well, let Crystal have

her turn…"

Crystal took her turn without Holly having to do much letting. "It worked, I'm so glad it worked!"

"I want a mirror," said Book.

"I saw one on the way in,

I think."

They managed to walk awkwardly to Lightning's house's entrance hall with the mirror in it without unhugging.

And Book looked in the mirror and stared.

"Good?" Crystal asked.

"Bit late if you want to change your mind," Holly leaned forward to comment.

"Perfect," said Book.


Holly was tempted - and urged by Crystal - to creep to the edge of the branch, crouching and holding onto another branch overhead, ready to back up in a hurry if something creaked, and then creep from the edge of her destination branch to the trunk of the

new tree.

Holly thought that if she was going to fall she'd rather be in more control of her momentum than that, and was about to try to jump the distance.

Crystal shoved her back. "No, absolutely not, no."

If I jump then if we fall it's on our feet and we can run…

"You'd break an ankle." Inch, inch, inch.

I'll do it holding a mouse-tail in my teeth?

"That's disgusting, Holly. And you can't troport a broken ankle fast enough, the demon is right there."

It was, indeed, right there, right under them. They might not even break an ankle if Crystal slipped; they might just fall directly into its waiting claws and be torn to shreds.

Crystal didn't slip. She got onto the branch of the next tree. She shuffled as best she could towards the trunk, and hugged it. She'd gone just a few meters, no more, but…



How many times were they going to have to do this to get within shouting distance?

If they stayed put, how long would it take the demon to lose interest?


Silence apart from demonic chittering.

Crystal maneuvered around the trunk to look for a way closer to the way she'd come.

And then she heard Book's voice, terribly faint.

"Can you hear me?"

"I CAN JUST BARELY HEAR YOU," Crystal hollered back.

"…to me," called Book. "Fire and…." Something. "A pragsuu…" something.


"- yes -" something "Fire and…."


"Fire and oil…"




"That's all," Holly thought she heard.


Holly looked at the tree she was in. If it didn't have any oil she could extract, she was likely out of luck. She also wasn't sure how to start a fire. Why wasn't she carrying the food? She could really use a peanut.

And yes, also a match.

Okay, great….!


–Four harvests ago–

"Crystal, that's completely…"

I know, I know…. I know.

"He's…… Umm…."

Stop talking aloud, what if Mountain hears you?

He wouldn't believe it if I told him outright.

I barely believe it and I can read your mind Lightning.

- Anonymous