Take a Deep Breath

“Pikluk, what is that?” I asked wonderingly.

My pikluk looked out over the plain and saw what I was trying to point out. He had to. The two creatures on the horizon were very strange, after all. I was pretty certain that I wasn’t crazy, but my pikluk and I had been on this spiritual journey for an entire day. I was running low on energy and needed rejuvenation. I hoped that this was what I had been seeking.

The creatures were walking with an odd gait, sometimes bending down to pick up a cluster of the purple Earth’s mantle as they went forward. Their actions – scraping the unmoving flora that covered most of the Earth – didn’t make sense to me. The bumpy, sprawling Earth mantle was much prettier where it was than it ever would be after it was gathered. The all-black creatures moved methodically, slowly, as if they were doing this for an important reason.

My pikluk, however, didn’t seem overly happy or sad about the event, though he seemed to see the creatures as well. It wasn’t just my imagination.

“This is an omen, my child… perhaps we should turn back,” Pikluk informed, rubbing my back with his claw.

“A bad omen? What is it?” I asked. Bad omens were rare, ominous things, after all. I could see how these creatures on the horizon would be bad omens – they were horrifying, somehow. The way they moved wasn’t fluid, but hard and angular. It was difficult to explain or even think of.

“It is your journey of exploration we’re on, Tikpab, so it is your decision whether or not we turn back to the village. You are out here to discover yourself, to begin your journey of deciding what you will become. I’ll not stop you for any reason, but I will warn you: this isn’t something I would take lightly. Those creatures are Barons of the End.”

My body felt heavy, like it was sinking. Fear inundated my soul, the very depths of my being. Fear wasn’t something that I often felt – what was there to fear, after all? The Barons, however, brought a finality with them. No one came back once the Barons took them – and the Barons, eventually, took everyone. They had even taken my lopkot, back when I was young.

“I don’t know, Pikluk. What if… what if this is something I am bound to discover?” I asked, hoping that wasn’t the case.

My pikluk seemed like he wanted to give me direction, but he shook his body out and responded, “I can’t determine your journey. Only you can determine what it is you are bound to discover. Just remember that you don’t have to find your discovery on your first journey – why, your own Gikilliken took five tries before she discovered her spirit. You can try again later if you think that this is too ominous a sign, or if you want to test if the Barons are truly part of your path.”

I understood what my pikluk wanted. Obviously, the Barons were a terrible omen to find on a journey of discovery, a journey symbolizing the very beginning of life. Still – what if the Barons were my discovery? I shuddered to think that my spirit would take the shape of a Baron of the End, the keepers of beyond life.

“Let’s turn back,” I told my pikluk, “This might not be right anyway.” It felt like an admission of failure, that I was giving up on my journey, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Who knew what would happen if I went back to the village proclaiming that my spirit had taken the visage of a Baron? Now that I had seen one myself, I understood the fear and the wonder with which people spoke of them. It made sense that they were so associated with the End.

Pikluk seemed relieved. “I think you made the right decision. Let’s head back to the springs, clear our minds and try again in a day or so.” He clapped his claw around my back once more, drawing me to the east where the village was.

We trekked carefully over purple Earth mantle and back toward the springs of the village. The purple slowly became intermingled with gold Earth mantle, the flora perfectly coating the soil and rock beneath. Here and there, the multicolored wild garlands graced the fields as they lay upon the earth. The long, tubular flora snaked around atop the mantle, adding interest and newness to the horizon. I saw a wild nokdol hopping on the mantle, enjoying the sunlight while it was still day. As its long, rear legs quickly unfurled, the creature was flung forward with speed few other land animals could compete with. It was too far away to go pet, though, which was slightly disappointing.

Later in the day, my body listless and tired as we slipped back into the hot springs, we came upon the village. The heat soothed my aching muscles and began to rejuvenate me as I sat in the hot pool. Wandering in the wilderness couldn’t make up for the exquisite joy of diving in the springs. I swam around in the shallow waters, rejuvenating my body as I made my way toward my home. Pikluk would want to see Killiken, perhaps Gikilliken or Gilotkop if they were around. I wanted to speak with them and tell them about my first outing on a journey of self discovery if I could. I swam down the canals which had been dug by Meklups – my people – over hundreds of years. The canals led to the little caves in which everyone lived, opening up into the pools that Meklups would sleep and rejuvenate in. Above the pools, the moist caverns were lit by junkips – small, glowing flora that could be picked up and spread upon the ceiling where they would grow and thrive.

My pikluk popped his head into the cavern, wiping the water from his eyes using the wrist below one of his claws. He seemed happy by the way he carried himself, making me feel less remorseful about being unsuccessful on my journey.

My pikluk nuzzled up against my killiken, greeting her with love. She smiled and placed a glowing, green garland around Pikluk’s head, welcoming him home.

“How was the journey, sweetie?” Killiken asked, placing a rare bit of stiff mantle around my neck. The stiff mantle came from traders who hailed from the north – a colder clime in which the mantle’s colors were darker, deeper, and the garlands grew taller than normal. I had never been there, only swam to the south where the mantle grew several more layers thick than the mantle around my own village.

“It was interesting and difficult, going so long without rejuvenation,” I told my killiken, “But I didn’t find my spirit’s shape.”

“Ah; but you’ve returned rather early, Tikpab. Did something interesting happen?” Killiken asked. My mood fell a little bit as I realized that the stiff garland was likely given to me as a reward. She had thought I returned triumphant from my longest foray from the hot springs.

“It was very amazing,” Pikluk said, “We even came upon a couple of Barons, darling. In its young wisdom, Tikpab returned early from its quest to avoid the bad omen rather than push to get its vision on the first day.”

Killiken slunk into the water and hugged me, saying, “I’m proud of you for staying safe. You can figure out your spirit’s shape later, after all! Oh, Tikpab, it was wise and unselfish of you. I am so very proud; the garland is a fitting gift still!”

