Blaine Arcade (well kind of)
Blaine Arcade in a Men’s Room
Since you seem to be a reader I bet you think it’s safe to assume that I, Blaine Arcade, wrote this book. If you made that safe assumption you were wrong.
A couple of years ago I was in a United States airport. I won’t say where on the off chance that this book becomes popular and obsessed fans decide they want to visit and harass the employees. I was sitting with my laptop in front of me, much as I am right now, waiting to board my flight. The weather outside was pretty bad and it was getting worse by the minute. The rain was thick and depressing, like cold syrup drowning a pile of pancakes that never gets eaten. Oh that was a terrible analogy. I’m sorry; I’m really not much of a wordsmith. Lucky for you, as I said before, I didn’t write this book.
That inevitable voice crackled through the speakers. Due to the weather we’re forced to temporarily delay all flights. I’m sure if you look behind the ticket counter or in a TSA agent’s locker you’ll find the special airport dictionary that has a few key differences from a real one. It defines temporary as fourteen hours. I was stuck there all night. About four hours in I urgently approached the men’s room, which is the only way to approach it after four sodas. I knew to bring my bag with me and not leave it unattended. This was a few years ago, but it wasn’t that many years ago.
I picked the middle stall and was halfway down my zipper before I actually bothered to take a look around. After all, there’s usually nothing to see in a bathroom and when there is you usually wish you hadn’t seen it. The walls were covered, and I mean covered, in the smallest legible handwriting I’d ever seen. The text, without horizontal lines to guide it, swam all over the sides of the stall, the inside of the door, and the wall over the toilet. Sometimes a big section of it wound up curling in a circle, the words shrinking down the center of a whirlpool.
The writing had fancy flowing lettering like the first letter on a lot of classy Christmas cards; it wasn’t the stubby error-filled expletives, insults, or slurs you expect from public restroom literature. A skirt of blue sticky notes, each filled with scrawl as well, ringed the bottom of the stall walls and door. It seemed the author had run out of room. I looked for the beginning where logic dictated it would be, near the top of the door. The words when a finger slides seemed to start everything. Reading that, I worried this strange accomplishment would turn out to be nothing but erotica. I’m glad to say my fears were erased quickly.
It was the world’s greatest bathroom graffiti and I felt that I couldn’t just leave it there. It wasn’t a safe place for such a vulnerable tale. Some of the writing had already been smudged or vandalized by others who had found it before me and wanted to leave their own stupid mark rather than listen. I took it upon myself to place my laptop on the covered toilet and write down as much of it as I could.
I worked for hours, only stopping when someone else entered as I didn’t want them to inquire about the sound of typing. I also didn’t want to concoct some excuse about severe intestinal distress. When I found I was running out of time and getting very tired, I dug my camera out of my bag and took pictures of the remaining text to write down later. Eventually I got all of it. Mostly. The smudging, vandalism, and rushing meant I had to paraphrase some sections in order to create an intact story, so I must again apologize for any patchy interruptions of bad writing. If you see a particularly tortured simile, that’s probably me.
Before we get into this I want you to look at this little chart I made. Everyone in the story seems to use a different system of measurement. You’ll see why, but I want to give you a heads up so you’re not confused by the words. Keep in mind these are just approximations I came up with based on context.
Drip – one second
Drop – one hour
Rinse – ten days
Wash – one hundred days
Rest – one thousand days
Bubble – one inch
Foam – ten inches
Lather – one mile or kilometer
Flake – one ounce
Chip – one pound
Bar – one hundred pounds
Case – one thousand pounds
I had the opportunity to return to the stall several months later and was not surprised to find everything had been erased. The sticky notes had been pulled from the bottom and there wasn’t even a trace of their adhesive. It was most likely destroyed by nothing more complicated than a janitor with a spray bottle of lemon disinfectant, but I had the strange feeling it simply vanished after I’d left that night. With it gone, this is the only version that remains. Please enjoy these words. I also encourage you to see them as a reality, as I now do. The individual that wrote them in the first place probably saw it all occur.
The Town in Mist
(Blaine’s Note: One more thing before we officially get started… Yes, these illustrations are lousy recreations of some doodles I found alongside the story, smeared together in a simple paint program. I’m sorry. I’m the kind of guy who has the free time to sit in a bathroom all night, not the kind of guy who can afford an artist and their interpretations. Okay, this is the real beginning…)
When a finger slides across a map and points to it, it is nothing more than a blue smudge. The smudge is not caused by a spilled drink or by being crossed by a finger too many times. It was recorded as a shapeless indigo mass.
It is a town settled in a most unfortunate place. When the plot of land was settled hundreds of rests ago the founder of the town recognized the area for its unique weather. This man was also a crazy person. It was madness to settle there. That did not stop him and his crazy wife from doing so. He took a seat on a large stone and declared the area his, leaving his ancestors to suffer the town’s frustrating conditions.
The village is covered with the thickest blanket of mist in all of Porce. In other regions mist exists as a morning phantom, leaving only bright dew drops in its wake. In this village the mist stays and never clears. It carpets the ground, suffocates the plants, and clouds the sky. Each member of the community has several accidental collisions with objects and folk every day. They’ve stubbed their toes so many times that they eventually started tipping their shoes with metal plates, which they go through quickly as the mist rusts them day and night.
Curiously, it does not have the same effect on the ground even though that is made of metal as well. The land has doomed its folk to insecurity as metal ground is not the best for cultivation. The town’s main exports are the bropato plant and tough blue shellfish that thrive in the mist as if they were lathers below the water, growing on fences, gutters, doorways, your favorite pair of metal-tipped shoes, or the sleeping heads of your elderly relatives.
The livestock are threatened by wet fur, which causes a horrid assortment of fungi to take up residence on their skin. The animals moan and groan through the night, disturbed by the fact that there isn’t a dry patch to sleep on.
This wakes the folk who, in a rare historical instance, have worse lives than their animals. The mist fuses with their breath and makes thirst impossible. Many of the residents have never taken a drink. Their fingertips are always shriveled from the excess water. Until they managed to design clothes with internal passageways in the fabric, they were always soaked to the bone. Even now their garments aren’t the most comfortable. Their tunics channel the mist away from their body and send it spilling in small streams out of holes in the wrist fabric. The sound of footsteps is always followed by the trickling of droplets on metal.
Many of them have not seen the world beyond the mist and are convinced that there isn’t anything out there. They manage to stay positive and happy even when they can’t see the positive thing that is four foams in front of them. Although the mist blinds them, they are also blind to the things worse than the mist that lurk beyond it. They consider it worthwhile to endure the toxic air in lieu of exploration. The emotions of choice are determination and a sense of familial responsibility that most accepted obligingly.
There was one who experienced a different set of feelings. He felt boredom. His fleeting moments of happiness came only when he thought he felt something great on the horizon of his life. The joy of chasing joy.
He was a young man just six rests of age (Blaine’s note: Seventeen years by my rough calculation.) who went by the name Alast. Like most, his head was shaved as the mist made most hygiene tasks impossible. A pale but fit frame held up his blue clothes, with knotted circles of mist-channeling fabric around his shoulders, wrists, and pant legs. He had dark eyes with a forceful stare that could pierce normal fog, but not the kind that went to bed with him. He still scowled in much the same way he did when he was born.
A smart man would flee such a place. Poor Alast had a tedious amount of growing up to do before he could venture somewhere where the mist didn’t disguise the sky as the ground.
One of the twistenbeast whined much louder than usual. The creature hobbled on twisted legs over to the wall that separated the yard from Alast’s room. Once it encountered the wall, which in that town means collided with, it rammed its head against the decaying wood. The noise coming from the animal’s mouth was clearly a death rattle.
Thick and inescapable, like tar, the sound pulled at Alast’s mind and woke him. The dead of night seemed like the best time to die, but Alast wished the creature had chosen a more reasonable hour. He rose from his soaked bed, looked back at the little puddle his depression left, and winced as his feet hit the cold floor. A fluttery cough failed to send the mist away. He cursed its existence. He cursed the twistenbeast’s existence. He’d left his sword somewhere on the floor so, groping blindly, he searched for it. A metal clang greeted his hand.
Most residents chose at least one long object to be their eyes and Alast was no exception. The sheathed blade tapped around the wall before revealing the shape of the doorway. Alast ran his hands along both walls to find his way out of the crumbling house. He stepped on something and felt the warm sting of a cut on his heel. The shells had started growing inside the house again, but he was too stubborn to go back and get his boots.
