December 1, 2019

Leafless Crossing

by Voss Foster


“And as the mock death took over, the Hollow was gone, and he once again found himself ensconced in the Crossing, staring at the sky and waiting for more truths to be revealed in this space between breath and rot.”

Light. Beauteous, dappled light filtering through autumn leaves. SleekClaw allowed the impotent brightness to pass over his voluminous gray coat as he waited for something to appear to him. It would, in time.

There. Yes, yes, off to the right, on the very edge of that eyeless vision, the sight above sight of the Crossing. The leafy treetops parted to reveal stars, gleaming in a sky too bright to ever allow them. They danced and twinkled, and SleekClaw took their meaning, piecing it together as naturally as curling his long, bald tail around the branches of the oak trees.

The stars that were not stars played out scenes of potentiality, but SleekClaw was not a joey, had not been for some years now. He filtered the chaff and found the true meaning, the message that lay in that interstitial space between breath and the rot. He saw the jaybirds at their nest, cornflower bright and tittering over eggs… just eggs.

In a snap of the universe, SleekClaw was dragged from the Crossing, back to his true body and the sweltering heat. His pink nose twitched in the too familiar aromas of warm dust and damp decay. Yes, yes, he had returned from the Crossing once again, and now lay curled around himself in the pose of mock death, his mouth dry from hanging open.

He slowly shook himself to awareness, and the blue jays stood back, waiting for him to speak. Yet the Crossing clung to SleekClaw this time. The sorrowful prophecies always did, dragging on his fur like heavy downpour. He glanced around at the others gathered in the Hollow, the massive white oak long ago rotted away from the inside. The church of the Crossing.

Other possums—BlackSnout and MangleEye and FairWhisker closest of them all—delivered news, while some of the younger prophets still lay stiff in the thrall of the Crossing, the mock death, with serpents standing by to help interpret their visions, teach them eventually to read the stars for themselves. Tiny blue beetles off in the distance catered to tiny querants, slugs and snails and other beetles in less brilliant hues.

Finally, SleekClaw raised himself to all fours and locked eyes with the female jay. “Apologies, TornTail.” SleekClaw’s voice was weak and bristly with thirst. “Your clutch will see no sunlight this cycle.”

Her neck feathers ruffled, and her mate StoneBeak nuzzled his head against her throat. Neither said a word or made so much as the faintest twitter as they departed the Hollow.

“Are you well, SleekClaw?”

A sinuous voice raised his fur to standing, and SleekClaw turned to see a two-foot long rope of scales, onyx and obsidian and jet. He nodded slowly to the high priestess. “I am in better straits than TornTail and StoneBeak, your grace.”

What in all of creation had brought InkScale from her den to speak with him of all possums?

“The news you deliver, it is never easy. But rest easier knowing TornTail was aware of the answer.” InkScale’s forked tongue flicked in and out as she paused, and her coal dark eyes went hazy. “She came seeking a hope she knew was not there. You have told her nothing she did not know, but merely confirmed the fear she dared not face alone.”

“The Crossing reveals no lies.” SleekClaw nodded. “Did you have need of me, your grace?”

“I came simply to make the rounds. I was needed in the Hollow today as it was.” The tip of her tail waved gently back and forth, kicking up tiny, broken fragments of dried leaves. “And sometimes, even one as experienced in the Crossing as you may struggle to deliver the harshest of news. It would not be unreasonable to think you may need support.”

“Thank you for your kindness, your grace.” SleekClaw scampered to the nearby cistern and drank his fill before returning to InkScale. “If there is nothing more, your grace, I must make another Crossing.”

“Twice in one day?” Another flickering exit of the tongue as those shining black eyes fixed dead on him. “You have recently turned three, SleekClaw. Perhaps it is best to slow and allow the younger among your colleagues to absorb the brunt of the work. So many Crossings for one so old… you risk never returning.”

“My bloodline lasts long, your grace.” He failed to mention this would be his third Crossing of the day, not his second. But it was true that he likely had more years to play with than the average possum. His mother turned to rot at seven, his father nearly equaling her. “I’m far from the inevitable rot.”

