(reading time: 1 hour, 9 minutes)
Red raw hands, some with spots of black frostbite, rose toward the sky in exultation. The starved men and women of the Greedy Old Mop flooded out of the yellow smelly caverns of the Winchar Straits and into the melt crater Ice Master Shuckr had predicted.
They spread out under the florent and frolicked like rabards in heat, jumping about and slipping onto their tailbones. The crater was massive, nearly a valley unto itself, and had a very round shape. Metallic trees and shrubs dotted the sides, a few even bearing rainfairies. Walls of ice, only occasionally stained with rings of the yellow flammable compounds, curved and rose on all sides. At its center there was a blue lake: a pocket of isolated sea that likely connected to the rest of the Snyre by a few narrow tunnels.
On the opposite side of their exit from the ice rose the monolithic lip of Third Sink. Somewhere up there, far above their sight, there was civilization. All they had to do was find a way to climb up, but those discussions were suppressed for the first few drops after their release, for the lake held plentiful fish swimming, by the hundreds, in endless circles, just waiting for their hooks, spears, and hands.
Captain Teal allowed them complete freedom in those drops. The crowd was pushed up against the edge of the lake, working nonstop for their evening meal. The best fishers suddenly had folk hanging about them like lovers, whispering things in their ears and making promises they would never keep upon the white stone lip.
Out of the lake came toilbrush paddlers, bubbleskins, fishy serponts, and the aptly named flippity floppers. The fish were skinned in moments, even with numb hands and dull knives doing most of the work. Their red guts were spilled upon the ice; the crew splashed in their blood joyously. Much of it was consumed raw, sucked straight from the tiniest bones, but they also found ice clear enough to chip a fire pit into. Teal granted a fire twig and they burned one of the remaining boats.
They were all able to eat their fill for the first time since the Greedy Old Mop went under. Naturally a few overdid it, vomiting a slurry of fish and skins upon the ice, to mix with the residue of the gutting itself and slowly flow back into the lake. They went back for seconds. The hungriest of all were on their fourths, sometimes their fourth full fish, when the florent went out.
Seeing only by their single fire and the lumasol overhead the crew set up camp as best they could. Everyone was full of hiccups, giggles, and small belches: a froth of noise that kept their spirits alive as they settled on the ice for the night. Few of them realized that the fish would shore up their old expectations, their old standards, and that they would awake dissatisfied.
There was shouting the next morning, over the giant shelf of ice that simply hadn’t been as noticeable the prior day. Above the melt crater, affixed to the white stone, was a protruding shelf nearly as large as the crater itself. Manathan tried to explain it to them, tried to tell them that the shelf had been expected. The melt crater hadn’t been hollowed, but merely split because of differing poison contents in the layers of ice. The shelf above was simply what was left after the ice split and most of the poison melted away.
The shelf would not have posed a problem in the long run, not on its own. While its shape and size made it impossible for regular folk to climb, given their lack of equipment, it could have been scaled by experienced bonepickers. It would have taken them rinses to get up and then back down with help and supplies, but the fish in the lake would have provided plenty of food. They could last until their return.
The shelf, however, had visible holes all across its bottom. These holes were unmistakably the burrows of roodnocks. Even from far below the crew could see their heads occasionally pop out and survey the crater. A few of them scaled the rocks beside the shelf in search of prey. They were not social by nature, but apparently the shelf was too good a home to pass up. Even if they sent all their bonepickers, even if they sent them out to the sides, there was no doubt they would get caught in the predators’ constant sweeping.
“If you’ll be quiet! You there, if you’ll be quiet… That goes for you too Cadabbr! Quiet!” Manathan Shuckr yapped at the crew. The skeleton stood at the edge of the lake, under the shadow of the disastrous shelf, and tried to explain once more.
“We’ll have quiet!” Captain Teal ordered, an order granted extra authority by Dawn striking the ice with her heel and fracturing it loudly. “Go on ice master.”
“Thank you captain. As I was saying, before I was rudely interrupted for the ten thousandth time in my life, the shelf is not our doom. The initial melt was caused by Aych air drifting over here from Aych Fauce. I’ve been tracking the clues of its steam this whole time. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I know every speck of doubt I felt was utterly comical.” (Blaine’s Note: The Aych Fauce they refer to is of course the ‘H’ faucet of Third Sink. Like the Sea ‘C’ Fauce, its flow is endless and its temperature is extreme. It is the combination of hot and cold water from them that makes most of the Snyre’s water room temperature.)
Nayth Kohlr and Whetsaw Plawkippr emerged from the crowd and stood at the front with crossed arms. Man stopped for a moment, bony finger curling in mid-air. It seemed there were still two ice masters at play, even though Man had been correct about the crater.
“Go on Mr. Shuckr,” Nayth goaded, “we’re built of ears we are.”
“Yes. I’m sure,” the skeleton snapped. “A warm front of steam from the Aych Fauce is bound to come along and melt that shelf soon. We just have to remain here, sustaining ourselves with these fish and rainfairies, until that front arrives. The roodnocks will abandon their nest when its stability softens.” Questions rumbled and bumped through the crew; Teal sought to neutralize them by asking the most prevalent herself.
“Master Shuckr,” she addressed, “when can we expect this warm front of steam?”
“Well,” Man said, scratching the compass etched into his forehead. “I admit I’m only an ice master. If, when we get back up to the world, we want to find ourselves a cloud master, I would be wholly in agreement. Weather’s not so easy as ice, especially with that blackened and bluish fellow and his storm about… The warm front shouldn’t take more than two washes.”
The ice master was immediately pelted with dented cups, fish spines still attached to their heads, and sharp metal twigs. Two hundred days. He had said, with the only straight face available to him, that they were supposed to sit there in the cold, with a magical murderer and monsters about, for two hundred days.
“That’s all we needed to hear, and I can’t believe we built ourselves of ears to hear it!” Nayth declared. He marched over to the ice master and pushed him aside, toward the officers. Captain Teal drew her saber, prompting Dawn, the young folk, and many others to do the same. All at once the blob of haggard crew split down the middle, its divide bristling with sharp edges.
“Mr. Kohlr!” Teal shouted. “I know your meaning. It’s mutiny. Transparent as sopped topa you’ve all been. Ever since Rob. I won’t stand for it. The Greedy Old Mop is gone but I am still the captain until we are free of this ice.”
“We are free of the ice Miss Powdr,” Nayth spat. “I see the florent up there like any other day. You’ve had your fun splashing around in Rob’s big boots like they were a pair of pools, but it’s over now. We, my half of the crew, will not be waiting two hundred days for the arrival of Shuckr’s steam, if such a thing is coming at all.” His side voiced their agreement.
Teal and the others stared into the mutinous blob, piercing it as best they could to see who had defected from Rob’s will and Teal’s order. Nayth Kohlr was apparently their commander, with Whetsaw acting as ice master. There was also Bobat Fwindr, the tilefolk physician, Tombhen Epicr, the woman full of stories of their lost captain, and most of the newer recruits.
