A Beast Fights
The tables for the feast had buckets crafted into them because bergfolk celebrations often devolved into dancing right where you ate; this way they could not be kicked aside. The buckets were filled to the brim with all sorts of strange refreshments: spiced green cleansing water, warm red oystie sauce, pure blue toil water, and a foaming drink called scrub-throat that kept its bubbles for days. The bergfolk swished them about in their mouths and noses, sometimes holding one nostril closed so they could blast a fountain of it out the other. Alast watched as a woman gladly opened her mouth to accept a jet of cleansing water fired from a neighboring nostril. It might’ve been rude not to join, but Alast couldn’t bring himself to do it; he let any liquid that came his way splash across his shirt instead.
It was three days past Yugo’s invasion, three days since the papists had lost their nerve at the sight of their cracked purple figurehead. Dhonshui did not have to mourn long as most of its dead belonged to the cold rattlers, who did not garner much sympathy. The evil had turned away shortly before clashing with the main army, who had held in the middle of the city to protect its cloistered folk.
Despite their sacrifice, only a handful of the cold rattlers were allowed to attend the festivities. Those who weren’t dead were back in their barracks prison, rewarded with a few new moldy books to read. Part of Alast wanted to be with them, but Rob had ordered him to stay away. They were fostering a positive image with the Royal Flush and refusing any of his invitations was strictly forbidden if Alast ever wanted to set foot on the deck of the Greedy Old Mop again.
He thought about Whetsaw, who had not come out of the battle unscathed. He imagined the man was, at that moment, sitting on his bed with the others and staring at the bandaged nub where his left arm used to be. Alast had seen him only once after the fight, before the commanders in their clean shining armor had appeared and snatched them up. In that time he had gifted his mist sword to Whetsaw.
“Let it be a new hand for you,” he’d told his friend. “Sharpen it up and cut Porce down to size.” Whetsaw had accepted the gift. The blade had returned to Alast once, and he hoped it would do so again, if only to reunite him with Whetsaw. The only protest the boy managed to sneak into the feast was the chain from his rattler shackles, wrapped twice around his neck.
Teal, Roary, and Ladyfish sat to his right. Dawn was on his left along with a recovering Herc. Oddball and Finick were between his legs, the haund gnawing on the legs of the table. Occasionally Alast leaned down and rubbed sauce across the wood to treat his pet. Rob was not with them; he sat at the head table alongside Inguin and Quillig. Apparently the Royal Flush was a little bit mad, a mild case of brain leak some said, and while most decrees were written and carried out by men of Inguin’s rank, when the Flush did get it into his mind to command something it had to be obeyed.
Rob had saved the Flush’s life, and protected the tile, so he was now an honored guest. He had been fully pardoned for every last pinch of stolen nose powder. His crew had been pardoned for attempting to trespass in the city and liberated from the cold rattlers. Alast watched his captain at the fancier end of the chamber, loudly expelling tales of heroism and bawdy jokes. Scrub-throat foam nestled into his beard. Alast didn’t think the man had much to celebrate. Yes he had fought, but he had left his crew behind. It should’ve been Teal up there. Of course, she probably couldn’t make the Flush laugh the way Rob did… and that was probably all that mattered.
The food came: a hundred roasts from blubbery toil-swimming creatures wreathed in fried fishes, served on beds of greens cooked in butter and berry essence. Giant oysties with a hundred smaller ones growing on their shells, arranged in towers. Green and brown breads. Sausages where the meat was mixed with sour bulbs and pickled wee-weeds.
Alast wanted to keep staring at Rob coldly, but the rising steam from the meat surely would’ve reduced the effect. He felt shame for eating as the cold rattlers chewed stale biscuits below and treasured each juicy bug egg inside them, but he could not maintain such a feeling once he had a mouthful of oily wahl flesh, its hot pearlescent fat dripping off the bone. He and the others ate until they were full, and then they ate until they overflowed. By the end of it the bergfolk around them were so stuffed that mashed roots dripped out of their noses like melting snow.
“Do they do dessert in Dhonshui?” Herc asked.
“They may never eat in Dhonshui again,” Roary answered with a groan. Dawn, somewhat left out by the absence of a stomach, poked him in the side. He placed both hands over his mouth and stumbled away; they all snorted with laughter, careful not to get so excited as to put themselves in the same situation.
“What’s next?” Alast asked.
“We go home,” Teal answered.
“I mean for the tile. It hasn’t been returned yet. The quest isn’t over.”
“Alast… The Royal Flush will likely use his folk to return it. Our part in this is done.”
“It can’t be,” the boy denied. “We got it this far and we should be the ones to finish it. This is how I’m supposed to earn my surname. It’s how I can stop being from the mist.”
“You’ll always be from the mist,” Teal corrected. “There’s nothing you can do to change that. Having a surname doesn’t reverse time. Are you sure you even want one? A single name makes a pirate harder to track and you’re training to be one.”
“A surname is what most folk out in the world have. If they get one I deserve one too. I can do anything, anything, as well as anybody else as long as I’m given the chance. I want to be introduced as a man who knows Porce, a man equipped to handle the Gross Truth and every other nasty thing hiding under the lids or amongst the mold.”
“You’re not even a man yet,” Teal chuckled. “Be a good boy and clean your plate.” She took a Rin cake, dusted with purple sugar, and placed it in front of him.
“Alast, wake up. That’s an order.” The boy pushed his blankets down and sat up, rubbing his eyes until he could see each individual hair in Rob’s beard. There was still a tiny bubble in there from that night’s scrub-throat. It took Alast a moment to remember where he was: guest quarters of the Royal Flush. They had been granted beds until their departure the next day. The others were asleep around him.
“Captain… what time is…” Rob put a hand over his mouth.
“Shhhhh. I don’t want you to wake the others. Come with me.” The boy hopped up and donned his clothes as quickly as he could. Rob led him out of the dark sleeping quarters and through opulent halls lined with lit lamps and portraits. Some of the paintings had actual fur glued onto them, making their bergfolk subjects all the more realistic. “You’re going to help me return Cardinal Second,” he said as they stopped in front of a large door with two guards posted at the sides.
“Truly?” Alast asked, the last of the sleep knocked loose from his eyes.
“Yes. The others will begin their return journey tomorrow, but you and I will be headed to Metal Block.”
“Why just us? Why me at all Captain? Don’t think me ungrateful; this is all I wanted.”
“When Dlak Garbr first stole the tile from its protection he was aided by his lone status. The tile’s guardian is… you will see. I think the two of us will stand a better chance than the whole crew or an army of gangly bergfolk.” He glanced at the guards. “No offense.”
“You’re so short I can’t even hear you from up here,” one of them said with a smile.
“Aye, but why me Captain?” Alast asked.
“As you said… This is all you want. We will return the tile and you will have your surname. By this time tomorrow night Cardinal Second will be back and Porce’s gravitation will be rebalanced.”
“Tomorrow?!” Alast half-cried. “It took us a wash to get here! How will we get to Metal Block so swiftly?”
