(reading time: 1 hour, 26 minutes)
Second Stone Door was now out of their reach, according to the information they received at the next ekapad station. Yugo’s only stated goal was the tiles, and he did not seem happy about one slipping from his clutches. His forces moved faster than ever, off the established roads and into any territory they saw fit. There were not enough aker shortcuts to keep them ahead of bonepickers indefinitely, so a change of course was required.
They hoped the only trail they left was one patch of disturbed dirt, where they gave Yugo’s skin suit a proper burial. A bargaining chip it could have been, but the horrible sounds it made when moved left everyone with a stomach too queasy to care.
The night of their dramatic escape was spent in a small house built of mud bricks; they were guests of a tilefolk apothecary Rob paid to treat Herc’s wounds. She was an old woman, ringlets of silver hair obscuring the eyes under her collarbone. Her home smelled strongly of clay and crushed flower petals. They all stood around Herc’s bedding and watched as she used mortar and pestle to grind up the pink-white cocoons and green twigs that made up Herc’s treatment. She applied the resulting paste straight to his wound, which had become swollen with infection.
The others kept Alast at a distance; they didn’t want him pestering the man as he recovered. After all, his recovery wasn’t even a certainty. He moved in and out of consciousness every few hours. His forehead was always slick with sweat and his eyes rolled around near the bottom of their sockets.
“We have a decision to make,” Rob said by candlelight after the apothecary had bid them goodnight. “Second Stone Door is too close to Yugo. Our only option is to move forward and out in an unexpected direction.” His finger dragged across the map. “The Stain Plain should slow any pursuers.” Alast looked at the tan blob that was the Stain Plain on the map. It was funnel-shaped, widening off the end of the Tributaroads and encircling the front of Third Toil.
“We would only go the Stain route if we planned on hiding the tile in Dhonshui,” Teal said. She looked at Rob. “You want to hide it in Dhonshui?”
“You won’t be welcomed there.”
“No but the tile… might be. Do you know any other city that could hold it that we can reach before Yugo catches us?” Teal offered no suggestion. “It is decided then. We make for Dhonshui.”
“What about Herc?” Roary asked.
“We could leave him here,” Rob mulled. “This woman seems nice enough. We could pay her to lodge him until we can return.”
“He’d hate to be stickied down here,” Ladyfish said with certainty. “I says we take him.” The others voted along her line. Alast was correct in assuming he did not have a vote to cast.
“Very well. Ladyfish he’ll ride with you. We’ll have the apothecary make up enough of that medicine for the journey. We leave at florentshine.”
They all settled down in their bedding, all except Alast. He made an excuse about making sure the tilehooves were watered and then left to check on the animals. They were tied up to a few posts outside the mud house, in front of a trough. Alast examined his reflection in the murky water by the light of the one lamp overhead. He looked for some sign that he had changed from the boy in the mist, something less obvious and yet more profound than his longer hair. He looked for the hardened glance of someone who had been in battle, who had seen a friend fall. There was nothing new.
He did feel something out of the ordinary. Looking at the water gave him the peculiar sensation that he stared into a bottomless pit. He moved his face closer. All of a sudden his reflection grinned. He backed up, certain it was going to reach out of the trough and pull him in. Where the sensation had come from, he had no idea. The logical next step was dropping a small object to see if it disturbed the water or if his reflection simply caught it. He was about to bend down and grab a pebble when Dawn appeared, leaning over one of the tilehooves.
“Don’t scare me like that,” he said with a start.
“Herc will be alright,” she said.
“I hope so. The way Yugo wounded him… he was trying to wound Rob.”
“Yugo and Rob have been at each other for as long as I’ve been around.”
“Why did nobody tell me that Captain Rob was made of bath beads?” Alast asked.
“What do you mean? He be made of meat like the rest of you fleshies.”
“I saw the crystal on his shoulder. It’s the same crystal Yugo is carved from. It has to be bath beads. That would explain why Rob can bonepick; he’s got the magic of gods in him.” Dawn circled around the front of the tilehoof, leaned her back on it, and crossed her arms.
“Don’t you go asking him about it,” she warned. “It be none of your business.”
“You could tell me.”
“Well he be not made of bath beads,” she said loudly. “The crystals be a defect of their childhood. It be an ailment Alast, not a blessing. Yugo went mad when one of those skewered his brain. Rob had to watch it happen, knowing it could happen to him too. Already he has a few poking him painfully… and they get worse all the time.”
“Isn’t there a way to dull them? A file?”
“You try filing something under your skin you dimmy,” she challenged. “Eventually those crystals are going to get him. You listening to me Alast? Rob can bonepick because he be dead already. His ailment counts him among the gravefolk. That be why he can do it.”
“Dead already?” Alast leaned up against the tilehoof himself. The animal grunted, irritated. One more crew member would probably tip it over. “How much time does he have left before he goes bony? Will he even? He’s not an evil man.”
“Sometimes it takes a lot less than evil to go bony,” Dawn said. She ran her leather hand across her white cheek and then tossed her beaded hair. “I’m testament to that. Besides, Rob worked very hard to ensure he would become gravefolk. It be why he be a pirate in the first place.”
“What do you think happens when you die Alast?”
“Nobody knows right?”
“What do you think?”
“The papists say decent sorts go live as spirits of light in the florent, at the side of the Spotless. The nasty sorts rot in pain in the Pipes below. Those who believe in the eight gods say your fate depends on what kind of mood they’re in when you go. I… don’t think any of that happens. I think when you die you stop being. I feel like I have a lot of being to do right now. It’s why I’m not sleeping. Sleeping isn’t being.”
“I think Rob be in agreement with you,” she said. “Only his concern be not being as much as he can, but being forever. Being gravefolk sort of gives you that opportunity.”
“What do you mean sort of? Bones don’t age. You get to live forever.”
“Are you trying to set a record for wrongness today?” she asked and smacked him on the shoulder. “Bones do age. The wind ages us. So does blowing sand and water. We get weathered away. When there are too many holes in your skull, you’re just gone. Not to mention somebody might just come along and smash you.”
“But there are ways to protect your skull,” Alast countered. “I’ve seen gravefolk all over who’ve dipped their heads in metal. The wind doesn’t cut iron.”
“Death comes for everyone eventually,” she said. “Being gravefolk be not the best life Alast. It be much easier, and mighty tempting sometimes, to go mad. You know you did something the world didn’t like, but it don’t come right out and say what it was.” Alast at least knew better than to ask what she thought she had done to deserve her eyeless lipless face. Instead he changed the subject.
“Does your reflection changing mean anything?” he asked. She looked at him with an implied furrowed brow.
“What are you on about?”
“I was looking at my reflection in the water there; it looked like it smiled at me. Does that mean anything?”
“It was probably just flirting with you,” she joked and jabbed him in the side with her elbow. He guessed that she didn’t believe him and decided to say nothing else about it. Perhaps it had been a trick of the light after all. Dawn strolled over to the trough and slapped the water to disturb its surface. “There. Now he won’t bother you at all.”
They stopped as little as possible on their way to the Stain Plain. The only blessing they had was the knowledge that Yugo’s gravefolk still required sleep, giving them opportunities to rest themselves. Rob reminded them that Yugo’s bonepicking was fine-tuned like Rob’s to sense the position and movement of the gravitation surrounding the cardinal tiles, so Yugo’s men would be impossible to throw off for long. The Stain Plain was a rinse away, so every bit of their effort had to be thrown into speed.
They changed animals at small towns twice, just to avoid having to rest and feed them. Cutting corners like that put them on the edge of the Stain Plan a day and a half ahead of even the fastest pursuers. As the ground transitioned from loose soil to wet stone, plants became sparser. What green remained was in the form of rubbery lake weeds that grew laterally in the thin skin of water on the ground rather than up. With no trees blocking their view, Third Toil loomed immensely: the greatest thing Alast had ever seen.
He couldn’t even call it a mountain, for he knew the Gross Truth. The boy could barely grasp that he was looking at a made thing, likely constructed by hands large enough to flick akers across Porce. Part of him still refused that something so colossal could just be a chamber pot. An entire ocean meant to be discarded on the regular? Preposterous. Yet there it was, walls of curved white stone as far as the eye could see. He’d read about the civilizations burrowed into that bedrock and how it took ages to make tunnels that could reach its seat. Up and up he looked as they rode closer to its overwhelming form.
Conk, conk, conk, conk, went the hooves of their animals when they were on the Stain Plain proper. It was tile against tile, the sound softened only by the light splashing. Though it hadn’t rained in days, the plain was covered in two bubbles of water. The stone underneath it almost seemed to flow as well, the land directing them down at the slightest angle toward the curved base of Third Toil. The others told Alast that the plain ended at the outer wall of Dhonshui: a bergfolk city carved from the toil itself. It wasn’t long before they were close enough to separate the structures of the city from the surrounding rock.
As high up as Alast could see there were faces the size of buildings carved into the cliffside. Every face was bergfolk, with thick hair flowing and swirling down their cheeks, big round noses like fungal caps, and ribbed ears. Most of them had open mouths, their stone teeth forming railings from which the residents could look out onto the tile lands or at the bottom of Third Stone Door. Between the faces stood towers with rounded hallways connecting them, forming a fence of impenetrable structures that followed the slight curve of the toil’s base. The red lightning of ekapads struck the towers constantly as messages were sent and delivered.
From where they stood at its bottom, now up to their knees in the water of the Stain Plain, Alast could see no obvious way inside. There were gates, but they were of solid stone and made from blocks so large that the boy didn’t believe they could be moved, not even by a hundred bonepickers.
“Gaaah!” Herc cried out when they applied the last of his medicine. His infection’s progress was slow, but it still burned through him. He was only awake for a short while each day, and his breathing was always a hiss when he was. They had to stop and dismount to give him a chance to rest. Teal wet a cloth in the groundwater and placed it on his forehead to soothe his raging fever.
