(Ed. note: story by Melanie and Whitney; writing by Whitney.)
Preserver games could sometimes seem to be strange, strange things... but a boy with no agemates to play with wasn't so selective, and Newt took his friends how and where he could find them.
"Listen!" Muckabout whispered, its voice shivery with excitement. "Hear the scritchy-scratchy? Scritchedy-scratchey-scritchedy goes little wicked nails clawing good old hometree treeroots. Hear them?"
Six-year-old Newt listened so hard he held his breath. His face turned alarmingly red before his eyes shot open in success.
"Yes!" the boy whispered back, with a gasp to fill his lungs. "Yes! I hear it!"
Muckabout grinned with joy. "Is good! Rain falling so hard, so fast, washes wicked wee web-gnawers out of cozy nests and so into good old hometrees wicked wee things creep. But We-Things listen good, listen always. Protect good webstuff from nibbling sharp teeth! We-Things hunt!"
The Preserver swept off of the wooden stair-shelf it had been perched on. Newt scrambled to his feet as well, chasing after the brilliant wings as the Preserver darted into the gloomy depths. The blue-tinged glow of the moonmoss that illuminated the storage dens lit their way as the two chased deeper into the of the warren of storage dens and corridors beneath the great Dentrees, and gave Newt's pale hair an ethereal glow. Muckabout's hunting habits were predictably erratic — spurting bursts of wing-whirring speed followed by long, intent pauses as the goo-bug strained to hear the whispered rasp of mouse-claws. Newt followed suit — stop and go, rush and wait, sometimes challenged to keep the dark-bodied, violet-winged Preserver in sight in the dim, twisting maze of corridors. Then he lost sight of the goo-bug entirely. Newt ducked into one storage room, musty with dusty, wrapped bundles of something (the painted symbol above the archway looked like a toothy fish — fox salmon, maybe)? He looked around for Muckabout, dismayed at having lost his friend. Then he heard a rattling whispery sound, like the beating of the largest dragonfly's wings ever. Newt grinned and dashed out of the storage room and into the next, following that sound to Muckabout, knowing it meant the Preserver had cornered its prey.
"Bad bad webgnawer!" Muckabout cried, as a fat woodmouse darted across the storeroom floor. Muckabout swooped on it like a bird of prey, but the terrified creature dove between a rack of drying herbs and a tall woven basket. "Get wicked sharp-tooth nibblething! Get! Get!"
Newt dove to his knees and plunged his hand into the crevice. His fingers closed around a warm, squirming bundle of fur. "Got it!" the boy cried with delight, pulling the woodmouse out of its hiding place. The little creature squeaked as it dangled in the air, suspended by Newt's fingers on its tail, all four of its little pink feet scurrying.
"Good! Good! Muckabout make No-Color Highthing mighty, mighty hunter!" Muckabout said with pride, fluttering onto the top of Newt's head. "Hold steady, make good hangydown!"
Glowing at his friend's praise, Newt held perfectly still as Muckabout went to work, encasing the hapless woodmouse in a silk cocoon. In the moonmoss's glow, the silken threads took on a blue glow. When the woodmouse was encased up to the tip of its tail, Newt held the cocoon in the palm of his hand, turning it just so so that Muckabout could finish.
"Good," Muckabout said, patting Newt's head between its knees. "Good Highthing. Wee nibblethings all fear Muckabout and No-Color Highthing! Fear us, mighty webgnawer hunters we!"
"Are there more for us to catch?" Newt said, pocketing the cocooned woodmouse, to share with his father Turtle later.
"Always, always," Muckabout answered cheerfully. "We-Things always listening, listening. No webstuff safe ever from nasty nibblethings."
"Can I always help you hunt?" Newt asked wistfully.
Muckabout grinned and again patted the boy's head. "Always. Someday, wee highthing grow too big for We-Thing hunt, will hunt bigthings with growlers, maybe will take Muckabout along to make good wrapstuff."
Newt frowned. Growing up took so very, very long! Why, it would be forever before he would be hunting for real, with a wolf-friend and everything. But he liked the thought of Muckabout being with him, when he did. The promise of that drew a smile back to his face. "You are my best friend!"
