Graves of the First
Dinner in Infinicilia occurred at the same time each night, just before Fwa Nippr descended and cloaked herself in a thick black robe to dim the light. The other eight members of the living sixteen arrived right on time to help prepare the meal. Rob was introduced to them all, but they didn’t add much to his evaluations. Argnaught was extraordinary. Vyra was aggressive and unpredictable. Clix fancied himself in charge. Fwa was the florent. Ciamuse was a beloved nutter.
The other eight were made up of six gravefolk, a tilefolk woman, and a lightfolk woman. Their names were Lemny Freshr, Sodikin Magleetr, Jermy Stermr, Boable Muskr, Grobnine Fetchr, Mehtier Kindlr, Ump Tweenr, and Gretchid Openr. Aside from the bonepicking abilities that were the normal down there in the Pipes, those eight presented little of interest. The tilefolk woman Ump had clear feelings for Clix, visible in the way she nuzzled his elbow and fetched anything he wanted even before he called for it, but he didn’t seem to offer her affection in response.
Already Rob had a sense of the man Clix. It was the sense he needed most, because if he had to outsmart anyone down there it would be the man whose saliva could paint the word forbidden on anything he saw fit. Ump spoke only Pawtymouth; Clix glared at her whenever she spoke to him. When she tried to utter a few words of Wide he rolled his eyes and whispered for her to stop embarrassing herself. This man’s got esteem issues. Can’t handle the esteem pressure. Got it into his head-heart that he’s lightfolk because there’s no growl in his sentences. We can use that. Whenever he has something half-smart to say we play dumb and let him educate us. Whenever we can drop him in a hole with knowledge of our own we let him feel the shame.
Rob’s thoughts drifted away from emotional manipulation when they all sat down to dinner inside one of the city’s prosite-built structures; it resembled a circular fountain but was empty of water. All sixteen of them sat down on its lip with their legs inside. Argnaught wasn’t present, but Rob guessed he rarely left his well of a bedroom. If he was truly the greatest bonepicker to ever live then even the others of the living sixteen could not push him around.
Vyra, on the other hand, was clearly vulnerable to the strictures of their miniature society. She had snuck away after introducing Rob to avoid a scolding, but she was there before the meal began, carrying plates as well as the same pouting expression from earlier. Twice Clix tried to corner her for a conversation, of course carrying a bowl or decanter of something himself, but Rob inserted himself into the moment each time with an utterly pointless question about the origin of their various decorations. He hoped to get a smile out of her, but it seemed she wasn’t capable of that around the others.
There was a prayer to begin the meal. Everyone with heads bowed theirs, while the tilefolk bent their shoulders. Rob followed suit because he knew Fwa Nippr watched from overhead. Whether or not she was the sort to tattle on his breach of etiquette he did not know, so he assumed the worst. He’d heard his fair share of deity-dangling, from Papists and loyalists of the eight alike, but nothing quite like Clix’s blessing.
“Oh gods above and below,” the tilefolk began, “hear our words. Thank you for living and dying so that we may live eternal in the safety of Infinicilia. Thank you for making us immune from attack with the weight of your intertwining histories. Thank you for bringing us new family in the form of the noble Captain Kilrobin Ordr. We know his Custodial soul will bring further peace to us. We are together.”
“We are together,” most of the others repeated.
“We are undisturbed.”
“We are undisturbed.”
“We are the living seventeen.”
“We are the living seventeen.”
The meal began, and there was plenty for the fleshy among them to choose from, freshly slaughtered or picked that day: roast rabard ears stuffed with steaming root vegetables, plump double-cased sausages of mixed tendon meats, bread and cheek meat stuffing, buttery gourd steaks tender enough to scoop out of the rind, and plenty of seasonings and sauces in dainty cups and self-balancing ladles salvaged from mismatched but well-crafted dining sets.
Rob tapped one ladle handle with his foot and watched it spin slowly in a circle. When it stopped it pointed to Jermy Stermr: one of the gravefolk. He was either a short man or an adolescent boy judging by the proportions of his bones. Rob couldn’t remember his hello well enough to decipher his voice. His bones had plenty of cracks, but they were all filled in with copper to make sure he stayed in one piece. Aside from Argnaught and Fwa, all the gravefolk wore complete outfits. We suppose that’s one of Clix’s rules as well. Everyone dresses like proper lightfolk.
The most unusual thing about Jermy was the way that he and the other gravefolk participated in the meal. Mixed in with all the real foods were plates and bowls of false delicacies: likenesses of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and meats crafted from fabrics and beads. Jermy picked up a tiny stuffed dribblesnip, its color perfectly matched to the real thing’s dirt-infused yellow, and placed the item in his mouth. It rolled out the bottom of his jaw and landed once more upon the plate.
The gravefolk partook of their false food rhythmically, careful not to spoon the same stitched bites twice in a row, as that could’ve had an unsavory implication. Occasionally they took sips from empty goblets. We see. The family has to eat as one, and nobody likes an idle mouth at the table. It ruffles the mood. All of this is dressing. We feel it now too. Our stomach doesn’t need this food. We are dead in the Pipes. Dead to the world. We got our wish Rob old boy; we can’t die. We can’t be told to sit down and stop fussing while the gods or forces argue.
“So Captain Kilrobin,” Jermy addressed when he noticed the pirate staring at him. He was careful to fish a loose string out of his teeth before speaking. “Surely you have plenty of stories to tell of recent Porce. You’re the first to join us in a long while, and I confess I’m flushed eager for a swashbuckling narrative.”
“Swashbuckling?” the Captain probed, sipping at a warm cup of gnarlic juice.
“You’re a sailor aren’t you? There must have been a rousing battle with pirates at one cross of the tiles or another.”
“I second the request,” Clix added. “What was your greatest adventure before you found yourself in our red waters?”
“There aren’t too many to choose from,” Rob lied. He sipped again. It was very loud this time. All the gravefolk had stopped clacking their teeth in false chewing. It was time to listen now. “We weren’t an armed vessel most of the time. Even our cargo tended towards the dull: topa, whorl butter, sink dust, that sort of thing…”
“A story goes with those emerald teeth,” Gretchid Openr pointed out. Clix shot her a glance, and she swiftly returned to the rabard ear she was cutting into thin strips.
“I’m sure that’s a private detail,” the tilefolk said to cut the subject off at the knees. “Robin I should tell you that we’re not judges or executioners down here. Though I am sure, with your tidy Custodial blood, that you’ve never lifted a finger in wrongdoing, know that if you have it is no concern of ours. You’ll have a fresh life down here, and not a word will be spoken of those emeralds if you do not wish.”
“The teeth are not much of a tale,” he admitted. A little truth to butter everything else along. “I acquired them much the same way Argnaught wound up black and shining. With your encouragement… I think a story or two has been coaxed forth. There was a man a few washes ago, Yugo Legendr, who threatened all of Porce. An extreme Papist. Had any of you heard before finding yourselves down here?”
“No,” Clix answered for all of them. “Are some of them still after the cardinal tiles?”
“They were the tissue at hand, aye,” Rob explained. “My crew and I had to draw swords and do battle with his armies to protect Cardinal Second. We were successful, if you were curious. The world is not off its balance. There’s no risk of all this suddenly… well you’re aware.”
“I am not worried about them,” Clix said confidently. “The eight have given us this haven for a reason. No fiddling with the tiles will come to fruition. Sometimes,” he chuckled a little, but was careful to keep his plate balanced in his lap, “I think all the Porce up there just exists so Infinicilia can exist, so our home here can exist, so we can be safe.”
“That is a sustaining thought,” Ciamuse added, the first time she’d used her airy voice in more than a drop. Her lower jaw disappeared into her cloak, and those in the fountain waited silently for it to return. “We sustain the safety and the safety sustains us. To step beyond our safety is to challenge it, and it is a challenge we cannot rise to.”
“Wise words,” Clix whispered. “Thank you Ciamuse. I will dream of those words tonight I think. All of you should try to do the same.” A few nodded. A few stirred their food, real and stitched, around on their plates.
“There have been questing beasts as well,” Rob said, finding it a little too easy to talk himself up. (Blaine’s Note: These have been mentioned once before in the second of our four bathroom breaks, but they will be particularly relevant going forward. I will remind readers of the first break that questing beasts are creatures born of the struggle for progress and change. They exist to stop that change. When folk set out to do something great, and the forces of natural Porce prove insufficient to stop them, a beast is born that will challenge them on the precipice of their victory. No two are the same, and they always match their opponents in skill and power. I think of them like the one teacher that always hated you in high school.)
Vyra burst out laughing. She smacked the side of her seat and continued to chew through her fading chuckles. Her family stared at her, but she paid no attention. She looked only at Rob from across the feast laid out at their feet.
“It’ll take more than questing beasts to impress down here,” she told him once she’d calmed. “How big were your beasties? Haund-size? Tilehoof-size? The ones we’ve got in the Pipes are our gods.”