“We need to get him inside the city and find an apothecary, preferably one who doesn’t live in a mud dwelling this time,” she said.
“It’s not as if we can knock on the front door,” Rob said, averting his eyes from the ailing musician.
“Why can’t we?” Alast asked. He knew it was the sort of question that got him scolded, but he wanted to help. Without Herc’s songs their journeys were far quieter. Their beleaguered minds had too much time to contemplate what chased them.
“We’ve engaged in piracy behind those faces more than once,” Rob said. “Several of us are wanted by their laws. We need some time to get in there quietly and find someone who will harbor us without flapping their lips.”
“We don’t have any time,” Teal said. “Herc is dying Rob. We’ll have to rely on the tile’s import surpassing their desire to arrest us. We must go now.” Rob looked down at Herc. He squatted down and held the man’s shoulder.
“Mr. Monickr, can you hold on a while longer? I need to find us a safe place inside. I’ll be back faster than a Melafresh ship can set its sails.”
“Aye Captain,” Herc whispered through cracked lips. “Miss Powdr’s taking good care of me.”
“That she is friend. Good man.” He patted Herc’s shoulder.
“You can’t ask him to do this,” Teal argued. “Of course he would say he’s fine. Without our loyalty to you we wouldn’t be in this situation.” Rob ignored her veiled insult and ordered Alast to come forward.
“Have you taken good care of what I gave you?” he asked. Alast didn’t immediately remember, but then he removed the Kilroy ring and handed it over.
“I never let it out of my sight Captain.” Rob took the ring back and stored it away.
“Thank you, but that’s not what I was referring to. Around your neck.” Alast looked down. That’s right; this thing is so light I never even noticed it. The boy took the black cord off and looked at the dangling piece of reflective glass. He saw himself in two of its faces. It was too small to tell, but he thought he saw his reflection wink. Rob took the pendant. “Good work.” He examined Alast like he was looking at him for the first time. “You seem lighter on your feet than Roary.”
“Hey!” Roary contested. “If he does it be only because his brain be lighter.”
“I don’t know why you would say that,” Alast said plainly. Roary turned away and muttered an apology. Sorry Roary, but I know what’s happening. Rob’s giving me some responsibility. I’ll be done with being cabin boy long before you were.
“As I was saying,” Rob went on, “you look light on your feet, and none of the faces of Dhonshui know yours. You will accompany me inside, discreetly, to find safe lodging while the others stay here and look after Herc.”
“Aye Captain,” Alast said. “How… How are we getting in there?”
“With this.” Rob held up the glass necklace. He looked at the groundwater and seemed unsatisfied. “Say goodbye and follow me this way.” The boy did as ordered. He spoke briefly with Herc, telling him that he was off to find him a nice bed. Herc tried to laugh, but coughed instead. “We’re on our way Alast,” Rob said to pull him away.
The Captain took a while finding a perfect spot. They were still on the plain, but now the two of them stood in front of the deepest puddle yet. Their undisturbed reflections stared back at them. Rob pulled his shirt away from his chest and examined his skin. Then he lifted the back and asked Alast if he saw any scratches. Alast told him he saw nothing, deciding not to mention the obvious shoulder crystal.
“I don’t understand what we’re doing Captain.” Yet…
“Check yourself for any open wounds Alast; it doesn’t matter how small. If you see one you must tell me.” Alast examined his arms and legs. “Show me your back.” Once he was satisfied all their scratches and scrapes were sufficiently scabbed over, he deigned to explain the plan. “I had you hold this when Yugo captured us because I was worried he might search me for it. It’s more valuable than anything we carry, with the exception of the tile. This is a piece of the Reflecting Path.”
Alast stared at it. He’d had it around his neck for days and hadn’t even known. Porce was practically a different world when the Reflecting Path was whole, before its shattering… at least that was what he’d read. He guessed the piece Rob carried still held some of that power.
“Are we going to walk the Reflecting Path?” he asked, both giddy and frightened.
“Aye. I need you to listen carefully. The path is very dangerous, so it is vital you obey all of the rules. Do you understand?”
“The first rule is that you must never enter the Reflecting Path if you are red with fresh blood. That is why you must check yourself before entering; it is also why I dare not take Herc through when he’s wetting his bandages every drop.”
“What will happen if you do?”
“Your reflection will steal the blood. They crave life, and even though they cannot have it they will still try to take it. That brings me to the second rule. Do not engage with your reflection. Do not speak to it; do not heed its signaling, but also keep one eye on it if you can.”
“Its signaling Captain?”
“Aye boy; it’ll likely wave its hands at you and try to lead you away from me. They’ve no life, which means no voice, so you won’t hear them.”
“What will this be like?”
“Use your context clues,” Rob growled. “It’s reflected. It’s a world of fuzzy light where everything is in the opposite direction you think it is. We can use my piece to travel between any reflective surfaces. We’re going to go through this nice puddle and find a mirror or something similar in Dhonshui, avoiding much of their security.”
“Wait… If we can do that, why haven’t we been doing it from the beginning? Yugo could never find us if we just hopped across all of Porce in mirrors!” Rob smacked the back of Alast’s head with a gloved hand, and then checked it for scratches.
“Don’t presume understanding. Cardinal Second is one of the vital elements of our world. If we took it into the Reflecting Path it would no longer be in our world. For as long as it was in there it would be the equivalent of it being destroyed here; I don’t have to tell you how dangerous that is. Besides, pushing that much gravitation through such a tiny portal between worlds… it could cause a cataclysm.”
“Has it happened before?”
“No… but I’m not the one stupid enough to try it.”
“Why did you pick just me to go with you Captain?”
“Because,” Rob said, fingers massaging his forehead. “Things can get confusing in there; small parties are more effective. It decreases the odds a reflection will be able to take a proper person’s place. Are you done with the questions? Can we go save the man whose brain is boiling in his own blood now? Do we have your permission?”
“I’m sorry Captain; you know I’m never out of questions.” Rob gritted his teeth. “But yes, I am ready,” he added quickly. Rob held the piece out over the reflection. Alast expected it to start glowing, or perhaps spin in circles, but nothing about it changed. Instead it was their reflections. The man and the boy in the puddle pointed at the piece and tapped each other on the shoulder excitedly. They looked madly giddy, like folk reveling in gold falling from the sky even as it pelted them. After they had a moment to calm down they stood up straight, turned to the side, and held one hand out, welcoming them down an invisible hallway.
Rob lifted his foot. His body rotated forward into the puddle and he was transferred inside it so smoothly that it did not even ripple. Now two captains looked up and beckoned the boy forth. Alast held his breath, and then let it go. The Captain didn’t hold his. It’s not underwater; it’s just the other side of the mirror. He leaned forward. When his face touched the surface there was nothing cool or wet about it; it felt more like claws that were too tiny to see gently scratched his skin. When he was through he adjusted his clothes a little, for the scratching had shifted their position on his body some.
Rob was right; it was very fuzzy. It looked just like the Stain Plain, but all of the details were washed out. Alast picked up a rock and brought it close to his face, but its image did not sharpen. It was lighter than a star feather. He pressed a finger into it and the stone squished under the pressure like custard; when he stopped it slowly swelled to its original shape.
“The Reflecting Path has very little substance,” the real Captain said, distinguishable from his double by the lack of a mad twinkle in his eyes. “Most of this is just light taken from our florent, never to be returned. That’s why I can do this.” Rob moved past Alast, reached down, and grabbed the side of the puddle they had passed through. He pulled up, stretching the ground like thin phlegm. Eventually the fuzzy reflected ground ripped, leaving Rob with the surface of a puddle to drag around. He wouldn’t do the dragging of course; he handed it to Alast. Again the boy’s mind expected moisture, but the puddle’s edge felt like a tangle of dry hair in his hand.
“What’s this for Captain?”
“Carry it. We’ll set it down next to whatever mirror we find, making the trip between the two just a few steps long. We’ll be able to grab Herc and the others and pull them straight through so they don’t have to linger. This way.” Rob marched toward the wall of Dhonshui and Alast followed, the puddle leaving drag marks in the world behind them. Their reflections followed as well, never straying from sight. Alast looked back to see if the reflections of Roary and the others were around, but the four of them were the only moving things in sight.
“Where are all the other reflections?”
“They mill about near mirrors and things, just waiting for their real inspirations,” Rob said. “They have a whole world here and they don’t use any of it. All they know how to do is look beyond at what they will never have. Pathetic really.” Rob looked around once they were close enough to the stone gates to see the locks and bars holding every crack on them closed; he turned to his reflection. “Where is the thinnest spot in that wall?” The mirrored Rob pointed to a seam in the whitish stone.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to engage with them,” Alast said.
“That rule is for you. I’ve done this on the regular. My reflection and I have an understanding. He’s a tolerable sort.” Alast looked at his other self; it perked up when he made eye contact. It pretended to swing an invisible sword, and then it ran the imaginary blade across its wrists. Its head bobbed up and down like there were no bones in its neck as its smile widened. It’s asking me to cut myself. Alast turned to ignore it, but it jumped in front of him and gestured more. It put its hands over its eyes. It pulled them away and looked around at the world with mouth agape. Then it mimicked climbing down a rope.
“What did I say Alast?” the Captain shouted.
“Sorry Captain.” The boy went back to diligently dragging the puddle. It remembers the rope bridge? I never saw my reflection on it. Perhaps it only remembers because it has the same scars on its wrists. Rob stopped in front of the blurry seam in the stone. He made a fist and punched through the first layer of it: tich! It seemed so much quieter than it should have been, but Alast realized he wasn’t hearing stone splitting so much as a hand splitting stone. Rob punched into it several times, widening the fissure until he could squeeze through.
