(reading time: 34 minutes)
Cracking the Knuckles
Captain Rob moved through abandoned streets. The folk of Dhonshui had been evacuated from the part of town near the gates, a district called Quig, before the assault began. The closed mint was there and Rob made his move as soon as the last rows of soldiers came through. Luck was on his side, as Inguin had not done anything about the bronze disk Alast had hidden the piece of the Reflecting Path inside. The search Rob had endured for the supposedly swallowed piece was not his favorite thing, but it was far better than anything Yugo had planned.
In the darkness of the mint he shoved his head into the reflective bronze. Luckily Alast had not thrown it so far that its magic no longer affected the surrounding materials. His head popped out of the puddle out on the Stain Plain. The charge had not begun yet, but Yugo’s men were there. Three pairs of boots were within licking distance. He nearly panicked, but none of them bothered to look down. He spun his body around back in the mint, rotating his head so he could see in all directions, failing to spot the piece.
“Who are you?” Rob’s head spun again; he hadn’t noticed the lone skull, covered in soot, lying on the ground just outside the puddle. It was a man by the sound of the voice. “You must tell me who did your head.”
“Excuse me?” the Captain whispered. The last thing he wanted was for the heads atop the surrounding bodies to take notice.
“Your skull. Who leathered it? It’s the most lifelike I’ve ever seen. I know Yugo says the leather’s a bad imitation, but he wouldn’t say that if he saw yours! Who was it? Vexley from Caulkasus? I’ve heard she does some like you.”
“Yes, it was Vexley,” Rob said to shut him up. “Good guess.” He angled his eyes down as far as he could to see between the bits of gravel around the puddle.
“You looking for something?” the skull asked.
“Yes. You haven’t seen a glass necklace around here have you? I only ask because, well, I’ve usually got a bit more neck than this. With all the excitement it slipped off. Family heirloom it is.”
“That wouldn’t be it right there would it?” The skull fell over onto its side, aiming its left eye socket at the bottom of the puddle under Rob’s chin. The Captain grunted in discomfort as he shifted his body again so he could look down further. There at the bottom of the puddle sat the piece. He glanced up again; he still had not been noticed.
“Been nice speaking with you,” he said. Rob lurched forward, pushing one shoulder and one arm up through the puddle.
“Hey what the-” The pirate reached his arm in a long arc so as to dip it into the puddle itself and not the reflection. He grabbed a ball of mud along with the necklace and pulled everything back down into the Reflecting Path. “Did you see that?” the skull asked his brethren, but they paid no attention to the roller. The gravefolk decided to tackle the spy himself, so he bonepicked his way into the puddle… and promptly sank to the bottom. “Perfect,” he told the water.
Rob did not stay in the mint. Instead he peeled the disk from the puddle and made his way through the Reflecting Path. The tile was all that mattered. There were a thousand warlords and obsessed collectors he could stand to see it with, but not Yugo. The world needed stabilizing and while it hadn’t done much for Rob, he did live inside it.
Anywhere the Royal Flush would’ve locked the tile away would undoubtedly be patrolled by many guards, so the Reflecting Path was bound to be more sparsely populated. The pirate’s reflection followed behind him as he began his search.
“Don’t just stand there. Make yourself useful,” he told it. Reflected Rob nodded and went off to look as the real Rob bonepicked his way out of Quig in several large leaps. The wealth and power of Dhonshui was concentrated behind its highest and largest stone faces, the ones modeled after their actual heroes of history. Rob hoped to find some clue there.
Three times his path was blocked by locked doors, but they were nothing but sponge to him in the path. He pushed through. The stone changed from grayish to purest sparkling white, a spotless palace of a neighborhood made all the more immaculate by the lack of inhabitants. Silver jugs from a time when the families who lived there actually had to work stood tall on the sides of the halls and streets. Blue banners hung from the archways above, covered in Merdidu rules and reminders. Rob climbed a thousand stairs, taking them thirty at a time.