“That’s a gross exaggeration,” Clix said, aghast. “Our gods are the eight and we don’t disrespect them Vyra. You know that.” He was about to stand, but Ciamuse reached out a bony hand and held him down with the most delicate touch.
“What exactly are you exaggerating?” Rob asked her. She still had a piece of her smile left. He was sure to address her instead of Clix. It was her subject, her conversation. He didn’t need to go through anyone else to speak with her.
“The Fayeblons,” she teased. So, that was the Thipperon Argnaught alluded to. They think that hulking black thing scuttling across the ceiling is Thipperon of scales. Can it be true? If it is…
“You’re telling me that the Fayeblons exist? Here, in the Pipes?” Rob asked. His eyes darted about in search of snickers. All their faces were still and sincere. “The implications are not lost on me. If the Fayeblons exist, then…”
“The eight exist,” Clix finished. “It is true Captain Robin. I know the religions squabble above, but down here the facts are bald. The eight gods of Porce do exist, in one or more senses, and so too do their counterparts.”
“What proof is there?” the pirate demanded. He’d seen something black and great shifting overhead, but Porce had all sorts of monsters with no divinity to them. He’d kept some as pets over the rests. He’d seen friends turn into them using nothing but spite and colorful language.
“Our safety is our proof,” Clix offered. “I know in my heart, my beating heart so close to my mind, unlike you lightfolk, that Plowr watches over me. He lifted akers for me. He pressed his thumb into the stone, bending it like cloth, to give me this place to live. I don’t expect these personal revelations to convince you, but you will see soon enough. Three of the Fayeblons roam this region of the Pipes. You will see them and hear them when they pass by.”
“Which three?” This question hardly matters. No man could recognize them by sight alone. The Fayeblons are the questing beasts of the gods, and their forms would not be dictated by zoological science. They could look like dishware for all we know.
“Cloader of theft,” Boable answered.
“Roondid of struggle,” Sodikin added.
“And Thipperon of scales,” Vyra finished.
“What proof is there? Do the monsters out there make claim to those names?” Rob asked. Rein it in. There’s no need for anger. If it is the truth then it is the truth. It’s never done us any favors before. It’s all the Gross Truth anyway, and only the end is worse than that.
“We’re not serving proof tonight,” Clix said stiffly. His tone was perfect, flexible as the straw in a broom, but strong enough to sweep the issue under the rug. “We’re having gourd steaks and rabard ears. We can show you, we can arrange a party to escort you to your proof tomorrow, but for now we enjoy this meal the eight have undoubtedly provided and that we have undoubtedly reaped. What do you say Kilrobin?”
Rob flared one nostril and took an audible breath. He looked to Vyra. Her expression had suddenly become impenetrable. She was a strange one. Her petulance reared its head like a burrowing serpont, appearing to breathe its soapy streams into folk’s eyes capriciously and randomly. Rob smiled and nodded. He skewered a buttery piece of gourd steak, swirled it around in the brownish sauce, and shoved the giant bite into his mouth. This proved satisfactory to Clix. The meal resumed. Stitched vegetables and small animals with button eyes fell from jawbones once more.
We’ll be the judge of this proof. Still, if the eight gods exist then we need to consider these Fayeblons. What do we remember? These fifteen blighters are slow eaters; we have the time. Be clinical. We might have to write a book of our own on all of this once we get out of here.
Before we begin, do we want out? Is this place what we’ve always sought? No death. Infinite time to learn. Of course not. We would be at ease if it was. True death still exists here. All it takes is injury. Betrayal. Mistakes. These things are inevitable. There is no immortality here, just perilous longevity. Their safety is nothing; their peril is as constant as any above. We must return to our work. We must return to Porce, after learning what we can.
Now, the Fayeblons. What do we know? The legends are inconsistent, but the information in Strings of Beads and Custodial Interference is likely the most reliable. (Blaine’s Note: Strings of Beads and Custodial Interference are two texts from Rob’s private library. The former is an encyclopedia of bath beads and the latter is a history of the Custodians, who were supposedly direct descendants of the eight.)
The story of the Fayeblons assumes that the eight gods of Porce are either dead or faded. The gods created the questing beasts to maintain balance, but after their departure neglected to consider the power they left behind. That power was naturally countered by the birth of the mightiest questing beasts of all: the Fayeblons.
Unfortunately for them, these beasts had no opponents. The gods were ethereal, and thus had no bodies to confront if they did not want them. The Fayeblons’ ultimate battle could never be arranged. All their strength, enough to rival thin and tired gods, became pent up rage and madness.
There was one for each god, and assuming their battles never happened, they still exist somewhere. Their names…
Plowr of the harvest was challenged by Bolergard of dirt.
Swimmr of the seas was challenged by Offilee of drains
Howlr of enthusiasm was challenged by Zarage of noise.
Whispr of peace was challenged by Cloader of theft.
Dealr of accords was challenged by Roondid of struggle.
Greetr of greetings was challenged by Lorbira of goodbyes.
Scribblr of knowledge was challenged by Mourneek of lore.
Luminatr of balance was challenged by Thipperon of scales.
If we can trust what we’ve heard, we’ve seen one: Thipperon. That thing… it was on a different scale. It was bigger than Qliomatrok! Not as fat and heavy, it’s amazing the sea can even lift her, but still… We cannot defeat such a thing, even with bonepicking newly doused in underworld power.
We have to wait for now. We’ll see this proof of theirs on the morrow and go from there. This food is honestly quite good. Nothing compares to the spice stick, but that’s likely at the bottom of the Snyre, snapped in half. Everything we had in the galley probably turned the bottom into soup stock. The fish are likely feasting on my life’s work.
The Mop is gone. Our crew is gone, possibly dead. There’ll be no more late nights with Teal, arguing with each other and the stars whenever they swoop by. No more looking at Roary’s face and seeing our dear salty sister. If he’s gone then the Kilroy line ends down in the Pipes with us. Kilrogue’s rebellion gets snuffed. We’re spiraling again. The drain is death, the spiral a failure to control our mind. Refocus. These steaks are good. This sauce is divi… delectable.
It turned out Argnaught’s well-shaped room was nothing special. There were dozens of those chambers branching away from where the living sixteen farmed, ate, and spent most of their time. It could’ve supported a living forty, with one folk per cylinder. Rob was granted his own to call home. It would’ve been best to get one with no neighbors, the furthest in the row, but he took what they offered without complaint. His neighbor, just twenty foams away, was Phanthomas Leafsmokr: the dark-skinned lightfolk boy with the thin frame and the crystal earrings.
Rob assumed it was him who entered his chamber in the middle of the night and drifted down to his side with bonepicking. The Captain rested on a giant cushion covering the entire floor of the well-chamber, obviously knitted and stuffed by the living sixteen. The prosites didn’t seem to have cushions for anything, what with their bodies being fluid that might soak into cloth. Rob didn’t open his eyes, so the boy would think him duller than he was. He waited for a tap on the shoulder.
“Wake up you bilge-bwag,” Vyra hissed as she smacked him across the face. Rob opened his eyes. There was her smile, full of black-stained teeth so dark that they stood out even in the dimness.
“Was that really necessary?” he asked without lifting his head.
“I don’t give thoughts to necessary. I give them to fun. I was right. Smacking you was tanks of fun.”
“Any other reason you’re in my room?”
“You wanted proof of the eight didn’t you? Come on.” She hopped back up to the door and waved for him to come.
“Clix said we would venture out tomorrow.” He clasped his hands over his sternum, head still resting comfortably. How far would she go to be alone with him, out past the safety of Infinicilia’s borders?
“By the timing of Fwa’s setting, it’s already tomorrow,” she reasoned. “There’s nothing shifty about me Rob. I swear on a box of gumballs.” She disappeared down the passage. She’ll leave with or without us. We’d wager she’s out there almost every night to escape from the others. She always returns though. Why? She doesn’t seem like the sort to need the company. Rob rose and donned his boots and a second shirt. He took up his bonepicking sword as well.
The lower levels of Infinicilia were a labyrinth of curving hallways that sometimes took strange dips. In places the waves in the tile were so frequent it had to be climbed rather than walked. No matter how much Clix tried to make it a home it was still a city for prosites. Thanks to its winding, swirling, overlapping nature there were plenty of ways out for the two of them. Vyra dragged him down a tunnel directly under some of the city’s streets. In places the streets were glass, or perhaps crystal, and Rob could look up and see the skin of water and the occasional prosite rolling across it like a glob of jelly sliding down a window.
“Why are they so few in their own city?” Rob asked when one went by overhead. “And what stops the existing ones from ousting the living sixteen?”
“The prosites are the natural enemies of all other folk,” Vyra explained. “They’re selfish and bitter. It’s kept them from recovering after the Age of Tragedy. They often hate the sight of their own children. Besides, with our bonepicking they can’t do much against us.” She stopped for a moment and held a hand to her chest. She coughed: a cough that quickly grew violent. Rob stood back, out of reach of the puffs of black gas she emitted that drifted up and cracked the glass. She only regained composure after a rope of black drool, thick as tar, dripped from her mouth and burned a mark in the tile. She said nothing of it and resumed her pace.
