CRAFTPUPPET  ©2016 by Cliff Johnson


Birth Beacon

“Now pay attention,” Tem barked, his voice as gruff as gravel. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”

He stood on a wooden stepladder, facing their lifeless birth puppet, which hung from two lengths of rope, one under each shoulder joint.

“Your bronze and silver stripes are perfect,” Tem grunted. “Why can’t the rest of you cooperate?”

Tem glared at the limbs of the rust-black puppet. He twisted the hands so that the fingers and thumbs were straight, and the palms were parallel to the thighs. Then he pushed the feet together so that the heels and pointed toes aligned. And then he tried, one last time, to get the many segments of the chin to stay closed.

They did not.

“Sap soaking splinters,” Tem grumbled. “I’ve spent three years on you, and that’s all you’re getting. I declare you done, complete, and accomplished. You better hope we can summon a powerful yellow vapor from the Eastern Horizon, or you’ll be hanging up here forever, Eeorn.”

He climbed down, leaned against the ladder, and with short wobbly steps, pushed the ladder a few lengths away. With some difficulty, Tem recovered his balance.

“Grave wretched affliction,” he grunted. “Snap to it, you old vapor. For eight years, you’ve carried my puppetwood. Don’t give up on me now.”

But try as he might, Tem couldn’t deny that his red vapor lacked the strength it once had. Nevertheless, he had made the sacrifice willingly and had no regrets. His greater concern was keeping his condition a secret from his companion Ganne.

“But I’ve done it,” Tem thought. “I’ve built us a home and a birth puppet. Few Craftpuppets can claim that achievement.”

He gazed about and took a moment to appreciate the Craft of their home by night. The vast Crystalline Dome was a precise replica of the crystals found inside a carefully chosen half geode. The row of torches surrounding the base of the dome reflected firelight in all directions. The chamber glistened like a silent waterfall at High Sun.

His companion of seven years shattered that silence.

“Red, the ropes are fraying,” Ganne announced. “Right here where the ropes rub against the hole in the ceiling.”

“Nonsense,” Tem scoffed, his red eyes glowering. “The Quarry Clan drags boulders with that rope.”

“You forget how much that Eeork weighs,” she said. “It took you, your two wood brothers, and a counterweight to hoist that Eeork up off the ground. It’s been hanging here all this time. And I’m telling you, the rope is fraying.”

“Quarry rope is made from rough fiber,” he said. “It looks frayed all the time.”

“I know that,” she said. “I’m not talking about fuzzy rope fibers. I’m talking about the twisted strands. There are five strands inside this rope, and three of them have split in half.”


“Red, I’m looking at them right now.”

“They look fine to me.”

“You’re standing on the floor — and I’m all the way up here. Don’t you think I have the better view?”

Tem grunted. The pristine Brilwood pup was of average size, one length tall. Ganne was a pale blonde Llythm pet, the largest puppet in the Village, standing seven lengths tall.

“That rope held fast for three years,” Tem barked, “and I’m certain it can last until morning — now what time is it? I can’t see my tool room. Your legs block my view.”

“Hold onto your leaves,” Ganne retorted.

She bent her knees and crouched down. Her giant frame, completely covered in dangling Llythm decorations, sounded out a boisterous clattering of wood against wood. She peered inside Tem’s tool room and spied the candle clock.

“It’s two marks until dawn,” Ganne told him. “Now where are your wood brothers? Tonight is the New Moon. You did tell them the New Moon, didn’t you? You did invite them, didn’t you?”

Tem had been dodging this question all night. He pushed his left leg forward and dragged his right leg to join it. He frowned his tawny eyebarks.

“I don’t want anyone to see our newborn,” he answered, “until it can walk and talk like a puppet.”

Ganne’s brilliant blue eyes glared. Her mane of long leafless head branches whipped and snapped the air.

“I let you Craft our home, all by yourself,” she boomed, “and I let you Craft our newborn, all by yourself. But you haven’t got the strength to birth a newborn — all by yourself.”

Clenching her huge fists, she smashed them against her thighs. A flurry of dainty ornaments scattered across the smooth crystal floor.

“Sheer reckless vandalism,” Tem yelled. “Now look what you’ve done.”

He dropped to his knees and began collecting her decorations, one by one.

“As your companion,” Tem barked, “it’s my duty to keep you in prime condition. And I don’t need you damaging yourself on purpose. Craft is sacrosanct.”

With every awkward movement, Tem heard his Brilwood knee joints scraping against the crystal floor.

