(reading time: 1 hour, 45 minutes)
“Damr told you to what?” Roary hissed just as he hopped up and closed the door. The current and former cabin boys were in the school’s kitchen; Rob had ordered them to earn their keep by peeling and washing vegetables for Oobla’s cooks before they stepped in to prepare dinner. Alast stood behind the slate counter with an oddly-curved blade in his hand perfect for skinning squish-squashes. The pile of vegetables and their leafy tops was so towering that Alast and Roary had quickly turned to conversation to stave off boredom.
“He told me to steal the ring off Oobla’s finger. He said it was a bath bead and Teal confirmed it.”
“Teal would say anything to cause trouble for Oobla,” Roary dismissed. Still, he did not pick up his peeler and return to work. He paced back and forth on the other side of the counter, grabbing one of the white spice roots to chew on.
“What happened between those two?” Alast asked.
“None of your business Misty, just like that ring. As a superior officer I order you not to touch it. Don’t even look at it. Have you seen all the girls around here? Look at them instead!”
“You’re a superior officer, but the Captain is a superior superior officer,” Alast said casually.
“My uncle did not tell you to steal that bird’s ring!”
“He ordered me to follow Oddball’s orders. Oddball ordered me to steal the ring. I have no choice.”
“Where this be coming from? Suddenly you’re a real pirate? Be it because that girl left you on the cliff?”
“Who told you about that?”
“It don’t matter,” Roary said, throwing his hands up in the air and nearly losing his grip on the half-eaten root. “One girl turns you down and suddenly your heart be as black and full of lead as the Pipes. There are other girls Alast! Most of them are in this building! What be bouncing around in your head what makes you this crazy?”
“I don’t want to be the cabin boy forever.”
“You could be dead real soon if you go through with this. The Captain will see to that. He won’t care about your clever little superior superior officer excuse. When you get caught you might get us kicked out. All of us. That would mean the tile too, because Oobla won’t keep it around if there be nothing in it for her.”
“Everyone except the Captain thinks it needs to be moved anyway,” Alast argued. “We’re supposed to get it back to Metal Block where it belongs.”
“Everyone also knows it can’t go back until Yugo don’t have the power to go and snatch it whenever he pleases. And… And this has nothing to do with how you want to get us tossed out of paradise to earn the approval of a dented old bone like Damr!”
“He is the head of the Calcitheater,” Alast argued.
“The Calcitheater be nothing! It be more old bones talking about how great they used to be when they had arms and legs. It be all they have to do when they’re not borrowing some other gravefolk’s body. Have you heard any of their nonsense rules? Never mind… The Calcitheater has no authority either.”
“Well I-” Alast started, but then the door swung open. Captain Rob wandered in, his only layer of clothes quite wrinkled. His beard was split down the middle with one side bent up like he’d been resting on it for drops.
“How’re those veggies coming along boys?” he asked. Without expecting an answer he wandered over to an icebox and retrieved a cold bottle of milk. He drank loudly.
“Swimmingly Captain,” Alast said as he hastily went back to peeling. He eyed Roary, who looked ready to wet himself. Why did I even tell him? It’s like I wanted him to stop me. Do I? Don’t know yet…
“Save some for the rest of us Captain,” Roary said with a nervous laugh. Rob lowered the bottle and licked the dripping milk out of his mustache.
“It’s good for the bones,” he insisted. “You can have the milk when you can bounce your bones around as expertly as I can.” The Captain placed the bottle back in the ice and started to hum a ringing tone. Hmm, hmm, hmm. Ha-humm hum… hmm, hmm, hmm, Ha-ha-hummmmm… He wandered out a different door; they listened to the humming recede.
“He’s not with her,” Alast noticed out loud. He looked at Roary. “Where is she?” He dropped the peeler and rushed out the door the Captain had entered from. Roary pursued.
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” he said, smacking Alast in the back of the head, but the boy was undeterred. Dawn should’ve told Roary it took more than that to stop him. They were closing in on Oobla’s bedroom when Roary grabbed the smaller boy by the shoulders and refused to let go. “It be not in your cards Misty.”
“Then I’ll steal new cards,” Alast growled while he tried to wriggle free. He wasn’t strong enough to get loose, but one of the other doors in the hall opened at the sounds of their scuffle. Two girls emerged and immediately pawed at Roary. His grip loosened.
“We were just looking for you!” one of them said. “Plybian wants to have a word with you. A very special word.”
“Oh I… I wouldn’t miss such a word,” Roary sputtered, “but I have important business. My friend here has ruptured his sanity and I’m forced to patch it with-”
“Plybian cannot wait,” the other girl insisted. She was taller than either of the boys. She clapped her hand on Roary’s shoulder. Roary’s expression suggested his soul was a two-headed haund about to rip itself in different directions. He released Alast. The girls practically dragged him into the room. He stretched his arm back out into the hall just before the door closed and wagged his finger at Alast in warning. The door clicked shut. Alast was alone, three doors away from Miss Redr’s room. Now that Roary was gone he could hear snoring.
The boy crept forward on his toes. Thanks to Rob’s brief retreat the door was unlocked; he let himself in. The room was so cluttered with decoration that at first he couldn’t find the bed. The corners of the walls were obscured by cushion-columns holding thousands of pins with colorful glass heads, many shaped like animals mid-leap or flight. Alast followed the snoring. It turned out the principal’s quarters were more like three rooms and a hallway all rolled into one, the walls flowing like the stone outside and sometimes forming small bubbles blocked by closet doors.
The bed was stuck between two pillows so large that Alast wasn’t entirely sure that was the best word to describe them. He wouldn’t be told until much later they were in fact fluff-safes that had many valuable items buried randomly in their downy filling. It took a special bath bead to rip their flexible surface, but not the one on Oobla’s finger.
Four red curtains surrounded the bed. Alast reached out to pull one, but hesitated. He was there to rob, not spy. It was painful just to imagine what Rob would do if he found out Alast had snuck a peek at Miss Redr’s naked body. That was if Miss Redr didn’t get to him first. Veer had never taught him the odds of a person being nude inside a closed bed. Perhaps there are two folk in there… one clothed and one not. I’m bound to get the less convenient one.
Rather than risk peeping he listened carefully to the snoring to determine the placement of her head behind the curtain. After that he made an educated guess as to the position of her arms. The snoring didn’t seem to be traveling through a pillow, which meant she was on her back, which meant he had to go to the other side of the bed for easier access to the correct hand. Another complication occurred to him. Touching her is bound to be worse than seeing her! That’s practically an attack! I just want to assault her sense of property rights, that’s all. Is it so much to ask?
Luck struck again. Oobla rolled over in her sleep; her hand poked out from under the curtain and hung off the side of the bed. It so startled Alast that he rolled back onto one of the fluffy safes and hit his head on a jagged object hidden inside. Only when he rubbed the pain away did he finally spot the ring. He struggled to pull himself out of the grip of the thick cushion. When freed he practically touched the ring’s bead with the surface of his eye, his lashes dusting it clean so he could see the magic inside. Despite his focus it didn’t appear to be any more special than the piece of colored glass in the Mop’s mast.
He poked it. He didn’t explode. Oobla didn’t explode. The room did not catch fire. It was enough to convince him the bead was safe to take. Alast gently grabbed the sides of the ring and wiggled it back and forth to loosen it. The jewelry wasn’t stubborn, but Oobla’s finger was like a jealous lover. Her plump knuckle refused to let go. The red lines told him she hadn’t removed the ring in rests. If I had a bath bead I would never let it go either.
Alast took one of the paper cutter knives from his belt. Rather than do anything violent, he gently inserted the flexible tip of the blade between the ring and her finger. He played the wiggling game again and managed to free one side. The knife rolled around. The ring slid off. Alast almost fell back onto the safe in shock. He held it. He held his first bath bead ever. Surely he deserved part of his surname for the accomplishment. The first letter. No, the first two letters. A syllable. If it’s a one-syllable name I’m already there! Except… they all have at least two thanks to the ‘r’. Piss! Caulk!
Once the string of internal swears was finished he realized the escape part of the plan hadn’t kicked in yet. Alast rushed out of the room as fast his toes could manage. The bed was out of sight. The clashing colors and fuzzy rugs gave way to the tame rigid walls of the hallway. He wanted to take it straight to Damr. As much as he wanted to keep it for himself and experiment with its abilities, he thought it would be best for everyone if the ring was found rolling around inside Oddball’s skull rather than on Alast’s finger.
Oahhh, someone moaned behind Alast. He stopped dead. Oooooaaaahhh… ohh… He turned to look. The hallway was still empty, but the moaning grew louder. Ooooooohhhh… Aaaaaaahhhhooo! It was a scream. There was a scream somewhere behind him, behind a door. He wished it was harder to guess, but the sounds had the distinct fullness of Miss Redr’s voice. She alternately moaned and screamed. Alast pressed on. He pocketed the ring and assured himself she was just upset it was gone. For all he knew she was in anguish because the Captain wasn’t rolled up in the sheets with her.
Ohhhhhh… Doors started to fly open. Uniformed girls emerged and blew past him toward their principal’s quarters. It seemed he wasn’t considered a threatening presence. They hastily whispered to each other. Alast didn’t know where Damr was. He could’ve been anywhere; he could’ve been out in the city convincing more folk to steal for him. The boy rolled the ring’s stone around in his fingers, trying to activate its magic powers. He told it to erase Oobla’s memory of the ring. Oooooaahhh… He told it silence her agonized moans. He could still hear them even over all the whispers and footfalls.
Another door opened in front of him. A hand shot out, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him inside. The door slammed shut. There are too many doors here. Take them all off their hinges. End these agitating mysteries. Alast composed himself and saw the culprit: Teal. She grabbed him, wrinkling his clothes again, and practically threw him into a cold chair.
“Give it over,” the first mate ordered. She held her hand out.
“The ring. Give it to me.” Alast didn’t have the energy to lie, especially with the moaning still flooding under the door. He pulled the band from his pocket and dropped it in her palm. He’d successfully taken it. Damr couldn’t fail him now regardless. He just hoped he hadn’t done any permanent damage. Teal smirked. “You actually did it.”
“What did I do? Is Miss Redr alright?”
“She’s fine.” Aaaaaooooh… “Not at the moment, but she will be as soon as I return this. Of course that’s a very long hallway out there, and you and I aren’t finished talking yet. She can holler like that for… two days probably before there’s any real risk. Do you think she’s sweating yet?”
“I’m lost Miss Powdr. What does the bead do?”
“This is the regularity ring. It holds a fragment of the Eadible Bead, also called Gastric Integrity 2. Did you ever read about the Eadible Bead?” Alast got the sense she was stalling. She’d almost never spoken to him for this length of time. Oobla’s moans were music to her ears. She closed her eyes to enjoy them.
“I should return it.”
“The Eadible Bead made it so anyone around it could eat anything they wanted without becoming ill. It was the centerpiece of ancient, strange, hedonistic feasts where they would set out platters of rotten food, rocks, feathers, soap, and a hundred other things that should never be consumed. They say everything tasted wonderful. Somehow their teeth could break stone. The soap had them hiccuping bubbles and giggling into the night. A few of them learned the hard way that they needed to stay near the bead until the digestive process was complete. Otherwise they went back to feeling like they’d eaten rocks and feathers.”
“Did Oobla eat something awful?”
“Oobla is something awful. Don’t worry about her; I’m giving you a history lesson. I thought you loved to learn.” Teal eyed her hand, as if thinking the ring would be better off living there than on Oobla’s. “Eventually the bead was broken and she got a piece. This fragment doesn’t improve the taste of anything and it doesn’t protect one from poison, but it prevents blockage.”
“I don’t understand. What’s… blocking her?”
“Rob, in his efforts to further spoil the truly rotten, has already had you fetch one for her.”
“Oobla has a nasty craving for them. She has for rests. The ring keeps them from stopping up her guts completely. I wonder how many she’s got stuck to her innards by now. I bet it’s more than twenty. Maybe thirty. What’s your guess Alast?”
“I’ll take the ring back and take my punishment Miss Powdr. Thank you for explaining it.” He rose from the chair and went to grab the ring, but Teal held it back. With a simple sinking hand gesture she ordered him to sit back down. He obeyed.