The only sign that he had stepped outside was a minor drop in the air’s stagnation. The twistenbeast sensed his approach and ran over to the fence. It stuck its head between two slats of wood and licked his knee. Alast bent down and touched both sides of the creature’s long head. It looked at him with doleful black eyes, rested its chin on his knee, and moaned: meeeerrruuuurrrr…
Lightfolk (Blaine’s Note: Lightfolk seem to be humans from what I can tell.) from any other wall would call a twistenbeast more vermin than livestock. From the day they are born their bones begin to twist. That one, about a rest old, had a muzzle turned completely sideways. Each of its legs had spiraled ten times into cyclones of flesh and fur. The poor beasts hobbled and limped everywhere. Their milk soured on contact with the air and their meat always left the eater a little depressed. Still, they were one of the few creatures that could stand the mists.
The animal’s eyes dripped as its lashes blinked some fog away. Again it whimpered in pain; if it continued it would wake Alast’s father. He had been taught a few washes ago that when a twistenbeast made sounds like that its soul was getting ready to head into the florent, into the cleansing light. His job was to help it along by beheading it. Then he would have to harvest the blood and meat from it in the middle of the night. Most in the town agreed that it was the humane thing to do. Alast didn’t think of death as very humane. This place is inhumane, he thought. He wanted to do what was interesting more than what was right. Most of all he wanted to do the opposite of what his father wanted him to.
He grabbed the twistenbeast by the leather strap around its neck and encouraged it over to the fence’s gate. All the while he patted it on the side, trying to discourage its groaning. With his sword out in front of him he tapped the ground to find the path. The town was mapped with a series of intertwining wooden docks that lifted a foot off the metal ground. Tap… metal. Tap… metal. Tap… metal. Tonk! Wood. Alast had a hard time lifting the beast up onto the planks. Although it was only about waist high at the shoulder, its twisted limbs would bend and sway frustratingly when its weight shifted. It no longer cried in pain; instead its chest heaved with exhaustion. He would have to carry it the rest of the way if he didn’t want it to suffer the dull death of drowning in mist.
After hoisting it up onto his shoulders, Alast tried to muster the energy to run the rest of the way. Relying on memory to avoid ‘encountering’ any buildings, it took him a third of a drop to make it past the town’s borders.
When he was very young Alast had asked if there was any way out of the mist. His father, a man who was inexplicably content with his life, told him that only one profession in the town offered the chance to work outside. Alast closed his mind around the possibility. His father told him those men were unhappy, that their jobs were incredibly dangerous. Alast never considered anything else. He would be a bropato harvester.
Although the town would seem right at home in a dark wet crevice, it was actually situated on an expansive metal block protruding from a monolithic wall of stone and soil. When the mists cleared in front of Alast there was only half a lather before the ground disappeared. The fall to the World Floor was unimaginably long. One legend Alast was fond of starred a man named Rikes who fell off the edge while wrestling a particularly unfriendly beast. In the tale he fell for such a long time that he met a fellow unfortunate falling soul, fell in love, married her, and had three children. Luckily the children could fly, and they lifted their parents back up to the ‘safety’ of the mists.
A few times Alast was tempted to make the jump. Incredibly tempted. His head swam at the sight of the drop and a voice told him it was his place to fall, to forsake his father and his wet little house for a destiny of very temporary, but complete, freedom. Instead he chose the job where falling was a likelihood.
Bropato was a substance that constantly grew out of the front of Metal Block. It emerged in one massive sheet that split and grew down towards the ground. No matter how much of it was cut away, it would return in a day or two. Bropato was a flexible corky wood of a tan color. It wasn’t much use to the townsfolk because it rotted quickly when exposed to the mist. There were, however, traders that came from other outcroppings and paid handsomely for the wood. They came once every three rinses to pick up huge folded sheets of it. Alast tried to squeeze as much information as possible from them about life outside the mist, but they were unresponsive at best. One of them asked him if he knew The Gross Truth, and when Alast replied in the negative the man told him it was better that way.
Only two or three folk worked as harvesters at any given time. When one died, usually from a fall, another stepped up. Alast told his father he was merely an assistant who carried the already cut sheets to the crates. In truth he had climbed further down the bropato sheet than any man in history, save for one.
The twistenbeast wasn’t being carried to the harvest station; Alast instead carted it off to a secluded grove separated from the harvesting station by a hill of metal and a line of boulders. When they made it there he set the beast down. It wobbled for a few moments, panting terribly. Then it lifted its head with a confused expression and took the deepest breath its body had ever known. As if a breeze filled with medicine had blown straight through it, the twistenbeast threw off its agony like nothing more than a wegger’s web. It grunted happily and ran in the awkward ungainly fashion its kind was famous for. It took off for a huge leafy bush and began to devour it. Although it was still dark, Alast’s mood had lifted and he was no longer tired. Exiting the mists always raised his spirits. The air was clean, his skin would dry under the florent’s light when it came, and it was the only time he felt the unfamiliar sensation of thirst. There was immeasurable pleasure in finding a fresh running stream and sucking up handfuls of the transparent nectar.
The cured beast was greeted by an assortment of other animals that emerged from the foliage. It was a herd of six twistenbeast, four rabards, twelve shellenfowl, and one small axehaund.
More than four washes ago, Alast discovered that the mists greatly reduced animal life spans. He’d had a pet, a small furry creature his father called vermin, in its last stages of life and, wanting to be there for it, he transported it to work with him in his pocket. As soon as they were clear of the mists the little creature no longer appeared to be dying. It was more energetic than ever, so much so that it escaped from him. Occasionally he saw it scurrying, with a brood of its own, through the undergrowth near the cliff. He was almost happy it didn’t seem to recognize him, because that meant it didn’t remember the mist either.
After that Alast tried to tell everyone in town that their animals would last longer if they just kept them outside the mist. For some reason they regarded him as misguided and stubbornly denied the mists were harmful. Many thoughts of morality plagued Alast’s mind after that. Why would his folk refuse to seek better lives? Why willingly be blind and suffer the moisture? What did they think they were protecting? Maybe they weren’t his folk. Maybe he didn’t have folk. Maybe Alast was his own beast, and encountering other living things was the same as encountering a wall or a sharp stone in the mist: a constant pain. He spent as much time outside of the town as his father would allow, and then some.
The fresh air had wondrous effects on all the rescued animals. The twistenbeast had grown so that they were more than six foams tall at the shoulder. The rabards, which were woolly creatures born from thick-skinned fruits, had begun to pair off and plant vines of their own, spreading little orange fruits all over the grove. The shellenfowl, long-necked gray birds that were similarly born from stationary shellfish, had found the ability to fly, something they had forgotten in the mists.
Alast had bonded most with the axehaund. It was discovered under his house, after a wave of reports came in that something had eaten all of the town’s axe handles. It was an odd diet, but there was little else for it in town. Instead of turning the animal in, Alast took it with him to the grove. Not willing to acquire an axe every time it was hungry, he tried to get it to eat small sheets of bropato. It turned away at first but soon accepted the offerings. It was the smallest haund he had ever seen, only eight bubbles tall at the shoulder; its body was comically long and had tiny legs, like a waddling sausage. Like all haunds it was cursed with a bony blade at the end of its snout. Axehaunds were named such both because of the shape of their blade and their habit of gnawing on the same implement. It was the only animal Alast bothered to name: Finick, because of his specific eating habits.
Finick jumped into Alast’s arms and licked his face while the new twistenbeast examined its gigantic counterparts, mesmerized with happiness. The florent would come on soon, so Alast decided to stay until Orbon, his fellow bropato harvester, showed up. Alast sometimes left for work extremely early, so his father would understand if he wasn’t there when he woke up. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but he would understand.
Alast, satisfied he had saved the animal from a dull end, sat down on a large boulder and looked deep into the darkness, to the other side of the world. Few folk in town had seen the world without the mist in the way. Alast had always imagined that the sky and the ground would go on forever, but he had been wrong. He was shocked to learn that the world had a very distinct shape. All the land on which he lived was merely a small part of the interior of a colossal prism. For some reason he had expected an overall round entity. He had voiced this opinion to Orbon, who knew a bit more about the world.
“Round? That’d be a thing to see,” he’d said. “You know what you’d find if you turned this place inside out? A whole sea o’ nothin’, with no surface for your head to break.”
So Alast had to come to terms with the fact that he was in a gigantic cage, with no view of what, if anything, lay beyond. It only took him a few drops to memorize all of the world’s visible landmarks. There were the three toils (the middle one visible thanks to Second Stone Door), the two Rin cliffs, the three sinks, the First Door, the Reflecting Path, the Threewall Wild, the Bottomless Rot, the Broken Fix, the Soapstone Mines, the Tunnel of Sweat, and its desert of glass. That was it. That was the world the way it appeared on cloudless days with the florent blazing. Alast found it disappointing.