Vyra’s spear was leaned against the tunnel’s exit. She picked it up and jumped down. Rob was more cautious, at first poking his head out of the circular exit and examining the surroundings. The exit was a sort of pipe sticking out of the blue bedrock of the city. There were a hundred other holes surrounding them. Down below, the ground looked like the same quagmire of bloody soil and bones Rob had first fallen into. The only other features were boulders from the city’s cracked base.
The distance down was enough to break his legs, or his arms if he attempted to land on the tip of his sword. If he could tame his new bonepicking however, he could drift down as softly as a feather. Alright. Time to test these new powers. Rob pushed his gravitation into his skullcap, but was careful not to overdo it and slam his head into the tunnel’s ceiling. He stepped out into the air.
His fall was slow, agonizingly slow. He made only one attempt to speed it up, but that sent him into a tumbling plummet as if his body had an appointment with the Dark Empty and it was willing to punch through the Pipes to get there on time. While he spun it was nearly impossible to focus gravitation into whatever bone was highest, but he managed by distributing the energy evenly and getting his boots toward the ground just in time to set them on the red iron-smelling mulch in front of Vyra.
“I’ll have the pants-down on this technique in no time,” he insisted with a smile, straightening the collar of his outer shirt.
“You’ve got an ego don’t you?” was her response. “If I keep practicing, and if Argnaught keeps practicing, you’ll never overtake us. Not in one eternity or the other.”
“You assume there’s no ceiling to the skill. There’s always a ceiling. At some point you won’t be able to pick any better than you could the day before,” he reasoned.
“Always a ceiling huh? How about outside Porce? You think the Dark Empty has a ceiling?” She turned and started walking again, leading him away from the city and toward the skeleton of something so large that they would be crossing one of its forelimbs as a bridge over a bloody creek.
“The comparison is far from apt,” Rob argued. “One is a skill and the other is the Dark pissing Empty.” He wobbled as they crossed the bone bridge, a wobble caused by his bonepicking balance being far too precise. Vyra turned and smiled at him. She leaned to the left, tilting the entire bridge. Rob countered her by leaning his gravitation the other way. Vyra hopped around to face him and then slapped her hands against her knees, first one and then the other. The bridge rocked with her.
“Eheheheh!” she cackled. Rob wasn’t amused, but he did see a chance to practice. He did his best to stabilize the bridge, but the forces within each bone were difficult to leash. The bridge bounced up and down, back and forth, clicking and clacking against the sides of its joint. Eventually it dislodged and rolled along the length of the chasm, forcing them to turn to the side and run backward like lumber-folk on floating logs.
Once Vyra realized he could handle the rolling she made it more difficult by pushing her force down, stopping the bone suddenly and flinging him off the side. Rob spun his body, tapping the underside of the bone with the sheath of his sword and using it as a swivel point for his own force. He swung under it, came up on the opposite side, and found footing once again. Incredible. Fully circling a bridge without falling. We know that one’s not possible up top. How many times did we try?
“Are we done playing?” he asked, careful to keep the harshness out of his voice. It was just a question.
“Why would we ever be done playing?” she asked in return, but she did turn, flip her braided knotted hair in his direction, and step off the bridge. They walked straight through a set of the creature’s ribs and into a new sort of ruin. Rob spotted more towers like those of Infinicilia, but these had degraded. They were covered in rust or whitish-green corrosion. Many were broken and none of them moved. Judging by their short height they were at least a third buried under the gory detritus of the Pipes.
“The prosites haven’t kept this up. Why?”
“I told you there aren’t that many. It takes all their effort just to keep Infinicilia from falling to rot. We live in the most pristine place under this side of the World Floor. Slick Rin is right above us, so we think the water flowing in its drain washes Infinicilia endlessly.”
“The way Clix talks, you would think it was the wet kisses of Plowr himself.”
“Clix would never admit, he thinks they’ve gone all ghosty, but the eight gods of Porce are long dead. As close to dead as gods can be anyway.”
“Then where are you taking me? Do you have the bones of a god to show off?”
“Something like that,” she said, but she stopped. She held out her hand so Rob would do the same. Something above them shifted, freeing a light drizzle of blood. Something giant and black, but decorated with bands of gold both yellow and white, struck the crusty corroded top of one of the towers. It buckled under the pressure and broke, but the thing simply shifted to another tower to steady itself. Rob moved to draw his blade, but Vyra grabbed his hand and pushed it back down with stunning strength. “Wait a moment,” she whispered. “She probably just wants to talk. She gets lonely, and she’s probably noticed your sparkling new face.”
Rob did as he was told. A dozen more decorated things, which he now guessed were limbs, clasped the towers around them and lowered the body they connected to until it was directly above the two wanderers. The Captain stood up straight despite his instincts to lunge under the nearest rock. This was the creature they had seen earlier. This was what the living sixteen claimed was Thipperon of balance: Fayeblon, questing beast to the dead god Luminatr.
The Captain was a man of science, of evidence pried from its discoverer’s hands and examined under magnifying lenses of various tint and thickness. He had eight volumes in various sciences published under pseudonyms across Porce, mostly because nobody trusted a pirate to be so rigorous in his experimentation. To him any secret of the world was the one that could unlock all of its secrets, each grain of sand the secret to the tides of its beach. He devoured knowledge, but always washed it thoroughly and checked it for grit, yet he was never closer to believing something at first sight than when he laid eyes upon the entirety of Thipperon.
She was a gangly monstrosity: 140 foams tall and 500 long. She bore eleven sets of limbs that slowly transformed from metal-clawed hands to bibcraw-like feet along her length. Her tail was lined with innumerable frills, each one perhaps a stunted limb itself, and they all clung to whatever structure it wrapped around. Where her natural armor plating ended and where her wagon-sized jewelry began, Rob had no clue.
The jewelry itself mesmerized the pirate; he was astonished to not have noticed it before. Diamond chains hung from hooks and nodules in her black flesh, holding up shimmering crystal closets with open doors, flaunting shelves and shelves of other colorful gems inside. Some had clockwork so foreign that Rob assumed bath bead magic moved the opalescent gears. In truth the machined baubles were crafted by the liquid hands of ancient prosites. The result: animated assemblages of gems and precious metals that flew between her other decorations like birds.
Thipperon’s long and fleshy neck lowered to their level, flanked by her largest set of hands. The Captain could not recognize eyes, just filigree upon her white gold helm that resembled pupils, an iris, and a feminine set of lashes. If we plucked just one of those it would make a fine whip; it could take the skin from a man’s back like a sheet of topa off its roll.
The Fayeblon had an under bite full of jutting teeth that covered her upper lip. Each was the size of Rob’s torso and bore scrimshaw markings from countless generations of damned souls stuffed into the Pipes. She opened her mouth, but there was nothing to exhale. Questing beasts were not truly alive, they were merely purpose wrapped in flesh, and so they did not have the breath of folk or animals, not even the wind-whispering of trees, grass, and moss. They were like the mirror images in the Reflecting Path, existing as hangers-on to the loose threads of soul.
“Novusirae increx collecrel?” Thipperon gurgled, her voice like glass pellets hailing into a frothy sea. She paused, gathering Rob’s reaction. He did not understand her Coproglossi, so she tried all the other tongues of folk. She had many more, many older, but the lightfolk were too small and warm to hold such powerful words in their breast. “Unqua nouveau danssa collequay? Brynd haede ni dwork-poss? A new one in its collection?”
“Are you referring to me?” Captain Rob asked. He kept expecting a blast of hot breath, but it was like speaking to a statue or one of Metal Block’s hanging sheets of dead and dry bropato.
“It speaks the youngest word,” Thipperon noted. “It is adorable, and very furry. What is in its mouth?” The Fayeblon reached a giant claw forward. Rob held his ground. The silver tip touched his chin. He let his mouth open so the skin would not break. His emerald teeth glistened with half the light of her worst ornaments. “Lovely teeth.”
“You are the very image of the word lovely,” Rob managed to say. He wasn’t sure if such a thick coat of butter could stick to a monster like her, but there would be no chance of surviving any anger on Thipperon’s part.
“Thipperon, this furry adorable it is Captain Rob. He needs some convincing about the eight, so I’m taking him to the graves of the first.” Rob shot her a glance. Graves of the first? First what?
“Am I not proof enough?” the monster asked, with the closest tone she had to syrup. She lifted her head some and ran the tips of her claws along her jewelry, creating a cascade of tinkling noise. She swung her jewel-closets back and forth like locks of flowing blonde hair.
“I hope you will forgive me,” Rob said. He needed to keep himself in the conversation, keep himself relevant and steady, lest he be batted back and forth between two giggling predators. Thipperon had no equal, but there was no doubting her toying feminine nature; he’d dealt with it enough in the women he tended to find himself wrapped in bedsheets with. “I have a condition where my mind is always in need of more evidence. I have a bottomless stomach for certainty.”