“Oobla would ruin your life over this minor indiscretion,” she assured him. “She’d make Rob kick you off the ship. He’d do it too.”
“It’s my responsibility.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. It’s not your fault Oobla needs a magic ring to control her bad habit. She needs self-control; if anything you’ve taught her a valuable painful lesson. I’m transferring your responsibility to me. I stole the regularity ring.” Teal moved to the door and opened it. The hallway was flooded with girls all angling their heads for a better look down. At the sight of them Alast glued his mouth shut. He wanted to protest, but not in front of the concerned students. Teal’s perverse pleasure in a chance to humiliate Oobla and absorb her red-faced rage was obvious. He again wondered what transpired between the two.
A drip later Teal shut the door behind her, leaving him alone to pace nervously and nibble at his nails. He pressed his ear up against the door. At first he just heard the girls, but then the sound of Oobla’s voice was back in command, howling down the hallway like the trembling air on the skin of an explosion. He couldn’t quite make out the words, but he partly questioned whether they were words at all or just roars distilled from pure offense. Teal must have argued with her because there were breaks in Oobla’s cries, but the first mate kept relatively quiet.
A heavy pair of boots stormed down the hall. He heard the Captain tell the girls to make way so he could get to the room. His voice added to the cacophony in order to match Oobla’s and then pull hers down along with his own; he was not successful. The argument went on for a third of a drop before anything changed. As Teal had robbed Alast of his responsibility, Rob had apparently done the same for her; Teal returned to her room. None of her smug satisfaction had dissipated.
“What happened?” Alast asked.
“I returned the ring to her. She managed to squeeze it back onto her finger with minimal loss of skin.”
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I managed to get it off without damaging her skin at all. Was she being careful?”
“No, Alast, she was not being careful. She was shouting. Thank you for that.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know. I was ejected from the room. Let’s listen.” She pressed her own ear back to the door. Alast joined her. He tried to ask her more, but she just put her finger to her lips to quiet him. The fight seemed to die down. The girls in the hall must have been dismissed, because they heard them all shuffling back to their rooms.
“Is it over?” the boy asked.
“Unlikely.” They stayed quiet. Another sound grew. It was composed of two voices. Once again the hallway was hit with a series of moans, but these were very different in nature. “Of course,” Teal mumbled. She removed her ear and found something else to do in the form of a book.
“Miss Powdr are they-”
“Yes Alast, they are.”
“Miss Redr was furious. How did the Captain calm her down?”
“I highly doubt he has. Her passion is temporarily redirected toward a more animalistic end…” She stared at the ceiling for a moment. The moan spiked in volume. “Honestly, I should be packing.” Teal closed the book and set about stuffing her things in a bag.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“We all are. I think so anyway. I’m sensing the inevitable.” Alast was about to ask what she sensed when he heard a loud flat sound like a flatfish slammed onto a countertop. “She just slapped him,” Teal said nonchalantly. “Alast, get Roary. Then both of you are to get Cardinal Second, wrap it up, and bring it to me.”
“That was an order.” Alast obeyed. He had trouble dragging Roary out of Plybian’s arms, but the older boy finally broke away when he heard that Rob and Oobla were fighting. Then Alast was the one struggling to keep up as they raced around. Cardinal Second’s thick body left little room in the passages, so they had a hard time getting it back to Teal. Just as they succeeded, Oobla’s door flew open down the hall. Rob stumbled out in nothing but moss-green long underwear. One of the tile buttons near his navel was undone. His bald head was stained by some sort of scented pink oil that had dripped down the side of one eyebrow.
“Oobla, be reasonable!” the Captain begged. Teal emerged from her room and grabbed one side of the tile. Miss Redr appeared, equally clad in undergarments, and tossed Rob’s clothes at him. Alast had never seen underthings as garish as hers, with a collar of coiled and dyed fur puffs. Her face was red as infection baking under the florent.
“If I were any more reasonable it would be my surname!” she shouted. “Every time I assume you’ve become more than a half-drowned rummin! But no! You’re still swimming in your own juices and loving it! There’s no room for you to love me! None! Out!”
“It’s been nothing but love for days!” Rob argued back as he gathered up his clothes.
“It was not true love,” Oobla said. “You lied. Everyone you brought with you lied. And Teal! Teal! Just get out!”
“But the tile-”
“Take it with you!”
“It needs to stay here Oobla. It’s not safe out there.”
“I won’t have a reminder of you in my school! Take your crew and leave.” Oobla snapped her fingers. When there wasn’t an immediate response she snapped them ten times more, louder. Her students gathered again, this time with weapons drawn. They didn’t look too eager to threaten, but they also showed no hesitation in poking Rob until he was next to Teal and the tile.
“This isn’t the end for us Oobla!” Rob shouted as the fiery principal returned to her quarters and slammed the door.
“It might be the end of us,” Teal said to no one in particular. The girls escorted them around the school, swords still drawn, so they could gather up their other companions and all their belongings. Bonswario, Herc, Dawn, and Ladyfish did not seem at all surprised at the sudden departure. Alast noticed they simply picked up their bags like they’d never unpacked. Oddball snickered to himself quietly as he rode Finick out the school’s front door. Rob was still only half-dressed, and it was the more embarrassing half of his body on display when they came face to face with three pairs of dignitaries bringing their daughters in for enrollment. A few of them gasped at the sight of the Captain. They were immediately terrorized by images of the pirate, half-naked, rampaging through the girls’ school.
“Your girls will love it here,” he sneered at them as he pulled his pants up and tightened his belt. Then he smacked his own backside and gnashed his teeth. The refined folk turned tail and ran back the way they came.
“I loved it here,” Roary sighed in defeat.
“Was it over the ring?” Teal asked. She didn’t seem too concerned about the answer as she made sure Cardinal Second’s covering was tight and secure.
“No,” Rob said. “It was at first. I thought I had put the lid on her… then she came in with this, completely out of the disinfected blue mind you, nonsense about her adding another ring to her finger. I plainly stated there was any number of rings I could acquire for her that weren’t lifelong shackles, and then the lid blew off again.”
“You don’t have to say we were right,” Teal said, “since we already know it.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything of the remotest likeness. I was going to ask why you took her ring. It certainly didn’t help the situation.”
“I took the ring Captain,” Alast said as he stepped forward, “on the orders of Mr. Damr as part of my gutter smarts lessons.” He took half a step back.
“I heard her guts wriggling all the way down in the basement! Ahaha!” Oddball guffawed. The Captain largely disregarded the admission. He waved the boy away and paced around the cardinal tile.
“We could take it to the tunnels below the city,” he muttered. “Find an abandoned corner for it.”
“No corner of Crosstahl be fully abandoned,” Ladyfish said. The others nodded.
“If we take it back the way we came we’re sure to be caught,” Teal added. “We also can’t take it toward the Tributaroads thanks to the pincer you’ve dropped us into. There’s no authority anywhere in Crosstahl that can keep it safe once it’s discovered.”
“We’ll take it low,” the Captain postulated. “Close to the tunnels where the splashing is so great any eyes that are watching will have to blink the water away every once in a while. We’ll tie it under a boat and sneak it out one of the smaller canals. We’ll escape on a trade route out the Shattered Tiles way.”
“And go where Captain?”
“We’ll deal with that once we’re out of Crosstahl. Yugo won’t get his hands on it. I won’t be the one to legitimize his shift from scoundrel to warlord.”
“They call him savior,” Teal corrected. “If he is their savior, then you are without a doubt their annihilator.”
“Is that helpful?” Rob spat. “It’s not helpful. Let’s go.” The Captain swirled his newly donned cape and marched them out of the stone. He stopped the line only briefly to secure the button on his pants. Alast did his best to stick to the side of the tile and hide its floaty nature with the shuffling of his feet; Roary, Dawn, and Herc did the same.
Rob led them down the first ramp they came to, into one of the lower levels. It was a district with many topa-based businesses. Bits of the white fiber floated around in the air like feathers. Pieces of it trailed off the back of the Captain’s boots. Black iron buckets of hot coals were everywhere, keeping the air dry so the topa didn’t get heavy and weak from its proximity to the canal. A tilefolk woman walked by carrying one end of a sheet that was even taller than the Captain. Rob stepped out in front of her so she couldn’t block their path with it. He eyed her for an unusually long moment.
“Weyde gaer,” he said in Pawtymouth.
“Dahnarda gaer kluse d’nar slymr,” she responded icily. Rob did not take it well. He shoved her out of the way, causing her to drop the topa. He marched across it and ordered everyone behind him to do the same. Something’s wrong, Alast thought. He looked around. Large sheets of the topa went up everywhere, instant white walls. Whenever the Captain was about to choose a path another set of workers carrying the stuff appeared.
Alast heard something whistle through the air over the canal. He turned in time to hear a splash. Could it be? Another wall of topa unrolled in front of the canal. The fibers in the air absorbed all the spit in the boy’s mouth and made him cough. The walls had him nervous, but everything was fine as long as the Captain kept moving forward. He tried to open a door, but it was sealed from the other side. Rob banged on it twice, but there was no answer.
“Nobody’s home,” a voice cackled from behind one of the walls of topa. Dawn drew her sword and stabbed through the paper. She stuck her skull in the hole for a moment. When it came back out she shook her head at the Captain. Rob changed direction and plowed straight through the topa, ripping it down the middle. There was no one left behind it holding it up; it had simply been placed and left.
“What’s going on?” Alast asked Roary, but he was told to keep moving. They were halfway down a ramp when another sheet of topa was rolled across their path. They turned around and saw yet another wall of white. Laughter passed through the papery barriers on both sides, the laughter of at least ten folk. Alast drew his Dagyvr saber and one of the paper cutters. For once the others seemed to take his suggestion and drew their own weapons.
Fthip. Something sharp and metal poked through the topa wall at the top of the ramp. Fthip fthip. Two more points from the other side. They dragged across the sheet, slowly cutting it diagonally. The cuts were clean enough that the walls didn’t fall away. An armored leg emerged from one of the slits. It hovered there for a moment and then violently stomped down on the ground, the sound of iron on stone echoing around them. Legs emerged on the other side as well.
The rest of their bodies came out just as slowly, slipping free of the slits. There were three at the bottom of the ramp and two at the top. Alast’s head whipped back and forth as he examined them; all five were gravefolk and heavily armored.
Alast took stock of their weapons first. They were all bonepicker styles: a trident with curved tongs, a two-handed battering ram, a sword like the Captain’s but even longer, two blade-edged pincer gauntlets, and a hammer with an unreasonably large spherical head. The gravefolk wielding the hammer hopped on top of his weapon and rolled up to Rob on it, the handle swirling in the air. He had the feathers of a lumasol embedded in his leather chin as an imitation beard. Medals and ribbons decorated his breastplate so thoroughly that it seemed to be composed of them in some places. The largest ribbon was tied around his waist as a belt.
“These are Yugo’s knuckles,” Herc whispered to Alast.
“The folks he would wield as weapons if he could. His best bonepickers. No doubt they were sent here for us.”
“We had a feeling you were hiding in one of these cracks,” the one with the feathered beard said. He tilted the handle of his hammer up and then leaned against it. “How far did you think you could get Rob?”
“Hello Loaf,” Rob greeted. He looked past his enemy to the other knuckles. “I see the roster’s changed some since last we met. What happened to Moxlo?”
“Moxlo’s dead,” Loaf said. “Killed in the line of duty trying to take Cardinal Fifth. I wisely selected Second. Tell me, how did you get this one away from that brown monstrosity in Block?”
“I stole it from the man who stole it.”
“Well that’s not very exciting. I’ve been regaling my subordinates with tales of your death-defying battles. I built you up like you were the Spotless so they wouldn’t go easy on you here and now, but you’re making a liar out of me. All you did was snatch it from the real death-defying one. Who was it?”
“I forget,” the Captain said. “Are you going to introduce us or not?”
“Fine. Things have changed much since you counted yourself among the knuckles. We’ve tasted the powers of true faith.” Loaf pointed back at the gravefolk with the pincers. She had a red coat on over her armor connecting to a strange pointy hat. Rubies, of unequal size, were set in her leathered eye sockets. “This is Redcoin Yappr.” His finger moved over to the man with the trident, who wore a helmet made of two different animal skulls split down the middle. One side of his jawbone was missing, so his teeth swung back and forth when he moved. “You’ll remember Zelhorn Askr.”