Swordfights were rarely disappointing, but it took him a moment to realize he’d been thrust into one. A bearded man barreled out from the undergrowth, swinging a saber and shouting. Alast tossed Finick forward so the haund could flee and grabbed his sheathed straight sword from off the rock. His attacker struck downward. Alast blocked it and pushed the startled man back. He unsheathed his blade and pointed it at the man, who, wide-eyed, dropped his saber and threw his hands into the air.
“I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! Don’t strike!” he sputtered. He held his raised hands together, praying Alast would listen.
“Are you a robber?” he asked the praying man. He examined the man’s attire: a cloak that looked like a straw mat with a hole cut for his head, high-laced boots, and a ridiculous hat with three green tassels hanging from the brim. The man tried to blow them out of his eyes, since his hands were occupied begging for mercy. Alast thought his clothes looked a bit like what the merchants wore when they came to buy bropato.
“I am not a criminal!” he declared. Alast sighed. A criminal might have meant some excitement. He’d never truly gotten to test his sword fighting skills outside of the mist. “I am very sorry! I thought you were one of the proliths. I thought I had caught you before you’d made a body. You were all hunched over and it’s still very dark. I’m sorry.”
“What’s a prolith?” Alast asked. “And what makes them so dangerous you slay every one you see?”
“You haven’t seen them?” he asked, puzzled. “That’s good. It means they haven’t reached here yet.”
“Tell me what they are,” Alast demanded. He shook his blade, hoping it appeared intimidating on the other end. Every moment with the man was a moment he could be spending hanging from the bropato and staring into the great fall below.
“They’re coming I assure you. They’ve been sweeping the walls… looking for something. I just heard that you are supposed to kill them before they can form.”
“Tell me what they are!” Alast ordered again. He was getting impatient. If the man planned on killing him he might get another shot if the florent switched on and temporarily blinded Alast.
“They’re creatures! Left over from before folk. Blobs… moving balls of slime covered in tails… at first… but if they see you they sort of… grab the ground around them. The grass, the dirt, the trees, the metal… everything. Then they swirl it around themselves. It creates a body… they make themselves huge suits of armor and then they attack you. So I’ve heard.” It sounds like a story to scare children, Alast thought. What chore did they shirk to invoke the prolith’s wrath? Not making their beds? Not feeding the twistenbeast?
“You better not be making this up,” he threatened and wiggled the sword some more. “What did you mean when you said they were searching the walls? And… and what ‘time before folk’?” Alast felt disarmed by his lack of knowledge. It was a lack the man picked up on. He finally realized he faced an adolescent, so he steadied his feet, brushed off his cloak, and pursed his lips.
“I won’t be speaking of them anymore,” he insisted. “I’ve come to purchase some bropato for my travels. Can you direct me to the merchants?”
“There are no merchants,” Alast said as he sheathed his sword. “I cut it and I sell it. How much do you want?” The man stroked his goatee and leaned in, as if he didn’t want the animals to overhear.
“I’m not here for the ordinary kind. I want the good stuff. The dark brown,” he said. Orbon kept the ‘good stuff’ in a very safe place. Every so often, during harvesting, they came across patches of bropato colored a deep brown rather than the ordinary shades of tan. For some reason it was worth much more than the ordinary bropato. Alast walked over to one of the small boulders that divided the grove from the harvesting station, lifted it, and removed a long metal case from the hole underneath. Now that the man had seen the hiding place Alast would have to dig a new hole somewhere else, but he was too caught up in his thoughts to bother now. Once the case was opened the man was quick to pull out his bag of tiles. Alast was careful to keep the case out of grabbing distance.
“I charge six tiles a square. You won’t find it anywhere else in Porce,” Alast said proudly. The man had no problem with the price and emptied a mixed handful of rectangular copper coins and blue square ones into the boy’s palm. Alast pocketed the coins and gave the man two small squares of deep brown bropato, which he carefully wrapped in cloth. The man glanced at the twistenbeast moving around in the dark.
“Any chance you sell steeds too? I need something that can get me all the way to Second Sink,” he asked. Alast could only see the very edges of the white stone outcropping called Second Sink. From his vantage point it looked quite barren. He didn’t know why anyone would want to go there, but he took the opportunity to ask the man about where he’d come from. None of the visiting merchants had ever answered him when he’d asked how they made it from their outcroppings to Metal Block without falling the countless lathers to the ground.
“What do you mean how did I get here?” the man asked. “I walked. That’s the reason I’m tired enough to buy a steed.”
“You couldn’t have walked here. There’s a wall in that direction and a cliff over there.”
“Right, except I walked on the wall. You’ve never been off Metal Block have you? You’re one of the homegrown mist kids! I met one of you once. Dumb man… dumb. Listen…When you reach the wall you can take a step onto it… and it will seem like the whole world turns and you can walk across it like it’s regular ground! You think this is amazing don’t you?!”
“You mean that I can just walk on the walls?”
“Hahahaha! Ha… ahh… You are out of touch. Yes you can, but it won’t feel like you’re walking on a wall; it’ll just feel like the ground. Don’t go thinking you can do it on any wall though: just the four world walls, the World Roof, and the toil surroundings. You do know where you live don’t you?”
“I live in the mists.” Alast heard the shame in his own voice, like the sound of a scholar ancestor rolling in his grave when his descendant decided to be a painter.
“That you do, but… huh… just forget it. Do you have a steed or not? I don’t suppose these twisted leg beasts are much good for riding?”
“They’re not much good for anything,” Alast answered. With that the man set off on his aching feet, toward Second Sink. If Alast didn’t have work to do, he would’ve spent the day following just to see him take that first step up a wall. His head buzzed with questions. Is it truth? Can anyone stroll up a wall like a fly? I know the trees can grow there, the Threewall Wild covers much of them, but those are trees. The roots keep them from falling. I have no roots. Of course, if that were true I wouldn’t still be stuck here. And what about those prolith creatures? For the first time he realized the man in the silly hat had sounded genuinely frightened when he mentioned them. Before he could think any more, a dazzling flash of light blinded Alast. The florent had turned on.
No creature of Porce ever got used to the sudden abundance or absence of light. Every twelve drops the florent changed its mind. After a full night of darkness it instantaneously illuminated every corner of the world. All societies regarded the rectangular shaft of light with wary eyes. What powered it? Was there an immense struggle with a new victor every half-day? Was it a god providing just the right amounts of light and darkness to let the world’s creatures flourish? In the mists, and in many other places, it was regarded as the shining land of the afterlife, where the dead go when they are done with sleep and are ready to become the light of day. Whenever Alast asked why folk didn’t just kill themselves to immediately go there, his father would look at him like he’d belched loudly during a funeral.
When Alast saw it in its full glory, not obscured by mist, he stopped entertaining that idea. It was too bright to be the loving gaze of the virtuous dead. If the bropato sheets didn’t block him enough during the day, the light burned his skin. Its rays were fires spread thin enough to be invisible. He worried about the flock of discarded animals during the day. Perhaps when there was no mist the rays sought to dry out anything left in their gaze for too long.
He squinted to try and get the red splotches out of his vision. As the dancing colors fled, Alast noticed a figure moving towards him. His frame was thick and muscular, like a hulking cursed beast transformed back into a man by the switch of day.
Orbon had been a bropato harvester longer than Alast had been alive. Despite a slightly brutish demeanor, he was a warm man and his knowledge was more expansive than all the brains drifting around in the mist combined. He’d talked to the merchants, pried information from them over the washes. He had told Alast all the names of all the landmarks as he swung huge blades to carve the bropato like moist bread. He smiled and smacked Alast on the back. His blonde hair was thick with clumps of dirt. That meant he had either decided not to bathe or he had pulled an all-night harvest just because he felt like it.
Orbon lived in the small building that acted as the harvesting station with his wife Birdie. Alast wasn’t even skeptical when she told him Orbon had once harvested for two rinses without stopping to eat, drink, or sleep. He could lift one of the larger twistenbeast up over his head with little effort.
“Would you mind tellin’ your little friend to find his breakfast elsewhere,” he said. Finick hung, by the mouth, off the handle of Orbon’s bropato hatchet. With a little yelp he dropped down and gave Orbon a hungry whimper. “Come on boy. I can feel a slight twitch in my left arm. That means we’re goin’ to find about a ton o’ the bro’ in section fourteen… we’ll need the lifts today we will.”
They both enjoyed using the lifts. The rickety old machines allowed them to access areas in the folds of the bropato that were much lower and deeper. Using them also meant they were going into the dangerous areas where they were at high risk of falling to their deaths. The lifts were composed of a wooden bridge that had been carved up into small platforms. They were tied around four huge chains, which were attached to long complicated blades with a hundred sharp teeth. The blades anchored the platforms deep in the bropato, and could be manually cranked to raise and lower each section. Orbon also noted that they weren’t that great for sleeping on.