He found himself in a mausoleum of ice, the bodies of important bergfolk interred in coffins of solid water. Their flesh was only slightly shriveled and their fur intact. Rob examined the side of one of the dead reflections through the ice; it was robed in incredible finery, enough to buy every member of the Mop’s crew their own ship. These were previous Royal Flushes of the city and their families, resting eternally atop their pedestals. Alas, all the jewels, precious metals, and bath beads were merely reflections of their true selves. As a living blood-filled thing, Rob was the most precious treasure on the path.
A gravefolk reflection sprinted past him at full speed. Rob’s eyes were pulled from the treasures suspended in ice and he followed. The gravefolk led him out of the mausoleum and into a public circle. At its center stood a monument: a square pillar with four mirrored sides. Rob thought perhaps it was the place where Dhonshui’s guards entered and exited the Reflecting Path. Now the only figures around its base were gravefolk, all clamoring for a view of the real world.
Rob muscled his way into the crowd, hardly a challenge for honest flesh. They paid him little mind, as each reflection was only interested in its counterpart. Those of gravefolk were especially sorry things; even when they saw themselves reflected there was no blood to admire or heartbeat to listen for. Still, they watched the tall mirrors in perfect concentration. Rob was free to examine them. A woman with a purple skirt and no teeth. A man with a helmet crafted from a tilehoof foot. They all carried bonepicking weapons. The Captain knew some of them personally; this was the entirety of Yugo’s new knuckle force; the battle had not only started during his search for the tile, it had seen Yugo enter the city. When he looked harder he found the five powerful bonepickers they had fought back in Crosstahl, as well as the reflection of the purple fiend himself.
Yugo’s reflection actually spared him a glance. Remembering his recent shirtless escape, Rob clenched his fists. The image of Yugo mocking him while wearing a loose floppy man pelt danced about in his mind. He reared back and punched the purple reflection squarely in the face. It reeled back into the crowd, its immaterial face warped by the impact. The other reflections looked away from their mirrors… at Rob. Many of them laid hands on their weapons. A few helped the purple one back to its feet.
Rob knew their weapons could not hurt him, they would bend against his skin like noodles, but there were ways. If enough of them piled on top of him he would be trapped. As chummy as he had become with his other self, he doubted the other Rob would miss an opportunity like that.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized to the crowd. He slowly walked over to the reflected Yugo and brushed some non-existent dirt from its shoulder. “Truly. I wasn’t thinking. It’s been a rough few days.” The blurry skeletons seemed to accept his apology and returned to their staring. The dent in Yugo’s face remained, but it went back to staring as well. Rob looked to the purple reflection’s side and saw the weapon Yugo had brought with him to reclaim the tile.
It was a crescent blade, nearly as long as the man was tall. Its edge looked sharp enough, even in the blur of the Reflecting Path, to cut through the darkness of night. Yugo had always favored weapons with intimidating curves, from bleeding swords to scimitars that looked more like animal tusks. Ten metal rings in the middle of it offered his finger bones purchase. A thick chain was attached between the rings that hung as low as his knee and then wrapped around his spine several times. It was easy to imagine such a weapon, when combined with bonepicking, tying knots around opponents in the air and then slicing straight through them.
A wave of excitement moved through the huddle as the first real gravefolk ran by in the mirror. When he didn’t stop to admire himself, his reflection took off in the direction he ran to seek out the next reflective surface. The other knuckles passed by in small groups, none of them stopping to examine the pillar. The crowd thinned until there were only a few left. Rob spotted the real Yugo through the mirror as he passed by, running at a speed so great he was just a purple smudge. His reflection took off as well.
That was the way; Rob just had to follow Yugo’s reflection. It would go wherever the man himself went and even find a surface through which Rob could make it back to Porce. Yugo’s honed sense of gravitation no doubt drew him toward the tile.
The two ran through the city, jumping any hurdles in their path. The carnage of the knuckles was easy to see; soon the only hurdles were the reflected corpses of bergfolk soldiers. Their armor was thick, but no armor could be both light enough to move in and strong enough to repel full bonepicking force. In some places the bodies were too thick to avoid; Rob’s booted feet squashed through them like rotted gourds.