Alast pushed his way in after him, both sides of the wall pressing back. He had to turn the puddle on its side to fit it through. For thirty drips they trudged in the rock; near the middle it was very dark. Alast felt like he was being cradled in a giant hairy hand, the way one would hold a baby ogtot so as not to hurt it. When they left the wall Alast looked back to see if their reflections had followed them through, but they had not.
“To them it’s as solid as real rock is to us,” Rob said when he noticed the boy’s glance. “Welcome to Dhonshui. This is probably the only time you won’t have to deal with its crowds.” Alast looked out at the city. Encased in Third Toil stone, the carved chamber was nonetheless expansive. Its curved ceilings were so high that birds could fly around in much the normal way. Another giant stone bergfolk face looked down at them from the top, its mouth open. An endless waterfall poured down its tongue and into a reservoir. Even though he hadn’t heard it yet, Alast knew the sound of that waterfall would be the defining sound of Dhonshui, the whispering of its anthem, the calming rhythm of its folk. In the other world the streets bustled just like those of Crosstahl, but here all was empty and quiet.
“They know Yugo is headed this way,” Rob said, breaking the silence. “Look.” He pointed to huge stockpiles around the wall they had just passed through. The gates were braced with bars of lumber thicker around than a tilehoof’s waist. Between them sat barrels and barrels of weaponry: pikes, swords, shields, and war hammers. Bundles of arrows wrapped in cloth were stacked in pyramid shapes.
“They plan to fight him Captain?”
“They have no choice,” Rob answered. “They will not harbor the man who seeks to destroy Porce. If Yugo were to take this city and Second along with it… there would be nothing to stop him from heading straight to the Riding Rail and claiming Cardinal First as well. I’m certain that with every square trophy his numbers would swell.”
“Are we going to help them fight?”
“Not if we can help it. If all goes well we’ll hide here with the tile until the bergfolk fend him off. Then when he is defeated we’ll have an easier time moving it.”
“Shouldn’t we help though? It’s our fault it’s here in the first place.”
“You need a remedial lesson in the chain of fault,” Rob said. “All this goes back to Yugo trying to take the tiles. Absolutely everything that happens is his fault. We’re not even second in the chain; that would be Dlak Garbr for extricating Second from its home in the first place. We’re third, and that might as well be hundredth.” Rob punched a hole in every door they passed and stuck his head in to check the building for suitability. Alast copied him so he could see what sort of lives the folk of Dhonshui lived.
He saw small homes with high ceilings, perfect for the stretched bergfolk. Their common trades became apparent after the first few workbenches: soapstone carving, green, blue, and yellow dye, and thick fibers made from mildewus trees that they fluffed into bedding and cushions. He noticed long bent fishing poles leaned up against walls, ornate carpet swatters, and drinking vessels that looked like bowls with spouts. He recalled seeing a few bergfolk in Crosstahl imbibe fruit juice through their nostrils, presumably to avoid making a mess of their furry chins.
“Captain?” Alast called when Rob was three doors ahead. “Why do the bergfolk drink through their noses?”
“They don’t have to. Those noses of theirs are so big because they’ve got an empty bone chamber behind them. They can store liquid in there and take little sips whenever they want. When it’s empty they can run air through it and sing in the strangest way; it’s like hearing the darkness of the previous night rush up behind you. No, not this one either. This place is too flushed with folk.”
“Why are there no bergfolk on the Mop’s crew Captain?”
“In their cultures thievery is a most serious crime, akin with murder. To be seen with us could get them shunned even from their own families.”
“And we’re planning on… staying here for a while?”
“Yes we are boy. Needless to say, don’t get yourself caught if you can avoid it. No, this will never do!” Alast ran up to the latest hole and stuck his head inside. In a dark corner he spotted a standing mirror. Five bergfolk reflections were clustered around it, all staring silently into it. One of them looked over its shoulder at the boy. He recoiled in panic, but it turned back to the mirror a moment later.
True to Rob’s word, the only time he saw any of them was near a reflective surface. Three were bent at the waist staring into a particularly shiny bronze platter hanging from a market stand. One was on its knees looking into a bucket full of water. Alast thought his being in the path was like being a ghost; he could see all the folk as they obsessed over their own image, their own standing, and judge them for it because he was busy exploring another world instead.
Their search took nearly two drops, but eventually Rob found a dwelling to his satisfaction. There were bars over the door and wegger webs in the corners. The Captain guessed it was an abandoned mint, something they confirmed when they ripped their way through the wall and found molds for coins and plenty of striking hammers. The reflected dust was nothing but slight discoloration, but Alast sensed that back in the real Porce it would unsettle easily and make for plenty of sneezing. There was no bed, but there was a fireplace. Rob ripped a reflected sheet away and found a polished bronze disk under it, just big enough and reflective enough to serve as a portal. The sheet had kept curious reflections away, and now it allowed them to assemble the gateway in peace.
“Lift it… That’s it, lift it up like that,” Rob instructed as he grabbed the opposite end of the puddle’s reflection and helped the boy put it right up against the bronze disk. “There. This way neither Herc’s injury nor the cardinal tile will be in the Reflecting Path long enough to cause any trouble.” He took one last look around. “Right then. Back to Porce.” Rob bent over and slipped into the bronze disk. He reached his hand back inside for Alast to take.
The real Dhonshui, even in that secluded dark space, nearly overwhelmed him. Where there was silence before, they now heard the bustling street just outside the boarded-up windows. It was the first time Alast had heard the tongue of the bergfolk, Merdidu, in any significant amount. The solidity of the air now felt strange to him, like he was submerged in a pool, like all the air he’d breathed in his entire life was compressed into the building. In his surprise he accidentally brushed up against a shelf; the dust was swift and aggressive. He held his hands over his mouth and shoved the sneeze back in.
“What now Captain?” Rob handed the boy the pendant.
“Go and get the others. Be quick.”
“Aye Captain.” Alast took the piece and stuck his head back through the bronze disk, and then through the surface of the puddle. He climbed back out onto the Stain Plain, like he’d never left. Well polish me. It used to be I couldn’t leave the mist. Now I can leave the world behind and reappear in any part of it. It’s all up for grabs now. The boy ran back to where they had left Herc and the others.
They were gone. There was barely a trace of them, just a few footprints here and there. Alast searched the ground in all directions, but found nothing. Unsure of what to do, he bolted back to the puddle. When he got there he was completely out of breath, but since the water didn’t ask him to hold his air he just jumped in… and tumbled out of the bronze disk onto the hard floor of the mint. Dust flew everywhere.
“Captain!” he coughed. “Captain!” He took a moment to clear his throat.
“Keep it down boy. What is it?”
“They’re gone! All of them!”
“What do you mean gone?”
“I mean there’s no sign of them. Not a bandage… not even tilehoof dung.”
“They must’ve been forced to flee,” Rob surmised. “A border patrol perhaps. Rummin raisins… This changes things. We’ll have to go look for them.”
“How do we do that?”
“First we need to check the ekapad news. If they’ve been captured it might be public knowledge already. Dhonshui writes up events fast; sometimes they do it before anything has even happened.”
“Won’t we get caught if we go out?”
“We would have to go out anyway to get food,” Rob said. “Lightfolk in Dhonshui are not necessarily suspicious. We just need to keep our heads covered and our noses in our own business.” He ordered the boy to search for something they could cover their heads with. The best he could find in the dusty dark mess was a roll of buffing cloth used to shine fresh coins. He took one of his paper cutters and cut two large circles out of it that they could tuck under the backs of their shirts to make hoods. The real challenge was in not sneezing as the cloth rained dust over their faces.
“I just need to stay quiet?” Alast asked as they prepared to leave.
“And stay close,” Rob added. “Dhonshui is not Crosstahl. You won’t be finding pretty girls and fried oysties around every corner.” Rob turned the knob of the main door and pushed. It didn’t budge.
“There are boards on the door Captain. Remember?”
“Yes.” Rob wrapped his gloved hand around the knob and braced his shoulder against the door. He bumped it with the tiniest bonepicking push. They creaked, but did not give. He tried again. On the third try the door flew open and tossed the boards and the nails that held it in place out onto the street, onto the feet of the bergfolk man standing in front of them.
The furry-faced giant stepped inside, forcing Rob and Alast to take a few steps back. He wore a blue and white uniform with puffy shoulders and legs. The sword at his side was nearly as long as Alast was tall. His five-sided hat looked like one of the bropato boats Alast used to fold and sail on puddles as a child. An ornate arrangement of facial hair, like a wreath, hung from his chin and cheeks and was decorated with a dozen tiny metal fish that were partially submerged in the stream of white and gray.
Once he was clear of the doorway, five more bergfolk in simpler uniforms marched in and stood against one of the walls. They lowered the heads of their pikes, pointing them at the two pirates. One of them sneezed and wiped bluish-green mucus on the roll of buffing cloth, which made him sneeze louder. The one in charge, for that was the only thing the fancy uniform could mean, cleared his throat. The sneezy soldier stood up straight and contorted his wide face into a myriad of horrid shapes to keep it quiet.
“Maintaat quyy faivaaalituk icicaat? Sontaaqay lyyt falsificataati?” the wreath-beard asked in Merdidu.
“Premièritaq, jetaak doiquat m’excusitaak,” Rob answered, “commqaaat leti garquuat esti mitak et ni peuutluk pastik utilitak lesti maanuk det Swimmr.”
“Fine. I will use Wide then. This mint is closed. Are you counterfeiters?”
“No, we most definitely are not counterfeiters,” Rob answered. “May I ask your name sir?”
“I am Inguin Glayshr. I am the commander of the cold rattlers, under the Royal Flush of Dhonshui: Quillig Larpr. I ask again, who are you?”
“Who we are really isn’t important,” Rob said with his hands out. “Just beggars looking to get out of the cold.”
“Those are awfully fine boots for a beggar,” Inguin noted.