“I tried spendin’ nights out on them before you know,” he said. “When Birdie got it in her head she was mad at me. She didn’t come round for a rinse.”
Alast left the animals to their foraging and went with Orbon to grab all their gear. From there they climbed onto the wobbling lifts and lowered themselves off the edge of Metal Block. The gray walls of metallic ore gave way to the flowing sheets of bropato. The only cracks in the smooth wood were the ones they had made the previous day. Alast ran his hands across one as they descended. It was already closing. The wood grew so fast that sometimes it became too heavy; pieces, like great icebergs breaking up in the ocean, would groan, separate, and drop towards the ground. After they fell it took a startling number of drips for Alast to hear them crash and splinter against the ground. Maybe the world isn’t so small after all, he would think.
Alast knew Orbon was at his most talkative while he was harvesting, so he waited until they were a half-lather below the edge of the block before he started in with his questions.
“Orbon, have you ever heard of proliths?” he asked, halfheartedly smacking the wall of bropato in front of him with an axe.
“Ahh, you don’t need to worry yourself about those.” Orbon swung his axe and split the section in front of him down the middle. A blast of the wood’s spiced scent washed over them. Orbon stuck his head in the crack and drank it in. “They’re some night creatures, usually don’t even come out ‘til the florent’s black as tar. Or ‘til someone orders them out. Make fake bodies out o’ stone, ‘bout ten foams tall… almost tall as me!” He laughed. “Why you askin’?”
“There was a man that came through the grove a bit before you showed up,” Alast explained. “He said proliths were headed this way… and that they were looking for something.” Orbon lodged his axe in the bropato and stopped to catch his breath. Alast had never seen him stop so suddenly. The older harvester ran his hand through his hair and stirred up a cloud of reddish dust.
“This man, where’d he come from?”
“Don’t know. His clothes looked a bit like the merchants’ though.”
“He have a ridin’ animal? Any provisions?”
“Not really. Bought some of the good bro’ and then tried to buy a twister off me.” Orbon stared at Alast for a moment and then at the crack in the wood. Alast knew better than to try and coax a response. Orbon could fell a tree’s worth of bropato in just a few drips, but sometimes it took an age for a real idea to form. Alast sat down on his side of the lift and waited. He pulled a sharp metal separating spike off his belt and started carving a galloping twistenbeast into the floor. He’d finished with the head and the front legs by the time Orbon snapped out of it.
“Shouldn’t o’ bothered with sittin’ down Alast. We need to go back up. When you see a man wanderin’ through a patch o’ nowhere such as this without as much as a ridin’ animal that means he was surprised. He was surprised by somethin’ awful and it sent him runnin’ so fast that he didn’t bother to grab any food… If he was headin’ this way that means whatever he was runnin’ from is comin’ this way too… Hang on boy. We’re goin’ up fast and we’re goin’ up light. I have to check the ekapad.”
Alast’s head was beginning to spin from the amount of action involved in one day. First he had a real sword fight, and now Orbon spewed out information Alast didn’t know he was hiding. He couldn’t even guess the nature of an ‘ekapad’.
Orbon moved like a man gone mad. He ignored the list of safety checks Birdie had so kindly nailed to the edge of the lift. It fluttered in the wind as Orbon cranked the lift upward. The cranking proved too slow, so Orbon separated a chain himself, swung it over his head, and tossed it upward. It lodged deeply in the bropato, but Orbon didn’t seem satisfied.
“This is too slow,” he said, worry growing on his face. “Come on Alast, we’re leavin’ the tools behind.” Orbon grabbed two heavy picks and crouched down so Alast could climb on his back. Alast felt like a child, but he didn’t argue. He wrapped his arms around Orbon’s neck and the man leapt onto the wall of wood, digging the picks in. He started to climb. Alast struggled to hang on as they picked up speed. Every strike of the picks sent chunks of bropato falling. Somehow Orbon was moving at the speed of a regular man’s run. His neck was tight as granite; Alast could not have choked him if he tried.
When they made it to the ladders hanging from the edge of the block, Orbon shot up one and over the edge. He dropped the picks but didn’t give Alast a chance to dismount. He ran to the door of his home, throwing it open and charging inside. Birdie snored away behind a curtain, taking no notice. He dragged Alast up a flight of stairs he’d never really noticed before thanks to all the junk on it. Orbon kicked pots and pans out of the way and grabbed a hook on the ceiling when they reached the top. He threw open a square door and exited onto the roof. It was only then that Alast managed to slide off.
Orbon ran the last few foams to a large metal square on the flat corner of the roof. Its edges were heavily rusted and the rest had turned a greenish-white and started to crumble. A collection of hollow metal cylinders and discarded pieces of paper sat nearby. There was a new cylinder, untouched by rain or wind, hanging from a hook on the side of the metal pad. Orbon grabbed it, popped it open, and unfurled the paper inside. Alast looked over his shoulder.
“What does it say?” he asked. “And what’s that pad for?”
Armies march: Second Wall
From edge of Threewall toward First Door
Plunderers. Papists. Proliths. Gravefolk. Tilefolk.
Abandon homesteads. No help comes.
“This was my responsibility,” Orbon growled. He kicked the empty cylinders off the roof.
“What did it say?” Alast asked again. “What was your responsibility?”
“I was supposed to check up here every day. For news… I lost track o’ the days. Kept tellin’ myself nothin’ happens around here anyway.”
“It doesn’t. How does news get on your roof?”
“No more questions,” Orbon grumbled. “I need you to listen Alast. We’re goin’ into the mist. I need you to tell your dad and anybody else you see that danger is comin’. Tell them the ekapad says they need to evacuate.”
“I don’t know what an ekapad is,” Alast stressed.
“Doesn’t matter,” Orbon said. He walked rapidly back to the door in the roof and lowered himself onto the stairs. Alast crouched to jump down, but Orbon grabbed him by the collar and pulled him down before he could. More pots clattered as they descended. Alast stepped on something that looked like a bird’s nest. That could be an ekapad, he thought. He looked at a pitchfork with unevenly curled tongs mounted on the wall. Or that could be one. Or that. I’ve got to get the words for these things. I need to gather up all the words and keep them in my cheeks like a ratmun with seeds so I’m never stuck not knowing these things.
Orbon yanked on the curtain that separated the messy bedroom from the even messier main room. A few of the metal rings popped off. Birdie lifted her head off the bed and pulled their colorful patchwork quilt away. She was slightly older than Orbon and much smaller, with long curly hair and tired eyes.
“What is it? You’re going to shake all the bro’ off the Block with your stomping around like that,” she whined through a yawn. She looked like she had seen all of Porce from the Block and instantly decided a quick nap would always be more rewarding than anything out there.
“It’s the Ekapad; it’s tellin’ us to evacuate.” Birdie’s eyes widened. She scrambled out of bed and started changing out of her night shawl and into work clothes. She was in such a hurry that she didn’t care Alast saw her nakedness as she transitioned into pants, boots, and tunic. As a child of the mist, where someone could go out to the market in the nude and never be noticed, he didn’t even have the sense to avert his eyes. I… I didn’t even know I wanted to see such things, he thought. He wondered if any of the girls his age back in the village looked like that with the mist and cloth blown away.
“Why?” Birdie asked as she fumbled with packs and supplies. She started moving dried food out of a large chest and into bags.
“Armies. Proliths are with them.”
“Armies!” Birdie repeated.
“Armies!” Alast echoed.
“Go then,” Birdie said. “I’ll get everything ready for us.” Orbon nodded and hugged her.
“What armies?” Alast yelled, trying to split the hug with his voice.
“Let’s not stand around,” Orbon chided without explaining. “We need to go warn the rest o’ the misties.”
They exited the house. Alast snagged his sword from the tool shed and ran to catch up with Orbon. The beastly harvester tempered his pace so Alast wouldn’t get too far behind. By the time they reached the wall of mist the boy was huffing and puffing. He leaned down and put his head between his knees as he sucked on the last of the dry air.
“Tell them the ekapad says they’re in danger,” Orbon reminded before swiftly sinking into the mist.
“Orbon… wait,” Alast huffed, but the harvester was gone. He stuck the sheathed tip of his sword into the mist and watched it disappear. Do I really have to disappear again? Alast stepped into the vapor and tapped his way forward with the sword. He quickly found one of the docks and hopped up onto it. If he was right it was the path that went past the butcher’s shop and split into four more docks. He could visit the shop first, then the first house on each of the four docks. The last of the four was his. He could hear Orbon shouting warnings. His voice carried like a giant brass horn, penetrating the mist more than anything else could.