“I could not hold a grudge against such a tiny thing as it,” Thipperon cooed. She shifted back down, her body groaning, and scratched his head with the very tip of a claw. If she sneezed she would split his head down the middle. “Of all folk, those of the light are the cutest. Your spirits are so delicate and your hands so pink. You all seem to know each other as well; your parties and your ideas are so incestuous! I could eat it up.” Rob swallowed. “Don’t worry, we questing beasts do not eat. I keep pets instead, and I’m not in need of another of you.”
“Another?” Rob asked. Thipperon turned her head and shoulder, bringing one of the crystal closets swinging close to Rob and Vyra. Its door was shut, but he could make out a figure within its paneling. Thipperon reached to the front of it with a claw tip and depressed a golden handle. The door swung open and revealed its contents.
A girl. She couldn’t have been older than Alast, possibly a rest younger even. She draped herself across a cushioned seat, keeping her head up with a stack of swollen pillows. Shimmering as it was, the closet seemed like a prison cell. It had no true windows, and there was nothing to occupy her time: no storybooks, no paints and canvas, no musical instruments.
“Hello,” Rob greeted her. She smiled back, but said nothing. She had wavy blonde hair brushed to perfection. Her face was soft, like someone’s most ticklish spot. In fact, she looked to Rob like the slightest touch would send her into a fit of giggles. She wore a simple robe of green, nearly as translucent as the crystal. Were this a more normal situation Rob would’ve averted his eyes out of respect. The folk of upper Porce only dressed that way immediately before or after bathing.
“It has forgotten your words,” Thipperon said. She closed the door and hid the girl from sight once more. “I’ve had it a very long time. It’s the perfect little charm. Never makes a peep and never hurts a soul.” Rob remembered that none aged in the Pipes. What’s a long time to a Fayeblon? Hundreds of rests we imagine. She’s been in that box since the Age of Tragedy.
“What is her name?” the pirate asked.
“Chewlry Bubblr,” Vyra answered stiffly before the Fayeblon had a chance.
“Was that it?” Thipperon wondered aloud, tapping her teeth with a claw. “I suppose it would know better than I. I’ve caught it talking to her when I sleep. Nearly squished it like a bug.”
“Bad Vyra,” Rob said with a wag of his finger. Her gaze narrowed. “I guess Clix’s collection is incomplete,” he said a little quieter, before turning back to the Fayeblon. “It is wonderful to meet you Thipperon. I hope this isn’t the last we see of each other.”
“It won’t be,” the monster assured. “It will find I am the pinnacle of civilization in all Porce and Pipe. None brighter in beauty or mind. It will be drawn to me, and I will accommodate its admiration. For now I must go. Tonight I have a caller.” With that as goodbye, Thipperon’s limbs lifted away from the rusted pillars one by one and made their way back up to the ceiling. Rob watched her go, eventually blending in with the detritus of the ceiling, jewelry matched to bleached bones and black hunder bug legs blending with the Fith.
He suppressed a shudder, but could not hold back a tiny jump when Vyra suddenly grabbed his shoulder. She cackled in response and then resumed walking, waving him forward through the prosite ruins. Rob ordered the list of questions in his head, but the process was interrupted by more memories of his crew, of Alast in particular.
That’s why we’re thinking of that damn curious kid. We feel as he must have those washes ago, when we found him out in the gravel, clinging to Cardinal Second like a lizdrop to a wet wall. He was all questions and we were half ire and half lies. Now we’ve gone and wound up in the same situation; he climbed down to his and we fell into ours. We’re actually the less graceful of the two. If we ever see him again we should apologize. A stiff nod in his direction should suffice.
“Thipperon mentioned she had a caller,” Rob said as they climbed a loose hill of bodies and brown mold blooming into wet noodle-like stalks. “What sort of thing calls after a Fayeblon?”
“Another Fayeblon of course,” she answered. “We told you there were three living around here: her, Roondid of struggle, and Cloader of theft. Cloader’s had a blush for her since before the living sixteen was the living five.”
“Is Cloader as agreeable?”
“No. He doesn’t bother speaking to us; he only has eyes for other Fayeblons and the god adversary he’ll never meet. He has filled that hole in his life with wooing Thipperon and stealing presents for her. Much of what adorns her came from him.”
“Has she rewarded him with… a kiss?” He grimaced at the thought of her giant black lips and uneven teeth slobbering across the cheek of something just as ancient and ugly. “Or something a little more stomach-turning?”
“She plays the flirt,” Vyra said with a smile, “but never gives in. Rests and rests of effort, yet they’ve never shared an embrace or a night together. He’s a sad fool really. She’ll never love him. The closest soul to her heart is Chewlry’s, literally and poetically.”
“In short, you’re warning me not to try flattery with Mr. Cloader of theft?”
“Yes. He’ll step on you if you get in his way. And don’t flash anything shiny his way or he’ll take it from you to give to her. With hands the size of his, taking likely means you’ll be squished into Rob-flavored ooze.”
“Right. Now that’s cleared up… Are you going to tell me what the graves of the first are?”
“Not until we get there,” was her only reply. They were silent after that for another drop; they walked most of the way, but occasionally they had to cross large gaps, filled with more bloody waterfalls, by the power of bonepicking leaps. Eventually they came to a ridge where all the blood had crystallized upon the bones, pink and vibrant. “These are the graves of the first,” she said once they were atop the ridge, looking down into a shallow fan-shaped valley. At the sight of it Rob’s heart felt tender, as if each beat was a child slapping itself in the face, trying to slap their tears away.
Two structures stood at the far end of the valley. They were stone, and thicker than any folk-built structure he’d ever seen aside from the tower of Slick Rin Cliff. Even from that distance he could tell each slab had no cracks and no wear. They were as perfect as the day they were built, or perhaps formed.
These twin structures did indeed resemble gravestones, but they were a hundred other things as well, many of which Rob, a very educated man, could not identify. They were temples without spaces for worship. They were beacons of stillness, all air flow and smell absent around them. When it rained blood the red simply curved out of the way of the valley, as if it was encased in a glass dome. There were no bones or mold anywhere in its soil, just the dark brown of Porce’s foundational minerals.
Each held a portrait of polished crystal, again as tall as a stack of buildings. The nature of these faces was unclear, but a few details could be discerned. One was female and the other male. The crystal face of the male was darkest purple while the female was vibrant orange. She faced him, but he stared off into the distance. His face was round, blunt, and harsh while hers was sharp, bulb-cheeked, and framed by glowing waving rays of hair.
Whatever these entities had been in life, Rob did not doubt they were powerful and he did not doubt they were in fact buried there in front of the monolithic stones. In the fields in front of the graves grew a rainbow of crystals of all sizes, colors, and shapes. Ruby spears fanned out like explosions. Swells of sapphire cascaded over golden boulders. Emerald trees fought for space with diamond blooms.
Energy crackled between the peaks of the gems, again in all the colors of light through fauce sprays, both frigid and scalding. The pirate observed red lightning not unlike that beating in the hearts of ekapads and crawling across their fur. He saw the glow of bath beads. Yes, clearly, every one of these stones was a bath bead. The biggest that had ever existed. It could be a quarry of power and mystery so dense and so deep that it would take all of time to mine it out and all of a second time to understand it.
Among the lightning and magic he saw something else, foaming and rolling in the seams of the jewels. A familiar vapor. One he had seen only once in his life but could never forget. He was young. Yugo was young. They were out picking groutberries with the Dinnr twins when the ground opened up. Instead of swallowing them it issued a cloying blanket of gas that washed over them both. It turned their bones to crystal, crystal that had grown into Yugo’s mind, driving him mad and turned him to gravefolk. Crystal that now grew inside Rob, growing sharper all the time, threatening his organs like fanged parasites. Two spikes under his upper lip, one already visible on a shoulder, and one close to a lung.
It had come from the graves of the first. It appeared to be a byproduct of the entities buried there, like the bath beads themselves and the rest of the overflowing energies. He’d been brought to the lands of his illness, which was not unlike being dragged into the grave, a grave with an inevitability he’d always feared. Rob’s heart thundered now, but it felt as tender as before. He dropped to his knees. Vyra saw his weakness. He expected laughter.
She put one hand on his shoulder and stared into his eyes. She didn’t smile her black smile. She knew about his emerald innards and she knew about Argnaught. She’d taken him there on purpose, both to reveal the source of his ailment and prove to him the existence of gods in Porce.
That is what she had done. Long had Rob had his own theories about the origin of bath beads. He’d thought them spiritual emissions, the dew from folk imagination, examples of their power in Porce, albeit unrefined. They had not been popular theories. Most men and women of science attributed the existence of the magic stones to the deposition of residual godly power. Here they were, growing out of the graves of two entities that could’ve been almost anything, but certainly were not folk.
They had to be gods. Though Rob hadn’t been a believer he knew their lore. He’d seen countless interpretations of their various faces and forms across books, ceilings, tapestries, tales, and even the grain or sponge-stuffed toys of babes. These two faces did not belong to any of the eight. They did not belong to Plowr, Swimmr, Luminatr, Dealr, Greetr, Howlr, Whispr, or Scribblr. Were these two the gods of the Pipes? Had they never set their influence upon the world above?