I felt warmed by my killiken’s praise, satisfied that giving up on my spirit journey was the right choice. I was certain that my friends at school would agree. It was the summer, though, and it was my season for the journey; it would simply be a tale for when school started back up.

“I would like to try again tomorrow,” I said. I wouldn’t be discouraged by the Barons.

Killiken and Pikluk smiled. “Certainly,” Pikluk said.

“Would you like me to go out with you tomorrow? Allow your Pikluk to have a rest?” my killiken asked.

I nodded. It was only fair and would help ensure safety, allowing Pikluk to rest while Killiken performed the role of guide and advisor. Even people as old and wise as they couldn’t go without rejuvenation for more than a week, maybe two if they didn’t overexert themselves.

“Then you should close your eyes and rest, rejuvenate. Your journey will be quite short if you don’t!” Pikluk joked, rubbing his claw on my head.

Killiken tapped me on the cheek with her claw. “I love you, Tikpab. I’ll see you in the morning, bright and early, to start your next adventure?”

I nodded. “Yes,” I said, “And I love you too. Goodnight, Killiken. Goodnight, Pikluk.” My tired body was feeling heavier by the second.

I closed my eyes and laid my head down on my limbs, ready to rest and rejuvenate. I would awaken filled, energetic, and repaired.

 

***

 

Like the last time, I took nothing with me on my journey. I rose up from the system of canals, stepping out of the bubbling, boiling water that was such a comfort. It was that comfort, that willingness to seek nothing but the hot springs, that the journey of discovery was supposed to defeat. It encouraged us toward togetherness, to work, and to love. I had to remember that.

“Are you ready?” Killiken asked. I nodded, but looked around at the rolling plains before me. I wasn’t really certain which direction to take.

Dare I set foot on the same path I had the day before? Dare I risk finding, once more, the Barons? Or should I take a different route? Would anything I chose alter the chances?

“Let’s head south today,” I said. I thrust a limb forth and put my weight on it, striking out to the south. My killiken followed patiently, excited to be with her child on its journey of exploration. I had no siblings, seeing as my lopkot had been taken when I was young and my killiken and pikluk were unwilling to seek another. Killiken would take this moment very seriously.

We walked over the golden mantle, which became blue, then red, then quickly orange. I had forgotten just how beautiful the southern route was, how wonderful the views from the tops of the hills would be. It was exciting that I would go farther today than I had ever gone before, so I enjoyed the scenes of the Earth mantle contrasted brilliantly to the brown sky.

“Killiken,” I asked, “You saw the form of your spirit on the second trip. How did you know when you had found it?”

Killiken plodded after me and said, “I saw the flying gigpu and I just knew. I saw it and wanted to be one, realized the singleness of life. Do not worry, Tikpab. You’ll know.”

I gulped. What if I never met the form of my spirit?

We walked a bit further and I surveyed the realm, determining if I wanted to continue south. An odd, jutting shape was on the edge of my visage. It wasn’t moving, but I thought it could be an interesting tale, information worth gathering on my journey of discovery. I led Killiken forward to the thing, pointing it out so she could help me if we got lost.

We didn’t get lost, though, as I guided us forward. The large, strange rock reached forth from the ground. No Earth’s mantle grew upon the rock – neither did any junkips, glowing or not. It was rare to see a completely empty rock. The edges were straight, the angles hard. It didn’t look natural.

“Have you seen this before?” I asked Killiken, reaching forth to touch it. She didn’t stop me, so I assumed it wasn’t going to be terribly harmful.

“Yes; something like it, if not this exact structure. These rocks can be found all over the place, but their secrets are unknown as far as I can tell. Perhaps the secret will tell you the form or your spirit, Tikpab! Wouldn’t that be interesting?” Killiken asked.

I felt excited and grinned widely. “Yes – yes it would!” I knocked the rock with my claw and heard an interesting thud, a strangely reverberating sound that beat and twisted within the strange, shiny rock. The satisfying result further cemented that this rock could have something to do with my discovery and my spirit.

It was just after mid-day when I became quite listless. Though I had spent the previous night rejuvenating in the canal, I hadn’t regained all of the energy that I had lost on my first day’s journey. This second foray would likely end without me finding the form of my spirit, but that was okay, too; I was having a marvelous time exploring the wilds.

As the trek went on, more and more of the strange rocks jutted up from the earth. They became bigger and more regular, but just as mysterious. Eventually, as we went further, they formed larger rocks and structures. We walked up a large hill, rocks jutting everywhere, so I could survey the next plain from the top of it.   I felt the spines on my back stand up straight in awe of what was before me.

“Killiken – what is that?!” I asked, pointing at huge, rounded rocks that lined the surface just before me. The rocks were similar in color and type to the ones we had just passed, no mantle growing upon them.

Killiken smiled. “I had always wanted to see these rocks. Many have reported their existence from journeys and exploration, but I had never made my way out here myself. Nature is grand, is it not? Can you imagine how all these bulbous rocks became connected so by those webs?” Killiken asked, encouraging my discovery.

“Let’s go,” I said, more excited than ever, “I want to climb atop one, if we can – maybe even that really big one in the middle!”

Killiken and I excitedly ran down the hill covered in the jutting rocks – which, now, I recognized as pieces of structures similar to the domes just down the hill – so that we could take a closer look at the bulbs. The bulbs were made of the shiny, gray, jutting rocks that I had just looked at, but also of this strange, white, flat rock that stretched between the jutting webs. Never before had I seen a shape so regular. The flat rocks and the jutting rocks were pieced together in perfect shapes and angles to form large domes and long, connecting strands taller than two or three Meklups. The sides of all the domes were too steep to easily climb up, though, which was disappointing.

The domes were put together in a confusing shape. As I walked further into the convoluted web, I realized that it would be easy to get lost in the regular, unchanging sameness of this scenery.   Eventually, though, we reached a dead end between two rather narrow sets of rocks. I touched the surface of one of the large domes and felt my claw scrape up against it awkwardly. It was so very strange.

