Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Raw Man Reverse Siren Stone Skipper
The raw man walked out of his cave to scavenge for his morning breakfast. It wouldn’t be too difficult, for, just as it was every morning, the food was strewn about his home in messy clumps. He had heard it land, nasty rain, the night before. He was at the point now where the sound was soothing enough to help him get to sleep. Lots of splats and splurts meant he would eat well the next day.
His bare feet on the cold slab of stone helped wake him up. The daylight they got at the bottom of Ill Pit was weak, obscured by the rain, debris, and the monster herself: Eeln. The raw man had a good spot, and he had it all to himself, because nobody else would eat the drippings from above. They had scraped, scoured, and tinkered to find seeds and fish with which to make tiny farms and ponds in their forgotten damned home.
Now they thought they had dignity with their tiny houses made from shipwrecks and their clothes made from sailcloth. The raw man was one of the few who accepted the truth. They were discarded. They were refuse. They might as well embrace it. He embraced it that morning with the front half of a kelpy biter fish. They were hideous creatures with slimy cheeks and teeth like a bear’s, but the raw man had found that the meat in those cheeks was among the sweetest things he had ever tasted.
He strolled over to his favorite spot, not caring that he squished another fish’s eyeball between his toes, and sat down on a slightly sparkly rock. It had dropped down into the Ill Pit like everything else, from a ship that Eeln had captured, destroyed, and partially eaten. The rest of the stones had landed at the pit’s center, where an endless dark whirlpool sucked them down to the center of the world. That pool sang a constant song of siphoning, of rock weathering away as water tugged on it. The raw man also found that soothing at this point.
He stared up at the settlement the other outcasts had created, their little community of fiction, and watched them pass by the edge of the stone lip. Many of them fished over the side, their lines hanging in front of the raw man’s home like permanent streaks of rain. He disliked them, but never enough to snatch their catch off the hook as they brought it up. Many of them deserved it though, because they would look down at him in disgust and spit on his home, simply for rejecting their togetherness.
A woman stared at him currently. She had a basket of laundry on her hip, and a child clasped around her opposite thigh. The raw man ripped the cheek off his meal and chewed open-mouthed, wondering if that child had been born in the pit. That, he thought, was cruel. If so she had made a family just to pretend their tiny world was something worth living.
More than two hundred lived in that village, with a handful of others avoiding it like the plague as the raw man did. There was the reverse siren, that woman who sang that atrocious song every morning, who lived on the opposite side of the pit. He never saw her, only heard her wailing, because the tail of Eeln was always in the way. Sometimes it shook back and forth, stirring up the whirlpool and threatening to wash out some of the raw man’s belongings, but usually the beast was calm. He’d never seen Eeln’s head either, apart from it when it ate his ship and he fell to the Ill Pit. She was a mighty beast, bigger than half the gods in the land.
The stone skipper similarly avoided the villagers. He was young and obsessed with the magical things that fell on occasion. He’d even enchanted a long flat stone so he could skip across the waters of the pit whenever he wanted. The raw man was satisfied to simply eat. He was nearly finished with his fish head when something new fell and struck his stone. It had to be trouble, because it certainly wasn’t edible.
A Decorated Tusk A Strange Helm An Ubreakable Hourglass
It made a sound that nearly ripped through the raw man’s ear drums the same way he had torn into the poor green fish. By all rights it should’ve shattered, but there it was, perfectly intact: an hourglass with pale green sand and a bronze base. It bounced back and forth on the stone, suffering not even a crack, and then started to roll away on its side.
The raw man stared dumbly at it for a moment, a strip of yellowish flesh hanging from his lips. There was a slight incline to the stone, so ina few moments it would roll off the edge and be lost to the swirling waters below. Perhaps this was why the villagers bothered to build fences out of their spare wood and metal. He waited. He just wasn’t sure if he cared about the bauble. He spared a glance for the woman above and her scowl. It had turned into wide eyes and an open mouth. The raw man could tell she wanted it. Whatever it was, rubbing it in her face was likely worth the effort.
The raw man dropped the shredded head and lunged for the hourglass. He bashed his knees on the stone, but he immediately lifted himself and crawled as fast as he could. The hourglass leaned over the side… and hung there as the raw man gripped the edge of its base with two fingertips. He slurped down the strip of flesh in his mouth and swallowed it. He thought he heard a few gasps from above.
The raw man ignored the twinge in his back and pushed aside the questions of how long he’d been in the pit. Back when he first got there he never had to worry about back pain. He leveraged the hourglass back up, crossed his legs, and cradled the object in his lap. He smeared fish grease all over its glass as he examined it.