They stopped in front of a solid wall; it was Rob, Yugo, and sixty other knuckle reflections that had converged on that point. They stared at the blank wall silently and waited. It cracked, and then exploded into rubble. Back in Porce the knuckles must have all struck the wall with a flying bonepicking kick at the same time. The reflections funneled into the chamber and Rob followed.
This was it. A throne stood at the far end, rising from the white stone like a stump. Pearls the size of heads glittered everywhere. Blue and white carpets that swirled like whirlpools and waterfalls covered the floor all along its rounded edges. Organs with a thousand pipes that seemed to grow like the weeds of the water stuck out of the walls behind the throne. Rob guessed that in the real world there were fifty men standing in formation ready to do battle with the knuckles, because there were that many reflections gathered around the single mirror in the chamber.
Rob elbowed his way to the front. Sure enough, he watched the confrontation as it began. Sat in the throne was Quillig Larpr: the supreme authority of the city. He was an elder bergfolk with a beard so long and flowing that it covered most of his clothes and wound around his wrists and ankles. His neck was thickly muscled and the tops of his ears calloused from the weight of his sapphire crown. There was shock in his eyes; it was clear he had never conceived of anyone actually breaching his inner sanctum. Cardinal Second hovered at the foot of the throne, with his fifty royal guards positioned between it and Yugo. Sound did not travel between mirrors, so the exchange was silent, but Yugo’s grandiose gesticulating did all the talking.
“I am Yugo the perfectly ignorant,” Rob mocked as he watched the purple man raise his hands to the ceiling. “I have spent countless days and endless resources reaching you so that I can accidentally destroy the world.” Yugo paced back and forth, his lengthy war cape dragging across the floor. “If only there were some way I could be less of a dolt, but I just can’t think of one.”
Yugo pointed at the tile. His knuckles rushed past him to overwhelm the outnumbered guards. Their weapons clashed. Bonepickers hopped into the air and came down with the force of boulders, cracking the floor and smashing the bodies of the poor guards. Rob knew he could intervene, but there was a smart way to do it. Everything that happened now needed to be at least partly calculated if he had any hope of becoming a free man again. Unfortunately, that meant watching as the guards around the Flush crumbled.
The bergfolk were highly trained, and so managed to take out several of the knuckles, but they could not last. They surrendered when there was just ten of their number left, and they were forced to the ground at the end of blades. Rob saw Inguin Glayshr among them; though the man gave orders to the cold rattlers he wasn’t expected to go into battle with their ilk.
Though the tile was now unguarded, Yugo again ignored it. The show was not over. He leapt the great distance to the throne, grabbed Quillig by the scruff, and jumped back down with him. He forced the leader to his knees and slapped the crown off his head with the side of his blade. It rolled away. Rob tried not to think about the crown. He knew it was the crown of Con-den, first slain of the drywallers, and was worth a mountain of coin, but the tile had to take precedent.
Yugo flapped his jawbone some more and Rob guessed he planned to execute the Flush. If he was allowed to take control of the city his army would have a stronghold to fester in like it never had before. He would have a fortress to hold the tiles. To defeat a Flush and take his throne was theft to the bergfolk, but to kill him was to conquer. Their resistance would break with Larpr’s death.
“He could be a little closer to the mirror,” Rob griped to the reflections. Many nodded in agreement. “He likes looking at himself enough. That was the old him of course. Now he wears skin coats; there’s just nothing positive to take away from that.” Yugo kept bloviating, moving the inside curve of his crescent a bubble away from Quillig’s exposed throat. “He’s not getting closer… wish me luck friends.”
Rob bolted away from the mirror and turned when he had plenty of room to build up speed. He took a deep breath, something that would feel much more refreshing on the other side, and ran. Bonepicking sped him. Near the mirror his feet were so full of gravitation that his footsteps became permanent. He leapt, body moving straight and fast as an arrow. The one reflected gravefolk that refused to get out of the way was split in two as Rob flew out of the Reflecting Path.
