(reading time: 1 hour, 11 minutes)
The Greasy Skull
Tunka tuhunk tunka tuhunk tunka tuhunk. Alast was woken by the sound of a hundred footsteps on deck while enjoying a brief half-drop nap between his chores. He’d been onboard long enough to know those weren’t the sounds of hauling in fishnets or the dancing that sometimes accompanied Herc’s melodies.
He dropped to the floor. The only other occupied hammocks had gravefolk in them, their thin arms slipped through the holes in the ropes, hanging down like broken branches. Quietly navigating between the rows, he saw Manathan’s face turn towards him, but couldn’t tell if the skeleton was asleep or not.
“Don’t go up there Alast,” the Ice Master warned, answering the question of his consciousness. “You don’t need to be involved in that business.”
“What’s going on?” the boy asked.
“Piracy. You can live on this ship without engaging in it.”
“What if I want to earn my bones?”
“You’re just a boy Alast! You shouldn’t be aspiring to such things. Stay down here. Stay with your friend Shuckr and keep yourself out of trouble. It’s what I always do. It’s what a lot of us do.”
“What does the Captain do?”
“Well I think you know that the Captain is very involved in his enterprises Alast.”
“Thanks for the advice Man, but I’m afraid I’m already up there in spirit.” He started to walk away.
“At least keep your innocent child hands off the weapons,” Manathan pleaded. “I bet he’d listen to anybody with Mate in their title,” the gravefolk then mumbled. “Never mind how impressive Ice Master sounds. What do I have to be to get a cabin boy to listen to me? Ice Lord? Ice Sorcerer?” Alast kept his laughter to himself as he made his way forward. He dodged a dangling net full of skulls; the ones that weren’t asleep taunted and advised him.
“There goes Alast the bloodthirsty! Hehehehe.”
“Get back in bed boy, there be no pirating better than a nap.”
“Bring me a souvenir, something shiny.”
“Huh? Are we awake? What time be it?”
When he opened the hatch he found a flurry of activity. Somebody immediately handed him a saber. Since being a peaceful observer had so quickly been taken from him, Alast did his best to merge with the crew. He followed a few hands to the upper deck where they lined up against the side and observed their prey.
The ship he saw was only a little smaller than the Mop. Its construction was strange and slightly asymmetrical. Pieces of wood stuck out at odd angles and the masts looked like they’d been pasted on from a different vessel. Yet it did not appear to be in disrepair. Every odd bit was just as clean and smooth as the rest of it. Alast looked down and saw the edges of the Mop’s cannons sticking out the side. The other ship’s guns weren’t visible. As the distance between them closed Alast saw the other crew waving their arms slowly, apparently in surrender. The Mop pulled alongside her prey and dropped a ramp down from her deck to the other.
“That be the P.O.S. Attaché,” Ladyfish Paintr told the boy. He turned and looked at her. She was a woman about Teal’s age, but with a more haggard face and knotted ropes of hair sticking out from under a leather hat. Her skin was the exact color of the deck.
“That’s the ship’s name? What does P.O.S. stand for?” Alast felt lucky; he’d only gotten his lesson on acronyms from Nurkly the previous day.
“Piece Of Ship,” the lady pirate explained. “You see there used to be ships in the toils ten times the size of the Mop. The owner of them ships got hisself assinated.” Alast thought it best not to correct her wording, but silently took pride in the fact that he was now catching the mistakes of folk raised in clear air. “They broke up all thems ships and sold the pieces. Some of thems was moved to the sinks and crafted into ittier bittier ships. So theys calls them P.O.S’s.”
“You know this one’s name? Have we… stolen from them before?” the boy asked.
“Aye all the time,” Ladyfish chuckled. “At this point theys deserve it; theys too stupid to stop swimming through here. Theys know it be our channel.”
“What are we going to take?”
“Theys’ captain be a solid sortie. We don’t need to rob him blind. Captain Rob’ll just take a toll for crossing his channel is all. Fifth of theys’ cargo.” Alast knew enough about fractions to know that one fifth didn’t sound much like a toll.
“I don’t think I could live with only four fifths of my flesh intact,” Alast said. “Shouldn’t we use a standard like that?”
“Maybe if we was taking parts of theys’ hull, but we just want the goods. Don’t worry boy. No ones be shedding blood today.”
Alast still felt nervous, especially because the two ships were close enough for him to see the facial expressions of the other crew. Their eyes darted about and they bit their hairy lips. Altogether they looked a good bit more together than the Mop’s crew. They wore red uniforms. None of them had florent burns.
His eyes landed on two folk who stood at the end of the ramp. The first was a tall man with golden hair and swollen pink ears. He had a much fancier uniform and a jeweled sheath on his hip. He guessed it was the captain. The other was a girl Alast’s age. Her face nearly made him drop his saber. She was easily the prettiest girl he’d ever seen: eyes like green berries, hair like the fringes of a fancy blanket, and cheeks like bread fresh from the oven. She wore a short dress and thin shoes. She must not be a sailor; nobody wears a dress on deck. That means she’s something else, probably a princess. Perhaps she sings. She looks like she sings.
Captain Rob appeared and marched down the ramp, the wood shaking with every step. From what Dawn had explained to him about bonepicking it seemed the Captain was putting more force into each step as an intimidation tactic. The ramp wobbled so much he nearly bounced.
The two captains stood ten bubbles apart and shared whispered words. The captain of the P.O.S. did not look pleased, but he didn’t exactly reach for his sword either. He issued an order for his crew to comply. Rob waved a few of the Mop’s crew over so they could start transferring goods.
“Who’s that girl, Ladyfish?” Alast asked.
“You boys and girls. You see thems before you see the florent. You should be asking about the captain; his name be Gig Walkr. The girl be his daughter Pinwhistle.” Alast was about to ask her life story, but then he saw the captains and the girl cross the ramp onto the Mop. The captains shared a few more words and then Rob spotted Alast and called him. Eager to make a good impression, Alast handed his saber to Ladyfish and ran over. He stood very straight.
“What can I do for you Captain?” he asked.
“This lass is Pinwhistle Walkr,” Rob introduced. “Her father and I have business to attend to. Keep the young lady company while we’re at it. Show her the ship.”
“Aye Captain!” Alast said a little too loudly. Pinwhistle rolled her eyes. She held her hands together in front of her waist and extended an elbow for him to take. Alast grabbed it with his hand like it was a gate latch and escorted her below decks. His mind raced. Where to take such a clean person? The air below decks was warm from pirate breaths rolling back and forth with the waves. If we go look at the animals the smells will at least make sense, he thought. She spoke while he led her to the haund hutch; her voice was droning and distant, like a shellfish commenting on the paint drying a wall away.
“How long have you been a deviant?” she asked.
“Well my name is Alast,” he said. His irritation rose, but it didn’t quite elevate past the warmth in his cheeks that holding her elbow created. He hoped she couldn’t sense the permanent tremble in his fingers from the rope. “And I don’t know what you mean calling me a deviant.”
“A normal person follows the laws of the land,” she explained without looking him in the eye. “You do not, thus you are an aberration. An unexpected unpleasant skewing. A deviant.”
“I admit I don’t know much about laws,” he said truthfully. They hadn’t gotten down to the exacts of the Third Sink penal codes in his lessons yet. It was hard to play dumb as he expertly navigated the core of a thief’s ship.
“Ignorance is no excuse.”
“That I do know,” Alast insisted. He opened the door to the hutch and dropped to his knees. The haunds bounded over to him and licked at his arms while he rubbed their ears. Finick barked and leapt at Pinwhistle’s knees to get some affection. She reached down and patted him in a wholly unsatisfying way. “I do everything I can to get rid of ignorance. Any time I find some I scrub at it until my mind feels raw.” She finally looked him in the eye.
“Where are you from?”
“The mist atop Metal Block,” he admitted. Perhaps if she knew the particular kind of foggy ignorance he’d come from she would temper the talk of deviancy. “I escaped it shortly before it was attacked by Yugo.”
“We’re not afraid of Yugo,” she bragged. “He’s just another pirate.”
“I didn’t know he was a pirate. I thought he was flushed more like a warlord.”
“He’s formed a larger crew and taken to the land, but he’s still a common thief,” Pinwhistle said as if a minuscule Yugo clung to her big toe and she was about to scrape him off against the wall.
“He didn’t seem so common when his proliths were smashing up Metal Block,” Alast said as if he’d actually seen it. “Perhaps you can help me with my ignorance, since the crew likes to joke with me. Is he really… purple?”