“These rocks are unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” I said, “It’s… it’s so unnatural, so strange. How did they end up this way when everything else is so disordered and covered in the Earth mantle?”

Killiken didn’t answer, though, but just stared back toward where we came from, fear in her eyes and her back spines raised high. I turned my head to see what she was looking at, immediately realizing what was bothering her.

A couple of Barons were standing, as still as the End, at the entrance to the narrow passageway. Their strange appearance looked even more ominous from this short distance. The four appendages were different: two had many tendrils coming off the ends, two bent strangely at the bottom where the Baron touched the ground. They stood deathly still as their shiny, black skins sucked the joy from everything around them.

I could say nothing as they stood there. I wondered if they were watching us, what they were doing, but I couldn’t tell. Were we being taken?

“I’m scared,” I finally told Killiken. I felt that my back spines were sticking straight up, that my body was responding with utmost fear.

“Shh, Tikpab – they might not see us. Don’t move and, perhaps, they’ll go away,” Killiken said. She held me tight as we huddled into a ball, snuggled close to the strange rock behind us as the Barons stood. Perhaps they were watching, perhaps they weren’t.

After what seemed an eternity, one of the Barons moved. It turned its strange, stiff appendage and began poking it with a single tendril on the opposite appendage. The other remained still, staring at us with its single huge, black eye.

The moving one stepped forward, its appendages bending at sudden angles rather than smoothly and evenly throughout the appendage like I expected – like everything else would. As it got closer, Killiken finally shouted out, “Please – please, if you take me, at least leave my child!”

It stopped moving forward when it was a very short distance away, standing over us on its strange appendages. As I looked at its lower appendages, I was surprised to see that the black appendage had floppy, strange folds all over it. It had tiny, miniscule worms going in and out of the skin at regular intervals, with strange shapes and patterns all over them.

“This area is off limits to Meklups,” the Baron said, “So we came to escort you out and send you back home.” It extended its strange appendage with tendrils as if it expected me or Killiken to take it, but why would either of us do that? It would be nothing more than welcoming the End, would it not?

After we sat without taking the Baron’s outstretched appendage, the Baron stood straight and tall, intertwining its two upper appendages across a broad body.

“You must leave. Return to your water,” the Baron ordered.

“We… we will, if you promise not to take us. Just leave, allowing us to go in peace,” Killiken bravely spoke up.

“Take… take you?” the Baron asked, its command of our language odd and faltering, “Where would I take you? What use would I have with a living Meklup?”

Neither Killiken nor I responded. I held onto Killiken’s claw with my own, hoping that our togetherness would help us stay out of the grasp of the Baron.

“Fine. Fine, whatever. I’m going to walk over there, where Bill is standing, and let you guys walk on past. If you do that, you’ll make it out of here fine. If you don’t, you’ll probably freeze or suffocate by morning,” the Baron said.

The Baron rotated upon its lower appendages and walked out of the small area, but what it’d said made me curious. Why did the Baron know what was going to happen?

“How do you know?” I asked it, finally getting brave enough to speak. I regretted it almost as soon as the words escaped my mouth. The Baron put its weight on one of the lower appendages and looked back with its single eye.

“The atmosphere you are breathing right now is mostly nitrogen, but it contains a lot of carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen, and water vapor. A Meklup needs that to survive – a Baron, however, does not. This is where we vent – or exchange atmospheres – during the night. We take the water and the methane, shoving carbon dioxide and hydrogen back out. Your bodies will burn in delight as the inert levels and temperatures plummet. It will bring your End, then we’ll be forced to return to collect your bodies the next day,” the Baron explained.

I turned my head to the side and looked inquisitively at Killiken. She couldn’t offer any insight, though. Who could? The Baron used words that sounded nothing like any language I had ever before heard.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Shh, Tikpab.” My Killiken rubbed her claw on my back as she drew me nearer, trying to protect me.

“Of course you don’t. But that’s not my problem, Meklup. Now get out of here or face your End,” the Baron said. It continued walking to the exit, then stood with the other Baron as they both leaned up against the rocks.

As I watched them intertwine their stiff appendages and talk quietly with each other, I realized something. This was an opportunity for discovery that I was meant to have. My killiken had been right – I would know what I was supposed to do. My pikluk’s fear from the day prior, that my spirit was to take the form of a Baron, had come true.

My spines began to lower as my body accepted sadness. It may have been easier to have accepted the fate yesterday, when I should have, rather than test it and find this strange attraction again today. I pushed Killiken up and held her claw with mine. She probably couldn’t accompany me on this last part of the journey – the part where I met my spirit’s form.

I was frightened, but I forced from my mouth, “This is it, Killiken… I have to go with the Barons. My spirit… I… I’m sorry.”

Killiken’s spines fell instantly as she grabbed me and covered me with hugs. “Oh, Tikpab – don’t be sorry. Even if it’s frightening, you can’t change it and neither can I. Your pikluk and I will be proud of you, no matter what. Your lotkop would have been proud of you, too. The Baron is a powerful omen, even if it is a terrifying one, and your spirit must be strong to take its form.”

“So… so you’re not upset with me?” I asked, “You’re not going to try and stop me, even though this may be the End?”

“Oh, Tikpab, no. Who would do that to you? Your spirit is to discover something important. I couldn’t possibly want to take that away. Now… if you do not want to do it, I will do everything in my power to protect you until you are ready.” She held me with fragility, but yet with brave acceptance.

“I’ve got to do it,” I said. I picked myself up and hugged Killiken one more time, possibly for luck and possibly for fear, before looking to the Barons. The one shook strangely as it leaned against the great rock, an odd noise emanating from it.

I approached the Baron cautiously, making the creature lean forward and put its weight on both of its lower appendages. It spoke with its companion in the language I didn’t know – probably the language of the End, the words of beyond – as I stepped forward. I stood before them, scared of what was going to happen.

