Chapter 2: The Scrounger of Teeth
Elsenya was almost finished cleaning for the day. This was a good thing, since she’d been hungry for the last three hours and was just about ready to eat a tree by now.
Marie, who had finished cleaning just five minutes before, leaned on a wall and watched her clean while chewing on her apple. She was eating it slowly in order to mock her, Elsenya decided, although in her current state she was fairly certain anyone having lunch within a mile of the inn was doing it to mock her. But she grit her teeth and bravely persevered. Today would not be the day she failed in her duties.
The reason Marie was eating slowly was the same reason Marie always ate slowly, which was that she talked between taking bites. “And they say there was some kind of fight between the wizards at the top of the tower, and now they’re too busy to protect us and the Raiders are going to come raiding all the way up to our gates”, she paused to take a bite, “and the king sent a whole company of his knights up from Maradon to ward them off.” She took another bite, then continued without a break. “And Moira from the cabbage store told me there’s a monster loose in the sewer that steals people’s teeth from their mouths when they’re asleep.” It was amazing, Elsenya thought, that she hadn’t choked on her food yet. She finished her cleaning and went into the kitchen, Marie happily chattering behind her.
Before she could eat, she ran into Lacey, who was just coming out of the kitchen. “Good, you’re here” Lacey said. “Finish taking the food to the guests, and then go get some cabbages from Moira’s. I need to go visit my new grandkid.”
Elsenya sighed. Two new things to do before she could eat, and she was already so hungry. She loaded up the food tray and went up to the second floor. There were two guests staying there that week, but neither of them were in, so she just took all the food to the third floor.
The tree in the middle of the room was swaying to a breeze that wasn’t there, and Sorin was at his desk, staring out the window. Elsenya put the tray on the desk and tried to see what he was seeing, but all she got was an odd feeling that the town outside the window wasn’t quite the same as the town she would see if she walked downstairs and out the door. But he spoke before she could ask about it.
“Have you finished your chores yet?”
“Almost! I still need to buy cabbages, but the cabbage store’s just a few streets away, and I’ll be done in a bit. And then can you start teaching me magic?” Before he could answer, she remembered the other thing she needed to ask him. “Also everyone’s talking about this monster that lives in the sewers and steals teeth. Is it real? Do you know where it came from?”
He looked at her firmly. “It is real, and it came because of you.”
“Because of me?” She couldn’t remember creating any monsters.
“Erlich created it as an experiment. When you had Arthur arrest him, his containment spells broke down and let it loose in the sewers. Your first lesson is to pacify it.”
“How… how am I supposed to kill a monster no one’s even seen? How can I even find it? And what’s this supposed to teach me?”
“Go into the sewer entrance and look. You will know it when you see it. The lesson here is that you need to finish what you started, and that includes closing off loose ends. Besides, wandering in the sewers is always a learning experience.” He frowned. “And I never said you should kill it.”
Her stomach rumbled loudly, reminding her this was another chore she had to do before she could eat. “The faster you finish this, the sooner you can eat. If you finish early you’ll be back in time for lunch.” He picked a fruit off the tree and threw it to her. It took her a moment to realize the fruit was made of crystal, and another moment to realize it was glowing from the inside. “Make sure you bring it back when you’re done.”
She saw a sewer entrance on her way to the cabbage shop. It was just a hole in the street covered by a grate, and somehow shed walked by it every time she bought groceries and never once noticed it. She looked around to make sure no one saw her, then opened the grate and climbed down the ladder into the tunnel.
The light from the grate ended even before the ladder did, so she took the glowfruit out when she reached the floor. Its light was otherworldly and strangely soft. Now that she saw it by itself, she realized it was the same strange light the room on the third floor always had. The fruit wasn’t even that bright, but she could see every detail within a dozen yards by its light. Magic light, she decided, was entirely more useful than the normal kind, even if it was rather strange.
She was on a thin walkway by a stream of something that looked like water and smelled so bad she almost stopped thinking about food. She supposed this was what sewage was.
If I were a tooth-stealing monster, she thought to herself, where would I hide? She started walking downstream. A monster would be hiding at the end of all the flows, she reasoned. The deepest part of the sewers, where the streams all came to it and nothing would leave it downstream.
She walked down along the stream. It joined another stream, and she started hearing sobbing in the distance. She walked on downstream, towards it, past two more branches and (to her relief) another ladder to the outside. Every intersection, the noise sobbing noise got louder. And then she saw the Snailtelope.
