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Seasonal Shennanigans Writing Contest 2020: Hyperbole's entry

It was the season of hauntings, of ghouls and spooks and zombies rising in the night. Most importantly, it was the season of unrest – which meant that instead of exploring the woods, or pestering the cooks in the kitchen for sneaked bites of their holiday meals as his friend Brioche would have vastly preferred - Aigaeuse, the alchemical serpent, spent the night of the eve of the Harvest Carnival delivering fairground maps to all living (and a few unliving) souls in Dragonsmaw.

“Hey. Hey. Hey. Aiga. Why do we have to deliver all these maps every Carnival Eve, Aiga?” Brioche whined, trotting behind Aigaeuse as they rounded the bend of the road to their second route of the evening. “I wanted to check out that place up the hill this year. There’s something weird going on with the skeletons. I could’ve gone up and investigated. It’s so cold out tonight, the route is always the same, and delivery is always so boring.”

“You didn’t have to tag along this year, Brio,” Aiga sighed, knowing that Brioche was simply bickering for the sake of bickering, repeating an ages-long argument like a dog gnawing at a well-worn bone. “You didn’t have to tag along last year either, or the year before that. My routes would probably be simpler if you didn’t tag along, in fact. Why do you insist on helping me with the routes?”

“Don’t make me SAY it,” Brio said, taking three bundled maps from his pouch and tossing them in the air before kicking them in quick succession onto the walkways of three neatly decorated houses in the boulevard. “Maybe I like being out in the cold. Maybe I’d rather be plodding along this wretched dirt road than investigating those skulls in the woods.”

“Thank you, dear,” an elderly doe cooed from her seat on her porch. “Are these the maps for the Carnival this year? What fine work you lads are doing, making sure everyone is well prepared for the festivities every year.”

Brio tipped his cap and winked at her. “They sure are. It’s always a pleasure, ma’am.”

“Don’t flirt with the villagers on the delivery route, it’s unprofessional,” Aiga said, checking his compass to plot the next leg of their route. The roads always started twisting and turning at the beginning of the haunting season, and muscle memory and maps became less than reliable ways of navigating the town until after the Carnival was over.

“That was hardly flirting, and you’re unprofessional,” Brio said, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, don’t worry. I wouldn’t be out here in this miserable weather if I didn’t like you the best.”

Aiga flushed, startled out of his calculations. He stared at Brio, then casted about wildly to change the topic of conversation, latching onto the last thing he remembered him saying. “Uhm- Right, but - Skulls? You were saying something about bones?”

“Yeah! The bones.” Brio grinned. “You ever wonder about skeletons? You ever wonder where they come from?”

“Not really,” Aiga said, snapping his compass shut. “Come on. One more route to go before we can head back.”

“Well, those bits and pieces of skeleton we find have to be coming from somewhere,” Brio said reasonably, gesturing at Aiga with a rolled-up map. “You work with alchemy, you know you have to go buy those ribs from the explorers for your morphing potions. I keep finding intact skulls and then pawfuls of scattered teeth clearing out the haunted woods every year. Where are the rest of the skeletons? How come it’s just skulls and teeth and ribs? Where are the arm and leg bones? They can’t just be turning up out of nowhere.”

“I don’t see why not,” Aiga said, but he was thinking about it now. He remembered vaguely Brio telling him about the materials he found in the woods every year, the strangely shaped molars and the fangs too long and too sharp and too many to fit into any one mouth. He himself had wondered at the strange regularity of the ribs the explorers brought back – all gleaming ivory and decaying calcium. How was it possible that there were so many body parts in the woods every year? A handful of teeth was explainable – crocodilians and manokits tended to drop their teeth as easily as reptiles shed their scales – but entire skulls rolling around in the woods like old apples was an entirely different matter. “Hasn’t the scouting party been planning a trip to that old abandoned mill on the north side of the forest? Maybe there’s a weird sort of creature that lives there. Nothing but a skull and gelatinous legs to walk around on.”

Brio rolled his eyes and tossed another roll of paper onto the path leading up to the next house with a thunk. “They’re not due back till TOMORROW. Anyway, I don’t think it’s creatures that are all head and no limbs. You know what I think? You know that cave they’ve got on Carnival grounds? I think they’ve got a stockpile of weird bony parts in there they roll out every autumn. There’s probably a whole CONSPIRACY. A bone monopoly.”

“I don’t believe you,” Aiga said decisively. “And anyway, what does it matter? It’s not like-”

Aiga stopped, startled. Brio had frozen up ahead of him, posture gone low and crouched, a feral version of his friend bent low to the ground and staring straight at a section of the woods where a lone skull was rolling quietly along the loam of the forest floor. Aiga stayed still and quiet, watching as Brio’s cheerful demeanour dropped away, reminded once again that his friend was a warrior of Dragonsmaw who spent his time outside of pestering him facing down very dangerous foes.

A red fox wearing some sort of metal crown stepped rustling out of the dark shrubbery further in the woods. Aiga watched nervously as Brio’s lips raised in snarl, eyes flashing white.

The fox picked up the skull and tucked it neatly into its trimmed robes. Then it turned its head and looked straight at them, considering.

“Nothing to see here,” it said in a soft, lilting voice. “Move along.”

Aiga looked away obligingly, but Brio seemed to be caught in some sort of trance. His pupils had gone narrow and his ears pricked, and he was starting to growl deep in his throat. Concerned about the fox, who he could see staring unmoving at them out of the corner of his eye, Aiga rushed up to Brio and knocked his shoulder into his chest to break his line of sight.

Brio blinked, confused, seeming to snap out of whatever state he was in after Aiga knocked into him. Aiga quickly turned his head to check the woods – the strange fox was gone.

“Hey, what was that for? What were you saying?” Brio asked after a moment, turning his head to look at his friend. Aiga was relieved to see that his pupils seem to have done back to normal.

“Er- nothing,” Aiga said. “I said, maybe you’re right. About the cave. The bones, that is.”

“I’m ALWAYS right,” Brio said, but he said it the way he always did when he made grandiose, sweeping statements like that – without a shred of evidence and with all the confidence in the world. As if suddenly remembering something, he stuck his hand in his delivery bag and lit up in a grin as his paw came up empty. “Hey, we’re done the last leg of our route. I’ll race you back down the hill!”

Aiga stood there for a moment more, baffled by the events of the evening. He peered one last time into the dark woods, wondering about- he wasn’t sure what he was wondering about. Something about a crown? A cave? He shook his head and snorted. Maybe Brio had the right idea. Maybe a run would clear his head. “Yeah, why not,” he said, and turned to chase after Brio into the rapidly descending dusk.