Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
The door was stuck; it seemed even the rust around town didn’t want him loitering. It was best not to let the village or its people see him downtrodden, so Goldin just pushed against the door until it finally gave way and sprayed rust flakes all over the ground. He stepped out with a deep breath and a smile. Goldin Fella was one of those men of indeterminate age who always seemed better defined by his mood than his position in society or daily luck.
When he was happy he was younger, faster, and more talkative. When he was sombre he seemed barely there, like someone completely hidden inside their raincoat, refusing to move until the downpour was over. This meant enthusiasm came with all the advantages, so he did his best to maintain it, not the easiest thing in such an elitist place.
Goldin started his walk down to the marketplace, passing by other stone houses and a creek littered with old black anchors left over from when it was a much deeper river. They made the water taste like metal, but that was fine as the village of Ferritweel was largely composed of metal anyway. It was already two decades past the order from the gods. The order stated that humans needed to reduce their overall ‘humanness’, as it was bothering most other lifeforms.
Ferritweel used its supply of magics to mix man with metal. It was quite clever, both complying with the gods’ order broadly and allowing individuals to excel at various industries by reducing the vulnerability of their flesh. Goldin passed two playing children with rust hair; one’s head looked like a tent and the other like a collapsed beaver dam. Their mothers probably warned them to stay out of the water, but it was obvious that they disobeyed and cared little for tarnishing.
One of them stuck their tongue out at Goldin; he was happy to return the favor. He couldn’t compete with their rudeness, as he had nothing to compete with. Mr. Fella was still wholly flesh and bone, resulting in his rather low status in Ferritweel. The city council might come for him eventually and cast him out to improve their compliance statistic, but until then he would do whatever he could to stay.
Before the time of the order his family had lived there, and all that was left of them was the house and a few metal bones he prayed to each night. He had his father’s funny bone and his mother’s skull. Interestingly, he knew exactly how much they loved each other in life, for as bones they demonstrated a form of magnetism that would draw them to each other, but nothing else, from a distance of over six feet. He was the product of six full feet of love, and he thought it no coincidence that he was exactly six feet tall.
Of course, every silver lining has the ability to rust, so his height wasn’t always a help. It allowed someone to spot him over a small hill and come running up, stopping him from crossing the copper bridge into town. Goldin had no friends in the village, not yet, so they couldn’t possibly have business with him. He tried to side step, but the man matched him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the man asked, forcing Goldin to examine him. He was a decade older, depending on how young Goldin felt that day, but his scowl pushed eighty. His receding gray hair was usually hidden under a hat, but it seemed to have fallen in the stream in his hurry to get in Goldin’s way. The most notable feature was his eyes: glittering golden irises spinning like a stirred mixture of honey and fresh rain.
“Just to the market,” Goldin said casually. “I don’t know what I’ve done to draw the attention of a shimmering high society man like yourself.”
“Do you know what these are?” the man asked, pointing at his yellow eyes.
“Those are your eyes. Are you fishing for compliments, because they are lovely. Who did them? Was it your mother? My mother made mine and I couldn’t be more pleased, but yours seems a mite more talented. Could I get her address? Mayhaps she could fix up mine…”
“Enough with your foolishness!” the man barked, poking Goldin in the chest. “I am Golden Farf Atfoot. You know very well these eyes come from the table. It is not the market you seek, but an undeserved audience before the table.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because I’ve seen it,” he said, tapping the surface of his eyes and making a sound like a teaspoon on an eggshell. “The table gilded my eyes and made me a Golden, one of only four in Ferritweel. It should stay at four. Any more would cheapen the title.”
“I agree, which is why I was off to buy some cheese. It’s a lovely edible kind of gold and you need no special qualification to consume it.”
“Liar!” Farf yipped again. “Being a Golden doesn’t just make you pretty. It gives you a power. With my golden eyes I see the future. Like that kid falling and losing a tooth.” A moment later they heard one of the rusty children crying. Goldin turned around to see them holding their face. It seemed they had tripped and smashed their smile on one of the anchors in the creek bed. “I see harmless things all the time, like what people are going to have for breakfast, but you will not be having cheese. I’ve seen you going into the table’s shrine and tricking it into making you a Golden.”
“Really? I’m going to do that today?” Farf nodded. “I had no idea. I better get on that then, so if you’ll excuse me.” He tried to walk through Farf again, but the man grabbed him by the arms and shook him violently.