“No, no, no…” Rob eyed his shoes. “I took these off a corpse… one I knew personally before he was a corpse, so there were no hard feelings.” Alast wondered if that was true or not. Before Inguin could inquire again, a bergfolk woman in uniform came in the door and handed him a small roll of paper. He unfurled it and read rapidly. His beady eyes darted back and forth between the paper and Rob. Then he stormed over, ripped the hood off of the pirate’s head, and tossed it aside. One of the soldiers did the same to Alast’s.
“You are Kilrobin Ordr… and you are a thief. It says here that you stole…” He pulled a foggy monocle out of his pocket and double-checked the writing. “Nearly a case of women’s nose powder.” Some of the soldiers snickered. “Tell me, what does Kilrobin Ordr need with a thousand bars of pretty powder? Did you want to look nice for us when you came back to face your sentence? If I had my way, it’d be drowning you in water just a bubble higher than you are, that way you can always be close to your next breath… until you aren’t.”
“That’s oddly cruel… and specific,” Rob said indignantly.
“My cousin owned that powder shop,” Inguin said coldly. They could hear his big blocky teeth grinding against each other.
“Well… You know what they say,” Rob laughed. “It’s a small bathroom. You can’t take a step without landing in someone else’s mess.”
“Take them into custody,” Inguin ordered. The soldiers started to move in, but Rob squawked to keep them back.
“Wait a moment!” he yelled. “How did you know we were in here?” Inguin strolled over to the bronze disk and flicked it. The metal rang.
“Did you really think that in a city of this size the Royal Flush wouldn’t have a piece or two of the Reflecting Path? We have guards posted in there keeping an eye out for sneaks and thieves like you. Speaking of pieces… search them.” The soldiers moved in and patted along their clothes. They squeezed their big fingers into every belt bag and pocket they had, tossing out tile-coins and charcoal pencils. They picked through Alast’s hair and Rob’s beard, making them feel like roasted birds stripped of all meat but the most hidden pockets of fat. Try as they did, they did not find the necklace. This seemed to shock Rob, who spared a moment to stare bug-eyed at Alast. The boy did his best not to look back.
“They don’t have one on them,” a soldier said.
“It could be disguised. Painted over. One of these buttons maybe,” another said.
“No,” a third countered, “it has to be one of those really small ones. A tenth the size of a tear no doubt. Folk sneak them under their fingernails.” He picked up one of Alast’s hands and examined his nails for any sparkling.
“All that’s too easy,” a fourth said. “One of them swallowed it.”
“Take them into custody!” Inguin ordered again, gruffly this time to quiet their speculation. “Watch to see if that piece comes out of them. Search their cavities if you have to, but do it somewhere less public.” The soldiers obeyed, placing shackles on both Rob and Alast. They walked them out of the mint and into the crowds in the street. Bergfolk ran to and fro, panic and fear in their movement. Many of them carried overstuffed bags on their backs or over their shoulders. Elders who should have been bedridden were being carried away on stretchers.
For once Alast didn’t have to ask. They were still near the outer wall, which would be under siege by Yugo shortly. Everyone was being moved further back in case his army managed to take part of the city. We did this. I did this because I wanted to guard the tile. It shouldn’t be in my hands. It needs bigger stronger hands. Is there no adventure to find that doesn’t carry all this responsibility? One of the soldiers poked him in the back to make him pick up the pace. He ended up walking alongside Inguin. The bergfolk examined the boy with a sideways glance, clearly finding him repugnant.
“Who are you anyway?” he asked. “We’ve no information on you, other than you don’t know Swimmr’s words.” Alast took that to mean he did not speak Merdidu. He knew he would eventually, but in his studies he hadn’t even gotten past the basic verbs in Pawtymouth.
“I’m only a cabin boy,” he said as innocently as he could. “I won’t make a very impressive prisoner.”
“Oh you won’t be a prisoner.”
“There’s a war on and we’re outnumbered. Congratulations cabin boy, you’ve been conscripted.”
A Beast Quests
Metal Block loomed on the horizon, towering over the tops of every tree in the Threewall Wild. The beast looked up and saw it, and at the same time saw an end to its suffering. The only question was whether or not the boy’s would end as well, for even if the creature was victorious it would drop dead moments later and be devoured by the bugs and mushrooms of Porce far faster than most things.
On the last part of its journey its eyes were drawn to a brown string in the sky. Porce gave it the extra strength it needed to leap from the wild and onto the string, which turned out to be a ladder of bropato ropes. Its musty smell filled the beast’s body and stayed there as the rope quaked back and forth from the leap. The beast was about to climb up, but the ladder was already moving. The pull did not come in waves, as it would if lightfolk pulled it. Instead it was steady, like a vine growing in reverse. The beast held on with one claw; the other was wrapped behind its back holding the square stone in place: its weight the final burden.
When the shade of the bropato sheet covered it and the rope ladder was pulled over the metal edge, the beast stepped off. Its claws sounded like hammers against the ground. Whatever pulled the rope was still further in; its length was steadily sucked into the darkness at the back of the cave. The beast followed it, the light of Porce fading as it went. When there was nothing but darkness it realized it would never see that light again. Only the boy could see it again, and it had to stop that from happening. If the boy saw the light Porce would be changed, its safety challenged.
The air became damp. The walls and ceiling were now entirely made of wrinkled sheets of bropato, but unlike the stiff sort harvested out on the edge this was still alive. It breathed and pulsed, its gentle slumbering movements creaking like giant trees. That was what the bropato was after all: a tree destroyed to make paper but turned back to life by the crafting of the world. Unlike other trees it did not seek the light. It grew because its soul was fed by the life of Porce, a life somewhat withered in the Age of Building. The bropato tree remained though, for it was protected by its great metal shell and its spiraling spirit would fight all those who sought to oust it. Neither fire nor ax could clear its growth from Metal Block permanently.
In some places it had flowers, but they were white as bone because they did not feed on the light. The beast could not see them in the darkness; it navigated only by the pull on its muscles drawing it and its stone toward the center. It knew enough to carefully fold its biggest claw once the ground became bropato as well, to avoid tearing.
In places there was no ground at all, just moving, sliding, growing sheets of the moist bropato like rolling hills. They moved quicker than the beast could by foot, so it let them carry it inward like driftwood drawn to the heart of a sea. Along the way it passed stalactite roots with colorless flowers the size of houses. It passed herds of smelly animals covered in mouths and eyes that fed on the growth. It passed the remains of a hundred explorers and warriors, their bones partially absorbed into the wood. Some of these remains were pulled up into the walls to make ghastly mosaics that reached out toward any passing by, begging to be rescued.
In some places the inside of Metal Block was so open an echo could never return, but in others it was so tight the beast could barely squeeze through. During those times it had to wriggle on its stomach, compressing its water-filled growth painfully. It had to drag the stone in its clawed feet and watch a thousand bugs crawl by at a faster pace.
When it opened up for the final time there was a structure, made by folk. Not all of its columns were intact, but the ones that were cracked or buckled had bropato wrapped around them, holding them in place. The shrine was surrounded by hundreds of metallic rocks of all sizes. Each was perfectly round, sculpted that way by generations of revolving around Cardinal Second, perfected by its even gravitation. The beast imagined what it would look like when the cardinal tile was returned, with all those stones floating around the shrine and spinning; it would be like a world unto itself.
Topping the shrine was a flaked dome of gold and copper. The beast could only see it sparkle because there was a crack above, a rift in Metal Block so significant that it let light from the florent shine down, just enough to reveal the shape of its surroundings. The beast took its first step onto the hallowed ground, where folk were no longer welcome.
The round stones rose into the air. There was no tile to lift them; it was simply the will of Porce. They clustered around the beast and circled it rapidly. It eyed them, wary, its big fleshy lips quivering in fear. It had reached the final point, what could possibly be left? What did the boy have to endure before they could meet? The stones spun faster and faster, almost screaming through the air. One of them shot off its rotation and smashed into the beast’s ankle. It yelped. It wanted to lash out and trap the stone under its claws, keep it still, but Porce had frozen its muscles. The beast wasn’t supposed to triumph over the stones; it was merely to endure them.
Another missile struck it and knocked out one of its fangs. It was struck in the head, the sides, the legs… All the stones closed in around it, pummeling the beast until it was a pile of bruises and bone chips. The stones came so close they smashed into each other like giant bells, their sounds invading the beast’s ears and rattling its collapsing mind. When they were done they quietly backed away and sat back in their rings in the dirt like nothing had happened.
Porce pulled the beast back together, rewarding it only with a realization. The creature looked down and saw its body was covered in dust: the remains of the square stone it had brought all that way. Every painful burdened step was for nothing. The rock was nothing but a necessary surrogate for the one the boy connected himself to. The beast flew into a rage, thrashing wildly and throwing the powder in all directions. It tried to howl and blow the dust away, but its breath was only ever inward.
It laid down on the bottom step of the shrine. Whatever was inside the structure did not matter, so it fixed its eyes on the path it had taken to get there. In time, the boy would step out of those shadows and into the trickling light, into the arena of his demise. The creature picked up one of the smaller stones, unfolded its saber-like claw, and began to sharpen it against the metallic surface. The boy would come, but not until he had undergone a trial of chaos and pain. Then he would think himself fit to place the tile back in its shrine.
The Red-Stained Plain
Inguin split Rob and Alast, sending the boy to the barracks of the cold rattlers and keeping the Captain for interrogation regarding Cardinal Second. Alast was first tossed into a tiny box of a room and given a uniform to change into. It was clearly modified from something made for bergfolk, as the sleeves and legs were cut short. The rest of it hung off him loosely, making him look vaguely like the white seeds of a puffball flower. They took his regular clothes away along with his weapons, but he was told they would be returned in time for battle.
