(reading time: 1 hour, 38 minutes)
Enough Stock for Soup
Veer Keystonr could not see much of anything from his place at the bottom of the lifeboat. He could only trade information with the other bodiless members of the Calcitheater Rob had rescued. (Blaine’s Note: Veer is a skull we mentioned earlier, recognizable by the iron crown bonded to his head. He tutored Alast in arithmetic when he first joined the crew. In fleshed life he was a human ledger, and his memory for numbers seems to have only improved since then.)
“It was Qliomatrok! Can you believe it?” one of them muttered.
“How’d we grow so fool to wander into her waters?” another voice queried.
“Must have something to do with that strange freeze. I’d bet my favorite tooth.”
Veer simply waited. He had a feeling that his services would be required shortly, just as the ice master was called upon whenever there was a bite in the wind the lightfolk moaned about. It was inevitable that the gravefolk, devoid of appetite and sensitivity to weather, would be stowed away as tools and brought out only when needed. Their hollow forms did denote a utilitarian design after all, and without bodies they were so compact! Veer did not mind. It simply meant he got to spend his time in peaceful creaking drawers with the money he was counting instead of being accused of coveting it.
“Mr. Keystonr!” Captain Rob called shortly after the boats had been pulled up onto the ice. A skull doesn’t have much gravitation to work with, but if they practiced their bonepicking they still had some mobility. Veer focused his energy, popping himself into the air and over the side of the lifeboat.
“Good luck,” several of the other skulls called after him. “Don’t get stomped,” one added helpfully. The first thing he noticed was the snow and ice he’d landed in. It was all a nasty color, like the early soft stages of fruit rot. It reminded him in particular of the bloated yellow sole of a drowned man’s foot he’d once seen. He remembered the visible shape of the sea worms crawling around under the wrinkled skin. There had been thirteen worms.
He knew they had been marooned on the Winchar Straits, and he’d had enough conversations with Master Shuckr to know what that entailed. Those ice floes were uninhabited as far as anyone knew, at least by folk, on account of the dangers and poisons. The ice was impregnated by natural but strange activity on the bed of the Snyre with a noxious gas, which gave it its distinct blood-sickness yellow color. Even melted the water from the ice was unsuitable to drink. The toxin had a way of sticking to it even through multiple boilings and meshes.
The Straits were also unstable, floating around as they did. The biggest pieces of ice were pushed around by the hot currents of the nearby Aych Fauce. The ice would bump up against the fauce’s warmer waters and scald just enough to be convinced backward. They shifted position and distance so much that they were even worthless as outposts or supply depots. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, it was also known by all that those waters belonged to the weighty Qliomatrok: the mightiest sea-beast in Third, or any other, Sink.
Being without a nose he was lucky to escape the smell of the gas wafting off the ice. He heard the girl Pearlen complain about it, comparing it to low tide on a beach where every grain of sand had been replaced by a dead animal.
Before rolling to his captain Veer took a moment to spin around and look at the water. He knew it would be crass to express disappointment at having missed full sight of the monster, but he felt it nonetheless. All he’d had up until now were drawings where weighty Qlio took up the whole of the page and then some. In that moment he overhead a conversation, as its increasing volume made it hard to miss.
“Everything was under me bunk!” the lightfolk man sobbed. “Enough tiles to lay my own ground it was! I can’t leave it!” Veer couldn’t recall the man’s name; he had more of a head for numbers. He knew the man had been aboard the Greedy Old Mop for two rests, four washes, six rinses, and one day. Apparently that was enough time to hoard a new life in plunder. Veer very much doubted that. If the man believed it he was either an imbecile or stealing from other members of the crew.
“It’s too late!” a woman answered him. “Qliomatrok has all our treasure! She’s probably swallowed half it down by now.”
“She won’t notice one lonely fat old pirate,” the two-rest man insisted. He brushed a few tears away and danced on his toes at the ice’s edge. “I can get it still. The old Mop not be cleaning the sink bottom yet!” Before anyone could grab him he leapt out over the water, hands held in front of him for a dive.
Veer got his wish. The awe-striking sapphire pierced the water, pierced the two-rest man, and took him high into the sky until the light of the florent and the bath bead obscured his skewered form. A trickle of his blood rained down and struck a few of the other folk as if it were acid. Veer stared into the florent, for he had no eyes to burn, and watched the narwhorl take their friend to the Greedy Old Mop.
Rob ordered everyone to grab the boats and haul them further into the ice, lest Bystly-Deor decide to flop her belly onto the shelf and drown them all. Veer followed along, rolling next to his lifeboat as it was dragged into a cavern completely made of the ice. There wasn’t a sight of stone in any direction.
He waited for Rob to scold someone for allowing the most recent death before approaching the Captain’s boots. The man stood in a circle of his officers that also featured his grandfather Kilrorke. Veer waited a moment to absorb their harsh whispers. It seemed none of them had any more clue as to what was going on than the Calcitheater. That was never a good sign.
“Your command, Captain,” he said politely, not bothering to raise his voice. Rob looked down and spotted the crowned skull, but it was the skeletal Rorke who picked him up and held him at chest height.
“Veer, I need you to take stock of the situation. Tell me what we have and what we don’t,” Rob issued. Teal eyed him darkly. “And who we’ve lost.”
“What is the situation Captain?”
“None of us know, but we will address that shortly. Some force has frozen us, pushed us into Qlio’s waters, and removed our ability to navigate. For now please go and forage some information for me.”
“Rorke will escort you and lend you his legs if you need them.”
“Aye. Master Ordr, let’s start with the lifeboats.” With that Rorke tucked Veer under his shoulder and they took their leave of the officers. Veer had been asked to ‘take stock’ before and he knew every little implication the Captain had soaked those words in. His orders were to count everything and everyone available, as well as to perform some helpful calculations in quantifying their abilities.
First was the lifeboats. Eight in total had made it to the ice. The Mop had been equipped with ten, and he did not know if the other two had even launched. They were folducted, but the bropato of their construction was not fit for consumption as some of it is. That meant they were firewood. Nearly ten bars of it.
Each boat had a storage locker to help those marooned survive as long as possible. Each held five boxes of dust-biscuits, flavorless things that tend to lose half their mass to being coughed back out, five tins of shoelace fish packed in oil, five tins of leminy stalks in juice, five tins of Plowr-tubers in juice, ten metal canisters of fresh drinking water, fifty fishing hooks and a wheel of line, three rain-catchers, three boxes of fire twigs, two lanterns, two tents, one box of medical needles, salves, and bandages, and one dye bundle for creating brilliant signal fires of multiple colors.
Every boat’s locker was fully intact, save for one, which had already, in less than half a drop, been raided for its shoelace fish. Kilrorke smacked the offenders upside the head repeatedly and secured the fish rations before they were scarfed down.
“May that nasty fishy oil freeze on your lips and make them stink forever!” Rob’s grandfather cursed them. “What’s next Mr. Keystonr?”
“Next we count the men,” the skull said matter-of-factly. He’d actually counted half of them already, just in seeing them opportunistically pass by the lifeboats in hope of finding free supplies. For the other half Kilrorke took him up an outcropping so they could look down on the collective crew. Bodies skittered back and forth, quickly bundling up as best they could against the cold. Gravefolk were asked to give up any clothing they wore so the lightfolk and tilefolk could have extra layers.
Some would not give up their dignity so easily. Here and there were fights already, pathetic childish things of tugging and ripping that stopped only briefly if an officer wandered by. Veer, unlike many, was again glad he lacked a body. Folk were so much more unpleasant when they thought you posed a threat. With no ribs to hold them he had no need of clothes, no urge to defend his thin belongings, and no shame from being stripped.
Veer counted the men. The women. The lightfolk. The gravefolk. The tilefolk. The single bergfolk in Whetsaw Plawkippr. He knew at the time of their sinking there had been 203 souls aboard the Greedy Old Mop. 160 were gravefolk. Of those, forty-two were simply skulls like himself. Thirty-five were lightfolk. Seven tilefolk.
His count came up short. Oh yes, many had perished in the sinking of the ship: crushed by the monster’s head, drowned in the ship or by its watery pull, or pierced by debris and drained of vitality. Veer counted just 171 crew in and around the ice cavern. Thirty-two dead. Though in the case of a few skulls, they were simply trapped at the bottom of an ocean for the rest of their days. Twenty-six smashed and destroyed gravefolk. Five dead lightfolk. One dead tilefolk. These were the numbers. Veer already understood they were to climb.
He was about to tell Kilrorke that it was time they move on to the weapons and other supplies, but they were interrupted by another skull rolling up the ice to meet them. He was quite a powerful bonepicker, able to roll up the incline as if it was downhill instead. He hopped into the air and was snatched by Kilrorke. Veer noticed the yellow stains, aged fat from the Mop’s galley, which covered the skull in layers. Only one aboard had ever had the habit of spending time below the cooktop, greedily catching globs of dripping fat in his hollow mouth in an attempt to feel alive again: Oddball Damr.
(Blaine’s Note: Oddball is, well, an odd fellow. Even in death and disembodiment he has quite the female following. When Alast was assessed as too neat and tidy by the Calcitheater, Oddball was assigned to help him roll his behavior in the filth of the gutter.)
“We’re certainly ten foams off the seat now!” the yellowed skull declared without a hint of worry. “Practically pissing up the wall we are.” Veer was about to tell the man off, he’d never liked Damr, but Kilrorke seemed to welcome him. In a flash he had Oddball raised near his own face while Veer was relegated to bouncing off the hip bones. He took a moment to listen to their conversation.
“This ice…” Kilrorke said and trailed off.
“Which ice?” Oddball queried. “The ice what took us to the snooze coop or this yellowy waxy mess about us now?”
“You know which ice. It… cannot be can it?”
“It can,” Oddball said quietly. That caught Veer’s attention more so than the rest. Had he ever heard Oddball so hushed? He’d always imagined Oddball as the type who howled even while gargling in life. He’d never known him in fleshed life, just as he had never known Kilrorke that way either. They were already bony members of the crew before Veer had joined up with Captain Rob. It was odd to consider, because he’d known many of the bones among the crew back when they had their own heat and their own beating little music boxes. He wasn’t used to feeling newer than anyone else. The feeling was upsetting, like learning of a phase of an elderly relative’s life that they never opened up about before: a violent phase all were tempted to forget.
“Rob should know…” Rorke trailed off again.
“Rob will figure it out if that be what it be. He be a smart man and he be much smarter when he be mad. For now don’t chatter your teeth. Remember, we’re three at the present.” Though Veer wasn’t looking he got the sense that Oddball was gesturing his brow toward Rorke’s hip. Whatever they discussed was their business. It had nothing to do with the numbers. It was clearly shadowy, but the numbers weren’t concerned with what imminently affected them, only what affected them.
“I’ll need to rummage around,” Veer promptly told Rorke. “Lend me the shoulders would you?”
“Of course,” Rorke said, almost happy to give up his spot atop his body. He sat down to facilitate the transition and popped himself off the spine. Veer hopped up and took his place with a sharp klick. He rose to get a feel for the body and noticed something odd. There was a weakness in the knees, one so uncontrollable that, when the feeling caught him by surprise, the knees clicked together in a frantic shiver. Veer quickly got the limbs under control.