“We’ll have a little help,” Rob said. He knocked on the door; it opened from the inside. They both entered; cold night air bit at their faces. One wall of the chamber was an open mouth looking out over the plain. Stars streaked across the sky while a bergfolk with a telescope tracked their movements with quill, ink, and paper. She was one of many, each practically shackled to some device or another. Two studied a contraption of spinning glass vials full of colored sands. An ancient gray man tapped out code against the side of an opaque bath bead and waited for something inside to tap back.
“What is this place?” Alast asked, just as he noticed the first things in the room he understood: a row of large metal plates. Before he could comment, three streaks of red lightning shot in from the toothy balcony and stopped on top of them. The lightning crackled and popped as the creatures wielding it settled down: three ekapads. None of them were very similar to the ones Alast had seen previously. The others had been common beasts of burden that would be worked until they couldn’t reach the clouds anymore. These were the purebred work of Dhonshui: white, woolly, tall, and muscular.
“This is a laboratory,” Rob said. He walked up to one of the ekapads and patted it on the flank. The energy from its lightning passed between them and spread the hair of his beard as well as that on his collar. Alast suppressed a chuckle. “These are how we will reach Metal Block.”
“What? You mean mount them?” Alast asked. “It’s not possible. You’d be struck by lightning and killed. I’ve read about it; even folk who survive lightning end up with half their memories dead.”
“You will need these,” a voice called out to them. Alast turned to see Inguin Glayshr approaching, along with the Royal Flush. Inguin dragged two identical objects across the ground. Alast thought they looked like suits of chainmail. When they were close Quillig eagerly grabbed one away and held it up. It was made of metal, but each piece was more like a fish scale than a chain link. Small knobs were arranged in swirling rows across its chest and back. There was a helmet as well that looked like it had, moments ago, been hammered down from bergfolk size to lightfolk size.
“Puutik leti grakquit sentiquay vouti avit faatik montik villet,” Quillig began.
“It would be best to use Wide, my Flush,” Inguin whispered. Quillig nodded and grumbled as he shuffled through the cards in his mind.
“For the great service you have done my city, I will grant you the honor of returning Cardinal Second to its home,” he said in a way Alast could grasp. “You will also be the first to take these all the way across the World Floor. I wanted to be first, but Inguin here won’t let me ride them past the plain.”
“For safety reasons,” Inguin argued. “You can be too trusting of the folk beyond our borders.” He eyed Rob. “Personally, I would rather a few of our folk take them.”
“Debts!” Quillig shouted. It seemed his madness came in spurts. “I can’t stand debts! I owe this man my life!” He walked over to Rob and embraced him. Then the old bergfolk patted Alast on the head like a haund pup. “I have no idea who this very little one is.”
“This is Alast,” Rob said. “Without him the tile never would have made it this far.” Quillig tweaked the boy’s nose playfully, amused by its smallness and what he perceived to be its feminine pink color. He dropped the metal suit, seeming to have forgotten its importance, and dug around in the pocket of his robe. Inguin sighed and rolled the suit back up.
“Aha!” Quillig exclaimed when he found what he searched for: a seafoam-colored candy with a white swirl, made with fine salt. “Open.” Alast slowly opened his mouth. Quillig placed the candy on his tongue and squeezed the boy’s lips together. He waited.
“Mmmmmm,” Alast hummed. Quillig whistled through his nose and clapped his hands.
“There isn’t a folk under the florent that doesn’t love toil-sweat taffy! Ehehee! Now, the suits! Give it. Hand it over Inguin. I paid for them.” The Royal Flush grabbed one of the suits back and held it up again. “These were specially designed by some very big brains. When you wear them the ekapad jolts will flow over your back like water.”
“We expect you to remove them, fold them up neatly, and place them on the ekapad when you’re finished so they can be returned,” Inguin said.
“Of course,” Rob agreed, as if affronted someone would accuse him of theft. “They’re not made of nose powder so they’re utterly useless to me.” One of the bergfolk pulled themselves away from her experiments long enough to help fit them. The suits were extremely heavy; it took all Alast’s strength just to lift his arms inside his. It didn’t help that his was much too large. Waddling towards the ekapads was taking too long, so Inguin picked the boy up and placed him on the back of one of the creatures. Alast heard the crackle of the lightning along the seat of his pants.
Cardinal Second was brought out and firmly chained to the back of Rob’s ekapad. The creatures hopped around until they faced the open mouth. Alast hunkered down the way he had on the war ogtot, confident the ekapad’s jump would be far stronger. He estimated the number of strikes it would take for them to cross the World Floor and realized it was probably the same number of strides it would’ve taken the giants that had made Porce. They would be walking in the footsteps of the makers. Not the makers, the breakers. These… folk… would be taking a break from their lives. They were here only to address the awkward squeezing of nature. Yet, everything we will ever know is in here. After this quest maybe I should try to get out and find the rest of their world.
“Hey!” Roary shouted just as the ekapads tensed the muscles in their trunk-like stands. The former cabin boy came in through the door with one of the guards pulling at his shirt. He shook the man loose and ran to the horned beasts. Quillig held up his hand to stop the guards. Alast thought he was there to say goodbye, but his face was tense and puffy. He looked like he was watching a public beheading and realizing his toy sword was in poor taste. Alast pulled off the smashed helmet to speak with him.
“Roary! Come to see us off?”
“Off? Off? Where exactly be you taking him?” he asked Rob.
“We’re returning the tile swiftly. The rest of you will begin your journey back tomorrow,” the Captain said.
“The bloody stool we will!” his nephew practically screamed. “I’m going with you.” He marched over to the third ekapad and tried to pull himself onto the creature’s back. Its fur shocked him with a red spark and sent him back to the floor.
“There are only two suits,” Inguin told him. Roary’s face reddened. He moved in a circle around the beasts twice, looking like his internal compass was having a spasmodic fit. Eventually it directed him back to the side of Alast’s mount, where he placed his hand on his friend’s armored scaly thigh. Tiny pops of lightning no doubt stung his hand, but he kept it there.
“You can’t go,” he whispered to Alast.
“Why not?” He wondered if Roary was jealous that Rob had chosen him instead. He didn’t know what they were going to face inside Metal Block, other than a mountain of bropato, but he was a better swordsman than Roary. Instead of answering, Roary turned back to his uncle.
“You’re just letting him do this, are you?”
“And why shouldn’t I?” the Captain asked. “The boy thinks he makes his own decisions; I’m going to treat him that way.”
“He be the cabin boy!” Roary shouted, as if cabin boys were the rarest and most fragile of Porce’s creatures. “I don’t recall you asking me to put any ancient relics back in their holes when I was the cabin boy.”
“This is for my surname,” Alast defended. “I know what the Captain is doing.” Rob arced an eyebrow. “I know the man that he is. My mind is still made up.”
“If you go… you might not come back. You know what be out there, don’t you?”
“I know it’s all part of my fight Roary. Whatever happens, I would take this new life over my old any day. I’m about to ride lightning! Back in the mist I would’ve told you that I would kill just for a chance to be killed. A chance to do something, learn something, be changed by it. I’m off to be changed, whether that means subtraction of my life or addition of a surname.”
