(reading time: 54 minutes)
There was a time in Porce where the tiles, toils, and sinks were not the height of civilization. Before the Age of Building, before the Age of Tragedy, things lived within the walls and pipes of Porce, feeding on moisture and lighting their way by thought. Modern tales spoke of the Pipes as the underworld: a pit of damp suffering where evil souls and bodies were stored for all eternity, denied the mercy of complete rot. Those who believed in the eight gods and those of the Toil Papers both believed this. They were only partly right.
Beneath the tiles were soils. Beneath the soils were water and rock. Beneath those was something rarely touched by tilefolk, lightfolk, and bergfolk. It was the Fith: the ancient loam of Porce’s origins. In appearance it was dark green and black. In consistency it was somewhere between pond scum and putty. Before Porce was Porce it helped hold everything together, but now it had slow complex currents of its own, shifting minerals, molds, and energies underneath the world in spiraling patterns. It was alive with tiny plants and pseudo-creatures, things neither alive nor dead because of their position in the world.
For a short while the Fith’s uniformity was marred by a stain from the surface: a fleshy cloth covered thing hiding emerald bones. The Fith moved it as it would anything else, swallowing it, burying it, shifting it, and hoping it would be absorbed at some point. When its indigestibility became clear, it was far too alive to integrate, it had seen far too much florentshine and even seemed to carry a piece with it, the Fith excreted it.
Buuh! He breathed for the first time in a long while. How long exactly he did not know. His hands were stuck and his legs were stuck. Only his head and neck were free to move. He opened his eyes, but his eyelashes were so full of muck that he could see only shades of brown and green. He tried to blink them clear, but the muck glued them back together each time. His breathing was ragged; his lungs felt patchy, like an eggshell bearing a thousand cracks that yet clung to its membrane. Buuh! Buuh-uhhhhhhhhhhh…
Only when he quieted did he start to comprehend the sounds around him. There was tapping, inconsistent but positively everywhere. There was dripping. There were little things falling, like flies struck dead mid-buzz. Somewhere there was a waterfall. A… a something-fall. That can’t be water. It sounds… thick. What is this taste in our mouth? Where is the vomit to burn it away?
Captain Rob passed out of consciousness once again. Buuh! The muck on his eyes had not dried out, but his neck had certainly grown stiffer. He lifted his head and pressed the back of it against whatever held him in place. It gave way slightly, leaking something around his ears, over his eyes, and down his nose. As it dripped from the edge of his nostrils he was able to smell its thick ferrous odor. Blood.
After a few drips he grasped that he was suspended in the underside of something, like a gum candy stuck under a table. His arms and legs were held fast in the substance, but his head bobbed out over an open space. It sounded massive, judging by how far down the tapping and dripping made contact.
“Urrrggh!” he grunted, struggling to bonepick one of his arms free. It bulged down and ripped through the ceiling of gunk. Rob used the free hand to wipe as much filth off his face as he could, then used his palm and his sleeve, but both were soiled beyond measure. He picked his eyelashes clean, plucking many of them out, and blinked frantically. Eventually a picture formed: the ugliest picture he’d ever seen.
Below him there opened an immense basin and mounds of death. The waterfall he’d heard was the widest he’d seen outside of the Aych and Sea Fauces, and Rin of course, but it ran red, dark, and thick with blood. The islands within its basin and the land surrounding it were an uneven collection of mounds, many of them composed entirely of bones: animal bones, folk bones, and even bones Rob would not be able to recognize with the ten best anatomy texts on hand.
The tapping he heard was the bones emerging from the ceiling, excreted by the Fith just as he was about to be, and falling to clatter against their brethren below. Among the hail of bones a rain of blood also fell. Where the light came from he had no idea. By his own measure he was somewhere deep underground, he really hadn’t fathomed how deep, and yet he could see the grotesque valley beneath him as if by the florentshine of a cloudy day.
Unsure if he would’ve preferred absolute darkness to the show of horrors below, Rob pulled his other arm free. He found that in his hand he still held the brighted pelvis; it had been his last friend in the moments leading up to his death, a death he had somehow sidestepped. It was his only friend still, so he held it even tighter as he turned his aching neck to the left and right. On his left the skull of a domestic wolptinger poked out of the Fith, dislodged, and fell to the lake of blood below. On his right, in the distance, he saw the great curve of a pipe, eaten through by rust and pouring a slurry of water, blood, dirt, and slime.
Skewered on its rusted edges, mostly buried in the pipe’s flow, were the skeletons of mighty beasts, their flesh taken by the Fith before being dumped. Some were of the Threewall Wild, others of the Bottomless Rot, and still others the depths of the toils. Rob recognized the black husk of an aker, the bloody concoction spraying out of its eye sockets. Its body, a piece of land warty with ashen stones, was draped over the edge and torn in places like old cheesecloth.
This is the Pipes, the Captain finally grasped. It is no cavern. We have fallen straight through the base of Third Sink and into the land of the dead. If the Papists were right… there should be punishment here. All we see… are the ornaments of death. Where are the devils bred by the pinching of the Spotless’s devious left hand? Hmm? Our eyes have just proven the Toil Papers incorrect… and there’s no one to tell!
“It was all nonsense,” he croaked to the brighted pelvis. Rob coughed up a wad of the Fith and tried to air out his tongue. “Ueeck! Water! Has a rainfairy come with me? I need one… no, five to wash all this away and out of me.” Something squirmed between the sole of his foot and that of his boot, prompting Rob to wrench the leg free. A moment too late he realized the last limb was not enough to hold him in place. His leg slipped out of the Fith and he tumbled down to the mass grave below.
There was an entire sky to fall through, plenty to kill a man, but Rob still had his bonepicking. He pulled up and reduced his momentum. In the moment he thought it greatly reduced, more than his unfocused and fuzzy mind should have allowed. He nearly undid gravitation entirely, falling so slowly that he was able to lazily turn in the air as if treading water and observe the entirety of the basin.
Under the pipe and through openings in its flow he saw a set of great spires decorated by undulating horns of crystal. He could not tell how large they were, the scale of this place was new to him, but it looked to be an entire city in the distance, its construction unlike any that reflected the Florent. Other than that it was all the weather of death. Every mountain was coated in bone. Every tributary was red, except for those that had coagulated completely and ceased to flow. It was toward one of these blackened scabby creeks Rob fell. He had no clue as to its solidity until he, light as a feather, touched boot to it.