That was not his fear; it was a remnant of Rorke’s. Whatever they’d discussed had him terrified. Veer looked at Rorke’s skull. He knew he could make something of this, he could sense Rorke’s worry that the folk ledger was measuring him a little too well, but decided against it. He took up Oddball and Rorke in his hands and walked down the outcropping to examine their weapon situation.
As he handled and counted the various weapons, the two skulls sat on the ground at his feet. After the scare with the knees they kept their whispering low enough that he couldn’t make it out. Still, they whispered nonstop while he did his counting.
They had other things on their minds than the fact that there were 0.82 sabers available for every able-bodied pirate they had. Worse than that, there were only 0.36 bonepicking weapons for every skeletal hand. Such things were useful for breaking up ice and shoveling snow, which they would no doubt have to do to find their way through the Winchar Straits. Qliomatrok had brought them down on the side further from the lip of Third Sink, and the best chance they had at contacting another ship or finding an icy bridge was on the opposite side.
“I’ll leave you two here for a drip,” Veer told the other skulls. “I need to have a word with young Roary.” Rorke and Oddball rocked back and forth in the snow, nodding their approval. They seemed happy to be rid of him. As he’d already counted every soul in their impromptu encampment, he already had an idea where to find Roary. Just as on the ship, the nephew of the Captain spent much of his time with the pirates his own age, or at least those that had been his own age upon their first death.
The young folk, tiny digits as Veer might have affectionately called them if he had a touch more affection in him, were stooped behind an ice column shaped like a drop-glass. Instead of sand flowing through it, stripes of the foul-smelling yellow stuff were stretched through the column’s middle. There were six of the young ones, with five gathered around a small hole in the ice beneath their feet. The sixth had her head completely submerged in the watery opening.
He correctly guessed it was Pearlen Lustr with her head under, as she did that sort of thing regularly. The Clawlies living in her eyes were filter feeders, and they needed water to extend their little net-like limbs and catch bits of food. He supposed it was better they were using her eyes as a burrow rather than a buffet. The hand of her boy Alast stroked her back as he kneeled next to her.
Around them were the Rookr twins ogling the inside of a large sack, Dawn Shockr who must have finished her business with the other officers, and Kilroary. He had a sack of his own, which Veer knew contained Rob’s most valuable treasures from the Mop. It was those he needed to count, both because many were bath beads and trinkets useful as weapons, and because they amounted to the Captain’s entire wealth should they find their way back to civilization.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Veer said, though it was clear he meant to do just that in pursuit of his accounting.
“Veer,” Alast said with relief. He started to rise in acknowledgement, but dropped back down before his hand left Pearlen’s back. “It’s good to see you’re safe. Whose legs are those?”
“Rorke’s,” he answered. “Just borrowing them to tally up our situation. It’s… it’s good that all you kids are safe.” There was a pause that made it clear they didn’t expect any more platitudes out of him. He looked at the bubbles around Pearlen’s close-cropped hair. “She is safe isn’t she?” Pearlen, who now had one ear above the water, raised a hand and gave a thumbs-up. Veer muttered something else about her safety being a relief, but his attention quickly turned to the bag the Rookr twins had between them. They sensed his stare and looked at him simultaneously. “I’ll have to have a look,” he told them plainly. “I’m to take stock of everything.” They glanced at each other nervously. “Your property stays yours, as far as I know, but it has to be counted among our resources.” Queenvy sighed and wrung the edge of the bag with her hand.
“Fine,” she relented. “We need to take these out first.” With that she and her brother reached in and removed several odd objects, odd at least for folk who had not seen the Brighted Plains around the florent: the lands of the World Ceiling. Veer, after a moment of adjusting to the brilliant light they produced, recognized them as bones: four ribs, a pelvis, and an ulna. Their glow had not been obvious from inside the bag, which meant it was made of the thickest heezutter hide.
“That’s an excellent sack for hiding things,” Veer said, even as the others stared at the shining bones. Pearlen’s head came up and she was so surprised by the brightness that she threw up an arm to shield her eyes.
“Has the florent dropped down to visit us?” she asked, a question made serious by her poor eyesight.
“They’re brighted bones,” Alast answered her. “What Kingvy and Queenvy are doing with them I haven’t the mistiest idea.”
“I’ll show you what we do with them,” Kingvy said. He dropped the pelvis and one of the ribs. Instead of falling they drifted upward, lighter than feathers, clicking against each other and spinning. Queenvy grabbed them out of the air before they rose out of reach. Veer took possession of the sack, slowly as to not overly upset Queenvy, and used Rorke’s hands to shift the contents.
“Now whose bones are those?” Dawn asked, poking at the edges of the ribs with her leatherflesh fingers.
“We’ve no name for her or him,” Queenvy explained. “The bones were plunder from a ship washes ago. We found them, and after the Captain did some experimenting and found them useless he let us keep them as part of our share. Me own theory be that they belonged to a mighty bonepicker who died mid-pick. The bones retain their upward might.”
“She was a woman,” Veer said as he spared the bones another glance. “You can tell by the cradled hip. I suppose those bones are how you helped Rob rise to the surface,” he noted, remembering the buoyancy of the sack as they’d skirted the fat horizon of Qliomatrok.
“Aye,” the girl answered. “We had them in there so our treasures wouldn’t sink.”
“I’ve never seen such light,” Pearlen said as she dried her face on the sleeve of her newly donned coat. Veer knew the exact bony fellow who had given up that coat, and he had not parted with it easily. “Brighted things glow more intensely than I ever thought.” The bones were quite incandescent, and as such must have spent rests very near the florent itself. So it was that things absorbed the light of day and kept it as part of their material.
The process of brighting was hostile to flesh, and no folk except those of the grave could pass the Brighted Gates on the World Ceiling without horrific hot suffering. Only one amongst the crew had ever been close to the lands, the musician Herc Monickr, and he retained a white brilliance to his eyes from the experience. Children are always told to avoid staring at the florent, but whoever’s bones the Rookrs had must have never heeded such warnings.
“All accounted,” Veer said suddenly, handing the bag back to the Rookrs. The twins put the bones back inside and tied a cord around the top. Queenvy seemed almost insulted he had been able to count it all in a matter of moments. “You’ve pinched and gritted your tiles well,” Veer said of their frugality. If they managed to make it out of the straits they had enough stored up to travel as far as Metal Block or Broken Fix and put down roots. No doubt they were attached to the contents, but there was nothing inside Veer needed to report to the Captain.
Next he asked Roary for his bag. Its contents proved far more interesting and included more than a hundred bath beads that probably should not have been touching, model ships stored in glass so tough that hammers couldn’t shatter them, jewelry and precious chains in glittering tangled cascades, tile coins in denominations so old and so large that they were rarely seen by non-bankers, and paperwork in water-repellant bindings giving the Captain the rights to various buildings, smaller ships, items in insured storage, and plots of arable or resource-rich land.
Kilrobin Ordr was a man prepared for a hundred eventualities, only missing the ones related to his own failings, and of course those involving mysterious freezings and giant obese narwhorls, so his collection of valuables had already been well-organized and ready for flight. Roary had missed none of the most important items. If everything was sold or auctioned to the appropriate buyers the contents of the sack could likely purchase three ships the size of the Greedy Old Mop or a freshly-polished P.O.S.
Veer was very careful with the bag. Twice he checked over Rorke’s shoulder to make sure they weren’t being watched. Most of the crew would give their life for the Captain, but among this many folk there was always someone with a rotten gut who would turn as soon as they saw opportunity. In that bag was Rob’s ability to guarantee payment for the men and women of the crew. Should it be stolen or lost much of his authority would go with it.
“Rob’s got you holding onto it with nobody watching after you?” he asked Roary. The Captain’s nephew took the sack back.
“They’re watching it with me,” he replied simply, pointing to his friends. “Some of the best fighters of the crew here. Alast learned sabers blinded by mist, Pearlen learned spear blinded by… nasty buggies, Dawn could bonepick the heavier half of the Mop back from the bottom, and I’ve never known the twins to slouch in scuffle.”
Veer considered what he said. He knew Rob was no fool, so there must have been some soundness to the plan. The younger pirates had already successfully secluded themselves away from the others with two bags of plunder. All at once the plan became clear to him. Rob had given them his treasures because they were a lifeboat of their own. Should the crew lose its seaworthiness, should it begin to leak honor and creak with mutiny, he could jettison the swift and intelligent adolescents, alight with the vigor of fleshed youth, so they might survive.
This meant Captain Rob feared failure, or at least that particular failure over the possible others. Veer, considering his own assessment of their stock, found he did not disagree. They were about to trek through a catacomb of shifting toxic ice, perhaps chased by the weighty Qliomatrok, and yet the crew was the most pressing danger. Again he was glad to have nothing worth taking.
“You lot keep together now,” he told them to conclude their business. “If you lose one coin then there’s a hole in the bag.” They pondered the skeleton’s proverb as he plodded away on his borrowed feet.
That was it; stock had been taken. The numbers were firmly scratched on the inside of Veer’s skull, along with all the other numbers he’d ever taken, and he was ready to deliver his report to the Captain. He found Oddball and Rorke still deep in conversation, Rorke’s head tilted further forward into the snow for some reason, as if fatigued. Veer hopped off the neck after politely lowering the body to a kneel. Kilrorke took his bones back. Veer rolled his way through a maze of shuffling boots and kicked snow until he was back at Rob’s feet.
Rob picked up the skull and brought him to eye level. Dawn was still off with the others, so only the Captain, Teal, and Man were present to hear what Mr. Keystonr had to say. Their faces were already grim, the corners of their noses scrunched up like wet paper because they were still not accustomed to the smell. Before Rob had picked Veer up, before he’d been noticed, there was a moment where he examined the Captain and his first mate. Teal had a hold of one of his hands. The glove was stained with blood. The best arithmetician in Third Sink didn’t miss the fact that there were only four complete fingers on Rob’s hand. The cold had stemmed the blood flow and he already had it bandaged. It was a strange injury for him to have acquired during a ship sinking, but he left the subject alone.
“What have you to say?” Rob asked simply.
“I have taken stock of the situation Captain,” Veer reported. “All I can say is that we’ve enough stock for soup.”
Captain Rob breathed deeply through his large nose, not even minding how much of the stink he took in. His frown intensified. He looked as if he wanted to ask Veer if he was certain, but he had to know there would be no point. Veer had not made a single calculating error in the entire time they’d known each other. The skull did nothing most days but sit in dark drawers and count things in his perfect memory like the leaves on each and every tree in his past.
The Captain had wanted to ask because if Veer was right they were even worse off than he thought. Veer’s comment about soup was a phrase of his own invention that both Rob and Teal fully understood the implications of. What Veer meant to say was that they had a chance to survive, but not without thinning and transforming. They would have to leave almost everything behind, let themselves be cut, chopped, pulped, and stewed, in order to make it out. Even if they did they would only be a thin broth of their former selves.
The Faceless Survivor
Captain Rob called the crew to order after he’d consulted with Veer and a few others. He had them all gather around the mouth of an ice cavern: the likely door where they would start their journey. Every remaining soul from the Greedy Old Mop huddled together, with the gravefolk forming a bony fence around those fleshed, helping to keep them close together and share their body heat.