InkScale hissed with what passed for a laugh among the serpents. “Well, do not be foolish. After this, please see yourself home. You are too respected and skilled and sought-after a possum to see rot for your stubbornness. There could be riots in the forest at your passing.”

“Of course, your grace.” He had no other appointments that day, anyway. But as she slithered away, SleekClaw let his mind wander: what appointment did she have in the Hollow this day? For FlameTail, king of the hawks and commander for the guard? Or for JadeEye and the other fish?

Possums spoke to the individual, to the household. They could prophecy births and deaths, fortune and famine, travel and solitude. But InkScale and the other serpents?

The Crossing revealed to them the greater machinations of the forest, and the world at large. Far too great for a mere possum to comprehend.

The arrival of SleekClaw’s next querant, a steel-gray squirrel called StormPaw, pulled him from his own thoughts. He raised his tail and flicked it to signal old MottleTail. No skill for the Crossing himself, he aided those who could venture into the realm of prophecy.

SleekClaw and StormPaw exchanged niceties until MottleTail gave the signal. SleekClaw nodded. “Please stand behind me.”

StormPaw scampered that way and, once he was safely out of the way, SleekClaw nodded and MottleTail leapt, all gnashing fangs and tearing claws.

Fear chilled through SleekClaw’s veins. It stopped his heart and made his body rigid. And as the mock death took over, the Hollow was gone, and he once again found himself ensconced in the Crossing, staring at the sky and waiting for more truths to be revealed in this space between breath and rot.

* * *

SleekClaw padded his way home after that third Crossing. He’d been able to deliver better news to StormPaw, that his mate would find her way back home within the week after being missing. She was not prey. She was not a victim of humanity. She was injured, and would require care. But breathing and heading home.

It was the heat of summer, thus the light remained bright and full up above, SleekClaw stopped at a nearby stream to wash his paws and face in the cool stream, and once more drink his fill. Tomorrow would be simpler. Tomorrow, he had but one Crossing scheduled. Tomorrow, perhaps, his thirst would not be so unslakable.

Whatever he said to the high priestess, he was more and more aware of his own mortality with each Crossing, more worried each time the jolt of fear, the threat against his person, sent him into the rigid mock death. Eventually, the death was not mock. The rot was truly inevitable for every living creature, even InkScale herself.

SleekClaw moved back from the water and went for his tree. Not far, now. He rested in a hollow twenty feet up. A comfortable, secluded home. Being as skilled as he was in navigating the Crossing, he was able to keep it secure with the odd favor to the hawks and eagles who guarded the treetops.

His nose caught something on the air, something washed in filth. And a moment later, gleaming talons swooped from the sky. Black. Sharp.

Aimed for his head.

Fear sent SleekClaw rigid on the ground, and he didn’t even have time to register the thud of his body before the Crossing faded into him. His panic was immediately buried beneath too much training.

There were no leaves here, and there was no bright sky. Endless lapis filled his vision, twinkling with a hundred, a thousand stars. SleekClaw’s eyes could not hope to follow each one through its dance. The Crossing… no, it had never done this to him before. No being ever breathing could possibly comprehend this much, could possibly piece it all together. No serpent, not even the high priestess herself. Not even the distant and fabled horned creatures, the fainting, four-legged ones to the west. Supposedly greater even than the high priestess, able to prophecy the fate of the universe all at once… but surely even they could not see the answer in this cacophony of light.

Surely… yes, yes, SleekClaw was not in the Crossing. SleekClaw was caught in the rot, for it would take the eternity only afforded by death to read these stars, to garner the truth of this prophecy.

He floated weightless for a moment, or a minute, or an hour, or a year. What was time? But slowly, surely, the dance and twinkle of those stars in the dark above began to coalesce. Could SleekClaw have cried, he would have. Could his fur have stood on end, it would have.

This was glory. At least as he succumbed to the great and inevitable rot, SleekClaw knew the forest would thrive. Ignored by humans. Allowed to flourish for… for a long time. Longer than SleekClaw could see. Beyond the rattle of his last breath.

What would have been his last breath, before today.

Finally, with the message clear in his mind, SleekClaw closed his eyes.