“You be sure?” the older boy asked. Alast nodded. “Fine. Fine. I guess I’m supposed to give everyone else your goodbyes? Nobody wants me to go and get them out of bed and disrupt this little mission? If you don’t come back they’ll hate me for it. I’ll have to explain how I didn’t stop you, how you were stupid, and how we all took you in anyway.”
“You took me in,” Alast said, “but Rob employed me. It’s time to work to justify that employment. Oh… and you can tell the others I love them too.” Roary swallowed what words he had left. He took a few steps back. The area around the ekapads was clear. A few of the bergfolk mumbled Merdidu prayers as the beasts coiled their muscles once again.
“We expect them returned,” Inguin said again with increasing volume as the surge of the lightning threatened to drown him out. Quillig slapped him on the shoulder.
“Be quiet, you’re ruining all the fun!”
Alast’s grip on the reins tightened. He braced himself against the base of the ekapad’s neck, one of its long white hairs infiltrating his helmet and dancing in one of his nostrils. He didn’t move to dislodge it; he didn’t want to move at all. He twisted his head just enough to look at Roary, but he couldn’t see the boy. He couldn’t see Quillig, Inguin, or the other bergfolk. All he could see was sky.
The crackling of the suit blocked out all other sounds, and he couldn’t even feel the air rushing by under all the metal, but he saw the world move. There was Dhonshui, quickly obscured by the clouds. There was the ground, and now the city was nearly invisible, just a collection of bug faces on a distant rock. Back into the clouds. The water in them intensified the lightning. Bursts of red and yellow surrounded them. Lights dying and being reborn from nothing. Rob’s ekapad led the way, with Alast’s striking wherever his struck just a moment later. They couldn’t lift their arms to signal each other. If the beasts got lost there would be no solution.
Alast couldn’t believe his eyes; it was like the world showing off just for them, to reward them for escorting the tile. As if to prove his fantasy, new lights appeared to compete with the lightning. Amongst and between the clouds soared the lumasol, the stars in the sky, the birds incubated with the dust of the florent inside their breasts. Their eyes glowed brighter than their feathers, making it impossible to determine where they looked. One cried out, its song like driving rain and tearing sky.
I wonder if the folk tracking the stars will have to track us disturbing them. The ekapads struck the ground again and left the birds behind. They crossed under Third Stone Door in one jump, the rest of Porce opening up before them. The clouds out there were much higher, and thus each jump was three times taller than the ones before it. Alast couldn’t feel the beast’s shattering impacts. The only sensation either of them felt was the rising and burning of the acid in their throats and tingling in their toes, like their souls were trying to force their way out through the tops of their skulls.
Their grips never loosened as they crossed the Tributaroads. The darkness was disturbed only by their flight, thousands of eyes across the land drawn to the red streaks in the sky. They passed smaller cities like Crosstahl, dimly glowing scores in the connections of the tile. At some point the florent switched and the day was born.
Alast wrapped the reins around his arm to keep from losing his grip. He’d lost track of time, but fatigue told him it had been too long. His head was too heavy to lift. His thighs burned from gripping the creature’s flanks. The suit had become quite hot and was scalding his knees and knuckles and the top of his ears. He opened his mouth, felt hot air rush in, and closed it again. They had to be nearly there.
At last, the bropato sheet loomed in front of them. Their final jump came down in front of its edge, and on the way back up the creature’s undersides grazed the soft wood. They climbed the sheer side of it until it was absorbed back into Block. At their greatest height the lightning receded. Alast felt his body lift off the ekapad as they sped toward the ground. He squeezed his knees together as hard as he could to stay mounted. The final impact was the only one they felt, but it felt like all of them combined.
Alast banged his head on the inside of his helmet, bit his tongue, and was thrown from the ekapad’s back. He rolled to the edge of a new surface and nearly fell off. Rob grabbed him by the wrist just as his legs dangled over the side. The boy didn’t have the energy to stand, so Rob stood him up.
“I know thith plathe,” the boy mumbled across his swollen tongue when he realized the new surface was actually an old one. “Thith ith Orbon’th roof.” The ekapads had both landed on the metal plate atop his old employer’s home.
“Are we welcome inside?” Rob asked. His voice vibrated through the helmet, but Alast could hear his strength had not been sapped.
“Yeth,” Alast said. Captain Rob picked him up and carried him down the stairs. He knocked on the door twice, but there was no answer. He pushed his way in with bonepicking, cracking the door as little as possible. Their home had been taken over by the weggers; webs were everywhere. It had the damp smell places get when a lamp hasn’t been lit in ages, like a cave.
Rob put the boy on the grimy mattress and helped him remove his suit. Then he removed his own. They each had mild burns across several parts of their bodies, including around their foreheads and the bridge of their noses. Rob folded the heavy metal suits and tucked them neatly under the mattress. They both looked around for anything to soothe their burns, but there was no water or salve to be found. Every cupboard had been emptied. Many of the tools they used to carve the bropato were gone. The only clothing left behind was a single sock hanging from a rafter that was full to bursting with wegger egg sacks and tiny pale weggerlings.
The Captain went to the roof and returned with the tile. He turned it on its side and slipped it under the mattress as well. It stuck out, but it was just to keep it from floating away. They sat in silence for a while, letting the impact of the ekapads slowly leak from their joints.
“When I last saw them,” Alast said once his tongue had recovered, “they were heading into the bropato. Some kind of hiding spot to ride out the proliths. I wonder what happened to them.”
“Or they were killed.”
“No,” Rob reasoned, his tone less comforting than it could have been. “This place wasn’t ransacked. Nothing is broken. There’s nothing rotting on the floor. They packed up and left. If the only life they know is harvesting they probably followed the edge of Block, looking for some place else to do it.”
“Then until I see a corpse that is what I will believe,” Alast said, his weariness making him sound as cynical as his captain. “Should we put this back?” He leaned forward and patted the edge of the tile.
“No, we’ll need rest before we get to that. If you recall the night hadn’t ended when I pulled you away. For now we sleep. We’ll go in a few drops.”
“How are we going to get in? Is there some sort of secret entrance?”
“It’s not easy to get in; that’s part of its protection. I’ll be relying on you and your bropato expertise to find us a way. I could just use my sense of gravitation, but I’d have to dig and slash my way through a thousand layers of stone and wood before I got there.”
“So that’s why you brought me,” Alast said as it dawned on him.
“That’s why I took you with us in the first place,” Rob admitted. If Alast really understood who the Captain was, there was no reason to soften the truth. This was a boy who had vomited his way through the Gross Truth but still absorbed it. He could have wiped his mouth with the Toil Papers, but he chose not to, even with a history in the ignorance of the mist. “I knew Dlak wouldn’t tell me how he got in. That man holds onto secrets like they’re internal organs. Important ones too, not tonsils or his appendix. I foresaw that the tile would need to be returned and that I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it. Before me was a local boy who knew the landscape.”