Scuttlr kept herself in the back. She was already quite short, so she didn’t have to duck her head. Part of her was afraid that even her chilled breath might get spotted as anomalous. It may not be Scuttlr anymore, she thought. That was the name I picked for the Mop, but she’s drowned. A greedy rummin of a name that could hide in any old hole in the wood or chew a new one if need be. There’s no wood to hide me out here. Out here I’m just Bezzy Hornhollr again.
Distracted as she was by these thoughts, she was not unique among the crew when it came to the Captain’s pronouncements. When he spoke she listened. Rob, with the strength of a bonepicker, flipped one of the lifeboats upside down with a single hand. He stepped on top of it to rise above the crowd. He didn’t strike as imposing a figure as normal without his furry green rug of a cape, but he still had them all silent. If there was any hope of getting out alive he held it somewhere in his crystal bones.
“Your attention,” he ordered, his voice still deep and rich despite blood loss and numb lips. Every word was an explosion of fog out of his mouth that hid his face for a drip. “The Greedy Old Mop has been rent in two and sunk to the bottom of the Snyre. She took with her good folk: good men and women.” Many of the crew nodded. Some of those heads stayed low and whispered prayers, but the thin fog of their faith couldn’t distract from the directness of Rob’s barked clouds. “Now is not the time to mourn,” he continued, “as the loss has not ended. We are trapped here with our only method of navigation being the skull of the ice master. Even that is tampered with by the magic of weighty Qlio’s bath bead.”
“Bystly-deor!” Bobat Fwindr shouted to the sky. The tilefolk physician’s voice was joined by the other tilefolk. “Cru-poss whyr-gngsta, oh? Crup nym bling dyn bystly-deor! Crup ryyp drym chmprr! Cru-poss shyyrp-deor chmprr-qyyk!”
“I’ll not hear any madness of that stain,” Rob shouted to quiet their Pawtymouth. “To take on the beast just to steal her bath bead is folly. We haven’t the equipment to even attempt it. Aside, what good is a bath bead to us if we die of starvation in this ice?”
“You can get us out!” someone shouted. “You have a piece of the Reflecting Path! Who’s got a mirror? A shiny tin? Something?”
“Our reflections are useless,” Rob said. The rummaging around for glassy surfaces ceased. He held up his hand and showed them all the missing finger. Many gasped. The Captain had never taken such a serious injury before. Once he had broken his left arm and they had all known the moment it occurred because it made a sound like shattering crystal. He had bonepicked the shards back into place, with much agony, and recovered. His finger bones were lost though, and once fully separated from his body he could not influence them with bonepicking. “During the sinking I had the piece of the path in this hand,” the Captain continued. “That was when Qlio’s horn pierced my cabin, shattered my mirror, and tore the piece away. It is gone. There is no way to enter the path to escape. We will have to make the trek honestly.” The pirates groaned at the word ‘honestly’. “Hold your bellyaching. Now, our food supply is extremely limited so we need to move shortly. Before that you need to hear from the ice master.” More groans.
Manathan took the Captain’s place atop the lifeboat. He had a thin skin of ice across his skull, some of it formed into tear-like lumps on his cheek bones, from his use as a compass. They sparkled with his nervousness. His bones rattled, for he’d nearly lost them in Qlio’s assault. One of the spare feet from the communal bone bin replaced the one he’d lost to the ice, and it felt like far too large a boot.
“These are the Winchar Straits,” he began, his fear already apparent. “They are alternately called the fires of winter. These floes are not traveled by folk because of Qliomatrok and every other discernible quality they possess. The ice here is poison. There is gas and sediment frozen inside it in large ratios. The gas can be boiled out, but we can’t strain the sediment. That means the only drinking water we have is the tins from the lifeboats.”
(Blaine’s Note: I’ll forgive if you’ve forgotten what exactly is happening given the chaos of the narwhorl’s attack, but I will remind you that their Snyre Sea is merely a full bathroom sink. All of their water is fresh, because salt would never come out of our taps. I assume that what the ice master meant was that they might become cut off from the sea inside the ice itself, and thus have no way to access the fresh water.)
“Of perhaps greater concern is the sublimated gas,” the ice master went on. “These are the fires of winter because that gas is extremely flame-catching. The slightest spark, even around the whiff of gaseous skin about the ice’s surface, can set it ablaze.”
“Ice don’t burn you cracked ninny!” came an uneducated voice from the crowd.
“Oh no?” said the ice master, suddenly confident. He stepped down from the lifeboat. The crew shuffled backward to make room for whatever antics he had planned. Man bent down and scraped the freshest snow off the ground. It was only tinted yellow, as opposed to the vomit-like ochre of the icy ground. It took him a few moments to create a snowball of decent size thanks to his bony fingers, but once he had one he walked it to the edge of the sea and held it out over the water.
With his free hand he produced a fire twig from one of his pockets. It was still wet from the sinking, but its orange resinous head was designed to light in even the worst circumstances. He scraped the end of the fire twig across his forearm, striking it, and quickly held it out near the snowball. He let them all gawk for a moment. Their ignorance was excellent tinder. He touched flame to snow and the entire ball caught.
There the survivors stood, dumbed to silence by a snowball burning with a sick yellow flame. The ball lingered, largely unbothered by the heat of the burning gas for thirty drips. His point amply demonstrated, Manathan dropped the flaming ball into the sea. It would have floated there, burning like a tiny wooden boat and threatening to catch another chunk of the ice, if the ice master hadn’t kneeled and forced it below the surface. Only after ten drips did the fire cease.
“There’s confiscating to be done,” Teal said sternly to break the silence. She was atop the lifeboat now because she feared letting any stupidity linger. Every moment they had with tinder and spark was an incredible risk and the woman didn’t abide such laxity. “Mr. Clearcuttr, Ms. Paintr, and Mr. Clopfootr: collect everything. Every soul here needs to turn over their fire to these three. That means fire twigs, flints, tinderboxes, oil brooches, candle-pencils and candles… everything. Pipes as well. I won’t see a bubble or a curl of smoke out of any of your mouths or any other orifice for that matter.”
The three pirates did as they were ordered and moved through everyone systematically. Grumbling questions were posed to no one in particular. How were they supposed to keep warm without fire? How were they supposed to keep sane without their bubble pipes? Still, they did as they were told. Twigs and candles, more than a hundred, were carefully placed into the bags and tied up. Among all their supplies they had only one bag thick enough to perfectly contain any sparks or cinders that might occur, and that was the bag the Rookrs used for their plundered nest egg. At the order of the Captain they transferred the contents to a less respectable sack and had to deal with the constant florent-glow of the brighted bones through the cloth.
“We have a new ship,” Captain Rob declared once that was taken care of. “That ship is my plan. While you are aboard my plan you are still expected to comply with every order as surely as if you walked upon my deck. If you’re flushed with fear or concern my ears are open. If you find yourself flushed with mutinous thought my blades will handle those queries instead.” He tapped the scabbards of his jump club and his bonepicker’s sword. (Blaine’s Note: I will remind the reader that bonepickers have their own specially forged weapons to aid in the combat art. A bonepicker’s sword is curved with a bulge in the middle, allowing them to use it like the leg of a grasshopper to reach incredible heights… and propel powerful attacks.)
“The plan is thus: we will pass through the Winchar Straits,” he went on. “The ice master is confident of our direction, but only vaguely. We haven’t the time or supplies to walk around the edges of these mountains of ice, and Qliomatrok would threaten our boats, so we will have to enter the caverns and hope for a way through. We know that at the furthest edges of the straits the ice connects to the rock of Third Sink. We can hope to bridge that gap and climb to civilization.”
Folk started to move and mobilize the supplies. When those around her dispersed Scuttlr remembered that she was panicking. For washes she had eluded Captain Rob’s gaze, her face and identity hidden by grime, knotted hair, and poor hygiene. There had been little scrutiny because all was well aboard the ship.
She felt a flash of anger amidst the fear, because she was denied the opportunity to mourn the loss of her home. All the others could weep or swear or sing solemnly. They could tell stories about how they connected their heartstrings to the rigging of the Greedy Old Mop. Scuttlr could not risk drawing the attention. Yet, she had built the Mop. It wasn’t with her own two hands, that simply wasn’t how shipbuilders worked, but she had designed it. She had haggled with the merchants who sold the wood and the topa sailcloth. She had tied the first piece of rope around its beakhead, inadvertently starting the tradition amongst the crew.
Her tears would be as targets for the arrows of Rob’s suspicion. He was already seeing mutiny and if those eyes rested on her face long enough to see through Scuttlr and recognize Bezzy Hornhollr, the woman he’d stolen the Mop from, who undoubtedly had plotted her revenge this whole time, she would be doomed.
Scuttlr moved. She kept her head low and she stayed behind the tallest men she could find, after first making sure they were lightfolk so she wouldn’t be spotted through the slats of a skeleton’s ribcage. She took up something heavy as an excuse to have her face toward the ice. In her mind a beast of burden was the next best disguise available.
The entrance to the cavern was not welcoming. Her head lifted briefly to examine the archway the crew now passed under. Icicles hung in plentiful bunches like waxy berries that had burst in the florent and now dripped their rapidly-drying innards. The ground, once they were far enough that there was no more fresh snow upon the ice, was full of cracks. Scuttlr guessed it was where pockets of the gas had split the ice with pressure and vented. This was where the ocean belched, and the smell was so strong over the cracks that she couldn’t keep her nose as low as she wanted.
In turning her face to the side she noticed something strange. Just outside the lip of the cavern were three furry bottoms with still tails. It was the ship’s two haunds with the scrawny one that the boy Alast kept as a pet. All three of the animals had their eyes fixed at a point on the horizon. Their black claws stood right at the edge of the water.
In another life, a richer one defined by keeping your boots off the carpet, Scuttlr had kept two haunds of her own. They were beautiful creatures, purebred harpoon-horns. The blades atop their snouts shone like metal and their luxurious foggy blue fur needed brushed twice a day to keep its distinct wave-like curls. After the loss of the Mop, before she’d scuttled aboard it when it next made port, she’d been forced to sell the creatures to try and cover her losses. She’d always had the sneaking suspicion that the tilefolk who bought them planned to roast and eat them.
In the warm current of those memories she picked out a single mundane one: the haunds both staring out the window at a bird flying in the distance. Haunds only ever looked in the same place when there was something to draw their eyes. Otherwise each would focus on whatever smell wafted directly in front of them. Back then, with the bird, her haunds’ tails had wagged happily.
It unsettled her to see the Mops’ resident haunds so distracted. She tried to follow their gaze, but she could see nothing in the distance. She checked to see if anyone watched her and when she found she was unobserved she shuffled closer to the animals. Their tails were stiffer than the icicles above. Each of them emitted a low constant growl. Even the tiny one, growling at a higher pitch, seemed poised to pounce on the place where the florent met the Snyre.
She tried to remember their names. What’d Alast call that little axe-headed one? Something with an F? Fartsy? Fumble? No. Think about the bigger ones. Had bigger names no doubt, surely easier to remember. Ahh! Lockstep and Cheesebread! No, you stale old Rin cake. Those were your old haundies. Those were Bezzy’s. Who’re these two? R… R something. Ripper and Redwrist! Ha. See Bezzy? Scuttlr still remembers. Her memories are worth holding onto just as much as your fine handkerchiefs and brass looky-scopes.