“Who are they?” Rob asked, his voice barely making it out of his throat. It took incredible effort to stand; he used bonepicking to take the edge from his fatigue.
“I’ll let the evidence continue to speak for itself,” she said soundly. “If you walk down there, near their graves, you will come to understand some of their story. I have to warn you. This is not a place that is easy for folk to handle. Our minds are lesser than theirs. Once you move forward you should not speak. That would be comparing your ideas to theirs, and yours will be obliterated along with your spirit if you do.”
“You speak as if they still live.”
“They are dead, but a god’s death is not the same as ours. They never fully go away. They don’t quite think, and they don’t quite act, but they are still forces of nature and… perhaps un-nature as well.”
“Will you be joining me?”
“I will walk amongst the graves, but not with you. I come here to remind myself there are bigger things. It makes me feel small and soft. You’d ruin it. I will start on the purple side and move to orange. You go in reverse. We’ll cross each other in the middle, without speaking, and then return to this spot when we are finished. That should give us enough time to get back before Clix is any the wiser.”
“Is this not the evidence he would’ve chosen for me?”
“Maybe, but he’d never let you go down there. Thinks it’s disrespectful. Anything fun is like that with him. One more rule: don’t touch anything. Plenty of those beads would instantly kill you. To touch one of the graves itself is to erase yourself from ever having existed.”
“No poking anything. Fine. Let’s go…” Rob took a few steps forward. “Thank you by the way,” he threw over his shoulder. He thought he heard a wisp of gas escape her mouth, perhaps the result of a smile. He heard her walk off in the opposite direction. We asked for it, so we can stand here like dipping birds or claim the knowledge. Onward Kilrobin. We’re from a Custodian after all; it’s our job to mop up after the gods.
Rob descended the steep ridge, noticing that any bones that tumbled down with him were instantly powdered when they got too close. The graves loomed above him as he drew nearer and began to make out the exact details of their bases. He saw a hundred doorways, all for beings and beasts bigger than him, but they were all completely sealed. He wondered if the graves had been built long before the death of these two gods and used as centers for a civilization. He wondered if they were unceremoniously booted from their homes to make way for divine corpses, if their lives simply had no purpose without the beings they had worshipped.
There was a path, as Vyra said, between the front of the stones and the bath bead beds. It was more than wide enough to walk without worry of stumbling into either side. From his starting position it seemed the walk would take nearly a third of a drop, but as soon as he was on the path he lost all sense of time. He tried to imagine the movement of a dropglass, but every bit of time that fell from it went right back up. He couldn’t even count right; the numbers phased through each other like phantoms.
The orange of the female grave’s crystal inlay was to his right, but some of its light reflected off the bath beads to his left. It was a light of its own sort, as it did not dart across his vision in rays or scatter upon the gems. It was simply in the air, warming it. Every breath he took felt alive, like there were fuzzy tidywings flying about in his lungs searching for flowers to sip from.
Rob’s pace slowed. He looked down. The path was as clear as ever, but his mind continuously assumed he waded through thick bushes at least as high as his waist. He put out his hands to push aside hanging vines and fruits that weren’t there. There was dew upon his skin, but there wasn’t. The light of the florent was in his eyes, but it wasn’t. There was only one way forward, yet he stumbled about drunkenly and quickly lost his sense of direction.
This is a creative force. It wants to plant seeds. It wants to nurture them, but in death it mostly dreams about the power it had. There is something deep and warm here; We are at the bottom of a well of red flesh, swimming in amber nutrients, looking up at this, the light of body heat. We can hear her heartbeat, except she has no heart. She is the beat. She is life.
Vyra said he would come to understand, and she had not lied. Rob stopped when a definite piece of knowledge planted itself in his mind. It flowered there, coloring everything he had ever known with its pollen. This was not like the Gross Truth, which had to be earned, which had to be grappled with and could not be bested by its understanding. This new fact was simply gifted to him, by something he had never met but that insisted it was his best friend, his lover, and even his mother. It was the name of a god, and even the selfish incestuous parts of her method were beyond reproach.
Hesprid. You are not of the eight. The life in the air shuddered. The implied bugs in his lungs fluttered about madly and giddily. Rob fell to his knees. He rubbed his face in the gray dirt of the curved path. He spread his fingers in it, swinging his arms and making wave patterns in the soil, making the shape of a winged emissary of the gods, of a lumasol. Giant fingers of warmth nudged the undersides of his limbs, encouraging him to spread wider, to make the design in the ground that much more beautiful.
It fanned out on its own in ripples, widening the wings he’d created until they touched the edges of the bead bed and the grave. They continued to grow, losing the shape until they were just waves traveling out from the pirate’s body, lapping at the sides of the path like water. What are you? The energies about him answered clearly, but his mind and spirit could only discern so much of the answer.
You were… before the eight! These are the graves of the first because you were the first gods of Porce. Did you create it? No. The old giants did, but they were nothing. This place was nothing to them. You made it your world. You came to it, abandoned in the Dark Empty, and you made life. Hesprid. We hate the idea of gods. We hate you, but we love you. We love you because you have planted this love in us and it cannot be extracted.
The other one… Who is the other one? He’ll tell us. We see. The eight? Your children! You are the mother to the eight gods of Porce! They were born from your womb, which is your heart, which is your spirit. They buried you here when you passed, but because your love lives on in all of us… you are never truly gone. That’s a rather sweet arrangement you’ve created. In all your love, purely by coincidence, you’ve wound up immortal.
The waves stopped. Rob was forced to hold his breath. The points on his emerald bones seemed to sharpen within. The tidywings now had stingers. Hesprid was a god of life, but she was not without anger. He had insulted her by insinuating all of her work was about her, and not her beautiful, radiant, necessary children. He had not even spoken. His mere thoughts had brought this instinctual hostility. She was dead; she was not thinking. This was the ethereal emotion of a god, and if he’d thought what he’d thought with a touch more sincerity he would’ve died on the spot.
Captain Rob rose back to his feet. The dirt was still. The grave and the bath beads still sang and shined, but he was not part of it anymore. It was the river and he was a stone in its way. Rob stopped himself from thinking anything else about Hesprid and marched forward along the path. His mind only crept out of its shell once he was past her stone and in the empty expanse between the two graves.
Vyra, coming from the deep purple trail of the other god, met him in the middle. They stood, bubbles apart, and had a conversation by eyes alone. Yes, he had learned the name of one of the first gods of Porce. Yes, he understood the parts of her nature that he could. Yes, it was sufficient proof. Yes, he was sorry for doubting her. Yes, she was clearly the most sensible of the living sixteen. Yes, it was the two of them against the rest.
He wanted her to smile, he sensed that she wanted to as well, but she did not. She had just passed through the other path, and hope and joy were not allowed there. It would take her a short while to grow them back, or the tiniest of moments in Hesprid’s light. Rob wanted to grab her, to hold her despite the acid in her mouth, but he restrained himself. He was still alone against the looming mountains of ancient history. They were merely crossing paths. Vyra moved past him and kept walking. Rob lingered for a moment, and then did the same.
The masculine face upon the second grave offered the antithesis of Hesprid’s light. Its energies did not playfully invade his mind and body. They hung about, oppressive and heavy like a black sheet of bropato, rotted nearly to liquid. The pirate’s footsteps grew heavy. His shoulders sagged. He once again lost his way on the straight path, between stone and bead, but this time he lost any sense of which way was up.
Everything felt like it was sinking: the ground, his spirit, the cultures of all folks, the emotions of all animals… He again fell to his knees, shuffling forward on them like a man cut from his feet. His vision grew dark. Everything was shadow, shadow solemnly cursing the objects that cast it into existence.
This god did not have the anger of Hesprid, but he was relentless. He was without mercy in both life and death. He was the assertion that life itself was the state of wrongness. In his shadow every thought was torture, every philosophy a tragedy. Rob’s mind was darkened by it, undoing some of the power of Hesprid over his memories. In this dark warping he was allowed to understand something: the name of this god. The name of a god who would stop at nothing to see that the very idea of names never came about again.
Qorcneas. You are the other of the first. The one awaiting his grave since existence began. This disturbs you. All of it. You darken Porce because you want it to disappear. You want everything to disappear, and it’s not because of the Gross Truth. That couldn’t matter to you less. It’s all worse to you than that. You want peace. You want quiet. Life is not compatible. Time is almost as contemptible.
The pirate’s knees still dragged in the loose dirt, but they left no marks. He wasn’t strong enough to actually disturb Qorcneas’ peace. The god did not engage with him, acknowledge him, or even notice him. Rob tried to rise to his feet with bonepicking, but the combat art seemed to fail him completely. Nothing he would ever be capable of could lift the dark cloud of Qorcneas’ dead slumber.