“If I hadn’t been a harvester… would you have left me out there to die?”
“Of course not. We would’ve dropped you in Bucket or some other dull township.”
“And after Cardinal Second is safe once more?”
“You’ve earned your place Alast,” Rob said, annoyed by what he saw as incessant questioning. “You’re one of the crew. The rest of them would, and have let you be reminded, risk their lives for you.” Silence. Rob eventually rose and took one of the blankets from the bed. He shredded it with his sword into large squares and used his jump club as a hammer to nail each of them over the windows. It dulled the florentshine and cast the home in a burgundy light.
“There’s only one bed Captain,” Alast noted.
“You take it,” Rob said, an odd concession. “You’ll need to recover. You’ll need to be sharp. I will sleep… here.” Rob leaned up against the wall at an unnatural angle and closed his eyes. Apparently that was the signal that it was time to rest. Alast fluffed the pillow, grimaced at the cloud of mold it produced, swept it to the floor, removed his shirt, and used that as a pillow instead. He watched the weggers crawl lazily back and forth on the ceiling. When he turned his head again the Captain appeared completely asleep on his heels, his body stiffened by bonepicking. I’d like more strength, Alast thought. I don’t think I want that kind of strength though. I think I want the vulnerability of always having to sleep flat. Being rigid like that can’t be truly restful.
Later that day, both of them descended the harvesting platforms next to Orbon and Birdie’s home. It was the only route Alast had to offer, the same one they took on the way to the rope bridge. The platforms had not been properly stored in the commotion and so seemed on the verge of collapse. They treaded as lightly as possible, but the boards squealed with every step. Rob followed quietly behind him pulling the tile by its chain, the grimace on his face betraying his general disdain for the smell of the fresh wood.
“I always found the smell comforting,” Alast said when they were nearly there. He reached out and tugged on a rope to test its strength before moving down. “In the mist everything smelled of wet footprints and rusty pans.”
“I prefer the smell of topa,” Rob said. He touched a spongy section of the bropato, just over the side, and then plucked a leaf from it to examine it. “Like the sails of the Greedy Old Mop.” Alast stopped.
“Come to think of it, I prefer that smell as well.”
They made their way into the crevice that held the rope ladder. Alast was nearly stopped dead by what he saw. The ladder was back in its place, coiled into giant piles that went all the way into the darkness at the back. How had it been rolled up? Surely Knobby didn’t have the strength or dexterity to do it. The boy examined the floor for clues.
The first thing he noticed after that was the crater where he had left his sword. The missing patch of metal and dirt had journeyed from there all the way to Dhonshui, just as he had. It didn’t make it back though. Only Alast made it back. Around the crater were swirls of dust, like serponts slithering off to take a nap. Knobby was a bizarre creature, but Alast didn’t remember a dragging tail that could leave such marks. There was one way to find out for sure.
“Knobby!” the boy called out to the darkness. He banged his hand on the exposed metal of the wall three times. The sound echoed somewhere in the Block. “Knobby!” They waited a few moments. The creature shuffled and clomped into view, but not before its scent reached them. Rob coughed into his sleeve and retreated to the very edge Alast had descended from the last time. He leaned backward so far that a non-bonepicker would’ve fallen to his death.
“What is that?” the Captain asked through his sleeve.
“What’s the matter? I thought an educated man of science such as yourself knew every animal under the florent. Is Knobby such a mystery?” He pretended to be comfortable with the creature and approached it, but had to pause when another wave of its stench hit him. He powered through it and patted the matted hair on one of the creature’s numerous humps. Something deep inside one of the animal’s throast rumbled in approval.
“I haven’t checked every dark crack in the world,” Rob said. “I can’t even tell you what family that thing goes in.” He leaned into the smell until he was on solid ground again. “Why have you called this thing forth?”
“I thought perhaps he pulled the rope back up after I used it to climb down. I see now that he didn’t leave the marks in the ground. That means… only one thing could have.”
“The rope pulled itself,” Rob postulated, catching Alast off guard.
“How did you know I was going to say that?” the boy asked. His captain pulled the tile over to the boy and handed him the chain. He paced around Knobby in a circle that was well out of drooling or licking distance, staring into the many mouths on the animal’s flanks.
“Did you notice what these ropes are made of?”
“I assumed bropato fibers.”
“You assumed correctly. You’ve seen the bropato growing, seen the greenest parts of it even. You must know it is a living plant.”
“Well aye, but what does that have to do with these ropes?”
“I assume, back there somewhere, these ropes connect back to the living plant. They are a part of it, and as such are controlled by it. All new bropato comes from this place Alast. There is some, decayed, in the Bottomless Rot, but the living plant here is the only one in all of Porce. It is an unrivaled entity.”
“You’re saying it can move more than regular plants? It does more than grow?”
“Much more,” Rob confirmed. “The Metal Block is the shell for one of the oldest, if not the oldest intelligence in the world. The bropato has something akin to a folk’s mind. Its priorities are unknown, communication with it is nigh impossible, but there is no question that it has sometimes acted upon a stalwart and mighty will.”
“It’s Cardinal Second’s guardian,” Alast said. “The others are protected by armies and nations and Royal Flushes right?” Alast tried to picture the center of the bropato plant. Was it like a nut? A tree? A bud? He knew not, but he knew it must be vast to produce the shelves and flows he had climbed on like a mite for washes. “How did Dlak get Cardinal Second out with its guardian being everywhere he turned?”
“I don’t know,” the Captain said. “At the moment I’m guessing a disguise.”
“Just looking at this thing gives me ideas.” Rob hunched over and tried to mimic Knobby’s posture and heavy footfalls. “Perhaps he lured one of these beasts out, skinned it, and then journeyed inside. There would be enough room under such a hide to disguise both the thief and his prize.”
“Will the bro’ let us in? We’re not thieves.”
“I believe it will. It might not want to tolerate you long, especially given your history of cutting it up, but as long as you go straight to the shrine and leave immediately…”
“Might not tolerate me?” the boy interrupted. “What about you Captain?” Rob backed away from Knobby, back towards the cliff. He spoke with his back turned to Alast.
“You will be going in alone.”
“Why?” Alast was not shocked. Something had seemed off since the Captain pulled him out of bed the other night. There was his secrecy, Roary’s fit, his willingness to give up the only bed in Orbon’s, and the fact that he had been brought along in the first place.
“I underestimated you Alast. When you came back from the siege on the Stain Plain, it convinced me. You have been honest with me this whole time. You really have committed your life to the return of the tile.”
“Cardinal Second was my only beacon on the edge of death,” Alast explained. “To me it is greater than any bath bead. It gave me new life. With it I will carve a surname from Porce’s white stone.”
“There is one more thing standing between you and rebirth.”
“A questing beast.”
“Yes.” Rob did not turn to look at him. “When we first picked you up, Dlak said, in Pawtymouth, he was forced to fight a questing beast when he took the tile. The bropato was not a sufficient opposing force for Porce; all the more reason I suspect he used a disguise. The other half of this logical coin is that you will face one to return it. Porce hates change, even if it’s putting things back in order.”