“Ripper,” she whispered to the haund to get its attention. It did not turn. “Redwrist,” she tried, a little louder. Still nothing. She would not leave them behind as she had her old haunds, so she steadied the load on her back with one arm and reached out with the other. Her fingertips, numb, swollen, and red, tapped the stiff hair on Ripper’s rump.
Arrbarr! Arr-arr arrbarr! The haund whipped around and barked fiercely. Scuttlr didn’t have to be told twice. She shrank from the noise and receded into the crowd before heads could turn and see what the commotion was.
“It’s nothing,” First Mate Powdr shouted to all of them. “Continue on! Miss Ignr, get the beasts moving!” The woman who usually handled the haunds emerged from the shivering mass of bones and rags and commanded the haunds to hush. They did not obey. It took several stern stomps on the ice to quiet them and convince them to march into the ice cavern. Even as they did they continued to look over their sulking shoulders and growl at nothing. Scuttlr watched as Alast crouched and tried to pick up the tiniest haund, but it skirted around him and stuck with the other two.
After the haunds had caused their hiccup the crew resumed their already sullen march into the belly of the ice floes. They dragged behind them all the folducted boats, as they were made of light bropato and would make excellent additional tents when flipped upside down. Scuttlr thought it would be best to stay near them but not carry them, so she inserted herself near the back of the crowd but in front of the forward most boat. Young Queenvy nearly ruined her positioning by trying to approach and converse. Scuttlr waved her away.
The girl’ll understand. She’ll think it over one drip and remember this freezing hot water I’m in. She can wait until we’re confirmed for life on the other side to be told she’s a good girl. Kingvy’s got a bag… I see those shiny bones. They saved their savings. Excellent. I could take some. She’d give it over. She’d give most of it over if I asked, but there’s nothing for me to do with it. Buy more pretty blue haunds? Drink more expensive scrub-throat and fail to cherish it? No. It’s her turn to make the mistakes of luxury. I know one thing certain as plumbing though; no more hiding after this. I’ll try running. I’ll scuttle so fast Rob won’t even try to follow.
Their first few days in the ice convinced them the Winchar Straits thoroughly deserved their reputation. Once they’d entered the caverns there was no clear sky; the closest they came was the occasional crack letting the florent’s rays in. In most places the ice ceiling was thin enough that light penetrated, but occasionally they were plunged into darkness that lasted more than a drop and was coupled with especially jagged ground.
Twice they came out of this darkness and found one of the lifeboats shredded by the ice. Rather than patch them they split the vessels up with axes and handed out the pieces as stuffing for lightfolk clothes. The cold tortured them constantly, so, despite its minimal effect as insulation, there were many fights over the bropato scraps that Rob and the officers were forced to break up.
Their rations were extremely stingy. Rob allowed them to stop and eat twice a day, with an additional break for water in the middle of the day. In the morning they each got one leminy stalk and one Plowr-tuber. In the evening they each had one third of a shoelace fish and half of a dust-biscuit. Their water went faster than anything else, for they had no clear sky for catching rain or snow and, three days in, they had not come across a hole in the ice. All of this was especially bad news for Scuttlr, whose stomach protested vociferously.
Aboard the Mop she had always eaten last, once Rob was guaranteed to be out of the galley for the night, but she’d never left famished. The other members of the crew always left a mess hearty enough for ten folk the thickness of Scuttlr. Most evenings she spent hours in the galley, moving table to table, poking the ceiling with the spice stick and seeing what new combination of flavors fell into her food.
A smorgasbord of scraps played out across her imagination: brown bread crusts left to soak in creamy seafood soups, fried bartlebird feet, hotcakes with syrup and groutberries, and the last fatty bits of meat left in the bibcraw tails. In the end all she had was her saliva, and she had less and less of it each day. She might’ve had the loudest stomach on the entire crew, but it wouldn’t prove a risk for the Captain’s attention thanks to the grumbling of every other stomach around. Their nights, often sleepless because of the cold, were choruses of quaking hunger, clicking bones, and the groans of shifting ice.
It was on the fourth day that it became too difficult for one member of the crew to bear. Scuttlr had the misfortune of watching the man’s spirit break. It was their midday stop for water; they were in a high-ceilinged chamber that seemed like a good place to stop thanks to the relative paleness of the ice. There was less of the smell there.
Rob had put his grandfather in charge of the tinned water. It was a common strategy for situations such as this: gravefolk always guarded the food and water. They had no need of it, so the crew was less likely to grow suspicious and accuse them of stealing from the stores when nobody watched. Back when she had run Hornhollr Unsinkables she had employed a similar strategy; gravefolk had always handled the provisions for the ships before their maiden voyages.
Scuttlr was careful when getting her water, as Rob tended to hover about the line and start uncomfortable conversations. It was clear he tried to gauge morale, but his presence so close to the meager rations only served to make the crew feel oppressed, like they were livestock and he was counting their ribs.
After she had her daily sip she stepped aside and watched the line for signs of mutiny herself. Mutiny was her only chance at walking in the open, because if the Captain were killed or incapacitated there was no one else aboard with ill will against her. She considered starting one herself, at least its initial whisperings, but she knew it would be largely fruitless. In his dying efforts Captain Rob would find a way to kill her. His bonepicking was not to be trifled with, and she’d personally seen him battle five normal lightfolk all on his own.
It was during her observations of the line that she noticed someone’s head peak out. A few drips later their entire body emerged. Scuttlr recognized him as Andle Dipr: a man of average build but extraordinary facial hair. His beard hung over one of his shoulders like a scarf and it made an absolute mess of things when he ate. She always knew where he had sat in the galley thanks to the brush marks in the butter and oil where his beard had swished back and forth.
Where’s he off to? Scuttlr wondered, mostly because he had not received his water yet. She couldn’t fathom how anyone would give up their ration in the state they were in, so she followed close behind. Andle checked over his shoulder frequently, but he was on the lookout for officers only. Normally his beard would whip back and forth with such motion, but it was frozen solid over his shoulder. It even stayed aloft when his posture sank.
Andle made his way back up the tunnel they’d come from until it curved, which blocked the rest of the crew from sight. Scuttlr squinted as she hid behind an icy extrusion to watch him. He’s got me flushed nervous. This man has a vice… but they took all the fire. Besides, he couldn’t be that foolish. She was quickly proven wrong as Andle sat down against the curved wall of yellow ice and brought out a pipe carved of whorl ivory. He’s just playing games. He’s pretending to smoke the way I’ve been pretending to eat this whole time. I’ve chewed on my own spit; what business is it of mine if he wants to suck the tip of his pipe? The flavor of the smoke may yet be there.
Andle bit the tip of his pipe a few times. He sucked on it, but it just created a grimace on his face. Scuttlr watched as he pulled a small pouch out of his pocket. He pinched some of the contents between his fingers and stuffed them into the pipe. It was a bubble pipe, so there were precious few things it would take as fuel. The most likely was the dried and chopped skin of slippery soap biscuits. How can he smoke it? They’ve taken all the fire twigs!
He provided the answer alongside a sly grin. Andle held up his pinky finger and examined it. Scuttlr could barely see, but the nail on his finger was very dark in color and looked like stone. He rolled up the sleeve on his opposite arm and revealed a rock bracelet of similar color. Scuttlr understood at once; the officers had taken all traditional means of creating fire, but a vice as strong as Andle’s never left his side. His pinky nail had been replaced by a fire-striking mineral and his bracelet was a flint of some sort.
Scuttlr backed up. Her first urge was to run up and hold the man’s arms apart, but he would likely yell and draw attention. If she made any attempt to stop him all eyes would be on her. Someone else had to do it. Queenvy. She needed to find Queenvy. Scuttlr moved as quickly as she could back to the crew. Where is that girl? Where’s the glow of those brighted bones?
Andle’s negligence wouldn’t wait for her. He crossed his legs and hunched forward, making a bowl of fabric between his knees that he would use to start the flame. The space was nearly enclosed, so he assumed the risk of a loose spark was so extraordinarily low that it couldn’t possibly be worth keeping him from the savory and acidic smell of the smoky skins. His pinky was already numb and red from the cold, but he kept it out and started dragging it across his bracelet. With each scratching sound he looked down both sides of the tunnel. He told the sparks to hurry up.
On his fifth attempt a tiny flash of yellow jumped from the bracelet and into the pipe. He threw his hand over his mouth so his breath wouldn’t put it out. A thin curl of purple-tinted smoke rose. If it had taken much longer he might have snapped his frozen beard off and tried to use it as tinder.
He picked up the pipe, warm in his hands, finally something warm in his hands, and put it to his mouth. He sucked on it vigorously and let his lungs fill up with smoke and soapy film. He held onto it as if the smoke were coals shoveled into the furnace of his heart. Rather than let go of the smoke in a stream, as with a regular pipe, he bit down on its end again and blew out. This produced a purple bubble from the end, full of swirling smoke, that he watched drift up to the ceiling.
Pirates and sailors around Porce always favored the bubble pipe. It was more artistic, more whimsical, and the wet film around the smoke and embers reduced the risk of catching your ship on fire. Andle was certain the bubble would do the same here, but he stared in terror for a moment when the bubble popped against the yellow ice on the ceiling. He breathed a sigh of relief when the smoke harmlessly spread out. It seemed Miss Powdr had no reason to take all their fire after all. The ice master had just been blowing smoke of his own.
He smoked contemplatively, as if every bubble was a revision on Rob’s plans for their predicament. He was smart enough to tilt his pipe away from the rest of the crew so none of the bubbles would drift out and reveal his presence.
It had taken longer to find Queenvy than Scuttlr had hoped, but she dragged the girl by the wrist toward the tunnel, whispering her fears. They were three steps away when Andle, just out of sight, blew his biggest bubble yet. Most folk couldn’t get the ones that big to go all the way up to the ceiling, they tended to sink and pop on the floor, but Andle was experienced. The gargantuan bubble wiggled under its bloated proportions and threatened to burst, but Andle confidently stuck his head under it and blew upward, sending it flying to the ceiling.
“What in Swimmr’s shorts do you think you’re doing?” Queenvy howled at him while Scuttlr hid by the entrance. Andle jumped to his feet and started sputtering. He split his beard audibly, shoving the pipe into the crack to get it out of sight.
“Oh, it’s just you Rookr. I was worried you were Teal. Keep your shrieking down will you?”
“They were clear! No fire you blistered knob!”
“No fire here,” he said with his bottom lip pushed out. “Just the comfort of a little smoke. Join me, I’ll share with you. There isn’t enough sharing right now.”
“Give me your bracelet,” Queenvy ordered, holding out her hand.
“It’s a family heirloom.”
“You’d kill your own brother if his whiskers were longer than yours, so you care not for family. Hand it over.”
“You can’t speak to your elders that wa…” he was saying when something came between the two of them. It was the giant bubble, back from its voyage the ceiling. Its wiggling had calmed some and they both watched the smoke swirl inside of it like a miniature storm. It sank to the floor. In the moment before it touched the ice Queenvy saw something else under its skin, something drifting in the lazy current of the smoke. It was a tiny glowing dot of red, perhaps the smallest living ember in all of Porce. The bubble kept the heat in. It kept its glow alive.
The bubble stretched against the floor. It popped.
Thakoom! The explosion rocked the entire cavern. Scuttlr instinctively covered her ears and hunkered down. Her eyes moved up in time to see Queenvy thrown across the chamber with deadly speed. Luckily Dawn was in her path. The gravefolk girl bonepicked her way into the air, grabbed Queenvy, and neutralized most of their momentum before landing.
