(reading time: 1 hour, 30 minutes)
The Living Sixteen
The marsh of gore beneath the Fith did not go on forever. The Fith only showed in patches in the Pipes, the rest of the ceiling composed of bedrock or rounded rusted metal. After two drops of walking Vyra leapt up onto a stone plateau with bonepicking. Rob followed.
“Private privies!” he exclaimed at the sight of it: a city constructed like no other he had ever seen. The buildings moved, the layered circles of their construction shifting back and forth like seaweed in a gentle current. Many had walls of perfect crystal clear as glass that sang along with the motion. The towers were taller than he could see and occasionally coupled with each other. Yet despite the constant activity of the stone, the place was abandoned.
“This is Infinicilia,” Vyra said as she stepped onto its streets. There were cobblestones, but they barely rose above a skin of water that filled all the roads and walkways. There was no way a wagon had ever traveled such streets. It looked none too comfortable for steeds either. She splashed forward, carelessly disturbing the slumbering melody of the city. Rob struggled to keep up, his head craned to the rooftops the whole time. He slipped on numerous stones. Normally he would’ve sworn at the water creeping into his boots, but it was washing out the brown blood of the marsh.
This water is clean, he noted. Either it’s coming from a pure source, a river above, or something in the city cleans it. What could purify the coagulated death we’ve just slogged through? If it’s a bath bead it would be worth the domains of three Royal Flushes! That’s assuming anything has worth down in the Pipes.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked aloud. A curved glass wall swung near him, and he saw his distorted reflection in its passing. The reflection winked an oblong eye. That shouldn’t be possible without our piece of the Reflecting Path. What’s that crafty puddle of light up to? If one Captain Rob can’t figure his way out of this then surely the other can.
“We live here,” she answered over her shoulder. “The city has a lower level full of reservoirs and ceilings coated in art. We haven’t found a place more pleasant around anyway.” She turned and entered a street where the buildings were no less tall, but much thinner. They were so thin in fact that there was no way a man could even fit inside one. The purpose of these waving stone and glass tubes eluded Rob’s scrutiny.
“Who built this city? And when? Bergfolk? They occasionally like to flood their streets, but they usually do it enough to let boats through.”
“No, it wasn’t bergfolk. It wasn’t folk at all.”
“Then who?” Rob whirled around. He thought he saw something in the glass, a blur of translucent green. It was gone in a flash.
“The prosites. Before the Age of Building.”
“The prosites?” Rob questioned. Before he was dragged through the living muck of the world he would’ve immediately disregarded that as an impossibility. The prosites were monsters. They were intelligent yes, but they did not have societies. They hid in dark wet places, only coming out to serve as soldiers for the most wicked of all folk, only valued for their ability to build armored bodies out of any material lying around. “You’re telling me those globs of jelly, with no hands to speak of, built this city in the Age of Tragedy?”
“No. I forgot how stupid new folk are. It’s silly.” She chuckled, a puff of her nasty breath visibly dissipating. “Your Porce is a roof covered in snow. Now all the snow has fallen, in one terrifying avalanche, and you’re lost here on the actual ground. They built Infinicilia in the Age of Wonder.”
Rob’s mind struggled with another rejection reflex. The Age of Building, AB as it appeared in most texts, contained nearly the whole of Porce’s recorded history. Scholars and historians, groups which Rob fancied himself a member of, knew of the time before, but the writings were scarce and in tongues so arcane that they sometimes grew off the page like weeds rather than fading. It was called the Age of Tragedy; there was no Age of Wonder.
“What are you calling the Age of Wonder?” he asked, trying to find the miscommunication that had obviously occurred. “Do you mean the Trough Times? When the raw power of the land we colonized was enough to keep the questing beasts at bay?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “History bores me. It’s like trying to remember ripples in a pond, even while you’re splashing about in it. As pointless as a dry quill. I meant what I said. The first age. The Age of Wonder.”
“You’re under the impression there was an Age even before the Age of Tragedy…”
“There was Mister Rob.”
“There was not. The Age of Tragedy is called such because it was the tragedy of creation. It was miserable creatures forming in the muck and lamenting existence. It was the agony of discovery and the labor pains of fear, no philosophy fences to contain them…”
“It was a tragedy because it was the end of the wonder,” she argued. “It was the war that tired out the gods. Now they sleep in death and folk do all the building. Hence… Age of Building.”
“Oh. This explains it. You’re a believer in the eight. I can’t say I’ve encountered your sect before. Are all sixteen of you so spiritual?”
“We are in the land of the spirits,” she said, but offered no further explanation. At the end of their current street, the stone of which meandered back and forth like a river, they came to an archway and a set of stairs leading down into the bedrock of the city. Rob stopped at its edge and ran his hands across the blue and silver tiles making up the arch.
“What is this tongue?” he asked, trying to classify the engravings in the tile. The alphabet was an enigma: a collection of circles containing smaller circles containing dots, with some of the dots looking sharper than others. While lightfolk, bergfolk, and tilefolk had different tongues, they all shared the same alphabet: the linoleumex. Sometimes gravefolk had secret tongues of their own, the way twin children or prisoners sometimes did, but they used the linoleumex as well.
“That’s Coproglossi. It’s the prosite language.”
“Well since they have cities now I suppose it’s fine that they have a language, even though they’ve no tongue to speak it with.”
“They had cities then,” Vyra corrected. Her frustration showed in her breath as wisps of that acidic black gas. “You’ve never heard their words, which they use bubbles to form by the way, or seen their buildings because they didn’t live like folk after the Age of Tragedy. They were hunted down, forced into gaps in rotting wood. They went feral, defensively forgetting their cities, their arts, and their poetry. Down here in the Pipes, some of it remains. There are a few strains of them who try to keep it up. Like that fellow there.”
She pointed above Rob’s head. He leapt back at the sight of a green blob clinging to the archway. It was a prosite, recognizable by the single black-veined eye floating in its jellied mass. Its body stretched like a rope of snot until the eye was even with their faces, and then it spoke, bubbles forming deep within it, rising to the surface, and popping out words.
“Collected a new one have you Vyra?” it said in a voice like the fizz of slimy seltzer.
“You speak Wide Porcian?” Rob asked it. The prosites he was used to could understand it, but never voiced anything other than bubbling squeals and hisses.
“I can speak all languages,” it hissed back, vertical pupils narrowing. “I heard you know nothing of our history, the only actual history Porce ever had.”
“We don’t have time for you,” Vyra said with a roll of her eyes. “I want him to meet the others. I want to see them peck at his flesh a little. See how much he jumps when they do.” She flashed a mischievous black and gray smile at Rob, who did his best to maintain his composure.
“You’ve all of Porce’s time!” the prosite spat back, literal dribbles of its body splashing to the tiled ground. “Let us educate him! We were Porce’s greatest!”
“Up there you’re nothing but monstrous slime,” Rob said, pointing up.
“Those aren’t us,” the creature explained with narrowed eye. “Those are new strains. Animals. Threw away everything for a niche! We of the Pipes have kept the original strain. Let me tell you of what we had! Cities spanning the interior of all Porce’s walls. Poetry that lasted rests in its recital. The calm of a world full of dripping, before you lot started dropping your bones and blood down here like so much dung.”
“And this writing…” Rob mentioned with a gesture.
“Coproglossi! Ours! This is its sound: Luxiprax novusirae, vobis proculllicum dubio hicalirax. Sicut aliisstil. Tuatilum est excors estifil, sedicril temporis nostril solvituric. Sciinquiuntix nostril solviphil. Nos quoquel igniumix duraphil.”
“Oh it is! Maxiphel creleplex! Are you sure you don’t want to stay up here with us? We could teach you so much about your inferiorities.” Rob was about to answer when he was distracted by drippings overhead. He looked up and saw a dozen more prosites that had slithered toward him unnoticed. They came in various shades of green, blue, gray, and white, but other than that they were difficult to tell apart.
More startling still, while he looked up he saw something above the city, far above the curling tip of its tallest tower, move. Whatever it was appeared mostly black, but banded in tarnished gold. It adjusted itself slowly, sending rusty clumps of metal raining down to the streets of Infinicilia.
“What… what is tha-” Vyra grabbed him by the collar and pulled him down several of the steps, so he could no longer see above the city. It was just an arch of tile and slithering prosites now.
“It’s best she doesn’t see you,” the woman explained. “Not yet anyway. There’s a chance she’ll talk your ear off as well. Or eat you. Shoo, all of you snots! These tunnels are ours and we don’t like mopping up after you.” Vyra hissed and spat gas at them. The prosites fled quickly, muttering things to each other in Coproglossi. Apparently even their liquid bodies could be harmed by whatever foul substance boiled in her bosom.
“That is a she?” Rob asked. “Also, it’s alive!? Is anything manageably normal around this place?”
“If you want the company of ordinary folk then you should keep your gob shut and follow me. I told you; we all live down here.” She took his hand and pulled him down the stairs. Normal folk eh? Normal folk don’t spit burning black clouds. We’re letting her touch our hand. We’re still letting her. It’s ongoing. Back in the straits Teal was… We were close again, on that edge of death. Does our new edge excuse behavior such as this? Are we immune from the expectations of above?
They certainly aren’t immune from the cold. The time has passed though; what was going to happen already happened. Either some of them made it out alive or they all perished. We could be the last of the Mop left. Is Teal dead? We don’t feel as if she is. We don’t. We’re right about much, so there’s a high probability we’re right about this. None of them feel dead to us. We’ll see them again when we escape these rotted pipes.
When they reached the bottom of the steps Rob was once again face to face with strange new sights. He guessed it was originally the access tunnel to some sort of reservoir, perhaps the one that kept clean water gently flowing in the streets, but its ornate decoration suggested prestige. Statues, indistinct in form but nevertheless flowing and beautiful, decorated every corner and seam. Everything else was done in tile, and some of those tiles glowed in short cycles like lightening-bugs.
She took him through row after row of fountains, many of which produced bubbling geysers at all times. Given her polluted smile Rob had expected far fouler living conditions. He wondered how much of this place’s shine was down to the brilliance the prosite had claimed. If what it said was true, then the buildings outside had been moving as if alive since before his Custodian ancestor was even born.
“What exactly do you do down here?” he asked as they passed through the stone mouth of an eyeless fish he did not recognize.
“Do? What does anyfolk do? We live,” she answered.
“Have you not tried to return to the surface? Had none of you friends or families to go back to?”
“Of course we did, and plenty have tried. There’s no way back up. Even if you could climb up to the Fith there’s no way to push through it. It’s thicker than all the akers of Porce stacked on top of each other and it’s always pushing things down.”