“He is,” she said. “He does have that ridiculous horn on his skull as well.”
“Could you tell me why he’s like that?”
“I don’t think anybody knows. He had the horn while he was still fleshy. The rumors say that while it grew out from between his eyes it was also growing inward, poking his brain and driving him mad. Once he was gravefolk the madness remained. I can understand fleeing from his army, but I would never run from such a silly looking creature.”
“I wasn’t exactly running either,” Alast said, deciding to lie several drips after the fiction started pouring out of him. “Captain Rob sent me on a mission. I stole what Yugo was looking for so he couldn’t get to it.” Pinwhistle’s green eyes suddenly struck through his and electrified the back of his skull. She dropped down to her knees and let Finick play with the edge of her skirt. She rubbed his back until he euphorically submitted and rolled over.
“If that’s true then you’re more of a hero than a pirate,” she said, challenging him. He could back down or swell the story further. He just had to hope she didn’t have a pin hidden behind her back.
“I think folk can be both,” he said, trying to keep his confidence without letting it inflate. “Captain Rob saved me from an aker when it tried to roll up like a rug with us on it. He saved me from a tilefolk man that ambushed me as well. He’s been heroic at least twice.”
“He’s stolen from my father’s ship seven times,” she countered.
“I was told that your father should know better by now. This is our channel.”
“Nobody owns channels,” she spat, “but I suppose you’re only mostly wrong. He should know better. He thought he could sneak by this time on account of there being so many of Yugo’s forces around. He thought Rob would be preoccupied.”
“What does Yugo want with Rob?”
“Didn’t you know?” She rose back to her feet and helped him up. “Rob and Yugo know each other personally. They’ve been battling each other for rests.”
“I don’t navigate the social circles of pirates frequently. It must be getting worse now that you’ve helped steal something. If you did, that is.”
“You don’t believe me?” Pinwhistle smiled and circled around him.
“Why would I believe you? You’re a deviant.”
“I can show you.” Can I show her? It’s in the Captain’s lab… it’s not locked…
“If you show me,” she whispered, having suddenly appeared next to one ear when he’d expected the other, “and it’s real, that means you stole something from the most feared man around. It would mean you’re a hero. I would have to apologize. I would have to make it up to you somehow.” She grabbed his elbow the way he had grabbed hers, except she did so confidently. She pushed. He obeyed the slight push’s suggestion and spun around once. She stopped him by grabbing both sides of his waist.
“Prepare your apology,” he said slyly. The two left the hutch and descended further into the Mop. They passed the cave, as it was called, where all those asleep hung in their hammocks. The bag of skulls, which had at least three pairs of sockets looking in every direction, spotted Alast again and threw heckling and advice his way.
“Ooooh, Alast has a lass with him!”
“Alas Alast, a lass! Ehehehehehe.”
“She on the crew? She looks too shifty to be on the crew.”
“The kissing closet’s the fifth door on the left!”
Alast coughed when he passed the fifth door on the left, but Pinwhistle did not slow down or look anywhere but forward. He opened the door to the lab and welcomed her inside. He didn’t see the harm in them being there. Rob had told him to show her the ship after all; the lab wasn’t a separate entity pulled behind the Mop by tow ropes. It was just a room, one he had cleaned every five days since he’d been aboard.
Any space not occupied by shelves had cabinets or odd wardrobes with metal doors. Glass jars the size of his torso were held in place by locks and chains and were filled with colorful powders and sands, some of which swirled in their containers of their own accord. Skeletons of sea creatures, their bones glued together with a puffy orange adhesive, hung from the ceiling by their tails and tail fins. Fuzzy tidywings, gray bugs with round paper-thick wings, fluttered about and cleaned the surfaces of the lab by gobbling up any shellfish spores or infectious remnants of the Captain’s experiments. They had a large fibrous nest adhered to the wall, and there was a machined clock nestled in the wisps on its left side. Half the clock was blue with green numbers and the other half was yellow with orange numbers.
Clocks were one of the things that Alast needed explained to him thrice. In the mist they’d used dropglasses to measure time, with the sand inside taking exactly one drop to move from end to the other. The clocks apparently replaced the grains of sand with just as many moving pieces that somehow tracked time and then displayed it in a way that could be read. He’d snuck a peak at the clock’s inner workings once; it reminded him of a pile of moss and tiny mushrooms interpreted in wheels and strands of metal. Where do these metal mushrooms grow? Whose hands are small enough to pick them without breaking them? Don’t know yet…
Alast walked her over to a corner of the lab. He grabbed a black curtain and pulled it aside. Cardinal Second hovered off the floor and rotated. The bones of a four-headed sea creature hung down over it, each of its heads acting like a fence post that kept the tile from floating away. Pinwhistle stared at it in disbelief.
“This is a cardinal tile,” she eventually said.
“This is Cardinal Second,” Alast clarified. “I stole it right out from under Yugo’s nose. When he was on my tail I went deep into the desert to discourage his men from following. I lost them in a dust storm. I had nothing but sand to eat for two days.”
“How did you get out of there alive?”
“I rendezvoused with the Captain and he brought me back here.”
“How did the Captain find you?” That was a simple enough addition to the lie, because all he had to do was tell the truth. Rob had explained to him that bonepickers had a natural feel for shifts in gravitation, and there was no bigger shift than a cardinal tile getting moved. The Captain had basically just sniffed it out from a wall away when he’d realized something was fishy.
“You have wrinkled fingertips,” Pinwhistle said to interrupt the retelling of his heroics.
“Your clothes have soap stains on the knees and elbows.” She pointed to the whitish marks. “I think you’re the cabin boy. Why would Captain Rob send a cabin boy to retrieve a cardinal tile?” Alast’s mind raced to concoct something.
“If the cabin boy aboard the Mop is capable of feats such as this, imagine what the average deckhand can do. Or the Captain.”
“I don’t think so,” Pinwhistle said. She slowly walked around the back of the tile, investigating it. She tapped one of the sea creature’s skulls. She peeked through both its eye sockets. “I don’t think you were sent on a mission,” she said from behind the bone mask.
“Why don’t you believe me? Is it because I’m a deviant? I’m just showing you this to convince you we’re not bad sorts. A pirate heart can be just as red as yours.” She scampered forward and pressed her palm against his chest before he could react. She felt his heart racing.
“I’m not feeling a pirate’s heart,” she said coyly. “This seems like a boy’s heart. It’s going so fast. Are you alright? Am I scaring you?”
Yes! Alast’s mind blurted. Is this what all girls are like? She’s seen right through me. They must have special eyes or special instincts that I don’t. Slow down heart. Slow down please! How did Orbon get through marrying Birdie without collapsing? I feel sick. I’ve got a fever under my fingernails, of all places… She leaned closer. He could count her eyelashes. Suddenly her second hand was on his chest as well. His fingers shook like leaves under heavy rain.
“You’re definitely just a boy,” she whispered. “Otherwise you’d be smart enough to know not to bring me down here.” She pushed. Alast tumbled backward and tripped over a trunk, smashing his head into the wall. By the time he’d stood back up and rubbed the worst of the pain away, Pinwhistle was gone. He just barely heard the soft pattering of her feminine shoes running away. Without the slightest understanding of what was happening now, he chased after the sound. He blew past the kissing closet. He thought he blew past the cave, but he still heard plenty from the dangling gravefolk.
“I told you she was shifty!”
“That lass could run!”
“The Captain’s going to whip your skin from your back and make a hand towel! Ehehehehehehehee!”
Alast burst out of the hatch and into the florent’s light just in time to see Pinwhistle reach the ramp where her father stood with the Captain. They looked like their business was about to conclude. The last of the Mop’s crew to board the P.O.S. Attaché were returning, their arms loaded with goods. The girl tugged on her father’s sleeve and whispered in his ear. Captain Rob turned and glared at Alast. He felt more scorn in that stare than he’d ever gotten from his own father. He wondered why he would run from his misty family just to wind up feeling the sting of punishments like that glare. The skin on Alast’s back prickled with sweat defensively; if it was wet it wouldn’t make a very good hand towel.
“Is there a problem?” Rob asked Captain Gig as the red-clad sailor urged his daughter to return to the Attaché. Pinwhistle obeyed. She threw Alast a little smile and a wave before disappearing into one of her own cabins.
“There is,” Gig confirmed. He drew his sword. “Rally!” The men and women aboard his ship all drew their weapons. A dozen of them ascended the ramp and stood behind their captain. “My daughter tells me you have Cardinal Second aboard your ship.”