It seemed normal enough, with the exception of its durability. The sand flowed back and forth with the motion of his hands. The bronze was cool to the touch, with a slight skin of salt on it from the chaos of its circumstances. The raw man stood up and turned around to see how the woman would handle the sight of his prize. She had gone. He frowned. At least there were three or four others watching, jealousy on their faces. The raw man was about to take his prize inside, set it down somewhere, and forget about it forever, but someone called out to him.
“Raw man!” he looked up. A girl. Her eyes didn’t have the same narrow judgment of the rest. “That’s time.”
“It’s an hourglass,” he corrected. His voice caught in his throat. When was the last time he’d spoken to someone? Talking to the big empty conch shells under his roof and waiting for the words to come back on the tide of ocean sounds didn’t count.
“It’s time to us,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Nothing that measures time makes it down here safe. They all break. We have to use drippings.”
“What’s wrong with drippings? I’ve got things dripping everywhere. Half of them are on me.” He grunted at his own joke and picked a tiny fish bone out of his teeth.
“I’m just telling you that thing’s worth a lot up here. You could come trade for anything you want, but it’s your business.” Her head disappeared back over the edge. The raw man wondered. Did he want for anything? Rope. Fine rope. Most of it caught on the village because they put up nets to snag that sort of thing. He’d given up on leaving the pit, but if he had rope he could climb. Higher up he could find fresher food. That was his want. How to get up to the village?
He’d thought about it. There was a way or two. Or three. The reverse siren had a ladder of her own, because she sometimes shopped in the village in exchange for the litter that hit her home. The stone skipper could probably magic him up there. Or, he could barter with one of the fishermen to send down a rope. All made him uncomfortable, but he just imagined the sweet sound of fine rope holding his weight all the way up to Eeln’s waist, or her breast, or maybe even her neck.
Siren’s Ladder Skipper’s Magic Bartered Passage
The raw man hadn’t gotten a close look at a woman in what had to be years, so he let that sway him in the direction of the siren. Her face couldn’t possibly be as bad as the song she sang. Even if it was, her body couldn’t possibly be as bad as the song she sang. No woman was that cursed.
There was a ridge of stone, enoug for most of his feet, that he could use to shimmy around the pit. It might take a few hours, he might die, but those in the Ill Pit were partly dead already. He walked back to his home and scrutinized his belongings for anything he might need. If he was going into the village he definitely needed a shirt. Luckily, he had a nice one with minimal frills and only five holes in it. Only one of them was big enough to get a fist through.
What else? He grabbed a hat to hide his eyes and a simple sack to throw the hourglass in. Shoes? No shoes. He had to maintain some of his persona. He wanted to earn at least a few sneers and scowls. He ran a hand through his beard. It was sufficiently filthy to add to the amount. He needed nothing more.
The raw man set out across the edge of his stone, the pathway growing narrower and wetter by the minute. In no time at all he had his back to the wall of the pit and his clothes were soaked from the various waterfalls and drippings. Halfway across he saw the ridge of Eeln’s tail fin. Water from above made bouncy sounds off it like rain on a tarp. He wondered if the beast had any awareness of him. Rumors had it that she had many heads spread aross her body, but the tail was definitely clean of eyes.
A leaping fish knocked the thoughts out of his head as it struck him in the face. He nearly fell to his doom. Just as well. He wasn’t used to doing anything out of his little burrow. He shimmied the rest of the way and found the siren’s home. He leapt to her plateau.
It was much cleaner than his home, the stone wiped of meaty debris every morning, and she had put up curtains to act as doors. She was outside at the moment though, singing her terrible song. For the first time the raw man could see that she was singing it up, throwing the notes into the air like a geyser. Unfortunately, they always came back down. He cleared his throat. If the singing had been good he would not have interrupted. She ceased and turned to face him.
She was around his age, with wild dirty blonde hair and permanent lines from the singing. They weren’t quite as clean as smile lines; they looked more like the drag marks of a plow. Still, she certainly did not look as bad as her song.
“I was hoping to use your ladder,” he said simply. Then he remembered that manners existed. He removed his had, held it against his chest, and bowed slightly.
She nodded and pointed to the other side of the plateau. There was a metal ladder there, the rungs just flat enough to walk across without having to lean forward. He bowed a little deeper and headed straight for it. He was on the fifth rung when curiosity got the better of him.
“What is that singing you always do?” he asked her.
“I’m trying to get Eeln to listen,” she answered.
“Even if the beast did, I doubt she’d like it.”
“That’s my hope. She’ll either toss me out of the pit or eat me. Either way this existence will end.” She turned back and resumed the grating melody.
“Fair enough.” The raw man completed his trek across the ladder and dropped into the village proper. On a normal day every eye would’ve been on him, but the people were distracted. The raw man walked forward. No one was talking, yelling, or running about. The people he saw were still, pressed into corners with fear in their eyes. The only movement of the men was their Adam’s apples bobbing up and down as they swallowed their fear.