The thickness of air and the din of other living things returned. Even after the battle the chamber was cold; the bergfolk liked it that way. Rob drew his weapons as he hurtled toward Yugo. He held his sword forward to pierce his enemy, but Yugo saw his approach, lifting his blade away from Quillig to block the strike. Rob was deflected, but not done. He smacked the head of the jump club against the ground, the metal’s impact creating an ear-piercing sound, and gave himself fresh elevation. He struck again, and was blocked again. The Captain bounced off Yugo’s weapon thrice more in rapid succession; his feet had still not touched the ground of Porce.
The knuckles were shocked into inaction for only a moment. They all converged on Rob and Yugo. He couldn’t take them, so he flipped back and found himself standing in front of both the tile and Quillig.
“No girl to save you this time,” Loaf Kincoddlr said. The four other knuckles they’d bested in Crosstahl were at the front of the crowd, eager for revenge. He tapped the head of his hammer and chuckled, but Yugo pushed his subordinate back.
“Robin. What are you still doing here? Surely you could have escaped,” he said while twirling the crescent in his hands, rapidly enough to create the illusion of a full circle. He spoke through its spinning, the gentle wind it created causing Quillig to cower even more behind the tile.
“There is no escape if you succeed,” was Rob’s only answer. He was weary, so weary that he offered little in the way of banter. Being chased across the World Floor does that to a man, no matter how far he has bonepicked.
“Read the Toil Papers again,” Yugo encouraged. “The signs are all there! Plug all holes. To leak is to lose, Square of O’erflow 1:2,” he quoted. “Join me in holiness and together we will pass the weight of the world, Square of Constant Patience, 5:5. Bring your burdens into the open, hide them not. Vacate the kingdoms of the old powers and occupy the unobstructed, Square of Dotted Lines 7:37.”
“The Toil Papers aren’t fit for wiping,” Rob shouted. Many of the knuckles gasped. “I don’t care about your interpretation of what line of poetic nonsense was the least analyzed yesterday. They’re scribblings! Scribblings on the wall from giants likely as dim as us, if not dimmer. They’ve been taken, translated, rewritten, edited, cut, burned, pasted back together, and then you got your hands on them. The world is the best place to look for clues to the world Yugo. Taking the tiles to your Glory Hole won’t fix anything. It won’t give you your skin, your lust, or your appetite back.”
“He does not lust!” one of the female knuckles croaked.
“He doesn’t want no skin on his back!” another yelled. “He’s the purple jewel! The Spotless adorned the world in his jewelry to prepare us!” Yugo threw up his hand to silence his throngs.
“I’m curious how you plan to stop me,” he said, almost challenging Rob to come up with something. The pirate was curious how he would do it as well, and looked around the chamber for any opportunity. He worked with the information he had; the tile was protected in the Royal Flush’s chamber with fifty guards. Why only fifty? They knew their enemy sought the tile and would eventually focus their entire force on it, so fifty hardly seemed sufficient. Rob considered that they had a secondary plan. He checked the chamber again.
The ceiling. Two bergfolk faces, not unlike the balconies across the front of the city, looked down on them from the ceiling. Their stone whiskers hung down, providing mores for glittering chandeliers that hung like earrings. The bergfolk often disguised their contraptions in their own image, so what purpose did these faces serve? Rob noticed curved lines around their mouths and concluded they were supposed to open.
There had to be something else to it. His eyes hopped across the floor, but the first thing they noticed was the steady steps of Yugo’s knuckles forcing him to back up. Worse, he had to continue the conversation as the space behind him dwindled.
“I’ve beaten you before.”
“You have not,” Yugo barked. “There are only three occasions you could be referring to. The time on Sopemup beach doesn’t count because my sandals broke. Card games don’t count, so I know you’re not talking about that night with us, Oobla, and Zip. That just leaves the mold hunts.”
“I beat you during the mold hunts.”
“You were half-asleep; you’re remembering incorrectly. Memories of my flesh keep me awake. I have plenty of dark time to think it over, to remember things correctly.”