“You think you deserve it just because your name is Goldin. That’s a fool’s reason. The rest of us earned and used a different metal first. You’re supposed to earn your metal. Consider this your warning. If I see you with so much as a fool’s gold grin, I’m going to run you through with a pig iron pitchfork. Am I clear?”
“As a crystal ball,” Goldin assured him. Farf scowled once more before turning and following the stream, likely to reclaim his hat. “It’s a good thing the table didn’t gild his bald spot. Might be too shiny to look at then.” Goldin crossed the bridge and came to the fork in the road that cleaved the possibilities for the rest of his day.
Farf said he was to visit the table and trick it into making him respectable. Was that even possible? How would he do it? There was an audition process for all the other Goldens. They went before the table and recounted their greatest accomplishment or feat of heroism. Then the table, a magical machine constructed by the gods, assigned them a metallic element as a representation of their tale. The greater the achievement the more precious the metal they wore from then on.
Ferritweel was divided into several tiers based on these assignments. Below the Golden stood the Silver. So on and so forth from Copper to Iron to lesser materials that almost immediately rusted. He’d never seen the table in person, just looked at depictions of it back in his school days. It was a board of various equal-sized squares that each contained the information for a chemical element. Such things were provided by the gods to facilitate humanity’s humbling transformations to more agreeable states.
“I know what to do,” Goldin said, slapping himself on the forehead. “What everybody else did!” He knew the procedure, so all he had to do was repeat it. He had no accomplishments of his own, he spent most days wandering in the woods and talking to whichever parent-bone he’d brought with him that day, but stories could be borrowed. Determining which stories were the best was also quite simple; he just had to visit the other Goldens. The Goldin who hadn’t earned his metal yet took his first real step of the day… away from the market.
He didn’t know Farf’s story, and the man wasn’t likely to give it up, so Goldin went to the barbershop where one of the others lived, high in Ferritweel where littering was a capitol offense. Plenty of people gave him odd looks, as his only shine came from his sweat. Many of these people were alloys, having earned two different metals over the course of their lives. A pewter-cheeked woman spit on him while walking her electrum poodle. It seemed even the pets were better respected than him.
The barbershop itself was full of grinding noises and sparks: unfortunate side effects of metal hair. The friendliest Golden was a hairdresser there: a woman named Mirrel. She had a ponytail of braided gold beads that swung back and forth with every word. Goldin found her taking a pair of whetstone knuckles to a towering creation of chrome atop the scalp of the local theater director.
“Excuse me, Miss Mirrel?” Goldin addressed as politely as possible.
“Yes? You want a cut?” She walked over and ran a hand through his hair, standing on tiptoe to do so. “Natural? I haven’t done natural in an age. Do we even have scissors around here anymore?” Her head whipped around in search, battering poor Goldin with her solid ponytail.
“I’m not here for a cut,” he explained. “I’ve been told that I’m to visit the table later today and I’m very nervous. You’ve been and obviously succeeded. Would you mind sharing a few tips?”
“As long as you share first,” she said with a wink, tapping a glass jar labeled ‘tips’. Goldin dug out his one and only coin, he used it to pick his teeth, and dropped it into the jar. ‘What do you want to know?” She went back to buffing the chrome-domed man.
“Just tell me your story as you told it. I want to feel the awe the table felt. I want to feel like giving you gold.” Mirrel obliged. She was also kind enough to tell him where he could find the other two Goldens. His next stop would be Andrite: the man with the golden smile. He could usually found riding aluminum horses on the polo field.
When Goldin arrived he was dismayed to see Golden Andrite in the middle of a match. They played rather aggressively, what with all their mounts being armored. The horses crashed together with such frequency and din that Goldin couldn’t yell over it. He only caught flashes of Andrite smiling whenever his team was winning. His teeth were just as impressive as the hair and eyes he’d already seen.
“Are you cheering for Andrite?” a young woman asked. She knew only that Goldin was yelling, similarly unable to hear the substance of it over another horse crash. Goldin was only able to answer when a small break was called, as one of the copper players had bent one of their legs all out of shape and needed to be escorted to the medical smith.
“I am,” Goldin said. “He sits on that animal very well. Was it a victory in this sport that earned him those teeth?”
“Oh no,” the fan said with a giggle. “That story is far more exciting. I’ve heard him tell it when he was scratching his name onto my autograph plates.” She brought out a collection of thin metal sheets covered in white scratches from the various celebrities of Ferritweel and villages beyond. “That tale goes like this…”
The last of the Goldens was an older man named Schenk. His fingernails were gilded, and rather easy to spot whenever he was bidding at auction. That was where Goldin Fella found him, in a sea of chairs and hands all fighting over a bottle of silver-silt wine aged more than a decade. Goldin stole the seat next to him the moment it became unoccupied.