What the mutineers lacked was bonepickers. Most of the accomplished gravefolk were among those loyal to Teal, including nine tenths of the Calcitheater. The young folk, Alast especially, were happy to see the faces of the adults they’d befriended most standing firm behind Teal: Bonswario Bucklr, Haystone Clearcuttr, Herc Monickr, Ladyfish Paintr, and Rob’s grandfather Rorke.
“Whetsaw, what are you doing?” Alast called out to the bergfolk, his truest friend on the other side. “Rob wouldn’t want this.”
“Oh, boy. I respect Captain when he was alive, but he is dead and gone now. I fight for my life here. I keep my flesh. If we stay washes, whorl break this place and crush us flat. We must go sooner,” the bergfolk pleaded with the boy.
“And we will go sooner,” Nayth assured his party, turning to them. “The ice master and I have a plan. With our bonepickers, though they are few, we will scale the lip of Third Sink, mine straight through the shelf, and make a tunnel. We will be through in a rinse!”
“You can’t do that!” Manathan yelped. He turned to Teal. “Captain, if they do that the shelf could split. It’s still too large Captain. If it splits and pieces fall they will either fill the crater and smash us or break straight through and drown us. We need it to melt slowly, to drop small pieces at a time Captain!”
“We don’t follow your orders any longer!” Nayth interrupted. “If you don’t wish to be crushed you’re free to join us on the lip. We’ll be turning the remaining boats, chains, and ropes into climbing rigs.”
“Even if I were to split your mutinous tumor from the Mop’s flesh,” Teal said, “I would not grant you our half of the supplies.”
“You don’t have a half Miss Powdr. We’ve dragged them all this way. We have the smarter plan. We’re taking them, and that’s not all. We’ll be needing a new ship once we’re over the lip. Seeing as our shares of plunder went down with the Mop, we’ll be needing Rob’s bag of goodies.”
Teal and the others turned to look at Roary, who clutched the sack of treasure close to his chest. If there was any hope of them staying together, of Teal being a captain of any sort, they needed those funds. Even though Nayth hadn’t mentioned it specifically, Queenvy and Kingvy held their nest egg tightly as well. When it came to grabbing they doubted the mutineers would differentiate.
Nayth’s mob shuffled forward, but he threw out a hand to stop them. He stared at Teal as if he wanted to peel each piece of clothing off her and place it on himself. He sneered. Teal responded by waving several bonepickers over. The skeletons locked arms in front of her, creating a fence between them. In that moment the odds were clearest to see. While Captain Powdr had the most powerful of the crew, Nayth had the masses. Nearly all of those with flesh had been swayed, whether it by his whispers, the jaws of the cold, or the quaking of their stomachs along the way.
“There’s no need for any of this just yet,” Nayth said. “Keep your boats and ropes for a night or two. We’ve got plenty of building to do already. We’ll give you a chance to see the error of your ways.” He turned and led his mutiny around the shore of the lake, to the exact opposite point, under the shade of the shelf they planned to crack.
“Captain?” Man asked gingerly. “What now Captain? If they try to go through we’ll all die.”
“I’m aware, Man. It seems even sharing a bed with Rob from time to time hasn’t convinced them I knew him best,” she answered.
“Nothing to do with it,” Dawn said, leathery fingers rapping on the hilt of her sword angrily. “Now that Rob be dead he don’t have no character. He be a mask for each of them to put on when it suits them. Rob this and Rob that, like he never did wrong. Treating him like a god until the moment he be gone. They make my head bone burn.”
Each half of the Mop set up a more proper camp that night, with the fleshed folk getting the tents and boats while the gravefolk gathered around fire pits and stood watch. The young folk were given one tent to share where they could all help Roary guard Rob’s treasure. They were watched over by Haystone, but the large man had fallen asleep the moment the florent was out. His airy snoring filled the tent while the others sat in a circle and discussed the situation.
“So we’re agreed?” Roary asked. “We’re all to be aboard the next Mop with Captain Teal, just as Rob would’ve wanted. We’re all to guard this treasure with our lives?” He looked around the circle one by one, from Kingvy and Queenvy to Alast and Pearlen. Dawn was outside, keeping charge of the skeleton crew as she always had.
“No,” Queenvy said with a shake of her head. “Don’t look at me like that Roary.” Rob’s nephew wore an expression somewhere between glum and swallowing a hot coal. “We were readying to leave before she sank. We finally have enough in here to make a home of our own.” She touched the bag in her brother’s lap. “You lot are our friends and we promise to help you, but we’re not staying on after.”
“You too King?” Roary asked her twin. “We’ll never get to play wobbly stool again. You can’t play it unless you’re on a rocking ship!”
“Mind be made up friend,” he confirmed. “We want a house instead of a nest in the mast. We don’t really remember… but we had one. Before all this piracy. When our parents were still…”
“Alast,” Pearlen whispered, but the tent was close enough that they all heard. “Come with me to the water.” Her head hung low, as it had for days and days.
“Of course,” her love whispered back. They stood, crouched because of the tent’s top, and exited through the flap quietly. “We’re with you Roary. And Teal. Down to the Pipes if need be.” Roary nodded as they closed the flap behind them. At that point they all knew. Thanks to the lake, Pearlen now had a place to soak her eyes. Still it embarrassed the girl. Before, aboard the ship, she could simply go for a swim. In the Winchar Straits she had to move from puddle to puddle, eyes always red and teary. There was a new fear in her, and she needed Alast by her side whenever she couldn’t see, because the crew could not be trusted.
“Alast wouldn’t stay if not for her,” Queenvy said after an uncomfortable silence. “Rob was his inspiration and his teacher. He’d listen to anybody what calls themselves a teacher. He’d be off on some adventure full of death if she didn’t need the security of the sea.” The boys stared at her, and all she could offer was a shrug.
“There be no need to be nasty,” Roary said, somewhat meekly. Queenvy was about to argue further, but stopped herself. She’d never fought with Pearlen, but there was an unmistakable edge to their interactions. She was reminded of Alast’s early days aboard the Mop, when she’d been tasked with teaching him about romance in and out of the sheets. The whole crew assumed she had bedded the boy, as per Rob’s orders, but she hadn’t. The crew always acted as if she were supposed to be some sort of rival to Pearlen, but there was no such conflict. It was simply all the expectations and pursed lips hiding snickers that soured the two of them on each other.
“We’re not piss-talking each other,” Kingvy agreed. “We’re sleeping.” He grabbed a blanket and rolled onto his side. “That be what we’re supposed to do anyway. Real mutineers out there… not enterprising young frugals like the twins Rookr.”
Her brother was right. These matters were serious, but they were not the business of the twins Rookr. The inside of their bag was their business. Everything else was simply obligation until they could have the true lives they’d saved for.