“So, it is my beast?
“Yes. I’ve fought my own and I know the feeling when one is near. You should be feeling it now.”
“I don’t know if I am.”
“Look back there.” Rob pointed to the darkness aimed at the center of the Block. Alast did as he was told. He couldn’t see or hear anything, but after a moment he felt a slight tug. He looked down to see his hands raised more than he thought they were, his fingers reaching toward the blackness. “Like our most ancient instincts, your hands know there is a hidden enemy. Despite your civilized demeanor they are ready to strangle.”
“Why is this creature mine to fight and not yours?” Alast smacked his hands against his sides and kept them there. “You led the tile around more than I did.”
“This is true, but the forces that make these things see deeper than that. Of course I don’t know if they see, that sort of research is still rests away, but you understand the thought. You’re the one invested most in its return. It is inextricably linked to you. I can imagine situations in which I would abandon the tile to save my own life, but there are a smaller number of situations in which you would do the same thing.”
“I have to kill it…”
“Or die,” Rob finished. “Or give up on your goal. You can avoid the creature entirely, but those who do that seem to… turn to powder. Their minds shaken to bits by knowledge of cowardice, the thought that their lives stand only for their meager existence.”
“There is no reasoning with it?”
“Its reason exists only to facilitate your death. It will not be able to speak or understand your words.”
“What will it look like? How will I know when I see it?”
“Now you’re just stalling Alast. You’re wasting my time. You’ve read about them. Each appears differently and it will show you focus like you’ve never seen. It won’t sneak up on you looking like this fungus of flesh.” He gestured toward Knobby. Alast walked around the Captain, forcing him to acknowledge his eyes.
“I have something to say to you before I go,” Alast declared.
“Out with it.”
“You should not have left us.”
“When did I do that?”
“Dhonshui. You left the cold rattlers and you didn’t take us with you. You left us to die.”
“I didn’t have the resources to bargain for more than one escape. Use your head. Somebody who understood Yugo needed to get out of there and interfere with him.”
“You could’ve sent Dawn,” Alast reasoned. “She can fight as well as you. I don’t care how you say it Captain. We’re your family and you left us.”
“Your opinion is noted,” Rob growled. “And I’ll forgive your tone because you might not come back out. If you do I will expect the supplication that so characterizes your more tolerable self. Now go and earn that name. I won’t wait long for you.” Alast checked to make sure he had his weapons: his saber and two of the paper cutters. The boy suspected it did not matter, because their fight would always be equal. If he dropped the blades the creature might shed its claws. He walked up to Rob and took the tile’s leash from him. He turned to Knobby.
“Can you lead me in there?” the boy asked the beast, pointing into the darkness. Knobby didn’t show any sign of understanding, but he did begin to clomp back the way he came. Alast followed. Before he was too far Alast stopped and turned to look at Rob. The Captain still stared out at the hanging bropato. “Captain?” The man turned. “You and Yugo… you’re brothers aren’t you?”
“What in Porce would have you say that?” Rob asked with a deep grimace.
“You have the same bone condition. You used to know each other well by the talk I’ve heard.”
“Of course not! You thought this sibling rivalry? Oddball didn’t quite finish the gutter smarts lessons. We are not relation. We just grew up in the same village is all. Both exposed to an unknown vapor, from a fissure deep in the tile. We weren’t the only ones. There are probably six or seven of us out there, with a rainbow of bones between us. Calling us brothers… the nerve of you. Go.”
Darn. I really thought I was on to something. Alast caught up with Knobby’s smell and left his captain behind. The tunnel quickly became too dark for him to see. He followed the animal’s smell and the sound of its footfalls. The ground alternated between moist metal and sheets of flaky bropato. The sounds of the sky were gone, replaced by the creaking of wood and drops of moisture that sounded like they had been falling for an age. The way the echoes changed and the air moved, Alast could tell the tunnel had opened up into a much larger chamber.
Knobby stopped. Alast asked the creature why, but there was no response. He heard chewing. Finding his way to a wall using his saber’s sheath as a cane, Alast put his hands against it. It was moist bropato, but not as rough as the kind growing outside. It felt like sapling wood and pond grass. There were no leaves in the lightless place, but there were blooms, some the size of his palm and some the size of his chest. His fingers wrapped around a slimy ripped stem. Knobby was eating the flowers.
More chewing sounds came from the right. Knobby had plenty of mouths, but they were all on his body. Another mouth behind him. More hooves to the left. Whatever Knobby was, he had family. Given that each was such a mix of faces and feet, Alast couldn’t even guess how many of them were there. One of them squeezed by him, rubbing its stink all over his shirt. Another, or perhaps the same one, stepped on his toes.
Alast was bumped, jostled, and squeezed as he stumbled around in search of a way out of the herd. It was difficult, especially with one hand wrapped around Cardinal Second’s chain. He thought he was out when he ran straight into a haunch and swallowed a rancid hair. He doubled over and coughed, his bottom bumped by another animal. On the ground his head was nearly flattened by a hoof just as large. They paid him no attention. Thinking quickly, Alast yanked on the tile’s chain and grabbed its sides once it ran into him. He leapt as high as he could, the tile’s floaty nature giving him extra height and a slow descent. When he landed he was out of the mass and could hear the mulching of molars on petals from behind him.
There was nothing to guide him now. Alast tried to head away from their meal in a new direction. He stopped. Think. You have tools. The boy put his sheath back on his belt and held his left hand out in front of him. His fingers twitched and pulled his arm in a slightly different direction. The beast is that way, so must be the tile’s home.
On and on he walked with agonizing slowness. Each step had to be a tentative touch, to make sure there was still ground in front of him. Whenever he hit a patch of bare metal he had to be extra cautious; the moisture of the cave made it extremely slippery. When his foot slid it squeaked, the loudest sound in perhaps the whole of Metal Block.
It was on the bropato that he finally fell to his knees, but only because it shook. He tried to find purchase, but the young papery wood was too smooth. The ground wriggled again, sounding like a cross between a sail flapping in a strong wind and an aker rising from the dirt. Alast felt himself lifted into the air. His knees and palms sank as the wood bent. Air rushed through his hair. He leaned forward to avoid rolling backwards. The bropato was being pulled somewhere, with him onboard.
The sheet rolled on, deeper and deeper into the Block. Alast felt the moisture in the air lessening and wondered if most of it had just been the perspiration and respiration of creatures like Knobby. He licked his lips and found them very dry. All around him he heard other sheets of the wood moving, growing, and adjusting. One rolled just above him, close enough to make him fear being pinched between the two. He lowered his head.
His eyes began to pick up the shapes of the sheets; something was softening the darkness. Alast heard the same cry he heard aboard the ekapad and when he looked up he saw stars perched in the highest recesses of the bropato. Their light was very dim, but it was enough for him to make out his surroundings. He had expected a general box shape, something reflecting the appearance of Block, but what he got was astonishing curves and swells.