Scuttlr couldn’t focus on anything but the fire after that. Its heat immediately licked at her face like a greedy haund. The tunnel containing Andle was now just a maw belching waves of yellow flame. Smaller explosions came as pockets of the gas ignited. The cavern shook more and the ceiling cracked.
“All hands move! All hands this way!” Captain Rob shouted. Scuttlr watched, shocked into stillness by the boom, as the crew clambered over each other and their belongings to get to their feet. Everyone funneled toward the exit, the only other path out of the chamber, despite its frightening narrowness. They had to take that tunnel about four at a time, and all the while the place shook and the fire drew closer.
She looked back to see if Andle had emerged, but there was only fire. Dead. Blighter deserved it. Now what about the rest of these blighters? She moved forward slowly, torn between the will to survive and the desire to watch everything burn and crumble around her like the internal collapse of a decadently frosted cake. She stared at the ceiling as yellow tendrils of fire crawled across and ate the gas out of the ice. In moments the whole roof was ablaze, a roiling mass of light. Several flaming spears of ice dropped down into their midst and cause a handful of screams.
Thoom! Thadoom! Thadoom! The explosions continued to sound. The fire was halfway across the chamber floor when the last group of four pushed their way into the crevice. Scuttlr was with them. When they were out of the chamber and the horrible radiance of the fire was reduced to a blazing crack, Scuttlr kept her eyes forward. She tracked the progress of the fire by sound and by the heat on the back of her neck. Though those in front of her constantly pushed shoulders to urge the crew forward, she walked at a leisurely pace, not so much tormented by thoughts of stopping Andle on her own, but certainly distracted by them.
They lived in constant fear of the fire catching up to them after that, constant because it was certain it had not gone out on its own. The ice master never failed to remind them of the threat: it would be self-sustaining until all paths were free of air, it would spread without rest, and the explosions would constantly destabilize the ice. He told them the entire Winchar Straits would be scorched off the map if not for the strips of sea separating the floes.
His reminders were not necessary, and quite grating, when the fire asserted itself at every turn. Their water breaks were interrupted by trails of smoke. Audible blasts came about three a drop even as they slept, sometimes dislodging ice from the ceiling. One of these falling chunks even crushed a gravefolk and added to the list of casualties. After that they tried to sleep in shifts inside the boats so the rest of the crew could drag them and there would be no need to stop.
They traveled in this state for two more days. When the florent switched off each night they looked back hoping to see absolute darkness, but instead saw a dull, flickering, yellow glow. The Captain could do nothing to temper fears. Scuttlr knew that if he could he would have held a trial for the man responsible even as they ran from the first flames, banging his bonepicker fist against an icy wall like a gavel, but after Queenvy recovered from the blast she told everyone of Andle’s foolish mistake. The fuel for their blame was already burned up, taken by a swifter more dispassionate fire.
On the third day, as they marched with the horrible burning smell in their noses more than usual, Scuttlr was distracted. Her mind was on Queenvy and the way she had looked after Dawn snatched her out of the air. All the decorative feathers in the girl’s hair were burnt to black needles. Her face was yellow because the force of the blast had bruised it. Scuttlr wondered about her part in it.
Am I even alive? I was a businesswoman; I should be able to break this down logically. Itemize it. I saw something I needed to react to. Instead I gave her the burden of that reaction. I was like a ghost, nothing more than an inkling tapping at her shoulder. I’m living as intuition but eating as a pot-bellied bwag. I am a drain, a drain bigger than that on the bottom of the Snyre… and that drain swallowed a thousand monsters before the Age of Building.
Her nose smacked into someone’s back. They’d stopped. She was so short that jumping to get a look would do her no good, so she shuffled to the left until she could peek her head out from the crowd. There was a wall of ice before them, with a web of yellow veins running out from a central point. There was no way forward, just one large crack too thin to take even half a man. Through it she could see florentshine, clear and unblocked, which meant open air for the first time since they’d entered the floes.
She sniffed at the air. The fire smelled closer. Already the crew babbled to each other. They couldn’t go back, for there was only death that way. Even the gravefolk could not turn back, for fire would turn them to cinder eventually and ice collapses would do it in an instant. Even the ones completely plated in metal feared being trapped in the ice for eternity.
“We must break through!” Rob declared with little delay. “There is light on the other side. Whether there is ice to stand on or not I do not know, but all odds are better out there. All bonepickers join me at the front!” The crew made way for the most talented gravefolk and their bonepicking weapons. They could see from the crack that the distance was too far to dig or break by conventional means, so the lightfolk with hammers could do nothing but sit off to the sides and wait, sniffing constantly to measure the distance of the hungry pursuer.
Rob himself led the effort with his bonepicking sword in one hand and his jump club in the other. The musician Herc and a few others flipped two of the boats upside down, straddled them, and drummed rhythmically to set a pace for the pickers.
“1, 2, 3, swing,” Scuttlr whispered along with the rhythm. With the shock of the explosion out of her mind, familiar fears sprouted in its place like weeds. “1, 2, 3, strike…” Rob’s sword hit the ice with such precision and force that half the blade disappeared into it. Then he would pull towards the crack, separating a slab of ice that clattered to the floor. There were five crewfolk behind him to cart the chunks out of the way. When the Captain spotted any loose lumps he bashed them with the jump club, sounding it like a bell and spraying slush into the air.
Dawn worked above him, her body squeezed into the crack like a bug. She chose to use her shoulder more than any weapon, tackling the ice with all her power. When she started to slide down she hopped up to the other side of the crack and pushed again. The spray of ice intensified all along the wall, like that of a giant haund digging in the snow. Chunks the size of saddles were tossed up and back only to shatter against the floor. The crack widened.
Their efforts continued so long that even the drummers had to take shifts, for they were slapping their palms raw. Three drops passed. They were close now, close to whatever hope the other side had, but the fire was closer. The smell was so bad that Scuttlr covered her mouth and nose with her hands to avoid retching. Some of the crew couldn’t hold it in, but they had nothing to vomit but a thin yellow bile disturbingly similar in color to the veins in the ice. It made them think the ice had simply incorporated the contents of its last prisoners, especially since the bile froze against the ground fast enough to retain the shape of its dripping.
“Work faster!” Rob barked backward at the crew. The thin drippings from his nose were frozen as well, and his cheeks were lined with sharp red cracks. “Drum faster! All of it faster!” Their music picked up speed, even as a nearby explosion interrupted the rhythm. The lightfolk and tilefolk had done their best to stay clear of the icy spray of the diggers, but they had no choice now. The first flames rolled into the chamber, forcing them to seek shelter in the hail. They put shields and planks of wood, anything they had, over their heads to keep the ice chunks off.
The fire spread with stunning swiftness once in the open. It unfurled like a garish carpet, burning designs into the veins of the ice. The crew bunched up closer to the diggers, their feet sinking into the slurry of their efforts. If the fire struck the slush it would eat their legs like wicks dipped in oil, their screams only noticeable to the outside world as the thinnest strings of smoke. The fire reached the edge of their work. Chunks of ice flung into it exploded like fireworks, each pop a vicious bark that made the crew cower more.
There was no more room to drum; they had to put the boats up on their sides as a wall to keep the flames back. They would quickly catch, but not as fast as the ice itself. A few of the bonepickers stopped their efforts. They peered down the center of the crack and saw how far Rob was from open air. At least another drop of effort stood between them and freedom.
“You mustn’t stop!” a woman in the crew bawled.
“Does anyone have the Toil Papers with them? I wish to read. I need the right desperate prayer!”
“The Papers’ll burn same as everything else. Shut up and take your fate!”
“Captain! Captain Rob!”
“Silence!” the Captain roared, barely audible over the flames. As he spoke a frigid gust rushed through the crack, past him, and into the midst of the crew. It stilled their moaning. It pushed the flames back. All eyes that could fit pressed into the crack for a moment, but the lightfolk were forced to pull away because of the intensity of the cold. They blinked tiny crystals of ice out of their eyelashes.
What Rob, who stared forward despite the skin of ice forming on his eyes, and the gravefolk saw was not easy to identify. There was a shape like a man on the other side of the crack, much of it obscured by the brightness of the florent. The icy wind flowed around his body and into the crew’s prison, where it kept the greasy yellow flames at bay. It was about the time that icicles started to form inside the eye sockets of the gravefolk that most of them realized something; this was the same wind, the same cold, that had frozen them solid aboard the Greedy Old Mop!
“You…” Rob said. Only he was close enough to deduce something else about the man. “The cold… you are not its victim. It is yours! You’re producing this!” Scuttlr, who was hunched under one of the upturned boats and supporting it, tried to look into the crack and see what the Captain saw. There was something wrong with the man on the other side. His shape was dreadfully thin, like someone fed on a diet of harsh criticism, and his body was unnaturally black. Several aboard the Mop had dark skin, but this man was something else in tone, like plants rotted to blackness or pitch bubbling from old disturbed ground.
“Why have you come back?” she suddenly yelled at the dark figure. A moment later she threw one of her hands over her mouth, unsure what had come over her. Luckily, enough of the crew shouted similar sentiments that hers went unnoticed. They all wanted to know. Who… or what… was this man and why did he bring his cold? Every moment now was one he lent them, as only his emissions kept the fire back.
“What do you want?” Rob asked, forced to finally close his eyes against the cold.
“You are alive,” the man said, his voice so penetrated by ice and wind that his age was impossible to determine.
“Yes,” Rob answered. His tongue grew cold and unwieldy. He wouldn’t be able to say much more before freezing again. “You’ll stand around like a snowman… or you’ll help us.”
“I will not help you,” the voice said plainly. “I was just checking. I’m glad you are alive. There is more suffering to be wrung.” The wind intensified. Rob used bonepicking to hold his ground, but a moment later he was blasted out of the crack anyway and tossed into one of the boats. It clattered onto its back and slid away. It would have slid straight into the inferno, but the fire was gone. The cold had dulled it until there was nothing left. That unnatural cold that could freeze folk and keep them alive could also stop the strangest fire known to Porce.
While the crew rushed to help Rob up, as much as they could with the ice in their veins, Scuttlr instead moved to the crack. She peered through. The black figure was gone. If only I could disappear like that. Scuttlr had another thought: what if they froze again? The thawing would be another opportunity for her to be found out. She pulled off her gloves and examined her fingertips. They were pink and numb, but not stiffening. She didn’t feel ice in her joints.
Wherever the figure had gone he had taken his mysterious cold with him. The crew shortly realized they were back to the regular foul-smelling frigid air, devoid of magic. The fire was gone, and they were free to go back the way they came and search for another branch in their path, or perhaps finish digging through the crack to see what awaited on the other side. Either way, Scuttlr was out of position. She put her gloves back on, bent over, and nestled into the gloomy crowd.
The first thing they learned in the wake of the fire was that their desperate digging had always been pointless. Captain Rob widened the crack enough to hold a gravefolk head outside it and angle them in all directions. When pulled back inside the skull gave its grim report: outside there was only a narrow ledge, barely wide enough for a man to stand. Beneath that was an incredible fall down to the sea. They had not the rope, or even cloth, to lower buckets and bring up fresh water.