Queenvy and Roary grabbed blankets of their own and put their heads to the bottom of the tent. They had a hide floor, but the ice was just under it, so it was quite cold. The rhythmic percussion of the gravefolk music around the fire, songs played on ribs and skulls, helped overcome the cold and shove them off to their dreams.
Roary and Kingvy each hugged their bags of treasure tightly. A line of Roary’s drool slowly made its way to the center of the tent, though its dark trail didn’t show in the extremely weak light from the fire outside. It took a second light to make it obvious.
The bottom of the tent glowed orange and yellow. The light under the tent’s hide intensified until it cast a layer of warmth over the cheeks of Haystone and the sleeping young. Something poked up through the floor. It receded, but almost immediately rose again. Back and forth it moved, as if the bump couldn’t make up its mind, probing near Kingvy’s face, then Queenvy’s, and then Haystone’s.
The floor flattened once more, only for the bump to shoot upward, slicing straight through the hide with one quick sound. Thwick! A knife somehow born from the ice. It sliced in a continuous line, Rookr to Rookr, until the cut was long enough for a man to slip through. Slip through something did, along with more of its orange glow.
Out came an arm. Out came a second, holding the knife. Silently it emerged, like a flower blooming in the night, and crept toward Haystone. The figure was black, wrapped shoulder to toe in spirals of knotted dark cloth. It crouched over the prone form of Haystone. Its fingers swung over his lips as its knife’s point settled over the large man’s heart.
In one strike, too quick to fit cruelty, it plunged the blade into Haystone’s heart and pressed its other hand over his mouth. Its victim’s eyes shot open, but immediately dulled. It dragged the body the few foams back to its slit and dumped Haystone inside. He disappeared into the glow within the ice.
Only then did the figure reveal its true intentions. It crept forward, hunched like an ogtot about to pick a bug from its burrow, and settled over Roary. Its free hand danced across the folds of the plunder bag. Delicately the knife cut through its side and revealed the sparkling contents: bath beads, jewelry, rare books of poetry and science, models of ships long sunk, and correspondences from historical figures. The new figure sifted through it with three long fingers, trying to pick out an item that wouldn’t rattle the whole pile.
The figure’s silence was perfect, but they failed to notice the red tint the light now had. A puddle of Haystone’s blood spread through the hide swiftly, its wet edge eventually finding the cheek of Queenvy. Her eyes fluttered open. Something black was hunched over Roary, picking through his treasure like the entrails of a fresh kill. Her sword was behind her, sheathed up against the corner of the tent.
Slowly, she pulled off her blanket and repositioned herself, not daring to wake her brother, lest he snort or groan. Where had Haystone gone? In that moment she comprehended the source of the blood that still spread in the tent’s hide. His body? Was there magic afoot? The glow from the slit suggested there was.
Her fingers wrapped around the sheath. She took a step forward. The figure plucked a bath bead, a smooth thing of swirling green, from the bag and twisted to better examine it by the light of the slit. She saw no eyes anywhere on its black form, but there was recognition in its movements. It saw her. The knife appeared as it pounced, knocking her onto the slit. Its full weight pinned her down, only the sheath blocking the knife from her chest. It threw a cloth-covered hand over her mouth and stifled her cries.
It dropped the small bath bead, which it had failed to identify as the Verdant Nuisance Bead. Upon contact with the ground it exploded into a cloud of leaves and clutching vines. Roary and Kingvy bolted up, snapping several of the growths. A fleshy yellow flower bloomed in Roary’s hair, perfectly representing his dawning understanding.
The two boys threw themselves onto the figure’s back, crying out for help. The bonepickers kept watch. One of them would surely be in the tent within drips; all they had to do was hold on to the creeping dark monster until then. The figure had other plans. It bit Roary’s arm with an unseen mouth and tossed him away, nearly collapsing the tent when he hit the side.
It tried to slide the nearer treasure bag, the Rookr’s, into the slit, but Kingvy dove on it and then kicked backward, forcing the figure off Queenvy. She had no idea if the figure was male, but once her arms were free she grabbed at the space between its legs violently and wrenched. All she got was a handful of black cloth.
A bonepicker’s sword sliced through the side of their tent, and Dawn stuck her head in, false hair rattling madly. At the sight of her sockets the figure growled, turned, and dove back into the slit it had been birthed from. It was gone a moment later, taking its orange glow with it. A dozen more blades and skeletal hands forced their way in, peeling the tent apart until it was in tatters. They pulled the young folk away, lifted the tent from the ground, and examined the ice. It bore no marks of tunneling, not even a scratch.
Half a drop later, Teal and the officers stood in a circle around the spot, trying to puzzle out where the apparition had come from. The music had ceased, allowing them to hear the melodies of the mutineers on the other side of the lake. Of greater concern was the weeping of Bonswario Bucklr. He was a man of loose belt around the ship, jumping the bones of anyone willing, but he was the closest of them all to Haystone.
Though they had no body the amount of blood on the ice and tent could not be mistaken for anything other than a mortal wound. Bonswario fell this way and that, putting his entire weight on any of the crew willing to take it. He sobbed lengthy eulogies into more than one shirt.
“He was so beautiful!” the man cried. “His spirit. If you had seen it as I had. As harmless as a rabard he was, and twice as timid. Why’d we set him to guard? Because he was built like a wall? Did we kill him with that? Captain! Captain what is this tragedy?” He threw himself on Teal as if she was any other member of the crew, and she held up under his grief admirably. She stroked his back, even as her cold stare stayed affixed to the bloody but smooth patch of ice.
“It is a good question, Mr. Bucklr,” Teal said. “Who can tell me exactly what happened?”
“I was the first awake Captain,” Queenvy offered with a raised hand. “Except for… Mr. Clearcuttr… I think. I woke to some of his blood on me cheek and saw the attacker bent over Roary and the plunder. He was picking through it.”
“The attacker? Can I have a better description?”
“Not much better Captain. He was dressed all in black. I couldn’t see much. There was a strange light under him. He came out of it and went back in it when Dawn got there.”
“It be true Teal,” Dawn confirmed. “Saw him disappear into the ice like he was made of it.”
“Then we know the culprit,” Teal said. “We’ve seen only one man as of late who has power over the ice. He too has blackened flesh. Haystone was killed by the one who killed our ship, who directed us into the path of weighty Qlio, and who still refuses to identify himself. His ultimate goal must be among Rob’s treasures.”
“Asking your pardon captain,” Rorke said, stepping out from a few of the other skeletons. “That boy always comes with a storm. We haven’t seen him once without his veil of frost.”
“Then we assume he dampened it for the purposes of cloak and dagger,” she argued.
“He did have a dagger,” Kingvy interrupted, “or it might’ve been a knife…”
“We know nothing of the nature of his magic,” Teal continued. “We can’t assume it’s beyond his power to quell the storm as he pleases.”