"Awwwwww!" Muckabout said, smoothing down a cowlick it had created with its previous patting. "No-Color Highthing is Muckabout's favorite Highthing. Favoritest ever!"
"You mean that?" Newt said, his heart swelling at the promise. "You'll still mean that when I'm big enough to take you hunting with me?"
"We-Things never forget," Muckabout said. "We-Things are here to Remember, forever. Remembering is what We-Things do!"
For a small boy with no agemates, the promise of forever-friendship sounded as good as it could get. He grinned and pushed himself up off his knees.
"I hear scritchedy-scratchedy claws!" he cried. "Let's hunt!"
Three sunhighs and nightfalls had come and gone after good, good wrapstuff was spun around Sad-Eyes Highthing, and her cocoon had been borne down to the still and the quiet of the Wrapstuff Den. But now highthings had gathered again around the newest cocoon, and the solemn gaggle of Preservers huddled together overhead to watch from among the tree-roots that made up the low, domed ceiling of the chamber.
The chief had a big bowl of Color-Lots Highthing's best pink dye, as bright and vibrant as Berryflop's skin. Fly-High Highthing held another bowl of rich, ripe purple, while Berry-Brew Highthing had a bowl of the deepest cerulean. The colors had been little Sad-Eyes Highthing's favorites.
"Is strange," Foamspray murmured sadly, watching as the assembled highthings took solemn turns placing a hand in the dye-bowl of their choice, then pressing a handprint on the wall above Sad-Eyes Highthing's cocoon.
"Is how highthings remember," replied Berryflop archly.
There was a stir beneath them. As the tribe's youngest little cub left both of his handprints in vivid purple on the chamber wall, the next-youngest, Snappy-Growl Highthing, turned with bared teeth on her mother. "Will not!" the young huntress hissed, clearly in reaction to some sent urging. "Told you that already! This is stupid! I don't even want to be here!"
There was a sudden, pained silence among the rest of the tribe. Sad-Eye Highthing's sister Fly-High Highthing looked as though she had been slapped in the face by those words, while Whitecold Highthing looked mortified at her daughter's outburst.
"Silvermane—" Whitecold Highthing began to say, with a stricken glance toward Fly-High Highthing...
"It's a clear night, the first without snow since the start of the moon — and we're wasting it! I could be out hunting instead of this," Snappy-Growl Highthing complained. "This is stupid!"
"Can't you — just for once! — show some decent concern for the feelings of your tribemates?" Whitecold Highthing said sharp exasperation, as if a taut bowstring inside her had snapped.
"Rot you and rot this!" Snappy-Growl Highthing snarled, shoving away from the wall she had been slouching against and pushing between tribemates toward the arching stairway which led up and out of the storage dens. "Fadestar should have been allowed to go peacefully, but instead she's been wrapped up like a haunch of meat," the young huntress growled as she left. "It's not right. It's not the Way it should be!"
"I'll speak to her," Grumble-Growler Highthing said, striding after his departing daughter with a fierce look on his face. Chief Hard-Head Highthing looked equally sour, and was muttering something under his breath to Color-Lots Highthing beside him.
"I'm sorry," Whitecold Highthing said apologetically Fly-High Highthing. "Silvermane is young. She doesn't understand. And the only way she knows to deal with grief is by biting the hand that comforts her."
Fly-High Highthing nodded and said something softly in turn, accepting the condolence and allowing the rest of the gathering to continued the ritual to it finish. "Leave the bowls," Whitecold Highthing said as others began to file out of the chamber. "My daughter will come and leave her mark later."
"Is sad," Flutterby said, tsking under its breath as the last two highthings, Chief Hard-Head Highthing and Color-Lots Highthing, left, following Fly-High Highthing and Whitecold Highthing away up the stairs. "Sad sad to have angrywords."
"So sad, so sad," Gurgleflap agreed. "Bad to remember Sad-Eyes Highthing so."
"Some highthings want no remembering," Mushroom observed. "Remembering hurts highthings' hearts."