Loaf rolled around on his hammer and pointed out the two at the top of the ramp. The one with the battering ram and the weggers crawling out of the holes in his head was Vanoro Corrodr. The last, wielding the sword, was a woman whose dark leatherflesh was so thick that she looked like a hard-shelled nut overtaken by black mold. Her name was Hertree Mummr. “And for the benefit of any new members of your crew, I am Loaf Kincoddlr. Shall we get down to business?”
“You haven’t truly bought into this radical papist theology have you?” Rob asked, stalling. “Admit it. It’s just the power. It’s just the joy of Yugo letting you off the leash.”
“Alright, I admit it.” Loaf pitched forward, grabbed his hammer, and obliterated the ground in front of Rob. The strike was so powerful that the ramp cracked down the middle and collapse onto the level below. Rolls of topa fell through and unraveled, creating white curtains everywhere.
The only concrete order Alast heard from the Captain, before everything was overpowered by the chaos of the fight, was protect the tile. That would be difficult to do since he’d already lost track of it in all the dust and topa. The knuckles were all bonepickers, so Alast needed to get back to his feet fast. They could come from any angle, at any speed, and reverse the direction of their force in an instant. He spotted a ghostly shape drifting by. It had to be Second catching the topa and tearing it as it floated away. Alast ran for it.
He tripped over a lump under some topa, ripping it in the process. Roary emerged from under it gasping for breath. He flailed at the white stuff with his saber. Alast urged him to get up so the two could continue in the tile’s direction. It was hard to track around all the flying paper, but it had been pushed near the canal at an angle and was drifting closer to a stone bridge that crossed the gap.
Redcoin sliced through the nearest curtains with her pincers. Alast had never considered that the fingers could be bonepicked as well as the rest of the body, but it was the only explanation for how her metal claws snapped open and shut with such incredible force. Both boys knew their party was at an immediate disadvantage. The gravefolk had no blood to spill, no vital organs to skewer. Only destruction of their skulls would bring them down permanently. The best they could hope to do was slowly slice away the leather until they had opportunities to separate bones from their bodies.
Alast lunged at Redcoin with unexpected ferocity, slicing a ruby out of her socket with the paper cutter. He marveled at the clean cuts the weapon was capable of as she tossed him onto the hard stone. Oddball rode by and had Finick pick up the ruby in his mouth.
“Thanks for the help,” Alast muttered. Redcoin’s claw smashed onto the ground between his legs and started cutting toward his body, scissor-like. He was saved by Dawn, who locked Redcoin’s waist between her legs, flipped, and tossed the clawed mercenary through some topa out over the canal. Their enemy’s expert bonepicking allowed her to push her body back to the edge and grab the stone without plummeting.
Keruck! Somewhere Loaf’s hammer struck the ground again. Cracks spread across the stone. The tremor made Alast fall backward, but Rob snagged his shirt before his head could hit the ground. He grabbed Roary’s as well.
“You two get the tile!” he growled before using his bonepicking to toss them both to the floating relic. Alast remembered his lessons and turned his body so he could roll as he landed. He did it so well that he only nearly rolled off the side. When he was on his feet he saw Vanoro and Hertree rushing toward them, but Herc and Ladyfish threw themselves into the middle of it and dueled the bonepickers. Roary shouted. Alast turned to see his friend at the foot of the stone bridge, struggling to free the tile from the tangled topa. It was nearly done when Zelhorn lunged between the boys, shoving them and wrapping himself around the tile. The bonepicker’s shove sent them both over the sides of the bridge.
Alast desperately grabbed the rock. He couldn’t hear Roary screaming, so hopefully that meant he similarly dangled from the other side. Alast’s sweaty fingers slid on bits of gravel and dirt; a moment longer and he’d fall. With one mighty effort he pumped his arms and locked his elbows over the side, which he did just in time to see Captain Rob sprinting full speed across the bridge. The Captain was trying to catch Zelhorn before he reached the other side, but he was slowed by a roll of topa nearly as wide as the path that he’d stuck his foot through.
Zelhorn, still clinging to the side of the drifting tile, saw the Captain’s approach and called for aid. Loaf tossed his sphere-headed hammer. It flew right by Roary’s nose as he pulled himself up, threatening to send him down again. The weapon blew past Rob. Zelhorn caught it. With the impossible strength of bonepicking he brought the hammer down on the bridge. The middle shattered and rained boulders into the canal. Alast heard the heavy splashes and the crunching as they destroyed a small boat.
This can’t go on, he thought. What if someone was in that boat? Back on his feet, and almost thoroughly out of breath, Alast looked across the remains of bridge. Rob and Zelhorn clung to opposite sides of the tile. It spun faster and faster, like a coin on its side, as they tried to reach around and knock the other off. The gap the hammer made was too wide for Alast to cross, but there was another sort of bridge in its place. The topa Rob’s foot trailed had twisted a few times, but it was still a straight line from Alast to the tile. Light as a feather. Light as a feather on a strict diet. Even my knife is paper… so I must be light enough. He forced his foot out onto the topa. It bent under his weight and wiggled back and forth madly.
“You’re crazy!” Roary shouted. Alast didn’t have time to refute him, because he was halfway across the gap. His foot ripped through in one place, pitching him forward. Rob spotted the boy and put all of his gravitation into his feet, lowering the tile’s position in the air. That turned the topa into a ramp that rolled Alast forward. The boy sprang off the last bit of it and chopped down with his saber. It cut right through the leather on Zelhorn’s arm and popped the limb out of its joint.
Alast expected the mercenary to dive after his arm and abandon the tile, but Zelhorn was not one to fret over a missing limb. With his remaining hand he pulled the dangling jaw bone off his skull and brandished it like a hand ax, swinging at Alast’s delicate pink fingers. Rob bashed him with his jump club, finally dislodging him. He fell a great distance before bonepicking his way back onto solid ground.
Rob pulled Alast onto the same side of the tile. He leaned forward and sent it sailing back the way they had come. Bonswario and Teal were backed up against the edge of the broken bridge, doing their best to prevent the other knuckles from jumping onto the tile. They were doing an admirable job of it until Loaf grabbed Hertree’s arm and swung the skeleton’s body around from the side like a scythe. She wrapped around both of them, disarmed them, and shoved them aside. They might have been killed if the knuckles weren’t so focused on acquiring the tile.
“Enough games,” Loaf barked. He grunted and launched himself off the edge of the bridge, another impossible jump for an ordinary man, and grabbed Cardinal Second. Redcoin, Hertree, and Vanoro followed after him until they were all latched onto it. They peeled Rob and Alast’s grips away and tossed them both back onto the bridge. Then they bonepicked the tile into the middle of the gap and stabilized it on its side so they could stand. Stand they did, triumphantly and gloating.
“Yugo’s first tile!” Hertree boasted. She rubbed her black leather hands around on her face as if their victory was a divinely soft lotion.
“Glory to the Spotless!”
“Eternity awaits his second coming at the Glory Hole!”
“Defeat, rinse, repeat! Defeat, rinse, repeat!”
The crew of the Mop watched from the side, helpless to stop them. They’d pulled too far out of reach, even for Dawn and Rob. Alast’s insides felt like cold slime as he watched the relic he’d sworn to return drift away. This was my chance to make my life into something. I could’ve been the person worth putting in books or writing songs about. Am I fooling myself? I’m just mist… like the rest of them. All I can do is fly around and pretend I’m real until something passes through me and sends all the little pieces to the wind. His last idea was to take a desperate jump and try to grab onto the loose fold of topa still hanging off the tile. The remains of the bridge Rob had accidentally created had gotten tangled up with the rest, but even as the breeze blew the paper around it was still too great a distance…
Too great for the crew of the Mop anyway. The strongest breeze yet tugged the topa out to the side. A diving figure shot down into view and snatched the topa. The laughter of the knuckles was cut off as the figure swung under them swiftly and pulled the tile vertical. The turn was so sudden that none of them had time to grab on; they all dropped toward the canal hollering and cursing. Only one of them made a splash, but the rest were so split up and so far down that they had no chance of finding the tile again that day. The pirates looked to the figure dangling from the paper and riding the tile’s slow descent across the gap to a lower level. She sat in the curl of the topa, her hands holding the sides like a swing.
“Pearlen!” Alast couldn’t help but shout. When the girl’s feet were on solid ground she turned and waved to them. They saw her tie the topa to a post to both keep the tile still and signal to them that they could come retrieve it.
It took a frustrating amount of time to find a path across, but they managed by paying an old man a slightly exorbitant fee to use his zipper line. When they found her she was lounging on a pile of straw.
“Is that you Alast?” she asked through a yawn as she rose to her feet.
“It’s Captain Kilrobin Ordr,” the pirate declared before the boy could speak up. “You’ve saved me a great deal of trouble. Forgive me but your name dribbled away.”
“Pearlen Lustr,” she said. Lustr! Her surname is Lustr. She looks different… What is it? I can’t see much in her eyes between the Clawlies, but I think the suspicion is gone.
“Pearlen,” Rob said. “That was excellent work. Bonswario, pay the girl. A reasonable sum.”
“Snyre reasonable or Crosstahl reasonable Captain?” Bonswario asked as he rooted around in the bag of funds.
“Actually, pants-down… I’d like a different sort of reward,” she said. Her voice was softer than Alast had heard before. Her breath didn’t seem compressed by all those drips on the riverbed.
“Do you want the boy?” Rob asked bluntly. He grabbed Alast by the collar and presented him. “He’s yours. Make sure you send me an invitation to the wedding. I’m a captain you know, so if you need someone for the ceremony.”
“Not precisely,” Pearlen said with a chuckle. Not precisely? What in the Pipes does that mean? Gods! She didn’t outright say no. Is this how folk really get together? Did Birdie just do a favor for a friend who handed over Orbon as payment? Why didn’t I ask Queenvy about all this? Am I sweating? Does that matter? I am… but it’s from the fight. It’s honest valorous sweat… “That offer to join your crew… does it still stand?”
“It does,” Rob said. Alast wriggled free of the Captain’s hand and approached her until he was sure she would recognize him.
“I thought you saw us as nothing but thieves,” he said.
“There are only so many drips in a day and our day has sprung a leak,” the Captain said. “You two kids get this worked out while we secure the tile.” Rob and the others went to work untangling Cardinal Second from the topa and tying a new disguise over it. Pearlen took Alast by the arm and pulled him behind the straw so they could speak in private.
“I didn’t believe you,” she said.
“If you had given me just another moment each time!” Alast whined. He threw his hands in the air, but Pearlen pulled them back down. His eyes got caught in hers, outnumbered as they were by the eyes of the Clawlies.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “I didn’t believe in you. Whether you’re a thief or not doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve known a few thieves who would do anything before harming an innocent. I thought you were all words. When you started talking about the possibility of adventure…”
“What about it?”
“It hurt. Folk don’t say things that way Alast. I don’t know where you’re from but… say, what’s your surname anyway?”
“I’m currently between surnames,” he mumbled, rubbing his hair.
“Never mind. That’s not important. What I mean to say is that an adventure is not the kind of thing you can promise. The folk who try to are liars.”
“I can promise it.” Pearlen smiled, but then she confounded him by rubbing her eyes in frustration.
“I suppose you can with one of the cardinal tiles dangling from your waistband!” she blurted. “I’m just saying that adventure is a rare thing… so rare that I’d all but given up on it. I see now that you are real. You’re not operating under a delusion. You’re not trying to pass off the trivialities of haggling or child-rearing as ‘life’s greatest adventure’. After that display,” she said, her hand flying out over the canal, “can I assume you’re pursued by Yugo Legendr the purple papist?”
“You can,” Alast said, trying to keep his pride from bursting out of his chest.
“Then I am with you,” she proclaimed. When Alast’s eyes widened she quickly modified her proclamation. “…In this quest to return the tile. In a life of piracy outside the cross city.” She took a gentle step backward. “In this I am with you.”
“Then I have done for you what the Captain did for me. In that vein, I believe your life will be much happier aboard the Greedy Old Mop. That’s our ship by the way.”
“Are you not nervous?” Pearlen asked. “You look like you haven’t dwelt on it at all.”
“Dwelt on what?”
