“Now that you know the history of my people, the trunk of our tree,” Tob continued, in a mock oratorial pose, “let us venture forth onto that delicate branch which comprises my own family’s particular tale.”

Benda, who found that he was rather enjoying himself, despite his weariness and the apparent length of the cycle of tales unfurling before him, nodded in silent agreement. Tob began again.

“I am called Tob, Brother-Son of Otob, who was original of his people (we are only two), and through whom my lifeline passed, as a clone, before his passing. Otob was brother-son, unknown, and grown all alone, of Potob, of whom the tale of my people speaks. It was Potob who, out of fear of being eaten, leapt from the sack of Makkarin, our mother, and who burrowed deep into her footsteps, and for whom sleep would not come. His cries, lying there, awoke an Old One, in the form of a rat, who came to him and chewed upon him.

“When Makkarin arrived in brightness, the Old One in the normal telling of the legend hissed and fled. But in actuality, he choked, and spat first before he ran. For he had a mouthful of my great-brother-father, Potob. Neither Potob nor Makkarin in this moment of peril, had the presence of mind to notice, let alone collect these expelled remnants, and they went away, where Potob and his brethren and sistren were planted in the Great Fields, and the Children of Makkarin planted them forever anew.

“And yet, all alone, this blob of Potob’s flesh, following its due course, developed into a full clone, with a life of its own. His name was Otob. But without anyone to harvest, or plant him anew, he languished in loneliness. And his only companions were the Dirt People, who in the Wide Lands are known as Gobs. The Dirt People were not an advanced civilization. They had not even any language, or means of locomotion. Though they recognized and lived under that same brightness of Makkarin, they knew not even her name, and did not think to wonder about it.

“Otob, then, in his loneliness, over many long years buried deep below the surface, sent out his many rootlets, both eyes and fingers, to find the Gobs, to touch them each, and speak to them in turn, with what few words he as a clone had inherited from his parents. I say parents not in the sense as you humans or mammals use it — for he had only one brother-father of his lifeline, Potob — but in a chemical sense, in essence. For when Potob was bitten, and when the rat did spit him out as a separate entity, Otob took within him a trace amount of the poison which oozed from the mouth of the Old One. Thus he had two parents, one from whom he inherited the knowledge of Makkarin and her brightness, though dimmed from long ages without contact, and the other from whom he inherited a dark secret knowledge of the depths, and the ancient carnal desire for flesh and for consumption. It welled within him, and he recognized it not.

“It was this like desire which his touching and soothing words awoke with poison in his adopted brother Gobs, who spoke not as humans do, in exhalations and tonal variations, but in great feats and feasts of consumption, inhalations of matter, pulling other entities into their bodies. Thus their language lived inside them, and they were dumb one to the other. And so it came to pass, that the Dirt People, who had truly become Gobs, did eat, consume, and devour one the other. And they grew in size, mass, and knowledge, for when they ate, they took inside them the words and wisdom consumed by the others.

“Over many long generations, my brother-father Otob, watched this happen. He greeted it neither with glee, nor with distaste, as he had no measure for it. But it seemed to him to mean that, over time, the Gobs became more coherent, more intelligent, and more intelligible. The touches of Otob’s eye-fingers, were met ever more with greater awareness, and the larger Gobs even let his roots pass within them, so that he could touch, and see, and communicate, with all the remnants of entities who had passed within, and which made up the collective being of the Gobs. In doing so, he felt less alone.

“There was a Great Gob, who was without a family or personal name, but who was the largest of them all, and who had eaten more than all the others. This Great Gob had become the closest companion of Otob, my brother-father, and Otob’s roots were inextricably intertwined in his mass. Through them, the two communicated in a language without words, of direct impulse, one to the other. And the Great Gob grew and grew as he consumed, feeding at the same time his companion, Otob, through the tiny mouths on his penetrating roots. So Otob grew too, but with none to take him out in harvest, or to split him up into brother-children, and plant them all anew. And with his size, his hunger grew too, as did the poison that the Old One had spread when he bit and spat him out and fled.

“Finally, there came a time when the Great Gob, and my brother-father Otob had completely grown together, fusing in mutual devourment. Thus was formed the first Gobble, when the Great Gob sprouted arms and legs terminating in rootlet mouths and eye-fingers, and lifted himself up out of the soil. Dirt People no more, he became a Stroller, on the broad open face of the Wide World.