“Lucky you.” The carpet. Its water-like pattern was not just for show. The two parts that resembled whirlpools had exposed floor at their centers, directly below the mouths above. Rob reasoned they had to be drain slides. Bergfolk could hold their breath longer than any other living folk, and withstand colder temperatures too, so whenever they could they escaped into frigid water. He reasoned that the mouths and holes were supposed to open and flood with water, providing an escape for the Flush and his guards.
Why hadn’t they activated it? Rob took another step back. He needed help. He didn’t know Quillig Larpr, but if the man ever had any composure it was gone now. Inguin then. He spotted the man under the heel of a knuckle and locked eyes with him, silently begging for help. Inguin couldn’t move without drawing attention, but his eyes were not so bound. He threw a glance toward the left of the room. Rob followed it.
There was a simple statue, hardly bigger than a real bergfolk, of a woman in a flowing gown holding a bucket in her hands. The Captain didn’t notice anything special until he looked on the right side and saw the same statue, but with one crucial change. The one on the right had the bucket tipped onto its side. That was the one Inguin was much closer too. In fact, he was the furthest from the Royal Flush of the remaining guards. He had moved there with a purpose; he had overturned the bucket.
There were two. The other bucket had to pour in order for the mechanism to activate and release the water. Rob examined the distance; it was too far to run or jump without being knocked out of the air by another bonepicker.
“That’s your problem Yugo,” he said, “always dwelling on the past.”
“No! I look to the future.”
“And all you see is the reversal of error. Errors stay Yugo. They cannot be cleaned.” Rob hurled his jump club out to the side. The weapon whistled through the air and struck the upright bucket, toppling it in the statue’s hands. It dropped a little water with a quiet splash. The knuckles broke out into laughter.
“Was that it?” Yugo asked. He crouched into a predatory pose and stalked forward, blade swinging just low enough to scratch the floor. Rob was now down a plan and one of his weapons. He gripped his bonepicking sword in both hands, prepared for the final clash.
The ceiling groaned. Two columns of dust fell from the face seams as their mouths opened wide. They heard the rushing roar of the water before it arrived, but it was ten times louder when it finally fell in such incredible quantities that the force of it blasted apart nearly twenty of the gravefolk, their bones swirling and mixing until they were helplessly separated from themselves.
Waves crashed across the floor, lifting everyone in front of Rob off their feet, including the knuckles holding down the guards. It struck Rob next but, being a seafaring bonepicker, he knew to focus his gravitation down and let the water’s weight rush over his head. He opened his eyes underwater and saw the bergfolk making a mad swim for the spiraling water around the drains. Inguin grabbed Quillig and pulled him along. Just before they were sucked down the slide he turned and saluted Rob.
Now that that was done, Rob whirled around in the climbing water and eyed the tile. He pushed off the ground, his body whizzing through the water like a fishing spear. He reached out his hand for the tile, bubbles streaming from his mouth as the pressure mounted. A skeletal hand floated in front of him and pinched his nose. Rob stalled, hand and sword flailing. The gravefolk was just a skull, a ribcage, and an arm with three fingers, but they did not relinquish their grip. Another grabbed his back. Before he knew it he was covered in bones and they were all working together to drag him back to the floor.
Rob belched one final large bubble; he had nothing left inside. His vision darkened, but panic hadn’t set in quite yet. He had nearly drowned on eleven other occasions after all. While he couldn’t bonepick up with five or six gravefolk bonepicking down, he could spin. It had to be fast, before they caught on and pulled the gravitation in the reverse direction. Rob stored up all the energy he could in the empty burning cavity his air had left behind, like winding a spring, and released it.
Faster and faster he spiraled until his force rivaled the pull of the drains. One by one the skeletons were detached and flung away. Rob steadied his head, ignored the world-spinning dizziness, and approached the tile. Another knuckle had a firm grip on it, but one punch from Rob completely collapsed their skull. He wrapped both arms around the edges of the tile and pushed toward the surface.
When he broke through he saw that the chamber was nearly half full of water and the flow from the mouths overhead was lessening. That was ideal, because as far as he could see they were the only way out aside from the hole Yugo had come through and the two slides… and the tile couldn’t fit down the drains. Its natural buoyancy kept it on its side, allowing him to ride it like a raft for the moment.