“So you’ve given up?”
“I keep my eyes open,” she said, slightly affronted. “If a way out appeared, believe me I’d be the first to take it. Might not even say my farewells. It’s not so bad down here though. We are in the land of the dead, we’re all bonepickers, and as such we do no aging. We need not food or drink. The only way to get yourself killed is by fraternizing with the fiercer things of the deep.”
“Fiercer things like what we just saw?”
“Yes, she counts. So do some of the living sixteen.” She stopped at the top of a narrower set of stairs and contemplated something. “Come this way. You should meet the best first.” She turned and took him down a tunnel so small and round that he had to bend over. The space was uniquely claustrophobic, like being pushed through the watery artery of a jellied seahemoth. At the other end was a small cylindrical chamber, barely wider than a pantry but deep as a well.
It was the first part of Infinicilia that looked genuinely lived-in. Everything above appeared clean and wind-swept, but this pocket had clutter hanging from every ridge: pencils made from charcoal-colored bones, antlers of all sizes and shapes including ones that had grown into complete circles, rusted pieces of armor and chain mail, and a litter of teeth from animals and folk alike.
Vyra hopped down into the shaft, landing on a large cushion made from tough scaly leather. Rather than follow Rob simply leaned forward and stared down at her. There was a figure seated against the curved wall next to the cushion: a gravefolk man. The man looked up at his new guest after Vyra drew his attention with the whumf of her landing.
“There’s a third…” Rob whispered as he stared into the man’s eye sockets. The sockets, along with every other bone of the man’s body, were obsidian: black and lustrous. Nodules, like the flow patterns in tar, rose here and there across his arms and legs. He wore no clothing and no leatherflesh, so Rob could see the light bouncing and curving around the interior of his rib cage.
It was in Rob’s childhood that he was cursed with emerald bones. His closest friend had been there with him and received the same curse; Yugo Legendr’s skeleton had been turned to amethyst instead. The curse, the phenomenon as Rob called it, took the form of a mysterious multi-colored vapor. They had been out frolicking with some girls their own age when the ground had split beneath them. A geyser of multicolored vapor. Agony. Confusion. After that, bones of brilliant crystal, slowly growing damning torturing extrusions.
A spike of Yugo’s own skull had skewered his mind, driven him mad, and turned him to the gravefolk. His madness coagulated into an extreme form of Toil Papism, of Spotless worship, and brought him into conflict with most of Porce. The last time Rob saw him he was plummeting out of the sky around the Third Toil city of Dhonshui, half his bones missing, courtesy of Rob. If he was dead it meant this obsidian man was actually the new second rather than the third.
Rob had long theorized there had been more. He’d heard other reports of that strange gas. Here was proof. Here was new evidence to consider. Another one down here. Does it mean the gas originated in this pit? Who knows how many possible sources we walked by just in getting here. It could be a byproduct of eternal rot, runoff from whatever mechanisms keep these prosite cities wriggling, waste from that monstrosity over our heads. Vyra’s breath even, though it is drab in color and prefers to destroy things on contact.
“Rob, this is Argnaught Overturnr,” Vyra introduced. “I thought you might want to meet him because of your…” she opened her lips and tapped her gray teeth. Rob reflexively reached up to his mouth and remembered his teeth were no longer painted. She had noticed his emerald smile.
“My pleasure,” Rob said stiffly. “I’ve been told you’re the best, as to what that implies…”
“I’m the best bonepicker that has ever lived,” Argnaught declared, cutting him off. His voice wasn’t deep, but it was completely free of crackle the way gravefolk voices tended to be. Rob leapt down onto the cushion. Whumf!
“That’s a serious claim,” he challenged. “Some have given me that title. I am lightfolk, yet I can pick above.”
“Thanks to those precious stones of yours.”
“That’s what I’ve always assumed. I see you have a similar condition. May I ask how yours happened?”
“There’s nothing much to the story. I was working a talc mine on Dry Rin. Fell into a pit, into a stew of rainbow gas. After that my teeth were black and I could bonepick. I was lightfolk at the time as well.”
“Those knobs,” Rob said, pointing to the swells in his obsidian bone. “Do you file them down?”
“No, they’ve never caused me any trouble other than swelling back when I had something that could swell. Now they just make me look pretty.”
“I’m not so lucky,” Rob admitted. He turned around and lifted his shirt, showing a green spine poking out of his shoulder blade. “They continue to grow. At some point they will claim my flesh. They already claimed the flesh and mind of an old friend.” Why are we telling him? We’re admitting weakness when we haven’t even sussed them out. They could use this against us. Of course… if we’re defeated, where would we even go? Truly, there must be nowhere left but oblivion.
“Sorry to hear it, but there’s a silver lining,” Argnaught said. “I doubt they’ll grow down here. You’re counted as dead already and Thipperon isn’t likely to scratch out your tally mark.” Vyra glanced at Rob slyly to see how he would handle the new information. He can’t mean the Thipperon we know. Merely a legend born from another more popular legend. Yet it seems all stripes of legends are true down here. It matters not, at least not now. We need to know what he knows about his own bones.
“Are you not afraid I’ll steal your title?” he asked Argnaught. “We’re cut from the same stone so to speak. How do you know my bonepicking is inferior to yours?
“Well, can you do this?” Argnaught asked right back. He held out his black bony hand and spread the fingers wide. Klipk! One of his digits separated from the knuckle and levitated three bubbles forward. Klipk! Klipk! Klip! Klip! His other fingers and thumb followed, spreading his hand into a wide fan shape. He wiggled them all, even as nothing connected them back to the hand. “Or this?” His fingers tilted up. Klipk! His hand popped off the wrist and moved up with them. Klopk! His forearm disconnected as well. The shape of his bony arm expanded as the distance between pieces grew. The arm and hand moved far over their heads, grabbed a bag of painted bone marbles, and then swiftly retracted. All the bones clicked back into place as his arm reassembled. He pulled open the bag’s drawstring and let the marbles pour out onto the floor. “Or this?” Klipklipklipklipklipklipklipk! Both his hands came apart, the pieces throwing themselves to the floor. Argnaught moved his wrists back and forth like a conductor, animating his finger bones and ordering them to sweep up the mess. Each one put itself behind a marble and rolled it back to the bag. His bootless foot fell to pieces and became like another expanded hand, holding open the bag’s mouth so the marbles could roll inside.
“I wager you’re a real smash at parties when you do this one!” he cackled. Argnaught’s finger and toe bones all came together in the middle of the room’s air and formed a clacking ball of obsidian. They split up once again and his waving wrists arranged them into smaller shapes. He created stringless marionettes of animals and danced them around the shelves and Rob’s head. Tiny clacking haunds chased tiny clacking rabards. An obsidian bird dove and spiraled before swooping back into the air. A miniature whetzoo pulled a wagon across a shelf; the wheels were squares of four bones so it shuddered back and forth as it went.
“Yes…” Rob said dumbly. “Yes these tricks have eluded me. How are they possible?”
“It’s just the dead air,” Vyra said, already somewhat bored. Apparently she’d seen the show many times before. “Lightfolk can pick down here because of it. The gravefolk can pick even without being connected to their bones.”
“Any bones?” the Captain queried. If that were true it meant any time he was out in the wilderness of the Pipes again the hands that made up the foliage might simply reach out and grab him.
“No they have to be your own, or at least ones you’ve been attached to for a while,” Argnaught explained. “You can’t send them very far either. If they’re two hundred foams away they’re beyond your power. They also can’t fetch or do anything smart without your spirit telling them to. I’m working on that one. One of these days I’ll be able to send them on errands; be a good little bone and fetch Papa his pencil.”
“Now that I’ve admitted your superiority will you do me a kindness?” Rob asked. “Can you tell me anything else about our affliction? I’ve spent many nights in my laboratory, sleepwalking through experiments, trying to find a treatment.” Argnaught turned and looked at Vyra, as if asking permission to speak further.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “He posed it to you.”
“Fine. Don’t know what I’m afraid of anyway…” Argnaught mumbled. “That gas comes from a place around here. It’s a few days’ journey, but it is forbidden.”
“Forbidden?” Rob asked. “By whom?”
“Ehh, you didn’t ask what for,” Argnaught said, touching his hand to his forehead. “I wanted you to ask that so I could just say no reason. That’s the truth of it. It is forbidden by the living sixteen.”
“I thought you two were part of the living sixteen. Do you not get votes?”
“There aren’t votes,” Vyra said, looking slightly ashamed. “And we’re only two anyway. Even if there were votes we’d need seven more.”
“I don’t see why this place should be forbidden to me,” Rob argued. “I’m not a member, at least not yet. You haven’t gone and ratcheted the name up one.”
“He has a point,” Vyra said. “Same point I’ve had for an age.”
“Yes, but I doubt you’ll be taking him out there,” Argnaught said to her. She dropped her head and sighed through her nose.
“I don’t need anyone to take me. Just tell me where it is,” Rob offered. “I’ll go there now and then come back to greet the other lively folk of the Pipes. Or perhaps I won’t. No offense, but you’re all very strange.”
“You do need someone to take you,” Vyra argued back. “There are powerful forces out there. You step in the wrong place, on the wrong stone, and you can be struck dead. It is the graves of the Age of Wonder.”
“And you won’t go because you are forbidden,” Rob guessed, jabbing his finger at her. He wanted her to take it as a drawn sword. A challenge to fight. She had seemed so eager to battle, and perhaps bed, before, but now her face was a jumble of emotions, all knotted under her cheeks.
“We don’t have a choice,” she defended. “If you break the rules around here you can’t live here anymore. Like I said, it’s dangerous out there.”
“That didn’t stop you from battling me in a bed of beasts, blood, and bones,” Rob squawked.
“Shows what you know Captain! That’s one of the safest places in the Pipes. The bone-mealers are the least of our worries.”
“And the most?”
“You’re getting awfully noisy,” she spat, a little black vapor puffing in Rob’s direction. He took a step back as it wafted up and peeled some of the paint off the ceiling’s mural.
“Damn it Vyra,” Argnaught admonished weakly. She threw a hand over her mouth and seemed to swallow something down, then resumed in a more tempered fashion.
“You’re new Rob. You don’t get it yet. You’re trapped here. Forever. The living sixteen is going to be your only family, and even if you hate them… well eventually that’ll turn into love once you wander around in that dark cruelty for a few rests. Now I’m offering to walk you in there and give you a nice introduction, or you can go in there on your own offering a handshake and a green smile and see how far you get. Either way, I’m leaving right now.”