“What do you want?” the taller Baron asked. It had a deeper voice than the shorter one that had already spoken with me and Killiken, but it still had the strange inflections when it spoke my language.

“I… I think my spirit is to take the form of a Baron,” I announced, shying and cowering immediately after speaking.

The Barons began making loud, strange noises as they doubled over in such a way that it perplexed me. Even their torsos seemed rigid. Somehow, as they spoke to each other, I got the impression that they weren’t saying anything menacing – they were laughing.

“Oh, little Meklup, you wouldn’t understand how funny it is that a creature like you would think that its spirit animal is a Baron! This is simply too much!” the short one explained in my language. The laughing made me less scared – the Barons had feelings just like a Meklup even though their bodies and ways were so disparate.

I groveled before the Barons as I asked, “May I follow you, Barons, and learn the ways of my spirit?”

The Barons’ eyes stared at each other as their heads stiffly shook, as their angular limbs bent, and they talked with each other about what to do. It didn’t seem that there was an easy agreement between them.

“Look, kid… where we’re going, you can’t easily follow. Just get out, go leave with your killiken, go home to your pikluk and your lotkop.” The Barons settled on this answer as they began to walk away.

“But I am listless! I need my killiken to get home safely unless I can find another hot spring. I can’t go with her, though, while I have my spirit’s form just in front of me. I must learn my spirit’s shape so that I can follow my destiny,” I explained. The Barons didn’t seem to understand the importance of my journey, even though they seemed to know and understand a lot of things that I didn’t.

The Barons stopped and communicated with each other. They poked and prodded themselves with their strange tendrils, speaking in nonsense as they nodded their heads.

“We’ve spoken with the higher ups,” the taller Baron announced, “And have come to agreement. You are allowed to stay with us for a single night, whereupon you must leave. You shall be toted around our enclosure in a box and may not determine your own course – we shall take you where we please. You will leave as rejuvenated as we can get you.

“But I must warn you: you won’t want to leave. After a taste of what we have, you will never want to leave. If you stay for longer than we planned, even by just a small portion of a day, you will never be allowed to leave at all.”

It was a horrible consequence, to never go back home, but I saw no real other choice. I would of course leave their abode after a single night; who knew what their realm even was? Was it a spirit world on another plane? Was it far, far away?

“If I do not follow you into your abode, how will I know the shape of my spirit? I must know who I am, after all,” I pleaded. I had to take them up on their offer.

They nodded and pointed with one of their tendrils to follow. I did, winding around the maze, noting that Killiken left the narrow passageway as soon as the Barons were gone with me. I followed around the strange rocks, watching as the Barons led me and talked amongst themselves.

“What language is it that you speak?” I asked them, “Is it the language of the End? The words from beyond?”

The Barons didn’t seem to quite understand what I was asking, so they replied, “Our words are far, far older than yours. The languages of the Barons are older than the Meklups themselves, in fact. We have words for things you couldn’t even imagine; your primitive language serves your needs, but it cannot serve ours.”

“So, does that… that does mean that your words are from beyond, then? From what happens after the End? The language is the one of the spirit realm?”

“Oh, good heavens, no. Is that what you’ve thought of us all this time?” the short Baron asked.

The Barons walked up to one of the bulbous rocks and pushed on their wrists. After a few short moments of waiting, some of the strange shapes on the surface of the rock began to move on their own. I backpedaled away from the rock, frightened at how it was moving with nothing to coax it. The Barons, however, seemed unconcerned entirely that what appeared to be a solid rock was opening to show a hollow room.

The Barons walked in, then made some sort of tendril motion that I gathered meant they wanted me to follow. Cautiously, I walked into the dark room and stood at the feet of the tall Barons, watching as they pulled a clear rock – a rock as clear as water – with ease away from the wall. I noticed that the clear rock had strands of odd materials sticking out one end and that there were black rocks made of a different material sitting on top of it. Strange, regularly shaped lights shone from the black rocks. The Barons took hold of some pieces sticking out of this rock – evidently the ‘box’ they had spoken of – with their tendrils and adjusted them. The shapes of the lights changed in a dizzying, confusing manner that I couldn’t help but watch. Whatever they were doing, it was amazing.

The clear rock popped open, just as this giant white rock had, and the Barons pointed into it.

“Get in,” they coaxed, “Or leave.”

The clear rock was pretty small. Somehow, it made me wonder if I would smother by getting in, if I was getting into a box leading to the End. It was well known that when a Meklup or an animal stopped breathing, it tended to attract the Barons, who escorted the Meklups to the next adventure. I gulped as I slid into the box, gasped as the box was closed. I beat on the sides but could not get out, trapped!

“Do not worry, little Meklup,” one of the Barons said, “This box will keep you alive, but still allow you to experience our abode. Don’t bring fear into this place.”

I could hear wind within the rock as lights on the ceiling shot on. It wasn’t like the Junkips on Meklup ceilings – these were bright, terrible lights that shone from a single source. I shielded my eyes as they got used to the lights as bright as the sun, put some claws over my ears as they were mysterious wind frightened me.

An interesting tone sounded, then the Barons began to move. They put their hands up to their eyes and pulled off small pieces of their skin, allowing them to hang from the bottom of the eyeball and the top of the eyestalk. They then pushed the eye up and made me scream as I saw the eyes begin to pop off. I put my hands to my mouth in terror that the Barons were doing something horribly painful, but they simply laughed as they put their eyes down on a rock at the side of the room.

It appeared that what I had thought was an eye was nothing more than a hollow rock that a head – or at least what I thought was a head – could fit in. The Barons had, underneath of this rock, strange orifices and organs that I couldn’t understand. One was probably a mouth – the orifice that sound came from – and I supposed that there were two eyes.

The Barons continued to remove the layer of black skin from their awkward, angular bodies, making me wonder if it was skin at all or – instead – some other type of flexible rock.