He dropped his bonepicking. All his weight returned with startling force; he broke through the scabbed surface and sank into the current of blood underneath. Rob grabbed the edges of the hole and pulled himself back out, but not before swallowing half a mouth of the awful stuff. He flung himself to a bony shore like a fat ogtot and once again struggled for breath. The Pipes provided him the smallest of favors, in that the scabby bank upon which he rested wasn’t soft enough to sink into. Still, the Captain was forced to protect himself from the drizzle of blood by holding his filthy cloak over his face like a small tent.
“It’s all death,” he told the pelvis as he stared out from under the shade of his cover. “So why am I not death? Surely the world wouldn’t allocate this much space for me to be punished in isolation. My evils do not match this many akers.”
He laid there for nearly a drop, only groaning aloud when he realized the emptiness of his stomach. The hunger of the Winchar Straits was still with him, only briefly stalled by the strange properties of the Fith. Even surrounded by blackening blood his body still cried out. If it carried on he would perhaps find himself sipping at the scab’s edge and weeping for his drowned dignity.
A welcome distraction came when he felt a slight tug under his knee. He sat up to see the brighted pelvis held under his leg, wiggling of its own accord. It seemed it had somewhere to be. The pirate released it and watched it drift up. Rather than continuing as it had in the churning waters of Qliomatrok’s attack, its path became horizontal. Rob got to his feet and grabbed it loosely, giving it enough room to choose its own direction.
“At least you know where you’re going,” he grumbled to it. It was the only direction he had in this, the foulest of Porce’s places, so he followed like a sleepy man dragged into the bushes by the midnight urges of his leashed haund. It pulled him up the red riverbank to where the blood flowed more freely. Along the way Rob noticed a few things mixed in with the bones: a gold wristband, a stone goblet, a hatchet, and a medley of other odds-and-ends.
Some of the items he spotted bore names. When he saw clothing pinned under bones he ripped it out for an examination. They were soiled as much as his, but he could tell quality through any amount of filth. There was fine stitching there and fine leather too. Graves. This muck that transported us here… it sucks bodies right out of their graves! Sucks them down finery and all. Cleans them of flesh and dumps them here. We’re at the bottom of a compost pile. The Pipes is no more than a stage in the cycle of decomposition. Here the flesh is gone, perhaps put back into the soil… but the blood and bones remain. Something even deeper must eat them.
The gloppy roar of the blood-fall grew louder. A red mist asserted itself in the air, forcing Rob to wipe his eyes clear every few steps. The pelvis tried to take him out into the lake, but its pull in that direction wasn’t too strong; he gathered they could still make progress along the shoreline.
Crik! The Captain had just rounded a corner stacked high with rib cages when the sound caught his attention. He glimpsed something massive moving at the scabby edge of the lake and quickly hopped backward behind the bones. He looked through two ribs large enough to serve as lances and held the brighted pelvis between his legs to hide its light.
Not everything here is dead after all. The massive thing he spotted was some sort of creature, moving about on all fours and lapping up the freshest foamy blood near the falls. Its hide was wrinkled white flesh, hairless as far as he could see. It was a thick creature, built like a bloated sausage that had been fed a steady diet of other sausages. Its limbs were short and its flat feet tipped with blunt gray claws numbering ten. Its stumpy tail looked like a dumpling stuffed with wriggling maggots. The eyes were tiny, watery, black dots that seemed docile enough, but they were countered by its spoon-shaped maw full of blunt triangular teeth textured like old wood.
Stranger still was its behavior. He assumed it was simply drinking the blood like an ordinary beast from children’s nightmares. It turned out it actually prepared the blood first by rolling its head back and forth, jiggling its neck fat, and sloshing the contents of its mouth. Its jaws hung partly open and Rob saw the blood go from liquid to a gelatinous blob. Once the blood bubble’s exterior was fully coagulated the beast popped its snout toward the Fith and swallowed the blood-sack whole. It belched out a few stray pieces that had gone black.
Rob suppressed the urge to vomit. He had nothing to expel but the thinnest bile, but still it rose dangerously high inside him, and was not helped by the appearance of a second creature. Its head emerged near the other one from under a pile of bones. It was much smaller, perhaps a juvenile, and it rooted around the bone litter with its nose like a young haund sniffing out rodents. He watched it pick out the whitest bones and crush them to dust in its powerful jaws.
The pelvis continued to pull toward them, or more likely past them, but Rob was done indulging it. He kept his eyes glued to the beasts, slowly backing away. Crik! A wrist bone snapped under his weight. Both beasts turned their heads. He held his breath and entertained the idea that their tiny eyes meant very poor sight. That entertainment ceased when they barreled toward him.
Rob fled. There wasn’t much cover in the direction he’d come from, so he turned inland and hoped to find something other than bones. Behind him one of the creatures dove into the blood and swam toward him while the other took a longer route along the shore, its blubbery body bouncing with each stride and crushing bones underneath.
Uuuurrrrghhuuuuuhhhh-uhhh-uhhhh-o! the smaller one roared. He looked over his shoulder and saw it burst through a mound of ivory, jaws open and snapping. Its parent emerged from the river, the lower half of its body painted crimson, and followed its child’s lead. Faster than a thing that fat should be! Why does a pissing bone-eater need speed like that? Surely they can’t pick as well.
Rob forced his weight into the soles of his feet, angling his head forward and down. He pushed against the moist ground mightily and found himself propelled far too quickly. His feet bucked into the air behind him and sent him into a spinning tumble. He rolled for a hundred foams and only stopped because his body lodged in the eye socket of a whorl skull. His bottom was planted in it so firmly that he could not extricate himself before the beasts caught up. They skidded to a halt in front of him and he smelled their breath: a hot belch of hair dried into scabs.
He’d lost his jump club back in the ice; he still had his bonepicking sword, but it was trapped inside the skull. He held out his gloved hands to ward off the attack of the larger one. It was so close now he could see much smaller things crawling around inside its fleshy nostrils and hunkering down every time it exhaled. Its full size became unavoidable; it was big enough for five pirates to ride upon its back, with a sixth seated comfortably on its tongue. Its worn teeth pushed his arms back and pressed against his chest. He roared in protest… and the beast hesitated.