Vyra turned and leapt back up to the entrance. Rob and Argnaught listened to her footfalls fade away as it became clear she wouldn’t slow to wait for him. Rob leapt back up as well, but turned to face Argnaught for one more question.
“It’s not my place to say,” the obsidian skeleton answered simply.
“For the greatest picker to ever live you don’t seem to have much to share.”
“Down here… talking gets more useless every day.” With that Argnaught collapsed, his skull rolling off his shoulders and everything else tumbling down in a pile. Rob guessed that was his way of announcing a nap. He turned and ran after Vyra.
Rob was relieved to finally recognize something. Even though it was underground, even though the base of its decoration was the eternally smooth and fluid tilework of the prosites, he knew this chamber was a home: the home of the living sixteen to be specific.
Great red curtains hung on most of the walls, a bloody red standing in intentional contrast to the mysterious blues and greens of the prosites. There were pits, probably originally meant to hold water, that had been converted into planters for trees. Seeds could not regularly survive the decomposition of the Fith, so these had been grown from rare stranded treasures: seeds lining pockets alongside lint, seeds stuck firmly between teeth, and seeds kept in glass jars alongside buttons and loose dice.
In the trees lived silkenbugs, no doubt the creatures the living sixteen used to produce the curtains and all their clothing. They hung from the branches on threads, doing their distinctive wriggling dances to impress each other and vie for space. Around their trees were rows of produce, growing in soil that had been painstakingly gathered bit by bit over many washes. Chunks that fell from the Fith had to be gathered quickly lest they become too soggy with blood and death.
They had gourds the size and shape of barrels, many of which had been used as painting canvases or game boards. Green vines with leaves as big as umbrellas weaved between them. They grew so quickly, perhaps because of the purity of the city’s filtered water, that they could be seen moving. Despite this they were so aggressively pruned at the edge of their patches that none of them dared to stretch a leaf over the tile.
Creatures, both livestock and pet, ran about and played. There were rabards, bwags, and wolptingers, all trained well enough to avoid leaving a mess on the floor. Vyra would eventually explain that the animals’ ancestors had accidentally fallen to the Pipes in much the same way the folk had.
They were not intelligent enough to be counted among the living sixteen, but they still had stories to tell. He would learn that they didn’t need to eat, but had to be fed in order to grow. The living sixteen, all those except the gravefolk obviously, regularly butchered and ate the animals simply to enjoy the taste and control their population. The rabards sniffed at the pirate’s boots as the two of them walked by. These were merely areas where they kept their chores. At the end of the massive chamber, built under its curved ceiling, stood their entertainment.
It was a stage of sorts. The back wall of tile had been torn out, one of the only instances of damage to the city, and the rough stone behind it had been covered in white crystals. It looked like the interior of a geode, which was perfect for the figure that walked across the stage as Vyra and Rob approached, for the crystals reflected the light it generated.
Vyra held out a hand and stopped him. Apparently they were not to interrupt. Five folk sat, legs crossed, in a line, below the stage and watched intently. Rob guessed they were five of the sixteen. A sixth was on the stage, but while her audience was mostly fleshed the brilliant actress was gravefolk. Rob felt a tug at his waist. The pelvis was once again pulling him forward, stronger than ever before.
The reason was obvious, as the woman on stage was composed mostly of brighted bones. Her eye sockets blazed like the florent itself and were nearly impossible to look at directly. Rob held up one hand as a visor and tried to make out as many details as he could. Not all the bones were brighted; she had scavenged ordinary replacements from the myriad opportunities of the Pipes. The missing ones matched perfectly with those in the possession of the Rookr twins.
She wore a thin, long, white shawl with gold trim that she slipped off once she reached the center of the stage. Her audience began to sing a hymn. A contraption dropped down from the top of the stage: an assembly of fine colorful ropes. A tilefolk in the audience, recognizable as such because his silhouette lacked anything above the shoulders, stood and took to the stage. He gingerly took the gravefolk woman’s hand and escorted her the final foams to the rope cradle. He picked her up and gently set her in it like a swing.
The song grew louder as the tilefolk individually removed every non-brighted bone from her body and set them aside. When she was just florentshine she bowed her head to him. She pulled on the ropes, which elevated her. She pulled on some others and thus moved away from the stage, to the center of the chamber’s ceiling. Now she was truly like the florent, providing light to everything from directly overhead. The song faded. The audience stood, turning to find Captain Rob standing in the light of their dawn.
“How unexpected!” the tilefolk man declared from the stage. He clapped his furry hands together and hopped down, immediately walking forward and extending a hand for Rob to shake. “Did you find him Vyra?” Rob shook his hand with all his usual vigor, but he was somewhat perplexed by the man. Tilefolk were notoriously stubborn when it came to their native tongue of Pawtymouth. They rarely learned Wide, let alone spoke it in complete sentences with only the tiniest hint of the grumble that made their voices so distinct. Tilefolk voices sounded like grumbling stomachs, which could be forgiven when you learned how close their windpipe was to their digestive set, but this man seemed to effortlessly strip that sound away.
“I found him alright,” Vyra said peevishly. “Before any of you ask any rude questions you should know he’s got bones like Argnaught… except his are green.”
“Is that so?” the man asked, craning his shoulders back to look into Rob’s eyes with his own, which were set just below the collarbone and awfully large for a tilefolk. He wore a sort of colorful shirt, again defying his culture, as they rarely liked to get cloth near their faces, that split in a V shape down the middle. It was red, gray, and white with large shoulder pads loaded with thick tassels. His tall boots were polished to babe skin. “My name is Clix Mousr.”
“Captain Kilrobin Ordr. Call me Rob.”
“The Kilro line? Of Custodian Kilroy?” Clix asked giddily.
“One and the same.”
“What a treat! You might be the first man of any renown to join the living. We were mostly forgotten above, but we can’t forget each other around here. I am… sorry for your loss though.”
“Well, your life. In a sense. I’ve no problem calling you captain, I’m sure you earned the title steering a fine P.O.S., but your ship can’t follow you down here.”
“I have a gift,” Rob said after a moment of contemplation. He was already trying to grease the wheels for the addressing of certain forbidden subjects. “For that radiant woman above us.” He pulled his cape in front of him so nobody could see the pelvis come out of his waistband. They might have construed that action as somewhat lewd; it was the hips of two folk in the same pair after all. He whipped it out with a flourish, releasing it as he would a captured songbird. It hovered in the air for a moment before flying up to its brighted owner. It clicked into place at the base of her spine, shocking her out of her serenity and causing her to nearly fall out of her rigging.
“Oh dear Plowr! Are you alright, our lady?” Clix asked, hands rolling the skin on his collarbone as if kneading dough. The shining skeleton spun in her ropes and hung upside down, letting her complete arm dangle.
“I am. Who is this stranger who has returned a piece of my light?” she asked airily.
“He’s a captain Miss Nippr!” Clix bragged, grabbing Rob’s arm like they were the best of friends. “Captain Kilrobin Ordr of a Custodial line! He’s our seventeenth.” He turned to Rob. “Where in Porce did you come across that bone? Our beautiful florent up there is Fwa Nippr by the way, incredible woman. I don’t know if you’ve realized, but you’ve literally brightened all our days by returning it.”
“My crew… confiscated a few of your bones from some brigands,” Rob explained, his voice and head moving up and down so both of them could feel addressed. “I’ve been wondering what the odds of the Fith dumping me here, on the other side of the world from my vessel, were, but now I see luck took no part. The Fith was soft, and the pull of your pelvis brought me here. Anywhere else and there might have been no life at all. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Fwa said, spinning gracefully.
“How is it you shine like the florent?”
“I spent much time in the Brighted Plains,” the skeleton answered. “Much time near a reflection of its purest light. A mirror of the gods. My bones had no choice but to drink it in. Then I fell… Some scattered. Some stayed in the light.”
“And with the Pipes enhancing your bonepicking… the pieces have been trying to return…” Rob puzzled out. It fit with Argnaught’s ability to independently move each piece of his anatomy. “Tell me; is the florent as much like the legends as the Pipes? Are the souls of the dead living there in harmony as their bodies are mulched down here?”
“I could tell you of the raptures of the florent… I could… but not during the duty of the day.”
“Of course,” Clix said, happily rejoining the conversation. He tugged on Rob’s arm again to get the Captain’s eyes off the light. “Fwa is our florent; she takes the role very seriously. We have just had our dawn ceremony and she shouldn’t be speaking at all. It interrupts her immersion. You can speak with her more after she sets.”
“Fair enough,” Rob conceded. The metric for the strangeness of the sixteen was now firmly in place. They all had stories to tell that would force him to rearrange very heavy dusty pieces of his worldview. It made a certain amount of sense; no living folk were supposed to be in the Pipes at all, so each and every one was an outlier.
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you plenty busy until then,” Clix said, dragging the pirate over to the rest of the dawn’s audience. The four remaining figures had stood when the dawn ended and observed Rob’s introduction silently. The first two were bergfolk, a man and a woman, and at first glance they appeared ordinary. They wore light vests with nothing underneath and they had both let their hair grow to a cumbersome length. There were no shoes upon their feet, so their gray toenails, like gravestones, were plainly visible. They smiled at Rob weakly.
“I am Whinnymoo Ticktockr,” the woman said. “This is my husband Orciet.” Rob shook their hands. They too spoke excellent Wide Porcian with no accent. He guessed it was because the majority of the sixteen spoke it as their native tongue and the others had simply adapted over countless rests. The next introduction was to a young lightfolk man, hardly past adolescence in appearance, with dark skin. He had a thin frame with a long neck and a pointed chin. Crystal baubles dangled from both his earlobes. He introduced himself with a feathery voice and the name Phanthomas Leafsmokr.
The last introduction was more in line with the first few in its strangeness. She would not speak to Rob or even look him in the eye. She was gravefolk, with the pirate only able to guess her sex based on her body language and the traditionally feminine patterns on her cloak: a black base with a meadow’s worth of colorful flowers stitched into it. She had the cloak tightly wrapped around her body and the top of her skull, revealing nothing but a bony face and a few fingers.
She sat on the edge of the stage hunched over. She did not respond to Rob’s outstretched hand, so he lowered it awkwardly. Despite her calcified form she was clearly a delicate creature. The untarnished gold filigree around her forehead, eye sockets, and teeth attested to it further. There was something even more decorative about her than the Fwa woman above them.