When he was shoved into the barracks the door was locked behind him. The boy looked around. The building was small. The beds were small. The ceiling was low, by bergfolk standards anyway. The air smelled of damp fur and the floor was littered with moldy straw, some of it so ancient as to have white fur of its own. A dozen bergfolk watched his arrival. The ones who didn’t look completely defeated eyed him with contempt. They all had shackles of their own on their hands. A few practiced swinging hammers at a cloth dummy in the back. Inguin said he wouldn’t be a prisoner, but it certainly looked like prison.
“Vootiq unti desti volaat deti tuilequaat?” one of them asked him.
“I’m sorry… I don’t speak Merdidu,” the boy stammered. Several of them rolled their eyes and went back to whatever they were doing. Most of them sat on their beds, their slender hairy legs arched, reading from books nearly as moldy as the straw.
“Alast! You’re alive!” a voice called from the back. Dawn came out from behind the dummy, dropping her hammer. Her leathered body wore the same mangled uniform his did. He rushed over to her and saw the building branched into two more halls full of beds. He embraced her and saw the others over her shoulder: Roary, Teal, and Ladyfish. None of them managed to look healthy in the ill-fitting uniforms.
“Where is Herc?” he asked, trying to keep the cold dread from rising up his throat.
“He’s alright,” Teal answered. “He was in no condition to fight, so they’ve got him resting and being tended to by a medicine man. Finick and Oddball were deemed useless as well, so they’re by his side. Where is Rob? Has he gone?”
“Gone? What do you mean gone?” the boy asked. “Never mind. He’s not gone. They took him to answer questions about the tile. Speaking of which-”
“They took it,” Roary answered preemptively. “Soon as you two were gone they dropped on us from nowhere. Snatched us up and told us all we were to be soldiers.”
“They said the same to me, but this looks like a dungeon.”
“They didn’t tell you what the cold rattlers are, did they?” Dawn asked. He shook his head. “They’re criminals. This company be their punishment. We’re to be the first line of defense and throw ourselves in Yugo’s way.” Alast dropped onto the edge of the bed Roary sat on. The cold dread moved to his heart and tightened it. We’re being executed. No, it’s worse than that. They’re pretending we have a chance to get through this so it’s our own fault if we die. I’m going to be crushed by a prolith… five drips after I learn what they look like. Teal put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed to calm him.
“You’ve all been through tighter spots than this, right?” Alast examined their faces.
“Not really,” Dawn answered. “This be about as tight as it gets. We’re lucky to get out of this with a pinch of life left.” One of the bergfolk, a man, walked over and interrupted their reunion. He coughed to clear his throat, didn’t spit out the obvious wad of mucus rolling around on his tongue, and then, in lieu of speaking, bent down and offered something to Alast. The boy picked it up; the object was a tiny paper sculpture of an ogtot.
“Thank you?” Orbon had taught him how to make such sculptures. They could not function in the moisture of the mist, but they were great fun on the harvester’s kitchen table. Alast set the sculpture down on the bed and pressed his finger against the back of it. It squeezed out from under his nail and hopped a short distance. The bergfolk man clapped his hands and roared with laughter.
(Blaine’s Note: This part really struck me. I know what these things are! I mean, not exactly, an ogtot sounds like some kind of breakfast food infused with maple syrup that kids can microwave, but I’m pretty sure I know what this is. Judging from context clues I’d say an ogtot is a lot like a frog. When I was in high school I used to make little jumping origami frogs all the time.)
“Are you having fun mocking the boy?” Teal asked as she rose to confront the man. Even at her impressive height she was dwarfed by the bergfolk. Alast observed the man more closely; he had icy blue eyes, dangling pockmarked earlobes, and a mustache full of tiny misbehaving swirls. He pretended to look taken aback.
“I not mock,” he said in his gravelly voice and a thick accent. “I teach the boy. I train the boy.”
“You stay away from him,” Teal said, her conviction surprising Alast.
“I cannot,” he insisted. “The boy put under my command, for I speak Wide.” He looked around at his compatriots. “Any you lazy others speak Wide?” None answered. “Just I. Boy no speak Swimmr, boy in my command so he understand his leader. The rest of you under Liqui’s command. That Liqui over there.” He pointed to a bergfolk woman who barely waved in response.
“Splitting us is unwise,” Teal tried to complain.
“My name Whetsaw Plawkippr,” he said, “and I in command of the boy.” He grabbed Alast’s forearm and pulled him to his feet. Teal and the others looked ready to pounce on the bergfolk, but Alast calmed them down.
“I’m alright. I will do my best to serve, Mr. Plawkippr.”
“Aha! That a good boy! Strong in spirit! I like!” Whetsaw clasped his hands on Alast’s shoulders and shook him in a friendly way that only felt mildly damaging. “I show you more training. Come with me.” He walked off down the hall, beckoning Alast to follow. He assured the others he was fine and then did as he was told. Whetsaw took him down a cramped set of stairs and into an open room below the street. Stone grates overhead let in light, occasionally obscured by a passing set of feet.
A giant roll of topa, the thickest Alast had ever seen, was set on an equally large rotating spool in the back of the room. Other chained bergfolk cut pieces from it with lengthy shears and worked with them on the floor. The topa was cut, lacquered, punched, tied, and painted. They were building much larger versions of the jumping paper toy Whetsaw had given him, big enough for eight bergfolk to ride. Leather straps and wooden handles were punched through their flat tops, indicating folk were indeed supposed to ride them.
“What is all this?” Alast asked.
“We take topa. We fold. This our way out.”
“Our way out of what?”
“Of life! Aha! We ride these ogtot into battle. You see the back part? The part you press on little one to make jump?”
“We hit that with hammer and then it jump into battle! Two of us get off to fight, one of them hit it again with hammer, it jump further in. Two more get off. We break up enemies.”
“But that’s suicide,” Alast said with a gulp. He remembered the deafening sound of Yugo’s forces moving across Flatsprung and the rain of arrows produced by just one of his towers.
“No no,” Whetsaw said, “it murder! Easy way get rid of trash. Put trash on ogtot and make jump away.” Alast moved over to one of the finished ogtots and examined it more closely. Two curved pieces of metal were punched in on the sides of its head and fitted with cloudy light-green glass eyes. A metal tongue like a spear was mounted at the tip. Whetsaw stood behind him. “You need practice before battle. Holding on for jump very hard. Your tiny arms may not take.”
“What did you do to get put in the cold rattlers?” Alast asked. There would be plenty of time to worry about what parts of his body would fail him in which way when he was being murdered on the battlefield. “Are you a thief? That’s what I am… pirate in the strictest sense.”
“I took something,” Whetsaw admitted pensively. The other bergfolk spared a moment to glare at him. “Back to work pants-wetters,” he barked.
“What did you take?”
“How do you take that?”
“Ordered to work, did not work, said I worked. Stole time.”
“That doesn’t sound like a crime to me, certainly not one worthy of death.” Whetsaw nodded.
“When you think… it strange. It like they take my time now. More than I took. Big more.”
“I guess the only way to get justice is for you to survive. That stops them from stealing your time,” Alast noted. Whetsaw’s expression brightened.
“I like that! Good thought boy. What your name?”
“No, the name is pending. My family doesn’t have one yet.”
“Okay. I not judge. Here, get on ogtot.” Whetsaw grabbed Alast by the seat of his pants and lifted him onto the back of the folducted vehicle without waiting for him to be ready. Alast adjusted as quickly as he could. The topa was flexible, but not so much that he felt like he would fall through. He crouched down, grabbed two handles, and then threaded his legs through two loops of rope. “That good.” Whetsaw picked up one of the hammers lying around. He heaved it over his head. “Hold on!” He brought its head down and smashed the flat back of the vehicle, compressing it for a moment. The entire thing shot up and forward, bouncing so fast that Alast felt his neck snap back. It jumped straight into the wall, bounced off it, and fell harmlessly to the ground. Alast rolled away.
“I don’t think there’s enough room in here,” he said as he got back to his feet and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Bah, they no give us enough,” Whetsaw complained. “Now you know how we fight. Come. Back to your friends. You allowed to talk. I say it okay.” Alast followed the bergfolk man back up to the barracks. He patted the boy on the head like a small furry animal and excused himself. Alast went back to where the others had been sitting. They were there, all standing around Captain Rob. It seemed the interrogation was over. Alast was thankful he did not look injured. After seeing Yugo go out of his way to humiliate Rob, Alast didn’t want to watch any of his new family be put through such things again. He tried not to think about how he might simply see them die soon instead.
“Captain,” he said to draw the man’s attention.
“Alast!” Rob rushed over and pulled him aside, blocking his view of everything past the Captain’s shoulders. “Where is my pendant?”
“Don’t you remember Captain? You left it in the bathroom.”
“Now is not the time for ribaldry. Where is it?” he seethed.
“After they caught us I thought they would take it, so I tossed it back into the Reflecting Path. It should be just through the bronze… or maybe in the puddle out on the plain.” The Captain did not blink. Alast tensed. He felt like he was about to be struck.
“Hmm… not the best thinking boy, but it was thinking. I can work with that. Better than them taking it…”
“What did they do with the tile Captain?” Alast asked as he let his shoulders drop.
“They weren’t forthcoming with that information. I was the one being questioned. They do want to protect it, so there are only so many places in Dhonshui they would take it. I have a few ideas…”
“I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone’s telling me we’re going to die,” Alast said with some bite. It was the first time he’d taken such a tone with the Captain. “I didn’t go through all that climbing and learning and running just to be thrown out like trash. Is that my surname Captain? Trashr?”
“Don’t lose hope Alast. You volunteered for this mission. Have the same confidence you had in yourself then. If you had let fear run you, you never would’ve made it out of the mist. You would already be dead. You’re living on time you’ve stolen from Porce.” The boy couldn’t help but be reminded of Whetsaw’s sentence. Maybe real adventure is fighting for it. A real life is one that fights for its right to be.
“Good. Get some sleep while you have the chance. I don’t think we’ll have another night before Yugo is on the plain.”