The smaller one’s eyes darted back and forth between parent and prey. It sniffed at Rob gingerly while the bigger one inhaled his scent deeply. Its nostrils contracted to slits and it recoiled. It shook its head back and forth and buried the tip of its snout in the bloody soil. Rukkkkukkkkuhhhh, it grumbled. The beast belched once more and turned away, ambling back to the river. Its offspring took one more look at Rob and then followed. A few moments later he was once again alone. It didn’t like the smell of us. A thing that drinks bubbled blood and gnaws on bones can’t stand our stench. We’d be less insulted if we were presently dead.
Rob pressed his hands against the sides of the socket and pushed. When that failed he prepared to put some picking into it, but hesitated. Something’s off with our bonepicking. It’s like we’ve lost all control, overtaxed by the power itself. We slowed that fall to nothing. Our run was so swift that we wound up stuck here. Why? If the Pipes is truly the land of the dead… perhaps the arts of the dead are enhanced. It would be here, of all places, instead of somewhere useful.
He once again placed his palms against the edges of the socket, taking small breaths and thinking tiny thoughts. The smallest amount of gravitation went into his hands… and the top of the socket cracked. He was almost free, but had to stop when his wiggling head bumped into something. His eyes crossed in the effort to look up. A silvery edge glinted between them, so thin he thought it an illusion, until that illusion sliced a fine line down the length of his prominent nose. The cut was so fine it took ten drips for blood to swell out of it.
It moved closer, forcing him to sink into the skull, which put his knees against his chest and his boots higher than his head. He craned his head as far as he could until it bumped into the skull. The silvery edge was the tip of a very strange spear, and it was held by a very strange woman. She scrutinized Rob as one might a wild animal that wandered into town. He analyzed her right back, though he did it all with an upside down view, as she was perched atop the skull in, he guessed, a squat.
In age she looked three rests younger than the Captain. (Blaine’s Note: That puts her around 36 by my calculations.) She had black skin, some of the darkest Rob had ever seen, which meant her ancestors likely came from the lands around First Toil or the Glass Desert. There seemed little chance she was actually of the Pipes anyway.
Her hair hung down in numerous thick braids, clean of the Fith or blood, as was the rest of her. She wore a mix of leather and red cloth, the occasional bauble-tipped gold chain poking out from behind a fastener. Her sleeves and leggings were tight to keep them out of the way of her spearplay. Her face was striking: eye corners that looked gouged in by bird talons, long cheeks that avoided looking hollow, and lips so full they lacked corners.
“What bones are these?” she asked, her voice both shrill and cackling.
“Captain Kilrobin Ordr,” he responded with all the authority he could muster. He held out his hand in a gesture somewhere between a handshake and asking her to pull him out. She did not take it; she did not even look. Her eyes stayed on his face like it was a decorative mask over her hearth and she couldn’t decide if it needed moving.
“Captain of what?”
“Formerly a ship, now only a crew. We were stranded by treachery in the Winchar Straits. The danger for them is still great; help me out of this thing would you?” Rob moved to widen the crack, but the woman swiveled the head of the spear down to his throat. He stopped rocking.
“The Winchar Straits? Where’s that?” Though she sounded curious, Rob detected no confusion. He guessed that the information was actually of little importance, but gave it anyway.
“Third Sink. If I’m correct in thinking this awful place is the Pipes… it should be directly above us. I fell into a crevice in the ice… it must have become stone at some point. If there’s perhaps an ekapad nearby I could-”
“We’re not below Third Sink.”
“What… what do you mean?”
“I mean what I say. Far as we can tell we’re below Slick Rin,” she said flippantly. Rob choked on his words. He forgot all about the blade pressed against his throat, cutting a little more of his beard with each second. It can’t be. There are a thousand reasons why that can’t be. She’s lying. Look at her. She hasn’t had an interest in telling the truth in rests. Time to go.
Rob hoped to catch her by surprise with a demonstration of his enhanced bonepicking. He put all his weight into his tailbone and sank as far into the socket as possible, freeing him from the blade’s immediate threat. Then he reversed the direction of the energy violently in an effort to fly out of the hole like a firework from its tube. Instead the entire skull went with him, popping into the air and flipping.
Rob landed on his feet, but with his head still forced near his knees by the giant bone around his waist. He waddled frantically in a circle, trying to find the woman. She landed a few foams in front of him, in an extraordinarily graceful fashion. It was not her feet that touched the ground, but the tip of her spear. It was Rob’s first look at the full length of the weapon and it took him another moment to remember where he had seen such a thing before.
“A bonepicker’s roost-spear,” he muttered. Such weapons existed mostly in ancient texts on the art. Its unique design required a mastery of bonepicking not seen since the days of the Custodians. Rob pieced together the idea that the stronger bonepicking of the Pipes allowed her to wield it. Even so, the weapon seemed fierce and unfamiliar. In length it was taller than its wielder, the blade longer and wider than a forearm. On one side of it, just beneath the head, a small metal stand extended. Her feet were placed there, with everything balanced perfectly. Somehow she, a living fleshed lightfolk, was bonepicking.
“Never seen one before?” she teased. With one arm hanging in the air she leaned, her spear going as well. She went so far that gravitation should have toppled her, but the spear point remained on the ground as if glued. She spiraled in wide circles with no fear of falling even as her cheek brushed a bone upon the ground.
“The bonepicking… it’s much stronger down here,” Rob said. Call her a liar. She’ll probably kill us but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s a liar. We are not beneath Slick Rin; the idea’s absurd. More absurd than our rump shoved in this skull. Rob finally focused enough to bonepick some force into his arms. He split the giant skull up the middle and both sides fell away, allowing him to rise to his full height and pretend he had dignity once again.
“Yes,” she answered, unimpressed. “The Pipes think everything down here is dead because everything is supposed to be. Every folk can pick down here, be they light, tile, or berg.”
“That’s how you’re doing it then. I thought I was the only living man to ever pick.”
“Far from it.”
“You’re a liar by the way. Don’t think that’s slipped past me. I know a wet floor when I see one.”
“I haven’t told a lie in washes. Do I even remember how?” She glanced to the side, as if struggling to see inside her own mind.