“You must leave!” he bellowed. “All must leave! Armies approach! The ekapad says evacuate!” Other weaker voices joined his. They bit and stung at Orbon’s message like bugs pouring from a disturbed hive. A few twistenbeast bayed mournfully. It was one of their only chances to moan since their owners were busy trying to hush Orbon instead.
“You callin’ me a liar?” Orbon roared. Alast could hear real hurt in the man’s voice. A swarm of townsfolk shouted down his message. They denied everything Orbon said, pathologically so. When the hulking harvester found a body attached to one of the accusing voices he tried to punch some sense into the person. A scuffle started. Alast heard scratches on wood, fists on metal, and pieces of shell rolling across the ground. The boy looked at his sleeve so he could see something other than the mist, so he could ground himself in that cloud of noise. It was uniform blue with a puffy wrist, just like every other sleeve in town. Every sleeve except Orbon’s; his arms were always bare.
I shouldn’t look like these deniers. Alast kicked at the air, hoping his foot would find a solid object. Instead he spun around and fell. A bruise started to spread on his thigh like an insidious fungus. He pulled himself up and tapped his way forward.
“Armies? Here?” the butcher said to Alast. Alast only saw his hands hanging purple warty sausages through the misty window of the shop. “That Orbon’s been out of the mist too long. Florent’s fried his brain.”
“What’s all this ekapad nonsense?” the woman outside the first house he came to asked. He only saw the tip of her mop as she wiped mud from her walkway.
“No army will show up here,” a pair of hairy hands at the second house said. They busied themselves skewering worms on a line of fish hooks. “You can’t find something you can’t see.”
“I don’t leave for nothing!” an angry boot from the third house squawked as it kicked at Alast. He accidentally stepped off the dock and stumbled forward. The mist seemed to close around him more than usual. He felt like he was in the middle of a slow cyclone of it, being spun in the wrong direction so incrementally that he’d overlooked the change in course. His house was somewhere, but he didn’t feel the anchoring of home.
“Alast? Are you out there?” his father called. Alast stopped walking. His breathing quieted. He held his sword against his chest so he was no wider than a fence post. Can you find me Dad? Can you even find your son? Can you feel me at all? he thought. Footsteps around him. Metallic gravel was pushed out of the way as his father’s feet swept across the ground. He was close. Very close. Alast wasn’t sure why he suddenly felt so afraid. His father wasn’t a cruel man. He rarely struck him. “Alast?” his father asked again, quieter this time. Alast heard his breathing, saw a bit of mist curl in front of him.
There were very few times he’d actually seen his father’s face. It was only when they were close enough to smell what the other had had for lunch. The town never kept mirrors around with the way they fogged up, so Alast had only seen his own reflection in the pools outside the mist after it rained. He compared the faded memories of his father’s face and the faded memories of his own. Do we look alike? I can’t tell… There’s something in his face. An anger or a sadness. I can’t tell that either. I don’t have that and I don’t want it. Please don’t find me. Please don’t stick that rotten face of yours in mine. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see you ever again.
“Alast?” his father asked again. His breath pushed some mist into Alast’s eyes but he dared not respond. When the pressure became too much he whipped around and ran as fast as he could. Only instinct guided him away from the buildings. He could hear his father calling after him. Running after him. Alast was younger and he cared more, so the distance between them grew. I won’t get trapped here. If Orbon says we need to go, I’m going. I’m sorry Dad. It’s my life. I won’t be kept here. I won’t be kept in this cloud of poison just to have a son of my own who can’t sleep when the twisties moan themselves to death.
The running made his face so wet that he couldn’t tell if he was crying. The important thing now was to reach the edge. Once he crossed back into the real world of light he would never return. He would go with Orbon and Birdie on whatever trail they took to safety. He did his best to push his father out of his head and picture himself walking side by side with his mentor, both of them weighed down by supplies for their great journey.
The Rope Ladder
Orbon’s and Birdie’s lack of cleanliness was never more apparent to Alast as he sat at their dinner table and waited for Orbon to return from his attempts at warning. The boy stared at a wegger bug in the corner of the roof that plainly stared back. The bug may have been there as long as Orbon; its web stretched from one corner of the roof to a second and then a third. Every meal it had ever had sat undisturbed in a little silken ball hanging by a tether: constellations of prey. If Alast stood on his chair and waved his arm around the ceiling he could erase it all. He didn’t like the bug’s smug complacency. It needed something keeping it on its ten toes.
Birdie kept busy with packing. She did not respond enthusiastically when he said he was coming with them. She smiled thinly and told him to wait for Orbon. It had been more than a drop since Alast had sat down. He was beginning to worry his idiotic neighbors had locked up Orbon for disturbing the peace. Then he wondered if they were even capable of overpowering the man. If folk in the mist can overpower a man like him, what can the folk of plain day do to someone like me? Any threats I face now will always be visible. They’ll be able to stare back.
Orbon practically burst his way through the door and flopped into a chair next to Alast. He grabbed a cloth on the table, wetted by the dripping ceiling, and held the cool thing against a large purple bruise on the side of his face.
“Did somebody hit you?” Birdie asked.
“They tried, but no. I just ran into a buildin’. Hate that lousy town. None o’ the fools are leavin’.”
“I am,” Alast declared. Orbon stared at his apprentice for a moment.
“Yeah? Good for you boy. You’re not a misty at heart. Your dad?”
“He didn’t come looking for me,” Alast said in response. Orbon and Birdie looked at each other, but didn’t say anything.
“We’ll get you some supplies and show you which way to start headin’,” Orbon said after a few quiet moments. Alast’s expression stiffened. All of a sudden he felt like a thin piece of wood about to crack down the middle. He doesn’t want me to go with him? That seemed cold. He thought they’d been friends the whole time they’d worked together. Why wasn’t he offering to guide him, protect him, take him to a safer place?
“You’re not going to come?” he asked, voice splintering.
“Nothin’ personal Alast. Birdie and I just don’t have it in us to leave the block. There’s a spot under the house, tucked into the bro’, where we’ll hide until this blows over. We’d let you stay but it’s too small even for us. We’ll have to tie up at night so we don’t fall out. There’s more space deeper in the Block where the bro’s rooted, but nasty things live back there.”
“Where am I going?” Alast asked. After raging against the closeness of the mist so long, he dared not let go of the edge of the table lest he drift off and drown in the dangerous sea of the world. He looked up at the wegger’s prey in its cramped silken coffin. Whatever was beyond the block was going to catch him, taunt him, suck him dry, and leave his defeated soul to wander back to the mists shamefully.
“I got a spot picked out for you,” Orbon assured. “Been there once myself. It’s down on the ground; it’s got plenty o’ food and water. There’s a trading post so you can follow the next fella who shows up if you want to make it to a town or a city.”
“We’ll give you some supplies for the journey,” Birdie comforted.
“I can’t go alone!” Alast blurted. “How do I even get down there?” He thought about what the refugee had said. Did Orbon expect him to walk down the wall? Maybe you have to believe it’s possible to do it. That means I’ll fall if I try.
“There’s a rope,” Orbon explained. “It’s a ladder built by the folk here before us. It stretches all the way down to the World Floor. There are a few special loops in it so you can tie yourself up and rest.”
“Rest? How long is the rope?”
“Goin’ down… It’s about eleven days’ climb.”
“Eleven days!” That convinced Alast he should mention the fantastical other option. “The man earlier… He told me that folk can walk on the world walls. Is that true? Can I just do that instead?”
“It’s true Alast,” Birdie said. “I’m from a town above Metal Block. When I was growing up we could see it as a great glinting cube, rising like a mountain.”
“Why didn’t either of you ever tell me?” Alast floundered. His head swam and he wondered if that was the feeling of his mind forgetting which way was up.
“Misty kid workin’ the bro’ finds out you can walk on walls, he’s likely to get himself killed tryin’ it in the wrong place,” Orbon said. “I didn’t want to have to train a new apprentice.” He smiled, but it was no comfort.
“Just show me where to start,” Alast reasoned. “Walking has to be better than a rope that’s days long! Eleven days! That’s more than a rinse!”
“A rinse on a rope is better than your other choices,” Birdie said. She looked a little irritated. If she was going to spend the next while crammed in a splintery hole with a man three times her size, she thought it better to get on with it. Alast was slowing things down. “Walking across Block to Second Wall would take too long; you’d get swept up by that army. And do you know what’s on Second Wall under the block? Hmm? The Threewall Wild. The beasts that live there would be picking their teeth with you two drips after you passed the first tree. The rope is much safer.”
“I’d be fine if Orbon was with me,” Alast tried to argue.
“Not a chance,” Orbon said. “The Threewall Wild is the fastest way to get killed. Doesn’t matter who you are. It’s the rope or back to the mists with you. What do you say Alast? Are you brave enough?”