“Who are you?” Schenk asked in a whisper.
“Goldin Fella, spelled with an I, but I’m looking to spell it with an E. I have an appointment with the table today. The other Goldens have been so kind as to tell me how they earned their metal, and they told me you were the kindest of all.”
“They said no such thing,” Schenk grumbled. “Do you even know how I earned these nails?”
“No. Tell me.” Schenk did so.
The evening was only just beginning when Goldin made it to the steps of the table’s shrine. There were no guards, as there was no destroying something made by the gods. All were supposed to improve themselves with the elements of nature, so no soul could be barred from entering. Almost everyone in the town had already gone before the table and gotten their scrap metal, so the shrine was empty.
Goldin walked in to the rather square building and took note of its weak candle lighting. All the candles were quite tall and none of them dripped. It wasn’t too difficult to figure out why; the floor was the table! Pictograms and numbers representing each element flashed from tile to tile. It certainly wouldn’t do to have a hot piece of wax or flaming shred of wick touch the tile for magnesium now would it?
The doors shut behind him all on their own, scaring him into stepping on both argon and oxygen, the latter of which blasted him with a gust of wind and pushed him yet further in. The table of human elements was so much more boring as a diagram. Up until that moment he had thought it wouldn’t be bigger than a chalkboard.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I don’t know where to stand. This is all new to me.” The shifting of the tiles and their colors slowed. A blank tile appeared in the middle of the chamber. A moment later the shadows on it morphed into a recreation of Goldin’s face. He walked to it, stood tall, and chuckled. “Heh, now I’m stepping all over myself. Please, you do an introduction.”
The table of human elements had no voice to offer, only its test. It was a divine machine with a limited number of responses. The names of the elements on the tile faded away, keeping only certain letters. Radon was reduced to just an O and cobalt to a T. The remaining letters grouped together and formed a statement.
Tell your tale and earn your mettle
“That I can do,” Goldin began. He wanted to walk back and forth while he spoke, but the table didn’t provide any other clear tiles. It would just have to be the words and how well he could pretend they were his own.
“Let me tell you a tale of hair,” he went on. “There once was a little girl with an iron scalp. Her family couldn’t earn anything fancier, and there was little she could do to decorate it. She was the subject of much bullying down in the iron works. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the iron works dear table, but they are the lowest level of Ferritweel… except of course for people who are all flesh like yours truly.
This little girl was constantly bullied. Her fellow students would throw pebbles at her head during class and she would get into trouble for making noise! Every clang off her scalp was her fault apparently! Terribly unfair situation for a child to be in.
I was working as a hairdresser in a mostly copper neighborhood, hammering out the style of the day. I spotted this child outside my shop. Children were supposed to put their grubby fingers on other windows: candy shops, toy stores, pet repositories… Something had to be wrong if what she wanted most was a haircut.
So, dear table, I invited her in. I put her in a chair and spun her to face the mirror. She told me she didn’t have any money, but I told her that wasn’t a problem. For I saw a canvas rather than a customer. There are rare opportunities in life where kindness meets passion, and I managed to spot this one out. Here was a little girl crying because of her bald iron head and the things people bounced off it. But you see… she wasn’t bald.
Her scalp was iron. It had substance and that substance had properties of its own. It was easily magnetized. I brought out the curling magnet, which was very useful for wiry hair. I also brought out a large jar of waste clippings. I always knew there was a reason I hadn’t thrown them out. With a second look it was clear they were rather silky looking iron filings.
You’re a smart… object, so you can probably guess what happened from there. I used the curling magnet to magnetize her scalp and then poured out the iron filings. They all stuck, making a malleable mold of dark black imitation hair. Far nicer and more natural looking than most other crops. It was a solution that gave her back her smile. It gave me plenty smiles of my own. So, table of human elements, what do you think of that?”
He stood there nervously, awaiting its decision. It wasn’t a decision at all really. It was an output based on his input. It didn’t notice or care that it had heard the story before. The same result was spit out as the last time. The tile underneath Goldin turned gold. There was an upward surge of yellow light. The man grabbed his scalp and drew a little blood on the sharp ends of his new golden crop.
The table’s tiles started to fade, but Goldin held out one had and shouted for it to wait. That wasn’t the only story he’d borrowed. He had a few others.