“An adventure to return a cardinal tile to its resting place… There might be a questing beast in your future. If there is it will try to take the rest of your future from you.”
“Captain Rob thinks a cabin boy like me has nothing to worry about.”
“Perhaps,” she said unconvincingly. “I’ve heard it’s the pride that brings the beast, not just the deed. You did just compare yourself to your precious captain as well.” Alast opened his mouth to refute, but nothing came out. His heart skipped a beat. “I’m sure an adventurer like you has it under control.” Pearlen moved to gather up her bag, which already had everything she cared to take with her. “You wouldn’t dare promise me a life like this and then get yourself devoured so carelessly would you?”
A Beast Robs
The beast wanted to pass by the cross-shaped tree, but something stopped it in its tracks. It sat the creature down and forced it to wait until its challenge arrived.
While it waited it was allowed to sleep. Wherever the boy was, he must’ve been very comfortable for the beast to be afforded such luxury. It was even allotted dreams. They weren’t its own dreams of course. They weren’t the boy’s either. They were flashes of the lives of other questing beasts across Porce’s history, all the way back to the closing of the lighted cycles, the dawn of natural law.
A red collection of pincers, fangs, and tusks did battle with one of the last Custodians… and was torn limb from limb from limb. A beast like a star, wings as bright as furious florent, assaulted a woman who plundered the Bottomless Rot… and vanquished her to the pit she sought to exploit. The beast marveled at all the forms its spirit could have taken; they were as varied as the minds of the folk themselves. Something bloated to face a glutton, something with ice in its veins to combat the cruel and the dispassionate, something that burrowed like a worm to combat those who couldn’t keep their eyes off the sky…
The beast pulled itself out of the dream and examined its own body for clues. It did not have the privilege of the grand plumage some if its ancestors wore, covered as it was in fur as brown as the dirt. Its teeth were yellow. Its mouth was wider than its emaciated body; what did that imply? The water-filled bulge on its side, painful as ever, surely had a purpose as well. If it didn’t then the world was torturing the beast without reason. It knew little, but it knew the world wasn’t brimming with malice. It only provided fertile soil for such malice to grow.
The pain of growth shot through the monster’s left front limb. It breathed in sharply and held the limb up, but the pain came from the core of its bone. Its tiniest brown claw, on the outside of its hand, bulged from the quick, twitched and contracted. Even as it grew the beast felt like its limb was shrinking. Muscles inside tightened and stretched. The claw cracked and shed its old self in flakes, growing to a curve like wilting grass or rib bones settling in the dirt.
The digit went limp, its flesh temporarily liquefied. The growing claw drooped and hung off the side of the limb. All the while the beast leaned up against the cross tree and whimpered inwardly, waiting for the experience to end. The digit twisted. Liquid flesh wove its way solid once again. The claw shed its last flakes and hardened until it glistened under the florent. Pain subsided. The beast found its tiniest claw had become like a curved sword, folded up against the limb. It held its hand out and coaxed the altered digit into unfolding. It grabbed the base with the rest of its hand and brandished its own claw menacingly. The boy had a weapon. He was very fond of it.
Time passed. The beast slept by its square stone, restfully enough to miss the arrival of the crigand bird. It takes sleep to miss them; agility is not in their nature. Crigands are very large and aggressive, with rigid dark feathers, a hooked bill that could bite through a stack of coins, and a white leathery throat sack they fill with air to intimidate foes. Even hunters’ arrows bounce away when their throats are full of bravado.
Wunk wunk wunk, the bird thrummed as it forced air against the sack. Wuuuunk! It spread its wings wide as its knobby legs grabbed a branch of the cross tree and claimed it as its own. Smaller birds nested nearby; it shoved them out and nestled down in their hard work. Wunk wunkwunkwunkwunkwunk. Its eyes closed and its throat flattened as it settled into sleep. Once it was in the groundless world of bird dreams, the beast beneath it woke with a start.
It looked up and saw the shadow of the crigand directly over it. Had it really been waiting this whole time for such a silly-looking creature? It had done battle with heezutters; crigands were aggressive but they still had the brittle bones of flight. One bite from the beast’s massive flat mouth would crush the life out of it. Yet… the beast did not hunger for its flesh. It did not crave the glory of battle. It wasn’t even the bird that had roused it; there was something inside the bird.
A cloudy image formed in the beast’s mind. It coalesced into a small shape like a bean, alive with bright red and orange colors. Alive with magic. The beast didn’t know about the crigand’s habit of swallowing stones to aid in its digestion, but that hardly mattered. There was a pebble inside the crigand the beast needed to acquire.
Many a bath bead has been found inside the crop of a crigand, explaining their prevalence in many tales of Porce. The beads could change the birds in strange ways, or make them do even stranger things like talk, write, and insist they were the rightful rulers of any town they flew into. The bead inside this crigand was of little consequence: a lightly magic clod rounded by time and stomach juices that could make anyone who held it float a foam off the ground. It was hardly a useful ability for a bird.
What mattered was not the bead’s power, but its similarity to the bead the boy had sought. He had taken one from its rightful owner, and now the questing beast had to do the same. It unfolded its giant new claw and dug it into the wood of the cross tree. The bird didn’t stir; it didn’t so much as wunk. The beast slowly climbed up. The view near the top would’ve been breathtaking; it was high enough to see Second Stone Door sway slightly in the path of the greatest winds of the world, but the beast could only look up. It could only see the fat shadow of the bird.
The crigand might have felt its breath once it was on the branch, but the beast never exhaled. It reached forward with its long new claw. Slashing it open and taking what the world owed it would have been so easy, but that wasn’t the way the boy had done it. The creature walked a path of errors.
The shining tip of its brown sickle-claw touched the end of the crigand’s beak. The two halves lifted slightly and the claw slipped inside. Down the gullet. Only when the stench of the beast’s matted hair touched the bird’s tongue did it wake. It tried to inflate its throat, but the beast was too quick. It balanced on the branch on its hind limbs and grabbed the bird’s fat neck in its other hand, squeezing to keep it from flapping away. Its wings beat violently, tearing up the nest, building a gust of twigs and feathers. The beast forced its claw further down.
The pair fell from the branch, slowed only slightly by the frantic flapping of the crigand. The beast ignored the pain of the fall, even as its bones cracked. Its whole hand was past the tongue now. Weeeeuiiiiirkkkk, the bird gagged, eyes bulging. The beast’s claw clicked around as it searched for the right stone. It knew the correct one at the slightest touch, because its feet lifted off the ground. The beast pressed the bead against the side of the bird’s flesh and raked it upward. The bird honked and hacked and spat up foul brown fluids, but the beast’s hand emerged. Through the phlegm and spittle it admired the tiny orange bead.
For a glorious moment it felt itself lifted away from the path of errors the boy had set it on. Was it the boy that had done this? Or was it Porce? Would the world even accept blame? The clarity couldn’t last. The crigand, even with a ragged scratch dripping blood into its throat, did not like being bested. It snatched the bead back and swallowed it down, sending the beast back to the hard ground.
Wunk wunk wonk! The crigand took flight. It did not matter; the bath bead could not be kept, only stolen. The beast picked up its square stone, folded its claw away, and started on its trail once again.
Days later it stopped by a stream. The world wouldn’t let it drink. Even if it had wanted to, there was nowhere for the water to go, something its sloshing burl reminded it of with every step. It did see something in the crystal clear water: a stunning fish. The beast watched the beautiful animal hunt Clawlies out of the mud. For a brief moment the fish turned on its side and looked at the beast. They saw each other, but it was not to last. The water pulled the fish away and the world pulled the beast forward. The stone needed an escort more than the beast needed a companion.
Purple and Green
“I’m telling you the adventure is in the other direction,” Alast moaned. He threw a bag of supplies onto the back of a tilehoof and tied it down. They had ascended the furthest ramps of the spoke of Crosstahl that faced the Three-Wall Wild and been greeted by mostly flat ground once again. The florent was bright and there were no clouds, but for the moment they were sheltered by a cluster of drooping trees overlooking one of the shallow rivers that fed the city’s canals and drains.
Alast looked back at Pearlen to see if she had heard him. She was down on her hands and knees, her head immersed in the river. He went back to preparing while he waited for her to surface. He scratched the tilehoof’s chin. There was a low rumble in its throat: a sound of approval. Rob had purchased a new set of animals as soon as they were out of the city; the others were just as busy attaching their supplies and filling their canteens. Huhph, gasped Pearlen when she finally pulled her head out of the water and ran her hands through her short bristly hair, filling the air with sparkling droplets. She smiled at him… in his direction at least.
“Did you say something?” she asked. Alast repeated himself. The girl walked over and grabbed one of the ropes on his tilehoof. Alast had told her some of his past, so she’d assumed he didn’t have enough world experience to tie a rope correctly. She stopped when she realized his chaotic sneeze knot was flawlessly executed. “You know I can’t go that way. Besides, the Captain has already given his orders. Hrm…” Her lips pursed.
“I have a Captain. I’m not sure I like that.”
“Is there really not enough water out on the Tributaroads?” he asked, sidestepping her ponderings about authority.
“It’s possible I could find enough to keep my little eye bugs content,” she admitted, “but it’s not worth the risk. How would you feel if you saw me collapse on the road from the pain of their digging, after insisting I join you?”
“I… understand. Part of being a pirate is finding a way around things, even if you have to force a space to be created.”
“You’re looking at a journey of who knows how many rinses,” Pearlen said. “Across roads trampled to barrenness. With akers everywhere else. Try forcing a space between two of them.” Bonswario approached the two and asked Pearlen if she was about ready to depart. She nodded.
At the last ekapad station in the city Rob, Teal, and Dawn had analyzed all the available information from the notes, maps, and communications. The news was grim. Yugo’s forces from Metal Block and Third Sink had split in half in their descent to the World Floor, like a claw opening wide to crush Crosstahl. Their options for travel were severely limited. They could keep going out from the city’s spoke, but there would be no safe haven for the tile that way.
After much deliberation Rob decided their next best option was to cross the entire width of the World Floor. The path would take them across the Tributaroads: the great supply lines of Porce forced into awkward shapes by the surrounding immovable akers. Yugo himself was purported to be traveling them, in their direction no less, but they had a good chance of crossing Flatsprung, the largest road he and his army would undoubtedly use, before he got there. After outrunning the large force they could ascend to Second Stone Door. Rob had friends on the door with enough power and connections to give the tile a chance. No longer trusting him completely since Oobla, Alast had turned to Teal. When he saw her approval of the plan he was ready to commit to it.
The problem was Pearlen. The boy didn’t make any more excuses. He liked her. They both saw the world at a slant, but her slant made sense to him. She was the only person whose statements he didn’t immediately try to circumvent or overpower. She was… convincing. Before, nothing could keep Alast from his studies, at least the ones that did not involve a cackling Oddball, but now there was Pearlen. Imagining her came just as naturally as learning. How does she feel? Don’t know yet…
Rob wanted two to return to the Mop, in order to deliver the news of their situation to the rest of the crew; he didn’t trust the ekapad system to be free of spies. Since Pearlen would have difficulty traveling the dry roads, she and Bonswario were the ones selected to go back. They would travel as father and daughter, peasants both, hopefully slipping by the approaching proliths. Alast had been told the proliths could barely distinguish between lightfolk faces, so passing by them was safer than trying to fool Yugo’s companies of men, gravefolk, and tilefolk.
“Can you read?” Alast asked her.
“Of course I can read,” she huffed, lightly smacking his forehead.
“I didn’t mean it like that; I just didn’t know with your eyes and everything…”
“I have to hold the paper close, but yes I can read,” she repeated. She inspected the rest of the knots on Alast’s animal, only mumbling her approval. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve never sent letters before. I was hoping I could send some to you. We’ll be on the move of course so you won’t be able to reply… but I can send you one every time we stop at an ekapad station.”
“Are you asking my permission?”
“Yes? Is that something I should do?”
“You have my permission to write, as long as you only write honest things.”
“And you’re sure you won’t just join us?”
“The tile is your quest Alast. I want my own, and I’ve got to start it off the right way. If you’re any basis then I should do it aboard the Greedy Old Mop.” As much as he wanted to, the boy could not argue with that. She offered him thanks for all the excitement. He stood there stiffly, hoping she would hug him, brush his arm, or even just smack his forehead again, but she left goodbye at goodbye. She and Bonswario took to the back of a single Tilehoof and departed in the direction of Third Sink.