We can think what we like here as long as we don’t actually say it. This one doesn’t care. He did not fill Porce with life. He would’ve ended it if he could. What stopped him? He can’t be the father of the eight. He would not willingly create the noise of life. We’ve never been so sure of anything. So where did they come from? Who did Hesprid share her power and bed with? Why are these opposed forces buried side by side? Those answers aren’t here. The graves bear only names.
Rob neared the end of the path, not by going forward, but by continuously moving away from the grave and the beads. That was the only way to get through the narrow straight labyrinth. The end of it was not visible, that part of his vision had not cleared yet, but he sensed its approach. He was on his elbows as well as his knees now, head hanging low enough to see an encrusting of bath beads at the seam of Qorcneas’ stone where it met the ground.
Things still swelled and shrank unnaturally in his eyes, making everything look like a skin of oil on an ancient pond. Still, there was something on those violet beads, something strange. Rob stopped. A trick perhaps. Something to get him to touch the grave, to succumb to its peace and cease to exist.
“Crilex iserae,” the thing called to him. A rope of drool fell from Rob’s mouth and vanished before it hit the dirt. “Come here,” it repeated in Wide Porcian. Rob nearly spoke. His mind was heavy, flopping back and forth with every movement like a bag of black curdled cream. The drool helped choke back the words and save his life. Still, he crawled, and regardless of his intent it wound up taking him closer to the strange thing spread across the surface of the beads like a paste of hard tack and bile.
“I know you cannot speak,” it said, “so I will anticipate you.” Rob couldn’t reach his eyes to rub them. He leaned in, just aware enough to close his mouth and keep it that way despite his loose muscles. That thing, if it was there, was a prosite. Its color was much fouler than the others he’d seen. Prosites usually had a clarity or a brightness to them: blues, greens, whites, and grays mostly, but even pink, red, and yellow were more common than this one’s amber urine-like sheen.
It had one small eye near the top right section of its mass, which was spread thin over the skin of the crystal. Its body bubbled like soda water. It had a distinct mouth, marked by rolling rows of translucent curved needle teeth, another unusual feature for a gelatinous prosite.
“I can speak,” it continued, “and touch the stone. Qorcneas and I understand each other. What are your questions? You’re looking very pale, so I won’t waste your time. I am indeed a prosite, of a most ancient strain. My name is Fixadilaran Bocculum, but your short tongue can call me Fixadil.
We can help each other lightfolk. The others don’t have the ambition to accept my offer, but I see ambition in you. Perhaps enough to… yes. Thievery. You are ambitious. Allow me to tease you. There is a way out of the Pipes. A way back to the tile of Porce. They won’t tell you because they are too frightened. Time is short, thief. If you wish to return to your friends and family, to the wealth I’m certain you have, meet me in the deepest drain of Infinicilia, where the city moans.”
It’s slime; it has no reason to speak the truth. In all our rests we’ve never met an honest prosite. We’re not even certain it’s there. ‘Fixadil’ could be an illusion. We need to leave. We’re choking on all this drool.
Rob turned away from the possible hallucination only to see a pair of booted feet. His gaze moved up, an extraordinarily difficult feat, and found the hollow eyes of a gravefolk. Past the nearly impenetrable air of depression and stillness he sensed something stern in their skull. It was Sodikin Magleetr. He scrambled to the side, limbs flailing, and found two more pairs of boots: Lemny Freshr and Jermy Stermr. Some of the living sixteen had been sent to reclaim him. They hadn’t been in the path as long as the Captain, and they had no flesh to drag, so he was powerless against them.
The gravefolk grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him like a rain-drenched sheet. They dragged him to the end of Qorcneas’ grave and out of the gods’ influence. His head lolled from the draining force and his tongue was swollen by legends it couldn’t articulate. His vision was still warped; he had to wait and recover. He was taken up the ridge outside the graves, feet dragging in the dirt as it turned back to browned blood and bone.
They brought him face to face with Clix Mousr, holding him low enough that the pirate and the tilefolk saw eye to eye. Something fierce burned in the man’s irises. His mouth was on the edge of a snarl and his clawed hands were stuck as fists, even as he rested one of them on Rob’s shoulder, scratching the lobe of his ear. They were not in the graves. Clix could speak.
“You were impatient Robin. I assume it was your eyes for Vyra that blinded you to everything else, to the warnings around this place. We are the living seventeen now, and we are as respectful and reverent as ever. You will learn, and then you will apologize.”
Tales of the Living Sixteen: Fwa Nippr
The ceiling of Porce was no proper place for folk. The florent lit the entire world, fed all its plants, and gave all the clocks something to tick by. Its light and heat were unfathomably deep, and the closer one came to it the more apparent the fact was. There was a point around the radiant rectangle where the fact went from painfully apparent to lethal. This was where the Brighted Gates were built.
Wood, topa, and bropato would have burst into flame. Glass and weak metals would have melted. The gates had to be made from the toughest material known to exist: sparkle-rock. Sparkle-rock came from deep within the toils, where the magic of bath beads had no room to crystallize. It had to become dormant within the white monoliths of Porce, only to be extracted by the mightiest tilefolk and bergfolk miners.
It had to be shipped up the sides of the world into the Brighted Plains. Work could only be done at night, for if anyone hung about when the florent brought day they would be blasted to ash in a wink. Even in darkness the plains held much of the florent’s heat, burning the feet of the workers so intensely, even through three pairs of boots, that their children were born with feet calloused to slippers. It took generations to build a barrier around the entire florent; it took so long that most forgot why it was built, only remembering that the gods had willed it. That was the end of the Age of Tragedy, when the gods were settling into their graves and pulling the tile dust over their shoulders like quilts.
Fwa Nippr didn’t find herself outside those gates until much later. Back then her bones were as chalky and white as any other gravefolk. Over one shoulder she carried a large canteen. She had no use for water; it had been converted into something like a giant locket. Inside she had a small pile of papers: legal documents and a few drawings of a face. The face was a young man, a boy really, someone who had wandered into the lands surrounding the Brighted Gates and used a military campaign as his excuse to do so.
Fwa was to find him, her reward being the unending gratitude of a close personal friend who still had her flesh, who wanted to use it when she held her child once more. It was night outside the gates, but there was still plenty of light. The gates themselves shone in the distance thanks to what they’d absorbed during the day and the countless days before it.
The stars flew in great numbers across the sky, completing great gliding circles as they eyed the World Floor and World Ceiling. They would not bother Fwa, unlike the hundreds of acolytes kneeling outside the gates, directly in her path. Most of them were lightfolk. Their eyes were brighted, the irises glowing intensely because they’d stared into the florent for far too long, likely trying to see the frolicking phantoms of their lost loved ones.
Fwa stepped carefully through rows of the brighted acolytes. She wasn’t there to disrupt their worship. She wasn’t there to cause trouble, simply to ascertain the fate of the young man. Near the front row a hand shot out and grabbed her ankle bones. Fwa stopped. She was a decent bonepicker, but she couldn’t fight all of them. She looked down. The hand’s owner kept their face cast down toward the ground, which seeped heat like bread fresh from a brick oven. Their hair was covered by a hood.
“Where are you going, woman of the bone?” the acolyte asked, voice crackling like dry reeds.
“It’s none of your business,” she told the clenched hand. “Let go of me.”
“You haven’t slowed as you approach the gates,” their voice went on, “which implies you intend to pass right through.”
“If paradise is in those lights then so is my father’s spirit,” Fwa threatened. “If he sees you handling my leg without his blessing he’ll march out of the light and drop you into a toil.” The hand slowly let go and retracted into its sleeve. Fwa moved forward while she had the chance.
In truth she didn’t believe anyone was in there. There couldn’t be celebrations inside the florent; it was just too hot. Scrub-throat would steam right out of its goblet. Food would be blackened through and through. There could be no true celebration without food, as evidenced by the fact that she hadn’t felt happiness since her last day with a tongue, when she’d bitten into a spiced meatloaf that contained a poisonous hunder bug.
The gates drew closer. It was bound to be much hotter past them, so she wouldn’t get another chance to look at her quarry’s face. She stopped and pulled one of the sketches out of the canteen. His charcoal eyes were irritated. His lips pouted. She hadn’t known the child well, but he looked like an ingrate. Still, his mother was once a bedmate of Fwa’s, and there was much between them still: piles of gooey poetry, sweet nothings, and slightly acidic somethings.
He was last seen around that section of the gates. The army he’d joined had marched all along the barrier, looking for signs of escaping ghouls of light that had been reported. Nonsense. Sometimes the florent threw off a blob of brighted slag; that was all. It had been enough of a call to adventure to convince him to run from his mother and become a thug in exchange for coin and slaps on the back from manly figures he’d never actually needed in his life. Fwa hoped to find him alive, if only to grab him by the earlobe with her sharp finger bones and drag him back to his mother.
She stowed his whining face away and continued until the brighted gates were a foam away. The gates were composed of metal mesh between columns of sparkle-rock; there was no obvious way inside separate from climbing and vaulting over. Fwa noticed several brighted skulls, their bones glistening with the florent’s light just as much as the gates themselves and the eyes of the acolytes. The skulls were set into the stone, only slighter higher than her stare.