“We cannot be below Slick Rin. I was in Third Sink, on the other side of the world in two different ways. I haven’t eaten or drank since then. Surely if that… stuff,” he pointed up at the Fith, “carried me here, I would be dead from starvation or dehydration. It would take days, rinses to travel under the World Floor.”
“It’s called the Fith,” she told him. The woman dismounted her spear and held it behind her back, strolling around him as she spoke. “Just as the Pipes think you dead, so too did the Fith. It treated you like death, swirled you around like every other bit of rot. You’re not in a state of life; it’s only luck that has you still fleshed. You slept in it, your mind confused. Your rinses that you fear have indeed passed. Your crew may be dead by now. Surely they think you are.”
“No…” Rob stole glances at the Fith, but every time his head turned back to look at the mysterious woman she was somewhere else. His mind scrabbled around in search of more questions. More questions meant more answers, and one of them had to be of some use to him. “You said we a moment ago. Who else is down here? And how do they come and go?”
“We… are the living sixteen,” she said, and then hopped over his head, spiraling as she went, to land on the other side. She walked along half of the split skull, rocking it back and forth like a wedge of fruit. “There is no coming and going. The sixteen of us live here, eternally, because we stumbled into false death… just like you.”
“Yes. We do not age here because Porce thinks us dead. We can still be killed though, by traditional means. You still need your blood. You were once again lucky; the bone-mealers don’t like the scent of living flesh.”
“The…” Rob stopped himself. Bone-mealers must be those white beasts that chased us into her grasp. They’re adapted to dead prey only. “How long have you been here? What do you eat in a place such as this?”
“You haven’t asked my name,” she said with a pout. “Why would I give you my life story without even giving you that?”
“What is your name then, woman!?”
“That’s truly lovely. Where do we go from here Vyra?”
“I haven’t decided if I should take you anywhere,” she said, holding out her spear as if it was light as a sprig of straw. “If I took you home we’d have to change our name to the living seventeen. Less catchy. That would upset everyone.”
“I could kill one of you then,” Rob offered. “Keep it nice and even.” He drew his bonepicking sword. Finally things headed in a familiar direction. Her footsteps grew softer, lighter. She primed to launch herself with picking. She tried to stroll behind him but Rob kept turning. Her strike was coming; it was just a matter of which bit of blathering was her last.
“What a clever solution! Let’s give it a shot then!” Vyra rushed his position without even moving her feet; her body simply slid forward. When she was close she dropped to her knees and slashed. Rob pushed off the ground, but was forced to flail when he went much higher than intended. Vyra was right there beside him in an instant, striking again. Rob blocked with his sword and let the force of it push him back.
He returned to the ground, splashing red muck and bones everywhere. Vyra landed at a distance, but quickly closed the gap with a familiar trick: she hugged her weapon tightly and spun her entire body, using the spear as the spoke of a wicked wheel. Rob could do much the same with his sword, but knew he couldn’t match the momentum she’d already built up. Instead he spun out to the side and stuck his blade into the middle of her wheel, hoping to catch her in a vital organ.
Vyra’s spinning stopped abruptly. Her spear head was against the ground and she was once again balanced on the stand, facing Rob. She had his blade gripped between both her hands. Rob’s eyes widened. The sight of his frustration pleased her, splitting her lips and revealing her terrible smile. Vyra’s teeth were a nasty dark color, with veins of something black and gristly between each and every one. Her tongue was gray-purple and vaguely resembled a brain swollen by liquid guilt. When she recognized his disgust her face filled with rage and she lashed out once again.
Vyra, from her perch on her spear’s side, launched a flurry of punches and kicks. At first Rob tried to block with his blade, but it was too slow to do any good. He had to drop it and counter her hand for hand. She laughed maniacally, gripping the stand with the sides of her feet, and shot straight up into the air. Rob’s eyes followed her in time to see her shooting back down far faster than normal gravitation would allow.
Dodge after dodge after roll was forced out of the quickly-fatiguing Captain as Vyra and her spear stabbed the ground repeatedly, like a fillet knife striking a table after a rogue mealybug. With each strike she pushed him further and further from his sword, but she couldn’t cleave his ingenuity away from him, so Rob worked his mind whenever she rose for another blow. His raw materials were limited to bone, but bones could make excellent clubs in a pinch.
The pirate dove into a mound of skeletal bits, something she might not be keen to plunge into, and armed himself with one large enough to use as a staff. Vyra stalled in the air rather than sink into the pile, and instead grabbed her spear to swing it around the pile’s top. Its blade sliced the caps off the surrounding skulls and cut down a copse of ribs. Despite the ferocity Rob noted she was flinging herself away from the pile and back toward the scabby ground where their fight had begun.
He took the opportunity to bury himself in the bone, force gravitation into the soles of his feet, and fire himself out of the side of the pile like a cannonball. He abandoned the bone club now that he had an opportunity to return to a real weapon. Though the force of it still caught him by surprise, he reached down and snagged his sword. He thrust his feet down to kill his momentum, but he still gouged two bloody trenches in the ground before coming to a halt.
He thought Vyra would still be over by the pile, but she was nowhere to be seen. It was the sound of spinning that told him where to look. Vyra dropped down on him from above, her spear twirling over her head in a silvery blur. He raised his sword in time to block the strike, a strike which forced his feet deeper into the gore of the Pipes and once again brought them face to face.
Rob and Vyra panted, mouths open, faces dotted with sweat. Old brown blood dripped off her spear and ran along the length of Rob’s sword. What a fight! When was the last time we had one like that? If this were any other place and that were any other mouth… a kiss would be appropriate. We’d drop the blades and go for a bonepick in the hay. We could learn to hate this woman, hate her for being so fascinating and drawing.
For a moment he thought he spied the same thoughts in her wide pupils, drugged as she seemed by the adrenaline of the fight. She panted a little too hard though, and a cloud of black gas rose out of her throat and drifted in Rob’s direction. It struck his shoulder and seared the fur of his cloak into a black crunchy mass. Her very breath was like acid; a kiss had been firmly kicked out of the cards. Vyra, as soon as the noxious pant struck, closed her mouth and backed away. She lowered her spear and cleared her throat.