“What business is that of yours?” Rob asked. He again glared at Alast. The boy saw so much anger curled into Rob’s hairy frown he worried the beard would detach and attack him like a rabid haund.
“First it was nobody’s business,” Gig declared, “then Yugo made it his business. That of course made it your business. Now I have the opportunity to make it my business so I can make it Yugo’s business once again so he can interfere in your business and I… can finally… go about my business without fear of piracy!”
“Gig, I’m shocked!” Rob cried. “I thought we were becoming fast friends. Closer than shipping lanes we could’ve been.”
“My playing a couple games of wobbly stool in your office while I wait for your crew to finish robbing me is not a sign that we’re chums. It’s a sign of resignation. No more though! Hand over the tile!”
“Well I would, but… no, actually I wouldn’t.” Rob drew his bonepicking sword and his jump club. The rest of the Mop’s crew raised their weapons. Someone behind Alast pulled him out of the hatch and onto his feet. Three different folk tried to hand him swords; he took two of them and held them forward like a pair of tusks. Perhaps I can just apologize and-
Gig swung his weapon at Rob and ordered a charge. Red-clad sailors stormed over the ramp and onto the deck wielding sabers and hatchets. Metal clashed. A skull popped into the air. Alast dropped his swords and backed up rapidly, trying to keep the skull in sight. His back smacked into the ship’s railing as he caught the skull and stopped it from going overboard.
“Thanks kid, I owe you one,” the skull said.
“Don’t mention it,” Alast gasped as he tried to recover his breath. He tucked his fellow pirate under his arm and searched the chaos for the Captain. He wasn’t difficult to find; Rob was dancing on the heads of the boarders, his bonepicking keeping him a regular man’s height off the ground as long as he stepped on someone’s shoulder every few drips or so. The Captain ran across his foes, leaping over their blades, until he reached the edge of the scuffle. Alast saw Haystone, a very large man, hold his sword above his head, flat in his massive hands. Rob jumped on the flat blade and used it to boost his next maneuver.
The pirate’s furry cape flapped downward as he shot up the mast and grabbed a rope. Then the Captain swung from it at an unnatural angle and climbed the mast with the speed of a rodent up a tree. He flipped upward, around the edge of the cloth-covered bulge in the mast, when all gravitation logic dictated he should have smashed into it and fallen back to the deck. He planted his boots atop the bulge and brought his sword down on the cloth and ropes. They snapped and ripped and fell away, revealing a giant pale green jewel, the center of which the mast passed through.
When the drifting jewel covering landed on the heads of the invaders they shoved it aside and looked up. The jewel was cut with more than a dozen facets that reflected the florent and flashed brilliantly green. Rob stomped on it; its vibrations rang through the mast and then through the whole ship. It stilled the waving of the weapons.
“Call off your crew Gig,” Rob ordered from atop the crowning green jewel of the mast.
“What is that?” the other captain shouted back.
“This…” Rob said ominously, “is a bath bead.” The Attaché crew gasped. One of them immediately sheathed his weapon and started praying under his breath. Another one turned and jumped off the ramp into the sea.
“You’re bluffing,” Gig challenged. He looked to his crew. “Anybody else jumps in the drink I’ll fish you out myself and make you stay in the bird’s nest until you lay an egg.” Back to Rob. “Scum like you would never keep one that size. You’d smash it to bits and sell the bits as soon as you could.”
“You think so?” Rob taunted. “This unrivaled gem comes from deep within Third Toil’s Green Ring. It took ten washes to dig it out; fifteen diggers died in the process. The dying only stopped when they sanded away the cursed coating and saw the luster underneath. This is the Blasted Jungle Bead and I would never break it down… Primarily because any strike that chips it risks combustion. One blow will engulf both our ships in a green magic fire that guarantees death and eternal suffering.”
“You talking is eternal suffering,” Gig shouted. “Spin whatever silk you want up there; I’m taking the tile.”
“The green magic fire will burn your soul down in the Pipes or up in the florent, wherever you go,” Rob went on. Gig’s crew murmured and shuffled backward. “I steal from you because you can’t steal from me. Everything of mine is more important to me than anything of yours. Go ahead. Take one step below my decks and feel the heat of the gods.” Rob grabbed his jump club in both hands and heaved it over his head like a sledge hammer. Three more members of Gig’s crew went overboard. A few more scurried back across the ramp, one of whom went to the helm and started pulling the P.O.S. away.
“You cowards,” Gig barked. He was forced to jump backward and run down the ramp with his remaining men before the distance became too great and collapsed it against the side of the Mop. Rob gave an order for the other lines holding the ships together to be severed. “This isn’t over Kilrobin!” Gig yelled as the distance grew. “Next time you see me I’ll be a wobbly stool champion!”
Rob stepped off the edge of the Blasted Jungle Bead and dropped like a stone. He landed on the ship’s railing without leaning forward or back at all. He just stood there, perfectly balanced as the P.O.S. faded into the distance. Alast stood behind him, awaiting his punishment. His feet were submerged in sweat.
“Hand me off lad, you’re getting wet stink all over me cap,” the skull under the boy’s arm requested. Alast apologized and gave the gravefolk to someone with leathered flesh, who helped pop the skull back onto his body. Alast didn’t know if he was supposed to speak up and claim responsibility; his role did seem obvious.
Finally, Rob stepped down. He sheathed his weapons and ordered the bath bead to be once again covered in sailcloth. The deckhands in the immediate vicinity picked up the shredded covering and climbed into the rigging to repair it. The Captain glared at Alast. He exhaled so powerfully that his beard looked like grass blowing in the wind.
“I’m sorry Captain,” Alast said. Suddenly he missed his mist clothes, which would have absorbed the sweat he was drowning in. “I… just wanted her to like me so I thought I’d show her how amazing…” He stopped when he realized how much he sounded like a child. His cheeks felt ablaze. The heat had been in his ears for so long that the edges of them felt charred, like the slightest touch would break them into ash. The Captain opened his mouth, but Dawn stepped in before he could say anything.
“You know how boys be with pretty girls,” the second mate said. “And I don’t think he’s ever talked to one in the open, except me of course.”
“It’s my fault,” Rob said. “I’ve let the boy have books and lessons, but I forgot about all the other kinds of idiocy. Of course he failed.” Alast cast his eyes down. The word failed burrowed into the corner of his eye and stuck there like a hot needle. “Somebody has to teach him about women. Who wants the job?” Rob looked around at the crew. Alast didn’t know what the Captain implied; he thought he was getting another teacher, another skull on the shelf. He glanced around and saw all sorts of reactions. Some of the women crew stayed put. Some looked away. Some backed up. None stepped forward. The hot needle burned a hole in the bottom of his eye and hit his jaw. He tried to swallow it down.
“He be just a fingerling Captain,” Ladyfish said.
“How old are you Alast?” Rob asked.
“Six rests Captain.”
“Six? I was younger than him when I learned. Somebody claim him or I’m going to assign one of you to him.” After an agonizing silence, Queenvy Rookr rolled her eyes and raised her hand. Alast tried to communicate silent thanks with his pathetic eyes. Queenvy and her twin brother Kingvy were decent sorts, about the same age as Alast. They were the ones who sat in the bird’s nest most of the time playing with cards, dice, or soap marbles. She had long black hair and often tied green and black feathers into the ends of it. He couldn’t tell if her swarthy skin was her heritage or the product of a life at sea under the florent.
“Marks for you Miss Rookr. Go give the boy his lesson,” Rob said. Kingvy whispered something in his sister’s ear; she nodded and then moved to Alast. She wordlessly took his hand and led him below decks. He didn’t know where they were going but he had the sense he’d gotten off very easy.
“Thank you,” he said to Queenvy as she pulled him through the corridors.
“Don’t sweat it Misty,” she said, her voice cool like the icy fruit pulp they had in the galley. “Pinwhistle be a crafty pair of lips.” He was about to ask where they were going when she opened a door and pulled him into a tiny room with a cot and a few stacks of heavy ochre blankets. Alast counted in his head: one, two, three, four… five! This was the infamous fifth door on the left. The kissing closet. Queenvy sat him down on the cot. She struck a fire twig and lit an oil lamp above them so they could see. “You look nervous.”
“I have no idea what’s going on,” he admitted. “Also… I thought I was going to be flayed about thirty drips ago.”