Shortly after, the rest of the group took to their mounts and followed the river until it became nothing but a brook surrounded by trees. Alast was told to enjoy the forest, for it was the last one of significant shade until they passed Flatsprung. Yet it was not until the skies were open again that his mind really began to move. At clear times he looked straight across the world and saw the stalls. They were not the naturally weathered slabs he’d always assumed when he was a harvester. They were doors… made by impossibly large beings. Those beings had to be so big they could fit a city under the rim of a single toenail. Did they even have toenails? Toes at all? Alast kept his mind on such questions instead of imagining what those beings undoubtedly did in the stalls.
“Is anything known of the makers of the Gross Truth?” Alast asked Herc one day while the two of them trailed behind the others. He thought the musician was the least likely to dismiss or ridicule his questions. Herc looked at him with his strangely bright eyes, almost yellow like the florent.
“You can approach that question with reason,” he said. “Their toils and sinks made excellent models for our own water closet versions. Their designs are simple and effective for us, so I think it’s safe to assume that, whatever they were, they were roughly man-shaped. They probably had hands to wash and faces to examine in the Reflecting Path… back when it was whole of course.”
“But nobody alive has seen the Reflecting Path,” Alast said, invoking his relatively fresh history education. “It’s been shattered since before the Age of Building.”
“Aye, but pieces remain. They are indeed reflective. There’s little doubt the path was anything other than a mirror to them.”
“Do you think Porce is the water closet of the gods?”
“Which gods do you mean?”
“The commonest ones that aren’t the Spotless. The eight.” Herc didn’t offer an answer. Instead he pulled out his Sybil’s bath, filled it with water, and played. He sang.
O Plowr o’ the tile,
O Greetr o’ the smile,
Which o’ the eight knows your insides best?
Do one o’ these two hold the key to your chest?
No? How can it beeeeee? Perhaps it’s number threeeeee.
O Swimmr o’ the fins,
O Howlr o’ the dins,
Which o’ the eight knows your insides best?
Do one o’ these two hold the key to your chest?
No? They don’t make you thriiiiiiiiive? Perhaps it’s number fiiiiiiiiiiive.
O Scribblr o’ the inking,
O Whispr o’ the thinking,
Which o’ the eight knows your insides best?
Do one o’ these two hold the key to your chest?
No? They don’t saaaaaaate? Perhaps it’s number eeeeiiiiight.
O Dealr o’ the signs,
O Luminatr o’ the shines,
Which o’ the eight knows your insides best?
Do one o’ these two hold the key to your chest?
No! Are there none left? Did you check in the siiiiiink?
Ohoh! In your chest there’s nothing but driiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiink!
“That’s wonderful and I don’t know what any of it means,” Alast said with a smile as he recalled the first songs he’d heard from Herc. They sounded better vibrating through the warm creaking wood of the Mop, with a hundred other heads nodding along or joining in, but with Pearlen gone it was the brightest spot out in the wilderness.
“That’s what doubters drink to,” Herc explained. Now that he was done showing off, he answered honestly. “I think if there were any gods they didn’t need to squat like we do. I don’t know whose bathroom Porce is. I don’t think it matters. It’s our world now.”
“But it’s not a world at all!” Alast whined while he had a somewhat sympathetic ear. “There must be more out there right? Past the Black Gap… outside of Porce.”
“Kid there’s nothing out there but the Dark Empty. There’s no other ground and no other sky. Get used to it.”
“There is something,” Alast insisted. “I’ve read about it. There are folk who study the Black Gap under the First Door. They’ve seen objects in the distance; they’ve even tracked some of them. They’re tiny like the stars when they’re overhead. We know they’re out there. If they weren’t, there would be no reason to return the cardinal tile. Stabilizing Porce in the Empty doesn’t matter if there’s nothing to run into.”
“True enough,” Herc said, starting to get annoyed. “You speak of the science of stelloculism. I’ve met a few stelloculists; they tend to go mad from watching the black so much, same as anyone who looks at the florent too long. As for what they see… I imagine it’s just rocks. Stop thinking way out there. Think here. You’ve got plenty of problems that deserve your attention.” Herc pressed his heels against his tilehoof and pulled the animal away.
Alast further passed the time by reviewing his big book of Custodians. He paid extra attention to any bits that mentioned questing beasts. When the boy brought up the topic, Rob was surprisingly quick to offer suggestions for his reading. Alast thought if his speech was nimble enough he could get the Captain to disclose any questing beasts he’d fought in his life, but Rob kept those details to himself. Roary, Teal, and Dawn were no help either; they didn’t see it as their business to dispense the Captain’s life history. The boy had only the book.
Custodian Drowmeen Buildr
Daughter of Oath Watchr and Bloakit Buildr
Possessor of the oath of the Black Gap
She who turns away
Founder of the far-eyed academy
The dark explorer
Line – Her line began with the goddess Greetr, whose union with Tanjeel Vowtr of the lightfolk produced Oath Watchr. Greetr lived in conflict with the Oaths, encroaching on the life of her daughter and infecting her line with a culture of interference. Watchr wed a most-hated man, Bloakit Buildr, in defiance. The fire of their spats could have burned cities, but was instead redirected out into the Black Gap over which she presided. Among their children was Drowmeen, her destiny as the Custodian known immediately thanks to her divine birthmark: a third eye that saw only blackness.
Legacy – Drowmeen never married, instead producing children with a series of scholars she deemed to be of increasing intelligence, only stopping when there was no more smarter creature in the world to breed with. Notable sons of the Buildr line include Hox, Adhox, Strawmin, Frumuth, Firgool, Tanjireel, and Heartnoat. Daughters are less remembered thanks to their mothers’ inherited suspicion forcing them away from their dim homeland, but include Speen, Pinshawl, and Tileyshine.
Deeds – Drowmeen’s motivations are difficult to determine given her penchant for excusing all her behavior with the visions from her black eye. Recent historians have speculated the eye itself was dead and saw nothing at all, that all of her oddities were simple quirks of a sour but undoubtedly divine upbringing. Regardless, her black eye, oft described as a spherical black bath bead under her left eye, is a common inspiration for the scholars of the world, especially in the regions of the Black Gap.
She was among the first to stop seeing the Gap as emptiness. She did not hope it would eventually produce material; instead she altered the very definition of material and founded an academy upon this altered definition. Those at the far-eyed academy spent their lives gazing into the darkness, tracking the few interruptions and calculating how such bodies became affixed in the infinite dark material. This is how modern stelloculism, much corrupted from its roots into gossip and readings of fortune for the poor and infirm of mind, was birthed.
In addition to claiming her eye could see further into the Dark Empty than anything else, Drowmeen also insisted it saw the blackness in living souls. She said that some were only lightly tainted with spots while others were only skins hiding pure darkness. It is of note that she tended to ‘see darkness’ in women far more than men. Delusion or no, it led her to drive all her daughters out of her life, banning them from the academy, sending curses against them out into the Gap, and even using paper records to split them from her line. At the time of her death the academy did not even admit women and it stills holds that barrier to this day.
Drowmeen died of a fractured mind, a fracture heard across the land. The split was so great it rent her body in two. Each section was stored in its own mausoleum at either end of the Gap. At some point her black eye was removed from her skull. Its current location is unknown.
Despite her best efforts, one daughter did follow in her footsteps. Tileyshine was among the first to don clothing armored against the void and venture outside the Gap to crawl across the world. A hundred books have been written on her findings, but these are the tales of Custodians, and Custodian she was not.
Custodian Shenoch Rendr
Daughter of Oath Rainr and Loavy Rendr
Possessor of the oath of the Slick Rin Cliff
Line – Lightfolk like Loavy Rendr were often deafened by the voices of Howlr and her children. Oath Rainr famously tried to contain his voice, to bottle it up, but he often slipped. One utterance deafened the mother of all his children, during the production of one of them in fact. Between a deaf mother and a father whose speech was dangerous, the children had a range of strange speech patterns. A few spoke languages that otherwise never existed. When Shenoch was born even her cries were sung. She never took up words.
Legacy – Like her father, Shenoch took only one partner in life. His name cannot be written, only sung. This was the basis of their love, for his was the only name Shenoch could ever pronounce. They were so taken with each other that they produced too many children to list here. A full list can be found beside the tangled family tree on page 1285.
Deeds – Custodian Shenoch Rendr was loyal to her oath to the end of her days, never once straying from Slick Rin even during clysmic fall. She lived atop the cliff, singing outward in the mornings and nights to infuse the falling water with her energy. The result was dancing fish, humming stomachs, and lullabies for all. It is believed she began the lightfolk tradition of singing while bathing, as those traveling away from Slick Rin often did to make up for the silence of foreign waters. To this day many hold the idea that song washes filth from the spirit as soapstone and water does from the body.
Custodian Crewsader Collidr
Son of Oath Jumpr and Chyky Collidr
Possessor of the oath of First Stall
Driver of akers
The man who cuts roads with blood
Line – The goddess Luminatr shared a bed, as much as a god can, with the tilefolk Wod Kwordr, a union most unexpected. Their child was Oath Jumpr: the great and giving godling of the Tippytops. Jumpr raised up his own civilization of tilefolk from the World Floor, bringing them to the top of the stall and placing them gently in the recesses of its hinge where they built the spinning city Airy-go-round. There he met Chyky Collidr, daughter of the city. They were wed and produced nearly a whole generation that included the valiant Crewsader.
Legacy – Crewsader, in his efforts to spread the culture of Airy-go-round back to the Floor where his folk were born, married several women and revisited them all frequently. He was able to do so thanks to the ekapad jump: a talent inherited from his Oath father. His partnerships forged during the cutting of the Tributaroads are all but lost, leaving us just the meticulous records of his women from Airy-go-round. There was his first bride Dhen Mokr, his political wife Artshe Ladr, and his muse Jol Hoomr. Notable sons include Virsaber, Rawdile, Falcrest, Infinis, Miraco, Landov, Chider, Cider, Slider, Bider, Rider, Glider, and Snoron. Notable daughters include Trader, Hoo, Yoo, Mih, O, My, Tiz, Crawny, and Truff.
Deeds – Crewsader was a man for whom the word ‘no’ never took root. When his efforts to spread the culture of the Tippytops and the hinge back to the ancestral lands failed they morphed into military conquest, and again into the construction of the Tributaroads.
Even akers could not stop his progress across the Floor. Crewsader controlled them by besting a volcanic aker and taking it as his mount. With the power of the beast underneath him he broke up the nests of the akers and forced them to scatter. The molten rock of his mount cut the tiles, cracked and shattered, making way for his troops to further stomp the roads into permanence. Since his death the akers have tried to return to their former closeness, but the constant traffic of the roads won’t allow it; they can only observe from the sides and cry out mournfully for their lost kinship.
Crewsader Collidr’s roads only stopped when the world did, at the Threewall Wild. The divine tilefolk would not be deterred. He marched into those trees, never to be seen again. Even a Custodian is no match for the walls of the world, thus all roads must end.
Their journey continued for days and days. Alast lost track of them the same way he lost track of the rungs back on the rope ladder, with the land growing flatter and the plants sparser until bushes were the mightiest landmarks around. The lack of trees and the slowly shifting angles did give him his first full view of the furthest places of Porce. The Rin cliffs were blocked by First Stall, but on the other side of the world stood the Bottomless Rot. To Alast it just looked like a mighty rectangular mountain. All the rot, bottomless or not, was stored inside its hollow body.
Cruk! One day Alast’s peaceful thoughts were interrupted by a crack. He came out from behind his animal, which he had been hand-feeding, and saw Captain Rob with one foot firmly embedded in the ground, straight through the soil and into stone. Rob moved his hands about in the air as if trying to pinpoint the direction of a sound Alast couldn’t hear. The Captain frowned. He called Dawn over and whispered something to her. The gravefolk girl took off her boot, lifted her leathery foot, and performed a bonepicking stomp. Cruk! Her foot went even deeper than his, up to her knee. Dawn’s hands swirled on the loose surface dirt, vaguely mimicking the motion of the Captain’s hands in the air. They both settled on the same direction: back the way they had been traveling.