“What did you just do?” I asked.

The Barons seemed confused as one laughed, the quality of its voice now much different, “That was our protective clothing. In order to go outside, to where the Meklups live, we must put ourselves in a sort of box. It’s the same as how you must stay in that box to go inside where we live. The air we breathe is different from the air you breathe; understand?”

I shook my head in affirmation, but I was mostly lying. Somehow, I gathered that the Barons understood that.

“Touch your hand to the side of the box. What do you feel?” the short one asked.

Apprehensively, I pushed a claw up against the clear rock that the Barons called a box. It felt cold – horribly so!

“It’s cold!” I said.

“To you, it’s cold. To us, it’s perfect. To us, the heat that you enjoy is misery – it’s the End, in fact. Now, do you understand why you’re in a box? Do you see that we cannot exist in the same place?” the tall one asked.

I nodded, but said, “This… how can this be? What is a Baron that you cannot be outside, but at the same time you know how to get around this rule? How did you find this spirit box?”

“We didn’t find it. We made it,” the Barons said as they walked to the box. Their now brown tendrils carefully darted around on the box, grabbing and manipulating shapes that I had never imagined. Soon after, the box began to fill with water so cold that I jumped and cried out.

It didn’t take long, though, before a soft heat came from the bottom of the box and started the water to boil. I rested down into the pool and felt my body rejuvenate. I couldn’t imagine how this box worked, how anything could claim that they made this amazing spirit rock.

Another part of this hollow rock opened, fantastic light coming from the opening. As I looked and my eyes became used to the brightness, I realized that whatever was behind that door had nothing in common with where I had come from.

The Earth, here, wasn’t covered in mantle like any I’d seen before. All of the mantle present was a brilliant green, but it spiked upwards a small bit, separate from the rest of the mantle. It wasn’t smooth, didn’t look like a single covering as the mantle that I knew and loved. Strange, colorful garlands on thin, tiny stalks poked up from the ground. They were round in the center, but had jutting edges of a different color. I wasn’t even sure garland was a good way to describe them. Another garland – or some sort of flora – stood so tall that it was like a hill. It was brown on the bottom and green on the top.

The ceiling was a bright, light blue color that contrasted drastically with the brownish-red that I had long known the sky to be. This had me confused for quite a while as I looked at it.

“Why is the ceiling that color?” I asked, curious.

“Because that was the color of the sky long ago, back before we destroyed the surface of the Earth. Maybe we can make the sky outside normal again sometime,” the Barons answered.

Strange creatures walked the surface within this realm. They all appeared to have the angular and weird movement like the Barons, but the intelligence of a gigpu or a nokdol. Most of the creatures fled as the Barons walked closer, only a couple of strange things allowing the Barons near. I found it odd that the Barons inspired fear even within their own realm.

The box I was in was pushed across a winding, flat rock – or series of tiny rocks stuck together, perhaps – as the Barons brought me deeper. I gazed in pure amazement at everything I saw. The creatures here moved with the same sudden bends that the Barons did. More Barons sat or walked around on these great rocks. There were even stranger creatures that constantly buzzed as the Barons rode atop them. Giant animals floated in the air, Barons on or in them.

The Barons pushing my box brought me into a huge house with a shining ceiling. There was a table covered in garlands the likes of which I had never before seen; a line of Barons was waiting at the end of the table with strange, round, flat rocks in their hands.

“What is this?” I asked.

“We are… we are empty, listless, and need to be rejuvenated. Whereas you must sit in hot water and create your own energy, we must take the energy into our bodies by eating.” I didn’t know some of those words, recognizing the strange language of the Barons in places.

The Barons pushed my box so that I was waiting in the line like the rest of them. They sat their white rocks atop my box and spoke to some of the other Barons in line, many of which seemed happy and interested to see me. They poked on my clear rock and seemed amazed as I moved to tap back.

“Hello,” I said, “I’m Tikpab! Hello, Barons!”

The Barons laughed and responded in their own language to the couple that were pushing me, not to me directly. Perhaps they didn’t know the words of the Meklups, only their old words. They were happy spirits and creatures.

We moved forward in the line, getting closer to the table covered in a thin, white mantle that wiggled with every movement in the air. I looked and saw that the garlands upon the table were being picked up by the Barons, who placed them upon the little white rocks. Even the Barons overseeing me picked up garlands, the taller one taking more than the shorter one. After they had selected the garlands they wanted, the Barons pushed me to a table, covered in more of the white mantle, and placed their garland-laden rocks atop it.

“You didn’t seem to have a word for this in your language,” one of the Barons said, “So listen and learn this one: eating. Eating. It’s what we’re going to do now, and one of the things necessary to rejuvenate a Baron.”

The short Baron used a thin, shiny rock to stab one of the garlands. It made me flinch – who would harm a helpless garland? Were they not more beautiful in their natural lands anyway?

I screamed as the tall one followed the short one’s example, taking another thin rock and cutting apart the garland.

“What – what are you doing? The garland can’t help itself! This is wrong!” I shouted at the Barons.

The mouths on the Barons’ heads pointed upwards as they laughed.

“Oh, silly Meklup. This isn’t a garland – well, not a garland as you know. This is chicken. A chicken is an animal!” the tall Baron stated, as if that were to make me feel better. It made me feel worse, in fact, as I remembered the nokdols and the gigpus. Who would want to hurt them?

The short Baron shoved her garland into her mouth and moved its lips around, laughing. It then put more garland in as if the first were gone – just gone!

“What did you do!? Where did the garland go!?” I asked.

“I ate it. It’s gone. It’s rejuvenating me now,” the Baron said.

Horrified, I slunk into the corner of my box. I couldn’t imagine that any creature would do such a thing – even a Baron of the End! Was this all the end was? Did the Barons consume us as well as this… this chicken thing?!