The caverns were bubble-shaped, the walls made from overlapping sheets of the wood. Giant white flowers bloomed at every edge and corner, sometimes weighing on them so much that they were pulled away from the wall. Blooms of the wood itself, like folducted art, dotted the ground; they were big enough to serve as bedrooms.
It wasn’t just the stars that lived there. Rummins scurried around between flaking sheets, their forked tails sometimes intertwining so they wouldn’t lose each other in the shifting landscape. Curiously, smaller sheets of the bropato seemed to have a life of their own. They would split from one of the sheets hanging overhead, drift and flap in the air for a while like falling leaves, and then reattach to the wood somewhere else.
Suddenly the sheet under Alast bucked. The boy landed on his bottom and slid down the arced wood. Its path curved, sending him in circles around a bowl-shaped chamber. When it eventually dumped him, it was into a new cavern with new light. There was a fissure on the ceiling, and Alast knew he was looking at florentshine.
There was a structure in the middle: a shrine with a gold and copper dome. Metallic stone orbs of all sizes sat inert around it, but they stirred when Alast brought Cardinal Second close enough. They didn’t lift off the ground. Instead, they rolled slowly along in circles around the shrine. They left trails in the sandy soil, the only familiar ground for ten lathers in any direction. This is it. The tile goes in there. So where is it? Where is my beast?
“I’m here!” Alast shouted at the shrine. He dropped the tile’s chain and let it hover in place. He put one hand on the hilt of his saber. There was no response, so he took a step forward. Then another. That was the threshold. A shape appeared inside the shrine and stalked its way down the stairs so that the only things standing between it and Alast were the rolling orbs. Its body was covered in wiry hair. It was bent forward, standing on its knuckles. Its mouth was hideously wide and full of teeth bigger than spear heads. A bulge on its side bobbed and swayed with its inward breath. Tiny streams of sand entered its gullet from the force of its breath, but they did not come back out.
“You are the questing beast? I will not be stopped!” the animal roared in response. The sound hit Alast like a war hammer to the sternum. It shocked his mind and rattled his bones. He felt all his pain at once. All my new pain. All the pain since I left the mist. All the hurt I’ve gained. “Did you get any of the good?” he asked it. Its eyes rolled back into its head and it moaned, its wrists shivering. That means something… and ‘no’ is definitely part of it. This isn’t fair. What reason is there for this wretched thing to suffer? I suppose that’s what Rob would say: what reason is there for any of us wretched things to suffer?
Alast drew both his sword and one of his knives. He started formulating a strategy to strike at the top of its head, between its eyes, but the ideas immediately proved useless when the beast rose up, unnaturally, onto its hind legs. Part of its arm swung away from its elbow, filling its hand with the fleshy base of a long sickle claw. A weapon to match mine.
If there was something else to say, Alast couldn’t find it. His mind felt empty, like the air had always been full of words but was now just stale space. There were no pronouncements to be made. Their presence said everything. The one thing Alast knew was that, just like the quest itself, he had to take the first step. He lifted his foot… and put it down a bubble closer to the shrine.
The clawed feet of his enemy kicked up dirt as they crossed through the rolling orbs. Its drooling mouth pulled open, the tight muscles on its side tensing audibly. One bite and Alast would be two Alasts. The boy threw up his sword to discourage its charge, but it had no such effect. The monster’s jaws snapped shut, its head turning on its side. It smacked Alast’s ribs with the top of its head, sending the boy to the ground.
Alast wiped the dirt from his eyes in time to see its open maw once again, flying through the air towards him. He rolled away, the beast’s teeth closing on nothing but dirt. Rivulets of it flowed from between its teeth as it rose back to its feet. I can’t avoid it. That’s their nature; they’re harder to avoid than death itself. The boy went on the offensive, thrusting his saber at the creature’s baggy quivering neck. It deflected with its claw and they traded several strikes back and forth.
The beast was larger than Alast; he expected its strength to knock the weapon from his hand. Instead, the blades clashed with astonishing evenness like pebbles cleaved from the same boulder colliding. He was not forced back, but neither was the beast. When their blades were locked yet again Alast saw into its eye. He looked for hesitation, remorse, anything, but there was just animal fury. The beast’s mind was nothing but an opened cage door.
He tried to surprise it with a low swipe from the paper cutter. Success! The blade sliced open the bulbous growth on the creature’s side. His eyes widened, eager to see the spill of blood and viscera that would mean his own safety. Instead he was rewarded with a rush of foul-smelling water that sprayed across his pants, its stench like dead bugs and mummified hair. The beast howled as its external bladder ruptured, but showed no other signs of pain. The hideous sack emptied completely, leaving nothing but dangling wrinkled flesh. It swung with its claw again. It snapped at the air with its vice-like mouth: clopf!
I have to take this somewhere else. We’re evenly matched, but the world is an uneven place. Alast turned and ran. His mind tried to pull him back, his very soul already melded with the battle. It made him feel slow, like a stake had been driven through his spirit and into the ground, stretching further with every step away from the spot where they first clashed. He nearly tripped as a stone rolled by. The beast followed him into the rocks, showing the same grace he did. Their fight continued with the same intensity, but far less grace as their ankles were battered by the passing stones. The monster picked up one in its mouth and swung it in a circle, flinging the object at Alast. The stone’s path had been set by the tile’s gravitation for far too long; it stopped in mid-air before drifting back the way it came and onto its path in the dirt.
Neither of us knows anything about this place. Wait, that’s not true. I may not know this… intelligence, but I do know its body. I know bropato, and all that knowledge comes from before there was ever a questing beast. It doesn’t share that.
He hopped over the last stone and sprinted for the rough bropato at the sides of the chamber; he could hear the beast as it dropped to all fours and bounded after him. Its ragged breath never exhaled, like it was trying to suck him down its gullet. When his feet finally crackled against wood he turned to fight once again. The beast was right there, its hairy lips trying to get under his guard and pop him into the air like a bucking tilehoof.
It barely whined when the boy buried the paper cutter in one of its shoulders. He pulled the knife toward its face, slicing flesh but not drawing the rush of blood he hoped for. It finally got Alast off his feet, bouncing the boy on its flat head and tossing him away. Alast landed on a strip of wood barely wider than he was. It responded to the new weight by recoiling and pulling him along the wall.
Standing on the moving strip was not easy, but both combatants managed it. Alast thrust his saber, but the beast caught the flat edge in its mouth and wrenched the weapon away. It was thrown to the ground, where another strip of bropato slid over it. Nearly all the papery wood in the chamber was moving now, disturbed from its slumber by the fight. The beast lunged forward to bite again, but a sheet of wood crossed between them. The animal’s face made an imprint in the temporary wall before it backed up and sliced through.
Alast leapt away and grabbed a hanging sheet with his free hand. With his other he forced the paper cutter into its own material and held on tight. The sheet pulled him into the air as it curled upward and formed an upside down arch. That gave the monster something to latch onto. Before Alast could find another spot to jump to, it had ascended the opposite side of the sheet he hung from, peeked over the edge, and sunk its teeth into his left forearm.