He was simultaneously gasping and planning his ascent when the water to his right exploded. Yugo leapt from the depths and onto the tile, swinging at Rob, the Captain barely diving away in time. He couldn’t stay away… Yugo could not be allowed to take Cardinal Second. One of the two buckets from the statues drifted by and collided with his head. Rob was about to swear at it, but decided to use it instead. He bonepicked himself up and planted one foot in the bucket. It was difficult to balance, but as long as he kept pulling up he had a foothold on the shifting waters.
He urged the bucket forward, right up to the side of the tile where Yugo waited. They traded blows back and forth, Rob having to balance on one foot the entire time. Yugo launched his blade at Rob’s vulnerable knee, forcing the pirate to lean back so far that he completed a full circle under the water and popped back up. He’d forgotten about the chain though, and when Yugo pulled the blade back it snagged the back of his knee and sent him into the water again.
After bobbing back to the surface Rob spotted the second bucket. He planted his foot inside; now that he had two feet down he used the buckets to skate back to the tile and strike at the purple papist again. Perhaps they were evenly matched with blades, but Rob’s footing was less sure and the knuckles were regaining their composure enough to grab at his new wooden boots from below. The fight needed to move; it needed to become one on one permanently. The only way was up.
Rob took a deep breath, held his legs together, and pushed down. His body sank and then bobbed back up under the tile, pushing it up into the air with Yugo still on top. Rob grabbed the sides and spun, flipping it over. Yugo was not so easy to fool; he grabbed the other face in the same fashion and tried to flip it back. Cardinal Second spun through the air like a coin with faces both fleshy and purple. Its lightening of gravitation combined with their bonepicking sent them flying just as Rob had hoped. Not even an expert bonepicker could launch from water up to that height unaided, but thanks to the tile they were still climbing.
“Let go!” Yugo ordered when he was upright.
“No,” Rob answered when he flipped up.
“You’re ruining everything!” Flip.
“You ruined it first.” Flip.
“I’ll kill you; I’ll-” Flip.
“We’re going for a ride Yugo! Ahaha!” Flip.
“I’ll eviscerate you, you envy-flushed pile of-” Flip.
“Do you kiss your followers with that mouth?” Flip.
“Piss ice! You’re not fit to kiss my-” Flip.
“The bergfolk is puckering up for you!” The tile rose into the open mouth of a face on the ceiling, just as the mechanism closed and locked them inside. Yugo finished his tirade and instead focused on swinging his chained blade underneath the tile. He successfully struck at Rob, slicing the shirt on his back and drawing a crescent of blood. Rob was forced to dismount and run along the cylindrical wall to Yugo’s side, where he pounced upon the skeleton.
The tile turned on its side once again while they wrestled for control, the gravitation shifting forward and back. The wet tunnel turned. Neither had any idea where it would take them, but they didn’t have to wait long to find out. It split into two paths, one that supplied the water and one that led to the obvious light of day. In their struggle the lit path was randomly chosen. The clamor outside reached them; the battle around Dhonshui’s gates raged.
“You hear that Robin? Sounds like victory!” Yugo stabbed at him with the side of his blade, tearing straight through one of Rob’s ears. The blood spurted copiously down his neck. Rob couldn’t spare so much as a finger to stem the flow, perhaps if they came out near the ground-
The tile emerged into the light of the florent. Both men were expelled from a giant stone ear like an unwanted thought. They were out above the highest line of faces in Dhonshui, and Yugo’s army was wriggling into the holes they had cracked in the gates below. They were incredibly high, still suspended by the tile and their shared skill, but not so high that Yugo’s crystal bones couldn’t be spotted glinting in the light.
“Look! To the skies brothers! In the light!”
“Yugo! Jewel of the Spotless!”
“He rides upon the cardinal tile! We are victorious!”
“Onward! Take the city!”