After their somber agreement the mood of their travel shifted dramatically. Alast could sense no threat, but the Captain rushed them at every turn. They had to eat breakfast on the animals. With no time to cook, Alast was forced to eat nothing but nuts and bread in the mornings, something that gave him awful stomach pains. With no time to simmer soups over a campfire their dinners became rapidly charred fish they caught whenever they were near water. The further inland they moved, the tinier, more pathetic, and more easily burned the fish became.
Every so often Rob and Dawn would perform their little ritual again. Alast could only guess that they were using bonepicking to listen for far sounds, like the movement of armies. Each time they became more worried and passed that emotion to the others. She had no eyes to show it, but even Dawn’s body language betrayed her fear; she kept her head down and she ground her teeth.
Eventually even Alast could not ignore the signs that they were being pursued. They moved at a pace that had the tilehooves grunting every other breath when it happened; Alast looked over his shoulder as he sensed the world rumbling and saw the land behind them change. Something massive shed ages of dirt as it rose. Two more shapes joined it. The clouds of dust they created quickly obscured much of the florent’s light. They stood on either side of the path they’d taken, because traveling over them was too dangerous with the tile in tow. Alast heard a familiar roar that traveled through his whole body.
“Akers,” he whispered. Rob doubled their speed, but Alast found the moments to glance back again and see the colossal squares holding their flat bodies on the side, forming incredible walls. He asked Herc what the akers were doing.
“We’re followed by Yugo’s proliths,” the musician explained as the land rushed by.
“The akers are protecting us?”
“No. The akers are simply doing what they can to block them. They do not like proliths. Prosites use the land to make their bodies; this upsets the akers who are the land. They do not tolerate the pretenders.”
Akers rose behind them periodically as time passed. That night they did not stop riding. It was the first time Alast tried out his spine of wood knot, used to tie oneself upright in a saddle for sleeping. He woke up stiff, nearly traumatized by the familiar feelings in his joints. The rope ladder had left him feeling like that each night. His fingers still quaked from that climb, so the boy tried to stay awake the next solid night of riding. He could not, but it didn’t matter. The tilehooves had to stop for rest eventually.
The akers kept the proliths far enough away that Alast did not get to see one. They’d driven him from his home, but he still had only imaginings and ink illustrations to go by. Three mornings after the akers started to rise, they arrived unceremoniously at the edge of Flatsprung: greatest of the Tributaroads. Its borders were uneven blocks of stone, some untouched and some carved and chiseled. The patterns on the sculpted ones took a hundred different forms: the result of a hundred different carvers leaving their marks as they passed by.
There were stone serponts wrapped around some of the blocks, with baskets or scales hanging from their open mouths. A few of the stones were turned into statues that Alast guessed represented Custodian Crewsader Collidr. Roads flowed from his open hand like water. Tiny merchants climbed up the shaft of his spear. One rock even had a miniature map of Flatsprung carved into it, complete with bent tilefolk hauling their lives across the World Floor. Past the rock fence was land characterized only by endless footprints and dirt packed so tightly that it felt like stone on your feet.
The road was far from abandoned; Alast saw carts pulled by unfamiliar animals, nomads with covered faces and walking sticks, and herds of livestock being corralled forward with branded haunches. They were on their own journeys, and paid no mind to the small group of pirates and their covered cargo. Rob and Dawn plunged their feet into the ground again and took a reading. Color drained from the Captain’s face.
“Our road is ending,” he told the group. Dread settled in their hearts. “Yugo’s road division, his largest now, will overtake us before we reach the other side of Flatsprung. We’ll see the first of them any drip now. You all know what to do. Except for you.” He looked at Alast. “Come over here boy.” Alast dismounted and went to the Captain. He grabbed the cabin boy by the shoulder and took him aside, behind a blank rock. A tiny drooping clump of red flowers, the only thing growing in a crack in the stone, listened in on the conversation.
“We’re going to be captured Alast,” he said plainly. Alast had always imagined that without confidence Rob would just sound like defeat, but there was still some life in his voice. He sounded like an animal contemplating gnawing off its own leg to escape from under a boulder.
“Are we going to be killed Captain?” Alast asked, trying to stop his voice from quivering. His hands paid no attention at all, shaking wildly against his belt. He didn’t expect to be consoled, but he would’ve settled for a drop of honey on the answer.
“The answer’s not straightforward boy. I won’t be killed, at least not immediately. Yugo and I have some history. He’ll want to play with that for a while, do a little grandstanding and rub my face in the tracks of his war machines. As the cabin boy you are of no consequence. You may be killed immediately.”
“Captain I…” Alast froze. The shock of the possibility finally hit him. He felt like crying, but his eyes also felt like glass so he dared not touch them. All I wanted was a life. Was this worth leaving for? I could’ve died back in the mist, lying on a wet bed and pretending a boulder wasn’t about to crash through the roof and crush me. I could’ve ignored the threat until the last moment. I could’ve at least had a tiny piece of false tranquility. How will Yugo do it? Perhaps a simple sword across the throat. Perhaps I’ll be dragged behind them as the road claims my flesh piece by piece. Don’t know yet…
“Which is why I’m making you of consequence,” Rob said. “When we are captured, if anyone asks your name you are to call yourself Alast Ordr, pretending to be another nephew alongside Roary. Do you understand?”
“Aye Captain,” Alast managed.
“That should buy you a little time. Here.” Rob opened a pouch on his belt and took out a silver ring with a Kilroy crest: the Ordr family symbol. The Kilroy in the crest held two sabers over the wall in his perpetual peeking. Rob jammed it onto Alast’s finger to help complete the illusion. “Be brave boy.”
“With all due respect and then some Captain… why?”
“Because it’s better than being afraid.” The Captain turned away for a moment, but immediately turned back. He chewed on the beard hair on his lower lip. “You’d best take this as well.” He removed the glass necklace from around his neck and placed it on Alast, tucking it into the boy’s shirt so it was out of sight. “Don’t say anything about that one and don’t let anyone see it.” Alast nodded.
Rob pushed him back toward the tilehooves while the boy swallowed the answer. They took to their mounts again and started crossing Flatsprung. As the bonepickers had predicted there wasn’t much time to dwell on their fortunes. Less than a third of the way across the road a group of round objects sped their way.
Alast watched them cut across the front animal, kicking up dirt as they moved, and then circle around the entire party, forcing them into a tighter and tighter formation. Each one was a round wooden frame with rungs, like a ladder bent and tied in a circle. Inside the frames sat gravefolk, curled up with their fingers wrapped around one or two of the rungs. Alast guessed they were bonepickers who used the skill to rotate their bodies and drive the wheels forward. They were Yugo’s scouts.
Rather than try to fight them, Rob and the others merely held them at bay by waving their weapons about. When Yugo got there, it probably wouldn’t help their chances of survival if he saw his scouts scattered dead on the ground, trampled by every passing tilehoof and whetzoo. A few of the scouts stepped out of their wheels, giving them a good look at the standard uniform for Yugo’s soldiers. Their armor was light, opting for high ply topa rather than chain-mail. Their loose hammered helms had small straight horns painted purple.
“The wait won’t be long,” one of them said with an implied sneer. “The Spotless has blessed us with unnatural speed on these roads.”
“Without sense weighing you down it be no wonder,” Dawn remarked. The scouts eyed her rattling artificial hair with amusement. None of them had leatherflesh like the second mate used across most of her body. Alast wondered if Yugo did not approve of the covering. With that thought came the grim satisfaction of knowing he would at least see the strangest gravefolk in existence before dying.
“Take us to him,” Rob said simply. The scouts took up positions on the sides of their animals and started rolling off, in the opposite direction of much of the traffic. The others on the road gave them a wide berth, as they would a funerary procession. Alast kept his head down and nervously played with the Kilroy ring. Kilroy’s a trickster. No one who caught him could hold on for long. We just have to think like him. We just need to think up a way out.
Alast once again felt the ground tremble, but this time it was not akers; it was the combination of thousands of marching feet. He’d overheard Rob and Teal, during a discussion of recent ekapad surveys, say that Yugo’s force on the roads was nearly 2,000 strong. Combined with the proliths and his forces flowing down from Third Sink it was nearly 5,000. In addition, a lone prolith was said to be as effective as five uncoordinated men.
When the boy looked away from Kilroy’s beady eyes he saw folducted vehicles, as big as buildings, taking up huge chunks of the road. The siege towers were painted with Yugo’s emblems on their bropato shells. They were topped with heavy cannons and arbalests. Folducted wagons with spiked wheels hauled mountains of simple weapons and shields. One of the great advantages of a force composed significantly of gravefolk was the lack of need to carry food or fresh water.
Still, there were plenty of tilefolk and living men mixed in with Yugo’s bony soldiers. Such was the charisma of the purple papist; any could fall under his thrall. Surely a man whose bones were crystal, who shined through with the florent’s light, knew how to help a spirit reach that plane of endless light and life.
The troops split to absorb Yugo’s newest prize. An endless din of clanking armor and gruff conversation swirled around them. A few of them picked up dirt clods and tossed them at the prisoners. One struck Alast in the eye; he spent the next while trying to rub it clean.
They were taken to the exact center of the force, where the largest of the folducted vehicles was. It was no machine of war, but a massive covered wagon holding a stage and dozens of seats. When they reached the side of it Rob, Teal, Roary, Dawn, Herc, Ladyfish, and Alast were lifted off their animals and hauled inside. The room was already full of decorated warriors gathered around a table topped with maps and metal figurines. They stopped their bickering, both in Pawtymouth and Wide Porcian, as soon as they laid eyes on the prisoners.
Their enemies bound their hands behind their backs with rope. Rob and Dawn, thanks to their known bonepicking, were instead given metal shackles around their wrists and ankles. They were relieved of all their weaponry and supplies, which was piled into a chest under the seats and immediately locked. They took the cardinal tile, wrapped a chain around it, and locked it to the floor near the chest. Yugo’s men forced them all into chairs in the front row. They cleaned up all their maps and pushed the table back.
“We don’t have all day,” Rob said.
“Everything must be perfect for the commander,” one of the gravefolk remarked, eerily real glass eyes stuck in his sockets with black wax. “You know how he is.” A small gravefolk climbed into the vehicle from one of the flaps. He was so small that he could only be a child, perhaps a rest younger than Alast at the time of first death. What do you have to do to earn your bones so soon? The young skeleton was dressed in purple and silver, with puffy sleeves and knees. A bulbous hat nearly slipped off his skull every few drips. He banged on a small drum in quick bursts.
“The commander approaches,” he said in his child’s voice. “All be seated! All be reverent!” The little pile of bones rushed over to a chair and took a seat. Yugo’s commanders and high-ranked guards took seats as well, but on the opposite side of the prisoners. It seemed whatever show Yugo had planned was only for Rob and his crew.
The flap opened once again; this time it was held open by a fleshy woman in a purple dress. What came through after that was not Yugo, but a procession of men carrying what looked like an exceptionally heavy coffin made of stone, marbled in patterns of black and gray. They grunted and groaned as they hauled the object on their shoulders to the middle of the room. They tried to set it gently on the table that had held the maps, but the legs snapped instantly and the whole thing crashed to the floor. The servants panicked.
“Quickly! Get it up! Before he arrives!” one of them squeaked. A few of the seated warriors scrambled to help. They all jammed their fingers under the stone container and pulled it back into the air.
“Oh now what?” one of them moaned. “There’s nowhere to put it!”
“We can just set it down maybe?”
“On the floor! Are you mad!? The chairs! The chairs or our heads!” The servants who couldn’t fit around the coffin’s side to help hold it rushed over to the row of chairs behind the perplexed prisoners. They knocked a dozen of them over and left them on their sides as they searched for the sturdiest ones. Alast felt one of the legs poking into his side, but kept it to himself.
Ten chairs were lined up under the quivering legs of those holding the coffin. They lowered the object down and backed away, hands in the air. The wood creaked, but nothing gave way. Footsteps were heard on the edge of the wagon, so they all scurried back to their seats. The last one tossed the broken table to the side and swept the legs under the purple gown of the woman holding the flap.
Yugo Legendr stepped onto the rattling wood of the moving stage. No boots. No pants. No shirt… but by no means unadorned. Yugo wore a long flowing cape, even more dramatic than the one Rob preferred, but certainly less furry. Several belts of silver and gold were tightened around his exposed backbone below the ribs.