“No folk would choose to keep it up,” Rorke argued, his voice quivering slightly, somewhere between anger and pain. “Your fleshy eyes didn’t see him as clearly as our sockets did. He was skin and bones, with that skin burned and blackened by winter. Every delicate part, lips, lids, lobes, all numb for all time…”
“Mr. Ordr,” Teal addressed icily, “is there something you wish to share?” The gravefolk bowed his head and took a step back, but his skull moved back and forth as if two rodents fought inside it.
“It’s just not likely is all,” Rorke babbled. “That blue boy’s storm made him into that monster. If he could snuff it out like the florent he would. We’ve got likelier culprits singing their cold away just across that pond.” He pointed a bony finger at the camp of the mutineers. “They already stated their intentions to take the plunder.” There were murmurs of agreement among many of the gravefolk.
“Can you suggest a mechanism by which one of our traitors could pass through the ice without so much as scratching it?” the captain asked. Rorke had none to offer. “Ice Master Shuckr, do you know of a method by which those wretches could use the ice so?”
“I’ve never seen such a thing captain,” Man said respectfully. “It’s impossible without a bath bead, and all strong beads aboard the Greedy Old Mop are in that bag.”
“Nothing is missing!” a muffled voice called out from inside Roary’s treasure bag. The boy pulled out the skull of Veer Keystonr. “I can confirm that nothing has been taken from this bag since my first count just after the sinking.”
“It has to be one of them,” Rorke said again. “One of them. If Rob were here he’d march over there and skin…”
“Robin is dead!” Teal shouted. “I mourn his loss, but he is not to be canonized. If you think he should be you betray your own designs. If he was so much of a god to any of you, or any of the traitors, he would’ve had company in that abyss. You would’ve followed, praying to him as you fell. If he was so important that our lives depended solely on him… we would all have joined him.”
The captain stormed over to the edge of the lake and stared at the traitor’s camp, her ice-butchered hair whipping in the wind. By the light of their fires she saw them notice her, dance about in mockery, stick out their tongues, and slap their bottoms.
“Rob was a man with secrets,” Alast said from her side. She looked down and saw him kneeling, with one hand upon the back of Pearlen, whose head was dipped in the frigid lake water. She came up a moment later and rolled over onto her back, gasping and clawing at the air so she wouldn’t do it to her eyes. It was impossible to tell her eyes’ irritation from tears over Mr. Clearcuttr. “He had so many of his own that he didn’t pay much attention to anybody else’s.”
“Your point Alast?” Teal asked as gently as she could manage.
“I came to recognize how he treated others with just as many secrets,” the boy explained. Pearlen grabbed his wrist and released it, telling him it was okay for him to stand. He did so, pacing back and forth between the bloody spot on the ice and Kilrorke. “It must be a family tradition… I know you have secrets Rorke, and one of them is just under your bone now, about to smash its way through. The way you talked… you know our pursuer. You seem to feel some of his pain.”
All eyes turned to Rob’s gravefolk grandfather. His skull moved about nervously, but his arms hung at his sides like macabre decorations hanging from a windowsill. He turned and stared past the icy walls, out into the sea.
“Out with it Mr. Ordr,” Teal ordered. “All secrets overboard now.”
“Aye,” Rorke admitted. Some of the crew gasped. Others, most of the gravefolk, swore in his direction. Already the disembodied skulls that overheard planned an emergency meeting of the Calcitheater.
“We should build gallows for him out of his own bones!” someone shouted. “Knew this whole time he did! Shared it with no one! Private food for thought while we all starved!” Teal threw up a hand to quiet them, to give Rorke a chance to explain himself.
“I know the boy surrounded by storm. He is my son.” The sounds of their anger were cut short.
“Your son?” Teal questioned. “That would make him Rob’s uncle. The black and blue twists his form, but that boy is far too young. I know all the Ordrs as well; Rob’s father had no brothers.”
“Aye Teal,” Rorke acknowledged, “but I am no Ordr. This is the skeleton of Kilrorke Ordr, but it has been crowned, for rests, with the skull of another. My name is Oddball Damr.”
“You!” Alast shouted; he was joined by several others. “You’re Oddball? The skull we lost back in the floes… that was Kilrorke?”
“Aye,” the newly-named Oddball confirmed, “and I am so sorry he could not be draped in his proper name as he was mourned.”
“All this time,” Alast went on, biting his lip, “and we had you two mixed up. It wasn’t Oddball seducing the women of the ship, guzzling the grease from the cooktop, and teaching me to thieve. It was Kilrorke Ordr! Grandfather to Captain Rob! Why? Why wouldn’t the Captain tell us?”
“To protect the two of us,” Oddball answered. He waited a moment to see if he would be shouted down, or perhaps tackled, but the numb crew let him continue. “Rob knew of our deception, but he never made us tell him why. I suspect he knew why Kilrorke wanted to switch names, but I never knew. Somewhere he made enemies who would seek his destruction. I had done the same, so we made a pact to face each other’s foes. I believed his less frightening than mine, and he thought much the same thing in reverse.”
“And your enemy is your own son?” Teal asked. Oddball nodded. “I can’t promise you freedom… or life… after your explanation Mr. Damr. It has been amply demonstrated that I can’t control anyone here. I have no reward for you spilling your guts here and now, but I order it all the same. Tell us your tale.” The gravefolk nodded once more.
“My son’s name is Corvidley Damr. In the days after my failure, when his skin was turned blue and he was cursed with that stormy cloak, he has been called Frostbite Cor.” Two gravefolk grabbed Oddball’s arms. He didn’t struggle. A third removed his skull from his shoulders. The body collapsed against the ice. They took the skull over to Haystone’s icy blood stain and placed him atop it. A bloody throne to shame him. He did not protest, but simply continued the telling.
“You were right to question my son’s age Teal. He is not the young man he appears to be. His face, like his body, like his heart, is frozen in the same moment of agony, a moment long gone. He is trapped in the pain of a mortal wound, his blood frozen before he could bleed.
My life before the Greedy Old Mop was not a life of the Snyre, nor of Third Sink itself. I lived around the Riding Rail, skulking across its thin surf as its principal pirate. The roundness of the rail, its hugging gravitation, makes you feel like you cannot fall. Round and round you can go, upside down as upside down gets, and it’ll never let you go.
I’m giving the world some of the blame so I have enough strength to keep speaking. In truth I was too confident. I thought that if anyone ever killed me, this was back when I was fleshed, that I would be an immortal gravefolk. I thought if anyone killed that immortal it would be in a single moment of battle, and I wouldn’t have time for regrets or fear. Someone knew that, and worse yet, they knew how to make that single moment an age, how to give me a chance for fear and shame.
I had my son Corvidley at my side, acting as my second-in-command. When we were flush with coin and robed in fine bath mats we realized we had the clout to pretend we were high society. We planned the ultimate theft. We would secure an invitation to a ball at the curved halls of Oiprink, dance with the beautiful folk on their elegant bulging floors, and then steal their wealth out from under them.