Still, Rob ordered an investigation. A gravefolk woman was equipped with a few sharp pieces of metal and sent through the crack piece by piece. After reassembling her goal was to climb down using the spikes as footholds and search for a path along the outside of the floes. She made it only twice her length down the crack before spotting a gray bulge in the water. A moment later the weighty Qlio burst from the water and flung herself at the ice. Her incredible bulk struck like a wad of dough against a cracker. The cavern shook and the ice cracked. The woman nearly lost her foot when the tip of Qlio’s bath bead struck it. She had to be pulled back up. The narwhorl was still aware of them, still offended at their trespass.
Their observations brought a new mystery: how had the man of black ice even found his way to that ledge? That question’s role was small in Rob’s mind amidst all the others. He hammered at them with logic as the crew marched back the way they came and picked a new route through the floes. Such cold has to be the work of a bath bead. What we wouldn’t give to have the Mop’s library back… It has to be a bead, but we saw no glow or shine upon him. He held nothing. He wore so little. Where was that heinous bead? Where could he hide it?
After his fruitless analysis his mind moved onto the questions it was more obsessed with. He wanted to know why this man had done as he did. He’d driven them into the Winchar Straits, right into the path of Qliomatrok, but when given the opportunity to gloat or explain himself he offered nothing. There hadn’t been pleasure in his voice.
“Captain,” Alast said, pulling Rob back to the ice, “it seems the only way forward is up.” Rob looked back at the crew; all their eyes and sockets were upon him. He turned and saw a steep incline of ice, smooth yellow waves of it. It was too steep and slick to walk up, but not if bonepickers went first and gouged holes in it.
“Aye,” Rob said with a stiff nod. “Pickers again to the front. Make a path.”
“What did he say?” someone from the back asked. “Is the Captain losing his voice?”
“You’re losing your hearing you two-stained longjohn!” Dawn answered them, as loud and hostile as she could. Rob knew what she was doing; she covered for his own waning resolve. “Everybody heard the Captain! Quit picking your noses and start picking your bones! Now! Move!” Her leatherfleshed hands clapped together and spurred them forward. They took up their weapons and hopped onto the sheet, gouging holes in it and releasing the occasional jet of trapped gas.
We should care more that they draw closer to mutiny, Rob thought. Surely we can put the timbre back in our voice… but we didn’t. It’s this damn spike poking our lungs. The cold has encouraged it. Emboldened it curves up to my heart, the fool thing not even seeing how easy it would be to take us through the lungs. It could pop them like bubbles if it just pushed that direction a little further.
Who is that man? He’s worse than the spike. He’s what’s got our mind in a spiral. He took our piece of the path, he took our ship, he took the lives of our folk, and gave nothing! Not even a motive! At what point does such a creature overflow from its taking?
If he won’t give us an answer we’ll make one. We must know him. There must be a wrong he wrongly perceives. we’ve never known a man of night-black and endless cold, but perhaps the curse is new on him. There are plenty of candidates in our life who could’ve wound up cursed.
He followed behind Dawn, the first one up the new footholds. One by one the rest of the crew followed. The Dinnr twins are none too friendly these days. Perhaps one of their spawn. Could we have earned such ire from them? Yugo perhaps, but not us. we’re not the ones who slaughtered all their farm animals. Sure, we took our part of the bacon and cheek meat, but they were already gone at that point. There wasn’t a drop of their blood on us.
A few of the bonepickers dropped back down as the sheet narrowed. They needed to carry the boats up. One of them tried to take Roary’s bag of treasure, but the boy stubbornly kept it. He could barely move from foothold to foothold with it weighing him down. His breathing was getting ragged. Between the smoke and ice all their lungs were raw. Halfway up the sheet there wasn’t a lightfolk or tilefolk without burning in their chest.
The whole of the clan Destinr could be after us, but it would be the whole of them instead of one scrawny fellow. We should think in terms of bead access… or bead category. Weather beads are not unheard of. We’ve done some of that hearing; there’s pain lightning 3… that went missing a few washes ago. Dry rain 1, yellow rain 1, boulder hail 4… None of them produce ice or cold. (Blaine’s Note: the scientifically minded peoples of Porce often categorize bath beads by their effects. The number denotes how many bath beads with the same effect had previously been recorded.)
We suppose we should thank the stars it was a man. A woman could mean twice as many ex-bedmates. We wouldn’t put such a thing past Marciroon… or Flowerfoot… or Lacquin, Tessashoe, or Polishka. Teal might be on the list if she weren’t our first mate.
There was that woman… what was her name? The shipbuilder who dared overcharge us for the Mop. Unsinkablr? No, the company was Unsinkables… something Unsinkables. She was a nasty little thing with a nasty big mouth. She was ruined. We suppose she could’ve hired this man, but with what funds? Ruination is a disease that sucks your pockets dry before it goes for your blood. No, we bet she’s in a miserable cold gutter somewhere, dining on scraps and shivering in the night.
“Captain,” Dawn called from the top of the sheet.
“I’ve no clue!” she shouted back. “It be definitely strange. I think I see trees!” Whispers cascaded down the crew like leaks sprung from casks. Trees? In the middle of ice floes? Nobody had ever heard of such a thing.
“Impossible,” Ice Master Shuckr baulked just below the Captain. “You can’t set roots in ice. They’ll freeze! This’d be a lush garden paradise if you could. We’d be farmers instead of pirates.”
“If only,” Nurkly Neenr said from a pack on the ice master’s back.
“Nobody be farming these,” Dawn barked down at them. She looked over the edge of the shelf once more. “They’re disorganized. Natural. Be’nt an orchard… but… those look like fruit!” At the last word Rob leapt upward. The ice was slippery, but his bonepicking was strong enough to get to the top. He ran straight up, ignoring the footholds, until he could reach out and grab Dawn’s outstretched hand. She took hold and hauled him up to the edge just as he was losing his momentum. The Captain peered over it. The crack was just wide enough for them to squeeze the boats through. Below it was a sharp drop, but only ten foams high. The next chamber once again had a high ceiling, just thin enough to see the bar of the florent through it. Under its light trees did indeed grow, but unlike any trees either of them had laid eyes or sockets on before.
It wasn’t an orchard, but the plants weren’t sparse either. They grew close together, some of their trunks winding around each other or hanging over a stronger neighbor’s branch. Most stood between eight and twenty foams tall, though there were a few saplings mixed in. Their bark appeared twisted, like hot iron spun around and left to cool, or like coiled wire. It also had a slight metallic gleam, though not enough to shine gaudily in the light.
Their leaves were bluer than seawater and grew in all directions. They were thick and fleshy like the water plants of lakes and ponds. Blue shapes like fat raindrops hung from the branches in great numbers: what Dawn had tentatively called fruit. Even the saplings had one or two full grown droplets hanging from their twigs.
“Down we go,” Rob said simply. Without addressing the crew he rolled himself over the edge and landed softly, thanks to the bonepicking, on the ice. The trees did not take immediate offense over his presence. He took a step forward.
“We’re going in,” Dawn shouted to the crew in the Captain’s stead. She hopped down as well, landing in front of the Captain and taking point. Drip by drip the crew came to the edge of the sheet and dropped into the chamber, slowly spreading out behind the Captain as he made his way to the grove.
“Is there fruit?” Pearlen asked Alast as the circle of young friends followed closely behind the Captain.
“It looks like fruit to me,” he answered her. “The most delicious fruit I’ve ever seen. It looks like rain.”
“With our luck of late its juice be poisonous piss,” Roary chimed in. Kingvy gave him a light smack on the ear to quiet him and told him to at least enjoy the brief taste of hope. Then he asked the Captain who would take the first bite.
“I will have the first bite,” Rob said to the entire crew in response. Before sour faces could form he explained himself. “I doubt any of us have seen such plants before. Who among us has the most botanical experience? Mr. Gheesr or Miss Laudr I imagine. What say the two of you?”
“I can tell a haund from its sibling by its rate of breath,” Fulbur Gheesr, a skull currently held above the rest of the crew by a tilefolk, answered, “but I can’t tell you what those are.”
“Legends abound about trees with blue leaves; it’s the color of the eight gods’ gardens they say, but I’ve no facts to share,” a ragged-looking Miss Laudr added.
“As I thought,” Rob went on. “These fruit, if that is indeed what they are, could be poison. We only have time to test for its immediate effect, but I will perform the test regardless. You are my crew, my responsibility, my obedient charges, and I will be the first of us to die from poison if that is the way of things.”
“The fruit might’ve absorbed some toxins from the ice Captain,” the ice master warned.
“You said trees here was impossible you nincomsquat!”
“Well I didn’t guess they had mineral-rich bark, now did I?” the ice master shot back at the voice in the crowd. “Such a metal skin is what protects their delicate roots from the cold I wager.”
“Enough,” Rob said to calm the irritable skeleton. “My decision is made.” He approached the nearest tree slowly. All the crew watched, their eyes darting back and forth between the Captain’s gloved hand and the nearest blue globe. He tapped it. A shudder passed through the crowd as the fruit wobbled back and forth on its stem, its shape deforming slightly but quickly returning to normal.
“It has soft skin; that’s a bad sign,” a voice from the crew whispered. “The harder the shell the better the stuff it protects. Just ask any pearl-carting oysties.” Provoked by the comment, Rob aggressively grabbed the fruit by its base, twisted, and pulled it from its stem. Tink! The sound echoed all around them, but silence quickly returned. The Captain brought it to his nose and inhaled its scent deeply.
“Smells like metal and wet nothings,” he declared. “Brings to mind the sensation of sucking water off a fork.”
“Bite it Rob,” Teal said impatiently, eyes large and assertive. He pursed his lips in response, but then opened wide. The crew leaned in far enough to smell the metal on the trees. He touched its azure skin to his tongue and rolled it back and forth. “Bite it!” The Captain did as his first mate said; his blocky teeth sank into it. Immediately the Captain’s cheeks puffed out to their full volume. Jets of water shot out of his nostrils. He choked and sputtered and dropped the fruit.
It did not roll away so much as fly, propelled by released pressure. It issued water at an incredible rate, looking like a fountain once it finally came to a spinning stop. Rob stumbled backward into one of the trees, retching and vomiting a huge volume of water just as the fruit did. The difference was that the Captain stopped after a few moments.
“It’s uhhh… ahh… It’s uhh-uhh water! Nothing but fresh water,” he managed to cough. The crew circled around the fruit and watched as its flow continued straight up into the air.
“What is that?” Pearlen asked of the jetting thing that had everyone transfixed.
“It be the fruit,” Queenvy answered her.
“You’re trying to fool me,” the girl whispered in response.
“She isn’t,” Alast defended. “I swear Pearlen. That fruit has an entire pond of water in it!” It took only a moment more before folk closed in and held out their cupped hands. The fruity font filled them and they began to imbibe. Satisfied sighs filled the chamber. There was shoving for a moment, vying for position around the generous fruit, but they quickly remembered they were in a grove of the things. Everyone dispersed, with groups of four or five each carefully plucking their own fruit from one of the trees and puncturing it with a pencil, small knife, or fingernail.
Each was as bountiful as the last; everyone sat around them like campfires and gorged on their fresh contents. Their luck was more stupendous still, as the water was merely chilled rather than freezing. The ice master theorized that the relatively high temperature of the water was the result of the incredible pressure inside the fruit’s skin. As he did not need the water, he babbled his guesses to Nurkly amidst the sounds of slurping and gasping.