“Relax. I’m just going to teach you a few things. Not exactly what the Captain be hoping for though.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wants me to bed you. Men like him think boys don’t grow up until they’ve been bedded. That be a silly old idea. So when we get out of here you just act like we bedded okay?”
“I… don’t know what that means… exactly.” Even though they were out of the florent he felt hotter than ever. He was just waiting for the moment when he looked down and saw the skin melting off his hands.
“You’re telling me they didn’t even give you that in that blasted fog?” she exclaimed. She rubbed her forehead and leaned back on the cot. “Lay down Alast. Brace yourself for some more truths.” The boy obeyed.
She explained the processes by which folk expressed their desires for intimacy. She explained the details of child production and its general sameness to the animal breeding he was familiar with. She explained what she kept calling ‘silly old ideas’ of worth by romantic conquest. She explained the finer points of things he did know of, like marriage, divorce, and the responsibilities of ensuring romantic consent if he wanted to remain a decent sort.
Alast absorbed it all as if Queenvy was throwing stones down a well. Each heavy splash left ripples in his intellect that he felt for rinses afterwards. He stared at her with eyes of stone so as not to miss the subtlest emotions he was supposed to express when talking about such things. More than ever before, even counting the times he couldn’t see the sky or ground, Alast felt the entire world had been kept from him. He’d honestly been worrying he was allergic to women and girls.
While his squirmy feelings had adequately been slotted into his mosaic view of the world, the information regarding his own gestation and birth was the most troubling. That’s what they should call the Gross Truth, he thought. Alast’s mother, Lerl, had passed away when he was barely walking from an illness his father called brain leak. It was strange to him… imagining himself swimming around inside another person who didn’t have much time left to live. It was like being a sailor on a sinking ship. Suddenly he missed her, which was not something he did often because the memories were so faded. The mist prevented him from remembering her face, but he remembered her neck… and the soft patch of skin at its base that fluttered with her labored breathing.
He did his best to dump his misconceptions. Up until that point he’d assumed children grew on walls, like shellenfowl eggs. Gone was the idea that lightfolk were the products of spores and the direction of the winds. Gone was the idea that parentage was determined by whoever picked up the sprouting babe first. Queenvy told him of the principles of inheritance, how he had gotten all his materials from a mixture of the materials contained in his parents. Just as Fulbur said about the animals. Are we animals as well? …So my name shouldn’t be Alast. Those are just the letters of my father’s line. Mother did more than him. Where are her letters? Perhaps I should be called Lersta or Alalset. Even if my name changes I can’t escape the folk of the mist. I’m made out of them. I can’t transform into a new being just by learning. That’s… completely unfair.
Queenvy told him exactly what to say should the Captain ask about their bedding. She was ready to leave but Alast pulled her back and asked a string of questions long enough to tie her up for a few drops.
“How do you find someone to bed… honestly?”
“Don’t be in a rush for starters,” she advised. “Find someone you like. Don’t fish deep waters. Find someone close.”
“Is it my job to do the fishing? What I mean is… will a girl ever ask me?” Alast read her expression and noted that she had expected him to be embarrassed about questions like that. I won’t ask anybody else these questions, he vowed.
“They might. You’re breaking me first rule already though. Stop rushing.”
“Sorry.” That snipped the question string before it could go any further. Something finally came back to him, something he’d been extremely curious about before the talk of bedding had come up. “The thing the Captain used to end the fight up there… the bath bead. What are those?”
“Now that be much simpler,” Queenvy sighed with relief. “Bath beads are rocks what are magic. They’re usually tiny.”
“What sort of magic?”
“Most say it be from the old gods or the Spotless. They think whenever they made a miracle the leftover bits of magic mixed together and turned into a bead. The Captain has his own theory he calls ‘sublimation of atmospheric imagination’. Basically it just means the magic be from a lot of folks thinking a lot of things out into the air.”
“Could it really have destroyed the Mop?”
“That one?” Queenvy said with a smirk and a snort. “Not a chance in even the widest of the Pipes. That rock up in the mast be a fake. It be just colored glass.”
“So the Captain was bluffing!”
“Aye, but don’t go blabbing that to anybody not part of this here crew.”
“But if it was real… If it was it could sink the Mop?”
“It be usually not that simple,” she said. “It can take ages just to figure out what a bath bead does. They can do all kinds of strange things, but each one usually only does one strange thing.”
“I don’t have time to tell you about every one-in-a-million bead,” she grumbled. “There be a book in Rob’s lab you can look at. I think it be called Strings of Beads. It’s got all the ones we know about.”
“Please, just give me a couple of examples.”
“I’d like to get out of this dark closet before folks start thinking I’m enjoying meself! It be magic Alast; it could be anything. There are ones what turn you into animals, what drive you insane, what make you live longer, what make you live shorter, what destroy other bath beads, what let you see the past, and occasionally what let you blow things up. Anything Alast. Anything. Oh gods… I really hope nobody heard me yelling anything Alast.” With that she opened the door and pulled him out of the kissing closet. (Blaine’s Note: I guess you could say Queenvy game him the birds and the beads… I know. I probably shouldn’t use these notes for jokes. I’ll try to hold it in… Of course, if I was good at holding it in I never would’ve found this story in the first place.)
They’d ended their enlightenment session just in time, because two more folk showed up to use the kissing closet: Haystone Clearcuttr and Bonswario Bucklr. Bonswario draped his arms over Alast’s and Queenvy’s shoulders and asked them if they had fun. Queenvy shook him off and smacked him on the back playfully. He laughed and swaggered into the closet. Haystone followed him and closed the door. Alast eyed the closet curiously.
“Don’t be a peeper,” Queenvy scolded and dragged him away.
“I don’t understand. The kissing closet’s for bedding right?”
“They’re both men… they can’t… did I miss something?”
“I guess I accidentally skipped over that,” Queenvy said. She put her arm over his shoulder just as Bonswario had done. “Walk with me Misty. You’ve still got a lot to learn.” Alast loved hearing that.
After the incident with the P.O.S., life aboard the Greedy Old Mop steadily became more difficult. Alast had to cut many of his combat lessons with Dawn short because she was needed for night-time raids. The daylight had become significantly more dangerous for them thanks to Captain Walkr spreading the word regarding their possession of a cardinal tile. All Alast could do was insert an apology whenever he could, like during rollcall.
“I’m so sorry!”
“Apology noted boy. Go scrub the nest.”
As cautious as they had to be out on the Snyre, they didn’t even dare to blink when they made port. That was why the Captain only sent gravefolk to pick up supplies. Yugo’s spies were everywhere now. They’d caught one stowaway clinging to the side of the Mop like a fly. Another was aboard the ship for two days before they rooted her out and tossed her into the drink. She was picking the lock to the lab, a lock Rob had only placed after Alast’s little mistake with Pinwhistle. They should take lessons from Scuttlr, Alast thought. Rob walked by her all the time without noticing.
On the fourth attempt to make port troops were waiting for them. An entire company of gravefolk, armored both by metal skins and more traditional armor on top of that, was on the dock with spears and swords and even a cannon. They took a shot at the Mop and ruffled some of the hanging ropes on her bow. Having to flee ruffled Rob’s ropes as well. If they couldn’t steal they couldn’t eat. Cardinal Second had to go.
Alast learned this when he overheard the conversation. He was scrubbing the walls outside the map room; he was supposed to head down toward the galley, but when he saw the Captain and his highest ranking sailors stomp down the hallways he decided he could clean toward them rather than away. Did I miss a spot on the door crack there? I can’t quite see it… I’ll just look a little closer. His head turned and his ear pressed against the seam.
“We’re not equipped to carry it forever,” Teal said.
“Nobody’s doing anything about Legendr Captain,” Manathan added. “We can’t return it to Metal Block now because all of his army is in the way. Even if it wasn’t he could just go in and get it like he wanted to in the first place Captain. We’re all sunk if he gets the Mop. He’ll empty us, burn us, and sink us. I don’t know about you Captain, but I’m not too keen on having to walk all those lathers back to shore Captain.”
“I know it has to go,” Rob said. Alast heard him running his gloved fingers across paper. “The only question is where.”
“Second Sink,” Dawn suggested. “There be plenty of caves where we could stash it. Half of them are flooded too.”
“The tides could damage it,” Rob dismissed.
“There’s this ridge on the Reflecting Path,” Teal offered. Nobody lives there.”
“Somebody has to be guarding it until Yugo is defeated,” he dismissed again. His finger landed hard on the paper. “We’ll take it to Crosstahl.”