“I should be kneeling on flesh fur,” he thought. “These crystal tiles scratch my shellac. And there’s no time to buff my knees smooth again. Not before my daily inspection with the Master Carver.”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” Ganne thundered.

Tem was plunged into darkness as the giant Llythm reached down with her huge hand, covering his head and grasping his chest. She lifted him up onto his feet and whirled him about to face her. The dainty ornaments tumbled from his grasp.

“Red, you cannot birth a newborn, all by yourself, you arrogant pup,” Ganne hollered. “I won’t let you. I’ll pull your head off if I need to.”

“Unsolicited rude molestation,” Tem growled from inside her huge hand. “You’re going to ruin my headbark.”

“And you refuse to listen to reason,” Ganne muttered, releasing him.

Tem steadied his balance. He felt the front, sides, and top of his head to confirm that none of his patches of tawny tree bark had been dislodged.

“I get enough misery from the Master Carver,” Tem grunted. “I don’t need you compounding it.”

Her pliant head branches twisted and thrashed along her shoulders.

“Red, you’re not fooling anybody,” Ganne scolded. “Your vapor has been dwindling ever since you started carving that Eeork. Look at you. You can’t even operate all of your body parts at the same time.”

Tem gazed down at the scattered ornaments.

“The decorations can be repaired,” he grunted. “What I need is flesh glue.”

“What you need is rejuvenation,” the giant Llythm boomed.

“Rejuvenation is sacrilege,” the Brilwood barked. “It’s an insult to The Creator.”

“Just because the Elders forbid rejuvenation,” Ganne pointed out, “is no reason for you to suffer like this.”

“The Stinkwoods?” Tem growled. “I don’t care what those interloping decrepit tyrants think. But I’ll not defy The Creator. Rejuvenation is blasphemy. And I’ll have no part of it.”

“But Red — you’re dying.”

“I’m not dying. I’m conserving my energy.”

“You’re conserving your energy because you are dying.”

“Nonsense — I have a good two years left in this red vapor of mine.”

This is what Tem had feared. Now that Ganne knew that his vapor was weak, she would be forever pestering him to take it easy.

“Of course I’ll take it easy,” he brooded. “My Craft is complete. There’s nothing left to do except sit back and appreciate my accomplishment.”

Ganne crouched on the crystal floor and waited for her dangling decorations to settle down. Her wide blue eyes gazed upon her companion. Her chin, fashioned from twelve wedges of Llythm, formed a crooked smile.

“Did you or did you not tell me,” she began, “that your wood brothers were going to help you with the newborn?”

“They will,” Tem replied, his red eyes twinkling. “Blue will teach it lofty leafy talk, and Green will teach it flashy fleshy moves — and I will teach it to be a Craftpuppet.”

“Yes, I’ve no doubt of that,” Ganne sighed.

Glancing at the candle clock, the giant Llythm peered up at the hole in the Crystalline Dome.

“We still have more than a mark before dawn,” she said. “You and I can call the birth vapor together.”

“That’s what I want,” he said. “Just you and me — that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

“Really?” she said. “You’ve always acted like you wanted to do everything yourself.”

“I did. But now I’m done. It’s time for my birth puppet to become our newborn.”

“Well, you might have said so sooner and spared me the aggravation.”

Standing and then hunching over, Ganne paced around the perimeter of the vast Crystalline Dome and extinguished all of the torches but one. She leaned the stepladder against the wall near the mineral oil bath. Then she crouched next to the Eeork birth puppet. She cradled her left hand under her companion and lifted him.

“I’ll support your body,” Ganne said. “Red, you focus on your arm.”

“Yes...” Tem said. “That will help.”

After three long years, the moment of incarnation was finally at hand. He gazed upon the rust-black Eeork with pride. The fifteen bronze and silver stripes caught faint glimmers from the one burning torch.

“Profound glorious exaltation,” Tem rejoiced. “Now remember. Eeorn needs a powerful vapor. A huge yellow one.”

“There’ll be many vapors answering our birth beacon,” Ganne reminded him, “and the strongest will claim the birth puppet. But there’s no guarantee it will be a yellow vapor.”

“Yes, yes, I know. But think yellow nonetheless.”

“As you wish.”

Tem raised his right arm. He positioned his hand, palm upward, fingers bent back, near the head of the Eeork birth puppet. A glowing orb of red vapor emerged from his palm connected by a thin strand trailing back into his pristine Brilwood.

A brilliant blue orb emerged from Ganne’s right hand in similar fashion.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Ready,” she replied.

Their orbs of vapor projected beams of red and blue light into the night sky, and together, their energy transmuted into a dazzling magenta birth beacon.

They watched and waited.