“I guess that’s proof enough. You have to be strong to be a part of the living sixteen, otherwise you might make all of us vulnerable. You can come with me Kilrobin.”
“Rob is acceptable,” he said, still on his guard, slowly sheathing his sword. He took a deep breath, but not as deep as he needed thanks to the ferrous stink of the blood river. “You spoke the truth when you said we were beneath Slick Rin?” She nodded, her predatory playfulness gone. “Then this is a new part of my life, but I still have life. I’ll need to constantly remind myself. Please… show me what else you have to show.” Vyra walked up to him, causing him to recoil for a moment, but she simply grabbed him by the hand and pulled him away from their battleground. When he felt a tug on his waist he looked down at the brighted pelvis in his waistband. It pulled in the same direction she did.
“Oh, she’ll be pleased to see that returned,” Vyra said once she looked back and noticed the glowing bone.
“Fwa Nippr,” she answered. “That brighted bone surely belongs to her, and she belongs to our sixteen.”
The march through the icy caverns of the Winchar Straits continued. There had been some celebration when they caught sight of stone that undoubtedly meant the edge of Third Sink, but it was short-lived. The rock walls were steep and smooth, the only carving done by the ice inward instead of upward. A ceiling of ice still caged them, so even the bonepickers could not attempt to ascend it.
The crew was forced to follow alongside the wall in the hopes that it would eventually open up. Four days had passed since the fall of Captain Rob and his death was still the most common topic of debate. The wall gave them no distractions, no green plants anchored in it to bring hopes of food. The flood Rob caused had washed away most of their rainfairies, but a few survived. Each thankfully contained an incredible ration of water, but the new captain still had the fruits under lock and key. She didn’t want any more accidental waves tearing them further apart.
It was midday by their best calculations, the light from the florent weak through the ice overhead. The proximity to the stone meant much of the ice was newer and less rife with the yellow toxin, so their surroundings had a pleasant blueness to them that they’d nearly forgotten. Its acrid stink was weak in their noses, which proved a great relief to the giant nose of the only bergfolk among them: Whetsaw Plawkippr.
He was helping haul one of the remaining boats, a rope over his shoulder. If he had a free hand he would’ve dug some of the solidified stench out of his nostrils, but Whetsaw’s other arm had been claimed in battle with the forces of Yugo Legendr nearly a rest prior. He sniffed and snorted instead, blowing out chunks whenever he could and leaving a glob of his distaste on the side of their cold trail.
They did not move in silence; the musician Herc had started them humming an old mourning tune, something to pass the time and the thoughts of Rob. The song moved through them in waves, men and women picking it up and dropping it whenever they felt short of breath. It resonated in the ice and against the stone, sounding like water lapping at the edge of a sea with the stillest sand in all of time. One of these waves had just passed by Whetsaw, the last of the humming vibrations leaving his nasal chamber. Those beside him began to whisper.
“Once, Rob and I had dinner out on the deck,” Tombhen Epicr reminisced. She was short, stout, and on the older side, a kindlier version of Scuttlr in most ways. “Me. I was just swabbing, getting ready for the bones to take their graveyard shift, when he came out and stared at the Snyre. The florent was out and he went around with a candle lighting lanterns. ‘I think I should like to eat by candlelight tonight’ he said.” A few folk shuffled closer to Tombhen to listen. Whetsaw kept his numb ears as perked as he could. He was one of the newer additions to the crew, he joined a while after Alast and Pearlen, and there were still plenty of tales he’d missed out on. A nice one might warm him some.
“I didn’t realize he was talking to me,” Tombhen continued, her whispers obviously excited by how much her audience leaned in. “I said to him ‘you’re not addressing me, are you Captain?’ He looked at me and told me he was! Not only that, he asked if I would join him. I dropped the Mop’s mop and said ‘aye of course Captain sir.’ He had the gravefolk bring out a table from his quarters and set it up on the deck. Out came candles and a beautiful baked fish as crispy as florentburn on the face of Porce’s most beautiful man.
We ate in silence for a while. The taste was incredible. I’m not one to ask after more gifts, so I kept my tongue wrapped around the fish and nothing else, just let the Captain do some talking of his own. Oh did he talk. This was when he and Teal weren’t speaking over… little Gray.”
“The second one,” somebody said with a small nod.
“Aye the second one,” Tombhen confirmed. “I think he just wanted to talk to a woman and he happened to notice I do occasionally resemble one.” Her listeners chuckled. Whetsaw wondered who or what ‘little Gray’ was and made a note to ask Alast about it later. That boy was always straight with him. “He recited a poem, staring at the candle flames the whole time. It was epic and beautiful, but I’ll be flushed if I can remember a word of the title.”
“I bet it were Breaks on the Riding Rail,” someone suggested. “That were his favorite.”
“Oh my Captain…”
“Our Captain. Our Captain still. The man’s never died before and I don’t see why we should think he’s started-”
“Shhh, let her finish.”
“After the poem,” Tombhen resumed, “he said some things that have stuck with me to this day. He said them all looking at the little candle flame like it as the whole world. Like it was himself. He asked me why things ended, and being a deck-swabber I didn’t have much of an answer for him. I told him I was glad my chores ended because then the meal never could’ve started. He smiled at that, but just for a drip. He told me he wanted to be an exception to the rule of endings. He wanted to be a candle fueled by its own heat.
Then his face soured. He wondered why he shared his heat with others, why he shared it with Teal when it only seemed to diminish him. He shed a tear, a tear that only I could see by that dim light. He said his heat diminished Teal too, filled her with growing points, and nearly snuffed her out. He said that a fire that tries to grow leaves only blackness behind, only char and ash.
I said that ash had its uses too. I remember my father by his ashes. Charcoal itself can absorb poison. He said aye, but those things were inert. They had value only in the ways they interacted with life. He told me I was lucky.
I agreed with him, but then I asked why. I knew I was lucky, but perhaps the Captain had more insight into it than I did. He lived in the office I merely cleaned after all, whenever Roary was shirking his duties. He told me it was because the ship was my world. It was small. I had a routine, so I had permanence. I didn’t have an ambition, so I wouldn’t leave ash behind when I sought it. Maybe he was calling me simple, and that’s not something I would deny, but I think in that moment he was jealous of me. He wanted to be a simple old woman over a dirty deck. He wanted out of his brain, out of those crystal bones, and out from under the weight of all that knowledge he ate.”