“Do you live?” She asked the nearest one. There was no answer. That didn’t mean much. They might’ve been asleep. They might’ve lost all interest in talking to other folk. Fwa had lost her capacity for joy, but not for dignity. If the day came when she was just a skull being kicked about by children or adorning a mantel she would find a way to split herself and end it.
She was forced to consider whether or not she wished for death. This was not a simple favor, even for an old bed-flame. The Brighted Plains’ oppressive heat created a wasteland. Only the mad went this far, and many never came back. The ingrate was likely ash in the wind already. She still had a body with no skin to burn, so she had her utility. She had her dignity.
Fwa pushed her fingers through the small holes in the shining metal mesh and climbed. She didn’t bother to use bonepicking. Her feet raised clouds of gray dust when she dropped down on the other side. There were piles of it pushed up against the gates like windblown sand. Here and there items stuck out, things adventurers had brought with them that had proven resilient: corroded weapons, fired clay flasks, and the occasional skeleton of a steed. Many of the treasures were brighted, glowing gold and yellow, shining through the ash they were buried in like lamps through fog.
When the florent’s light returned it would blast the plains with its full force. No buildings could stand. There were no structures at all as far as she could see, but she moved forward anyway. Once she stopped seeing bones she’d know it was the place where the heat became too much even for them. If that happened she would turn back. The ingrate child was lightfolk, but he could have made it that far during the night.
Fwa knew it was extremely hot; there wasn’t a single bug buzzing about. The metal of her canteen blackened its cloth straps until they snapped. She left the item behind. She took off her shirt and pants, not bothering to wear underthings since the loss of her voluptuous silhouette. She was simply bones now, marching through the kiln where Porce fired its hopes and dawns.
A drop later something appeared in the distance: a tiny bump against the endless great swell of the florent itself. Fwa instinctively moved towards it. Surely that’s what the boy would’ve done.
From behind it didn’t look like much: a simple gray protuberance blasted to bubbling glass by the florentshine. Strands of it extended back the way she’d come, forever looking like rays of light bending around the object’s sides. It was oval in shape, with its base now a corroded lump buried in piles of ash. Fwa circled around to the front of it.
A mirror, tall enough for beings four times her size. While its frame was as scarred as the base and back, the glass itself was flawless. It was incredibly strange. Deep. Dim. It reflected everything behind the gravefolk woman, but not her. The mirror was empty. Reflections were never supposed to abandon their posts. Their eye-to-eye moments were all they lived for, glances into actuality and substance.
“Where have you gone?” Fwa asked the glass. “I am not dead yet. I’m right here. I’m on a mission, and you’ve abandoned your post. Where have you gone!?” She shouted the question the second time, her voice carrying across the wastes until the heat forced it down into the ash.
“Who are you yelling at?” the mirror asked in a woman’s voice. Fwa’s teeth clacked together. It couldn’t be the heat; she had no brain to be addled by it.
“Some kind of smart mirror… must be a bath bead on you somewhere,” the skeleton guessed. “I hope you didn’t go and do anything to my reflection. She’s beautiful, and she’s my only friend in a place like this.” She didn’t exactly know why, but Fwa sat down in front of the mirror and crossed her legs. She felt a conversation approaching, and a long one at that. She had a sense for these things. In the early days of her bony self she’d often had one-sided conversations with the bugs crawling upside down in her skull. Those bugs helped her through a great many hard times. The mirror couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t fly out of an eye socket and leave her, and it could talk back.
“This is my mirror; I don’t allow reflections in it,” the voice said. Be she bead or spirit, she sounded flawless. Her voice was without even the slightest waver or crackle, like someone who’d never known pain, or perhaps the word ‘no’.
“There’s nothing using it at the moment,” Fwa said. “If it’s yours make use of it. Show yourself.”
“Introductions first, gravefolk,” the voice said.
“I am Fwa Nippr. I am a lady of the Tippytops: a daughter of the city of Airy-go-round. I’m here in search of a lost fool, someone come to shine a masculine smile and compare it to the florent.”
“Greetings Fwa. I am Whelm the vision.” Colors emerged from the mirror’s depth, winding together like silk scarves: blue, green, and yellow. They became the image of a woman, but a woman unlike any Fwa had ever seen. She was beautiful like a marble statue, but had none of one’s solidity. Her hair fanned out in all directions, waving like lake weeds. She hovered in the air, feet dangling, long colorful dress matching the waves in her hair.
Her neck, face, and fingers were long, seeming to stretch the longer Fwa stared. Yet when she focused on each of those details their proportions stayed on the edges of normal. Her eyes were brighted white, but they did not shine like those of the acolytes. She didn’t emit light; she trapped it.
“What manner of woman are you?” the skeleton asked.
“I am in the Reflecting Path,” she answered. “And I have been for a long time. This mirror is just a stop on my endless journey. This is just a day like any other. You are the one away from home. You are the one with a quest. How important is this fool? Could there be a beast after you?”
“No, nothing as world-changing as that,” Fwa said with a very slight chuckle. “A favor for a friend, a friend who would be more than that if I still had a heart.”
“I have nothing to offer you Fwa. I have seen no fools here recently,” Whelm said. “You may as well be on your way.” Her image started to fade, the colors loosening like knots in water.
“Wait!” Fwa called out, holding a hand up. Whelm the vision reformed behind the glass. “I am curious. What is this mirror? Why is it here, where anyone with a face worth admiring would be burned away during the day? What ego needed to be stroked in this desolate place?”
“The original egos,” Whelm answered with a curling smile. Some of the colors in her hair split into a thousand fibers and reformed in front of her as small puppets. There were eight of them, each a different hue. Fwa knew such images from her childhood; they were classic exaggerations of the eight gods of Porce.
She remembered her mother saying that of course a god was not limited to one body, for their souls and bodies were one. Emotion and cleverness could change their shapes and voices on a whim, but each deity still had their favorite images to inhabit. Folk said that at least, but they were often the ones who had colorful figurines of their guardian among the eight. If they didn’t have favorite bodies then positively anything could have been an object of worship, and that wouldn’t do. No folk had the capacity to respect everyone and everything.
Plowr was like a man of clay and tile, face protruding from his sternum, tall as a mountain’s grandparents.
Swimmr was cloudy blue glass with a long swishing tail in place of legs.
Howlr was a jug of green ripples, with another as her head and handles as arms.
Luminatr was branches and blades bearing fruits of light.
Dealr was a man of darkness without wrinkles. He was stiff, with his head and mind split down the middle, as he couldn’t help but see both sides of everything.
Whispr was a phantom of decaying winds, with footprints but no feet. His mouth dragged behind him, unwilling to commit on even his own actions.
Greetr was a woman with a layered green dress, more emerald than the earthy tones of her sister Howlr. She was a bell too delicate to ring, too polite to peel.
Scribblr was bent at the neck, perched over papers with quill fingers and a single feather of hair.
Whelm’s little phantoms of the gods danced about before disappearing back into her mane. Fwa brought herself closer to the mirror, her legs burrowing deeper into the ash. She didn’t dare touch the mirror’s glass if it was a possession of the gods. They might sense the disbelief that resided in her childhood bosom, which still clung to her bones.
“There was a war,” Whelm went on, “back when the eight were above the tile. Their Oaths, their Custodians, and their folk fought for them in the Age of Tragedy, against the prosites and the forces of quiet.”
“The forces of quiet?”
“You wouldn’t know them,” the vision said, “because they do not want to be known. They do not want to be. It would please them to know they are irrelevant to my story. It was the subjects of the eight who built this mirror here. They built it to gather the mightiest lights of the Florent. They used great magic, long rotted, to move that light through the Reflecting Path, from this mirror to another, as a ray of destruction in their war.”
“This was a weapon?”
“Yes. Now it is just a mirror. It still absorbs the same light each day, but I use it for other things.” She looked at Fwa, whose eye sockets had something of an expectant angle. “Did you not ask the brighted acolytes on your way in why they prayed so close to a fiery death? It is because of what I have shown them, what I used to brighten their eyes. Visions of the paradise deep inside the florent, where the ghosts of their ancestors frolic as light.”
“May I see, Whelm the vision?” Fwa asked. “I’m afraid I have nothing to offer as trade.”
“Your reverence is trade enough,” Whelm answered. “I can show you, but it would be best to use fresh light. The florent will live again shortly. All you have to do is wait.” Fwa twisted on her spine and examined the world behind her. The florent was a gray swell in the distance, taller than any of the mountains she had any hope of climbing, even as gravefolk. It offered no details at that distance. There were still bones strewn about, not yet blasted to powder, but they were all greatly brighted. If she stayed that might happen to her, and she could only hide the shining by painting her bones or wearing leatherflesh.
The thoughts that came after were more positive. In all likelihood she would not be coming back with the son. The boy was dead or soul-deep in an organization of blood and rations. She could come back with something: proof of her efforts. If she returned with brighted bones her friend would see how she had marched past the gates and into the glass furnace of the world, for her.