“I’ve forgotten our formalities in all this excitement,” Clix said apologetically, to the gravefolk rather than Rob. He put himself between the two of them. “First the dawn and now this. I fear I’ll be the cause of a tiny apocalypse one day! Captain Ordr this is Ciamuse.”
“No surname?” Rob asked. “Not that I’m judging. I had… have… a cabin boy who used to be lamed in such a way. Fine young man now. He earned one: Questr.”
“Our lady Ciamuse does not need to earn anything,” Clix asserted. “It is more of a title than a name. We produced the title ourselves for our small world here. She is our spiritual leader, our seer, and the mother of our community.”
“What does she see exactly?” Rob tried to look at her once again, but she shrank into her cloak.
“All sorts of things. Her wisdom comes from the many spirits abound here in the Pipes. Spirits the likes of which I am sure you’ve never seen Captain. There are no waters above that are like our depths.”
“I have met eight of you,” Rob said, changing the subject. He was well aware there were things afoot that he did not understand. “Am I correct in assuming that is only half?”
“You are. The rest of us have gone out to forage in the bones. We never leave the safety here in groups smaller than three.”
“Why leave at all?”
“To enrich our lives and scrub away some of the wretchedness of our predicament. The Fith drops things constantly. We’re always on the lookout for supplies, decorations, seeds, tools, and anything else that might make the prosites scoff. I’m sure Vyra has told you we don’t have a need for food, but we certainly still have a taste for it.”
“I take it Vyra is exempt from this group rule,” Rob said, poking at the decency of the tone like a charred stick into the side of a cooking bwag stomach. “She was alone when she found me.” He turned around to see how she would react, but saw only her back. Vyra was stalking off somewhere, tip of her absurdly long spear hanging just a bubble from the ground. Knows when she’s about to be scolded. She’s pretending these rules don’t apply to her. Doesn’t see that there’s a role for all of them. There’s a mother, a florent, an obsidian aloof uncle, and she’s the disobedient child. We just have to avoid a role.
“Yes, well no,” Clix explained as he too watched her walk away. “Vyra has always been a free… and angry… spirit. It’s as odd a combination as it sounds. She’s just as much a part of our family whether she admits or not.”
“We take care of our children. We shelter them under our wing, from the rain of blood and hail of bones,” Ciamuse suddenly said. She kept her head down, but everyone around except for Rob bowed slightly while she spoke. Her voice was soft, weak, and silken, like the skin atop a cooling bucket of milk.
“Yes exactly my lady,” Clix agreed. “Just as we will take care of you Captain Rob. Welcome to the Pipes.”
“It’s not a welcoming place,” he said bluntly. “You may not feel hunger down here, but I am starved nonetheless. Starved for information. I am a man of science and so much here defies explanation. I cannot rest until I have my answers.”
“You are in the Pipes Captain,” Phanthomas said, with the softest voice in the room. You are already at rest.”
“We all have our stories to tell,” Clix assured. He smacked Rob on the shoulder like they were brothers. “And I’m sure each has some of your answers.”
Tales of the Living Sixteen: Clix Mousr
Under the swinging path of Second Stone Door, directly under its city of Revokodor whenever it swung by, just past the Tributaroad Fundoor, stood the tilefolk farming village of Taega-snuuz.
The folk there were in the Shattered Tiles, but the Cracked Tiles and the roads were not far, so they received many visitors eager for trade. Their soil was much finer than that of the Cracked Tiles, and it showed in their produce.
They grew rabards there and they were such bountiful creatures. Children waited by the swelling gourds when harvest time came, watching, tapping, and listening as the furry rabards bounced around inside. When the creatures burst forth everyone celebrated. Not only could the flesh of the gourd now be eaten, but the rabard could eventually be butchered for its meat and provide for them twice.
It was the blessings of Plowr. In the old religions Plowr had been the kindest god of the eight to the tilefolk. He had created them after all, scooped them up as powder after the shattering of the tiles and dropped them back to the ground as men and women. Plowr was wiser and more patient than the others. Every miracle he provided was a miracle twice over because he understood the constant needs of less-than-godly life.
Magnificent harvests beget even richer soil, because he knew the dirt could provide when his eyes were elsewhere, as long as it was properly nourished. Those in Taega-snuuz did their best to honor Plowr. Their council chambers, the only building of stone in the whole village, had its domed roof chiseled in the god’s traditional likeness: a stoic face with closed eyes protruding from a great sternum and ridged around the cheeks by stony cliffs. Most believed Plowr’s true hand could scoop up their entire village and all its soil, but that tribute was the best they could offer.
Clix had a Plowr totem of his own: a small wooden thing tied to his belt. He was a young man then, no shirt to hide his scrawny arms or thin fur. He was in the fields one morning, all of Taega-snuuz worked and reaped the same fields, staring at the florent and wiping the sweat away his eyes before it could drip into them from his collarbone.
With thick gloves he grabbed stalks of marble grass and pulled them through, separating the glassy seeds with their swirls of color from the stalk and placing them in a wheelbarrow, where they tinkled and bounced against the others. He sighed. This was supposed to be his wash to go and study at Harvest Handel. He’d spent seasons dreaming about it, the actual heat, cold, rain, wind, or snow of the night incapable of affecting the perfect temperate weather of his unconscious fantasies.
His folk believed in the eight, but they were not so backwards as to deny the Gross Truth. Harvest Handel was merely a city in Second Holder: a device that dispensed Topa so beings beyond history could relieve themselves cleanly, but the gods and folks of Porce had transformed it into something much more.
The cities within its roll, protected on all sides by the living topa just as the living bropato covered the front of Metal Block, were bastions of learning and camaraderie. Clix loved his family and his folk, but what he wanted most was to be among those who fed their intellects over their stomachs. He wanted to be in Handel, leaning over the edge with his friends of other folks, pointing down at his town and telling them how Plowr’s dirt had grown him. He wanted to teach those off the World Floor what it still had to offer.
Looking out of either side of Second Holder was supposed to be like looking through the world’s largest telescope. They said it helped give academics and visionaries focus. Clix wanted focus; he felt too split up among the chores of his home. There was a piece of him in the fields, a piece of him corralling the young, a piece of him roasting the herb-stuffed rabards on the spit, and a piece of him sleeping huddled up next to his family.
A few marble seeds spilled over the edge and rolled away. He’d waded too far into the daydream again, something tilefolk were often scolded for. Having your head in the clouds was for folk with tiny heads on those silly pointless bird necks. He picked up the wheelbarrow and pushed it through the tall sparkling grass back toward the village. Once he put it in the silo he could move on to his less strenuous tasks.
He didn’t get to go to Harvest Handel that wash because the harvest was just too bountiful; they needed every pair of hands. Next time a blight or a freeze struck, then he could go. Clix thought that logic was backward. He didn’t want to abandon them when they were in trouble. He wanted to leave at the height of a feast, everyone’s mouths too full of cider and shinebread to say goodbye.
Halfway up the silo’s ramp, he spotted something moving toward Taega-snuuz, from Fundoor. He squinted. Three lines of riders on steeds. The animals were faster than tilehooves, which were the usual fare of merchants and visitors. The florent created glints across their bodies. Armor. Weapons. One of them carried a flag.
Clix’s wheelbarrow tipped over and rained seeds off the sides of the ramp, but he was already halfway down. He had to warn everyone. His mind raced, recalling things from the few history texts he’d had access to. Taega-snuuz was not supposed to be vulnerable to such things. Armies did not like their village because it made for a terrible encampment. Second Stone Door swung overhead periodically, and atop it the city of Revokodor was always watching.
That high city thought itself a guardian of those below its swing, under its wing. It often punished attacks on the peaceful farmlands by raining fire, boulders, and metal arrows down on those occupying stolen lands. Given that, Clix knew what a raid on their village meant. Whoever they were… they weren’t after land. They would not be staying; they would take what they wanted and leave as soon as they were able.
He burst into the council chambers, Plowr totem bouncing at his hip, panting and shouting at the same time. The council immediately stood and discarded the issue they were debating. The older tilefolk took Clix by the shoulder and rushed him back out, urging him to show them the threat. This time they only had to go a short way up the ramp to see their approach.
Clix was dispatched back to the village to help gather the children and protect them. He obeyed to the best of his ability. He collected two of Taega-snuuz’s daughters from their game of seed-skip outside the grass fields. He snagged a little boy catching spotted mud loogs by the pond, forcing him to drop the wiggling fleshy things back into their home puddle. He had no more hands to keep further children in line, so he rushed them to the kitchen house.
It was the largest and longest building in the village, and it was where they ate their community meals if rain prevented them from happening under the florent. In the back, past its fire pits, chimneys, and long wooden tables, there was a pile of soft fine soil ten foams high. Though tilefolk culture was as varied as any other, many preferred to sleep closer to the ground than the other folk. Most beds were not raised. In Taega-snuuz the folk slept in the dirt itself, straining it, powdering it, and treating it with scents to make it comfortable and soothing.
Families slept together in such piles, and the one in the kitchen house held thirty folk after some festivals where they were too full to leave. There were twice that many gathered around the pile when Clix arrived, mostly women and children. One of the older women took the young he’d gathered and brought him into the group as well.
He thought he would be expected to fight with the other men, but the way the women clutched him, arms around his shoulders and waist, some of them weeping, told him they thought he was still too young.
“Whha din-da?” one of the children asked. There was more confusion in their voice than fear, for the village had had peace since before they were born. Clix couldn’t remember such a thing happening either.
“Din-da wyl feyl-rygg-grap. Obaa aker, Revokodor, Plowr, feyl-rigg-grapp gralyn din,” one of the older women answered. Clix nodded along with her curse. Taega-snuuz, when translated from Pawtymouth into Wide Porcian, meant together sleep. It meant not only their dirt piles, but their graves. If anything happened to the women and children Clix would make sure it happened to him as well. He might not make it to Harvest Handel, but his story might make it there.
They cowered, some of the children crying, as they heard the tilefolk men take up position outside the kitchen house. The riders approached shortly after that. Clix listened as carefully as he could, and was confident he heard one of them dismount. Debate followed between the invading commander and the members of the council.
“We come with good news,” the invader said. “We don’t appreciate being met with hostility.”
“Denk absgung swyp, blyn cut. Dahnarda aryp dorluf.”
“Pawtymouth? No Wide? I take it you understood me though. Nod if you can understand me.” There was a silent moment. “Good. We have ridden here all the way from Glorsy, our good news growing across Graffon Stone like wildflowers. We have seen your village’s lovely soil. There is no better place to grow flowers.”