“What happened next?”
“And after that?”
“Nothing more. I never saw him eat out on the deck again. He must’ve changed his mind about Teal, because she’s still around, still sucking on his fire until-”
“Meal stop!” Captain Powdr called out. The whisperers immediately broke up and dropped what they were doing. It was a simple principle that those closer to the front of the line got slightly larger portions, before the gravefolk realized how little was left for the day. They were all close to starving, all ready to push their way to the front, but mutiny wouldn’t increase their chances. The line was an authority they could all respect, lest the folk behind them take an opportunity to cut or slash.
Whetsaw waded through the shorter lightfolk and found a spot in line. If the captain was scientific about the issue Whetsaw should’ve gotten a larger ration, given that bergfolk were just a bit bigger than the other races. He needed half a bite more to get to everyone else’s level, but he bit his tongue. He’d been kept as a prisoner and a conscript, thrown into suicide, a dozen times and he’d never complained to his captors. He only complained to his friends; they were the only ones who would ever listen anyway.
To her credit, the bergfolk noticed, the captain did not put herself at the front of the line. Teal, Dawn, Manathan, and Kilrorke stood beyond the food station, discussing something. Whetsaw stood on his toes to see if he could listen in, but stumbled forward a little. Spots popped in his vision. Perhaps he was a bit hungrier than he thought. In his stumble he accidentally bumped the man in front of him, who whirled around. He was about to berate the culprit when he realized it was Whetsaw. Best not to pick a fight with someone nearly two foams taller than yourself.
“Apology,” Whetsaw said simply without acknowledging the man’s face. He was more concerned by the wild gesticulating of Manathan past the food. The ice master was addressing the captain directly, pointing his bony fingers back and forth between three sections of the ice before them.
It seemed likely Teal had stopped the party there in order to choose their next path. The current chamber split three ways. It actually split five ways, but the other two were utterly unreachable above them. One path hugged the stone of Third Sink, a continuation of their current direction, but it seemed to narrow some. They would have to thin out. Despite that, Whetsaw liked the look of it a lot more than the other two.
The second and third paths turned away from the lip of Third Sink. Their ice was thick with the yellow corruption, with the furthest one even looking waxy. Their paths angled up. Whetsaw looked back at the ice master, who pointed aggressively at the waxy path with the steepest slope. Captain Powdr nodded along with what he said and then rested her hand on his shoulder blade.
“What are you looking at?” Nayth Kohlr, the man he’d bumped into, asked when he noticed the bergfolk’s distraction. Nayth was a gray-haired fellow, an attractive-enough man before their sinking and stranding had hollowed his cheeks and dyed the tip of his nose crimson. He barely knew what to do with himself without Captain Rob around. The food line had become the best part of his day, as it meant he knew exactly what would happen for the next drop or so.
“Not good thing,” Whetsaw mumbled, more to himself than Nayth. The officers split up and went about their business, but Whetsaw kept eyeing the ice around each pathway.
“What’s not good?” Nayth asked. When he didn’t get an answer he lightly smacked Whetsaw around the navel. The bergfolk finally looked down at the man, the concern quickly vanishing from his face.
“It is not my place.”
“This isn’t anybody’s place pal,” Nayth replied. “Yet we’re all here. You see something fishy? With the captain?”
“Not my place,” Whetsaw repeated, but muttered a clue anyway. “Ice master’s place.”
“That rummin-bitten bag of bones? What’s he saying? We’re line-mates Whetsaw. You’re stuck with me. Might as well talk to me. We got plenty of drips before we get up there.” Whetsaw thought about what he said for a moment. His eyes moved slowly between the three pathways, trying to see the very air flowing out of them. He sniffed subtly in each direction.
“Okay. I talk a little. You know where I from?”
“Aye,” Nayth said with a nod, “Dhonshui. Third Toil. You met Captain Rob there.”
“I live there long time. Whole life it feel like. Deep in Dhonshui, near reservoir, it very cold. We call it Still Waters in Merdidu. Much ice. I see much ice, break much ice. I know ice.”
“I understand,” Nayth said, trying to urge Whetsaw to his point, but the bergfolk kept staring wistfully at the tunnels. “You know ice. Is there something strange about this ice?”
“I have theory is all. Ice near stone is cleaner. It act more… normal? Predictatable is word I think?”
“Predictable,” Nayth corrected. “Alright. So? We’re going that way anyway. We’ve been going that way.”
“Not for long I fear,” Whetsaw said. “I saw Captain Teal talk to ice master. Ice master, he point to that one. He send us that way.” Whetsaw unfurled a finger covered in white fur and tipped with an ashen nail like a gravestone. He pointed to the waxy tunnel. Nayth’s eyes widened as he looked back and forth between the finger and the icy doorway.
“Mighty sure. Ice master maybe get us killed.”
“You don’t seem too upended about it,” Nayth hissed, smacking him around the navel once more. “We’ve got to do something!”
“We not in charge,” Whetsaw said with a shrug. “Folk in charge try to kill you, you try to live. It is the way of life. Same in Dhonshui as on Greedy Old Mop. I will try to live as I always do.”
“Why don’t we help each other live?” Nayth asked the bergfolk. He curled his finger, urging Whetsaw to lean down so he could whisper into his giant ear. The bergfolk did not quite understand the gesture, so Nayth was forced to grab the fur on Whetsaw’s shoulder and gently pull him down. “You told me about Shuckr’s bad idea, so I’ll tell you about our good idea. Some of us have had it to overflow with Powdr.”
“Captain Teal only be captain for a few of days,” Whetsaw countered. “She deserve chance.”
“I agree, but the problem is we’ve got less than a chance left before we’re all dead. Some of us are… picking roles for when we strike out. We have a captain. We have a first mate. We have a doctor. We don’t have an ice master yet.”
“You talk of… mutanty?”
“Mutiny big pal, mutiny. And no. We just disagree, so we’re going to go our own way. We need provisions though, so we’ll have to take them at some point. I think we’ll want to go your way, away from that blasted yellow ice. What do you say?”