"That's why is We-Things," Berryflop said proudly. "We Remember so Highthings never forget."
Muckabout dropped out of its nest among the roots, opening its violet wings wide to catch itself well above the hardstuff floor. "Is something more," it said, spiraling down to land beside the purple bowl of dye. "Is something more than remembering. Is making Rememberings real." It dipped both hands down into the berry bowl, then hopped close to the wooden base of the bier. "Is showing Sad-Eyes little Highthing is remembered, long long long from now."
"Like bits and pieces put in to disturb the good wrapstuff," Mushroom said, flying down to take up possessive perch on Sunny-Soft Highthing's coocoon, which was dotted with the many things Silky-Soft Highthing and Many-Gone Highthing had added to it over the long years.
Muckabout solemnly pressed both hands against the base of the bier. Then it turned and looked toward No-Color Highthing's bier, where the colorful handprints surrounding the pale cocoon where the most faded by time.
"We-Things remember," Dewdrop said, coming to dip its hands in the blue paint and add its own mark beside Muckabout's. One by one, the others were flying down from their own nests to do so as well.
Muckabout waited until Flutterby had had its turn at the purple bowl. Then the Preserver climbed over the rim of the bowl and wallowed in the dye.
"Sillyhead!" Gurgleflap cried, as it was splattered with purple drops.
"Is crazy!" Foamspray shrieked, scrambling out of splash range as Muckabout stood upright, streaming the rich purple liquid from its indigo-purple skin and violet wings.
Muckabout climbed out of the bowl and, with awkward care not to dry its wings, made the arduous walk to No-Color Highthing's bier, leaving a dripping purple trail behind it. There, Muckabout pressed itself full-body against the base of the bier, arms outstretched as if hugging the wooden surface and the cocoon it carried.
"We-Things remember," the creature said to itself in satisfaction, as it turned and pressed its backside, wings and all, against the bier's base. "Remembering is always what We-Things do."
Muckabout fluttered to a perch on a hanging root and sat perfectly still, perfectly quiet. It listened. It heard, and in response, spread its wings and flew after the sound.
The boy was sitting on the empty, flat wooden slab of what had been his bier, head down and hands gripping the edge. His feet swung in a slow, mournful rhythm.
"Awwwww," Muckabout sighed, alighting on the boy's pale head. "Poor No-Color Highthing is sad, sad, sad?"
The boy sniffed and wiped a forearm across his wet eyes. "Dreamflight was mean to me again," he said in a small, pinched voice. "I tried not to let it show that it hurt, because I know it makes Greenweave unhappy with Dreamflight, and I don't want to cause any trouble."
Muckabout stroked the boy's hair gently. "Nastybad Whistle-Voice Highthing," it commiserated, thinking cheerful thoughts of rose thorns secreted unexpectedly in sleeping-furs.
"No one was ever mean to me. Not before," Newt said, with a hitch in his voice.
"Poor little No-Color Highthing. Poor little highthing remember long-ago days, make little highthing sad, sad," Muckabout said wisely. "We-Things remember, too. Little highthing leave sad rememberings to We-Things. Is what We-Things for." Muckabout preened one wing for a moment, then launched up off the boy's head and flashed around the room in blistering circle before coming to an abrupt stop at a hover between Newt's booted feet. "We-Things always remember No-Color Highthing," it announced, pointing a clawed finger toward the splashes of purple at the base of the bier.
"You were always my best friend before," the boy said, perking up slightly.
"Always, always!" the Preserver crooned in agreement. "Now. Listen! Hear scritchedy-scratchedy! We-Thing need good highthing to help hunt nasty nibbling webgnawers. No-Color Highthing help good loyal Muckabout?"
Newt laughed and got to his feet. "Yes, let's catch your mice!" he said, smiling again and his eyes growing bright at the challenge.
"Is good!" Muckabout agreed. It knew, too, where to put any hangeydowns they made... "Poor Whistle-Voice Highthing," it chuckled as it motioned Newt to follow it toward the storage dens deeper beneath the Dentrees. "We-Things remember! And remember forever..."