His bones were indeed made of deep purple crystal. When a toe bone struck the head of a nail in the floor it sang like someone had flicked the side of a Sybil’s bath. Every spot of him was polished to perfection, without a scratch in sight. His famous curving horn erupted from between his eye sockets, merged back into his forehead, and then finally ended in a limp point that nonetheless looked sharp enough to pierce the toughest hide. A small candle burned somewhere inside his skull, causing a purple light to radiate all around his head. Combined with his commanding demeanor it seemed to pale the character of the room itself.
I’ve seen him, Alast thought. I suppose this is where I die now. He thought about the faces he would’ve rather seen. Pearlen. Yugo strutted to the center of the stage. He ran his hand along the top of the coffin while his servants and warriors eyed each other nervously.
“When a man sends an invitation,” Yugo began, “he expects a response.” His voice, sinister and smug as it was, rang with the crystal notes of his teeth vibrating against each other. “Even if it is a polite declination.” He looked at Rob with his bright but hollow sockets.
“Am I to think of our encounter with your knuckles as the invitation?” Rob asked.
“I know Loaf was polite,” Yugo said, “so it must have been you who caused the trouble.” The purple skeleton stalked forward and felt some of the fur on Rob’s collar between two ringing crystal fingers. “You’re filthy.” He turned to his servants. “Why is our guest filthy?”
“The Tributaroads are very dusty this time of the wash commander,” one of them said.
“It’s not the road’s job to make them presentable, it’s yours!” Yugo shouted. “Hurry now. Wash him. You don’t mind do you Robin?”
“Not at all,” the Captain grumbled. Alast and the others watched as Rob was taken from his chair and thrown onto his knees in front of Yugo. They stripped him of his cape, which Yugo took and examined; when he was done he handed it off to a servant who presumably went to store it with the rest of the spoils of Yugo’s war.
Servants left and reentered quickly, carrying buckets of water. One of them dumped her bucket over Rob’s head. They were about to take a towel to his beard when Yugo ordered them to remove his shirt. Alast realized the gravefolk was just looking to humiliate the Captain. Another servant grabbed the base of Rob’s shirt and pulled up. The cloth caught on something sharp around Rob’s left shoulder; the servant had to tear it to yank it free. Another bucket of water poured over the pirate’s head. He sputtered and spat the water at Yugo’s feet.
Alast’s eye was drawn to a new color: crystalline green. There, jutting out of the Captain’s left shoulder blade… a spike of mossy emerald! Green as a forest drying after heavy rain. That was what caught on his shirt. Alast couldn’t believe his eyes. Suddenly a few memories from aboard the Mop clicked into place. The design of Rob’s flag, the green skull with the spiked mustache, was no old Ordr symbol; it was Rob’s symbol alone. This must be why he can bonepick! Special bones! No one ever spoke of this… The Captain must not want it to be spoken, but why not? Look at it! He truly is a man like no other. Except for this amethyst other of course…
It was plain to see that the emerald extrusion on the Captain’s shoulder was the same sort of condition Yugo had, despite the difference in color. The shine, texture, and translucency were too similar to ignore. Yugo’s teeth are purple, Alast realized. The Captain must paint his! Does he do it every day to hide those gems? As a pirate I suppose it’s reasonable to hide a mouth full of precious stones around other pirates. Yugo bent over once again and tapped the tip of Rob’s shoulder. Both bits of crystal sang, but Rob’s was distinctly muted by his flesh. It also looked to Alast like the tap had given the Captain an instant headache.
“I don’t remember that one being there,” Yugo mocked. “Tell me, how does the other end of it feel? Is it poking into your lung? Your heart? I remember the pain well, even now.”
“The only pain I feel is your words slithering in my ears,” Rob replied. Yugo ignored him. The purple papist walked over to the other prisoners and examined them. He stopped on Alast.
“Who is this one? I don’t recognize him. He looks misty.”
“That’s my other nephew Alast,” Rob said. He swiveled on his knees as best he could. “He’s not part of this.” Yugo eyed the Kilroy ring.
“You don’t have any nephews other than little Roary there. Have you forgotten how… well acquainted I was with your sister Kilronda back when I had eyes and hands… and a tongue.” Roary fidgeted in his seat, his face blooming in redness. Yugo paid no attention; he was distracted by the small bit of black cord he saw poking out from Alast’s collar. There also seemed to be a slight lump over the boy’s sternum. He reached out with his purple claws-
“What’s in the box Yugo?” Rob asked suddenly. “Are you really going to keep us in suspense?” Yugo pulled back. He put one arm behind his back and tapped his crystal chin with the other.
“Thank you Robin, I really shouldn’t. The suspense is practically smashing me and I already know what’s inside! Ahahaha!” Yugo moved behind the black stone coffin and slowly, dramatically, lowered his hands to its lid.
Alast had a moment to notice something. The cardinal tile still floated quietly in the back of the room, chained near the chest. Has he even looked at Cardinal Second? Without eyes it’s so hard to tell… but he doesn’t seem to care. The Captain has all his attention. Wouldn’t the greatest toil papist show more reverence to one of his holy objects? It’s one eighth of his plan to ascend Porce to the painless Spotless world. It’s his first eighth! This man doesn’t believe his own tales.
Yugo, with incredible bonepicking strength, lifted the lid from the coffin and set it aside. The smell of thick moist soil and tiny sprouting plants filled the wagon. The prisoners were all too low to see inside, but their noses were correct; inside it there was a bed of loam and the minuscule soft leaves of flowhead weed and gentlepoke flowers. Yugo delicately slipped his finger bones under the item resting in the nutritious fertile soil and lifted it for them to see. Ladyfish and Roary suppressed a gag. Teal grimaced. Alast couldn’t figure out what he saw.
In the papist’s arms sat something flesh-colored and limp. It was the length of an average man. Thick black hair coated one end of it, while the other was stoppered with ten rubbery little pockets. Yugo moved it around in his arms and then draped it in front of himself. There was a seam down the middle, and just under its surface Alast could see a reddish-purple layer like that of dried meats. There were ten more rubbery pockets out to the sides. When Alast saw Yugo gripping a pair of empty shoulders and then flopping the item’s hole-filled hood back he finally realized; it was someone’s skin.
“Beautiful craftsmanship don’t you think?” Yugo asked as he admired it. “I can’t tell you how many experiments we did in order to refine it this far.”
“Where is the rest of the man?” Rob asked. Though he looked repulsed, he didn’t seem surprised.
“How should I know?” Yugo barked. “All we need to know about him was that he was young, healthy, and bore no scars. Just look at it! It still thinks it’s alive! All thanks to the combination of a humid environment and a hearty bedding of enriched materials. I’d love to take the credit, but it was mostly the work of one of our finest minds: Hybrow Yawnr. Wave Hybrow.” A small blond man seated with the servants waved to the prisoners.
“Why are you showing us this?” Rob asked.
“I thought you’d appreciate the spectacle!” Yugo insisted. “I know you’re a man of science. The first ones were hardly convincing, but your arrival was opportune for testing this one out. You’re about to watch the first re-fleshing in the history of the world!” Yugo removed his cape and tossed it aside. He dropped his belts one by one, explaining more as he went. “Before you get your hopes up, let me tell you it is not ideal. While the skin still lives, there’s no replacing the organs. Smell, hunger, and thirst, among a few other faculties, will not return. My appearance however…”
One of his servants helped Yugo apply the skin. It was Alast’s turn to gag when the wiggling pelt made sounds as it stretched across the papist’s limbs. Wuluurp wurp wep. Yugo flexed his fingers into the skin gloves. Wep wep wep. He stepped into his skin boots. The seam along the chest, which had buttons sewn in, was closed over his ribs. The forehead had specially cut holes to make room for his curving horn. He grabbed the nose and adjusted it back and forth, stretching the entire face, until it settled into position. Wurelp. “Naturally I’ll need some glass eyes to complete the illusion. They’re being crafted as we speak, but for now you can see.” He held his arms wide.
The skin was ill-fitting. The stomach was a mass of wrinkles, it stretched and dipped over every rib, and the sleeves were loose and wobbly. The knees looked like leathery fruit that had putrefied to nothing on the inside. The neck folded like a twisted sock. The eyelids, devoid of lashes, puckered over his empty sockets. The lips slipped under his purple teeth as he spoke, muffling his speech.
“Have you tried having a little dignity instead?” Rob asked. Even shirtless, wet, and bent at the knee, Rob gave no ground.
“What do you mean by that?” Yugo asked, putting his hands on his hips. Wurp.
“I knew you were obsessed with getting your old body back, but this is pathetic. Faith that the Spotless will restore you is one thing. You’re gravefolk Yugo. You’re bones. Accept it. Go settle down with a bony woman and give all this up.”
“The Spotless will restore me,” Yugo snarled. “He will restore all of us. Once we are in his light the only thing you can be is what you’ve always wanted. Until then however, I see no reason not to explore temporary solutions.” Yugo paced back and forth in front of Rob. “With this skin offering rebirth, I think it is only fair for me to offer you the same. Join me Robin. It’ll be like the old times.”
“Which old times?” the Captain asked. “The ones where you and I set out together under one banner… to figure everything out? Or the ones where that horn poked your brain until the only relief was heading up your own sect of insanity?”
“The former,” Yugo said, unabashed. “With your help we could take-” Yugo’s foot slipped; his purple toes and ankle ripped through the skin. He tried to regain his footing, but slipped on the empty fleshy foot. He slammed skull first into the ground, lodging his horn in the wooden floor. A few of the prisoners had to stifle their laughter. Yugo shot back up with bonepicking. Black bruises were already spreading across the forehead and along the tear in the leg. “Get it off me you miserable failure!” he barked at Hybrow. The small man stumbled over himself getting down to his commander. He helped Yugo unbutton the pelt and slip it off.
“You always did have a thin skin,” Rob said with a smirk. Yugo turned and glowered at him, but didn’t say anything; he instead berated Hybrow as the man laid the hide back in the soil and moved clumps of it over the bruises and tears.
“You said this was the one you imbecile! Should I flay you next?”
“No,” Hybrow begged breathlessly. “We just need more fortifying minerals commander. Some… some tinkerum I think. Th-th-that should make it like armor! Yes!”
“Get out of my sight!” Yugo barked. Hybrow excused himself and left the wagon. The self-proclaimed duke turned back to Rob. “Are you refusing me Robin? You want your crew to die here and now?”
“Surely we can negotiate,” Rob said. He stood. “You already have the tile. What point is there to keeping us?”
“Don’t pretend naïveté,” the purple skeleton accused. “I doubt your possession of the tile was something you told many. If we let you go the rest of Porce might realize I have a cardinal tile.” Yugo finally looked back at Second to make sure it was there. “If we kill you it stays secret.” He snapped his crystal fingers, a sound so piercing that it stung every ear in the wagon. One of his warriors handed him a dagger.
Where’s the whimper? Alast suddenly thought. Finick couldn’t stand such high noises; the little haund always whined about them. His eyes darted around in search of his pet, but there was no sign. Now that he’d thought about it, he hadn’t seen Finick or his rider Oddball since before they were led into Yugo’s ranks.
“If I agree to join you, will you release my crew?” Rob asked. Yugo tapped his chin again and played with the dagger. He tossed it into the air and caught it by the blade a few times. He stopped in front of a bound Herc.
“I know I said I wanted that,” Yugo began, “but I don’t believe you’d be any help once they were safe. Oh well. Let’s see what happens when I do this.” Yugo grabbed Herc by the shoulder and shoved the dagger into his side.
“No!” The musician crumpled in his seat; he would’ve fallen out if not for his hands being bound behind the chair. A dark red stain spread across his shirt. He tried to speak, but could only gurgle. Rob hopped into the air, high enough to land on Yugo’s shoulders, and kicked down with the force of cannon shot. Yugo was no slouch when it came to bonepicking however; he swiveled out of the way on the balls of his feet and struck Rob with his elbow. The Captain was thrown across the wagon and into the laps of Yugo’s subordinates.
Alast was about to scream to draw the purple fiend’s attention, anything to get him away from his friends, even if it meant his own turn with the dagger. He opened his mouth, but stopped when he felt something on his hands: whiskers. He tilted his head back and saw Oddball on the back of Finick. They had just crawled through the bottom of the wagon and were now hidden by the pile of overturned chairs behind the prisoners.