“You’re flushed idiotic,” Teal said plainly. There was quiet. She was the only one that could talk to the Captain that way.
“Describe my idiocy,” he insisted.
“We’ll get caught on the way there. We’ll get caught on the way back if we don’t. If we are there… enlighten us as to where you’d stash it.”
“The charm school.” Alast didn’t know what the sound of several pairs of eyes rolling was until that moment. “The charm school is the perfect place.”
“With a perfect principal,” Teal scoffed.
“It’s the perfect place,” Rob said again as if there’d been no objection.
“Has the meaning of perfect changed? I admit I wasn’t paying whole attention the last hundred drips,” Dawn said.
“Maybe you should think again Captain,” Manathan agreed.
“It’s the perfect place,” Rob said a third time. “I’ll hear nothing else.”
“Why start now?” Teal grumbled.
“We’ll make for the Sea Fauce side. That gives us a day to prepare,” Rob continued. “Who do I take? Volunteers?”
“Aye,” Teal said. Despite her reservations she didn’t seem to hesitate.
“Aye,” Dawn added.
“Glad we can all agree,” Rob said. He turned to Manathan. “Man, you’ll captain the Mop in my stead.”
“Captain, nobody respects me Captain! They don’t listen to me, like I’m a type six ice chunk Captain that’ll just melt if they breathe on me.”
“I’ll instruct them to respect your decisions while I’m gone,” Rob assured.
“You could just instruct them to respect me forever and always Captain!”
“Don’t get carried away Master Shuckr. Teal, pick me five more for the party.” Alast saw that as his cue. He threw open the door, dripping brush in hand. He stood tall and saluted with his brush hand, getting a few soapy drops in his eyes. He winced and spoke through the burning sensation.
“You only need four more Captain. I’m reporting for duty.”
“Do I need to put a lock on every door and cupboard aboard this ship? No,” the Captain said. He didn’t even bother to look away from the map. Most other rejections Alast could accept, especially from the Captain, but not this one.
“I must decline… to not be a part of this mission Captain,” Alast fumbled. “I told you the journey of Cardinal Second was my journey as well. I’ll see it returned to Metal Block and I’ll see it happen every step of the way. You can’t deny me the chance to earn my own name.”
“I won’t accept it Captain.”
“What good are you to this mission?”
“I’m as capable a fighter as any. You said it yourself. I’ve only gotten better since Dawn’s been teaching me to counterpick.” Rob looked at Dawn.
“You never said not to,” she explained.
“We can take Finick in case we need to track scents,” Alast went on in order to draw the heat away from Dawn. “He’s learned a lot as well. Between the two of us you’d get a fighter and a tracker and together we don’t even take up the space of the average man you’d bring with you.”
“If I was worried about space I’d just take gravefolk women,” Rob countered.
“You haven’t done that once in all the times I’ve suggested it,” Dawn complained.
“Fine, just stop yammering. Alast, you may join us. There’s a massive risk of torture and death by the by.”
“Thank you Captain!” Alast sputtered.
The boy could barely contain his excitement as they prepared for their next journey. He was allowed to hand off all his cleaning duties to Tombhen Epicr, a short stout woman who would die before complaining, in order to participate. Rob taught him how to package messages for ekapads and even let him attach the one that warned their contact in Crosstahl they were coming. Once the animal shot off into the sky and its red lightning dissipated, Alast took the opportunity to ask the Captain for a favor.
“Captain Rob, do you suppose I could take my teachers with me to Crosstahl? I don’t mind carrying them.”
“What do you want to do that for?” Rob asked. He unraveled a few papers from the canister he’d taken off the ekapad and scanned them. “Damn tiny print.” He pulled out a pair of silver spectacles but refused to put them on his face; he simply held them halfway between his eyes and the paper. “Go on boy, I’m listening.” The Captain’s lips moved as he read silently.
“I still have a lot to learn. I don’t see much reason to delay my education just because I’m off the ship, what with the teachers being so portable and all.”
“I’m sorry Captain?”
“You may take one teacher. I don’t particularly want four folk on this mission that have to be carried.”
“Which one should I take Captain?”
“That depends on which subject is most important to you. Now go figure it out. I have to write a letter. A letter with big angry words all over it. Very big.”
“Aye Captain. Thank you.” Alast scurried to the documents room, but found all the skulls missing. He asked Tombhen what happened to them and she told him that she’d dumped them in the Calcitheater. Having cleaned the Calcitheater on his hands and knees more than a dozen times, Alast knew right where it was. He descended into the Mop and made his way to a space behind the haund hutches. He lifted a trap door and dropped into a dark chamber with a very low ceiling. It was so low in fact that he had to crouch like an amphibian.
The Calcitheater was lit by one lamp at the center of a circular depression. The depression was ringed with wooden slats: seats for the participants. Twenty-five skulls were placed upon them so they could all look into each other’s sockets. The Calcitheater was the nicest place for socializing the skulls had aboard the Mop. They used it to discuss serious matters. When they didn’t have the pleasure of being there they were usually stacked on top of each other in a wet moldy chest or hanging in a net like a harvest of nuts. Some of the gravefolk greeted him while the others scolded him for interrupting their session. Alast apologized and explained the situation.
“I haven’t been out in ages,” Srina moaned.
“Neither have I,” Fulbur chipped in.
“Alast likes math the best. He’s taking me,” Veer said.
“Alast hasn’t mastered the written word yet. He may need that,” Nurkly noted.
“This looks like a matter for the Calcitheater,” a fifth skull with gold-plated sockets and golden fangs insisted. The rest of the gravefolk agreed. Alast sat politely by while each of his four teachers made their case to the court of skulls, providing testimony when it was requested. He had no way of knowing they’d waste nearly half a day and make him skip dinner before they came to a decision, but it wasn’t like they needed to worry much about time. Their lives were as long as it would take for the air to erode their skulls away.
“It is decided,” the gold-fang skull declared. Alast pulled himself out of a doze and blinked himself to attention. “Alast will take Oddball Damr with him to Crosstahl.”
“Uhh… who?” He’d missed something in his half-asleep state.
“Oddball Damr,” Nurkly said with an implied grimace. “The Calcitheater has decided the most vital element of your education at the moment is gutter smarts. You need to be able to navigate the underbelly of society that pirates call home. Oddball is the expert on the gutter.”
“How exactly was this decided?” Alast asked. He was hoping for Veer but he did have to admit the limited utility arithmetic had in battle. The closest application in the gutter was probably black market haggling.
“The Calcitheater is a vote-based system,” Nurkly went on like she was explaining the symptoms of a disease. “Votes are enhanced or degraded based on 107 different factors before their value is multiplied by that member’s tier. Some of these factors include the time delay, in drips, between the asking of the question and the casting of the vote, the emotional tone of voice when casting the vote, whether or not that skull’s previous vote was for a winning argument, et cetera.” Alast opened his mouth, but Nurkly kept going. “There are forty tiers a skull can achieve based on seniority and voting records, with the lowest rankings being hammer, anvil, and stirrup, and the highest rankings being open casket, mausoleum, and fossil.”
“So where can I find Oddball?” Alast interjected the first chance he had.
“Check below the galley’s griddle.”
The griddle in the galley was heated by a metal tray filled with boiling Aych water. The constant opening and closing of the tray shook the cooktop and often made all kinds of grease and fat from the meat flow down the side and drip into the space below. That was where Alast found the skull of Oddball Damr, drenched in brown streaks of animal fat and black charred flecks. Thick yellow globs from last night’s dinner, the egg sac of a giant Snyre snapper, dripped into the skull’s open mouth while he made chewing and swallowing sounds.
“Hello,” Alast said. The skull closed his mouth and rolled in the boy’s direction. The yellow globs continued to splatter against the side of his jaw.
“Who are you?” Oddball asked. His voice suggested he was in complete control of the situation, as if the bodiless man somehow had a knife to the boy’s throat.
“I’m Alast… Nonamr. I’m the cabin boy. I’m joining the Captain on a journey to Crosstahl. I was advised by the Calcitheater that you should come along as my teacher. I’m told I lack gutter smarts.” The skull stared silently. The fat dripped.
“Ahahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaa Ahhahahaha ahehehehee he!” Oddball guffawed. “The Calcitheater advised you did they? Advise be an interesting word. They didn’t have a choice! I’m the only man qualified to do it! Probably the only man who’s ever been qualified. Pick me up lad.” He saw Alast’s hesitation to touch the food grease. “Now!” The boy banged his head on the bottom of the griddle as he rushed to pick up the filthy grimy skull. Like a bar of soapstone, Oddball nearly slipped out of his hands. He fumbled wildly, doing everything he could to keep him from hitting the floor. “You drop me and you fail gutter smarts right away! Now clean me up, we’ve so much to do! So many women I must say goodbye to.”
“Why were you under the griddle?” Alast asked as he walked Oddball over to a washbasin.
“Being slathered in all that glistening glory makes these old bones feel meaty again. You can bet your booty there be nothing better than a golden shower! You call yourself a cabin boy? Scrub! Reach deep in those sockets or I’ll have bitty bugs in me head for a wash!” Alast obeyed and cleaned every bit of grease away until Oddball was spotless. A few slight yellow stains remained, but he’d have to scrub a hole in his skull to get rid of those. They must have been from a truly fantastic feast.
The florent went out, but Oddball expected Alast to work through half the night, so he grabbed a lantern and obeyed. The first thing on his list was being escorted around the ship to various female skulls he needed to speak with. There was one attached to Teal’s cabin door that had a green copper knocker through her upper jaw. Oddball promised her he would think of nothing but her until he returned.
He made the same promise to the skull in the bird’s nest that had spyglasses built into both her sockets so she could always keep watch.
Alast thought he was going to hear the promise a third time when they found another bodiless woman at the bottom of a barrel of salted fish skins, but Oddball merely yelled at her for being a fool who couldn’t recognize the profundity of his earlier romantic gestures. Then he ordered Alast to drop all the fish skins he held back on top of her.
There was even a living woman, flesh and eyes and all, who he spoke with. She was starting to gray, but she cried like an adolescent girl seeing her fiancé go off to war when Oddball told her of his imminent departure. She sobbed and bawled and sniffled and snorted and ripped Oddball out of Alast’s hands three separate times to stroke the top of his skull.
“Be brave me little sugar droplet,” Oddball said through the fabric of her sleeve. “It be me duty to look out for the weak of body, mind, and soul. Without me this lad be a goner for sure.”
Once the parade of farewells was complete Alast was ordered to return to the haund hutch. Once there Oddball inspected Finick and dubbed him a fine steed. Then he had Alast dig out something from a nearby chest: a tiny black saddle with reins and a bridle. The bridle was not for Finick’s mouth, but Oddball’s.
Alast wrangled his pet haund and tied the saddle in place. Then he set Oddball in its perfectly skull-shaped seat and tied him in place with a strap. Oddball opened his mouth. He playfully snapped at Alast’s fingers the first time he tried to put the bridle in and then told the boy to get on with it. When everything was in place the skull demonstrated his riding prowess. With subtle jaw movements he directed the now highly-trained Finick in a few circles around the hutch. He had the haund leap over the sleeping bodies of the other two. Alast was glad to see it because it meant he wouldn’t have Oddball under his arm the entire journey snapping at his armpit hairs for fun.
The next morning the Greedy Old Mop came very close to the lip of Third Sink. Their entire party boarded a lifeboat: Captain Rob, First Mate Teal, Second Mate Dawn, Roary, Herc, Alast, Oddball, Finick, Bonswario, Ladyfish, and, of course, Cardinal Second. Alast was again glad for more company, especially because he knew Ladyfish was fluent in Pawtymouth and would perhaps be more willing than the Captain to give him a few lessons. He couldn’t stand folk talking in a way he couldn’t understand; it just made information he should’ve had arbitrarily unavailable.
They got in the boat along with all their supplies and Nayth, who would row the boat back to the Mop once they were safely on the shore. Alast checked his own pack to make sure he had everything he needed. He’d been given his own saber and hunting knife, a canteen, and a change of clothes.
For the moment he wore light thin clothing and heavy black boots that only had a few shellfish fragments stuck to the edges of their soles. Under his first shirt he had the remnants of his blue mist tunic; he’d cut the sleeves off it and turned it into an undershirt. Mist clothes tended to be tight and damp, but in the chest area they were great for absorbing sweat and cooling the body. When he squeezed into it that morning he realized it had gotten even tighter. Somewhere between the piles of fish he’d been eating and all those hours scrubbing and hoisting, he had gained some muscle. He checked his hands; his fingers, unfortunately, were as quaky as ever. Rob had also given Alast a folding map of Porce so the boy could track their progress without asking so many questions.
With the room left for personal belongings he chose to bring one of his textbooks, one he doubted he would be able to finish even though they could be gone for a wash. Its print was so tiny that he had to use the coin-sized magnifying glass in the pouch on the book’s inside cover to read it. The book was a copy of Custodial Interference by one Janitorial Collectr; it chronicled the lines and lives of the Custodians, as much as was known anyway. Many in modern Porce claimed the title of Custodian, but only children of the Oaths, who were themselves children of the gods, had any right to it.
When they made it to shore and said their goodbyes to Nayth, Rob led the party to a nearby farm and its stables, where they purchased steeds they hoped to resell in Crosstahl, as well as a wagon to hide Cardinal Second in. As there would be no reason to cross the treetops of the Threewall Wild, since their path took them toward the Fauces, to Second Wall, and then down to the World Floor, laggeren were not an appropriate choice. This time the animals were tilehooves: stocky moss-green coated beasts with thick bristles, dripping nostrils, and horns and hooves that appeared to be made of polished white tile. The hooves and feet were huge, square, and extremely noisy on hard ground.
Alast thought he would prefer the agility of the laggeren, but upon sitting in his tilehoof’s saddle he realized he liked the extra room and comfort provided by the fleshier beast. The ride was so smooth that he was able to hold his book and magnifying glass steady simultaneously. He got to reading right away since the map showed nothing but scrubland and views of the Snyre until they reached Second Wall. He flipped to page one.
“You can’t start there lad,” Oddball insisted. Alast leaned over the side of his tilehoof and looked at the skull as he pulled up alongside on the back of a panting Finick. “Page one be not the way to start reading about Custodians. Go to page 856.” Without further explanation the skull rode off to speak with Ladyfish. They’d only just begun and she’d laughed at his stories at least ten times.
Alast flipped to the page in question and found the top of the section. It was about Custodian Kilroy Ordr, Rob’s, Rorke’s, and Roary’s ancestor. He wondered if he would be able to see any connection between his friends and such a historic figure, before realizing the only way to find out was to read.
Custodian Kilroy Ordr
Son of Oath Suspectr and Obespieron Ordr
Possessor of the oath of the Broken Fix
Catalyst of Kilroy
Traitor of Walls
Last Light of Luminatr
Line – His line began with the goddess Luminatr, ruler of cyclical nature. Her union with the lightfolk man Sociodem Brightr produced Oath Suspectr, creator of the oath of the Broken Fix. She in turn, without marriage, produced a child with Obespieron Ordr, a judge of laws with a philosophy formed in full view of the jagged but intact edges of the Reflecting Path. The child was named Kilroy in the hopes he would always live in the Broken Fix and watch over it. They wanted his eventual gravestone, set atop the Fix, to read: Kilroy was here.
Legacy – Kilroy Ordr produced many children with many women across the tiles during his transition from the Broken Fix to Fourth Wall. Once there he wed Bakayla Sintraydr, an artist, midwife, and wet nurse. His heritage allowed them both to be fruitful beyond normal rests. They produced both sons (Smiff, Whittle, Blackantan, Atlantrick, Booth, Coaster, and Zintor) and daughters (Memosa, Longjane, Venschetta, Wennamark, Eentsy, Daintydew, Glise, and Hem).
His premarital partners are not all known. The only child of note from these dalliances was mothered by a slave with no surname. She produced the son Kilrogue Ordr, who from then on limited his own line to the name ‘Kilro’. From him we have generations of adventurers, military commanders, and dignitaries, though the line has degraded in the current era. See the family tree on Page 1277 for the plurality of Kilros.
Deeds – Custodian Kilroy Ordr was the first, barring Oath Breakr, to disregard his inherited duties. He abandoned his authority over the Broken Fix, plunging it and its folks into chaos and eventual slavery. Some have, in reference to his time after his abdication, given the title of Messmaker rather than Custodian.
His journey of personal fulfillment saw him crossing the tiles and taking advantage of those who revered his divine heritage. He would stay long enough only to absorb their praise and collect their most valued treasures. He was known to destroy bath beads of extremely great power only to turn fragments of them into jewelry that he then gave away to women as gifts. Some offer this as the explanation for the powerful matriarchal figures across the tiles, attributing their authority to hidden shards passed down their line.