“Whha dahnarda mak de?” one of the council asked, trying to determine the invader’s purpose.
“I am here to preach the Toil Papers. Such fruitful soil, you must know it is the will of the Spotless. He has grown you here and sent us to harvest you. We brought gifts.” The invader clapped. Clix heard others dismount and pull things out of saddlebags. He was old enough to get a sense of what was happening. They were here for conversion. These Toil Papists wanted them to give up the eight, give up Plowr, and instead worship their Spotless.
No doubt they were looking for soldiers. The Papists had a campaign, one raging across all of Porce under various banners, to take the Cardinal Tiles from their resting places and collect them at the Glory Hole. They were certain this would elevate Porce to the realm of the Spotless; that was what they had interpreted from the Toil Papers anyway.
Most Papists were deniers of the Gross Truth. They looked at the world, and instead of a water closet they saw a fallen paradise. They saw a test from their god clean of evil to ascend to his reality. Clix knew better. The eight had created and placed the Cardinal Tiles to balance Porce’s gravitation and keep it from colliding with anything else in the Dark Empty. What the Papists wanted could destroy the entire world.
“Dahnarda nuhn grayln praeys-poss de,” one of the elders said defiantly.
“Toil Papists are not something you find,” the invader growled, “they’re something you make.” He snapped his fingers, a very lightfolk gesture in Clix’s mind, and then they heard fighting. The partly-thatched walls of the kitchen house shuddered as their men were held up against its exterior. Some of the women and children cried out as straw fell from the ceiling, but that was exactly what the invaders had hoped to hear.
Moments later several of them barged in: gravefolk and traitorous tilefolk, with one sneering lightfolk as their apparent leader. No doubt he was the one who had snapped his fingers. They all had weapons except for a red-furred tilefolk woman. She had a belt with many copies of the Toil Papers, with various covers, strapped to it. She undid a few of them and tried to hand them out to the women and children while the sneering man watched with his hands behind his back.
Clix examined him, hoping to find an opportunity to do something. He could only glean nauseating details; he had a receding hairline, a nose with a black birthmark the size of an awed pupil, and a flowing robe and scarf. He was no doubt sweltering in the warm weather, but apparently the prestige of his garment took priority.
“We will be adopting you,” the invader told his cowering victims. “You are now children of the Spotless. Your new home will be Glorsy; don’t worry, the ride is not far. You do not need to cling to each other anymore. You can cling to your god. Here he is.” He held out his hand toward the traitorous woman as she continued trying to press copies of the Papers into shaking hands. Many of them did not understand Wide, but they knew those texts and the ancient stone scribblings they were based on. There were no takers.
“One shalt not clean another’s business, because one’s hand cannot reach another’s heart,” Clix quoted. He stepped forward. Two women tried to pull him back but he shrugged them off. He knew a fair amount of Wide thanks to his preparations for Harvest Handel, along with a few quotations from the Toil Papers. The one he provided was from the Square of Underpass. He thought there was only one way to interpret it: you had to truly know someone, connect with them, to have a say in their lives. He wasn’t used to the arguments of many-ply, the idea that there were different layers and interpretations to every sentence of the Papers.
“I could lecture you on all the assumptions you just made,” the invader countered, “but you won’t be joining us. You’ll have to come to the Spotless on your own.” He snapped his fingers again and pointed at Clix. “Toss him out.”
Clix realized something else about their plan. He was not too old to be protected by his own, but he was too old to be swayed by imprisonment. They were here for the children: the minds that still had some empty space left for the Spotless. They would take the women as well, for the invaders certainly wouldn’t be feeding or cleaning the children. They were going to scoop the soul out of Taega-snuuz like a rabard straight out of its gourd.
Gravefolk, grips strengthened by bonepicking, grabbed Clix by the shoulders and pulled him away from his family. It wasn’t right. Plowr wasn’t there, but Clix didn’t expect him to intervene in something so petty. Plowr had strengthened the soil, which strengthened the harvest, which strengthened the tilefolk, which strengthened Clix. It was the scrap of Plowr in him that was supposed to act.
They passed by the woman with the belt full of books. Clix had no shoes on; his nails were long and sharp. There was a fire pit next to her, still red hot. He judged the positioning carefully, let the gravefolk bear all his weight, and kicked outward. He struck one of the copies of the Toil Papers, breaking its tie to the traitor’s belt. The book sailed away, landing on the edge of the fire pit, wobbling, and then falling in.
Orange flames shot up, happy for the food. The Papists stopped dead in their tracks. The gravefolk released him and ran to fish the book out. Clix backed up toward the door. The women of his village now muttered prayers of protection under their breath; they tried to shield him with their faith.
“Plowr rett duegraema. Flyn threygraeda xys-whyr de, nuhn din-da. Hal Clix de. Duegraema xys dyn dorluf-poss aal. Hal duegraema de. Xys de. Dil-due de. Nuhn din-da. Plx bling Plwer, plx hyl geh-grae. Hal clix xys-whyr de.”
“You Papists are fools!’ Clix squeaked, backing up as he did so. The gravefolk fished the Papers out of the fire. Its front half was already gone, all the pages blackened and curled. “I’ve improved that book by burning some of it away. The Gross Truth is there whether you lie to children or not. Your divine inspiration is just bathroom scribbling. Idle wandering hands done with the wiping. The thoughts of the waste-filled and wasteful!”
“Kill him,” the invader ordered. The two bonepickers who had him before pulled out a blade and a club. Clix glanced behind him. There was the door. The women shouted for him to run. He didn’t know what he could do against such warriors, but he could at least draw them away from their goal for a while. Maybe their weapons would get stuck in his ribs and teeth and delay them further.
The young tilefolk turned and ran. It was only near the outskirts of the village did he realize he forgot to look back and see the state of their defeated men. He did not know if they were dead or bound and gagged. It had to be one or the other, because none of them had called after him or urged him forward. The only things tailing him were the gravefolk, and he would tire long before they did.
The marble grass gave him precious hidden moments, since its heads were above his shoulders. He still left a path through it, bending, breaking, and dropping seeds, which the gravefolk followed. Clix stopped to panic once he was out of the grass, but could still hear them behind. He regretted kicking the book into the fir; it should’ve been one of them. He was not a violent boy, but his choices dwindled rapidly. Violence or death. They were horrible choices. Where had the choice of student gone?
He looked up. There was the edge of Harvest Handel, ringed in topa. The sky was just clear enough to make out some of the larger structures inside. Someone had to be looking at him too. It was the largest telescope in the world. Someone had to see. That gave him comfort. Another student, a fellow, would see his defiant death. Clix breathed deep and ran once again. There was something that could stop the gravefolk, something that had been there since long before Taega-snuuz.
It had resided near the crossing of Flatsprung and Fundoor for ages. Clix had caught glimpses several times in his life, always being warned away from its domain. Sometimes it shifted position, finding a new degree on the horizon for a few rests, but it never went far and it never crossed either of the Tributaroads.
If anyone watched from Harvest Handel they would’ve assumed they were seeing a suicide: a desperate act by a cornered child. Clix had more faith in Plowr than that. The land would provide a solution. The creature was part of that land, so Plowr’s will lived somewhere inside it as well.
That will was not apparent on its stony face. The dark gray monolith bore no expression at all. It was an aker: one of the most ancient creatures of Porce. Akers were born from the shattering of the tiles. Their bodies were visually inseparable from the land itself, save for their intimidating heads and limbs at either end of their strip. The head before Clix had a long neck, massive horns spiraling up, teeth that could dig boulders out of the ground like root vegetables, and blank stones for eyes. He ran to it, dropping to his knees before he was in reach of its mouth to show submission.
The gravefolk stopped as well, further back. They had no interest in being crushed under the cloven hooves of an ornery aker. Through their sockets it appeared the boy had only two choices. He could trespass onto the aker’s back without an offering, swiftly being crushed or eaten, or he could come crawling back and face death at their hands.
Clix saw a third option. He could talk his way out of it. Plowr had gifted him with fine speech and a voice that handled Wide well. He’d talked his way into leaving Taega-snuuz and taking rides in the topa gliders of Harvest Handel. His words could serve him once more. The boy remained on his knees. He clasped his hands and lowered his face, preparing to beg for mercy, to appeal to the dust of Plowr wherever it was inside the aker.
“Hyl-blyng aker, due plxyn dahblyng geh-ban-da thrwyn. Due nuhn kyyp xys-dwork. Shyyrp vyn bim. Due bae-din dyn Plowr, dorluf-poss dyn dahblyng. Plx, geh-ban-da.”
“Oh great aker I beg you to grant a way. I have no food to offer. This threat was sudden. I am a child of Plowr, just as you. Please. A way,” he repeated in Wide just to make sure his plea was heard. He had no idea what tongues akers would or would not regard. It offered no response. That meant it was unmoved. He needed a bowed head; that was the indication of permission to cross its back. He tried again.
“Due nu speyk. Speyk muum pae. Dahblyng nu geh-ban-de? Due geh-ban oym-din-da. Due gaer aryp-dwork. Due gaer hess-dwork. Due gral feyl-absgung ti denk-rik!”
“I have nothing but respect. That must earn something. Have you no way? I will take any path. I will walk on broken glass. I will walk hot coals. I will take your worst offer and praise you for it!”
The aker’s hooves suddenly detached from the ground and rose, like a steed about to buck its rider off. The gravefolk stumbled back even though they were well out of reach. Clix rose to his feet in awe of the creature’s true proportions. Its limbs rose and rose until its shoulders pulled the very ground up. Its head disappeared above him as the edge of the land curled like someone lifting the corner of a rug to sweep dirt under it. He saw worms wriggle in and out of the dark soil. He saw roots snap. There were dark spots: rodent burrows like ruptured arteries in its flank.
He was covered by its shadow now. The aker granted him the smallest of favors. He could not cross its back, but he could take the tunnel below its neck. The hole was dark and uneven, certainly not dug out by folk. There were stories abound about every aspect of the akers. Some of them involved tunnels hidden underneath: catacombs connecting the hidden places of the world to the nests of vile creatures to the secret tombs of Custodians and demigod beasts. Clix did not want to go to any of them. He wanted Harvest Handel.
He shed a tear and bit the tip of his tongue with his sharp peg teeth. The aker was not eyeing him and it would not stay upright forever. Even now the entrance to the tunnel shrank. Its kindness was expiring; he could be swept under the rug or die. Clix was supposed to be the most well-known man of Taega-snuuz. He was supposed to travel and convince. At the very least he was supposed to protect the women and children of his home. Instead they had cast him out to save him. He had to toss out his life as well, to preserve his heartbeat and his fearful breath.