The raw man wandered around a corner and saw the source of their troubles.
Escaped Livestock The Hourglass Owner A Colorful Fire
There was a man, a very strange man, a man whose strangeness towered over that of the raw man, standing amidst the ruins of someone’s basket stand. By the look of things he’d just destroyed it. The wood looked very old in places: dry and brittle. A colorful energy emanated in wispy trails from the man’s nail beds.
He brought himself to his full height, causing the denizens of the pit to retract even more. Only the raw man was unphased. The new fellow had a beard with a color that just couldn’t be pinned down. He had wide eyes scrunched up under knots of wrinkled skin. His clothes were practically divine compared to the sailcloth most around him wore. His boots were polished and he had tassels on both his sleeves and his pant legs.
“You,” the man said, pointing a smoking finger at the raw man.
“Me,” the raw man answered. He already had a feeling regarding the situation. The man before him looked strong, well-crafted, and aged; he was the human equivalent of the hourglass he carried in his bag.
“You are the only one I haven’t asked. Keep in mind these people were not forthcoming with me. I’ve had something misplaced. An hourglass.”
“That creature has it,” a woman blurted. It was the same woman with the laundry who had watched him snag the treasure. All her clothes were spilled across the ground and bore footprints heading in several directions.
“It is true,” the raw man conceded. He brought out the hourglass and held it up. “I am no thief. It simply fell to my home. I am amazed it did not break.”
“It cannot break,” the man said. His tone suggested that everyone in the world should have known it. “You’ll need to come with me.”
“I’ll need to provide evidence that my delay was not my fault. You, as an imbecile, will make excellent evidence. Idiots are the gods’ favorite excuses. I can’t blame this damn monster; she’s the favored pet of the ruler of the seas.”
“Why did you misplace it in the first place?” the raw man challenged. He had no desire to be scolded like an incontinent dog in front of one of the world’s craftsmen.
“I said I had something misplaced, not that I had misplaced it. It cannot break and I cannot make mistakes. It was the slippery hands of one of my crewman; he was also an imbecile. Too afraid of Eeln as she picked up our sanctioned vessel, without cause, and devoured it.” He shouted without cause once more, up towards Eeln’s invisible head.
“It’s a lot of trouble for an hour,” the raw man said of the amount of time he assumed the hourglass contained.
“An hour he says. An hour,” the man guffawed sarcastically. “I am Entin Tempro. I ferry time for the gods. That is not one hour. That is six thousand years. It cannot be broken because you cannot break time. It breaks you. I’m surprised you’ve held it so long without any ill effects.”
“Time all feels the same for me,” the raw man said honestly. Entin approached him, but the raw man held his ground. Entin was taller than he thought, so he didn’t fight him when the cracked wall of a man put one hand on his shoulder and the other on the hourglass.
“Hold on,” Entin warned. A second later they were surrounded by a cyclone of colors. Their feet lifted off the stone. They rose. The raw man thought that at least this was better than climbing his way up on any lousy rope, but he didn’t know if he would come out of it alive. Six thousand years was a lot to take, even for his body. It could digest almost any creature, but an age? Certainly not. They came to a stop only halfway up the pit. One of Eeln’s many heads was before them. They stared at it and it stared back.
Comical Head Confused Head Aching Head
The head had bulging eyes full of purple pupil. It lacked a nose, but its breathing was still full of mucus. Its forehead was swollen and the fins in place of ears drooped. Entin didn’t acknowledge it immediately. He simply released the raw man, took the hourglass, and wandered about the filthy plateau, trying to judge how much further up they had to go to reach the mouth of the cavern and the monster.
“Damn it all to Synchronous Shallows,” Entin swore under his breath. “In six thousand years, neither of us would have made it higher than this,” he said to the confused raw man. The head of Eeln grunted, but the time keeper still paid no attention. “Six thousand years of possibilities and we can’t get out. We’ll have to find another way.”
“You’ll have to be quiet!” the head scolded, recoiling from the volume of its own voice. It sneezed. If there had been a nose it would have drowned both the men in snot, but all it could do was swallow it down. “Oh my aching head.”
“Your aching head,” Entin said. “No headache has ever been worse than the entirety of this damn pit. First this smelly fellow,” he gestured to the raw man, “and now a head full of slime breathing infection in every direction.”
“Shut up!” the aching head roared. “Shut up shut up shut up!” The raw man had an idea. He snuck up behind Entin as he searched for more paths up, snatched the hourglass away, and bolted over to Eeln’s neglected head. He placed the glass of it against its forehead like a cold compress. Its sands fluctuated a moment, there was a colorful cyclone inside, and then the raw man pulled it away.