“I am,” Alast said reflexively. Orbon smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, obviously knowing he would take that bait.
“Come on then. Let’s get you goin’,” the big man said.
Beneath the house and the lifts, over Block’s edge and built into the flowing sheets of bropato, was a series of rotting greenish sky-docks used by harvesters long ago. Their safety rails were overgrown with shallow-rooting pale blue flowers that looked like scales scraped from the underbelly of lethargic clouds. Every step they took creaked a bit more than the last. Spiral staircases led them down and around so quickly that Alast started getting dizzy. The sword hanging from his hip knocked against every rail until he started moving sideways. They passed under a waterfall spouting from a hole in the bropato. Then they kept walking until the water sounded soft and sleepy. Orbon and Birdie ushered him off the old docks and onto a lip of metal ground behind the wood. He’d never seen the metal cave before.
The chamber was filled with ragged heaps of rope each taller than Orbon. The piles were connected by a few lines, some of which were knotted around wooden planks or other peculiar objects. The linked piles extended back into the darkness of the cave; Alast tried to see into the back of the chamber, but could not. The rope smelled like it had been soaked and dried by rain and florent a thousand times. A few piles even had the stubborn blue flowers growing out of the top.
“Alright boy, this is your way off the block. I know it smells ancient, but trust that those ropes’ll hold.” The way he said it made it sound like trust was the only thing that could hold it together. “We keep some stores back here in case we ever need to use it ourselves.” The harvester walked over to a stone chest and slid the heavy slab off the top. Alast peered inside and saw reddish strips of salted meat, dried fruit, sweet grasses tipped with yellow waxy bulbs, a twistenhide canteen, and stacks of the good bropato like what he’d sold to the refugee.
“Wait… the good bro’ is for eating?” Alast said in disbelief. “I always thought some far off queen liked to decorate her palace with it.”
“Hah, no,” Birdie snickered. “It’s an excellent source of nutrients. Great for long journeys. Listen close though: you mustn’t eat more than a square a day or you’ll find you can’t move a muscle in your whole body. As it is the stuff will make you yawn and your arms and legs will feel real stiff, but it’ll keep you going long enough to finish the climb.” Birdie gave him more instructions while Orbon wrapped up all the food into a pack he could tie around his shoulders. “Don’t drink more than a swig from your canteen each day. Chew on the sweet grass to keep your throat wet. Always be sure to tie yourself up as soon as you get drowsy.”
“Now it’s time to push this thing over,” Orbon declared as he handed Alast the pack. The boy stared at the massive piles of limp rope and wood. “Don’t worry,” Orbon said after reading the expression, “that’s more than even I could push. We’ve got a friend who’ll help us out. Knobby! Knobby! Knobby come down here!”
Alast heard a few sounds like the dragging of a heavy carpet and stared into the blackness at the back of the cave. Birdie quickly pinched her nose with one hand. They all watched as an animal shuffled into the light; it towered over Orbon and was about as tall as the biggest pile of rope. As far as oddity went, the twistenbeast couldn’t hold a candle to that monstrosity. It supported its hanging girth on three trunk-like legs ending in wide flat hooves. Its single head was covered in a random assortment of protruding yellow teeth, floppy veiny ears, and eyes ringed with thick black lashes that looked in all directions at all times and blinked asynchronously. Its back was matted with thick, reddish, bug-infested fur; there were a few extra mouths running along its side and back as well, some gasping and wheezing while others hung open for flies to buzz in and out of. The creature had no distinct front end and no distinct end for that matter.
It walked towards the three of them and got so close Alast could smell the breath from one of its side-mouths. It was like someone stabbing a rot-tipped fishbone up each nostril.
“Ack!” the boy exclaimed. “That’s awful! Ack! Where did you get this thing? He smells like he’s been eating the same meal over and over again!”
“He kind o’ has,” Orbon grunted. “See he walks along the wall here and samples the bro’ with all those mouths. The bro’ doesn’t just grow out here; it goes all the way to the center o’ the block where it’s rooted. One big living thing. The bro’ supports a whole host o’ beasties in the dark. Not many friendly. There’s one looks just like Knobby except it’s ten times bigger. He’s real smart though, trained up faster than you did. Knobby! Stop rubbin’ your stink on the boy and go push the rope. Yeah. Push the rope Knobby!”
Orbon waved his arms wildly and feigned pushing, even wiping his brow of imaginary sweat. It was impossible to tell if Knobby comprehended because his collage of features offered no clue to his disposition. Regardless, he lumbered over to the first pile, sighed from a few of his throats, and pushed into the side of it. One of his hooves briefly slipped on the metal as he heaved. Eventually the coils of rope started sliding along with the force. Knobby forced it off the edge. Alast leaned over the side to watch it unfurl. He saw patches of moss and frayed hunks of rope break off as it went. It held.
“You’d better move boy,” Orbon warned. “Three or four more piles and the weight’ll be enough to pull the rest o’ it down on its own. You don’t want to be standin’ there when the ladder comes whippin’ by or it’s likely to cut you in half.” With that excellent incentive in mind, Alast moved behind Birdie.
“Can’t I just grab it now and ride it as it goes down?” Alast asked.
“If you try hangin’ on to that while it pulls itself down your hands’ll rip off it as soon as it stops. You’ll hit the ground goin’ so fast it’ll turn you into a stain. Keep back now.”
“Soon as you get new clothes, burn the ones you’re wearing,” Birdie advised. “You’ll never get Knobby’s smell off. Trust me.” The three of them stood back and watched as the beast methodically worked its way to the back of each pile and pushed them over the edge. Eventually the tipping point was reached and the rope ladder oozed forward on its own. Knobby was barely able to back out of the way before its speed picked up and it started flying out of the cave, planks knocking against the metal ground chaotically. Loose fibers caught in the rushing wind of its movement bombarded Alast’s face, so he covered his eyes with one arm. All he could think while the maelstrom of rope raged through the cave was this: I have to climb down that. All of it. I can still hear it! It’s still going! How can it still be going?
Once it was finished he relished the moment of calm. In a few drips he’d be descending, alone, into a foreign land of wall-walkers and other things he’d never considered. He felt a playful tug at his side.
“Oh, it looks like somebody wants to go with you,” Birdie cooed. Alast looked down to see Finick hanging by his mouth from the tip of his sheath. The animal growled a little as if to say, you’re not leaving here without me. Alast shook the haund loose, picked him up, and cradled him in his arms. Finick licked his face, careful not to cut him with his bony horn.
“He wouldn’t survive the ladder would he?” Alast asked Orbon.
“I don’t see why not,” the harvester answered with a shrug. “He likes eatin’ wood and that good bro’ is wood. If he doesn’t want that he can just take a bite out o’ a plank every now and then. That ladder’s been losin’ pieces for a hundred washes without fallin’ apart. Either it’s magic or the finest rope ever made.”
“It’s better you’re not alone,” Birdie agreed. She went back to the food chest and pulled out more cloth. She fastened it into a sash Alast could wear around his neck and carry the tiny haund in. Then she tied two knots of rope around the animal’s front legs and connected the other end to Alast’s waist; if he wriggled enough to fall the rope would catch him. “You just make sure you let him take a few steps whenever you cross any planks. Give him a chance to do his business.” She hugged Alast. “Goodbye boy. You’ll like it better down where there’s more world.”
“Off to the rest o’ your life,” Orbon said as he took a turn embracing Alast. Only the delicate animal between them saved him from the tightest hug he’d ever felt. Alast thought he spotted a tear in the beast-man’s eye.
“If those prolith things show up… you should probably let them take Knobby,” Alast joked. Orbon laughed heartily and then dismissed the rancid beast with a wave of his hand. It moaned and shuffled its way back into the darkness. “I’ve seen more of you two than anybody else. That makes you my family. I won’t forget you, but I’ll do my best to forget everything else. Goodbye.” Orbon and Birdie nodded solemnly and started heading back the way they came, off to squeeze themselves into whatever bropato crevice they used to wait out storms and violence. Alast saw Birdie squeeze her husband’s bottom just before they vanished up the stairs and thought that she probably wasn’t that upset to spend so much time crammed into a tight space with his muscular frame.
Once he was alone, he heard nothing but the creaking of the rope and the distant rush of water. He looked out over the edge again. He hadn’t even started yet, but the extra weight of Finick made him feel heavy. He examined himself. There was no leaving behind his mist clothing. The rope would allow him a sort of rebirth, but he didn’t take that so literally as to set foot on the ground naked. He wiggled his sword.