Fwa nodded to Whelm. The two waited in silence for two drops. The dawn of Porce was the fastest thing to existence, and it came without warning as it always had. What Fwa did not expect was the sound, the roar of light and heat pushing, burning, and bullying the very air out past the gates. The force of the light struck her back and bent her forward, but she held her position. The sound was constant inside her skull: swords of light, endless blades, sliding their edges against each other. It smothered her mind for a few moments, barely allowing her to comprehend the mirror’s new brightness.
Whelm’s colors exploded, becoming a hundred times more vibrant, despite them already being the most beautiful thing Fwa had ever seen. The image of the woman faded until the entire mirror was just the colors of her hair. Like before, with the tiny dancing gods, the colors eventually took shapes.
She had asked to see the revelry inside the florent, and Whelm did indeed show that. Fwa saw a feasting table with every seat filled. Folk made of golden light drank from goblets that shot their own rays toward the ceiling as white columns. There were no gravefolk, for all these spirits were restored to their prime in life. Each ghost touched at least one other with a hand on a shoulder, a hip to a hip, or a head buried in a bosom. The spirits were chains sharing links, realizing they were beauty rather than boundary.
The colors shifted and she was shown another. This one was far in the past. Apparently the florent’s light could be sculpted to resemble any of Porce’s places, because she recognized the fabled treehouses in the tallest trees of the Threewall Wild: Bropain and Bropeak. The wild was young and green around them; its monsters merely saplings. Great coils of bropato, transfused onto the trees from the far off Metal Block by an Oath, wound around the trunks and adjusted with the wind like serponts settling around a branch for a nap.
In the treehouses Custodians leapt in and out of the leaves, surprising their family and houseguests. Even the ghosts of the divine were in the florent, deigning to speak with the mortals they used in life. They celebrated and danced because a war was over; they dropped food over the side for the young monsters. What a truly rapturous moment to relive: a flood of peace and smiles after the sweat and lightning nerves of battle.
The colors shifted again. Revokodor. Fwa leaned closer. She knew that city; it was atop the same stone door as her hometown of Airy-go-round. In this past brighted version of it she saw folk playing in a meadow far outside their towers. They frolicked with the spirits of their pets and farm animals. Haunds and wolptingers ran together and knocked each other about precociously, a sight not possible in the living Porce. Those two animals could only be friends if all their instincts for survival were stripped away.
A powerful figure lounged on the back of her pet: an aker. Hundreds played on that back, for its resting form was a field unto itself. The aker’s head bobbed about with a speed unnatural to some of the oldest creatures of the world. If Fwa still had her eyes they would’ve narrowed to pinpricks. Something was not right. There were tales of Custodians taming akers, but there were things those creatures simply did not do. Even a descendant of the gods could not upend that part of their history, because it was laid down by the gods themselves.
Akers did not visit the Tippytops, where Revokodor and its surrounding fields were planted. Akers never moved about on any of the world walls or ceiling. They did not invert themselves to the great stone doors at all, or even fixtures like the toils and sinks. There wasn’t a single aker in all of Porce that had ever left the World Floor.
They were born from it, created from the stone hearts of the tiles themselves during their shattering in the Age of Tragedy. The only akers that ever moved up from there were those that died and had their bodies converted into the eight cardinal tiles of Porce: the centers of gravitation that kept it from drifting in the Dark Empty. The akers did not jump or fly. They did not split their bodies from the ground that birthed them, and no god would’ve forced them.
Fwa was looking at a falsehood. These were not jolly ghosts frolicking in the florent. If one was false then surely the others were as well. Whelm, whatever creature of the Reflecting Path she was, was a liar. Fwa stood and turned, observing the florent’s light directly. She did more than see it; she felt it deep in her bones. Its power could not be illusory. She looked down at her hands. Already she saw light at their core, wiggling like a topillar in its cocoon. She was becoming brighted, infused with the raw truth of Porce. Whelm didn’t have it within her. She used it, weaved it into something else.
“I offer you visions of paradise, a paradise just a few days to your back, and you turn away from it,” Whelm chided, her face not reappearing. “That is very rude of you, skeleton.” Fwa didn’t turn back. There was no point in seeing the lies anymore, or the beauty of Whelm, which would now sicken her if she’d had a stomach to bear the affront.
Instead she looked deeper into the florent’s infinite blast. There were no details to discern in the unfathomable brightness, but there was another truth. The waves that struck her, that became part of her bones, were harsh. They were not cruel, just powerful and indifferent. The legends always said that the light was your ancestors, shining the way for you. The night was when they slept, so it was best for you to do the same. To move at night was to move without guidance or wisdom.
Only, as Fwa now realized, that was the day as well. There was no revelry in the florent, no happy ghosts and sparkling feasts. If virtuous spirits went there at all it was just to burn up, to be used as fuel for a perpetual engine of light.
“Turn around,” Whelm demanded coldly.
“No,” Fwa challenged. “You are a vision thin and errored. A mutation of the florent’s light, nothing more. There is no paradise inside the florent. Not even a spirit can make it to its core without destruction.”
“You saw their happiness. Some of them were your ancestors. I picked them out just for you.”
“You did not. Everything you’ve told those acolytes is a lie. You want only their admiration. You’ve lived too long in a machine of war and you expect the attention of frightened and desperate hordes. I will tell them the truth. I will liberate them from your thrall.”
“You deny the light, Fwa Nippr. So it is darkness you seek. As you wish. I have an eternity of that for you as well!” Before the gravefolk could turn, the mirror exploded into a beam of concentrated light and force. It struck low and then angled up across Fwa’s body. Her bones were blasted apart, scattered to the air. She was left with only half a body.
That half a body did not find rest immediately. Whelm the vision was a trickster of the light, but the mirror’s power was as she had said. The force of its beam sent Fwa far into the sky, so far that her gravitation was reversed and she began her plummet to the World Floor. Surely she would be broken on impact, dashed upon the tiles or boulders and killed.
She dreaded what would come after: a slow drift of her invisible spirit back to the florent, to be eaten by its infinity and spat back out as the day. In the end Whelm delivered what she promised, but Fwa never learned if it was intentional, if such a weapon could be aimed so precisely.
The half of her body with her thinking living skull still in place fell through the clouds of Porce. It disturbed the flight of the Lumasol. Beneath them she fell with the light rain. There was a fissure in the ground, part of an old division of the tiles, and it went to the ultimate depths of Porce. She could have avoided it with bonepicking, but there was no way to drain all of her momentum. She would shatter if she did not go through. Fwa aimed straight for it, darkness rushing and howling on both sides upon her entrance.
The Fith broke her fall with its fetid spongy tissues. It absorbed her and carried her in its currents, the brighting of her bones dissuading any sort of decomposition. It dropped her into the Pipes some time later. The fall shocked her; she barely had the time to slow her descent with her bonepicking, which she suddenly found to be much stronger.
Alone she crawled through the Pipes, with no concept of passing time. There were plenty of bones about her, but even those with eye sockets had no soul in them. Just as with the florent, the Pipes proved to be a fate worse than myth. Folk were not punished there; they simply moldered.
She theorized the reason why she still lived; there were pieces of her left in Porce. She was a life split like a pie, but not properly cut. She was splattered across the world, and oblivion would not have her until her head was broken or she was whole again.
Every bone could move on its own. She learned that trick early in her endless trudge from blood pond to bone ditch. She could make each piece of her fingers dance about or act as pieces in board games she played with herself upon lines she scratched in the flaking red and brown dirt. She couldn’t feel all her pieces as far as they were, but she sent them messages nonetheless. She told them to come home, to come to mother, to complete her warm image once again so they could walk into death as one. The bones did as they were told, some of them confusing the florent for Fwa thanks to her brighting.
Fwa Nippr was a light in the darkness, something purer than fire, so she was a most precious jewel. She was cajoled and collected by Clix Mousr, more than a wash into the Pipes. He took her back to Infinicilia and lectured her about the gods, about the truths they discerned from the graves of the first and the prosites.
Fwa simply listened. Such a fool, Clix. He rambled on and on about what a gift Fwa was, how Plowr had sent them a child of the florent so their smiles could shine in the light of day. He spoke of his family, even asking her if she had seen their spirits in her trek across the Brighted Plains.
Her first desire was to shatter his dreams, to break the hope of the living nineteen, but his babbling kept putting her off it. Her mind wandered and she realized she had been broken by lies. Lies were not truth, but they held much of truth’s power. The gods had miscalculated in allowing that to be so.
Fwa had so little left to work with. Lies had taken her body and given her light: beauty without ability. She could not be beaten so easily. If it had to be lies, then it had to be. Whelm the Vision was the hope of her acolytes and Fwa Nippr was the florent to the living nineteen. She gently put her hands to Clix’s cheeks and told him something sweet. He couldn’t even imagine the rapturous fields deep within the florent. It was joy he would have to be a spirit to comprehend.