“I’m no botanist, but there must be some sort of adaptive advantage to all this nonsense,” he chattered. Nurkly nodded, her chin bouncing against his bony palms. “The trees must filter out the toxins in the ice and store the resulting fresh water… for… for washes! For rests! That’s it Nurkly! The floes move constantly but slowly; the trees’ roots will always get cut off from minerals or fresh water eventually! So they store it! They store enough for a hundred thousand rinses, because that could be how long it takes for the floes to rearrange themselves in a way where the trees can feed or drink again. These could be ancient Nurkly! That water they drink could’ve been from the formative rivers! The first leaks of Porce! It could have been drunk by the original inhabitants of Porce! The giants Nurkly!”
“And here we are without our tongues,” she said mournfully. “I should have liked to taste the oldest purest waters.”
“Well… it’s only a guess Nurkly,” Man said. “It could just be dirty toil leakage.”
Toil drippings or not, the remaining crew of the Greedy Old Mop embraced the strange fruit and their waters as completely as they could. In mere drops it became the stuff of their culture. After the first fruits finally slowed and emptied they grabbed more so the celebrations could continue. They feasted upon the water like meaty roasts and foamy brews. They slurped and belched and dabbed at their cracked lips with wet fingers.
When the initial gluttony was finished they began puzzling out all the other ways they could use the bounty. First they refilled all their water cans, which had nearly been emptied. They reversed the roles of their lifeboats, standing over their sides and squeezing fruit into them, hoping they could hold water. Bodiless gravefolk, eager to find their own way to participate in the festivities, were dropped into the water-filled boats. They used bonepicking to swim around in the pools like strange fish, quickly organizing synchronized routines to entertain the others.
Alast picked up the tiny haund Finick, whose attitude had improved after the strangeness at the mouth of the floes, and placed the creature on a floating skull in one of the boats. Those around watched with glee as the haund leapt from skull to skull performing small tricks. The two larger haunds lapped at the edge with gusto.
Their enthusiasm was tempered some when the first fruits emptied and they found nothing left behind but skin. There was no flesh to it and thus no food. The skins themselves were edible, but offered no taste. The cook chewed on one for a very long time, eventually judging it to be nothing but fiber. The leaves tasted like metal and held flecks that threatened to crack teeth. The bark and wood were similarly indigestible.
Still they would not be deterred. The fruit was practically religion to them already. They made a stockpile, without puncturing them, to take when they left. It meant they would not suffer from thirst for washes if they rationed it carefully. The youngest played catch with them while the few performers aboard juggled the bright blue bits of salvation. Herc brought out his Sybil’s glass and wetted the instrument with the juice of the fruit. He and everyone else proclaimed the tune it produced to be sublime. The musician even found he could smack the sides of the trees with a saber and produce unique tones. He set several folk to the task of providing his percussion while he swiftly wrote and sang a song pondering possible names for their discovery.
Directly over Qlio’s big fat nose… is the fruit that’s like a hose
Hmmm, what do we call, hmmm, what do we call it?
Have a sit in that big wet patch… thanks the gods for this catch
Hmmm, what do we name, hmmm, what do we name it?
One slit is all it takes… every thirst it positively slakes
Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm
Blue hope? Wetberry?
Clear gold? Rainfairy?
Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmmmmmmmmmmm
Captain Rob sat under one of the trees, afforded a moment of relaxation. Teal was next to him with her head on his shoulder. He’d not seen such affection from her in ages, not since before their battle with Yugo Legendr. What’s changed? It must be the fear of death, driving her to closeness while there’s still time. We are no longer thirsty, but we are still starving. Stop that. We can have the same stupid thoughts as the rest of these dribblers. The water is wonderful! The moment is saved! The swiftly-gone moment is saved! We think the name rainfairy is best. We’ll have it recorded as that. Best write it on somebody’s bones before we’re all gone.
“Is there even the slightest romantic element to being part of a mass grave?” Teal asked him. He understood it to be less morbid than it sounded. Teal’s mind was simply a rainy place; she had the firmest feet upon the wettest mushiest ground. He wondered if she was seeing a masterpiece of a painting, something that would exist rests in the future, of all their ice-mummified bodies laid out like a carpet, dotted with dried rainfairies like jewels. Rob knew his bones wouldn’t be there. There would be a gravefolk life for him. Teal? That was still a mystery.
“No,” he answered. “Standing out in death is just as important as in life.”
“Easy for you to say. Even if we all died in an avalanche those gem bones of yours would draw all the attention. Folk might wear shards of you around their neck for the rest of time. You’re showing by the way.” She lifted her head, opened her lips, and tapped her teeth. Rob pulled off a glove and rubbed one of his front teeth. Under his nail he found little white chips: the residue from his tooth paint. The blast of rainfairy water had washed away his dental disguise, revealing his glistening green smile.
“No matter,” he said. “So many folk.” He looked around slowly, taking in all the temporary joy and the music. Their tree was safe from the pounding of Herc’s melodies. The dancing and guffawing of those around them kept them just warm enough to be comfortable. “I’ve always known the number of those on my ship, but there seem to be more of them out here. Even after Qliomatrok has taken her share.”
“lightfolk grow when watched,” Teal mused. “We are plants that need encouragement. When you walked past them aboard the Mop they were just items on the manifest. Here they are precious, loud, and perishable.”
“I thought I knew them all, but even now I see…” Rob’s glance snagged on something. There was a woman leaned up against one of the trees that didn’t have folk banging at its trunk. Her clothing was even more disheveled than the others; it went in layers and spoke of multiple disheveling events. There was a rainfairy next to her, weakly bubbling with the last of its water. He scrutinized as she dipped her hands into it and washed the grime away from her face.
She was short, stout, and had ratty hair that barely responded to wetting. When she was done washing she looked up, taking in the games played around the water-filled boat. She smiled awkwardly, her cheeks somewhat red and swollen from the cold. Stop smiling, Rob silently ordered her. He waited for the order to take effect.
Her joy faded some and she went back to looking at the blue canopy over them and the few rays of the florent that penetrated it and took up some of its color. Rob framed her face between two shafts of the bluish light. He searched his memory gallery. Without the unfamiliar smile he found a match. Unsinkables! She’s Unsinkables! How is this possible? When did this creature insert itself into our crew? The unsinkable has sunk woman! Even after your ruin your promises fall apart. You are here… parasitizing us. You are in our crew like a maggot in cheese.
Rob jumped to his feet, his hand immediately upon his sword. Teal’s head smacked against the twisted metal trunk of the tree, forcing her to rise as well and rub at the fresh knot. The Captain stalked towards Scuttlr, crystal teeth grinding. That’s it. Watch the blue leaves. They’ll start rustling any moment, once you hang from their branches.
Once Teal recovered she finally saw Scuttlr. In one horror-filled drip she understood the situation. The first mate rushed over to intervene, coming as close to shouting as she ever did. This drew Scuttlr’s attention; she rose to her feet and kicked the emptied rainfairy away. She tried to turn, but found herself cornered by the trees she’d lounged against.
“Rob! Stop!” Teal barked. She grabbed his arm and held his sword in its sheath. Her face aligned with his. “It’s not what you think.” The crews’ heads turned. The music stopped. The last vibrations of the tree-drumming sank deep into the ice.
“What do I think?” the Captain snarled.
“We know who she is,” Teal said, stoic in the face of his wrath.
“What do you mean we?”
“Everyone but you,” she answered with her usual subtlety. “She’s one of the crew. Has been for most of the Greedy Old Mop’s life.”
“Impossible. I would have noticed!” Folk started to gather around Scuttlr. Queenvy positioned herself between the Captain and the stowaway.
“I meant what I said Rob,” Teal countered. “Items on the manifest to you,” she hissed in his ear. “What you did to her never sat right with us. She’s done no harm here. She has even loyally served you.”
“There were to be no secrets aboard my ship!” Rob bellowed. He whirled around, trying to eye everyone at once. “Every bit of treasure we took aboard was portioned out fairly, and yet I find out I did not get my share of this secret! So cruel, am I? So cruel that none of you ever told me I was? So cruel that you stayed aboard the ship I provided and served? I was so cruel to her that she came crawling back and lived under my rug… by the warmth of my hearth!”
“She has done her share!” Queenvy yelped. She immediately recoiled, but there were enough other voices to back her up. Most of them had had at least one post-meal conversation with Scuttlr. She was someone you could lick a plate with and not feel a hint of embarrassment. She was a fellow contestant in belching competitions. To some of them that was as good as sharing blood.
“In all your kind cuddlings,” Rob rambled, “did any of you stop to think she has finally taken her vengeance against me! A vengeance wholly undue given her attempt to overcharge us for the Mop in the first place! Who would know how to sink the Mop better than its builder! All these deaths, all your lost tiles and gold… these are on her foul-smelling head!”
“That’s nonsense Rob,” Teal challenged. “You saw that man through the ice. Whatever he was… he did this to us. That was his cold; it sloughed off him stronger than any smell from Scuttlr.” The crew chirped in agreement.
“Scuttlr? Is that what you’ve called her? That’s not her name… it’s… it’s…”
“Bezzy Hornhollr,” Scuttlr chipped in. She stepped out from behind her Queenvy shield, pushing the girl back with her thick arms. “Owner and operator of Hornhollr Unsinkables… and I only overcharged you for the cannons you piss-soaked deck rag.”
Captain Rob roared like a haund ready to bite out its own throat. He leaned forward and dashed with bonepicking speed, bypassing Teal completely. His sword swung out of its sheath fast as a lightning flash, barely missing Scuttlr’s head. The woman bent even lower than his strike and immediately scurried away between the trees. There was no fighting him; only a grateful crew could intervene. They did their best.
Dawn and Teal were on him in a drip, holding out their hands and trying to calm his rage. Dawn grabbed his arm, but he twisted out of it with a spiraling jump that put him ten foams in the air. Scuttlr left a trail of rustling leaves as she bumped into the trees; Rob followed in the air by pushing himself in her direction. Whenever gravitation became strong enough to pull him down he planted one foot on a branch and forced himself back into the air; he followed her like a kite.
A few of the other bonepickers hopped up into the canopy to stand in his way, but none of them were as practiced as the Captain himself. Back aboard the Mop he spent a drop a day running around his quarters without stop: up the walls, across the ceiling, and back down. Sometimes he circled the room on the walls, keeping his feet off the floor long enough for dust to gather. Every time a skeletal hand popped up in front of him he simply spun out of the way and shot in Scuttlr’s direction, even if he didn’t face it.
The chaos shook all the trees now. We won’t lose her. There. That’s the most cowardly patch of movement. Rob forced all his weight into his knees and his sword-wielding arm. His body shot downward as if from a cannon. He pierced the canopy and buried his sword in the ice, narrowly missing one of Scuttlr’s thighs as the impact made her to stumble away.
We’ve nearly got her. One good blow and she’ll empty like the rainf… Something blasted the Captain from behind, bashing his nose against the hilt of his sword. He fell forward and whirled around to see who would betray him so, but it was only the forest he had disturbed. A mighty pulse of water filled his eyelids and went down his nose. His downward slash had pierced the skin of one of the fruit, and now its contents kept him off his feet.