Swordplay was a tradition in the mist, one that Alast had not been allowed to forego. He took lessons three times a rinse with the other young men. Fighting in the mist had its own set of rules. Blades were to be silently swung about in the air to probe for enemies and their weapons. The wielder was instructed to constantly back up and change position in case an unseen foe was to thrust a spear through the fog and into their heart. Alast had always been in the middle of his class. The weapon never felt natural; it was never his choice to wield it. Its grip was meant for his grandfather’s hands, as it was forged for him. Alast’s hands were too small. When he practiced the back steps built into the mist technique he often fell and cut himself on his own blade. He couldn’t avoid seeing it as a parasite drinking his red life away.
It was forged here, he thought. It’s tainted by their stupidity. I wonder… If those proliths destroy the town, will the mist remain? If the folk scatter will it go as well? Or will it stay, clinging to objects like this. Holding fast to the relics of fools. I’ll be rid of it. I’ll take no more of the cursed fog with me than I have to.
Alast unhooked the sword and sheath from his belt and let it clatter to the floor. He couldn’t go without any means of defending himself, so he went over to the stone chest where the food was stored and searched it. He found a long fillet knife with a solid handle, wrapped it in cloth, and tucked it into his belt. It was much shorter than the sword but was undoubtedly sharper. Alast had neglected to hone his blade’s edge for nearly two washes. He kicked the sword away. It was the essence of his old life: dull in every way. He cursed his home. The blackness of the cave ate up his insults, not even giving enough of them back for an echo. It would keep them for now and let them germinate in the dark into sickly blooms even things like Knobby wouldn’t eat.
He grabbed the first rung of the ladder and lowered his feet onto a plank. Finick rolled over and closed his eyes inside his pouch. We’ve just started and he’s already napping, Alast thought. The descent began. He had quite a ways to go before he would cross under the edge of the bropato sheet. After that the florent would be on him constantly. The thought of days’ worth of its light discouraged him. Days, he realized again. Alast had never faced a real task that took days. He wondered how he was going to pass the time. Eventually he decided to count the rungs of the ladder as he climbed down them. He stopped almost immediately to look back up and count the ones he’d already descended. At some point he would lose count and get angry with himself, but what was anger compared to boredom?
A few drops later he approached the edge of the sheet. The tweets and whistles of birds filled his ears. The bropato shifted and grew too much near the top for birds to nest comfortably, but the wood at the edge of the sheet was perfect for them. Alast swung himself to the other side of the ladder so he could face the cascading wood. He saw a thousand nests from a hundred different kinds of bird. A colorful assortment of eggs rested in the shade: red with black speckles, blue and cloudy, gray, soft purple, and more. Chicks with bald heads, gaping beaks, and tiny black eyes chirped for attention and squabbled with each other.
Alast was wondering where all the adults were when some of them swooped in. A small black bird sailed past and brushed his ear with its tail feathers. Alast nearly lost his grip on the rope. He checked to make sure the security line around his waist was still there. If he fell and the rope tightened it would feel like he was being torn in half, but he would be alive.
Another bird swooped by. Alast swatted at it. The commotion woke Finick, who stuck his head and lolling tongue out of his tiny hammock. The haund yapped at the flying shapes as they passed by. The yapping made the chicks louder, which made the adults louder. Suddenly Alast’s head swam in the noise. A bird bigger than Finick, with a beak like a stiff old boot and wings like broom ends, rose in front of Alast and squawked at him. Qwonk! It cried. Qwonk! Qwonk! He could see past its purple tongue and into its wiggling throat.
“Away!” Alast yelled; qwonk was the only response. He felt something moving on his back and tried turning his neck further than nature allowed. He spotted another one of the big strange birds trying to force its beak into the top of his pack. He wriggled violently and shouted, but it was only Finick standing over his shoulder and swinging his blade at the bird that dissuaded it. “I knew I brought you for a reason,” Alast told his furry companion. He picked up the pace so he could leave the maddening flock behind as soon as possible. When the last bird flew back towards its nest Alast realized he’d lost count of the rungs.
Once they cleared the edge of the wood they were greeted by the harsh light of the florent. Alast switched his orientation on the ladder once again to keep it out of his eyes. While he was doing so he noticed the ache in his wrists, ankles, back, and neck. I haven’t even been climbing one day, he thought with dismay. He grimaced at the tiny red lines cut into his palms already. He decided that once he had a chance to stop he would try and fashion some gloves out of any extra fabric he had.
Night arrived in an instant. With all the light suddenly blown out, Alast held even tighter to the ladder. Even during the nights in the mists he had a little bit of light from glowing shellfish. Dangling in the middle of the sky like that he had nothing. Now the day seemed like it had been incredibly short. Twelve drops ago he was clashing swords. He had still lived in the mists. Even his moist moldy bed seemed more comfortable than the scratchy ropes. Alast had to descend blindly for another drop before he even found sets of sleeping loops.
He tied one set around his ankles, one set around his waist, and one set beneath his arms. He released his grip on the main rope and leaned back into a reclining position. The ropes dug into his skin. Alast hissed. Maybe a little food can help me ignore the pain. He reached over his shoulder and pulled out the case of bropato. He grabbed one square of it. It felt moist and grainy, more like something a hunder bug would nest under than something you’d want to eat. The taste was often likened to wet sand that had vegetable juice poured over it, but in the moment Alast took his first nibble he would’ve told you it was much worse. He nearly gagged and barely managed to angle his throat enough for it to drop down into his stomach. He felt its effects almost immediately. His limbs stiffened and his eyelids grew heavy. His head lolled back, and before he could maneuver it into a more comfortable position sleep overtook him. It wound around him tighter than the ropes and refused to let go until the light of the florent blasted through his eyelids.
During the night he was harassed by nightmares. His father’s face expanded in his vision until it took up all the space in Porce. Then the flesh dissolved into red mist, leaving a barren skull behind. The skull spoke its disappointment. You had a duty, it said. A duty to stay with your family. A duty you needed to pass to your sons and daughters. How will our line survive without you? We will burn in the light. You will burn.
When he awoke he was the most uncomfortable he’d ever been. The ropes had dug into his skin so much that it was beaded with tiny drops of blood in places, like a surgeon’s sponge. His first few attempts to lift his head resulted in stabbing pains all along his spine. Finick, blissfully unaware, poked his sleepy-eyed head out of his cloth and licked Alast’s face. Where’s the giant that’s going to carry me the rest of the way? Alast whined. Once his limbs had gotten accustomed to moving again he dug out a few scraps of food for them to share. The supplies had seemed adequate before he stepped on that first rung, but now they seemed stingy at best. He had no way to protect himself from the light and his skin was already turning pink. Maybe when I’m fully cooked the florent’s going to eat me. The canteen seemed to shrink as he looked at it; it might as well have been the size of a nail head. He had no way of tracking the time. The florent was going to repossess the light each night whether he was ready for it or not.
On one side of the ladder he saw the openness of the world that terminated at Fourth Wall. On the other he saw the land beneath the Metal Block. Now that the light had returned he got his first close look at Second Wall. It was lush and green, with tall needle-leaved trees growing towards him. To him the trees appeared to be growing sideways. His mind had not yet grasped the extent of what he’d learned. Those trees were not sideways. They were right side up. All he had to do was set foot on the ground they were anchored in and he would understand. He would look up and gawk at the strange sideways rope ladder flying above the trees.
Why can’t I go there? Alast stared at the forest. Its trees were so densely packed that he could not see the ground. There were never more than three trees in the same field on top of Metal Block, and most of those were stumps or rotting logs. The Threewall Wild. That’s why I can’t go. Creatures Orbon wouldn’t fight. I may not run into any though… this ladder has to be more dangerous. I’ll die from exposure without shade. Surely it’s safer to risk a hungry haund than ten more days of this. I’ll be nothing but another lump in the rope before too long.
Alast examined the ropes. There was no way he could get the entirety of the ladder to swing; there was far too much of it for his weight to convince. Many pieces were loose though. Sometimes thick sturdy sections hung uselessly off the side as far as he could see. He grabbed one such rope and tugged on it. It seemed stable enough. Stable enough to risk our lives? he wondered. He scoured the trees for a place to land and eventually spotted a flat rocky outcropping big enough to aim for. When all his gear was secured he put both feet on a plank and prepared to push off toward Second Wall. I’ll just set foot there. I’ll just see if I really can walk the walls.