Clix leapt down into the pit beneath the aker. The ground was wet, but was not mud. It was blackened dead plants, mineral-rich perspiration of a timeless beast, and fungi that expanded but never rose. Clix hugged himself and walked forward into darkness. He heard the aker fall back down behind him, sealing the ground once more. Total black. The only sounds under his own sniveling were the groans of the entire World Floor. It snored without rhythm: a father grumbling his way through the night with all his children resting their heads upon his stomach.
The tunnel was round, moist, and featureless. Clix’s hand ran along the wall as his only form of pathfinding. There was no guarantee he would live, far from it. Akers were part of the land and so had different life forces and minds from most of Porce’s life. It recognized his respect and provided him a way, but it likely spared no thoughts for his hope. Whether or not Clix lived, he had been given a way. The aker had been kind to the best of its ability.
The boy descended deeper and deeper into the tiles. His one stroke of luck was the sweat of the akers above; it was pure cold water untouched by the soil it filtered through. He drank it like rain, but the battle with hunger was not so simple. Judging only by the sounds of scurrying he had to capture, chew, and swallow a host of different vermin to continue. Some he only discovered to be inedible when their internal spines and musk fluids wounded his tongue.
After a rinse he made it out of the groaning tunnels and found a cavern. In it sat five tilefolk skeletons gathered around a table carved from boneystone: aker ivory. All about them sat piles of treasure: coins of pale silver unlike modern tile money, fine clothes moldered nearly to nothing, and a bath bead. The bead stood atop a bronze pedestal and was marked with a plaque. Clix could only see these things because the bead glowed brilliantly yellow. The plaque warned him to never remove the bead. It told him the magical stone was a jealous thing, a lighter of tiny worlds, and any attempt to move it would seal him within the reach of its light forever. He guessed this was how the poor men and women around the table had died. Its light had not proven nourishment enough.
Still Clix made do with it. He built traps to capture the most palatable vermin. Some of the treasures under the clothes were books, protected by expertly sealed boxes. The tongue was old, a nearly forgotten dialect of Pawtymouth called Naughtymouth, but Clix was able to decipher it in time. The language was difficult to speak aloud as it burned the mouth like pepper, so most of the time he muttered to himself and a few of the unpalatable crawling things that liked the bead’s light.
He learned from those tomes that there was a way to convince the bead to help him. Since he had never insulted it by laying hands upon it, it would allow him to escape its light if he did not want it. His fear and shame kept him from the incantations. The cavern kept him for washes, until isolation turned madness into courage. He spoke the words in the deeper voice of a man, the last of his boyhood decomposed under the aker’s belly.
“Loht praes-blyng dra hwal-dlin. Due-ah gehben. Due-ah gralyn grae, due-ah nu praes-blyng-din.”
Clix the man was free to go, but there was nowhere else. He had dead ends in the dirt and the occasional shaft promising deadly falls. His mind had stopped tormenting him with bright images of Harvest Handel, but in doing so his hope had also dried up and powdered. Death was a suitable choice, just as suitable as letting himself get swept under in the first place. Clix dropped himself into one of the shafts.
Much to his surprise it did not kill him. He landed in the soft Fith, which absorbed him and stalled his life while he was passed along its currents. It passed him like a kidney stone, dropping him some time later on the doorstep of Infinicilia. There he would meet Ciamuse and a few others. He turned the living twenty-one into the living twenty-two.
“Where are you blasted beasts off to?” Oddball Damr growled as he bobbed back and forth. The skull was currently chained around the neck of the haund Redwrist, dangling like a tag on a collar. He would’ve preferred to ride on the back of Finick, the smallest haund that belonged to the boy Alast, as Oddball had helped to train the haund and used it as a steed before, but the saddle he used for that had gone down with the Greedy Old Mop.
He could’ve simply rolled everywhere with bonepicking, but that might’ve scratched the greasy yellow sheen he’d worked so hard to achieve. Redwrist and Ripper were trained more as hunters and sniffers, but they knew all the basic commands. After the scare with Pearlen, where it seemed like someone might’ve plucked the poor girl’s eyes out, Oddball had asked Roary to attach him to one of the haunds. Their newest path through the ice was going to be uphill; the haund would act as a steed and be far more obedient than any of the crew willing to cart him along.
That was the idea in theory, but in practice it proved troublesome. The haunds had been nervous and agitated ever since they’d descended into the Winchar Straits. They barked at nothing, nipped at hands, and skirted around the crew. Oddball figured it was claustrophobia, but he now suspected something else. He could feel in Redwrist’s breath that the haund wasn’t scared, simply angry.
The day after their decision to go back into yellow ice the grumbling stomachs of the crew came to the forefront of conversation once again. Some of them suggested butchering and eating the haunds. They were met with significant protest, not just from Oddball who wanted to keep his steed, but also many who had grown close to the animals and would sooner see any of the folk die than the furry beasts.
Captain Teal had intervened once more with clear orders. No one was to touch the haunds until all their food had been exhausted. Their meat would be a last resort. Her words didn’t carry the same weight that Rob’s would have, but it kept them at bay. The haunds sensed the shift in mood though, and they knew nothing of conditional orders. Their already disagreeable temperament worsened, and when someone got a little too close with a knife all three of them bolted off ahead of the crew, Redwrist carrying the hollering Oddball away with them.
“What now? Do you have an appointment here?” the skull asked the animals when they finally slowed in a chamber with even ground and white vertical cracks across the walls in such abundance that they resembled a wintry forest. Oddball spun around for a full view of the chamber, forced to spin back by the twist of the chain.
It was clear why the haunds had stopped. Not only were there no folk, but the chamber had abundant foliage that put the creatures at ease. The plants there weren’t as calming as the greenery in their natural habitat, but they were better than sheets of barren ice. There were trees here and there resembling the ones that produced the rainfairies, but these were without fruit. Between them grew spirals of metallic grass and shrubs with blue and white leaves. Some of them slowly compressed like springs and released sprays of shimmering pollen and twong sounds when that compression turned into a bounce.
The haunds found the softest patch of the stuff and curled up for a rest, sharing their warmth. Oddball was stuck under Redwrist’s chin, with the animals ignoring his commands completely. He tried to calculate how long it would take the crew to catch up, but before he could put a number on it he’d already decided to do something about his predicament. The bodiless skull bonepicked back and forth, sliding his jaw out from under the haund’s.
After that there was still the matter of the chain. He could generate enough force to bite through it, but his teeth wouldn’t be strong enough to hold. He still had all of his originals and he wasn’t going to powder them over a silly pet. Yes, if they ever made it out of the straits he could get them replaced with silver, gold, or gems, but he knew he had a wonderful smile. The ladies wouldn’t flock to him the same way without his chompers.
He pulled on the chain fruitlessly for a while, at one point accidentally compressing some of the springiest grass and bouncing himself high in the air. The plants passed him back and forth for a while, tangling him in the length of chain he’d managed to unfurl from around Redwrist’s neck. He’d never hear the end of it if the others showed up and he was tied up in a knot. Despite the sinking of the Mop there were still several women alive in their number that lusted after his greasy head; he still had an image to maintain.
“Pissing, door-squeaking, pants-down nugget muncher!” he cursed as he rolled to and fro. “By the blood of Kilrogue I demand you break! When I’m through with you chain you won’t be fit for use as a belt. I’ll have you melted down and made into dainty cups for spitting out the tiniest fishy-bitty bones! I’ll-”
Krrr-ick, krrr-eek, krrr-ick. His teeth clacked back together at the sound. Oddball swiveled on his jawbone and stared at the cracked wall of the chamber. He saw just enough of the florent’s light through it that the seams shined. Krrr-eek. Another crack appeared. Ice fog frothed out of the largest ones. That froth solidified and widened the opening, making room for more fog.
The process repeated itself a dozen times, widening the fissures more and more. Chunks of ice loosened and fell backward. Oddball heard them tumble down a wall of ice and into the water far below. The haunds lifted their heads and growled. Finick ran to Oddball’s side and yipped madly, smashing his axe-shaped horn into the ground and cutting up the ferrous plant roots.
“It be no use boys,” Oddball told the animals. “Have a nice nap.” Enough fissures had opened in the wall’s sides to separate the main piece in the middle. The wall groaned as it leaned back and broke off its base, opening the chamber to fresh light and air. That air rushed in like a pack of ravenous monsters, biting everything in sight. It froze the leaves on the trees, it froze the springy plants mid-compression, and it froze the haunds where they stood. Their barking ceased.
The ice made the chain rigid and brittle, finally allowing Oddball’s picking to force a snap. He could’ve tried to escape, but didn’t see the point. There was nothing out there but more ice, monsters, and sea. Better to face it. Better to spit a wad of the grease he’d stored in the frost’s eye. He rolled toward the source of the wind and ice. His yellow stains hardened and crystallized.
The starved black-skinned creature of a man was there, just behind where the wall had fallen. If Oddball had been flesh he would’ve been frozen solid by now. His empty sockets gave him a chance to observe the details of the man who’d sunk their ship. He didn’t need it. He knew, just as Rorke did, who he was. Oddball rolled closer before he could be frozen to the ground.
The blackened figure picked him up and held him at arm’s length. The ice and wind swirled around him endlessly, but the foams closest to his body were still and far warmer. Held that close, Oddball would never fall into that strange frozen sleep.
Oddball observed the boy, for that’s what he was, barely older than Alast. The blackness on his skin came in large uneven patches; it ate up his legs except for the knees. It spread across half his shirtless chest. It totally consumed one arm and all of his fingers. It had shriveled his nose, ears, lips, and the corners of his eyes. His frozen hair was equally dark, though the very tips of it had gone white. The rest of his skin, that which was not consumed and reformed as the worst frostbite, was pale blue.
He wore no shoes and carried no weapon. His only clothing was a pair of filthy frozen pants covered in cracks, clinging to his protruding hip bones by nothing more than rigidity. He stared into Oddball’s sockets blankly, the cyclone around him expressing far more.
“You’ve killed too many for this to be a pity party,” Oddball accused. “There were good folk on that ship. Half of them had hot-pants for me.” The boy said nothing. “Go on. Defend your cowardice. Tell little old Oddball why they deserved it.”
“Your voice,” the boy eventually responded, “is different than I remember.”