“Don’t be afraid, little Meklup. This is the way our lives work; if we did not eat, we would End,” the short Baron said as she continued to make the garlands and the chicken disappear as magic.

Terrified of what these creatures were, I bundled up within my warm water and felt the cold of the outside through the rock to my back.

“But you force everything else to End in the process,” I squeaked.

“Everything Ends,” the tall Baron responded, “We simply use the bodies of those who have Ended. We gather the mantle, the garlands, the animals, and everything as it ends; we have devices that detect life, detect death, and allow us to gather food to eat. If we didn’t, little Meklup… well, perhaps that’s what we should show you next. We aren’t just the End, but also the beginning.”

“The beginning?” I asked, “Are you… are you saying you are the creators?”

The Barons shook their heads and the short one said, “No, not at all. We just made the mistakes that allowed you to be and continue to work so that the Earth will sustain life – even methanogenics like the Meklups.”

As I huddled, the tall one coaxed, “Oh, don’t cry little Meklup. Should you have expected anything less from a creature you call a Baron of the End? Should you have expected us to merely be caretakers of the bodies? Where would we keep it all if we didn’t use it for something, didn’t change its form? Did you really think that we were spirits rather than creatures?”

“But the garland is gone!”

“And as a result, the Barons live.”

I wondered how the Barons could justify their actions. They seemed strangely confused at why I was bothered by their actions at all, making me wonder what kind of creature they were.

Once all the garlands and animals were cleared from their round, white rocks, the two Barons stood back up and grabbed the box, pushing it out of the room full of Barons making garlands and animals disappear. I was glad that was done, but I couldn’t help but realize how scary and mind-numbingly odd the shape my spirit had chosen was.

The color of the ceiling had changed now and the inside of the rock was growing darker. The Barons spoke in their old words and I wondered what they meant, but I couldn’t fathom the sounds they made.

“Come, little Meklup,” the short Baron called, “The time grows soon for the gas exchange. It will hopefully show you why all this is necessary, for you and for us.”

They pushed me through some tunnels between the large domes – apparently all those huge, structured rocks were hollow – and to some new ones. I noticed that these new domes weren’t quite as well decorated or pretty.   Some had a bit of the spiky green mantle, others didn’t have any mantle – just the gray, tiny rocks squished together.

Barons sat around on the outsides of their sleek, straight houses. They shouted and screamed as I passed, but the Barons pushing me didn’t seem to notice. I was scared; what if those shouting Barons wanted to disappear me? Could I do anything to stop it?

“What’s going on? Why is this place so different?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” one of the Barons said, “These are just the poor Barons. They don’t work as hard and don’t get as much money. They cannot afford better living conditions, so they are angry at us who can. It’s not your problem, Meklup.”

“Money?” I asked, not knowing the word but feeling confident in my ability to repeat it.

A glance between the Barons revealed that they were trying to explain it.

“You trade garlands with people from far away; are not some garlands more desirable than others?”

“Well… yes,” I answered.

“It’s the same principle; Barons trade their money, a representative of value or worth, for objects like garlands. These people simply don’t have as desirable a garland or don’t have as many, so they can’t get better housing.”

“What makes a house better from another?” I asked, not understanding. The Meklups all had houses the same size, same shape. What more was needed than a rejuvenation pool, a small ring of mantle-covered earth, and some junkips to light the space?

“Bigger houses with better kitchens, better bathrooms, entertainment systems, computers, environmental controls, you know… well, I suppose you don’t have any of that. You Meklups just spend your time rejuvenating, talking, making self-discoveries and nonsense. We have no need for that,” the tall Baron said.

“Then what is the value of your existence at all?” I asked.

“Our value is just in that we do exist,” the tall Baron answered, “In that we, as a people, have conquered everything. Now we just oversee the world that we’ve made, ensuring that destruction never returns. Now here – we’re almost to the gas exchangers. That should interest you.”

We went through yet another tunnel and I watched through my clear box. The dome we walked into contained loud rocks, which made no sense seeing as I’d never heard a rock at all before, and many Barons bustling around. They carried interesting things in their hands, on their heads, as they shouted to each other orders and directives.

“This is it: tonight’s exchange is starting,” the short Baron said.

A giant gust of wind could be heard coming from the loud rocks. Lights shone and changed, Barons responding in methods I didn’t understand. For some reason, whatever was happening seemed to be a big deal even though I couldn’t tell what was going on. Eventually, the wind’s levels evened out and the sounds became less terrible.

“And, thus, your people will be fed for another day,” the short Baron said.

I didn’t understand. “Fed?” I asked.

“Oh, excuse me. Rejuvenated. You see, little Meklup, your people breathe in the carbon dioxide and hydrogen that we just released. By eating things that have ended, we create the air you need to breathe. In addition, we take in some of your air – which has methane, which you create whether you know it or not – and water vapor. We separate out the methane and the water, then burn the methane to create much of the lights you see here, as well as separate the water so that we can have oxygen to breathe and turn into carbon dioxide. Without us, your people would become listless. We’ve kept the environment the way it is for millions of years; if we were to disappear, you would all quickly End,” the short Baron explained.

“So… so we depend on your people?” I asked.

“That is correct. In a strange way, your people’s existence saved ours, I suppose. The gas exchange is far easier than what the records say we were doing before, even though we do put a lot of energy into making hydrogen for you,” the tall Baron said.

I put my claw up to the side of the clear rock and watched as the Barons ran around. I didn’t like the idea that I depended upon these creatures – these creatures and their disappearing – to live.

“Then why do you take people to their End?” I asked, “Why do you bring the End if you put so much effort into keeping us alive?”

“We don’t bring your End. The End comes before we take the body – devoid of thought or mind – on to processing. There we take out fixed nitrogen, any useful compounds, and burn what’s left to produce carbon dioxide and power the air conditioning, which keeps the inside of these domes cool,” the short Baron explained. The Barons took hold of my box and pushed me elsewhere, over to a strange floating rock that the Barons sat upon.