We succeeded, making off with enough to build a bent palace of our own on the underside of the Riding Rail. We were halfway through constructing it when they caught up with us. A Bathron of Oiprink, a man whose food was cooked in the oils of the Oiprink finger prints themselves, Bathron Ammr Guyr, showed up with a private army.
They killed our construction crew swiftly, and they were innocent men and women we’d simply hired. They killed me, drained my throat of blood, and waited for my bones to come back. When I regained consciousness I was tied to a post. They played with pieces of my skin, discussing what they could sew them into as trophies.
Bathron Ammr told me he would finish the palace so he could at least get his value out of what we’d taken. He had with him a very special weapon: a bow and quiver. They brought in Corvidley and released him. I embraced my son with sharp bones, which of course did not comfort him. He held in his fear admirably, but at the sight of me it poured out of him as tears. He choked on his words. As a father it was exactly like hearing him as a babe, choking on some small sprig of something I’d left him too near. There was no digging it out.
He whispered to me his fears. His bravery and callousness had not combined adequately, and he would not be granted his bones. He would simply go with his blood and that would be that. The end of our line. I pleaded with Ammr to release him, to punish me further instead. He told me the death of my son was my punishment, and it was to be as eternal as my bones.
With our hands bound, he and his army marched us away from our half-finished home and out into a part of the Riding Rail called Arrow’s Grip. Many of you know the tale. The Riding Rail is like a world unto itself, its gravitation mostly separate from the faces of Porce. When an arrow is fired into the air, at just the right angle, it can circle around the rail endlessly. None live in Arrow’s Grip, as there is a volley left over from a long-gone war. Arrows whizz by all the time, just waiting for something to get in their way.
The air was full of the sound of them. Whizzing and zizzing inside my skull. I was forced to the ground. Only drops into my grave-life, I didn’t have the practice to bonepick my way free. Ammr pulled his bow and arrow out and nocked one. The arrow was strange, its head a roughly cut blue gem. He threatened Corvidley into walking forward, into the path of the endlessly flying arrows.
My son had learned well. He could hear the arrows coming and avoid them. He stayed low, but also kept on his toes. Astonishingly difficult… doing both those things at once… He so wanted to live. I assume he thought the same things I did. If he could make it through Arrow’s Grip they wouldn’t pursue. They were giving him his chance at survival.
‘These were fired so long ago,’ Ammr told me as Corvidley’s bucking and bobbing got further and further. ‘Yet they all have all the rage of that moment still imbued in them. Do you think the soldiers thought about what they were doing? Do you think they even considered who they might hurt down the future’s funnel?’
‘I take your point,’ I said simply. I thought I did anyway; he was telling me that no matter how long it took I would pay for my crimes against him. It was anger that could not be quieted. I spoke mostly to distract him so my son could have that much more distance.
‘Do you?’ He lifted his bow and took aim at Corvidley. I saw in its gem-head the endlessly swirling winds that freeze whatever they touch. ‘These arrows are all made from bath beads. Each one is different. I had them made out of curiosity. I haven’t the slightest clue what will happen if someone is wounded by one. Let’s see how your son likes the bite of the Frozen Moment Bead.’
Before I could shout he loosed the blue arrow. Corvidley was too distracted by its ancient cousins to hear its strange angle of approach. It struck him in the back, but he could not fall. It released its magical ice into his blood… freezing my poor boy in place. We heard the tinkling sound, like breaking glass, as a few of the old arrows bounced off his hardened shell.
‘You didn’t take my point,’ Ammr growled, his face a bubble from mine. He marched into the Arrow’s Grip himself and nocked another bead. He fired them all off, each more colorful than the last, into the endless spiral. He knew each one could become a life ended by rotten luck. ‘My point is that I care as little as they did. The whole world can die, as long as it doesn’t take any of the soap from under my nails. I got where I am by only feeling one sort of pain. I might have done you a favor Oddball. I’ve narrowed your pain. Focused it. Perhaps now you’ll become a real man and learn how to get things done.’
They left me there with an empty quiver and an icy child. I crawled to him, under the whizzing and zizzing of the arrows, and embraced his frozen body. I pulled the arrow from his back, but the head broke off. I could not remove it…” Oddball stopped for a while. A gust of wind came and knocked the skull onto his side, but he did not right himself.
“That’s not all of it Mr. Damr,” Teal said, after allowing him a moment to lament. “Why is your son attacking us now?”
“I thought him dead,” Oddball answered, the movement of his jawbone making him wiggle across the ice. “I left him there in Arrow’s Grip. He still had that bath bead in him, and everyone knows you can get cursed if you bury bath beads. When I returned a wash later his body was gone. Again I thought wrong, thinking someone had stolen him as some sort of decoration. The tales came later.”
“Of Frostbite Cor. Of the black and blue man who carried a storm on his back, who ruined any land he crossed with frost. My son. A lonely monster. I fled the Riding Rail and eventually met Kilrobin and Kilrorke. Rorke and I had our pact because I feared the monster I created in my old life. Now I know that fear was justified. Corvidley is here to make me suffer again, to bring the pain and the ice and make them just as infinite as the first time…”
“So we should just kill you,” Veer interrupted. “I’m not being vindictive,” the skull said in response to the sudden stares. “It just makes sense. Frostbite Cor will not torture us if there’s no father left for him to torture.” There were murmurs of agreement, and Oddball did not protest.
“When Cor returns,” Teal said to quiet them, “Oddball will offer himself willingly. We will let this old cold fight end on its own. Do we have an agreement Mr. Damr?”
“Aye captain,” the skull said dejectedly. Bonswario marched over and took Oddball under his arm. He wanted to be a part of the ending, to get a little justice for Haystone. “Don’t forget the point of my tale,” Oddball warned them all. “My son cannot rid himself of that storm. The ice and wind are always there. It was not he who slayed Haystone. It was not he.”
“I’m well aware,” Teal said. She turned and looked at the traitor’s camp once more. “Everyone grab your weapons. We’re going over there and we’re rooting out our murderer. When tomorrow’s florent burns I want them strung up by their own innards.”
“Aye captain!” Bonswario shouted.
Finally, Someone to Rob
For five days, as measured by the ascendance of Fwa Nippr, Rob was held captive. At night he was escorted to his room and locked inside with two guards posted. At meal times he was not simply given a crust of bread and a cup of water. They brought him out, paraded him in front of the rest of the family, and then chained him to the dinner table to eat with them.
For the first three days of these forced meals the Captain saw no sign of Vyra. She returned on the fourth day with fresh bruises around her eyes seeming to weight her head down. She refused to look at Rob, and he knew better than to try and speak to her with the rest of the living sixteen watching, daring them to disturb the peace of their life again. Each night, before Rob was told to go to sleep and dream of his shame, Clix stopped by to lecture him through the door.