“I had me meat last we saw each other sonny boy,” Oddball explained. “You missed a lot while you were off living. You should’ve taken your own life. Now look at you. A murderer worse than I, and you can’t even be pink in the face about it. You’re bluer than the gutters of Slick Rin. Bluer than balls in a coven of-”
The boy did not respond to the skull’s insults. He scratched at some of the yellow stains on the crown of Oddball’s head, examined the white bone underneath, and then rubbed the grease between his fingers. He turned the skull around, even as Oddball continued to yell, and scratched away the grease in several places.
“Do you have any idea how much cooking meat I had to sit under to get this patina?” Oddball spat, chunks of the dislodged grease flying out from between his teeth. “I guess I can’t expect a thick blue idiot like you to understand the-”
“You’re not Oddball,” the frostbitten boy declared.
“Oh I see. One last insult for your dear old dad. It be weak. You should remember better ones just from those I taught you.”
“You’re not Oddball Damr,” the boy repeated.
“Course I am you azure ass! Your brain be an ice cube is all. You’re denser than a toil lid. Your head be as flat as an aker’s undies. If your mother were here I’d spank her for-” The boy squeezed. Ice spread from his fingertips and across the yellowed skull. It froze his jaw in place, but Oddball kept mumbling his tirade. The boy’s black fingers curled. Bone cracked. Oddball wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t hear the skull’s exact words anymore, but the tone was unchanged.
The ice grew over his sockets. The boy’s grip tightened until the jaw bone broke in half and tumbled off the cliff side to the Snyre Sea. Still, muffled sounds poured out of Oddball. The frostbitten boy put both hands on the skull, one on each side, and squeezed harder. Ice. Cracks. The crown of Oddball’s head split and collapsed inward like a roof destroyed by heavy hail. The boy stuck his thumbs in that hole at the top and pulled Oddball apart. The fragments of skull made no further sound.
He sprinkled the chips and their last insults upon the ground and down the icy cliff, flexing his numb fingers slowly. He looked out to sea. The waters were calm except for the roaming of Qliomatrok. Her bath bead and horn occasionally pierced the surface and weaved through the ice in search of the remaining trespassers. She could do nothing to harm the boy. Even her hide was not immune to his storm. She could survive his worst, but would obviously become trapped when the water she lived in froze around her.
The rest of his father’s crew would be along soon, and he didn’t want to deal with them yet. He’d pulled one skull out, but not the one he wanted. Fine. If his father wanted more death he would have it. Every step they took in the cold was nothing compared to the countless millions the boy had taken. His life was the Winchar Straits.
He stepped into the chamber and observed the frozen haunds, getting down on his knees to pet their frozen backs. He scratched the side of Finick’s horn. He sat atop Ripper’s back and pretended to ride him like a tilehoof, making small trotting noises with the clicking of his numb tongue.
“Who’s a good haundy?” he crooned as he leaned forward and scratched Ripper’s frozen chin. He opened his palm and willed some of the ice around him to take the shape of a tiny bone. He pressed the crystalline treat into the haund’s open mouth, resting it on its lower teeth and the tip of its tongue. From there he climbed back out of the chamber through the hole he’d made. The side of the bergs before him grew icy steps so he could traverse its otherwise featureless incline. With a wave of his hand he sent the winds of his perpetual storm over the hole. The ice crept in from all directions and sealed the chamber once more.
Alast was among the first to reach the place with the metallic plants. At first he was relieved to see life again. He, as the others did, hoped that after providing the rainfairies the world had decided to give them some kind of smoked meat tree next. There was no such luck. There was no fruit at all, and a cursory taste of these leaves proved them to be full of metal grit and indigestible.
Pearlen followed just behind him, hand in his. Her eyes had been closed for several drops, for she thought it kept them moist and helped calm the irritated hunger of the Clawlies. Her friends had told her it was fine to take a break from sight because there was nothing in any direction but the nasty yellow ice. She only opened them when she felt the plants under her feet. It was only going to be for a moment, but then she spotted three blurs to the side of one of the trees.
“What are those?” she asked her love.
“They’re… Finick!” Alast pulled her over to the frozen haunds. His hands hovered around his pet without touching him. He recognized the ice as the same that had taken them before, but had no idea what to do with it. Las time they’d been forced to wait. He wasn’t going to pick up the little animal and bash him against a tree trunk until the skin of ice shattered and fell away.
Pearlen sent him off to hurry the captain and the others while she sat next to the tiny haund and rubbed his sides in an attempt to warm him. She blew the hottest breaths she could over his little ears and perky tail, but the defrosting hadn’t even begun by the time the rest of them funneled into the chamber.
Everyone spread out in search of useful things among the plants. They passed speculation back and forth. One thing was certain: the dark man of the ice was still around, still tormenting them. Worse yet, he’d now taken a life directly. A crewman brought Captain Teal a few of the shards from Oddball’s skull. Rorke appeared next to her and, without a word, took one of the shards for himself. He turned away and hunched over, tracing the edges of his friend’s bone with a fingertip.
“We’ve lost a good man,” Teal announced after getting everyone to remove their hats in respect. “Oddball Damr has left this plane of Porce.” At the sound of his name many of the women erupted into wailing and tears. The gravefolk among them were not limited by breath or the depth of tear wells, so the sounds of their sorrow would go on and on for drops. A few proved so loud in their grief that they were stowed away in the thickest bags to muffle them.
“Who even bothers to kill a skull?” Alast asked Pearlen. They both sat on a side of Finick, draping their bodies over the haund to warm him. Roary and Queenvy were there as well, hugging the other two.
“He did know how to crawl under folks’ skin,” Queenvy reasoned. “Probably went out of his way to call that fiend a hundred and seven names.”
“He wasn’t always like that,” Roary added. He touched two fingers to the corners of his eyes to keep tears from forming. “I remember when he was one of the quiet ones. A model member of the Calcitheater too. I think he got sick of being ignored and handled only to be tossed. He started imbibing all that oil from the galley. He’d roll around on the deck after that and I’d always have to swab it… swab up after him… whuu…” His voice cracked.
“I think I’m the only girl aboard he never flirted with,” Pearlen said, “and that’s only because he knew Alast had eyes for me.”
“I kissed him on the forehead to finish a dare,” Queenvy recalled. “The taste of that rotten oil on me lips was not easy to forget.”
“He taught me gutter smarts,” Alast said. “I never got very good at them. I thought he was too good to ever die. You’d have to clean all the sewer muck out of the gutter to even find him. Why? Why did that thing break Oddball? What’s he after?”
“I feel fur,” Pearlen said, changing the subject. She pulled her hand away from Finick’s flank and put Alast’s there so he could feel. “I think our little axe will be alright.”
“I hope getting frozen again has fixed that ornery streak,” Roary said, breaking an icicle off Ripper’s neck. He noticed the icy bone in the haund’s mouth and pulled it out. “What the…”
“The Captain be speaking again!” Dawn yelled to get everyone’s attention. She and Teal stood near the thinly regrown ice wall, using the florentshine that shone through as stage lighting.
“Tragic as this is,” the captain began, “we can’t remain here. Master Shuckr informs me this vegetation is a good sign. We may be able to find vines thick enough to climb at the top of this berg. If we do they could carry us to the lip of Third Sink. The beautiful thing about stories is that they weigh nothing. They weigh less than Oddball did. We can remember him while we walk and while we climb. We can…” She paused. “What are you all ogling?” She saw a jumbled mass of expressions: some confused, some terrified, and some oddly pleased. Teal whirled around as she was pulled further from the wall by Dawn.
Something else had interrupted the florentshine from the other side. The crew of the Mop saw a tall shadow with a bulbous tip. It swayed back and forth slightly. Everyone was silent as they could be, but their slow backward steps compressed and released the metal grass noisily. Alast and the other young folk pulled with all their might to separate frozen haund feet from the ground and drag them away as well.
Konk. The shadow knocked on the wall of ice. Kerrrrrrrrrrr… It dragged something across its surface. Konk. Konk. Konk! Its hammering grew louder. Konk! A fresh split appeared. Konk! Konk! The shadow struck a final time, smashing through the wall and once again giving the plants a taste of fresh florentshine. The crew drew their weapons.
The hammering thing leaned into the chamber, its long neck and snout passing over the edge of the grass. Its head was twice the size of a man’s torso, and it bore a giant mouth with lips drawn back to reveal blocky teeth and tusks. Those exposed teeth had acted as its hammer upon the ice. Its eyes were wide and covered in a skin of frost, so it rarely needed to blink. Its coat of long, hanging, white fur obscured its muscular form. Long limbs it had, like something meant to scuttle under rocks, and a long tail as well.
It had not felt the cold upon its teeth. It could scrape them across the ice and snow and swallow it all down without feeling a thing. Few of the crew had ever seen one alive, but they knew it by the sound of its hammering. It was a roodnock: a merciless predator known for banging on doors and walls to see if it could get anything delicious inside to make fearful noises.
There was an old poem for the Roodnock that most children knew. Their parents would recite it at night, voices slowly turning into hissing whispers, and then abandon the child to the darkness. Standing on the other side of the door they would knock. Misbehavior was rarely a problem after a few visits from the creature.
I lived upon Rinvision Stone, my family tripping for the rinse
Marrow soup fresh from the bone, my family would sorely miss
My spoon on the windowsill, I went to take it up
My scaredy eyes got their fill, a shadow having fun
From the window to the door, the shadow tripped and knocked
Knock, knock, the wood was scored, it bashed away with its nod
I stopped the hands of our clock, rather than twist the noisy knob
Time still took for the roodnock, tick then tock then tick then tock
In the bathroom I hid holding the pot of soup and stock
The door banged again, the oh so roodnock
The monster’s hot breath hit their faces in waves whenever it opened its mouth; its teeth were too tightly packed for air to escape between them otherwise. Its neck swung left, then right, as it examined potential prey. A pupil flicked between Teal and the tallest head, belonging to Whetsaw. One of its lanky limbs silently rose off the side of the cliff and stepped inside. Its floppy ears dragged across the tips of the metal grass, the blades vibrating and humming.
Teal lifted her arms slowly and used them to hold the crew back. She was not one to start a fight where one didn’t need to exist. The roodnock was infamously rude, but not stupid. She hoped it would look upon their number, many of whom had no delicious flesh, tendons, or offal, most of whom had weapons, and see the odds were not in its favor. It was likely used to barging in and finding sole survivors from wayward fishing dinghies.
It observed them for a hundred drops, its serpentine neck bending back and forth. At one point its dangling beard came close enough for one of the gravefolk to bite it, but they held their position. Eventually the beast made its decision, its single foot retracting back to the cliff side. Its neck followed. Its teeth were disappearing over the icy lip.