“On how many folk angry when they see where we go. Plus, I want food first.” Nayth nodded. It was a sentiment all of the crew would have voiced in that situation, as long as they had skin over their bones. They both faced forward and quieted, mutinous minds wandering to thoughts of steaming meat and vegetables. What they would get was slimy and tinned, seasoned with a pinch of imagination rather than salt.
Their daydreams didn’t last long however, as there was a commotion when a small group took their food and tried to hide in a secluded corner of the chamber. Whetsaw recognized the cluster as the young folk: Alast, Pearlen, the Rookr twins, Dawn, and Roary. Their shoulders were hunched and they all held their food in front of them like they were shielding it from the florent’s light. Pearlen had something other than food; it was an empty water canister, its lip broken in places and peeled out like flower petals. Something sloshed inside it. The girl’s spotted eyes were wild, red and terrified, especially so once someone shouted in her direction.
“Oi! Captain Teal! Those kids are thieving! They took extra! An extra head off a shoelace fish!” For the first time since they’d been on strict rations, the line broke up. Drips later the accused group was surrounded by angry, howling, haggard pirates. They grabbed at Pearlen, who, holding the largest container, had been deemed the most guilty. Alast and the twins pulled out their swords and knives to keep the crew at bay, but it was a bonepicking stomp from Dawn that stopped them. She drove her heel into the ice with a thunderous krak! It split the floor in a crescent shape and put a line between the dueling parties.
“You’ll stop this right now or I’ll rip your gizzards out of your-” Dawn screamed, but Teal, tall and steely-eyed as ever, stepped in front of her.
“Everyone stop!” she boomed. “That’s an order.” The crew quieted. A few of them stole backward glances to see if the line was reforming yet; it was difficult to riot on an empty stomach. Teal singled out the woman who had flung the initial accusation. “You saw them take an extra shoelace fish head?”
“And nothing more?”
“No captain… nothing more, but that’s plenty to take off somebody else’s ration!”
“That’s enough. I appreciate your concern, but Pearlen Lustr has my permission to take an extra piece of the fish every three days.” The crew exploded into protest, with it taking several more stomps from Dawn and Rorke to quiet them. With each footfall they tossed chunks of ice about and into each other. If they kept it up much longer there wouldn’t be a floor left beneath them. “As I was saying, the girl has permission because she is actually two members of the crew.”
“She’s with child!” someone shouted, in a tone that had equal chances of being furious or celebratory. “The cabin boy’s finally cleaned up I see.”
“She is not,” Alast defended. Whetsaw watched with growing concern. He didn’t know much about the girl, but Alast was a dear friend. If he’d noticed anything about their relationship it was that Pearlen never had trouble speaking for herself, yet there she was hunched over in terror while her boy covered her. Something must have been wrong. She was never very sociable, so perhaps being around the crew with no walls for so long had gotten to her. Or perhaps it was just the fear of death tapping on all their shoulders and whispering poison into their inhaling mouths when they slept. “She has Clawlies in her eyes remember? That’s what the captain means!”
“Yes,” Teal confirmed. “The infestation in her eyes needs fed, needs food shredded and put in water, every few days or they will burrow further into her eyes in search of sustenance. Without that extra piece of fish she will go blind.”
“Since when?” A man in the back growled. “I seen ‘er aboard plenty o’ times and I ne’er seen ‘er stick ‘er face inter no bucket.”
“I had the sea you oaf! You moron!” Pearlen spat, her head emerging from between the shoulders of her protectors. Her eyes were getting redder by the minute, with the edges of the clawly burrows blazing brightly. Tears streamed down her face, looking like the hottest things in all of the Winchar Straits. Her chin wrinkled and quivered and she nearly dropped her canister.
“As you’ll recall,” Teal said, sparing a piercing glance for Alast. He understood that he received it because Pearlen could not. He pushed her back and whispered something calming. “Pearlen’s an avid swimmer. The Clawlies fed on the natural debris of the open water. Here, we have no such privilege.”
“Alast… I can’t,” Pearlen whined. Only Whetsaw, with his bergfolk ears, could hear her outside her ring of peers. “I need to feed them now.”
“I know. Do it. I promise you’ll be fine. I love you,” the boy whispered. Whetsaw ground his teeth. He certainly wanted to make it out of the straits as much as anyone else, but if their rebellion popped over this he would have to side with the boy. The bergfolk nervously gripped the hilt of the mist sword on his belt: a gift from Alast when he had no other possessions to his name.
Pearlen dropped to her knees, shredded the oily fish head as fast as she could, dropped the pieces into the bucket, and stirred the water. Then she took a deep breath and immersed her face. Whatever happened next would have to happen without her.
“What’s her eyes compared to our lives?” another face in the crowd yelled.
“I’m not hearing the word captain,” Teal stressed. “It is not wise to ignore my authority here. Robin is dead.” She swallowed. “I am your captain now. If you’re asking me if I think it’s worth perhaps one day on one of your lives in the eventuality that we all starve and freeze in this forsaken stink-berg, the answer is aye. Pearlen is a loyal member of our family and I will not watch her writhe in agony as bugs eat out her eyes.”
She shot calculated glances at several gravefolk on the outskirts of the crowd. Her glances were more precise and forceful than her words would ever be, but unfortunately she couldn’t stare down the entire crew at once. The gravefolk took steps forward and rested hands on their weapons as well. Most of them would not falter in their loyalty, for they had no stomachs to drive them to madness. Rob had taken care of them, given them a home and company and purpose, and Teal would do the same.
“Rob would’ve told her she was lucky to have her life! Nobody needs eyes!” The crew muttered their approval at the anonymous comment.
“As if any of you knew Kilrobin Ordr the way I knew him,” Teal said icily. “As if any of you saw those green spears under his clothes or his green smile in the dead of night. Rob was not a perfect man, though you’re busy bending that supposed perfection to your own ends. He would’ve rather died than watch this girl go through the slow torture she is now. He would’ve seen himself, in however many rests it would’ve taken, screaming and dying as those spears tore through him. That’s what Captain Rob would’ve done and it’s what Captain Teal Powdr is doing. If anyone dares contest this fact, either my authority or my presumptions of Rob’s will, I will duel them right now and deliver a deadly punishment. Do we have any takers?”