“We worship the eight Robin. The two in their graves… our worship is not even good enough for them. All we can give them is respect in the form of terror and silence. We do not go to their graves. We do not crawl across their skin like parasites. We do not do any of the things Vyra told you to do. The world is not the laugh she thinks it is. We care about you Robin, and it was my fault you hadn’t received the proper education regarding life in the Pipes. I wanted to give you time to adjust naturally. My mistake. Your lessons will begin soon, with Ciamuse. She will convince you to bow, and to like it.”
Ciamuse was too important, too delicate, to visit a prisoner in his cell. For these ‘lessons’ Rob was allowed to walk the streets of Infinicilia, above the seclusion of their immaculate sewers. Clix protested Ciamuse walking alone with such a disobedient child, but the gravefolk woman insisted she would be fine.
Rob saw many opportunities to bolt for freedom during these walks, but there were still things he needed from the living sixteen. He needed a safe place to sleep while he mulled things over, while he reviewed the visions from the graves and tried to parse what was real. Was that prosite actually there? It was fanged like an aberrant wegger, like a child’s nightmare. It had such specific ideas for an illusion. It wanted to meet in the deepest drain of the city, where Infinicilia moans. We’ve heard no such moaning.
If the creature was real, if it told the truth of escape, was that what he wanted? All evidence pointed to the Pipes offering a form of immortality. Rob had earned his eventual bones, circumvented his emerald disease, for the privilege of living forever. Perhaps the Pipes were what he wanted all along. No. They were not a guarantee. They were not of the pirate’s own designs, so they were not assured. Danger still lurked about. Fayeblons. Prosites. Other horrors he hadn’t even conceived of yet. Clix was delusional. The safety of their drain was just a stroke of luck. The nearest gods were dead and buried.
These were the things he dwelled on while he ignored the rambling of Ciamuse during their latest stroll. She told him at the start of it that they would walk through the gardens, prompting Rob to wonder what the gardens of a dead prosite city would be like. She led him down several curving streets, there were no right angles anywhere in the city, to a district covered by a gigantic swell of glass: the largest such piece Rob had ever seen.
There must have been some ancient enchantment to it, for the gentle rain of blood turned to water moments after it hit the glass. It poured off the sides as crystal clear walls, occasionally marking the edges of their path. They descended a gentle slope and entered the communal gardens. There was no florent to grow proper plants. Instead the beds of rounded stones and shallow water were filled with crystalline tree-like growths that were mostly transparent. Rob had seen such stalks growing on the floor of the Snyre before. They were no good as nourishment to anything, but when looked at under a magnifying scope the activity of tiny animalcules could be seen.
Ciamuse pulled ahead of him as he examined the strange forms. Her walk was very strange for a gravefolk; her frame was small, yet she walked as if she carried a great weight. She often put one hand to the back of her lower spine, but she never took the other away from the clasp of her cloak.
“I wanted to show you something beautiful about our home,” she told him. “These do not bear fruit, but they will never brown, dry, or wilt. They are stillness and life at the same time, just like us. That is the gift the living seventeen receive from the eight gods every single day.”
“I never worshipped them in my life above,” Rob countered. “I’m sure it would seem disingenuous for me to start now. They’d see right through it. I may not worship them, but I have no vested interest in insulting them either.”
“A failure to worship is an insult on its own. Disrespect of boundaries is worse still.” She stopped in the middle of the path and reached a bony finger, tipped with gold filigree, out towards a crystalline branch. Her jaw dipped into her cloak, and then she seemed to think better of touching it. Rob pulled the glove from his hand and did it for her, flicking the crystal. It rang loudly, spreading the sound to its neighbors until the entire garden rang. Curious prosites, agitated by the sound, disappeared into various cracks, drains, and folds.
“You said you are life and stillness,” Rob commented as the sound faded. “Such a thing is a paradox. Life is short growth and long decay. Perhaps if you wanted to argue it was long growth and short decay I would be willing to listen, but it most definitely is not stillness. That is death.”
“Rules have exceptions,” she argued. “The gods made this world what it is, they can unmake any part of it as they see fit. For us, for our place in the Pipes, they have unmade death. Imagine something for me Captain Ordr. Close your eyes.” Rob looked at her to show he listened, but she refused to go on until his eyes were actually shut. Suppressing a sigh, he put his hands behind his back and obeyed.
“I can’t see the lovely gardens this way you know.”
“They’ll still be here when you open them,” she chided. A moment of silence. He heard the flutter of her cloak. “Imagine yourself suspended inside a delicate soap bubble. The air inside is warm, warming to your spirit as well as your flesh. The bubble whispers to you that you will live, as if in your mother’s womb, safe within it for all time. The bubble has the utmost confidence.”
Ciamuse started walking again. Rob followed slowly, keeping his eyes shut. He could hear her bones clicking against the tile ground, still indicating an awkward waddle, but her pace was very deliberate. Once they were away from the first section of the gardens, and Rob had no clue where he was, she continued.
“The bubble has unshakable confidence, but you do not. You look down and see thorn-covered ground beneath it. You notice the bubble drifting up and down, occasionally very close to the thorns. You panic. You flail and grasp for something: a branch that isn’t there. You need a branch because you don’t trust the delicate invisible nature of the bubble, even though it has never failed you. In your panic you rupture your home yourself and fall to your death. Stop.” Rob stood still.
“Most of my library was scientific in nature,” the Captain said. “I’ve never had much time for metaphor, except when the fools of history disguised their knowledge with it. Still, I believe I’ve just been lectured on the power of faith. You’re saying disbelief is doom, and the knowledge of danger can only create disbelief.”
“Open your eyes.” Rob did so, immediately becoming aware of a gaping hole before him. He looked down and saw the tips of his boots hanging over its edge. The tunnel was deep, lined with grooves to help prosites descend safely. For folk like Rob it was simply a shaft, possibly deep enough to be lethal. He took a step back.
“You took care of me, though I was blind. I take your point, but of course it was you who led me to the danger in the first place.”
“The gods’ designs are their own. We know only their promises, and they have promised to be our bubble. It is ultimately up to you whether your knowledge, your fear, gets the better of you.” Suddenly Ciamuse put a hand to her skullcap. She looked about until she found a place to sit: a curved stone bench with several divots meant to hold prosites like drops of water. The gravefolk sat on its lip, the side of her head once again disappearing inside her cloak for a moment.
“Are you weary my lady?” Rob asked.
“I am. This city is still so overwhelming to me.” They both looked up at the undulating towers that extended far above the gardens and their smooth crystal trees. Rob had to admit he felt a little sink-sick imagining what it would be like to stand that high on something so unstable, like a blood-thieving bug perched on the end of a hair, waiting for the next giant animal to pass by.
“You can trust me to watch over you,” Rob said. “That goes without saying though, as you trusted me not to flee during our time together.”