The pain was incredible; his arm felt like a tooth pick snapped between two fingers. His hand released the knife, which tumbled away and cut his own leg on the way down. Too stunned to react, he could only stare in horror as the monster he made lifted him up. It shook its head back and forth like a haund with a bone. Muscle tore in Alast’s shoulder. As consuming as the agony was, it was pushed back by the dread injected into his mind at the tip of the questing beast’s fangs.
The boy’s pupils widened as it struck him. His mind moved further and further from the mangling of his arm until he saw himself sliding down something. It wasn’t bropato; it was the thin veil of life itself, like a trickle of water from an invisible faucet. He saw in it tens of thousands of foot, paw, and talon prints. He saw how close each of them came to ripping straight through it, and saw the endless blackness beneath. A boy and his questing beast: two pebbles cleaved from the same stone. Their collision created a spark and in the light of that spark Alast saw another gross truth: everything and everyone that called itself alive was never more than a heavy footfall away from death.
Arm shaking. Can’t hold cutter. That was the thought that brought him back to his body. He was on his back, tossed to the ground by the beast. His arm shook in front of him, big ragged holes in the flesh like sewer pipes with weeds growing over them. Blood flowed, the most colorful thing in the chamber, perhaps all of Metal Block. He could barely hold it up. I have to get to my feet. I have to use the bropato. He grabbed frantically for another knife in his belt. When he found one he sliced a strip from the bropato under him, thin enough to be pliant, and wrapped it around his arm like a bandage. Cutting the bropato disturbed it; the carpet under him started pulling again, lifting itself onto the wall where it might be safer.
Critch! Chik! The questing beast’s claws dug into the sheet he was on. It stalked towards him, ready to end both of their suffering. It struck with its claw again, hitting the bropato where Alast was a moment before. The chamber groaned as if hurt. Leaves of tan paper fell from the ceiling. The wood underneath them slid faster. Each bump of a stone underneath it threatened to knock them off. The boy held up his knife defensively, but another wicked swipe of the claw separated the blade from its handle. Alast had no weapons left and the questing beast was still attached to its sword.
He had to hop to the left as the side of the bropato curled up. His feet rapidly ran out of room. The beast turned sideways and continued towards him, undisturbed by the folding floor. Alast glanced behind him and saw the end of bropato carpet flattening against the wall, but there was something else too. He tried to look again, but the beast was upon him, its breath robbing him of any space to think. The claw swung again and Alast ducked under the curling edge of the wood. The brown sickle became lodged in the edge; that was his moment to confirm he saw what he thought he saw.
The bropato wasn’t just curling, it was coiling. There was energy being stored in its compacted form. It had been called ‘potential energy’ during his science lessons aboard the Mop, but he’d learned that lesson even before that. Once he had seen such a coiled piece of it, outside, on the hottest of harvesting days when some of the hidden plant came out to bathe in the florentshine. He’d reached out to cut it, to take it to Orbon and see if its strange behavior made it worth more than the rest, when it snapped upward. The wood retracted out of sight in half a moment, its whipping end cutting a huge gash in his shoulder. The scar was still there. Alast realized his mistake. The paper cutters were the right tactic, their bite sufficiently lethal, but they were much too small.
Of his clothes and equipment, only his boots remained in one piece. He needed them now. Alast clutched his injured arm close to his chest. The side of the bropato rubbed along his shirt as it continued to curl like a toil wave. The tips of his boots were pushed off. Now or death. He pushed down with all the strength he had left, leaping up onto the thin edge of the bropato. He wobbled back and forth, balance his only resource.
Not to be outdone, the beast jumped up as well. Anything Alast could do, it could match. Alast nearly lost his balance when he swiveled his head to look at the coil a final time. It was tensed. Any drip now. He tried to ignore the beast’s inhales and listen for the sound of it slicing through the air.
Clopf! The teeth closed a bubble from his nose. Alast leaned back. He couldn’t fall, not yet, but it was right there. The claw swung in again. He stepped back, and one foot slipped off, but he had to stay on. If he didn’t stay, it wouldn’t stay.
Thoosh! It was happening behind him. One of his heels started to lift. Alast threw himself to the ground. The beast’s head turned and its claws released their grip on the bropato’s edge. The wood was faster. It snapped against the wall, foams of the edge sliding along the soles of the beast’s feet. It bellowed in surprise as it watched the edge, the length of it coated in its dark stagnant blood, pull out from underneath. The plant dumped the beast onto the ground unceremoniously, its feet scored by tremendous paper cuts.
It could stand no longer. Porce was done repairing it. It pulled itself toward Alast, driving its longest claw into the ground like a stake. Its mouth fluttered open and closed like the shellfish of the mist breathing in the sopping air. Alast didn’t know where his saber was under all the layers. He threw himself at his beast, putting his weight on top of its head to keep its mouth closed.
“I’m sorry,” he cried as he pummeled it with a closed fist. Again and again he struck, bruising the side of his hand. The beast’s claw rose once more and Alast kicked it. He twisted his ankle against its wrist. He struck with his elbow, his hand, his elbow, his chest. Alast crushed the life out of it. Breath stopped entering its body. The last air it took in came out when Alast slammed his hand on the back of its neck. “I’m sorry,” he said a second time, a whimper now.
He rested there, atop his foe, because he didn’t have the energy to move away. Its body rapidly decomposed, yet its stench lessened. Its fur turned to dust and its skin clung closer and closer to its bones. Only when one of the notches on its spine dug painfully into Alast’s side did he roll off its body. The boy watched the last leaves of paper shaken loose from their battle twirl down to him. The bropato walls stopped sliding, returning silence to the shrine.
When he had the strength he stood. Questing beasts. Which god would invent such a thing? Who are they to say my struggle was not great enough? Nothing but a roadblock, no goal of its own. They are confused. Nature is not stagnation; it is constant violent change. I am constant violent change. I am painfully sprouting a new name, bleeding and dying to attain glorious growth. If they had their way no tree would ever bear fruit.
Cardinal Second bobbed along stoically as ever as the boy pulled it by the chain toward the shrine. He stepped over the rolling spheres and climbed the stairs. The space inside the shrine was smaller than it looked from outside, shrunken by the cloying white flowers of the bropato. They had grown to cover every bubble of the walls, floors, and ceilings inside. The only object untouched was a square stone pedestal devoid of even basic decorative carving.
Alast undid the chain around the cardinal tile; it dropped to the floor and disappeared between the blossoms. He put three fingers up against the tile’s side and gently pushed. It floated over the pedestal and stuck. It began to rotate regularly. There came the sound of a shudder from the bropato in the chamber, but that was all. The boy expected to feel something in his bones, to feel something righted, but nothing happened.
It is the gravitation of the world itself, he reasoned. How would something as tiny as me even feel it? It is a force bigger than my mind. It moving put us all in danger of annihilation, but we corrected it. It may be too big for me to feel, but not to influence. I can change things, whether the world wants me to or not. He took a step back. Nothing at all continued to happen. He sighed.