We have been diverted to Dhonshui, at the foot of Third Toil. The tile is hopefully safe in the confines of the city, but we are not safe. We have been taken prisoner and will be forced to serve as soldiers against Yugo’s forces when he arrives in less than a day. We will be the first into the battle.
I doubt my return. I’m frightened. I’m sorry to burden you with this, but the others here have their own fear to contend with. You are the only person I know who is solidly alive, stoically safe. I’m glad for that. I promised you a life of adventure without even understanding what it meant. You did understand. You said the world just didn’t work that way and now that I’ve hit this tangled knot in my life I know you were right.
It does not bring me comfort, but there is something I am certain of. If I should survive, I will not stop living this way. It is my nature to thrust myself into the unfamiliar and make it familiar. I will have to do the same with battle and bloodshed. The fear is just part of life in the open. It is its own Gross Truth. We are supposed to be scared, because we have so much to lose.
If I do not lose it I will return and be overjoyed to see your face again. I hope the Mop is teaching you as much as it taught me.
The tremor in Alast’s hands, the gift from the rope bridge, still prevented his handwriting from looking older than two rests, so he asked Roary to write the letter for him. The words were his own though; Roary made no snide remarks thanks to the gravitation of the situation.
The cold rattlers at the lowest ranks were not permitted to send mail on the backs of the city’s ekapads, but Whetsaw as an officer had such privileges. Alast was able to convince him to send the letter, an argument he did not have to continue past the word girl.
Their last meal before mustering was a thin porridge served with cups of chipped ice instead of water. The bergfolk had no problem chewing it with their blocky teeth, but Alast was forced to suck on them one by one to alleviate the dryness in his throat. The porridge sat in his stomach like tar.
When they were called to muster Alast was ordered to go with Whetsaw’s men, who would position themselves far from Liqui’s company, which held his companions. As everyone rushed back and forth forcing their boots on and donning their helms, Teal pulled Alast aside. She locked her eyes onto his until he felt as if he could not look away.
“Is the Captain with Whetsaw or with you?” the boy asked. If I can get behind Captain Rob he’ll protect me. He could fight the land itself. I’ve already seen him do it.
“Rob is gone,” she said.
“What!? Where has he gone?”
“He bribed a guard last night. He took up a pebble and bonepicked, convincing the man the pebble was a bath bead that allowed him to do so. He will be trying to protect the tile.”
“But… I don’t… He didn’t even say goodbye. We might die and he didn’t say goodbye?” Alast felt on the verge of tears. His breath quickened and the tar in his stomach bubbled. He’d hoped to at least die with some earned respect in his bosom.
“Rob doesn’t believe in goodbyes Alast. A goodbye means someone failed. He is not on speaking terms with death.”
“I thought he could… I might be able to… never mind.” Stupid. Of course Rob won’t protect you. He has worldly concerns. You’re just a stupid cabin boy; you’re supposed to protect yourself or get out of the way.
“I will do what I can for you,” Teal promised. She held the sides of Alast’s face the way a mother would her child. “We will be far apart at the start of it, but I will try to make my way to you and keep you safe. You’re part of the crew, and none of us have forgotten.” His tears finally fell. The tragedy in his heart, of having someone care for him enough to risk everything but not be able to outright save him, nearly broke him. Only Teal’s iron stare kept him on his feet.
“Thank you Teal. What… what do I do? Tell me what to do,” he sobbed.
“Try to be the first one off the ogtot. The sooner you get off the closer you will be to the city and to shelter.” He nodded. “The real army of Dhonshui will be firing cannons and arrows with small bags of blasting powder from the safety of the city walls. It is the best way to break up proliths and gravefolk who cannot bleed. Try to stay behind the blasts.” He nodded again. “You know what to do if you see any of us.” A third nod. “You can do this Alast. Be strong.” Teal hugged him and he hugged her back. They were pulled apart by the angry shouting of their superiors. Alast fell in line with Whetsaw’s other men. Before they marched out of the barracks Whetsaw appeared beside him and handed him his Dagyvr saber and his paper cutters.
“Wish I have fancy weapons,” he said as the boy tucked the knives into the waist of the loose uniform. Alast figured it couldn’t hurt to have another friend on the battlefield, so he handed one of the knives back.
“May we never steal from each other,” he said. Whetsaw smiled at him sadly.
“I put you on back of ogtot Alast. It close to city. I no put you on first hammer; you not strong enough.” Alast nodded. Whetsaw moved to the front and ordered them to march. The high knees of the bergfolk behind him kept bumping his back and forcing him to speed up. He was bruised before they even reached the gates.
They were taken to the very edge of the toil and left standing in near darkness. Alast could feel a cool breeze leaking through the sides of the stone gate in front of him. He stood perfectly still and took in the sounds of what might’ve been his last calm moment. The ceiling dripped. The ogtots were dragged to the front of each company. Men and women mumbled prayers in Merdidu, prayers that begged Swimmr to disguise their position the way a fish always looked a little deeper than it was from the surface.
Alast had no god he could beg for inaccurate arrows or weak sword slashes, only the knowledge that he would die the way countless had before, ground into the floor of this bathroom. He was waste, always destined to be discarded and decomposed. Perhaps the next form his substance took was the one that would matter. In moving from the mist to the Stain Plain, shedding nervous sweat all the way, he’d succeeded only in distributing strange new sediment to that part of the world. He was just part of the swirling mixing sand.
No. The Gross Truth is the Gross Truth, but it’s not purpose. Purpose is mine. I’m the god of the very concept. It bends to my will the way I must eventually bend to death… but until that moment I am capable. I bested the rope. I’ve bested haunds, akers, and gravefolk alike. Now they’ve come for my tile. They’ve chosen a purpose of fear, ignorance, and hideous violence. There will be no happy ending at their Glory Hole, for my purpose is honest and strong.
Massive cranks turned. A crack appeared in front of Alast; daylight poured in. The crack grew upward as the great outer stone was lifted by unseen mechanisms that must have taken hundreds of tilehooves to pull. There was a second gate of slatted wood behind the stone. Alast broke formation, others did so as well, and ran up to it; he hooked his fingers through the holes and pressed his eye up against the wood so he could see out onto the Stain Plain.
The hordes of Yugo were upon them. Once the stone stopped rising he heard the sound of their progress, a colossal crawling bug of thousands of spiny legs and armored joints. Towers creeping through the shallow water and bringing a civilization of parasitism. The army would take Dhonshui like a scrawn swapping shells, leaving behind its folded machines in order to take up the impenetrable shining white stone. I won’t let them. The tile doesn’t belong to that pile of purple bones. It doesn’t belong to a pile of green bones either. It is mine until it is returned.
He pulled back when the wood gate rose; now there was nothing between them but distance. He took one step past the gate, and plunged his foot into a puddle. He squinted. There was something unusual among the lines of lightfolk, gravefolk, and tilefolk. Great lumps of stone swaying back and forth as they moved. Proliths. Finally. It took them this long to catch up to me. From that distance it was not easy to tell much else about them, but there was a certain satisfaction to finally meeting them.
Alast recalled everything he could about the creatures. The prolith was just a stone body built from the ground, harboring a prosite inside. That was what he needed to see next. He needed to crack one open like a bustnut to see its slimy squirming center. Prosites were supposed to be as intelligent as any folk, but they dried out under direct florentshine. They generally preferred living in caves or in the very stuff of the walls, but Yugo had convinced a large number of them that they could fit in the Glory Hole, alongside the folk with proper arms, legs, and skin.
“Get back,” Whetsaw called to him. Alast looked over his shoulder and saw he was the last one near the gate; all the others had returned to the ogtots and begun mounting them. He ran back to Whetsaw, who picked him up again and put him on the last row of one of the folducted jumping vehicles. He patted the boy on the head and then went to his ogtot. Alast was now alone, with only anonymous criminals on the back of his war beast with him. None of them even spoke Wide Porcian. Two more bergfolk stood behind each ogtot, giant hammers in their hands.
“Nouuitak sautoniquat quanti latiq cornaak souff cinquay,” Whetsaw shouted to all those under his command.
“Letak rukmentaaq deti motiqay! Nousaat crionit ausitak!” many of them shouted in response. Alast slotted his feet into place and wrapped his arms around the rope, thinking that any moment he would be launched forward into the battle. It was not time yet however. Yugo had something to say. Alast knew not how, whether it was from the magic of a bath bead or a well-engineered funnel, but Yugo’s voice flooded the base of Third Toil. It was everywhere, but Alast couldn’t spot the speck of purple amidst his soldiers. His voice echoed under the low ceiling and thick rock, like the confident encouragement of a predator coaxing the scrawn out of its shell. He sounded like he was ready to suck them out with one gulp, whether they put up a fight or not.
“Dhonshui! I feel Cardinal Second behind your walls!” the purple papist declared to the entire army. A woman by his side, who spoke Merdidu, translated everything he said.
“Dhonshui! Jetaak seniruk lati Secondaat Caruktti derrituq vosti mursaat!”
“You must turn it over to us, so we can take it to its new home. The tile will be so grateful! If only you could see the radiance the Spotless has planned as I see it in my crystal mind!”
“Vutiq devitaak nousti leti retourakquay, doncet noustik pouvitaat leti prendrett sariquat nouvellitik maisoret. Latik tuilequaat serasil reconnait! Sitak seulequay vorak pourr voirit leti brilitar leti souran tachet planfiéti commetaak jelet voisitaa dansit monquaat espritar enqui critiquay!”
“If only you would open your eyes and read the Papers as they are truly written, but your spirits are grossly illiterate!”
“Siquaat selementi voustiq ouvriqua vostaak yeet liriquat lesti Paraquati commetaat ilssonti vraimitik écrit, maisitaak voquitr hitaam sontik grostiment anaquaytik!”