His bones ached. His skin was tight. His throat was ragged… yet he drew breath.

Faster than he’d moved in a month, SleekClaw scrabbled to his feet. That was the Crossing. Not the rot. Yes, yes, it was a sure thing, no other explanation even as his mind fought against it. He had been in the Crossing. He had been… not in his own Crossing. Not in any possum’s Crossing, with leaves to obscure the vision of the sky above. And certainly not in the infinitesimally insignificant crossing of the blue beetles. They could no more comprehend the vast vault of the sky than any higher creature could comprehend them.

This… no. No. SleekClaw would not even think it out in the open forest. He scurried to his tree, all notions of the attack and the fear washing away from him in the face of some newer, greater, more insidious notion. Yes, yes he was lucky to have survived… but left with this new weight hanging from his throat.

He slipped into his hollow and allowed the shadows to hug around him… and only then did he dare to think the blasphemy, to consider… to consider that perhaps he had seen the Crossing of the serpents. The Crossing of InkScale herself.

* * *

Morning saw SleekClaw not at the Hollow, but wending his way through the underbrush toward the edges of the forest, toward the dens of the serpents. Fewer trees allowed for more sunlight to stream in so they might warm themselves in the summer sunlight, and build their dens in the softer earth. As SleekClaw rounded a smooth, speckled stone, he caught sight of half a dozen of them all sunning before the opening of the day.

Fear rose in SleekClaw. His instincts told him to flee. But instead he padded forward, careful to make as little sound as possible, until he came across the slash of night that was the high priestess.

He scratched a smooth, shiny claw against the flat stone she stretched across. “Your grace?”

Slowly, InkScale twisted her head around to face him. “SleekClaw. What would drive you into our patch of the forest?”

Her timbre and the coal-eyed stares of her kindred drove SleekClaw’s fur to stand on end. This was not a place for any possum, and certainly not one never requested. Still, he had made the journey, and to turn back now… no, no he needed to speak with the high priestess post haste. “I experienced a Crossing last night, in the wild, after I had left the Hollow.”

“Were you injured?”

“No. Sore from the fall to the ground.” He snuffled and kept his head down, hiding his eyes from the too bright glare of direct sunlight as best he could. “I needed to speak with… someone who would know better. I could think of no one more capable of assisting in my interpretation of this than your grace.”

“An unsanctioned Crossing?” Lazily, she slithered around to give him more direct attention. “Well speak, then. What was seen when the leaves parted?”

SleekClaw swallowed down a knot of trepidation so the words might have room to slip free. “Your grace… there were no leaves. There was only sky. Sky and a thousand stars to interpret.”

The hair on SleekClaw’s back stood on end once more. He felt the serpentine gaze of a dozen serpents upon him, prophet and warrior alike, and the distant rattle from one of them nearly sent SleekClaw into another unsanctioned Crossing.

“Are you not mistaken?” InkScale spoke slowly, carefully, never removing her eyes from SleekClaw. “Surely you don’t mean to imply that you saw no leaves at all.”

“Your grace, I would never deign to deceive you or any serpent in this forest.” No, no he couldn’t imagine it. Even if it meant his head between curving fangs, lying to the high priestess about what he had seen… the prophecies of the Crossing were for the good of all inhabitants in the forest.

“The possum, he speaks blasphemy.” RustBelly, a massive copperhead, whispered behind SleekClaw. “A possum is not gifted with such visions. This one has lost his touch for the Crossing, perhaps. And should be retired.”

“To say such things, RustBelly.” The high priestess slid from her rocky perch. SleekClaw resisted the urge to flinch back from her sudden closeness. There was something sinister to the slither of her tar-dark body, the constant flickering of her forked tongue, the unbreaking eye contact she held with him even as the tip of her tail finally slid free from the stone. “SleekClaw is a possum, but to suggest that one so accomplished at traversing and interpreting the Crossing would lose his faculties in less than a single day? Perhaps you are unaware of this fine possum’s history.” She whipped her head around and shimmied past SleekClaw, climbed halfway up onto RustBelly’s stone. Her tone dripped with more venom than even RustBelly’s own bite. “SleekClaw has advanced beyond the need of interpretation from the outside. At three, he performs multiple Crossings in a given day. As a joey, he foresaw the next three litters of his mother with striking accuracy.” Her tongue flickered, barely glancing along RustBelly’s snout. “There are many things in this forest. Do not be so quick to judge a… fluke as blasphemy.”