“Nice to know you,” he told the tile. He waved goodbye. Upon exiting the shrine he found that the revolving stones now followed their paths in the air, about chest-high. He ran his fingers over them as he passed through, feeling their flawlessness. Striking as they were, they did not grow either. Their sheen was simply the result of being worn down by the tile’s gravitation. They were stuck in their ways, unlike the bropato.
Past the floating orbs Alast was stopped by an unusual sight. His saber stood upright in front of him, suspended by pale twisting strips of young bropato. They were so new that he could see through them. Alast reached out and took the weapon by its hilt. The strips receded under an older sheet of the wood. Whatever it knows, it knows me. It knows I did the right thing. The return of his weapon wasn’t the only service the bropato provided. A curved piece of it, just wide enough to sit on, presented itself to him. Alast dropped into it; it was the first time he’d ever felt cradled by it. Back when he was a harvester he’d cut himself a thousand times, nearly fallen to his death when pieces broke away, but now he felt he could curl up inside it and sleep.
The bropato carried him out of the chamber. Everything he passed earlier rushed by: the stars, the rummins, and the shifting layers across the walls. Air rushed through his hair, drying the sweat in it. As it carried him out, he noticed something. His arm was riddled with pain, but there was something different between the sting of the drying blood and the paleness of drained flesh. He stared at his hand, the light of the stars still strong enough for him to make out its silhouette. His arm was trembling, but his fingers were not.
He checked his other hand, opening and closing his fingers. Despite his condition, they felt strong. They felt like they could grip a pen without wavering the words. What the rope bridge had done to his hands had finally been undone. He wondered if it was his reward for besting the beast. It was more likely, he decided, that the newer and more severe injury to his arm toughened it. It didn’t have time to tremble the fingers when it was busy repairing the tissue along its entire length.
If I had a pen I would write Pearlen a letter right now, while I am steady. I’d write it right here on my seat. Tell her how I’ve grown. Tell her how that life of adventure I promised her is properly budding.
The bropato held him far above their stink, but Alast could hear Knobby and his herd chewing and shuffling as he passed over them. They were close to the entrance. A tenth drop later, without warning, the bropato went limp and dumped him to his feet. There was a moment of fear because he could not see the ground in the darkness, but it was right there to catch him. There was a ray of the florent off to one side. The boy moved slowly towards it.
Captain Rob became visible against the bropato. He had one shoulder leaning into it, and he was staring down under the hanging sheet at the World Floor. He said nothing when Alast leaned his own shoulder against the opposite wall. The sheet rumbled, and then cracked. It split down the middle like the curtain opening on a stage. The entire world opened up for them to see. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Doors, Walls, Toils, Wilds. The serene resting room of bygone giants. A refuge from the harshness of life itself.
“Is this view your doing?” Rob asked. Alast shrugged. “Good work boy. Do you know the story they tell about the first questing beast?”
“There was a woman: Persibling Textr. She had a bath bead that could bring the dead back to life. Her husband had passed and she wished to restore him, but the ruling power in the land considered him an instigator of unrest, so they stole his body away and locked it at the top of an incredible tower, so tall it was visible from any wall. Persibling was undaunted. She began to climb its winding stairs.
The rule of the questing beast was new, fresh from the quill of the gods, and she didn’t know what she had started. At the bottom of the tower an invisible thing lived, barely more than a breeze, but with every stair she climbed it grew in strength. Soon she could hear its footsteps behind her, but she could see nothing. The higher she climbed the more it swelled, the hungrier it grew.
When she reached the top she turned to see all her efforts made dark: the first questing beast. She was so shocked she couldn’t react. It stabbed her through the heart. Her body and her bead dropped back to the ground. The beast followed a moment after, because its victory meant death.”
“Why are you telling me this?” the boy asked.
“Because you need to understand the difference between a folk who tries to make the world better and one who tries to stop it. If the stopper wins, even if they experience that momentary height, their damage will be done and they will hurt themselves along with everyone else. Every moment must be spent combatting folk like that.”
“You don’t strike me as a protector of Porce.”
“Of course I am. I live in it.” They stood in silence for a while, watching small birds peck at the exposed parts of the bropato caused by its splitting. Alast knew they were looking for nesting material. He thought about warning them against building a home so close to the mist. Where is my nest?
“The cardinal tile is returned,” Alast said. “You have no use for me anymore. Are you going to leave me here?”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Rob chastised. He picked a tiny white flower from the wall and examined it, as if his eyes could see smaller things than anyone else’s, as if each petal was a world unto itself full of crawling things and things burrowing into the aromatic flesh. “You’re a capable fighter and you’re reliable in a pinch. You’re flushed with rich experience now; there’s no reason to set you adrift. There’s no one I’d rather have scrubbing my floors.”
“It’s a pleasure to be aboard Captain.” Alast used a finger to scrape some bark away from the wall. Under it he found pale splinters, soft enough to eat. He pinched a few away and held them in the air to make a toast. “To many more adventures aboard the Greedy Old Mop.” Rob mimicked him and grabbed a little of his own.
“To making the world know your name.”
“And to making the world know your name!” They popped the bropato into their mouths and chewed.
“So what is it?” Captain Rob asked as he moved away from the wall and adjusted his fur collar.
“Your surname boy.” Alast put one hand on his hip and let the fingers of the other fan out over the land before him.
“What did I say about being dramatic?”
Blaine Arcade Won’t get out of the Bathroom
That’s what people were probably saying about me anyway. Getting all this copied down, edited, and slightly modified so it was in a readable state was not a small task. You’ll know why I devoted so much of my time to what was likely obsessive graffiti if you remember what I said at the beginning. I view all of this as true.
I know some of it is true. All those parts about the world being indifferent? Come on. Porce and Earth have that in common. Our world wasn’t designed; it’s just a slimy rock in space. Their world was designed, but not for them. Alast’s struggle for a name is the same struggle any human faces, no matter how many times larger we are. We want to be known. We want to be recognized. Even though our logic tells us not to expect that recognition from the world, we want it anyway.
Now for the real reason I think it’s true. That day wasn’t the hardest work I had to do in a bathroom stall. The strain was much greater the other three times. That’s right. It happened three more times and you won’t believe what came out. The sights! The sounds! The story of Captain Rob the sink pirate is far from over.
Three more times I found myself in a public restroom stall, surrounded by walls of scrawl. A different building each time. Nobody possibly could have prepared them for me; after the second one I deliberately avoided telling people whenever I went out to make sure. Since nobody could have the time or the foreknowledge to do these things, that means something else is leaving these stories for me. Something with great, if idiosyncratic, power.
I think the only reason it picked me was because I wrote the first one down. I took the bait. It knows I’m the kind of person with piles of free time and a social life so frail it can’t stand up to a bathroom mystery. I encourage you to keep reading as I release these tales; you may come to believe them as I do. There are three more Captain Rob stories to tell, and each contains revelations about their lives and the fate of our worlds.
Of course… I don’t expect you to believe it. That would be absurd. You can just have fun with them. Maybe you just need something to read on the can.