The crew looked to each other. A few looked back once more and saw that five crafty individuals had taken up places at the front of the food line. A few more shuffled back. Whetsaw took his hand off the mist sword. He was about to turn back himself when he spotted Nayth eyeing him. The man’s tiny pink hand was positioned below his waist, swinging and urging Whetsaw forward. The bergfolk dumbly put a finger against his chest.
“Yes you!” Nayth hissed. “Say something now!”
“I help in trouble,” Whetsaw whispered back. “I no start trouble.”
“Fine! I’ll do it. Captain! Captain Teal!” Nayth called, getting everyone’s attention.
“Yes Mr. Kohlr?”
“After rations which way will we be headed?” Teal’s gaze intensified. Nayth took a step back; it was obvious she’d immediately suspected his intentions weren’t pure. She examined the crew to see how many paid attention. Too many.
“We’ll be taking this third path,” she said as nonchalantly as possible, pointing to the waxy round passage. Now it was the crew’s turn to compare their options. Three collective head-turns later, they erupted again. They all saw the comparative friendliness of Third Sink’s stone wall as far superior to another slog through nothing but the smelly ice. Not a drop ago they’d even seen some frostmoss growing on the wall. Life! They wouldn’t find that back in the labyrinth. “The ice master assures me the third path is superior!” she shouted, failing to quell the rabble.
“The ice master doesn’t even feel this cold!” Nayth complained, folk rallying behind him. Whetsaw bit his lip. Trouble had arrived. Perhaps he could just walk backward before it got to him and simply die out in the ice by himself, in the peaceful way his folk had done for generations. Birth and death were never a big fuss to the bergfolk. They were more concerned with how long their buildings would stand and whether or not meals came on time. His ration was definitely late.
“I mean no disrespect Captain,” Nayth added to make sure she didn’t hurl her saber into his chest, “but more than one folk on the Mop knew ice. Whetsaw knows ice.” His finger pointed out the bergfolk, who didn’t need pointing out thanks to his fur, height, and bulbous bluish nose. Whetsaw humbly removed his knit cap and held it over his heart.
“Well Mr. Plawkippr? Is there something I need to hear?” Teal asked.
“I have only opinion,” the bergfolk said nervously, but without faltering. “Opinion I base on experience. Stone here help in cleaning ice. Forces ice to be smooth and predictable. It is the safe-most path.” Some of the crew mumbled their agreement, as their intuition matched Whetsaw’s experience exactly. “That way is not predictable,” he said of the yellowed path. “More poison, more fire. The ice master’s idea is bad.”
“Excuse me?” Manathan balked, emerging from the background and standing next to the captain. “Are you hearing this captain? The ice master doesn’t know ice, according to Mr. Plawkippr. The ice master’s an empty skullcap poisoning everybody according to Mr. Plawkippr! Never have I heard such disrespect, since the last time one of you lot disrespected me… which is all the time!”
“Mr. Shuckr,” Teal said to stop him. The skeleton straightened his posture and stood at attention. “Would you explain your reasoning for our decision… at a reasonable rate and informatively if you please.”
“Yes captain,” Manathan said with a slight bow. “Though the cleaner ice and stone is a sight for sore sockets at first look captain, it is deceptive. The striations on the ceiling here,” he pointed up at some lines in the ceiling, “indicate this is part of one very new slab captain. Its outer layer has been ground flat by Third Sink, but that means tension has been building in it. It’s due for a split or collapse captain.”
“My Wide Porcian is bad,” Whetsaw countered, “but due for split does not mean split. Ice is slower than fur and bone. Odds say we make it through before split. Could be rests before collapse.” Some of the crew whistled. Hands the bergfolk didn’t know patted his shoulders and his back respectfully. Manathan quickly glanced over his shoulder blade and saw no one. His defenders were likely just the officers and the young, many of whom were still gathered around Pearlen.
“I can cite more than a dozen examples of such faulty thinking being… beyond… very faulty!” the ice master volleyed back. “The Kippswinr Incident. The party of the Spittle flotilla. Admiral Updrownr and his frozen fifteen hundred! All of them bet on the ice staying just calm enough for them to get out Mr. Plawkippr.”
“And how many more escape? Folk never talk of those because not fun stories to tell.”
“That has nothing to do with ice analytics Mr. Plawkippr. This is water, temperature, and gas, not politics! Look there!” He pointed at the ominous path, taking a few steps toward it to show he had no fear. “This path angles up. We need to go up to get back to the florent. The closer we are to the florent, Mr. Plawkippr, the closer we are to civilization. Have you noticed the stony path takes us down? We could wind up underwater!”
Whetsaw looked back. The ice master was right. He hadn’t noticed the downward slope. Still, he liked the look of it better. Even if they were going to die it would be a much nicer place to do it. It would smell better as well. If he stopped now all the warm pats on the back would cease. Trouble was upon them; he knew it would pick a direction with or without him, and he knew it wouldn’t go the way of Captain Teal.
“And,” the ice master continued, “this path takes us further away from Third Sink. That might sound bad, but the lip of Third Sink is incredibly tall. If we have any chance of being spotted once we’re out of these caverns, it will be better the further out we are. Nobody on a cliff starts by looking straight down Mr. Plawkippr.”
Guhh! Pearlen gasped as she pulled her head out of the canister. Alast pulled her to her feet as she wiped her eyes clear and examined everyone. They were still red, but the inflamed look of the clawly burrows had receded greatly.
“Get your rations. You’ve all wasted enough time with this nonsense,” Captain Teal said, using Pearlen’s distraction to wrest control back. “We will of course follow the advice of the ice master appointed to the task by Captain Rob. I will get you out of here. You need only obey.” With that she turned and went to have her own meal, wrapping an arm around Pearlen’s shoulder and escorting her away from the rest of the crew.
Seeing as the brilliant five who had put themselves back in the line first were already finishing up, licking the last bit of fish oil off their fingers, the crew begrudgingly did as they were told. Nayth and Whetsaw were, once again, next to each other in line, except this time Nayth was behind the bergfolk. He patted Whetsaw on the back.
“They loved you big pal,” he whispered. “You’re the ice master now as far as I’m concerned. We won’t go yet. Something else has to be wrong, but there’s plenty of wrong in here. Between Qlio, the bug-eyed girl, and that fellow who drove us in here… something will split our life raft from the rest of these sinkers.”