“Not a one of them ever looked down,” Oddball whispered, which was undercut by the clacking of his teeth. Finick’s bladed horn sawed through Alast’s bonds quickly. In a moment the boy’s hands were free, but he had no clue what to do with them. He looked over and saw Yugo rip the dagger from Herc’s side. A spray of blood hit the floor and Herc gasped like he hadn’t breathed in washes. As Finick moved down the line to saw at Teal’s bonds, Alast decided there was only one course of action. The boy leapt out of his seat, tossed the ropes aside, and shouted.
“Yugo! Your purpleness! Over here!” Yugo’s men were still distracted by the wriggling Rob on top of them. It took all of them to keep him from bonepicking his way back to his feet; chairs toppled left and right. Yugo’s dagger moved closer to Herc’s throat. Alast jumped, not toward the gravefolk, but to the coffin. He grabbed the exposed edges of the skin and ripped it from the soil. When a clod of it struck the back of Yugo’s skull, he finally turned. Alast held the pelt up, trying not to think about the disgusting cool softness of the flesh, and threatened to rip it down the middle. “Back away or I’ll tear it worse!”
“Grab him!” Yugo commanded. “Don’t let him ruin it!” Those soldiers in the seats who weren’t preoccupied with the Captain sprang into action. Before they could reach Alast, Teal was on her feet and using a chair to drive them back. Then Ladyfish and Roary were freed. Dawn hopped across the floor in her shackles and used bonepicking to launch herself sideways into the stone coffin. The object slammed into three guards, pinning them to the ground and covering them in dirt.
Yugo, in one jump, crossed the room and stabbed at Alast with the dagger. Alast’s only defense was the skin, which he paraded in front of him to keep the purple fiend at bay. Its empty feet danced about in nauseating fashion. Thoroughly frustrated, Yugo dropped the dagger, bent at the waist, grabbed Alast’s ankles, and tossed the boy into the back row of seats, where he crashed into several chairs and split his lip open. He glanced at the skin, still crumpled in his hands. At least its lips were unharmed.
The boy’s distraction was admirable; it bought time for Dawn to hop over to the weapons chest. She came down on the lock with her feet, smashing not only it but destroying the front of the chest entirely. Roary snuck in and tossed swords to Ladyfish and Teal. He grabbed one himself and used the Dagyvr weapon to break the chains on Dawn’s wrists and ankles.
His next toss put Rob’s jump club right where it belonged. The Captain immediately used it to force his freedom. He flipped twice across the floor and to Herc’s side. The musician bobbed in and out of consciousness. Rob ripped a leg from his pants and tied a knot, a functioning float-weight to be specific, around Herc’s side to keep pressure on his wound and stem the flow of blood.
“I’m sorry for this,” he said in the man’s ear as he picked him up and carried him over his shoulders. Herc gasped at the pain before passing out completely. Some of his blood ran down the side of Rob’s face, thinning in the water left from Yugo’s humiliating shower. “We need to get out of here!” he bellowed at the others.
“You’re not going anywhere!” Yugo returned. He swung at Rob with naught but his bony fists. Teal put herself between them and forced him back with her blade. As Yugo’s men finally got to their feet it became obvious the prisoners couldn’t maintain the upper hand for long, especially if any of the 2,000 soldiers just outside noticed the commotion in the wagon.
With Herc over the Captain’s shoulder, Alast saw only one way he could be of assistance: Cardinal Second. His only shield was Yugo’s preserved pelt, so he took its sleeves and tied them around his neck like a cape. Wip welp welurp wip. With some luck it would keep him from getting stabbed in the back. As soon as he was done knotting the fingers with a lump in your throat knot, and suppressing his vomit, he rushed down the rows of chairs to get to the tile. He ducked his way through three duels to reach the smashed chest, which still had his saber and his paper cutters. Alast armed himself. Thanks to the excellent craftsmanship of the Peako Dagyvr saber, he was able to strike through the chain holding the tile down with one swipe.
None of them had bothered to find a way out yet, so Dawn took it upon herself to create one. A bonepicking jump sent her ripping through the bropato covering atop the wagon. She landed on it and then lowered her hand back inside. Alast tossed her the chain with one hand and held the bonds of the tile with the other so she could use her strength to pull the boy up and out, which she overdid slightly. Alast writhed in the air and eventually bounced across the springy bropato. He stayed closed to the tile as Dawn helped the others up one by one.
As they finished Rob burst through a hole of his own, Herc still hanging limply on his shoulders. There wasn’t even a moment to rest. Yugo tore through from below almost as quickly, this time brandishing a bonepicking sword. A few more of his men followed right after, popping out of the bropato like vegetables eager to be picked.
To make matters worse, the siege tower traveling alongside them took notice. The few men at its top, much higher than the wagon, drew their bows and rained arrows down on Rob’s crew. Ladyfish, Roary, and Teal scurried over to Alast and grabbed the tile. They all hunched over and turned the floating thing on its side to act as a shield against the barrage.
“We have to jump!” Rob shouted to them, but Alast didn’t see anywhere to jump to. The side of the tower was too smooth to grab. Below them there was nothing but a sea of soldiers on their mounts. Past the side of the tower he saw they were at the opposite edge of Flatsprung from where they started, but beyond the road was nothing but overgrown land. Even if they could escape the flow of Yugo’s army, they would be run down again just as they had before.
Rob did not waste any time considering the direness of the situation. He raised one leg, balancing perfectly on the other despite the springy bropato, and kicked Yugo squarely in the sternum. The purple papist would’ve recovered quickly, but he tripped and fell down the hole he had created. With the greatest threat temporarily out of sight, Rob made the only move available: he leapt.
The Captain collided with the side of the siege tower, which offered no foothold. Bonepicking kept his body as close to the curved surface as possible, and it kept him falling slowly, but he was still sliding down. Teal tossed him his sword. As soon as it was in his hand it pierced the bropato and held him in place. There was a yelp from within the tower. Swords poked through in retaliation with a flurry of shredding sounds. Rob danced against the side to avoid them and keep Herc out of their reach.
The poking blades became too numerous to manage, so the Captain pulled his sword most of the way out and ran it in a tight descending spiral down the tower. When he was at the best angle he could hope for, he put his feet flat on the side and sprung off, kicking a gravefolk off his tilehoof mount. Rob’s feet were so full of compressed gravitation that they shattered the man’s bony body into nothing but white powder. His skull rolled away, probably to be crushed under the feet of his fellow marchers.
There came the sound of metal smacking metal as Rob used his jump club to assault the other nearby riders, smashing their bones and cracking their skulls. He cleared two animals that Teal and Dawn immediately jumped down to. They in turn cleared three more for Ladyfish, Roary and Alast. Alast was the last to plummet; he made sure to scoop up Finick and Oddball in his arms before he did.
Just as his feet left the wagon’s covering, a purple fist tore through and grabbed his ankle. Alast twisted in the air. The back of his upside down head bounced against the bropato and the axehaund flew from his grip. The animal yelped in fear, but Ladyfish was there to catch them. Alast was too disoriented too act, but Roary reached up and dexterously slid the edge of his blade between Alast’s ankle and the purple finger bones, prying the boy loose. Alast fell onto the side of an empty tilehoof, clinging to the saddle for dear life as his feet skidded along the dusty road.
Dawn grabbed him by the back of his shirt, getting a handful of his skin cape as well, and hurled him into the saddle. From there Alast kept his head down and kept a tight grip on his saber. The boy and Teal, who had the tile tied around her waist, were maneuvered to the center of the group so the others could fight. Swords and spears clashed all around them as they struggled to break free of the tide of Yugo’s army. An arrow struck Ladyfish in the shoulder and she cried out. Alast pulled on the reins of his animal to slide in front of the haunches of Ladyfish’s and take her place. A tilefolk tried to pull him down, but he swung his saber and cut them along the forearm.
I’ve struck someone in war, he realized. I’ve drawn blood. He stared at the red stain on his blade stupidly, until Roary smacked his animal’s backside and forced them both to surge forward. Yugo’s men, at least those who were bonepickers, stayed right behind them, hopping from the haunches and shoulders of one animal to the next, occasionally taking a swing at Alast’s head when they were close enough.
Knowing they might try to avoid hitting Yugo’s precious skin, Alast kept himself at the back of the procession to offer what protection he could to his crewmates. The feet of the hide flapped in the wind when they picked up speed; Rob had found a split in the stones wide enough for single animals to get through. Some of the soldiers followed them, but the mounted ones could only do so one at a time and the ones on foot had to climb over the rocks at Flatsprung’s edge. In moments they were nearly out of range of the tower’s arrows.
Two wheels flew over the rocks, spinning far too quickly to make out the gravefolk inside them. They struck the ground as if weightless, kicked massive clouds of dirt into the faces of their slower war kin, and sped toward the tilehooves. The stocky animals had no chance of outrunning the wheels, something Rob and the others were well aware of. The Captain dropped Herc into the front of the saddle and maneuvered his animal closer to Teal. She took the reins in one hand and kept Herc upright with the other. Rob heard the first of the wheels tearing up the ground behind him. Without even looking he swiveled, kicked off the animal’s backside, and shot himself like an arrow toward the wheel.
Its driver tried to turn out of the way, but all he did was expose his body to the Captain’s strike. Rob pushed him out of the wooden frame and curled up inside it himself. Unlike gravefolk, Rob had to deal with dizziness, so he held his breath and tried to stay focused as he tumbled his body forward and brought the wheel back up to speed.
Dawn was always eager to remind them that the Captain wasn’t necessarily the best bonepicker in the world. She leapt from her own tilehoof in a similar fashion and landed on top of the other wheel, stopping it dead. The two conflicting forces of gravitation struggled back and forth, causing Dawn’s artificial hair to whip wildly.
“Let go you sewer-breathed son of an inbred-” she swore. With one final grunt she lifted the wheel into the air and spun it herself until the other skeleton was forced out. With their two bonepickers fending off the other wheels that appeared, the group was able to ride until Flatsprung was out of sight.
“Captain!” Ladyfish shouted to the wheel which had the blur of colors that more resembled Rob. “Two akers up ahead!” If Rob had responded he would have vomited, so he simply took the lead to let them all know they would be using the gigantic creatures of the tile lands to their advantage.
“What are we doing?” Alast asked Roary. “We were nearly killed by one of those last time!”
“We’ll go between them,” Roary said. “It’ll give us some space! Yugo’s men can’t ride such a small gap in any numbers. They might even be too scared.”
I’m too scared, Alast nearly shouted back. No sooner had he thought that than he spotted the first set of aker heads. They had the same look of black statues that the previous one had, but each had a snout length and horn twist all its own. The narrow strip of land between them was easy to see, for one side of each aker was raised significantly above the ground as a wall of roots and loose stones. Alast looked behind and saw Yugo’s pursuers. They were very much still there, forcing them into the path between the monsters.
No tribute was necessary, at least in theory, because they were not riding upon either animal’s back. The akers’ heads did not move as they entered the path. There was no roar or discernible breath. Still, they nervously watched Cardinal Second. The tile’s presence on top of the other aker had nearly cost them their lives; it was still worryingly close to these ornery plots of land.
The lower aker shifted up, shaking loose dirt and snapping roots. It rose slowly. Perhaps the nearness of the tile made it itch. The other aker rumbled back and forth, disturbing the small furry creatures burrowed into its hide and sending clouds of white-winged flies into the air.
“They’re nervous,” Alast whispered. It’s alright akers. You can be as nervous as you like as long as you don’t roll over. We’ll be out of here in drips if you’ll just wait. There’s no need to throw a fit over such pebbles rolling by. He tried not to think about the number of times a bug had buzzed by his ear and been swatted at madly. He stole another backward glance. They were giving up! Without their purple leader’s gaze directly over them their courage faltered. Alast could hardly blame them; there was nothing scarier than the very ground turning against you.
The akers’ bodies groaned as they shifted back and forth in their beds, but they did not stir significantly. Still, they all breathed a sigh of relief, except the breathless Dawn and Oddball of course, when they rode past the second set of heads and into a stretch of grassy fields.
Continued in Part Seven