Tell your tale and earn your mettle
“There were three women who had no love in their lives,” Goldin paraphrased, repeating what he’d heard from the polo fan. “Three sisters of toxic metal led by a lead banshee. They terrorized Ferritweel with dark magics for a full season, but then I came along.
I can find love inside me for any woman, no matter how poisonous their words and actions. I bravely entered their swamp and invited them out. I knew talk wouldn’t convince them of anything before they cursed me, so I had to move in swiftly and read their body language as fast as humanly possible.
Statistically, one of them had to be interested in me, and I correctly guessed it was the lead-mouthed leader. I kissed her and disregarded the taste of toxic lead. I knew the risks. Brain damage. Blood poisoning. I disregarded them all, for the town.
My tongue spent time in lead, mercury, and something I couldn’t even identify, but it was worth it, for their sour moods were gone and they gave up black magic. Sometimes my thoughts are still a little fuzzy, but I would do it again I tell you! And enjoy it too!”
There was another flash of gold and then Goldin tasted it. His teeth now shimmered like his hair.
Tell your tale and earn your mettle
“My daughter… is no longer with us,” Goldin lied. “She was murdered in cold blood. I found her there, but only in the first moment that the blood could be called cold. I held her and got her crimson under my nails.
I buried her myself, for her mother had been gone a long time as well. When I was done, leaning on a table and thinking about ending it all, I looked to my fingernails. There was the dirt from her grave and the blood from her wounds.
Don’t ask me why, but I kept it there. It darkened over time and I could not bear to clean it out. It was all I had left. I wasn’t the only one. My friend Farf and I spent many hours in the graveyard. I was with my daughter and he was with his son. I come to you asking that you harden me, so I can go on with my life. Let me keep my special nails so that I can look at them and see her.
Please, as you did the same with Farf. He can see his son’s grave whenever he wants, as long as it exists in the coming hours. Let me have this, great table! It is all I ask of you!” Goldin winced, wondering if it would catch the contradiction. He had asked it for several things already. Luckily it showed no signs of actually understanding anything he said. There was another golden geyser. He looked down to see sparkling yellow nails.
Tell your tale and earn your mettle
Goldin Fella was out of stories. Farf never shared his, but he could guess. There was an obsession over a gravestone. A tragedy no doubt. Something that soured the man so much that he didn’t want anybody else having the gold that gave him his solace.
Goldin told a new story. It was fictitious, but built around Farf. It told of all the sad things he saw and all the happy ones he didn’t. Goldin thought he was doing all this because he was told not to. He didn’t think there was anything invested in his new status, but halfway through his story, his guess at Farf’s pain, an honest tear rolled down his cheek.
The tear broke up into pieces and landed on the appropriate tiles: hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, and so on… There was a point. That was why the table had a tile with his face. The human element. Equal to all the others. Worth using as much as he was using the gold.
There might have been a second tear, but it was blasted away as his eyes were covered in metal. At first he couldn’t see anything. The table didn’t respond to his calls for aid. The doors opened silently, letting him stumble out and roll down the stairs.
The townsfolk couldn’t laugh. He was Golden Goldin, and would have to be treated as such, lest they incur the wrath of both gods and a petty social hierarchy. He rubbed the gold leaf out of his eyes, restoring his vision. There was nothing to say to the crowd gathering around him, admiring his glitter. There was only something to say at the graveyard, and Goldin foresaw the conversation.
He descended from gold to silver. Silver to copper. Through the questions of any alloys and curious rusty children. He crossed the bridge. The bones of his parents were waiting, but he didn’t need to be by their side. They had each other. Farf thought he had no one.
Goldin Fella found him knelt before the gravestone, just as his new eyes predicted.
“I saw you coming,” Farf said bitterly. “I warned you not to steal this from me. This color is all I have. All the gods will give me in place of my dead child. How could you?”
“The same way the others could. Nobody is taking anything from you Farf. If you calm down, you might realize that some people are just giving things away.” Goldin stepped forward and tapped the gravestone with a golden nail. The color spread to the stone, sealed its cracks, and made the name shine like new.
“How did you…”
“All these golden powers combined,” Goldin said, snapping his fingers. “Nobody even needs to look to see this now. You can focus on something else. I think I see something down the way…” Goldin Fella strolled on, into the distant trees. Farf sat there crying tears of joy. He hadn’t seen this coming. Hugging the stone, he only now realized the truth. It wasn’t the picture or the overall tone of the image.
It was each and every little dot that made it up, each separate element. In the futures he saw he would always look for that little one strolling through the picture, between the others with little disturbance.
The Goldin element.