The siege towers clustered as close to the city as they could. Rob spared a downward glance. The sickening height did not disturb him as much as the blob of Yugo’s army shrinking as it funneled into Dhonshui. Yugo’s blade blocked his sight once again, forcing him to bring his attention back to the fight. Rob tried to get the tip of his sword against Yugo’s spine, a technique which could easily separate his legs, but it was blocked by the chain and the purple man’s various belts.
The tile’s wobbling evened out when each of the combatants backed their feet into a corner of it to maintain the balance. Rob stared at Yugo’s horn; it wasn’t the only protrusion on the man’s body. Smaller spikes lined the inside of a few ribs, one elbow, and one shin. Looking at that made his back prickle, as if his crystals grew in response to the boldness of Yugo’s. His lip twitched and he felt the two buds of spikes below his nose, the start of what he suspected would eventually become a horned mustache. He wondered how his crew would see him then and if it would interfere with his speech. Would they take orders from a lisping commander?
“Your admiration needn’t be so obvious,” Yugo purred. “We share the crystal blessing. All it would take is one word from me and one look at the glitter on your back and you would be as divine as I.”
“You can’t really think it divinity Yugo. Our condition killed you once. You talk of remembering… do you remember yourself before that spike drove the reason out of your mind? I had hoped that when your flesh finally fell away my friend would return, but you kept the madness. You held onto it like it was the only fire in a dark world, like an infant clutching a dry leather nipple.”
“All was well,” Yugo started. The wind whistled through the holes in his skull. He ground his glittering teeth. “We were out picking groutberries with the Dinnr twins. Suddenly my mind was pierced. My will cleaved from my fear. With a wall between it and everything else, my fear overtook all. You carried me back to town.”
“The apothecary suggested putting you out of your misery. He was ready to pull your jeweled teeth even though you were still sweating and moaning.”
“Then I started to recover.”
“No, you never did,” Rob insisted.
“I agree, recover is the wrong word,” the skeleton said. “I had a revelation. I’d been neglecting my fear.”
“No, it’s divine. Fear is what makes us distinct from the Spotless. It’s what makes us his children. All the trappings of science we played with… those weren’t for us. Those are his tools. The spike in my mind was his switch, his swift reminder that I am supposed to bow to him in fear. To do his bidding in mortal terror because all will be lost if his demands are not the very substance of our lives. Your Gross Truth is a lie; it teaches we are incidental waste. Your science is a corruption of the fear in our identities. I’m here to bring that fear back, to make scared animals of men and folk. That fear will drive them to bow before their master, to admit they cannot control his world, and bring them closer to their cleansing and ascension.”
“Why would any intelligent thing make filthy corrupted slaves just to see if they would come to him to be cleaned? And look Yugo! Look at it!” Rob pointed to the mountainous Third Toil behind them. “You’re telling me that isn’t a chamber pot?”
“It is a majestic mountain holding a mighty ocean. It is nothing but the wondrous nature created for us by the Spotless.”
“And the mechanisms inside its tank?”
“There you go trying to rationalize it again. You need a spike in your brain. You need the fear in you!” Yugo pounced. Rob crossed blades with him. They moved up and down, each trying to surprise the other with waves of gravitation from strange directions. The tile sailed out further. Yugo hopped back to his corner, tilting it in his direction and tumbling Rob forward. He grabbed a purple shin and swung himself back on. “Yaaaah!” Yugo spun on the tips of his toes, spinning the crescent around his waist until it was a blur once more. He bent to the side, bringing the blade closer to Rob’s chest. The horrible air-cutting sound of it grew in his ears. All Rob could do was push his weight into his closed fist, turning Cardinal Second on its side and forcing Yugo to grab an edge once more.
“We’ll be at this all day,” Rob panted on one side.
“You won’t hear a ragged breath from me!” Yugo boasted from the other. He was right. Already Rob’s muscles burned with the exertion. The blood from his ear had run under his clothes all the way to the sole of his foot. If Yugo had the advantage of stamina… what did Rob have? He knew Porce was a world of give and take, a place of balance. It seemed kind in the best of times and cruel in the worst. The worst of his flesh was its weariness… but its best was its thickness.