“You’re a smart man Captain Ordr. Even if you were wicked, which I can see you’re not, you know the trouble you would be in if any harm came to me. Your protection will be more than adequate. A small nap is all I need to refresh myself. Half a drop. I ask that you stay within sight so the prosites aren’t tempted to slither over me.”
“You have my word as a captain,” Rob promised with a hand over his heart. It could be very difficult to tell when a gravefolk was asleep, but in that position her body language should have been sufficient. Her head should have hung forward on her drooping neck or lolled backward. Rob waited. Ciamuse’s sockets wandered about as if she had difficulty paying attention to anything in front of her. Her gaze drifted up to the waving tips of the towers and the play of blood and water on the glass.
“My lady? Are you still awake?” No answer. Her head still moved about as if in a daydream, but aside from that she seemed unconscious. How peculiar. He walked up to her and snapped his fingers. No response. Perhaps she was stillness and life after all. What is the nature of her condition? The bones can hold no non-magical illnesses, so it must be entirely mental. Though sleep is required in their living death they’re often better at staving off fatigue than the fleshed. There are no eyelids to droop, no yawns to suppress. We don’t know if we’ve ever seen a skeleton need a ‘nap’ like this. Such a delicate thing. If the Pipes make your bones soft it’s all the more reason for us to leave. Softness crumbles.
With nothing to do, he did intend to keep his promise though he wasn’t technically a captain of anything anymore, Rob wandered in circles around her supine form, examining the nearest crystal-plants and their ornate beds. He flicked another branch and listened to it resonate across the gardens. As it faded he noticed something else: a separate sound. It faded just a moment later.
He flicked the crystal again and tried to separate the second sound. It was deeper. Further away. Almost like… a moan! He sprinted in the direction it seemed to come from, only to have it fade with the sound of the crystal again. He flicked a different crystal; the sound started up again. He followed it back to the hole in the ground Ciamuse had nearly dropped him into. For the first time he noticed there were others like it around, and it wasn’t just the ground. Holes dotted the slopes that turned into the sides of the towers: prosite tunnels like the entrances to bug hives.
Rob looked over his shoulder. He could barely see Ciamuse, really just the tips of her fingers resting on her knees. Still in sight though. He flicked the crystal once more. The moan was much closer now. There. The biggest hole of them all, just around the bend. Rob took a step toward it. He couldn’t see Ciamuse directly, but he could see her silhouette through the overlapping transparent branches of the crystal. Still in sight.
He walked the edge of the largest hole, big enough around to swallow a whorl. The moan faded away, but not before Rob noticed its source. The tunnel, below its lip, was lined with more crystal. It was the color of seafoam, and opaque, so Rob guessed it was much denser than the delicate growths of the gardens. That might’ve accounted for the deeper sound of its resonance as well.
Can we call this a drain? And is it the deepest in the city? The deepest would be down where the living sixteen live… but that might not count as the city proper. Those are its bunkers and sewers. This could very well be it. This could…
“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t join me,” a familiar voice said, rising out of the hole. Rob leaned as far as he could over the edge with bonepicking, until his face was nearly even with the ground. He saw small bumps and divots in the crystal: tinier paths for prosites traveling off the main branch. Out bubbled a greasy amber dome with one small eye and a cluster of sickeningly smooth teeth. No vision after all. What had it claimed as its name?
“Fixadilaran, was it?” Rob asked. There was no need to mention his stumbling across the drain as unintentional.
“A good memory for a brain clotted by Qorcneas,” the prosite complimented. “Have you given thought to my offer?” Rather than respond immediately Rob turned on his side, still slanted terribly, and walked around the edge of the drain. He was deep in thought, hurrying to make something up, but the prosite was welcome to assume those thoughts were deeper and more deliberate.
“Keep yourself zipped,” Rob said. “This is our first conversation on even terms. You intrigue me Mr. Fixadil. I’ve never seen a prosite like you before.”
“I imagine not,” it answered, sliding along the crystalline wall, staying directly beneath the Captain’s path. Its angle changed slowly, drawing them closer as they spoke. “Which is good. The others are likely to spread rumors about me.” At a slight wet sound behind him, Rob turned his head. The edge of an ordinary prosite seeped into the loose stones of the crystal-plants. He could see them everywhere: small dollops of eavesdropping color. “They are newer. Less pure. I am a most ancient strain,” Fixadil said to draw his attention back.
“Pure what? What is the original essence of the prosites?”
“A child before history. A ward of Hesprid and the animalcules of the giants who built the world. That is a tale for another time however. We have business. I can get you back to the surface.”
“What would be in it for you? Don’t pretend selflessness.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Fixadil burbled. Its teeth bristled out of its gelatinous body in an expression akin to a smirk. “That’s not the way of the original strain. If I am give you this information you must agree to take me with you. Hide me under your clothes and let me go my own way once we see the florent.”
“Why do you need me at all?”
“The way through is only for folk. The gatekeeper would sooner squash a prosite than speak to them.”
“Your kind that live above are nasty things. They rarely speak. They fall into the employ of whatever creature feeds them the most sugar water, lumbering and posturing about in bodies of stone, metal, wood, or water. I’d be loath to squeeze even one more drop into that obnoxious phial.”
“I expect you to loathe me Captain Ordr.” Rob stopped, but only for a moment. “Yes, I know your name. I’ve spoken with some of the new strain who have seen you around the city. Anyway, as I said, I expect nothing from you but hatred and honesty, for those are all I will give you.”
“Forgive me while I dribble philosophy. The prosites you know above make bodies out of the raw materials around them. They become proliths, but proliths are not the imago of our strain. They are an aberration: a simplified version of our purest talent and purpose. A prosite of true achievement becomes profect, not prolith.
The manipulation of dirt is exceedingly simple. Our liquid forms simply spread out between the pieces of it and move them, drying and hardening to make the form keep its shape. The pure strain seeks not to dominate the ground, but to dominate life. We are meant to be conquerors of the flesh, and we have been since before Porce.”
“He lies!” a prosite exclaimed from outside the drain. Rob shot back up. He hadn’t been permitted to roam about with his weapons, but he raised his fists nonetheless. The interruption came from a bright green blob that hid its eye behind one of the crystal trunks. It wasn’t the only protester though. The pirate whirled around to see them everywhere: spots of pink, green, purple, and blue. They hissed agreements. Fixadil was a liar. Prosites never conquered flesh. Never.
“I don’t believe I was speaking to any of you,” Rob growled. He stole a glance backward and saw Ciamuse’s silhouette, still perched upon the bench, hopefully still asleep. “If any of you have proof he’s a liar, bring it to me. That, or tell me you have an easier way out of this scab of a place. No? Be gone with you then.” A couple of the prosites receded into the holes they’d come from, but many stayed and listened. Some slowly circled around the largest drain, never taking their eyes from Rob. “Please continue Fixadil.”
“Thank you. They are in denial. They have to be, or face that their strain has lost its way. Their weak minds cannot handle it, and they are the descendants of this fine city! I can only imagine what those feral fects above would think of my speech.”