Entin snatched it back a moment later. He raised a hand, ready to smack a few decades out of the raw man and send a skeleton to the floor, but before he could strike he saw the relief on the monstrous face before them. The eyes were clearer, the head a little less swollen, and the fins a little less droopy. It smiled, an expression only endearing to someone as depraved and lonely as the raw man.
“Oh thank you!” it said. “Where did you get that wonderful medicine? Give it to me! Let me swallow it!” It opened its mouth wide, gill slits showing, and stuck out a tongue large enough to use as a bed. “Aaaaaaaaahhhh…”
“If you swallowed this you’d turn to dust,” Entin told it. He wiped the bottom of his boot on its tongue. The monster pulled it back in, but its enthusiasm had not waned. “What did you do?” he asked the raw man.
“Six thousand years of possibilities,” the raw man repeated, tapping his head like it was an overstuffed treasure chest. “I just found one of the ones where he didn’t have a headache.”
“Excuse me,” the hideous head said. “I’m a woman’s head, thank you very much.”
“Apologies,” the raw man offered. “I don’t think the cure is permanent though, I’m sorry.”
“Could’ve guessed as much,” the aching female head said. “Heads growing everywhere, never getting any attention. Eeln never bothered to grow me a nose. Some have no eyes. Some no mouth. I thought I had a neighbor once, turned out to just be a wart.”
“That’s fascinating,” Entin said, “but we need to get out of here. These years are needed elsewhere. Can you tell your mother, or whatever, to reach down and grab me and my excuse here? The gods will not be pleased when they find out you had a tongue in my tardiness.”
“I’ve no say in anything,” the head said, eyes dragged down. “We heads come and go, growing in and out. We don’t have lives of our own.”
“Would you mind death?” the raw man asked it. He had another idea brewing. With all that intellect he’d been neglecting he probably could’ve built a flying machine and escaped the Ill Pit ages ago.
“It would take Eeln’s death for me to really die,” the head said. “Going back in would be a relief. No more stopped up slime in my noggin. Just the old fun of the flowing blood.”
“Perhaps,” the raw man said, addressing them both, “in the six thousand years there is a different head in this spot. One that also wishes to sneeze, but that has a nose to do it with. A sneeze from a head that size could send us flying.”
“You’re the smartes imbecile I’ve ever met,” Entin said with a snap of his fingers. He brought the hourglass closer to the head. It eagerly leaned forward. There was another cyclone as its magic took effect. The head disappeared, regrew, disappeared, regrew, and came back once more with a different face and sizable nose. It breathed deep, deep, deep, and sneezed.
The two men were blown upward, all the way to the mouth of the cavern, landing just under Eeln’s real chin, her speaking chin. All around them was the debris of a thousand half-eaten ships. Lengths of wood and bent silverware were stuck betweeen Eeln’s razor sharp teeth. Before they could stand her salty breath was on them, her thin pupils narrowing in hunger. She didn’t care about Entin’s prestige. The raw man only had time for one lunge, but in which direction?
Out to Sea Under Eeln’s Chin Push Entin to the Side
He’d been a lump, consuming other lumps, for enough time to fill one of those hourglasses, so he figured there was no reason to not try being a hero. He lunged and wrapped his arms around Entin’s waist, throwing both of them to the side and out of the way of Eeln’s teeth. Their ivory points raked across the ground, tearing up dirt and splitting wood.
Entin hopped back to his feet as soon as he was able and held up the hourglass. Eeln had finally seen it. If she tried to eat them now, there could be trouble. Formidable as she was, she was barely a smudge on the map compared to her parents: serpents that could encircle the world in their yawns. She closed her mouth and sighed, leaning up against the rock wall.
The raw man took his chance to see the open sky and water. The opening of the pit was a small island, more of a volcano really, with all its magma and ash replaced with Eeln’s winding body. He took a deep breath and realized it did actually smell better than all the blobs of fish, warm as the air, that he had eaten off the rock. The spirit of a man, suppressed inside him by boredom and hunger, was reinvigorated. It was like a bird in his chest flapping its wings and calling out its intentions to the rest of the world.
“You see this?” Entin scolded Eeln. “Sanctioned. Sanctioned time keeper. You took my vessel and you took my men. You ate most of them. What do you have to say for yourself?” Eeln looked away and scratched at the rock with a black fingernail. She whimpered.
“I didn’t see your colors,” she said weakly.
“I’m sure!” Entin yelled at her. “You know what. You’re my excuse now. I don’t need the imbecile. In fact, I’m going to reward him for keeping me out of your big fat mouth.”
“My mouth isn’t fat,” Eeln countered, but she still wouldn’t look them in the eye. She scratched quite the line into the stone. The raw man wondered if those rocks would hit any of the villagers on the way down. Entin turned to the raw man and held out the hourglass.
“Six thousand years,” he said. “Pick one. Go there. Live a real life… and take a bath every once in a while.” The raw man reached out with a greasy finger.