Yugo and Rob had equal bonepicking ability and equal strength in their limbs, but Yugo did not have the skin holding in the muscles or the tendons clinging to the bones. If gravitation pulled them away from something, Rob had the extra glue in his breathing body to keep it together. He pushed, gently at first, to rotate the cardinal tile. The world spun around them: Third Stone Door, the stall wall, the toil, the other wall, Third Stone Door…
Rob felt his body lift off the tile as the spinning force grew. What gravitation he had to spare was forced into his fingertips to keep them latched to the edge. He heard Yugo drop his weapon and scramble for a tighter grip on the opposite side. The chained crescent now hung below them. Yugo could not be allowed to spin counter to him, so Rob threw in a strange angle, an odd wobble, that confused things some, but the speed kept rising. He shut his eyes and told his stomach to seal itself off and meditate for a while.
Yugo’s blade whistled: an accelerating pendulum of death. Each wall of the stall became indistinct from the others, a whirlwind of distant terrain and bergfolk faces. The Captain’s boot flew off, and then the other. His sheaths ripped away next. Faster.
“Rooooooob!” Yugo roared, but they did not slow. If he was losing clothes, Yugo was losing more important things. Faster. Rob’s eyes were shut, so he didn’t see when the end of Yugo’s tiniest toe split from the joint and was flung into the sky. “Aaaaaaah!” the villain screeched as he lost the ends of two more toes. Two more. A foot. No sinew to save them. The other foot.
Rob slammed the gravitation back, stopping the tile dead. Yugo scrambled up to his side, but the advantage belonged to the pirate since Yugo’s footless legs poked and slid across the surface. If Rob attempted to say anything he surely would have vomited, so instead he thrust his sword forward, compressing its tip against one of Yugo’s shoulders.
Tlik! The crystal cracked and Yugo’s beautiful purple arm shattered and rained down on the Stain Plain. Yugo flopped backward like an injured bug, full of nothing but panicked chirps. The jewel of the Spotless, consumed by rage and fear, threw himself from Cardinal Second to prevent Rob’s sword from shattering his skull as well. Bonepicking could slow his descent some, but it could not stop the fall from being deadly. Rob stuck his head out over the edge and watched the sparkling purple pieces plunge toward their army.
“I can’t… I can’t see…” Rob mumbled as he tried to squint through the problem. He needed to see Yugo dashed against the ground, to see his skull split and separate eye socket from eye socket. The purple papist became too small to discern as a small cloud drifted by. Rob waited, perched high in the sky on the drifting tile, for any sign. “Come on. The fight is over. The jewel is shattered. Yugo thinks he’s the entire army. If anything has cracked his pride he will retreat… if he’s not… destroyed.”
One of the siege towers spun around. The horns on top of it sounded a series of low notes. Even from that height Rob could see the hesitation in the throngs below. Suddenly the cracks in Dhonshui’s gates looked like doors to the Pipes. Another tower turned. The cannon fire all but stopped. Confusion… fear… retreat! The army poured back out the way it came, stomping and rolling back into the puddles of the Stain Plain. Rob searched for the purple glint… but saw nothing. Either Yugo was dead and his remains had caused panic, or he was alive and in so much fear over his lost pieces that he caused the panic himself. Either way, Dhonshui was safe.
Rob rolled over on the tile and stared up at the florent. His fingers were so sore he couldn’t get them to properly hold the gash in his ear together. Eventually he let his arm flop back to his side; the ear would have to deal with the consequences. What was a scar compared to lost feet and an obliterated shoulder?
If Yugo survived… if… he could rebuild. He could take the missing bones from any other gravefolk and incorporate them into his own body, but never again would his image carry the same clean perfection; it would always be infected by normal chalk-white bone even if he dressed it up in gold or silver. There was no longer a man purely of crystal, and those who saw him as divine would now see him as less so.
Rob nearly drifted into sleep before he remembered his precarious position. Propping himself up on his elbows, he found the faces of Dhonshui and leaned forward. Cardinal Second drifted back toward the hungry mouths of the city. Tiny white arms waved to him from above the teeth; he was being welcomed back.
Continued in The Finale