The trees thin suddenly, and you emerge into a sun-drenched clearing. The table is a tree, cut in half and resting on the ground. The chairs are simply stumps.

There are a variety of animal guests, including your friend (or is she your enemy? Ally? Acquaintance? You’re never quite sure), the Pink Squirrel. Her mysterious violet eyes catch the light as she turns toward you, and her ears perk up and forwards in what seems to be surprise.

One by one, each animal turns toward you, until they are all staring.  The eyes of a large and exquisitely patterned toad fix upon you. The horizontal pupils of a goat seem to be seeking out your soul. The beady stare of a bare-headed vulture nags and tears at your psyche. An iguana grins at you, showing sharp, pointy teeth.

“So sorry I’m late,” says the Crow. “As you can see, I’ve brought along a guest.”

Silence rings in your ears.

The guest.”

More silence.

“Please welcome the guest.”

There is a faint murmuring around the table. Squirrel claps her pink little hands together a few times. The animal eyes begins to drift away from you, at last; you let out a sigh of relief, and realize you’d been holding your breath. Crow nods at you. “Take your place. Set the berries on the table.”

Though this is supposedly a banquet, there is no food on the table, no plates or silverware or decorations or anything at all. And there are only two empty spaces, being filled now by you and Crow.

Crow is near the head of the table. As luck would have it, you’re sitting between Pink Squirrel and a shaggy goat. You place your handful of berries upon the rough wood surface. No one looks at you, or says anything---except Pink Squirrel, who places a tiny paw upon your arm. Her words are a squeaky squirrel whisper:

“Oh, dear – I wasn’t expecting to see you here! I think it’s a little soon, for you to be attending the banquet. But that’s all right. Just brace yourself. And be prepared to—“

The vulture coughs, and Pink Squirrel hastily removes her paw. She resumes staring at the table, in silence, like the other guests.

There is a slight rustling of wings, and Crow gives one low caw. “Allow me to explain the rules, briefly, for those among us who may be attending for the first time.” Crow’s gaze sweeps over every animal, but those black eyes seem to glitter when they fall on you, and linger, just for a moment. “At the sound of the first gong, we begin the Meet and Greet. Approach someone, and say ‘May I speak with you?’ Upon acceptance, proceed to converse for a few minutes. This conversation is required. Pairs only, this time. When the gong sounds again, we must have silence. Then the food will be served. Silence reigns, then topics will be presented, one by one.  By that time—“

A gong sounds.

It is a deep, echoing noise, and though it sounds like it’s from very far away,it’s loud enough to not only be heard clearly, but to feel like it is shaking your very bones and rattling your brain.

The animals are up and moving around the table. In the time it took for you to blink, most have paired off and are already talking. Best survey your remaining options—quickly.

[Pink Squirrel is still free, and is looking at you, with a mixture of expectation and hesitancy.]

[The shaggy goat with alarming eyes is making a very odd face and staring straight at the sky, his head twisted at a bizarre angle.] 40.

[The vulture blinks at you.]