They spoke with each other in the old words and I sat, trying to divine their meaning. My body, lulled by the soothing water as it boiled, desired sleep and rejuvenation. Still, the anxiety and terror within the Barons’ abode wouldn’t allow me to rejuvenate to my fullest.

Eventually, a large animal that was made out of rocks came around a corner. I watched in fear as I saw the thing pull up and open its mouth.

The Barons began to push me in, so I screamed and squealed, making them stop.

“No! No! I don’t want to disappear!”

“This is a bus – something we created. It doesn’t eat you, it carries you,” the short Baron said in a derisive tone.

“We’re just going home now. You can sleep for the rest of the night, then we’ll show you out in the morning. Poor little Meklup – look at it… it’s so scared. What did we do wrong?” the tall Baron asked.

“What am I? What are you? What is going on? None of this makes sense!”

The Barons pushed me onto a rough, hard muscle that extended from the animal and pushed me in. I realized that the inside was filled with seats that the Barons were riding on, making me wonder if this thing was an animal at all.

“I can’t tell what’s a rock, what’s a mantle, what’s a garland, or what’s an animal,” I complained, “This place is terrible – I want to go home!”

“How – how can you want to go home? Do you not see all our amazing machines, everything that we have? Look at the machine we’re sitting in right now! We made it and are going at incredible speeds! Look here, out this thing called a window, and watch the scenery go by!”

I looked where their tendrils pointed and saw how fast we were going. I screamed as I realized how fast we were going and that I had no control over it.

“Let me go… let me go home,” I pleaded.

The Barons shook their heads, confused. “What did we do wrong? What is so scary?” they asked, “What did you expect us to be?”

“I don’t know!” I exclaimed, “I… I guess I expected you to be kind guardians, creatures able to walk between the spirit world and the physical. But the spirit world is terrifying! I don’t want to End if this is where I will go!”

The Barons held my box and said, “But look at this. Look at how we have shaped this world! Look at how we have made it the way it is!”

I shook my head and said, “I can’t! I can’t, please… None of this makes any sense. Everything I’ve seen here simply doesn’t fit into any categories in my mind. Look at your tendrils, your appendages – how do they even work? Why do you bend like that? Even something as simple as that, I don’t understand. You use words I’ve never heard to describe things I can’t imagine. All I can see is that you bring the End heartlessly. You’re not the kind guides to the spirit world; you’re the keepers of scary secrets.”

The Barons leaned forward in their seats, holding onto my box. “There is so much to this world that you Meklups simply do not know but we do. What the air is made of, for example, is something that the Meklups haven’t learned. Suffice to say, for now, that we shall take care of our end of the air bargain – and enforce you to keep yours.”

“And… and what do we have to do?”

“What you always have done, little Meklup. Exist. Your very breath – your rejuvenation – creates the methane that we burn for energy. The cycle we now live in is much easier than the earlier cycles that continuously piled undesirable products outside. It’s how we destroyed the world, after all.

“The entire surface of the Earth used to look like what our little enclosures, this little ream, does. But we destroyed it accidentally and had to cut ourselves off. Then, the Meklups, the garlands, the mantles, and all the other creatures that you know, covered the Earth. They breathed what we made and created methane. The world got hotter before we realized what was going on, but that only made it more amenable to you. Still, we knew we had to race to alter our course – your people were going to make life easier for us.

“But that, Meklup, is why you are. You were a happy accident. So, all we ask in return is that you breathe. Allow us to come take your bodies so that we can decompose them and allow their mass to re-enter the cycle. That’s it,” the Baron said.

I remained still as they pushed me from the quickly running animal and further across some of the tiny, squished rocks. These Barons evidently didn’t understand why what they did was wrong. They saw their actions as necessary – and perhaps they were. Perhaps they did what was wrong so the Meklups didn’t have to.

The Barons touched some rocks right before some lights came on and I realized something: everything that had happened since my arrival, the Barons had caused. Whether through touch, voice, or some other method, the Barons had caused everything.

I looked at the house of these two Barons and thought I understood what they had meant by poor and money. This house was pleasant – though very odd – to look at. These Barons lived a life very different from the poor ones and didn’t seem to care. They seemed to think they deserved it, after all, whereas the poor ones were jealous.

It clicked. The Barons weren’t Barons of the End – they were Barons of Power. They didn’t hold the end, they just held power over it. They held power not just over us, not just over the Earth, but over each other.

“I know the form of my spirit,” I said, “And I am prepared to leave in the morning.”

“Then there is nothing else, little Meklup, that you wish to know?” the tall Baron asked.

I tapped my claws together and thought. There was nothing, though, that was good. I could only think of how the Barons were selfish, how they took for themselves regardless of what happened to someone or something else. I needed to share my discovery and let all the Meklups know what I had learned on my journey so that they could avoid the corruption of the Barons.

“No, there is nothing,” I said, “I shall simply go back to my people and let them know what happened to you, how you fell to your own wrongs. That is my destiny.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” the short Baron asked.

“Yes.” I played with my claws, wondering what they were getting at.

“After seeing what we have, what we do, and what we are, you have no desire to accumulate? You have no desire for more garlands?” the short Baron asked.

I didn’t, not at the cost that the Barons had paid for their accumulation.

“No!” I defied, “No – I would never take from another Meklup. I would never make it so that the cost of my happiness is someone else’s.”

The Barons leaned closer and, in terrifying whispers, asked, “But would another Meklup? Are you sure that all the Meklups would remain as they are, their happy little lives and strange little three-parent families?”

I shook my head, “No – of course not! They’re… they’re…”

And then I thought back to the previous day when I had been worried that my friends at school would make fun of me for not completing my journey first try. I recognized quickly that they wouldn’t, but still, there had been that small fear.

Had I told the truth? Just by wanting to have the other Meklups hear my story, listen to my knowledge and my powerful words, was I… was I already becoming more like my spirit’s shape?