She spun back around and wrapped her tail sinuously around SleekClaw’s middle. Just for a moment before letting him go. Intended to be comforting or reassuring, but SleekClaw’s mouth tasted of bitterness all the same. She was no constrictor… but she could surely distract him long enough to sink her fangs into his flesh if she so desired.

Yet it passed, and InkScale locked eyes with him once more. “Come to the Hollow. As my guest. We will discuss this prophecy of yours.”

It wasn’t just the Hollow. No, no, SleekClaw knew from the hushed disbelief filtering through the dawn light what was meant: he had been invited to the high priestess’s own chambers in the great rotted oak.

Where fear had blossomed moments before, now pride burned bright beneath SleekClaw’s fur. “Thank you for the invitation, your grace.”

“Of course. What else to do with such a fine prophet as you?”

* * *

The chamber was large. Large enough for InkScale to stretch out to her full length and still not touch the farthest walls, even leaving room for SleekClaw’s own considerable heft. Artificial barriers had been constructed of spare bark, and various shiny human trinkets adorned the walls, gleaming and sparkling in the dappled forest light.

It was there SleekClaw recounted his prophecy for the first time, allowing the words to pass between his fangs. Sometimes in great, boisterous shouts of the glory of sunlight and food and fertility for all, but just as often in hushed whispers of safety. Safety from the threats of the past, the ravaging fires and great yellowed behemoths who tore down trees to be carted away by the humans.

The following years would be hallmarked by prosperity for all. “That is the prophecy I received, your grace. In the leafless Crossing, told by the dance of a thousand stars.”

There was silence for one too many beats of SleekClaw’s heart before she finally responded. “This is good news you bring for the forest, SleekClaw. While I cannot say for certain why the message was gifted to you above all serpents, this is heady with joy.” Yet her voice remained demure and monotone. “We will make the announcement soon.” For just a moment, SleekClaw could have sworn he saw the fringe around her head flare, but no, no. Surely a trick of the shadow against her black scales.

“Of course you understand that we will make the announcement, SleekClaw. The serpents. Myself, namely.”

What? “I’m afraid I don’t understand, your grace. It was my prophecy, and there are dictates—”

“SleekClaw. Dear SleekClaw. You are becoming wise to the burden of the serpents. In that cobalt sky, studded with diamonds beyond what one can ever hope to count… those are the forest’s prophecies. They must be revealed and interpreted for the good of the forest. No serpent, not even myself as high priestess, can claim ownership of such messages. Not in the way a birth or a death may be claimed by you and your kind.”

“Forgive my ignorance, your grace, but if there is no ownership, why would my prophecy be delivered by the serpents?”

“Who would trust such a message coming from a possum? No one will believe a word of it.” She nuzzled her snout against his and whispered cloyingly in his ear. “You are unique among possums for receiving this, but with that uniqueness comes an even greater burden than what the serpents must bear. You are alone in the world, dear SleekClaw, and that isolation is both curse and blessing.” She pulled back and, just for another moment, he caught that momentary flare around her head again. “Allow me to take some of this heavy mantle thrust upon you and deliver the news. Otherwise, you will be hounded by the forest as a whole. And I dread what your fellow possums may do to you if they find out the Crossing has favored you above all others. You have seen the damage such razor bites may inflict upon flesh. A gruesome way to end things, when you could have breathed long and been truthful.”

“They would not attack, your grace.” No, no they wouldn’t. He would be lauded. He would be the first among the possums to finally reach the highest heights. No serpent, surely… but the possum above all possums.

“Have we not seen it happen time and again, SleekClaw? Jealousy is an ugly thing. After all, MangleEye was not always called MangleEye. In his youth, he took down an invading serpent all on his own. But it was no serpent who scratched and chewed his eye from its socket. That came from the possums. Jealous, and seeking a way to deflate his ego after such success.” She unsheathed her tail from the folds of her body and, once again, wrapped it gently around SleekClaw’s middle. “I dare not imagine what they would do to you, should this get out.”