When Kilroy reached Fourth Wall he spent his days in conflict with the Custodians that lived there. He interfered with their oaths by wrestling monsters out of the toil seas that belonged there, picking rare crops needed for seed, and spreading marital discord.
He was only stopped when his siblings went in search of the perfect woman to counteract his behavior. They eventually succeeded and introduced him to Bakayla Sintraydr. She tempered his disobedience and eventually created a Kilroy with distinct goals.
These grand goals of unity and family were never achieved thanks to his abandonment of his post. The act was sufficiently unnatural to produce not one, but an endless string of questing beasts. Each time Kilroy tried to give his family roots on Fourth Wall by rearing a child with Bakayla, another beast appeared to insist he return to his natural home: the Broken Fix. Their roars fell on the Custodian’s deaf ears.
He lived a life beyond what any mortal can expect, but eventually the tide of beasts overcame him. He was killed in struggle with one near the drain of Third Toil, where it is believed his remains are still shifting in the white sand.
Kilroy Ordr remains a divisive historical figure, especially so when a ‘kilro’ is involved in the argument. This is strange considering the modern ‘kilro’ name is more directly a line of the slave bastard Kilrogue than they are of their Custodian Kilroy.
“That book don’t tell the whole story,” Roary interrupted. Alast looked over at his friend on the back of his own tilehoof.
“What is the whole story?” Roary rolled his eyes.
“I don’t have time to tell you the whole story.”
“We’ll be riding for days and days! We’ve nothing but time!”
“It seems the cabin boy be learning to bark,” Roary praised. He slapped Alast on the shoulder, nearly making him drop the tiny magnifying glass. “Here be the important parts of the whole story. Kilroy Ordr didn’t abandon anything. He was saddled with that oath. He was making a point that every man deserved his own life.”
“I can understand that.”
“And another thing… those beads he broke. Me family thinks he did that because they were dangerous. He shrank them down and made them tame. That be no crime either.”
“What’s a questing beast?” Alast asked, pulling Roary off the trail of his rant.
“It be nothing I couldn’t handle,” Oddball interrupted with a laugh as he rode between the legs of their tilehooves and off to talk with Dawn.
“Nobody’s given you the pants-down on that one yet?” Roary asked.
“I’ve seen them mentioned in several books. At first I thought they were just legends. What are they?”
“They’re not so easy to figure out,” Roary admitted. “Porce don’t like change. When somebody tries to change something, and I mean something big, it resists. The world makes a monster what be just as strong as you. Then it hunts you down. Its only goal be stopping whoever it was created to stop. If that wasn’t bad enough, it always shows up right before you get the job done. It be the jaws of defeat.”
“What do they look like?”
“They can look like anything. Instead of jaws of defeat they could have claws of defeat, tentacles of defeat, barbed tails of defeat… Any monster you can dream up they can be. The only things they can’t be are stronger than their opponent or weaker than their opponent.”
“Something big… like moving a cardinal tile?”
“Possibly,” Roary said, but then he smirked. “Not you Misty. Maybe the Captain. Questing beasts don’t show up for deck scrubbers.”
“But I’m the one who started this.”
“Even if that be big enough, there be all sorts of circumstances and factors and variables and unknowns,” Roary dragged on. “They don’t show if there be a sufficient opposing force already. Maybe Yugo’s sufficient. We really can’t know. The Captain has tried all kinds of experiments to figure them out and it’s been a downward spiral of nothing.”
“So one of them could show up for me?” Alast asked. He saw affirmation even through Roary’s skepticism. Strangely, he felt desire. He wanted to see this monster that could prove he was worth something, that could prove he was enough to threaten the very world. If he fought one, nobody could deny him a surname. “Has the Captain ever fought one of his own?”
“One or two,” was all Roary would say. He went on to mention that another one or two crew members aboard the Mop had fought their own. Remembering his fractions Alast realized that two out of 205 wasn’t a very high percentage. That meant most folk never did anything important enough to get a visit. I bet the actual rate’s even lower, Alast thought. Pirates are already more exciting than regular folk. I want to know what a… what’s it again? A control group! I want to know the rate in a questing beast control group. Am I doing science? Should I tell the Captain? Am I allowed to do science by myself? Don’t know yet…
Alast was disappointed with the uneventfulness of their journey as it progressed. They kept to the edges of civilization, sleeping with the lights of town lamps barely visible in the distance. The days were long and quiet. He asked Oddball for gutter smarts lessons only once, and was refused when the greasy skull, how he managed to get greasy again Alast had no clue, told him they could only be taught in the gutter. There would be no lessons until they actually reached Crosstahl.
Alast finished reading about Custodian Banglore Madenr and his conquest of the Black Gap in the face of an army of shadowy proliths. He finally learned that the proliths were just the armored forms of creatures called prosites, who ate up the land to protect their squishy round bodies.
That was on the day Alast and the rest of the party moved from the lip of Third Sink to Second Wall. He relished the brief moments on the curve of land between the two where it felt like he had no weight at all. He saw leaves hovering a few bubbles off the ground and bugs moving between them like swimmers between lake weeds. The temptation to jump was huge, but the others were careful to warm him he would be a wonderfully free flying man for all of five drips, and then he would plummet towards whichever gravitation grabbed him and likely perish.
When the moment passed and they were entirely on Second Wall and subject to its gravitation, Alast noticed the florent now seemed to come from the side of the sky rather than the middle. As the days passed they journeyed by the edge of the Threewall Wild and again caught sight of the Gummire in the distance.
He read about Custodian Main Squeezr and her stable of 200 lovers. That was the day they moved from the bottom of Second Wall and back to the World Floor. Near the shade provided by Third Sink the weather became cooler. The florent was once again directly overhead. Alast charted their course on his map. Crosstahl drew close. On the map it was just a finger’s width away from the edge of Third Sink. He couldn’t tell much about it from the black cross used to represent it. He was told it was a city.
“It be a fun one alright,” Oddball attested. “It be not down in the drain like Rollabo or Barcier. You can find spectacular weapons there. Best in Porce. Of course only one man makes them…”
Herc played a song on his Sybil’s bath the day before they arrived. He told Alast it was a favorite in Crosstahl and he would probably hear it played on bells every morning. It was an unusual tune, chipper and repetitive. He asked about its history.
“It’s a ringing tone,” Herc told him. “The oldest library of songs, the ringing tones. There’s this strange place in the Green Ring you see. It’s a plateau where nothing can grow. Ages ago someone figured out that ekapad lightning stimulates the ground there. They trained a thousand of those beasts to jump across it in waves. When there’s enough of that lightning in the air the plateau comes to life. It makes music like you’ve never heard. It’s so loud you have to plug your ears with wax or gum or it’ll explode your tiny head bones and make you deaf. Every time someone makes the effort the song is different.”
“Did the gods write them?” Alast asked. Perhaps each of the eight gods had their own ringing tone. He tried to imagine what each would sound like. The gods did have specialties after all. The tilefolk revered Plowr most because of his associations with good soil and the harvest. Maybe his ringing tone sounded like gourds snapping off their vines and being rolled to the cart.
The bergfolk honored Swimmr, goddess of all the seas in all the sinks, toils, and the Rin cliffs. Alast thought hers would sound like hail falling in the ocean.
Then there was Greetr, the goddess of clarity. What would clarity sound like? Chimes in the wind? Chimes that just happen to produce a song.
Whispr the god of simplicity. A tone like the fluffing of sheets and pillows.
Scribblr the god of memory. A tone of quills scratching on paper.
Howlr the goddess of enthusiasm. A tone of children’s laughter.
Luminatr the goddess of responsibility. A tone of water carried and bricks laid.
Dealr the god of farewells. A tone of coffins closing and fires dying.
“Maybe the gods wrote them,” Herc said and destroyed his lovely daydream. “Nobody knows.”
“I can’t stand not knowing things,” Alast said.
“That be strange, because you know about as much as a bird on a fishing line,” Oddball quipped from below. The skull’s teeth chattered as he guffawed at his own joke. “The gods must be lousy musicians. Ringing tones irritate the piss out of me!”
The next day they reached Crosstahl. Alast looked up expecting towers like none he’d ever seen. There was nothing there. He looked down.