A flash of green lightning crackled from the peak of the mountain.

A tremendous boom of thunder shook the Crystalline Dome.

“Mean thwarted rhapsody,” Tem growled. “The vapors will retreat if it starts raining.”

“Well, it’s not raining yet,” Ganne told him. “We’ll maintain the beacon until the last possible moment.”

The night sky flickered with pale light.

An undulating cloud of lurid green energy approached.

“We got one,” Tem yelled. “It won’t be long now.”

“It’s bright... too bright...” Ganne gasped.

The entire sky glared with fervent green. The vapor howled like the wind of a ferocious storm cloud. The orange flames from the one remaining torch whooshed upward, extinguishing the fire. The stepladder shattered, and the broken wood was swept up through the hole in the Crystalline Dome.

“Quick,” Tem shouted. “Retract your vapor — and back up against the wall.”

With a flash of red and blue, their orbs of vapor retreated into their wood. The giant Llythm stomped backwards, carrying her companion in both hands.

“Red — what is that thing?” Ganne shouted.

“It’s our newborn,” Tem shouted back. “What else would it be?”

“It tastes wrong.”

“It tastes fine.”

“It tastes like Thunderhead.”

“What? The mountain? Impossible.”

The green vapor poured through the hole in the ceiling and billowed inside the dome. The crystal walls glared with bright green light. Green bolts of lightning crackled along the surface of the turbulent vapor, and rumbles of thunder quaked their wooden frames.

“Bough breaking unbelievable,” Tem laughed. “The Creator has blessed us with an incredibly powerful vapor — and it’s green.”

Ganne had hunched back against the wall as far as she could go.

“It’s huge. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she cried out. “And that lightning and thunder — it’s unnatural.”

“Panicky fretting fits,” Tem barked. “It’s not unnatural. It’s extraordinary.”

The glowing green vapor swept around the birth puppet like a whirlwind. Green bolts of lightning lashed out at the Eeork. Green sparks showered from the bronze and silver stripes. The lurid green vapor advanced and engulfed the head.

“It’s found the Eeork,” Tem yelled. “Everything will be fine.”

The heavy birth puppet jerked and swayed as waves of glowing green vapor submerged inside the rust-black Eeork.

“There’s too much of it,” Ganne gasped. “Much too much.”

“Don’t drop your seeds,” Tem barked. “That wood is from the Tree of Stone. Nothing can harm it.”

Trails of bright green vapor slithered along the birth puppet’s arms and legs, vanishing into the ball-and-socket joints until no trace of the immense vapor remained. The metal stripes glowed reddish-orange from the heat. The Eeork wood hissed. The joints emitted faint snaps and pops.

“It’s done,” Tem said. “Put me down. I want to try walking.”

The ruddy Brilwood extended his red vapor throughout his body. His feet touched the floor. He struggled to keep his balance. He took an uneasy step forward.

“Coming?” Tem asked.

He heard Ganne’s ornaments clattering against her Llythm, but no footsteps.

“That taste of Thunderhead...” Ganne replied. “I have vapor shock. I’m trembling all over.”

“I need to get over there,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I’ll join you when I can.”

Tem completed his first step. He dragged his other foot forward. The exertion of the birth beacon, however, left him feeling light-headed.

“Concentrate, Red,” he thought. “Focus on your feet. Keep your balance steady.”

After managing a few more steps forward, he peered up.

The newborn radiated an aura of lurid green. The metal stripes groaned as they cooled. Smoke curled up the wood.

“Never mind the smoke,” Tem thought. “The wood from the Tree of Stone never burns.”

But the quarry ropes securing the newborn blackened — and burst into flames.

Green flames.

Without thinking, Tem rushed headlong and toppled over with a dreadful crunch.

There was no point in trying to stand up again.

“I need to conserve my energy,” he realized, “but I also need to get over there in a hurry.”

His fingers grappled at the raised edges of the crystal floor tiles. He dragged his ruddy Brilwood and advanced, scraping his pristine shellac with every move.

“No time to worry about shellac,” Tem muttered. “I must keep moving.”

The newborn jolted. Its arms and legs thrashed. The rope fibers exploded with green sparks. The heavy Eeork plummeted and crashed to the floor a few lengths ahead of him.

Tem’s greatest accomplishment, his Craft, twisted and squirmed, its limbs flailing, its fingers clutching at nothing. The segments of Eeork blazed with an inner light, sizzling like green embers. The joints flared with lurid green energy and whistled with black smoke.

Tem crawled closer.

Green fire erupted from its joints.