SleekClaw would not be allowed to let loose his prophecy. His body chilled at the notion, and then chilled further at his own reaction. Perhaps he was just a jealous little possum with no understanding of this great new burden. But still prophets always delivered their own messages from the Crossing.

But when he made to object, no breath would enter his lungs. InkScale continued to wrap his belly and his back, coiling tighter around him. But no… no, InkScale was no constrictor, and her tail was there in clear sight again. Bands of ivory and carnelian wrapped him. GildedSnow, a kingsnake. Yes, yes, there was no mistaking that pattern.

He scrabbled and gnashed, but she remained out of reach of any of his defenses. All the while, InkScale watched on, dark eyes fixed and tongue flickering.

There was no Crossing for SleekClaw to enter. Only blackness filled his vision.

* * *

SleekClaw never expected to awaken, yet he found himself in an unfamiliar, cool space. Earthen walls, no sunlight. Each breath tasted of soil and leaf mold and stale blood.

“You’re awake.”

At the sound of that voice, every memory rushed back to SleekClaw. He scampered away from the slowly clarifying head before him. “Your grace, I apologize for my insolence. The message should be delivered as you see fit, of course.” Anything to spare himself. She’d taken him to her den. No creature but a serpent entered the den of the high priestess and left intact. Perhaps he could take one singular serpent in combat. After all, MangleEye had.

But if he was forced to murder the high priestess in her den, the forest itself would be his enemy. And he was not old, but not a young possum either.

“Calm, SleekClaw.” InkScale did not approach. “I mean you no harm. My apologies for the… unfortunate events that unfolded in the Hollow. GildedSnow is a faithful guard and she… misunderstood one of my movements for a signal. She will be dealt with.”

SleekClaw believed not one syllable of those falsehoods. Not once had InkScale attempted to stop the attack. But he didn’t want to rot. “Apology accepted, your grace.”

“Are you well?”

Yes, yes she was manipulating him, smoothing the waters. And SleekClaw was happy to have them smoothed if it meant he scurried from her den with breath in his lungs. “I am, your grace.”

“Good. Please relax, dear SleekClaw. I mean you no harm. In fact… I have reconsidered my position. I have consulted with the Crossing… and perhaps it would be wise to allow you to deliver the prophecy. If you still would like to do so, of course. We are capable of keeping such a fine, unique possum as yourself safe.”

SleekClaw waited for something more to come, some other message to pass over those black scales. But no retractions. No admonishments. No prerequisites or cautions. “Is it to the will of the forest, your grace?”

“If the forest saw fit to send you this prophecy, then the forest must see fit for you to deliver this prophecy, yes? And of any message you could pass on, this is the least likely to incite trouble.” Her black form shifted in the darkness of the burrow. “Word has already spread of the remarkable possum. All who wish to hear will arrive at the Hollow at dusk to receive the word and behold… the great prophet who rose from the rabble.” She coiled herself up as she drew nearer. “And… well, those who are already speaking protest will be… handled.”

“Protest?”

“As I had warned you, not all possums are gracious creatures in the face of exceptionality. Many are already outraged at what they see as a slight by one of their own. But I assure you, you have our protection.”

No, no, it didn’t sound right. Not the possums he knew. Not BlackSnout or FairWhisker or PearlFang or any of the others. SleekClaw would not allow such belief of his brothers and sisters to take hold. Not here, not anywhere. “Your grace, if I could speak with them before visiting the Hollow, I may be able to communicate with them. Such… lowly matters are best delivered by a possum.” Deprecating his kin would be his shield against the fangs and the venom of InkScale and RustBelly and all the other serpents of the forest.

The high priestess inclined her head side to side for a long while before finally answering. “If you feel that is best, SleekClaw. But please do take care. You are very important to us. A mere possum receiving a prophecy of this magnitude… you are a beacon of hope to all the others. Even to the blue beetles. There is something beyond where they all are now, and that something is you.”

“Thank you, your grace. I will make the journey… and return to the Hollow before dusk.”