“I know any offer of friendship would be rejected, so I am forced to bring the righteous with me! Shame on you for forcing this violence!” Yugo’s army roared its approval.
“Jetik saiiquars quuk quiimportik quittk offrak juusitak sorquit rejetiqua, doncit jeti sutik foquat appor leti vertu aquay motik! Latik hoquaar surit voti puquit foquat hoti rukquarr!”
“So there is only one thing left to say. Go on, my righteous. Show the folk of Dhonshui what awaits them. Show them in a way their heathen eyes can decipher!”
“Ainiquaat illit yatiq seullijet unet quar quittil podit dirritak. Contiquat, montik vertu. Moquay alita gedit dequa Dhonshui cequit lesti attiikar. Moquay danunet faquitaat quuti leuret yotijj deti paitiik petiqua déchit!”
When Yugo went quiet Alast strained his ears to hear what was happening. It was too far to discern, but a few hundred archers in the masses under the purple flag were carefully arranging themselves in formation. One commander gave them signals with various flags so they could all draw their bows back at the same time. The flag was waved down. A huge number of arrows soared into the sky, but they were not spread out as the first volley of war would be. Instead they were clustered tightly together for a purpose that was not revealed until they finished their arc and descended. It all came together when they were near the ground, all the shafts of wood forming a word in the sky before they splashed into the puddles of the plain.
They drew back and fired again.
Terrified whispers flew between the ogtots. The fear tremors in the knees of the cold rattlers shook their paper mounts. Alast wished he had a way to punish them for wasting so many arrows on a bit of theater. That seemed to be a common element in Yugo’s strategy; he needed to show the world what he could do, as opposed to simply doing it. Yugo’s voice came once more, and only once more.
“Aquaati!” The ground shook as the proliths stomped forward, leading the charge. Even at twice Alast’s height, some of the rock monstrosities splashed up to their knees in the puddles of the plain. Behind them came an endless swarm of gravefolk, some of their metal-capped heads glinting in the florent’s light before clouds overtook the plain. The siege towers rolled forward. Tilefolk took up what mud was on the ground and wiped it across their collarbones as war paint.
Above the cold rattlers the giant stone mouths of Dhonshui’s outer wall opened wide. The barrels of cannons big enough to fire men emerged like tongues capable of only the harshest speech. Bergfolk archers, crouched behind the teeth of the edifices, lit the fuses of their arrows. Each arrow had a bag of blasting powder tied around it, powerful enough to blast apart even skulls covered in metal.
“Taquuet!” Thoom! went the cannons. Their shot was joined by a hail of arrows that pierced the low clouds and reemerged among Yugo’s hordes. Krak! went each arrow as it burst into splinters, sometimes taking chunks of bone with it. The number turned to dust was small, for much of the hail was blocked by the proliths, for whom the arrows merely chipped their edges. One of the towers, there were too many for Alast to count as they trailed off in the distance, split down the middle as it took two cannon shots. Bones and bodies poured out of it like guts.
Alast looked back. Surely they wouldn’t send even prisoners into that chaos, but the armored bergfolk behind his ogtot were hefting their hammers. A war horn far above them blew five times. He pulled his head as close to his shoulders as he could and held onto the ropes for dear life. The hammers swung. Chwuff! The ogtot launched forward and up, as if from a catapult. Alast barely clung. The rushing air tore tears from his eyes, but not enough to obscure his vision completely. He turned to the side and saw ten more ogtots at roughly the same point in their jumps. He saw their noses tilt to the ground slightly.
Those at the front of the folducted craft bent its nose to force it to land upright. The ground rushed toward them. An arrow ripped through the ogtot from below, its head just two bubbles from Alast’s. The paper struck the plain, splashing water in all directions. Alast needed to let go. He needed to do his part or everyone aboard his ogtot would be even likelier to perish. He released the ropes and slid off the side. One other bergfolk came with him.
He heard the cracking bones and joints all around him, but he had one duty first. He found a hammer on the back of the ogtot, the same as his companion, and took it. They nodded to each other and coordinated their swings, striking the back of the ogtot at the same time and sending it flying once again. With each jump two more would depart and send it further in.
Alast didn’t have to drop his hammer, because it was taken from him. A tilefolk ripped it from his hands and tried to swing it at him. The boy drew his saber and one of his paper cutters. There was to be no more talking his way out of things and no more Captain Rob to intervene. Alast slashed at his opponent’s hand, cutting across the top of the wrist and forcing him to drop the hammer.
There was no time to focus on just one of them. A gravefolk wrapped in rotten gray cloth from head to foot waved a mace in his direction. The boy ducked under it and shuffled backward. The endless blasts from the mouths of Dhonshui continued, creating a wall of fire and death he dared not move toward. The other direction held the city, but there were now countless foes between him and the gates, and the line of proliths on top of that. Still, he had a destination.
He’d already lost the bergfolk who had dismounted with him somewhere in the battle, so his isolation was complete. Alast knew there was no point to winning any of the fights, just winning them enough to move away. He sprinted for the gates. Since he moved in the same direction as Yugo’s charge, he was at first successful in catching his enemies unaware. There was not much his saber could do against gravefolk, so when he found himself two steps behind one he jammed the edge of his paper cutter under the base of their skull and smacked down on the handle, popping their head off. The body collapsed to the ground and he leapt over it.
A man of his own folk caught him in the act a second time and grabbed him by the scruff of the uniform. He tried plunging his sword into Alast’s gut, but the boy used the paper cutter to sever the scruff and roll away. The man was swept back into the charge. Alast found himself hunched down in a puddle, his shoulders barely out of the water. Another lightfolk man collapsed into the water with him, his eyes blank and his forehead torn open. Blood poured into the puddle, dying Alast’s uniform red.
He wanted to stay there. He could float there and play dead, but that wouldn’t stop the charging hordes from trampling his body. He had to keep moving forward, and he couldn’t afford to get caught any more. The explosions were now distant enough that the army was paying attention to other things.
His uniform offered no protection, so Alast tore the shirt from his back along the line he had already cut. He took big handfuls of gray mud from the bottom of the puddle and rubbed them all over his face and back in the hopes it would help him blend in more; he was just another unfortunate wretch fooled into serving Yugo. Once out of the puddle he ran, keeping his shoulders as low to the ground as possible. He saw gravefolk, their legs blasted off, crawling to the city. One of them grabbed his ankle and launched herself onto his back with bonepicking. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
“That’s it lad, run! Onward to glory!” she screeched, unaware he was not part of their force. He couldn’t believe his luck; she was only using him as a mount. Alast said nothing in response and kept running. With her on his back he was even better camouflaged. He looked down at one of the skeletal arms around his chest and saw a scrimshaw quote from the Toil Papers along her arm: Privacy exists not, the Spotless sees o’er e’ery divider, Square of Good Times 4:12. It was no wonder they were so determined. Even aboard the crowded Mop Alast felt there were places he could hide. The Spotless wasn’t as kind as the Gross Truth.
One of the siege towers rumbled alongside him, somehow moving as fast as he could run. Alast guessed there were bonepickers inside using their abilities to turn the wheels. He jumped up onto the side of the craft and held on to catch his breath.
“I missed some of the plan,” he shouted over the din to the gravefolk woman on his shoulders. “What’s next exactly?”
“Lucky you, I always pay close attention. Close as lovers,” she cackled and stroked his chin with a bony finger. Even out of breath the boy managed to shudder. “We go through there.” She pointed to the open gates the ogtots had leapt from.
“But they’ll just close them again!”
“The towers got cannons inside! We’ll blast our way through. It’s all just a distraction anyway!”
“Distraction from what?”
“Mr. Legendr and his knuckles are getting closer. When they’re close enough the catapults will launch them into one of those mouths! Then they go get the tile!” She cackled again. Fwik! An arrow with a lit fuse stuck between her eyes. She squealed and grabbed it, but could not extricate it from the bone fast enough. “I’ll see you in the florent!” she declared as she released her grip on Alast to protect the boy. Her body dropped to the ground and exploded a moment later, shards of her smoking and falling in all directions. That didn’t have to happen. She seemed nice enough. Why is this happening? Is it all over confusion? They’re dying for nothing and they don’t even know it.
The tower pushed past the slower soldiers and quickly caught up with a few of the proliths. Their footsteps were extremely loud, their bodies heavier than a stack of wagons. When he was finally able to examine them closely he saw swirls in the stone and dirt of their bodies, the patterns left by their formation. There was no head other than a twisted bulge, and no visible eyes or mouths for that matter; they were just suits of armor. Where would I strike if I needed to kill? Does the prosite rest above the shoulders, in the breast, or in the cradle of the hips? It might be craftiest of them to hide in a random foot. The boy looked forward. The stone gates were closing, cutting him off from his return to Dhonshui. If he wanted to get back in he would have to help them breach the toil’s defenses, which he could not bring himself to do. He decided the only course of action was to infiltrate the tower he clung to and perhaps sabotage it.
His paper cutters were not strong enough to get through the layered bropato twisted around the tower, so he used his saber to stab it; a sawing motion helped to widen the cut so he could stick a few fingers through and peer inside. The interior was dimly lit by a single lamp full of orange coals. A dozen skeletons bound in wheels spun them around, confirming his theory. He widened the cut more and started sliding his body inside.
The boy did not go unnoticed. A tilefolk appeared from the side and grabbed him by the neck. The soldier was strong; Alast already felt his vision going black as their gnarled fingers squeezed his windpipe.
“You’re not getting in here!” they screamed. Alast was pushed back out and dangled over the battlefield. “You!” they yelled to the proliths. Two looked toward the tower. “This one’s with Dhonshui! Kill him!” With that they tossed the boy off the edge of the tower and back to the ground. Alast barely landed on his feet. He looked up in time to see a swirled hammer of stone blocking the florent, swinging toward him. Alast dodged to the side. The hammer-hand struck a puddle and drenched them both.