“Impossible — Eeork doesn’t burn,” Tem hollered. “Mineral bath. I need to get you into the mineral bath.”

The flaming head jerked toward him. Its eyes gleamed bright green.

The newborn had heard him.

“Yes, the mineral bath,” Tem said. “Over here, Eeorn. Follow me.”

But dragging his Brilwood across the crystal floor created too much friction and expended too much energy. He rose up onto his hands and knees, and wobbled toward the mineral bath at the rear archway of the Crystalline Dome.

“Discipline and intent,” he kept telling himself. “Discipline and intent.”

Behind him, he heard the bronze and silver stripes grating against the crystal floor.

“Good. He’s following me,” Tem thought. “Faster, I must move faster.”

The Brilwood struggled forward and came up alongside the horizontal edge of the mineral bath. Then he flopped over sideways, allowing the Eeork to move forward. The newborn crawled to his side, its entire body now engulfed in green flames. Then its arms and legs fell limp. The green eyes went dark.

“One shove,” Tem thought. “All I need is one good shove to push him into the mineral bath. But I haven’t got the strength.”

“Ganne,” he shouted. “I need you.”

The giant Llythm clung to the crystal wall, still trembling with vapor shock. Black smoke had shrouded the Crystalline Dome, and she couldn’t see what was happening. But she had heard Red cry out for her. She would not let him die alone.

“I’m coming, Red,” Ganne yelled, her leafless head branches whipping and snapping.

Focusing her vapor and concentrating on her wood, she found her bearings and ventured away from the wall. As she began to move faster, her dangling decorations clattered with a harsh ruckus.

In the blackness, she distinguished a red glow.

“Red’s ascending,” Ganne thought. “I’m too late.”

The red glow brightened as it drew closer. The organic vapor had long curving tendrils, bristling with tiny roots. Translucent blobs throbbed within the haze of red energy. The surface was ragged and constantly changing shape.

She could taste its bitter pulpy residue.

“This isn’t Red,” Ganne realized. “Red tastes fleshy. This is just another vapor summoned by our birth beacon.”

The red vapor, though only the size of her hand, advanced swiftly toward the giant Llythm.

“Go back to the Eastern Horizon,” Ganne boomed. “We have our newborn already.”

Its glowing red tendrils lashed out and wrapped around her wrist.

She heard it speak inside her vapor.

Softwood... yes... I shall claim this puppet frame for myself...”

“It can speak,” Ganne gasped. “This is a rogue vapor from the forest.”

The giant Llythm yanked her arm back and tore off its tendrils. The red vapor shrieked and retreated.

Out of the blackness appeared two more organic vapors, approaching steadily.

The cyan vapor held the shape of a large sphere. Its diameter was almost as wide as a tree trunk. The surface undulated with teeming fingers of cyan light.

Back off... the softwood is mine...”

The yellow vapor blazed the brightest. It had two spiraling vines, fleshy and thick. Hunks of organic matter swirled inside its oblong mass of yellow energy.

Stay out of my way... or I’ll devour you both... I claim the softwood...”

“Thayne’s Bane,” Ganne grumbled. “Rogue vapors entering a puppet home? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Yet despite her tremendous size, she knew that the rogue vapors posed a deadly threat. If she didn’t act quickly, they would try to devour her blue vapor and steal her Llythm frame for themselves. Ganne had to rupture their vapor barriers and dispel their energy. But she needed something sharp.

“Red’s metal tools,” she knew in an instant.

Ganne hunched over and dashed to the right. Straightening her arm, she dragged her right hand along the crystal wall to guide her way through the black smoke. The wall ended at the front archway to Tem’s tool room.

Ganne lay flat and crammed all seven lengths of her Llythm frame inside the tool room. She heard her ornaments crunching and the metal tools clanging across the workbench and tumbling to the floor.

“I can barely move inside here,” Ganne thought, “but I must locate the proper tool.”

She reached for a chisel, and the red vapor plunged inside her hand.

She grappled for the broad axe, and the cyan vapor invaded her other hand.

The yellow vapor wrapped its spiraling vines around her neck and penetrated her face.

Ganne jolted and reeled with vapor shock as the three rogue vapors rammed against her blue vapor.

“I must move away from them,” she thought. “Retreat my vapor into my legs. My Llythm grain is unfamiliar to them. They can’t follow me. Not yet. They’re in vapor shock too...”

Then her consciousness waned, and Ganne blacked out.

Tem stared at his Craft. Green flames roared from every joint.

“You’re right next to the mineral bath,” Tem shouted. “Roll over sideways.”

But the newborn still didn’t respond. Not a tremor or a twitch.