“See that you do, SleekClaw.”

* * *

The trees were all atwitter, and it took no time to hear from the birds and the squirrels and the other possums where to find the disgruntled among them. SleekClaw descended into a sinkhole and was met with a dozen of his kin… including FairWhisker and BlackSnout themselves.

But it was FairWhisker who scampered forward and spoke. “The anointed child deigns to pay us a visit.”

“I’ve come to speak to you.” With her here… it couldn’t be as InkScale insisted. “There is word that… you would all do me harm. I’m certain this is foolish.”

“Do you harm? Why ever would we wish you harm, the servant of the high priestess and all her trickery?”

“Trickery? I can assure you, I received the prophecy. I entered the leafless Crossing and saw the truth of what is to come.”

“No one is doubting your prophecy, SleekClaw.” She snuffled the air. “But you reek of the serpents. You’ve bought into all you’ve been told, even though you were seen being carried out of the Hollow limp. Not stiffly ensconced in the Crossing.” She snorted, sending up boring dust from the floor of the cavern. “We thought you would rot like the others who came before you, but come to find it’s worse.”

“What others? FairWhisker, what is this about?”

Murmuring from the other possums. She waited until they had finished before finally speaking again. “SleekClaw… each of us here has seen the leafless Crossing. Each of us has brought word to InkScale or RustBelly. And each of us was lucky enough to escape the inevitable rot.”

“Unlike the others.” BlackSnout’s deep rasp filtered from the crowd. “Twice as many as you see here before you brought word and found themselves a sumptuous feast for the serpents. Even those who could never so much as glimpse the Crossing fed upon the flesh of prophets.”

“We were spared only for convenience,” said FairWhisker. “Too many prophets disappearing all at once would push the bounds of suspicion too far.”

“I survived only because ThreePaw had vanished the day before and their bellies were too full.” BlackSnout turned back around and entered into the murmurs of the other possums.”

“Eaten or not, when all is done the high priestess delivers their messages as her own. Our messages.” FairWhisker’s voice softened, and the fine white filaments on either side of her snout drooped. “You are no better or worse than any other of us, breathing or rotting, yet here you are. You, ready to deliver a prophecy. You, already aristocratic among possums… exalted even further. Carried out by InkScale to quell any disquiet among the rest of us, to show the world that possums are equal, of course. So long as they are… socially acceptable.”

“This is not my doing, FairWhisker.” Could any of this be possible? Could the high priestess… yes. Yes, yes, SleekClaw saw it easily. Her venom could sedate, if not kill, and then the other serpents could do their own work with the unmoving body. Or GildedSnow could simply wrap the breath from their lungs. Either way, the feast remained the same. “SilverTail… was there ever a hawk attack?”

“Yes. From FireTail. On orders. She now rots for daring to reveal that the humans would come again and we would lose more of our own to their flames.”

SleekClaw squeezed his eyes shut. InkScale herself had delivered that message and been haled as a hero of the forest… again. Her warning minimized those who succumbed to rot.

But it was SilverTail’s warning.

“You understand why we can no longer remain silent?” FairWhisker’s voice was solemn, sober. “This has gone on longer than any one of us has drawn breath.”

SleekClaw looked around at them all… and he did. “What did the Crossing show you, FairWhisker?”

“Which time?” She turned around and headed back into the throng. “You are special, SleekClaw, but no more or less than any one of us. I can see you as you… but you are not unique to the serpents, no matter how sweetly they whisper into your ear. You are merely… respected… and useful.”

There were no more answers to be offered there, and SleekClaw was uncertain he would want them if they were available.

* * *

The Hollow rumbled with the gathering of the forest. Dozens and dozens of possums, hundreds of tiny blue beetles, jays and hawks circling above the felled tree, being brought news by smaller birds who could fit more easily inside the now packed Hollow.

On a pedestal of stacked twigs and branches, SleekClaw waited in silence for the sun to dip low.

InkScale twined around herself lazily. “Was your visit to the rioters fruitful?”

He didn’t miss their elevation from protesters to rioters. “I believe so, your grace.”