He pushed forward. The rope strand didn’t go far at first, but he kept at it. Each swing grew wider as he pumped his legs. The wind gathered with each successive crescent of motion. After a hundred drips of intense effort it howled in his ears. It pulled the sweat off his face. The needle trees grew closer. He started to make out the details of the rock. There was still no sign of any monsters. He pumped his legs and grunted. The wall rushed towards him. He reached out a hand and snagged the tip of a tree. The needles broke off and gravitation pulled him away. This was the one. One more swing. He howled joyously as the rope slowed to a stop and hung at the back of its arc for a moment. The big swing pulled him down and forward. The wall rushed by. Something else pulled him. He was close enough to touch the rock. Alast leapt off the rope. For a moment he feared he would collide with the wall, struggle to stick like a bug in the rain, and fall to his death. Instead he landed on the rock. Hard.
He curled onto his side to protect Finick from the impact. He recovered his air as quickly as he could and rose to his feet. I’m standing! I’m standing! Of course I’m standing; I’m on the ground! The rock held him just as any part of Metal Block had in his old life. Nothing felt slanted or changed. He raised his arms triumphantly and was about to shout again when a piece of wood struck him in the back of the head.
Alast grabbed at the object and held onto it. He winced and looked up. It was the section of rope he’d swung in on. It had swung back. Alast tugged on the rope and watched the bridge twitch. It was the only thing sideways. How strange it was to see the bridge float above the trees, like an anchor line in a sea of stubborn confused currents. He held the rope with one hand and leaned down to pick up a pebble with the other. He dropped the pebble and watched it fall to the new ground. Then he jumped. His feet came right back down. He quickly surveyed the area. So far the Threewall Wild seemed much friendlier than the ragged strings he’d been clinging to.
That settles that, he thought. Alast released his grip on the rope and it sailed back into its sideways sky. He smirked the way an adolescent who believes he’s outsmarted the world tends to. I can even use the ladder to track my way down. It’ll be impossible to get lost. He took his first steps forward. The observers moved forward as well. Out from the darkness of the trees and onto the bare rock.
Haunds. Three of them. Not particularly close relatives to the small companion breeds like Finick. Their shoulders were as high as Alast’s. Their bristly fur had stripes of green and blue that camouflaged them well. Each growling monster had three bony blades erupting from the tips of their snouts, except the middle one which appeared to have lost a blade in a fight. Scars and fresh scratches alike crisscrossed its eyes, lips, and nose. The creatures approached slowly, two of them fanning out on the sides, trying to box him in. The flat rock he’d landed on was a dead end. The only way out was through the haunds… or over them.
Alast glanced at the sky. The rope was swinging back. In just a few drips it would touch the rock again. After that it might not make it back at all. Alast pulled out his knife and waved it back and forth. The haunds watched the blade dance in the light, but they did not stop. Alast watched the rope swing in under the trees. It slapped against the rock behind the haunds, out of his reach. Panic gripped his heart like a steel trap and he lunged forward into the monsters. He had to get to the rope, even if he lost a few pieces in the process. One of the haunds swiped at him as he ran by, Alast barely ducking under it. All he saw was the rope sliding down the rock and then rising away from it.
“No, no no!” he shouted and reached out with his free hand. He grabbed it and ran with it. He couldn’t feel the rope pulling on him; he had no idea if the old pull of Porce would even take him back now that he’d defected to the wall. A Haund caught up to him and thrusted its bladed face in his direction. Alast danced out of the way and held onto the rope, trying desperately to leap back onto it. The haund was about to strike again when Finick stuck his tiny head out and yapped at his much larger cousin. The sight of something so small yet familiar confused the haund greatly; that moment of confusion was just enough for Alast to jump with all his might and reattach himself to the swing of the rope.
The strand of bridge pulled him up and away from the trio of chomping barking mouths on the rock. Once the strand swung back to the main body of the bridge, Alast grabbed onto it and held tightly. He wrapped both arms around it and panted.
“Thank you my friend! Good boy! Good boy!” he praised the axehaund and kissed at its face, accidentally cutting his lip a little in the process. Finick was the only haund to taste his blood that day. Alast swore off the Threewall Wild and the entirety of Second Wall while he was at it. He even briefly considered just living his life out on the rope. For the first time he was forced to face the fact that some adults simply knew better than he did. Escaping the mists didn’t make him a genius or an adventurer. He didn’t have the intuition of a nature spirit or the raw will of a beast tamer. When someone warns you about monsters, you listen!
By the time he was ready to move he found that his hands were stubborn twisted claws that wouldn’t release the rope. He tried to simply loosen his grip, to no avail. Eventually he resorted to biting at his thumbs to pry them loose. When they finally relinquished and let him move his fingers again, he was exhausted. He felt completely drained and he hadn’t moved down for more than a drop. He stared down into the sickening twisting openness of the sky. He might have vomited if the mushy bropato hadn’t stuck to his insides so well. He resumed the descent. He would go mad without passing the time, so he spent drops trying to classify the exact color of the rope.
It’s brown. Not just simple brown though… it’s lighter… it’s tan. But… there are specks of yellow in there. The yellow is dark and smudgy and the brown is like sapling bark. It’s darker at the corners… what’s darker than sapling wood? There isn’t much yellow but I can see specks of it if I pull away. It’s still visible from a few bubbles… I can still see the yellow patches. Everything gets a little darker when the strands overlap… one name. I need one name…one name. What is the color of the rope? Ahh… my wrists! Keep going… keep going… what colors is it not?
Red blue green yellow brown purple white black gray orange pink tan light-blue dark-green grass-green blood-red mist-white…
Alast got to the point where he had named every color of every substance he had ever known. He repeated his final answer to himself as long as he could to satisfy that it was the actual color.
Sandy sapling. The rope’s color is sandy sapling.
His foot caught on part of the rope. He looked down to see the next set of sleeping knots and hollered in ecstasy. Finick emerged and licked at his face, happy that his master was happy. Somehow his color game had proven distraction enough to power through a day’s worth of rope before the florent went out. Alast had just enough time to share a ration with Finick and tie himself in before the darkness drenched the world. This time he used the excess cloth the food was wrapped in to cushion the areas between the knots and his skin. Why didn’t I think of this before? It’s the adventure. It’s making me smarter, making me think around the things in my way. This is growth. Not like the mold in the mist. Like the trees. I didn’t know it would hurt so much.
The following days passed with much effort and little excitement. Alast started to forget what walking felt like. His spine groaned in the nights as it bent to whatever shape the ropes demanded. His movement became more focused on his limbs so that he was wriggling along like a bug with no bones in its middle at all. The florent baked the skin on his head until it flaked away in large patches. The mist had never taught him the value of a hat. With what little energy and dexterity he had at the end of the day he patched together a head covering from loose clumps of rope. His fingers felt like stubby wet stones, so a complete hat took him three nights.
His wrists were raw, red, beaded with blood, and flecked with splinters of rope. The skin was so disturbed that there was little hope of it all growing back. The smallest pieces of the rope were embedded far enough into his wrists that when the skin came back it would grow over them. The rope was forever going to be a part of him; forgetting the climb would never be an option. The permanent brown flecks weren’t exactly the kind of battle scars he’d hoped to earn. His ankles were sharing in that fate since he used them as a sort of claw to move down the rope.
During the final days Alast worried about his food supply. He had plenty for the climb, but it would be gone just a day or two after he hit ground. According to Orbon the trail to the trading post would be obvious and relatively easy to walk, assuming his legs even remembered how. He had no bed to treat as anchor. The end of the rope just meant moving in a different way. Would he ever have a chance to rest again?
On the final day the individual features of the ground started to clear up. There were boulders. Trees. Shrubs. Crumbling faces of fallen bropato. A path. Alast licked his flaking lips and began to hurry down the rope, exacerbating his injuries. Both wrists and ankles split open and poured fresh blood that dripped to the ground ahead of its owner. Part of me is already there. Part is already there. I’m already walking. The muscles in his gut tightened. He was so close to the end of the rope that it was acting like a pendulum, his weight swinging it back and forth. The rope moved so much that Alast’s cooked mind decided it was safer to drop the remaining foams to the ground. That was a bad decision. The movement distorted the actual distance. Alast dropped past where he assumed the ground would be, turned in the air, and smashed his knees, face, and elbows into the whitish gravelly dirt.
The cut on his forehead did little to douse his sense of accomplishment. He rose to his feet, which wobbled back and forth in confusion at the flat terrain, and raised his arms in the air. He shouted his victory back up to Metal Block and beyond. Finick leapt out of bed and ran circles around his crumpled master.
Alast wondered if he should start a fire and burn the bridge. Was there a reason to leave the monstrosity hanging there like a rogue lock of mountain hair? By now someone else might have been climbing down to escape just as he had. His anger at the mocking flick of the ladder’s tail felt hot enough to start an indignant blaze, but who was he to decide what paths should and should not exist? Orbon had said the ladder had persisted for hundreds of washes. Alast made the decision to turn away from the ladder and not look back. He took his first step down the trail and almost managed to stay on his feet.
Continued in Part Two