The rainfairy rocked back and forth violently on its stem until it snapped: tink! The fruit spiraled out of control, knocking into one tree and then another. Tink! Tink! Tink! Three more fell and burst open against the ground, creating geysers. Water covered the icy floor and shot up everyone’s pant legs. Tink! Tink! Tink! Tink! Tink!
Rob bonepicked his way into the air, clawing at the sky. He turned his head and found a wave eleven foams high. The water snatched him out of the air and tossed him against the wall, along with several members of the crew. The water rose. Too late Rob realized he’d set off a chain reaction. The lake stored in those strange blue trees was to be fully unleashed.
Higher and higher the water rose as the currents near the tree trunks grew more volatile. Folk were pulled up and spun around. The haunds whined as they struggled to keep their heads out of the water and paddle away. Surely we won’t drown… at some point the weight of the water must…
A deep crack appeared in the ice, sucking everything down. Even a few trees, with metal roots anchored in a thousand places, were ripped free and swallowed. The bottom of the cavern opened up. Pieces of the walls and ceiling fell. The torrent of water and ice all swirled together for a moment. There came the sound of another crack, and everything chose a direction. The incline they had climbed into the chamber on suddenly shifted in front of them.
Anyone who had not grabbed one of the stable trees went sliding away down the ice, to a place so deep that it became quite dark. Wherever they went, the water got there faster. Its level fell enough to allow them all breath, but its slickness kept them sliding. Rob was in the midst of it, his mind racing a few bubbles behind him. He could’ve stopped at any moment by simply planting his bonepicking sword in the ice and pushing his weight back up the slope, but the other lightfolk had no such option. The slide got darker. The Winchar Straits are going to devour them whole. The ice is too dark here. If all light is lost there will be no escape. It will be cold, then silence, and then death. Somewhere in there will be the thought that Kilrobin Ordr did this to them. We won’t have that.
The Captain straightened out his body and bonepicked forward, sending himself to the front of the avalanche of folk. Wet clumps of ice slid up the back of his shirt and stung the knobs of his spine, but he had to ignore them. He needed to be made of steel for such precise maneuvers. Bonswario Bucklr wriggled by his side, desperately searching for purchase. Rob grabbed the man’s wrist, forcing all his gravitation into the left side of his head. This spun them both. Once their speed was sufficient Rob tossed the deckhand to a partially-uprooted tree, where he successfully grabbed hold.
Three times more he did this; three lives he saved from the black crevice at the end of the ice sheet before another problem arose. He spotted four folk more than twenty foams away, all clinging to each other as they slid toward their fate. We can’t pick over there fast enough! We need an anchor! Where… what… Pearlen! That beautiful blind sprite!
“Pearlen!” Rob shouted to draw the girl’s attention. She was sliding as well, but was quickly slowing thanks to the spear she almost always carried. Its head cut shavings from the ice and even allowed her to alter her course, like the rudder of a ship. “Get down here!” Loyal Pearlen. A real pirate. Not a should-be-drowned rummin like that Hornhollr! As he assumed, the brave Pearlen wasted no time. She turned onto her stomach and held the spear above her head, twisting it enough to curve in Rob’s direction.
“Captain!” she called when she was very close. “What am I doing?”
“Stay still!” he barked. “Hold your spear out to me and don’t let go!” The girl flipped back onto her back and clutched the end of the spear the way a bird clutches a branch when it has forgotten how to fly. Rob snatched the other end, just below the head, and picked them into a spin, with Pearlen being the center. He just had to build up enough force to swing himself over to the others and knock them into something, anything, they could grab hold of.
He spared a glance at the blob of grasping pirates in dire need; among them he saw Queenvy with her glowing treasure bag… and the traitorous Hornhollr. If we get the angle exact… she doesn’t need to survive. We can pinch her away from the rest of them. That darkness can at least do us some good.
Faster and faster he went. Pearlen was used to the immense pressure of deep-diving, so she could handle the force generated by his bonepicking. He only heard her suppress one minute vomit-like sound. At the lowest point of the circle, just as he started to rise again, Rob kicked out his legs in the direction of the endangered folk and released his grip. He flew across the surface of the ice with enough power to cut shavings from it just like Pearlen’s spear.
Fwump! He smashed into the cluster of folk and pushed them away from the smoothest part of the incline. There were no trees left that hadn’t been eaten by the crevice, but there was an upheaval in the ice, a rigid upright block wide enough to hold. Rob kept pushing. Their hands reached out for it, but they approached it too quickly. Fingers smashed against it and broke. The ball of folk broke up into its constituent pieces, spreading them across the upheaval… and spilling two.
They’re fine, the Captain realized as he stumbled backward down the slope. He spotted several limbs hanging over the edge of the upheaval, meaning the bodies attached to them no longer fell. The impact, the shock of a shelf of ice upside the head, had knocked him woozy for a moment. He saw that they were fine and thought the crisis over. The folk were fine, so all folk were fine. Even though he was on his feet, sliding backwards down the slope, he thought he was safe as well. The top of Queenvy’s treasure bag hung out over the upheaval. It opened just enough to drop one thing before she snatched it closed: a brighted bone.
“I can’t… I can’t grab… urgh! Where’s…” Rob heard Scuttlr panicking behind him. She was on her stomach, trying to turn her knees into icepicks and stop her descent. The crevice widened behind them, echoing with the sounds of the waterfall it had just gulped down.
Rob’s concussed crystal noggin still rang with confusion. He watched the brighted pelvis, gold and shining, tumble down the ice. After a moment its natural upward force overpowered the inertia of the fall and it drifted up. The Captain snagged it simply because it was the only thing around to snag.
“Aaarrrraaaaa!” Scuttlr howled as she hit the crevice and fell.
“Bezzy!” Queenvy and a few others yelled after her, but there was nothing they could do. Rob looked over his shoulder and saw the same edge. His feet slipped off. Only when the frigid rushing air moved through his clothes did his mind subdue the shock. Falling. Death. Falling to where? Crushing ice… there’ll be no point to these green bones. We’ll have earned them for naught. Pull up! Pick back! Anything but a plain old hole in the ground!
In truth the hole was far from plain. In their days trekking through the ice the crew of the Greedy Old Mop had made it far. They were very near the lip of Third Sink, though there were few places that provided easy ascension to civilization. The glacier they wound through presently was firmly glued to the whitish cliffs of the lip, the stone polished to an alabaster shine by the grinding of the ice. The crevice threatening them now opened on an old clash between the water and rock: a chasm in the body of Third Sink itself. Its depths were linked to the black murk beneath even the tiles. If one could see in such darkness they would see the Pipes: the dead arteries of the old world.
Piiiiick! Captain Rob forced his gravitation upward, into the tips of his fingers and the crown of his head. Even his blood responded, making his feet feel like empty boots. Bonepickers could enhance their efforts if they had a surface to play off of, something to hold their weight for brief moments, so Rob picked his way to the edge of the crevice and angled his feet to the side. He began to run along the wall, pushing his steps higher to angle his overall curve upward. The pelvis in his hand had a permanent bonepicking force of its own, so he kept hold of it and hoisted it over his head.
Over his own ragged breathing he heard Scuttlr’s scream fading below him. Shortly came the shouts of the crew from above; they called his name. He barely had the focus to spare for a return call. Rob glanced at the icy edge and saw nobody, just flakes of ice amidst the rainfairy drippings. They had to be coming. Altitude. He had to preserve altitude until they could lower him a lifeline.
Round and round he ran, using his jump club to bash footholds in the ice, ways to jump upward. He even succeeded in gaining some height on his fourth circle of the crevice. He was bubbles from the same edge he’d slipped off, so he reached out… and his hand slipped on its wet smoothness. He furiously threw himself back to the wall, bruising his shoulder and poking his lung with his internal spike. He staggered and stumbled from one foothold to the next. His crew’s shouting drew closer.
“Rob!” he heard Teal shout clearly. He glanced up and saw her butchered hair hanging over the edge; if only it had been there to grab moments ago. Other faces appeared alongside hers, mostly gravefolk.
“Get me out of here!” the Captain sputtered. He couldn’t stop running or his momentum would drop out instantly. The other bonepickers could form a bridge with their bodies, for without flesh their grip strength would never fail, but they needed time. The skeletons still had weight and needed to account for it in their constructions; a gravefolk alone, even one practiced in picking, could only hold four or five others over an edge without being pulled over.
“Hang on!” Alast encouraged as his face joined the others. With the bodies of several gravefolk anchored to the edge by picking and acting as a fence, the others felt safe enough to slide down and watch their Captain’s struggle.
“Let him fall!” Someone shouted. “He’s finally murdered wrong!”
“Stow that or you’ll hang!” Teal shouted back. Rob ran two more circles as the bonepicker ladder started to unfurl. Dawn put herself at the end of it, extending her leathery hands to give Rob a target. He knew he could do it. The jump would be nothing compared to the circles he’d run so far; he just needed to make the leap from his closest foothold.
His lungs burned fiercely now; every breath was a jet of steam. The spike in his side felt like a red hot poker straight from Plowr’s hearth. It was fine, he could handle it, as long as he hit that last divot in the ice. He made the jump to it, perfectly. The ice did not hold up its end of the deal. The pieces surrounding the foothold cracked and broke, falling into the depths and taking the Captain with them.
He tumbled head over heels, his body battered against the wall even as he pushed himself closer to it. Piiiiiiick! We are the wall! We are part of Porce! As long as the world lives we must as well! Miraculously, Rob slowed nearly to a stop against the wall. The panicked shouts of his crew gave way to stunned silence. Nobody was supposed to do that without some sort of holdfast.
“Rob! Jump!” Dawn screamed at him, holding her hands as low as possible. Another gravefolk added themselves to the base of the ladder as two more clambered into its length. He was much lower now. All his footholds were foams above him. He still had the lofty pelvis, but his other hand was empty; in his tumble he’d dropped his jump club.
The Captain was terrified to move, but he couldn’t hold himself against the wall for long and he still slipped downward with every passing moment. With no hope of his own left, just raw instinct, he let the pelvis serve as the optimistic beacon, thrusting it as high as he could once again. He kept his other hand on the wall and resumed his circular run.
The ladder reached the end of its possible length. There were more gravefolk to be sure, and smarter weight distribution would’ve helped, but there was not time. The ice shelf supporting them groaned. Much of the crew backed away, losing sight of the Captain as he spiraled the drain. Only those closest to the Captain stayed: Teal, Alast, Pearlen, and Bonswario among them. His grandfather was part of the ladder. Rob took another look at them, seeing mostly the faces that had vanished, and realized he could not rise to the occasion.
“I am not dying!” he shouted up at them as he continued to circle. He leapt away from the wall and pushed upward. The pelvis gave him a moment, but that was all. He landed against the wall lower than before and resumed running. The eyes above him were so tiny now. “I am simply leaving you! I will return! In my absence… I absolutely expect your loyalty. Teal is your temporary captain! You will do as she says until my inevitable resuming… of duties! You all hear! To forget is mutiny! Escape the ice!”
He made one last attempt, jumping from the back of the crevice toward the ladder. He missed by a wide margin. The terror of his crew and their screams fell with him, fell with the light of the brighted bone, into the bottomless chasm. Scuttlr and Bezzy Hornhollr were dead and gone. Captain Rob was gone. The crew of the Greedy Old Mop was finally set adrift.