“We’re not like Barons. We won’t… we won’t become like you!” I claimed. As soon as it was out of my mouth, though, I recognized that I was already holding my own abilities above them. They smiled and leaned back in their chairs.

“If you still want,” the Barons said, “We will let you go home tomorrow morning. It’s your choice whether you want other Meklups to know the ways of the Barons, or whether they don’t. But know this: no Meklup in the past has chosen to return once they’ve entered our doors. Not a single one, from all over the face of the Earth. They all recognized what I think you now see: the fragility of your community. You have the ability to destroy it. You know more about the world and its workings than any other Meklup and will be allowed to take your information back to your people.”

I pulled my head underwater for a little bit as I thought. The bubbling water calmed my thoughts, soothed my anxiety while I considered what to say.

“But once it has been given, you can’t unsay things. You can’t remove the memories of having been here. You cannot stop the ways and the knowledge of the Barons from spreading, dear Meklup.”

I knew they were right! The mystery and desire to know the Barons had brought me here, selfishly. The power that a Baron was said to hold made me wonder what the shape of my spirit meant. But I hadn’t expected this. The Barons knew wrong, chose to commit it, and kept going. They were something entirely different from the Meklups. By bringing back my knowledge, I would taint the Meklups so that we could bring our own destruction, just as the Barons had brought theirs. Even if it wasn’t before I ended, I could start something that would get worse over time.

“So, little Meklup; what’ll it be? Shall you stay? Or shall you go?”

I bit my lip and felt scared. If I stayed, my Baron spirit would overtake my Meklup nature. If I returned home, the Baron spirit would take over us all. The only thing that kept the Barons at bay, as it was, had something to do with the wind they made. The gas exchange, as they called it, was what prevented them from overrunning everything. They were powerful, destructive, and selfish.

“I’ll stay,” I said.

The Barons didn’t seem surprised, but they did comment, “We don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense why you would pick to stay. You’re giving up everything, Meklup, that you know and love. You could have had power, could crush your people beneath your claw, but you’ll live out the rest of your life in this box – granted, we’ll allow you control over where you can go, but never again will you frolic on the mantle. Never again will you touch another person, much less a Meklup. Why would you give that up?”

I put my claws to my eyes and ignored all the Barons’ insistences not to cry. I felt the stench of sadness leak from my pores and knew that I was a mess.

“Because going back would hurt others… and that… that would make me less a Meklup than staying here and learning to become a Baron.”

The Barons got up to leave, my box remaining in the same place. I cried in my boiling water and held myself as still as I could, realizing that I would never go home.

The lights cut off and I was left alone to cry myself asleep.

 

***

 

I blinked my eyes and saw the familiar Junkips on my family’s ceiling. At first it seemed just a normal day after a bad dream but, soon after, I jerked up and around. This wasn’t right – I wasn’t supposed to be here!

My killiken and my pikluk flung their bodies upon me, their claws rubbing my back. I was scared, but I couldn’t help but rub them back.

“Killiken! Pikluk!” I shouted. They just held me tight as I rubbed them. Soon after, all my grandparents piled upon me. Gikilliken and Gilotkop were there, but so were Pikilliken and Pipikluk, Lopikluk and Lolotkop. It had been a while since all of my grandparents had gathered.

“They brought you back! Oh, Tikpab – Tikpab, the Barons of the End brought you back! It is a miracle!” Pikluk cried out.

I hugged Pikluk tightly and knew that my adventure had been real, after all. I suddenly felt scared that I was going to destroy all the Meklups with my new knowledge. Waves of fear – fear about what I was capable of – crashed over me.

“Oh, Pikluk – Killiken – I missed you so much! I love you!” I said, not willing to tell them the horrible details. I couldn’t!

After the hugs were done, I sat down and looked at my family. I saw their smiling, interested faces. I noted the happiness within them, their back spines rising in anticipation of what I would say next. I was worried, though, about how they would respond.

“What… how did I get here?” I asked, trying to stop them from asking me about my journey.

Killiken held my claw and stroked it with hers as she said, “You were inside a clear rock that two Barons carried. They brought you to the edge of the canal and splashed the water with some strange rocks. It scared most of us off, but your lopikluk saw you and came to get the rest of us.”

Pikluk continued, “We came to the water’s edge and asked for you, so the Barons opened up their rock and you fell into the canal. We took you and worried what had happened, but we hugged you and try to wake you up. When you didn’t, we were confused.

“The Barons said you’d stay asleep for an entire day, then… then they said something strange. They said, ‘Tell this Meklup that its spirit cannot be that of a Baron. By giving up all we offered, this little one found its spirit – the spirit of a Meklup – to be unimpeachable, whereas ours are entirely corrupt. Your people present no threat to ours.’ Then they took their rock and left.”

I held onto my parents and cried. I could only hope that the Barons were right, but I feared that they weren’t.

“I can never tell you what happened,” I cried, “Lest the wrong things I’ve seen and learned come back to… to End us all!”

As the sadness filled the room, my parents and grandparents hugged me tight.

“Shh, Tikpab. Shh, my sweet. It’s alright. It’s alright. We don’t need to know what happened, no one does. It was your journey alone, after all.”

I rocked back and forth as Killiken held me to her torso, as Pilotkop straightened my spines.

“I feel empty, Killiken,” I said.

“Take all the time you want to get full again, then.” Pikluk held one of my claws gently.

Everyone held me gently as I cried, no selfishness or wrongness within them. Just a day before, I never would have questioned their reactions or thought anything else would have been possible. After the Barons, these my people were a relieving, loving presence.

I took in a breath of the outside air and released it slowly.

The Barons had exchanged a lot more than air with the Meklups: they had exchanged their breath, their very lives.

Perhaps the Baron spirit within me wouldn’t corrupt and overtake the Meklups.

Perhaps, to the Barons, I had been a breath of fresh air.

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