A Questing Beast Learns
The beast carried its square stone deep into the Threewall Wild, never stopping to eat or drink. Porce gave it the exact amount of energy it needed. It still carried its one unwilling drink, from its near-drowning, in the tumor on its side, the painful sloshing never abating. The trees became so thick that every day was darkness. Its eyes never squinted or focused correctly; they could only do that when the boy was close enough for them to see. For now only the compass-needle pull of the cardinal tiles guided it. Forward forward forward. It realized that it couldn’t back up, not even one step.
The ground felt strange, but it couldn’t slow down. When the first bug bit into the skin around its claw it realized it had walked right into a nest so large that the very ground squirmed. The horned crawlers grabbed at its feet and digits with their pincers. Their poison burned in its tissues, but could not move to its heart. Its blood was merely a detail of life; it didn’t travel around the body in circles and stop in the heart. It just sat there. Stagnant. The blood would pour only if there was an injury. Even the heart was an afterthought, the dotting of the I in the forged signature that was the questing beast. It beat, but irregularly and only on occasion. It beat in a bloodless chamber not connected to anything else, because living things had hearts.
After it moved through the nest it climbed into the tree tops. The ground would have been faster, but the world said it had to be the trees. Its claws got stuck in the bark often and it had to wrench them free. Then, after it had climbed down from the trees and found itself among thick, gnarled, groaning roots, something very strange to it occurred. It was compelled to stop. Nothing backward of course.
The roots formed a shape in the ground full of soft soil, the softest thing it had ever felt. Its claws sank deep into the loam. It dropped to its elbows and knees inside the root-shape, which was a little like a ship with its bow rising out of the waves. The world pulled its eyes toward the sky. It was the only spot for lathers where the canopy was bare; nature had cut a perfect hole for the sky to breathe down into. It basked in the world’s exhalation.
The florent was off. Porcian stars soared slowly across the sky. (Blaine’s Note: In some of the pictograms included with the story I saw what I believe were ‘Porcian stars’. They are long-necked birds that glow blue in the darkness. If I’ve got my context clues right they’re also called lumasol birds.) Their majestic cries occasionally filled the otherwise silent circle of the forest. More stars appeared, summoned by intangible forces, and danced across the sky for the questing beast. They formed ancient symbols, only ever read by animals, in their dancing and taught the creature many things about the world. For a while the creature’s pain was dulled. It felt a simulacrum of peace.
Eventually, Porce pulled on its mind and spine again. It had to haul the square stone back onto its shoulders and climb out of the root ship. The canopy cut it off from the stars once again. The beast was bitter; the stars had given it a taste of knowledge and it already knew such knowledge would be far more rewarding than the blood it was forced to crave. Knowing things was beautiful, knowing things made it a participant in the world, but it was not meant to know anything. It knew only because the boy knew. It was his fault it didn’t get to learn more.
Again it was challenged by a bug, but this was no ordinary crawler. The beast came to a tree with a slashed hollow. The black hole resonated with a terrible humming, like eyelids flapping so much they tore off their face and flew away. Ivory claws emerged and gouged more scratches into the wood of the dead tree. The plow-headed white bug pulled itself from the hollow and hovered in front of the questing beast with its two leathery wings.
The bug hissed furiously and threatened the beast, but neither could back down. Porce had created this bug, bigger than any natural one, to challenge the beast, to toughen it for its ultimate confrontation. The beast roared inwardly, a frightening sound of trapped water and closing throats. It swung a sickle claw at the bug to slice its wings, but the bug darted aside with unnatural quickness, quickness more than reminiscent of bonepicking.
The questing beast roared as the picking bug stabbed its own claw into its enemy’s back. The blood did what it was told and bubbled out. The bug, powered by picking, lifted the beast off the ground; it scurried madly to regain purchase, fruitlessly so. The bug released its grip; the beast dropped back to the ground and broke a wrist. Porce sealed the crack, but the beast would always feel it. The new wound was on the opposite side of its watery gall, which made its steps painfully symmetrical.
Back and forth the bug flew, buzzing in one ear one moment and the other the next. A claw in the back. A bite on the ankle. A tackle in the watery bulge. The beast had to adapt. It had to predict where the bug would be if it was ever to swat it. Another stab. More meaningless blood that the beast nevertheless did not want to spill. The blood and the stone were everything it had in the world.
The beast leapt to the left of the bug’s position. The picking bug instinctively shifted, but this time it was right into the beast’s massive maw. It crunched down on the pest and snapped its legs from its body. There was no stomach to take the bug in, just a hollow leather sack, so once the beast was sure it was no more it spat the crushed remains of its enemy onto the ground. Some of the bug’s blood dripped down the beast’s throat and coagulated in the pointless gastric sack.
The questing beast tried to spit out the taste, but just as with the water it could never expel any of its experiences. The beast moved forward. At the very least, it now knew how to handle the erratic movement of picking.
It sensed the edge of the Threewall Wild. Perhaps the trials were close to over. The beast slowly crossed over a log, only to dread what it found. There was another clearing, a sight that by now was instantly recognizable as one of the strange natural arenas Porce demanded it do battle in. This one was already occupied. A pack of heezutters lay on their sides and basked in the sparse light coming through the trees. They were bulky blubbery beasts with back legs far smaller and weaker than the front. Their dense fur came in shades of gold and cream. With their eyes closed and their round chests slowly rising and falling they looked harmless, like dreaming cushions.
The questing beast approached cautiously. Its progress was blocked by the largest member of the group: an extraordinarily flabby male with tusks big enough to be cannon powder-horns. The beast could not go around anymore than a sprout could grow its leaves into the ground. It was about to take its first stab into the male’s side when it spotted the smallest heezutter: a female cub smaller than the beast. It had big black eyes and a twitching, round, gray nose. It investigated the beast. Porce did not require the creature to conflict with the cub, a first. It allowed the cub to rub its whiskers all over its face. A chill of comfort ran through it, more of a thrill than the wisdom of the stars.
The female cub rolled over onto its back, urging the questing beast to play. The beast was just wise enough to understand play was something it couldn’t have. A shadow appeared and grew over it like a rising wave. The male heezutter had awoken, and it was lifting its incredible bulk onto its tiny hind legs and clicking its stubby nails together. It opened its mouth wide, misty breath sneaking out between the folds of its jowls. Its eyes, all pupil, shifted slightly and focused in on the intruder. The heezutter eyed the creature hiding under the square stone. Why should it have a rock with such a clean shape? Surely the king of the heezutters was more deserving of the trinket. It bellowed, priming its lungs for battle. The heezutter forced all of the air in its chest up into its nose, unfolding and inflating huge maroon skin sacks. The sacks became taught.
This was how heezutters defended themselves and knocked careless prey off their feet, with those fleshy bags of air. The male swung its head down, battering the stone, and the beast underneath, with the inflated club on the end of its nose. The beast took the heavy blows and then twisted out from under the stone. It tried to stab at the heezutter’s bottomless black eye, but it was protected by its air-filled eyelids. Its only successful poke barely punctured the bag of skin; it hissed out air every time the heezutter breathed or snarled.
The questing beast couldn’t help itself; it looked to the cub for help. Just this once. Something could help it. The cub cowered at its stare. If her patriarch attacked something, it was vital to be afraid of it. The cub scurried under the flank of its mother. The questing beast turned its eyes back to the male, which was crashing down on top of it. The beast’s bones broke under its weight. Nearly all of them. The male’s fur smelled like dying moss and oily warts. The beast was truly alone, under the weight of its enemies. It tried to give up. What a beautiful dream, to just die and become food. To be swallowed up and absorbed instead of made to suffer. Perhaps then it could be part of a free living thing. Then it would be freed from the shackles of its obsessive cause.
Porce sealed all the cracks, chips, and splits once again. It sealed the useless punctured organs so they wouldn’t interfere with the muscles. Only one victory or defeat mattered, and this was not that fight.
The questing beast dislocated its wrists, squealed inwardly in agony, and thrashed until its claws punctured the thick belly of the heezutter. The male exploded into a rage, heaving up only to smash back down. Again and again it crushed the questing beast’s frail body; each time it got less frail, and each time it put another hole in the heezutter’s bleeding belly. Eventually the male, exhausted and woozy, lifted its bulk a final time and fell backward instead of forward. The questing beast stared at the holes it had made in the male’s flank, watched real lifeblood seep out. It straightened out its bones and marched, trembling, forward, leaving the heezutter to lick its wounds.
The beast broke through the edge of the Threewall Wild. Bright meadows. Singing birds. Something in the distance. A leafless tree in the shape of a cross. Onward.
Continued in Part Five