"What happened to the boy?" The children started intently at their older brother over the fire.
"Why, he was eaten by the Lion that Stalks the Night, of course. Each of his limbs was eaten by one its mouths and the rest of him was split between the sixth and the seventh," the brother answered with a smile.
The girl gave a shriek and drew her hands to her mouth. Her younger brother started to cry. The elder brother looked on impassively. It would be a week before his younger siblings would be able to sleep peacefully. He doubted that they would be able to leave the hut after sunset without thinking of the Lion that Stalks the Night. That would teach the little bastards for throwing cow dung at him.
In a place that wasn't a place, the lips of the Lion that Stalks the Night twisted into seven monstrous smiles.
It had existed long before Homo sapiens sapiens, finding its home in the night and other dark places. For a long, long time, it had existed as only an inarticulate idea, unthinking and unnamed, banished with the coming of the dawn. But that had been before the story. The story had changed everything.
Now it had focus. It had names, more names than it could count. Pinyin Si, Nidab, Ariman, Shanem, Kadeeb, Angra, and many, many more which had been forgotten a hundred generations ago. With each story it was told through, it changed. Even from telling to telling, it never stayed the same. Sometimes it was a foreign warrior, village-burning, woman-stealing. Sometimes it found itself as a dragon, fire-breathing, hero-slaying. Sometimes it was a god, wrath-bestowing, death-bringing. Sometimes it was victorious, as a lesson to wicked children who wouldn't obey their parents. Sometimes it was defeated, as a salve to the fears of those same parents. In every story, it fought a different foe. Sometime it fought the Hero, the King, sometimes the Brave Village Boy. But every time, the story changed.
It was what was unknown. What could be out there. Disease, bloodthirsty enemies, monsters, curses, death, many thing worse than death.
"You're going to what?"
"You're going to put the miracles of Sudita, his conquest of Ur, his begetting of the lineage of the King, his slaying of Gilgali, onto mud?"
"Well, yes, I'm going to do that But more importantly, his name will be kept. Look in the archives some time. What do you see? Records of taxes, taken by men who have been dead for years. You can still read them. This way, Sudita will still be remembered, long after you and I and the King are all dead."
"Who's going to read it, anyway? Other tax collectors, checking grain returns with their reeds? Are they supposed to go out and tell the stories of Sudita to the people? Which of them is best suited, I wonder? Abumum? Or maybe Damurru could fart his way through? Oh, I know, how about Nidita? I'm sure that the people would love to hear him stutter the begetting of the King's line! 'And he l-l-laid w-w-with her for th-th-th-three d-days a-and nuh-nuh-nuh-nights…' The King will have you gutted for this, you know, right?"
"You're missing the point."
"Oh? Then please enlighten me, O soon-to-be-disemboweled cousin of mine! Please, share your brilliant plan of writing down Sudita's travels, like it's a gods-damned contracted!"
"Writing it down means the story can be understood long after we died. What if, gods forbid, the story-tellers forget the tale of Sudita? What then?"
"… You really have gone off the deep end haven't you? Fine. Write down the tale of Sudita. Present it to the King. Just don't expect me to help when he has your arms cut off and your eyes stabbed out for your disrespect."
It was enjoying itself, insofar as it could. At the moment, it was a fat, bloated ogre, a wily python, a child-devouring beast with ten eyes, and many thousands more. It was triumphing, losing, destroying, stalking. In one story, thought by a small, frightened boy on a spit of an island, it was a large lizard devouring an entire family. It smiled, rather enjoying the story. It hoped that the story of the family-devouring, invincible monster would become a strong, powerful tradition, told again and again, each time gaining in ferocity. Then again, it liked those kinds of stories, the free-floating, idle day dreams, where it could move almost to its heart's content, almost devour everything.
Suddenly, a part of it was Gilgali. This was odd, as it wasn't the Day of Strength, when the stories of Sudita and Gilgali were told, but it wasn't that unusual. People liked to tell stories of the slaying of the mad tiger. It didn't begrudge them their enjoyment. However, as the hero drew closer, Gilgali noticed something odd. Everything around Sudita seemed to get… actually it wasn't sure. Sharper, maybe? Buildings held their forms, trees stayed in place. The faces of the villagers begging Sudita for aid against Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes, stopped shifting and became solid. Sudita, Lord Of All Men, Founder Of Imar, charged to the cave to destroy Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes, as he had done a thousand times, where he would slay Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes, as he had done a thousand times. For the first time, though, Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes was unsettled.
The pain struck before Sudita, Lord Of All Men issued his challenge to Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes. It was yanked out of its many possibilities, jerked into one. This time, it did not hear the words describing it, only felt them. They fell like chains, binding it as Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes. "From atop his trove of jewels, Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes," the chains began, "roared in response." It cried out in response, feeling each word -no, not word, shape- etched upon its sides, its arms, its eyes, like fire. "He swiped at Sudita, Lord Of All Men, Founder Of Imar, but was too slow."
It felt "the spear of Sudita, Lord Of All Men, Founder Of Imar," (no longer a club or a sword or an axe) plunge through its heart (no longer its head or its eye or its gut). The pain of death was nothing new, but somehow this one was. "Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes heaved a mighty last breath and fell on its side." The linked shapes which dragged it to its side (not longer its back or its belly) burned more than the spear itself. It felt itself swiping at Sudita, Lord Of All Men, Founder Of Imar, but found itself too slow, it heard his challenges and responded with a roar.
Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes shut its lantern eyes as it died, and waited for the story to end. But it didn't. It saw Sudita, Lord Of All Men, Founder Of Imar, as he defeated the Six Wicked Lords and founded the city of Imar and bedded Ninla, begetting the line of Kings. But it was still swiping at him, hearing his boasts, feeling the spear driven through its heart, dying. Every moment was suspended, each as real as the next.
The victorious warlord moved through the dark blood-stained halls of the Palace of Imar, surrounded by humming gaggle of priests.
"But as promised-"
"Are you sure that-"
"A new temple to Ammetu and fifty gold pieces apiece was-"
"-could anger the gods…"
The warlord paid them no mind. The reward for their treachery would be given in due time. Most likely, he mused, in the form of beheadings. Never trust a traitor, his father had told him.
They entered the dark throne room, the dim glow of several torches the only light. The king still sat on the throne, his eyes open in uncomprehending surprise. His robes were stained dark red beneath where the priests had slit his throat. Before the throne laid a small heap of clay tablets. The warlord gave the king's body a push, toppling it from the throne. He gingerly picked up the rod of kingship and sat down.
"All hail King Cambises the First, ruler of Paadu and Imar, Lord of the World, Bringer of Rains!" The priests surrounded the throne in a semi-circle. The King looked on with disinterest as they continued their adulation. A pair of slaves discreetly removed the former king's corpse. When the priests were done, Cambises pointed to the heap of tablets before him.
"What are these?" he asked to no one in particular.
One of the priests stepped forward. "Your grace, these are the records of Sudita, the Founder of Imar. They tell of h-"
"Burn them." The king flicked his rod in the direction of the priests. "Or smash them, or whatever. I don't care. Just destroy them. Imar has no history before now, understood?"
"B-but your worship, a display of such… disregard for a man such as Sudita, Grandson of Pazhu, could ang-"
"I'm sorry, was I unclear?" The king sat up straight in his throne. "Get rid of them. Now."
"Y-yes, your worship." The priest bowed and gathered the clay tablets for destruction.
In a place that wasn't a place, Gilgali, The Tiger With Lantern Eyes felt itself freed from its bonds. It gave a monstrous grin.