“With his limbs, he strolled, eye-fingers blinking under the hot ball of the Sun. He learned to hide out in cool quiet holes and dells during the hot days, and prowled about at night amongst the other creatures, testing and stalking, probing who he could eat without much trouble. And eat he did other beings, Sitters and Strollers alike, most often in their sleep. For he was not a quick predator, capable of running and pouncing like the forest cat, nor patient with a sudden killing strike like the Heron who fished along the Great River. His method of consumption was altogether barbaric. He touched his prey with his tendrils, dusting them with a fine toxic powder which he extruded from his flowers, a trick he’d derived from the poison knowledge of the Old One. It sent them ever deeper into dream, and then he devoured them, quite alive and whole.

“Thus through many long nights of many dark ages, he grew, and grew. And as he ate, he consumed the knowledge of those beings he took within him, learning many secret twisted ways of things that lurk and slink in darkness. With it, he grew ever more wild.

“It so happened that his wandering pathway took him through forest, and over mountain, and fetid hill, until he came upon a village of men, asleep by their fires in their thatched huts, whose roofs were made from reeds of leaves grown along the edge of the Great River, and from which they made their boats. Finding them thus, he crept down and into their village, and with his slumber dust, did cause to be devoured all the occupants of one hut, a family of eight, including their dog. He made no sound, and crept back up to the fetid hills before dawn.

“When the people arose, there was much wonder and fear over the loss of this beloved family, one branch of the wider clan encamped together here, since many long ages. And from their surviving ranks, they elected by lot a man to perform the office of hero, to watch over and protect them the next night. His name was Lam, and he waited the next night by the dark of the moon, with only the stars to watch over him. His only protection was the simple tunic, and cloak on his back, and the long ritual staff of the hero, shod in bronze.

“Otob Gobble paid little heed to this man, for he had seen many others of his kind (and always carefully avoided them), though the night preceding was the first time he had ever tasted human flesh. He imagined himself devouring this one too with the long stick, followed by the occupants of the next hut in the village. So he crept then with stealth down from the fetid hills, tendrils sensing in the dark for his prey. Such was his skill as a hunter that Otob Gobble was nearly upon him, before Lam was aware of the danger. The monster’s tendrils reached out to touch and dust the man’s arm with his poison, but Lam, who had been dozing, spun awake and away from his reach, and brought the long shaft of the staff down on the head of the Gobble. He cried out in pain, and in his panic, expelled great puffs of slumber dust from the orifices of his flowers, which trailed behind him like dirty, ragged hair.

“Lam, seeing this, covered his mouth with the edge of his cloak, and while the Gobble was still reeling, lifted up the bronze shod end of the hero staff, and barreling toward the monster, cleft it in its forehead. The Gobble reeled back in agony, having never been struck before by such a blow, let alone by a hero staff tipped in forged metal. The shock reverberated to his very core, and the staff broke in two. Lam too stumbled back at the force of it, and slipped, exposing his mouth to the slumber dust still pregnant in the air.

“Falling fast asleep, he did not see the marvelous disintegration of the hideous monstrosity which my brother-father had become, as the wound rent to pieces his mass, and out from his flesh poured the many bits and forms of beings who he had eaten and absorbed within him. Those who had been devoured most recently, in fact, like the family from the village, escaped still alive, though in a deep slumber still for a few more days . Others who had been eaten long ago were less lucky, and were expelled only as skeletons, or bits of fur, hair, and claw, which had been too rough for the Gobble to digest, but which he had been too greedy to expel.

“The Great Gob who had subsumed my brother-father was thus killed, releasing too poor Otob from his grasp. But so much had he grown in eating, and become intertwined with the Gob, such that he too was effectively killed in the fight with Lam. In the dawn light of the next day, the villagers gathered up their sleeping members, and took care of the few other dormant animals and critters who had been eaten recently, but who remained alive. And they put the rest, including the remains of my brother-father, roots and all (or so they thought) into a huge purifying fire, and burned it all for three days and three nights. And when the fire had ended, Lam the hero, and the sleeping villagers, and other recovered animals and critters awoke, and were sorely hungry. A feast was held, and all for them returned to normal.”

“A truly incredible tale!” Benda cheered at the end. “But if they burned the remnants, how then did you survive?”

“To this detail, I will now attend, my dear, dear friend. You see, there was a bit of root, little more than the tip of an eye-finger, which in the duel had broken off, and fallen under Lam’s foot. When the villagers found Lam and the others, they had left them be where they lay, and made up beds for them in the open, under the warmth of the sun, thinking this would cause their eyes to open. And as they gathered up the monstrous remnants, they neglected to find this root, which, after its nature, burrowed into the soil, grew, and formed a clone. The one and very same you see before you today. It is I, Tob Gobble, at your service.”