Alast held up his weapons, but they seemed like blades of grass compared to the prolith’s limbs of rock. It made no sound, no roar or growl, as it lumbered his way. He turned and ran, taking the army at an angle in the hopes he could vanish in the crowd. The prolith dealt with his strategy by shoving everything and everyone else out of its way. Where is Teal? Where is anyone? How have I not found them yet? My chest burns. I can’t keep this up. I can’t…
Another branch of stone caught his stomach and tossed him into the air. Alast tried to orient himself upward, but he spun too quickly. Wherever he landed, it needed to be soft. The boy collided with another lightfolk and knocked them to the ground. Before they could see him and react Alast was up and running yet again. There was a tiny rock in his shoe, perhaps a stowaway from one of the prolith’s strikes, which jabbed at the sole of his right foot painfully.
Before he knew it he was out of room to run; they had reached the gate. A new barrage of explosions began as hidden cannons emerged from flaps in the towers and started blasting their way into the white rock. Huge slabs of it fell everywhere, even crushing some of those who didn’t pay close enough attention.
Alast put his hands up against the wall, nearly dropping his weapons. Of course it isn’t open. Of course there’s no way out. This is a thief’s death, just as planned. It won’t be this thief’s death. They won’t find my bones clambering up the wall waiting for rescue. They’ll find them locked in combat with the proliths that started it all.
He put his back to the toil and took in what he faced: an endless scrambling horde of soldiers determined to make Porce a paradise or die trying. The folk had mostly backed up behind the towers to avoid being crushed by debris, but the proliths were not bothered by their equivalent of a light drizzle. Could he take any of them? No… but he was going to try. He searched them for the best opponent.
They came in a wide variety of colors, textures, and shapes. From his new life of travel he was able to guess where a few of them had constructed their armor: the dusty gray one had likely chosen the Tributaroads, the deep brown one with roots and crumbling shoulders might have picked the edge of the Threewall Wild, and there was a reddish one with very man-made lines in it that suggested the brick wall of a building had been its source. There was one that caught his eye, a little shorter than the others, its body split in places thanks to the rigid material it was made of.
It didn’t notice him immediately as its swirled head angled up the the city walls. He took a step closer and wiped the dust and mud from around his eyes. The skin of the prolith was familiar, more so than any place he’d been since the Mop. Its surface had a metallic luster and there was moist moldy bropato mixed in. He caught a whiff of that distinct stench, and it took him back to a memory. Orbon and Birdie. The bridge uncoiling off the edge of Metal Block.
The prolith had been there. It was one of the ones that had stormed the mist in search of Cardinal Second. It might have killed some of the folk he knew. It might have killed his father. He was sure of one thing; it had been right where he had been before lowering himself onto the rope. Only the cave below the sheet smelled and looked like that. It was built from the last ground he touched before his new life began. It dared to show up here, to threaten him with a return to that cloying ignorance right before he died.
I won’t have it, he thought. It will die before I do. I’ve beaten it once and I can do it again. Alast gripped his weapons tighter to keep his fingers from trembling. He approached the distracted thing cautiously, his plan of attack still a blank spot in his mind. If only I could bonepick; I could hurl some of these stones fast enough to break it. What I wouldn’t give to have Rob’s crystal ailment for just one day.
The ground of Metal Block was rigid, so the armor of the prolith had chinks. It opened at the elbow and the knee to allow free movement. Alast decided halfway through his first swing that the knee would be his target. The saber did its job admirably, separating a chunk from the joint, but the boy was too weak to cut all the way through. The prolith finally looked down. It kicked him onto his back, cracking one of his ribs and sending webs of pain throughout his body that blocked his breath and pulled on his skin.
The creature charged, its damaged leg dropping flakes with every heavy step. Alast was quickly running out of room when the wall of Dhonshui exploded behind him. A fissure was opened up into the near blackness of the ogtot chamber. It was still small, too small for men and proliths, but Alast could fit. He turned and scrambled to it, the sound of the stomping thing behind him getting ever louder. He leapt through the crack.
The chamber was empty; the other bergfolk, who were counted among Dhonshui’s real soldiers, must have built their lines further back. The boy was alone with the cataclysmic sounds of the cannonballs just outside. Dust and rock fell from the ceiling constantly, threatening a collapse. On top of all that, the prolith didn’t want him escaping. It stuck its arm through the crack and waved it around. Alast got to his feet and slowly backed away. He had time. He had time to perhaps make it back to the barracks if there weren’t more barricades. If he could just-
Krik! Kerrack! The prolith’s body shifted. Parts of it cracked. It became longer and thinner; held together by invisible strings it tumbled forward through the opening like a rock slide. Whatever it does to make its body… it’s doing it in reverse! It’s going to come through and then put itself back together. For the briefest moment Alast caught a glimpse of something bluish and transparent, something fluid. It was gone in a flash, covered by layers of rock. That was the prosite. Where did it go? It’s in the stomach; I’m sure of it.
The creature was nearly back to its original height when Alast charged and tried to embed his saber in its stone gut. The blade chipped a little off, but could not penetrate. The incomplete arm of the prolith pelted him like a whip covered in arrowheads. The saber was knocked from his hand and kicked aside. Alast tried to dive for it, but it kicked him again. A massive bruise bloomed on his shoulder. All he had left were his knives literally made of paper, which he didn’t bother drawing, as his bare hands were better for prying pieces of it loose.
The prolith charged, forcing him to roll to the side but still managing to clip the boy’s foot. It went numb immediately, with no time to rub it back to life. He dodged another strike from the creature, then a third. Back and forth he rolled until stuck under it, between its knees. The prolith squeezed its legs together, nearly pulping him like a berry, but Alast lunged forward just in time. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the thing; gravel dropped from its joints as it raised both arms above its head. He had no defenses left.
None but the one provided by the prolith itself. As Alast’s eyes drifted down in defeat he spotted something sticking out of the stone beast’s knee, right where he had damaged it the most. The wound to the rock had revealed an object, something taken up by the prosite incidentally during the building of its armor as it had looked out over the edge of Metal Block. My sword! There was no mistaking it; it was his grandfather’s weapon. Alast leaned forward at the last drip and wrapped both hands around the hilt. Just as when he’d taken his lessons back in the mist, it felt too big in his hands.
The rest of it was lodged in its leg, but the sword was sheathed. Alast used all the strength he had left to rip it free from its casing. With the blade now raised he took the opportunity to strike at the weakened leg again. Alast recalled how he had left the sword on the ground so as not to carry his homeland with him, taking a knife from Orbon’s supply chest instead. If I had not abandoned this blade, denounced the mist, the creature would not have had it to take up. I would be dead now, squashed flat.
The prolith moaned as Alast’s whacks with the dull blade finally broke through its knee. It hobbled to one side, lost its balance, and collapsed. The boy pounced while he had the chance, swinging at the joint that connected the damaged thigh to the body. He wanted it to be afraid that he would reach its center, so he hacked at any places that flaked, finding his way deeper and deeper into its armor. I do not live in the mist! I cut through it! I have seen through you and found your weakness!
The prolith cracked down the middle as its controller panicked. Dust emanated from within, trying to disguise its escape. Alast would not let it go so easily. He held his breath to avoid inhaling the dust and squinted. Through the cloud he saw the blue blob, about three times the size of his head, flop out from the collapsed pile of rocks. Thousands of small bubbles rolled around just under its gelatinous skin. Transparent teeth prickled out in a few places. At its center there was a single eye unlike any Alast had ever seen; the iris glowed, interrupted by eight pupils across the curve of it. All of them widened when it realized Alast saw everything.
Gulululululululu! the prosite gurgled as its slimy body burrowed into the chamber floor. Alast stabbed down with the mist sword and cut a piece from it. Blue fluid shot out of the ground and covered his face as the rest of it vanished. He listened carefully, with one hand flat on the ground. He couldn’t hear it. He hoped injuring it had dissuaded the prosite from immediately trying to build new armor. After another silent moment he decided it had retreated so far underground as to not be a threat.
The boy collapsed. There was no energy left to run. His bones ached and stung and his breath came like a mouthful of charcoal. The tremors in his hand intensified and became unstoppable, shaking the rediscovered blade right out of his hands. I did it. I bested a prolith. I beat the monster that beat the mist. Perhaps I should choose a surname quickly; I have time to scrawl it in blood upon this ground before those cracks widen and I am overrun. Will you bother to find it Rob? Will you bother to learn what happened to me?
It seemed there wasn’t time even for that; he looked at the widened crack once more and saw a gravefolk slipping through. He bellowed in Alast’s direction and jabbed with his spear. With hands fluttering like bug wings Alast stood no chance; he couldn’t even hold them up in surrender.
Thikt! Another sword from beyond the crack skewered the man’s skull. It was ripped from his neck and tossed away while the rest of his bony body collapsed to the floor. Teal hopped through the crack. She was covered in blood, water, and bone dust, her hair thick and matted. She paid little attention to her wounded leg.
“Alast!” she called out. The boy picked himself up and ran to her. They embraced. Never had he been so happy to see a friendly face. He hugged her like she was his mother. “You’re alright. We’re back in. You found your way back.”
“The others?” he gasped, but the opening in the wall answered his prayers once again. Roary, Ladyfish, and Dawn all came through. They had been on the same ogtot after all; they likely had an easier time finding each other than Alast did them. Only Dawn was uninjured, but all were well enough to flee. They helped Alast gather up his weapons and prepared to make for the barracks before the rest of Yugo’s army came through.
The boy’s eyes were drawn back to the crack once more, when a wave of cheering moved through the invaders. He stuck his head outside and saw, among the arrows and cannonballs, a glistening purple thing flying through the air. It flew out of sight above him, along with nearly a hundred objects of similar size but lesser luster. Yugo was inside Dhonshui.
Continued in Part Eight
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