Shwaosh! The horn of Qliomatrok pierced the sea’s surface in the distance. The divine droplet glistened blue in every eye, including the roodnock’s. Weighty Qlio bellowed, her spotted body flopping back into the water, but her horn remained aloft. The divine droplet seemed to sing, a song the folk could not hear but felt as bumps on their flesh and rattling in their jaws.
Up surged the roodnock once more, all of its limbs and tail squeezing into the cavern. It roared and lunged wildly, hammer-filled mouth wrapping around a hapless gravefolk. It bit down before any could react, pulverizing and powdering the man’s body. His skull rolled away, cursing the beast down to the Pipes.
“Attack!” Teal ordered, drawing her own blade and charging forward. The bonepickers got there first, scuttling on all fours or spinning like rolling pins to sneak under its limbs. They stabbed at its wrists and ankles, quickly drawing its surprisingly bright blood out. The roodnock flopped down on them, crushing a few more bones. It snapped its jaws this way and that, the hammering clack of its teeth loud enough to cause the inner ear great pain.
They managed to force the monster off to one side with their prodding and slashing. The young folk stuck to the opposite wall, furiously peeling chips of ice off the haunds. The larger ones were trained to hunt and intimidate; their barking alone could give the roodnock pause, if only they were awake! Roary knocked the last of the ice from Ripper’s ears and rapidly patted the haund between the eyes. It returned to consciousness and immediately began to bark, even though its limbs were still frozen stiff. The sound roused the other two, who similarly shed the ice around their faces and joined in barking and snapping. Alast and the others made the tactical decision not to free the haunds’ limbs, because the beasts barked not at the roodnock, but at them! Finick cut Alast’s finger when he drew too close.
“What’s wrong with them?” Pearlen asked.
“They’ve never acted this way. I’ve known those two since they were pups!” Roary added. Dawn flew in from the side and collided with the partly-frozen haunds. She bonepicked back to her feet and shoved the animals away with her foot. They slid into a corner.
“What are you four standing around for? Spill this knocker on the ice!” the first mate ordered before leaping across the chamber and back onto one of the roodnock’s furry shoulders.
“Go,” Pearlen told the others. “I’ll watch the haunds.” They all knew her eyes weren’t up to the fight at the moment, so none protested. Alast, Roary, and the Rookrs drew their own sabers and knives and marched toward the monster.
They saw halfway there that the fight was being won. The roodnock’s body was dyed nearly crimson from its own blood. Ten bonepickers had its tail pinned to the ground with their natural weight and their unnatural force. Dawn had a chain around its neck, which she drew tighter and tighter as the beast weakened.
The song of the divine droplet grew louder. It rose like a geyser and surrounded them faster than the roodnock had tumbled in. The song was followed by the jewel itself and the grooved twists and turns of Qlio’s horn. The narwhorl had leapt all the way to their opening. She had no hope of fitting inside the chamber, but that didn’t stop her from trying. Her island of a body slammed into the ice, shaking the entire berg and knocking many of the crew off their feet.
Her tail pumped up and down, lodging itself in a seam and keeping the monster from sliding back into the sea. Her horn entered the fray, right where the young folk stood, forcing them to dive in different directions. This was the closest they had seen the divine droplet. As pirates under Rob’s command they’d commandeered many a bath bead, but never one such as this. Its surface was beyond perfection, like newborn glass. It shone like the dew of creation itself, its blue depths like a sea a spirit could sink into for eternities.
In the ice its singing echoed off the walls and grew stronger. Its ringing emboldened the roodnock. With might missing moments before, it tossed the gravefolk from its tail, spun in a circle, and slapped many of the crew against the ice with its side. Weapons clattered to the ground. Kingvy and Queenvy, split from Alast and Roary by the bead’s entrance, tried to scramble back to their feet, but weighty Qlio was not done. Her horn whipped back forth across the chamber, about as high as a man’s head.
She forced them to take cover in the metal grass once more. Anything in her way was obliterated, bone or flesh. She killed two by impact alone, their voices snuffed with only the briefest groans as their chests collapsed. Worse still, the enraged roodnock took victims of its own. With no regard to its own life it snapped at them, teeth breaking weapons and crushing shields. It chomped off arms and legs, turning patches of the grass red. Qlio’s horn took up any of the fluid it moved over and dyed the metal meadow in the colors of dread and horror. Not a drop would hold on the surface of the divine droplet. Its facets perfectly reflected their shock and terror as it swung by.
Captain Teal was in the midst of it, the whole chamber had become the midst, desperately concocting a plan. The effects of the divine droplet were clear. The roodnock was leaving before it broke the surface. That cold current they all felt on their skin was its work, and it affected the roodnock. Even if they killed it Qliomatrok would remain. If they pushed her and her bead out the roodnock would go with it.
“Push her out!” she screamed at the height of her ice-thinned voice. “Push the blubbered blighter out!” She ran toward the opening, toward Qlio’s thrashing lips thick as aker hide, and ducked under the horn when it swung by once more. The roodnock was not bothered by the flailing of the horn as it struck the walls on either side; it merely slunk under or over it with each pass. Its head was low as Teal passed by, so it lunged for her thighs.
Rorke slid in with bonepicking and kicked its head away. He slid further, to the edge itself, and wedged his toe bones between the ice and Qlio’s lip. Teal caught up and slammed her shoulder into the narwhorl’s rubbery mouth. Rorke had a sword in one hand; he stabbed and stabbed with unnatural power, but his strikes barely ruptured the skin. Even if killed, flies and rot could not take Qliomatrok’s flesh. It would remain for ages, outliving her slayer and their children for generations. At this point they feared eyes of iron and gums of granite. They could not destroy her. Separation was the only option.
“Get over here and push you cowardly scum-soaps!” the captain shouted. One by one the bonepickers slid across the ice, under the raging beast and horn, and added their gravitation force to the pushing. The roodnock saw them as easy prey, slithering forward on low claws to rip them away. Some of the crew stood as far back as possible, pressed up against the ice to narrowly avoid the roaming tip of the divine droplet.
“What are you all doing?” Alast barked at them. “We fight for our captain!” Many stared darkly back. They did fight for their captain, but he was dead and gone. They had an excuse for their inaction: fear. No captain could expect their crew to step forward into deadly battle once again with no food or drink to fuel them. They acted as if their bodies were hollow, as if all their old courage had burned away and it was Teal’s job to rekindle them first.
Whetsaw stepped out of the crowd, wielding his mist sword with his remaining arm. Someone tried to pull him back, but their effort was short-lived; nobody wanted to be seen actively opposing aid. The bergfolk joined Alast and the others in pulling the roodnock away from the captain and her pickers. The beast’s worst wounds weren’t clear given its now-uniform redness, but they made their best guesses, striking its ankles, underarms, neck, and tail.
Qliomatrok pumped her tail once more, sliding a lip of her fat over the edge. Her horn gained that much distance and scraped along the back wall, forcing the cowards and dissenters to scatter. A bag full of skulls was dropped, and out rolled a half dozen heads of women, all still moaning and wailing over the loss of Oddball. The roodnock’s head lifted when Roary stuck his saber under its chin, bringing it in line with the narwhorl’s horn. It struck the predator’s skull and stunned it. It went limp long enough for the pickers to double their focus.
“Push!” Teal and Dawn roared in unison. Gravefolk reared back and then powered forward, their skulls sometimes being entirely overtaken by swells of the monster’s blubber. Their strikes made flat packing sounds against her hide, their efforts perhaps rippling enough to tickle her.
She barely felt a thing, but she did budge. The ice gave way beneath her tail. The tens of pickers around her mouth had the strength of a hundred men, and they suffered no fatigue or unevenness in their pressure. Her head was forced back. The horn struck the ceiling, the divine droplet ripping out huge chunks of ice as it was dragged backward. Eventually more of her weight leaned out than in, and the beast rolled back into the sea with a splash that could’ve sunk the Mop all over again.
They all stood back once she was gone, for the shelf was cracked and groaning. The roodnock was still among them, but the singing of the droplet was deep under the water once more. Its eyes returned to their wariness, though their protective ice lenses were cracked and stained red. The roodnock grumbled weakly and limped through the opening, slithering down the incline to escape.
Once they’d moved far enough from the hole in the ice they stopped to catch their breath. All told, they’d lost five more lives. Two barely hung on, each now missing a limb and relying on the frigid air to prevent blood loss. Ladyfish Paintr had suffered a crushed hand that was now more bruise than flesh. Three of her nails had popped out from the swelling. Pearlen was in agony, eyes in her hands and tears streaming out as the warmest things around for lathers. The song of the droplet had irritated her parasites as much as it had all the other animals.
“I can’t see!” she bawled to Alast, moving her face to his shoulder. “Will it come back? Will it?”
“I don’t know,” he answered her softly. Even now he saw the looks some of the crew gave her. They questioned why she bothered, why she hadn’t thrown herself into the sea to stop being a burden. He hated them for that. Everything had always been so friendly with Rob in command. He didn’t blame Teal, there was no reason, but he knew something was off. Rob had been the sealant. Without him most of the crew could not hold water. They would drop hope and expectations like heated stones.
“That bead,” Teal addressed them all. “That bead’s magic is now clear. It takes the creatures around it to a mind of fury and little else. It turns teeth to swords and horns to spears. It’s no wonder our haunds have misbehaved so badly.” They looked to the haunds, which were just now shaking off the last of the ice. They still had a nervous edge in their eyes and lips, but with the droplet under the surface and far below they no longer barked and nipped at those who dared pet them.
“I question,” the captain went on, “the folk spirit residing in some of you. You were just as nervous as the beasts.” Some eyes cast down. Others remained locked to hers. “Or it was something else. A strategy you had. You saved your energy for the battles ahead. Smart thinking. I’ll provide you an opportunity to use some of that stored energy now. Mr. Kohlr.” Nayth stepped forward. Teal’s face was obviously numb with cold, her nose, lips, and ears red, but her words sliced like steel sharpened in the most acidic fruit. “I noticed you saving your energy. Would you be so kind as to lead the way forward? You can handle any other rude knocks that interrupt our stroll.”
“Yes captain,” he said simply, moving to the front of the procession. Teal couldn’t see who, but she heard folk pat him on the shoulders and back.
“Master Shuckr tells me we should find a melt crater soon. We’ll be under the florent and we’ll be able to spy any ways out of the Snyre that exist. Until then use your energy wisely.” The Greedy Old Mop, a few straws thinner, resumed their trek through the ice.
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