Still lying flat on his side, the ruddy Brilwood concentrated his red vapor into his arms. He pushed and pushed at the heavy Eeork, but all he accomplished was to push himself backwards.

Gathering his remaining strength, Tem struggled to his feet. He lifted one foot and placed it into the green flames blazing from the newborn’s torso. He threw his full weight against that one leg and focused his red vapor to deliver one powerful shove.

“Into the mineral bath,” he bellowed, pushing with all his might.

And then his body crumpled to the floor. Tem could neither see nor hear, but he could sense the grain of his Brilwood. He maneuvered his red vapor into his head and engaged his eyes.

The Eeork newborn churned inside the mineral bath.

The green flames had been quenched.

“Capricious benevolent fate,” Tem laughed. “On my side for once.”

He rested his head on the crystal floor and gazed upward. He beheld swirling colors, hundreds of vapors, darting to and fro. Their birth beacon had attracted an unimaginable multitude of vapors.

“Manic confounded redundancy,” Tem barked. “Get out of here. All of you.”

Then he heard voices inside his head.

Now’s our chance...”

Devour Thayne while he’s helpless...”

We must to do it now before he awakens...”

“Rogue vapors?” Tem growled. “Inside my Crystalline Dome?”

As his mind raced through his limited options, his left leg jolted.

A foul cyan vapor had wrapped itself around his ankle.

The hardwood is empty... it is mine...”

Then his right leg jolted.

A wretched magenta vapor had grasped onto his foot.

No... I claim this puppet... stay away...”

Tem scowled his tawny eyebarks.

“Parasitic illicit vapors,” he shouted. “Find your own rotten wood. This one’s taken.”

With a sudden roar, lurid green energy erupted from the mineral bath. Green bolts of lightning lashed out. The blue and magenta vapors exploded, their energy devoured by the lightning, and then a boom of thunder crashed.

“Lightning devouring vapors?” Tem squawked. “Impossible.”

He watched in stunned amazement as a violent storm of green lightning and thunder raged inside the Crystalline Dome. Everywhere, there were explosions of color. He heard tortured screeching and wailing. Burnt crisps of organic matter fluttered downward like shredded leaves. The last of the rogue vapors fled toward the hole in the ceiling. And the green lightning devoured each and every last one.

“Unthinkable glorious reprieve,” Tem crowed.

But the lightning persisted. The green bolts crackled along the walls of his home, shattering crystals in its wake.

“No. Stop it, Eeorn,” Tem hollered. “Those crystals are precisely where I want them.”

With a loud crackling, a green bolt of lightning blasted him directly in the chest.

His Brilwood jolted and dropped to the floor — without Tem inside it.

His red vapor floated in the air, drifting upward.

“No — not ascension,” Tem growled. “I have at least one good year left in me. I must be here to see how Eeorn handles my Eeork Craft.”

However, deprived of his Brilwood, Tem had only a vague perception of sight and sound. For all he knew, he had already ascended out the hole in the ceiling and was drifting toward the Western Horizon. class=PI

“Vile brutal irony...” Tem grunted.

Then all at once, there were flashes of red and green.

Blinding flashes.

His vapor jolted and quaked.

Everything blazed with dazzling yellow.

And then he felt the grain of his Brilwood once again.

“I’m back — I’m back,” Tem exclaimed, desperate to locate his eye orbs.

He perceived the walls of the Crystalline Dome gleaming with green energy. There were no other vapors in sight. Tem lifted his head. His Brilwood creaked in the deathly silence.

What Tem witnessed he wouldn’t have believed possible.

A huge mass of lurid green vapor hovered over the mineral bath, a thin strand still connected to the Eeork. In one fluid motion, the green vapor descended back inside the birth puppet. The crystals dimmed. The chamber fell dark.

“What just happened?” Tem cried out. “Ganne. Did you see it? Where are you?”

He heard nothing. Not even the clattering of her Llythm decorations.

Tem tried to sit up, but when he heard his Brilwood crunching, he stopped immediately. Exercising caution, he leaned his head as far forward as his neck joint would allow. He discovered that he had an enormous hole blasted straight through his chest. The charred edges along his right and left sides were so thin and frail that Tem didn’t dare to try to move any further.

“The daily inspection,” he groaned. “The Master Carver will have a furious frantic fit.”

But after eight years of worrying about every little nick and scratch in his pristine Brilwood, Tem experienced an unexpected calm.

His red vapor had survived the birth.

And Eeorn, his Craft, was alive.

Tem burst out laughing.

“Fetch me my buffing brushes,” he howled. “I believe I scratched my shellac.”


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