“Good. I hope this is peaceful for you. An announcement of such magnitude should not be marred by such disquiet.” She pulled close to him, close enough that SleekClaw could smell only the fresh blood of her last meal, and whispered so softly he could barely hear her over the sound of his own breath. “You, of course, would not be so foolish as to spread what you learned. I did tell you, the leafless Crossing comes with a burden. The good of the forest is all that is important. Sometimes, possum blood waters the roots of the trees. But to speak it… I’m certain such a fine possum as yourself can see the problem there. And remember how soft your underbelly is, and know that RustBelly’s venom is much more potent than mine… and FairWhisker much smaller and more delicate than you.”

“I am aware of all of these things, your grace.” Of course she knew what had happened in that sinkhole. Everything, even secrets, found their way back to the serpents at one point or another, and all serpents answered to the high priestess.

“Good.” She pulled back, her tongue flicking the air. “Then let us begin.” She slithered to the front of the pedestal and the Hollow immediately quieted. “I take it word of this event has spread far enough, the circumstances need not be explained: a possum has ascended to new heights, to new revelations from the Crossing. This is hope for all among us that we may improve beyond what could ever be thought possible.” She paused to let her own echo fade. “SleekClaw… devout and true and skilled SleekClaw… he has seen things of the forest that equal what I and the other serpents are known to deliver. And as is tradition, he reveals his prophecy from his own lips.”

The crowd erupted in noise again as she slipped back, and SleekClaw padded forward. But this time, the crowd did not stay quiet. There in the back, the other possums had gathered, and they shouted and scampered and made as big a cacophony as they could manage.

FairWhisker was not among them.

SleekClaw raised his voice as loud as he could manage. “Quiet, all. News of the forest is important… and it is good. For years, the forest will thrive.” But not the possums. Not under InkScale. Not under the serpents. “Fertile. Well-fed. Happy. Undisturbed.”

The other possums had quieted now… in no small part due to the presence of constrictors flanking them. Including GildedSnow herself, seemingly no worse off for her “mistake.”

SleekClaw swallowed everything he wanted to screech to the crowd, the truth in all the deception. There was no fighting this power, the sinuous shadow of a priestess behind him.

Not today… and not ever if he made a fool of himself and got FairWhisker eaten.

“This is my prophecy: we will prosper. We will prosper even after I rot in the ground… praise be to her grace InkScale, for surely she will lead us down this path.”

The crowd lapped his words like sweet honey from the hive. SleekClaw turned to leave.

The high priestess blocked his exit with her tail. “Well done, dear SleekClaw. I trust you will… work alongside me.” This time, it was no mistake or trick of light. Her head flared out, and it stayed flared. “Close.”

Close enough to be watched. Yes, yes, he saw her unspoken words. “Of course, your grace. Where else would I belong?” He could not fight this power. No one could fight this power.

But that was not a prophecy. That was not marked out in the dance of the thousand stars. Perhaps a thousand more possums would have to rot before it happened. Perhaps his very next Crossing would reveal the truth, that they could never leave the scaly grip of the serpents behind.

But for the moment… SleekClaw knew the reality of the Crossing. And he was palatable. By the grace of the high priestess, he was regal enough for the forest to accept, so long as she never rescinded her praise.

Acceptance was survival, and survival was the only chance for rebellion one day, should the Crossing permit.

For the moment… yes, yes, there was possibility in his newfound place among the venomous. Perhaps he would never utilize it. Perhaps he would take his last breath soon in an embrace of carnelian and ivory.

But perhaps not. And ‘perhaps not’ was all that remained to cling to.

 

* * *


About the Author

Voss Foster lives in the middle of the Eastern Washington desert, where he writes science fiction and fantasy from inside a single-wide trailer. He is the author of Evenstad Media Presents as well as the Office of Preternatural Affairs. His short work can be found across the internet, including Alternative Truths, Vox.com, and Flame Tree Publishing’s Heroic Fantasy. His work often focuses on issues of diversity and inclusion, and always with a lyrical bent. When not writing, he can be found cooking, singing, cuddling the dogs, and of course, reading, though rarely all at the same time. More information can be found at http://vossfoster.blogspot.com.

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