It was about eight feet tall, with the shell and body of a snail on top of six furry legs, like those of a common antelope but thicker. Its torso grew out into the head of an antelope with two grand, pronged antlers. Its body was covered in thick grey furwherever it was exposed under the shell. And it was crying great acid tears that sizzled when they hit the ground. Elsenya had expected she would feel afraid, but now that she saw it, she felt sorry for the strange, sad creature.
“Why are you crying?” She asked it softly.
“Because everyone hates me, and because I am so very hungry.” It said between sobs. Her stomach grumbled in sympathy.
“What do you eat?” She asked. “Doesn’t anyone feed you?”
“I eat human teeth. There was a man who used to feed me delicious magical teeth whenever I got hungry – they weren’t real teeth, but they helped me grow. But then he stopped coming, and I had to break out and look for teeth by myself. But I can only find them in people’s mouths now, and people don’t like it when I take them.”
“But you take them anyway?”
It nodded, sobbing. “I know I shouldn’t, because people hate me when I do. But I get so hungry. I sneak in at night when they don’t notice – I’m a combination of two stealthy animals, so they never notice me, even when I take their teeth. I don’t want to bother them, you see, but then they wake up missing teeth and they get mad at me anyway. I try to stop, but I always get so hungry again.” It was sobbing much more quietly now, but its tears had already made a deep groove in the floor.
Elsenya tried to think of a solution. All the creature needed was food, but where could she find a supply of teeth that didn’t involve stealing them from people’s mouths? She had no idea how to make teeth by magic, and she didn’t think Sorin would make them for her if she asked. Then she remembered Lacey talking about her new grandkid, and she had an idea.
“What if children threw their teeth into the sewers when they fell out? Could you find them down here and eat them?”
The snailtelope nodded. “Everything people throw down here gets to me eventually,” it said. “But how would you get all the children to do that?”
“I can convince at least one family to do it” she said, thinking of Lacey. “I’ll tell them you offered to make a deal, wheree you won’t steal teeth from anyone on a street where people throw their teeth into the sewer. And people on other streets will see how they keep all their teeth, and they’ll start doing it too, until everyone in the city gives you their teeth and you don’t have to steal teeth anymore.”
“But what if they forget?”
“Then you can just start stealing their teeth again. They’ll remember soon enough.
The snailtelope stopped crying. “You promise?”
“I promise.” She nodded solemnly, and the snailtelope gave her a small, real, smile.
It took her less than twenty minutes to finish buying cabbaged and get back to the inn (the ladder she used to climb back out turned out to be right next to the cabbage shop). She ran into Lacey coming back in.
“Just getting back from the cabbage shop? Good girl. Now go stack them up and you can eat.”
“Miss Lacey!” She said. “Can you tell your daughter to throw her kids’ teeth into the sewer when they fall out? I met the snailtelope who’s been stealing people’s teeth and I made him promise that if they did that he wouldn’t steal teeth from anyone on theor street anymore. And then they wouldn’t have to hate him and he could stop being sad and crying all the time.”
Lacey shrugged. “Why not. Make sure you put the cabbaged in the second box, I put carrots in the first one.” She walked off to the kitchen and started cooking. Elsenya stacked the cabbages, and then she finally got to eat.
Much later, because she kept eating for a long time, she went up to the third floor.
“I found the snailtelope.” She told Sorin. “It said no one took care of it after Beardface left. Why didn’t the tower send someone else?”
“The tower couldn’t have known about this.” He said. “They forbid any magical experiment that involves a creature with a mind and soul. Erlich did this in secret, on his own. It must be the reason he needed a secret magic stash in the first place.”
“Why is it forbidden?”
“Because,” he said grimly, “there’s no known magic that can create a mind or soul. They can only steal them.”
“The glowfruit?” He asked, and she handed it back to him. He walked over to the tree and put it back on, where it hung like it had never been picked.
“How did you do that?”
“It’s easy once you know how. Like picking it, except that time moves in reverse. I’ve learned a lot about time from cats.” The cat jumped in through the open window, and climbed up on his shoulders.
“And that”, she told Alicia, “is why you always have to finish what you started. Did you finish your carrots?”
Alicia nodded. “But what happened to the snailtelope? Was it lonely and sad forever?”
“Oh, no, not at all” she answered. “It had a very happy life indeed. People in the city even started liking it, after it stopped stealing their teeth. It even made friends, with the inquisitive children who came down the sewers to explore.”
“So you didn’t have to fight it at all?”
The old woman nodded. “There’s almost always a better way to solve problems than fighting. Of course, sometimes there isn’t, and then you have to fight. I never liked it though. My brother was always much better at that.”
“You had a brother?”
“I had three. And two sisters. My older brother, he left home to go be a soldier in the Capital years before I came to Tel Antora. I never expected to run into him there when I left. But then one day the soldiers came to town…”