“How is it that you conquer flesh?” Rob asked.
“Yes, the process. It is called infection.” The other prosites rippled at the word. Their eyes sank through the jelly of their bodies and rolled along the tile ground. “A prosite that still has the talent, the heritable brilliance, can infect monster or folk by entering their mouth while they sleep. They can turn their cavities into a lovely home, and from there exert influence or toxicity. This is my goal. There is nothing worth infecting down here in the Pipes. I want my chance to hunt, to conquer.”
“That sounds rather gruesome,” Rob confronted, “and like the sort of evil I can’t quite abide.”
“You’ve seen it already,” Fixadil claimed. “An infecting prosite can choose their level of impact. They can inhabit without becoming profect, though that often results in symptoms for the host. Black necric fluid in the lungs and mouth. A foul vapor that burns anything outside the body.”
Rob’s heart skipped a beat. In his head he saw the black smile of Vyra. He saw the corroding impact of her very breath. His fists clenched so tightly that his gloves squealed. So she’s plastered to the side of the same bowl as us. There’s something inside her, lecturing her on her own longevity, insisting death is her fate and legacy.
“Deathbreath Vyra,” Fixadil went on, “as the folk sometimes call her. A victim of the pure strain. Her inhabitant, one Lordiceb Mortuum, saw her fighting spirit as an opportunity. One day, while she slept outside the safety of her living family…”
“I understand the concept,” Rob barked. “Mostly. Why does this Lordiceb not take her over completely? Achieve what you call profection?”
“There are things we lack,” the prosite answered. Its body flattened and disappeared against the side of the drain, only to suddenly stretch outward and morph into the rough shape of a folk hand. It sank back to a blob. “Folk have greater physical strength and dexterity. They know how to use their own bodies better than we would. So Lordiceb is waiting, letting the woman devise her own way out of the Pipes. Once she has freed herself…”
“It will take her over. Will that kill her?”
“Yes,” Fixadil answered plainly. “Profection will kill the woman and transform her body. It will be mutilation by your standards.”
“Does she know of this?”
“I haven’t asked, though with all this time in one of our cities she’d have to be an ignoramus not to figure it out. Lordiceb has bet on her resolve. I’m betting on yours.”
“You won’t be getting anywhere near my mouth,” Rob barked. The thought of it made him spit into the drain. Fixadil lunged towards the center, caught the saliva, and pulled it back to the side. It rolled the little blob around in the slime of its body and then spat it back up at Rob. It landed next to his boot, discolored by its brief adventure.
“I know you’re too smart for that,” it said. “I just want to use your determination. I tell you how to escape, you escape with me under your clothes, and then we go our separate ways.”
“I let you go, off to infect some unsuspecting Porcian?”
“That is my price, yes.”
“What’s to stop me from acting on your information without bringing you along?” The Captain snuck another glance at Ciamuse. Still seated. Was her head at a slightly different angle? No. Just the distortion of the crystal. One change was obvious; there were more prosites listening in, swirling around them. Enough to act as a wave and sweep us into the drain? Aye, but we’re faster. With this greater bonepicking we can simply leap over any such attempt, swim through the air and fall like a feather.
“Your escape will depend on a certain party not being wise to the intricacies of our scheme,” the amber prosite explained. Its path up the drain brought it closer and closer to the lip. Rob saw the hardened residue around the bases of its many teeth. “If you were to betray me, leave without me, I would simply explain your treachery to the party. You would be stopped and killed before you touched the Fith.”
“Who is this party that controls the way?”
“Can I take your question as tentative agreement, Captain Ordr?”
“You can,” Rob conceded after a quiet moment. His eyes shifted. Ciamuse was fine. Ciamuse was seated. The colors swirled around him. The brave ones spat curses at his bargain.
“Then we will get into the specifics,” Fixadilaran continued. “The party we’re discussing is Thipperon of scales.”
“The Fayeblon? We’re to defy a Fayeblon?” Rob remembered the massive ancient creature and her crooked smile. Her wreathed jewelry. Her girl in a cage.
“Not defy, bargain. Just as we are now,” Fixadal assured. “She doesn’t publicize it, but Thipperon can reach a drain under Slick Rin. She could take a folk from the ground and press them up into that tunnel through the Fith: an open path all the way to the florent.”
“Why has Vyra not taken this path?” the pirate asked. “She seemed chummy enough with the monster.” He glanced up to make sure Thipperon didn’t crawl across the ceiling of the Pipes at that very moment. If she had it would’ve taken just the flick of a fingernail to split one of her jeweled closets from its chain and have it crush him.
“There is a test. Thipperon will not let anything she deems wicked through. You must demonstrate a clean soul to convince her.”
“Ba! Ahaahaha!” Rob guffawed, lowering his volume when he remembered his sleeping charge. He stole another glance. Still napping away. “A clean soul? You just popped the wrong piece of lint-hided gum in your mouth, Fixadil. Or mouth vacuole… or… whatever your equivalent is. If you’ve got waters to launder my soul then I’m a triple-genitaled stallossus!” Some of the prosites snickered along with him. Yes, Fixadil was ridiculous. A liar. A strain with dust in it just coughing up mean dreams.
“It matters not,” the amber prosite countered. “No folk has a clean enough soul to pass her test. It is a test of weight. Thipperon would place you on her scale, and on the other end she would place that girl pet of hers.” Rob stopped laughing. He thought about the mute girl in the jeweled closet. Vyra had called her Chewlry Bubblr.
“This girl has a clean soul?” Rob asked.
“How could she not? Fixadil burbled. “She has no access to temptation. She was placed in there just as she passed from childhood to adulthood, and child souls self-cleanse impurities. I know this much to be true, because children cannot become profect. With no other folk, no vices, no discomfort… Chewlry has stayed clean. Thipperon will weigh your spirit against hers. If you are heavier, weighed down by her definition of evil, you will not be allowed to pass and she will squish you between her diamond-plated fingertips. If your weight is even or lesser you may leave the Pipes.”
“So what is your plan? How are we to beat this impossible test?”
“This is where my genius comes in. Any of the living eighteen could’ve figured this out, but none have.”
“The living eighteen? It’s the living sixteen isn’t it?”
“Is it?” the prosite questioned. Its eye rolled all the way around in its slime. “The number has changed so much I can’t keep track. Anyway, there are two elements to the plan. You must first steal a gift for Thipperon. Second, you must cut off one of your fingers.”
“You’re losing me,” Rob said after a moment. “I’m not interested in cutting off any of my body parts.”
“It doesn’t have to be an entire finger,” Fixadil offered. “Any piece of bone will do. The tip of a finger or toe… perhaps a tooth.” Rob, in the midst of rolling his eyes, spotted a few colorful blobs through the crystal. They moved around Ciamuse’s dangling feet. He took a step back. If he yelled to scare them away he might wake her. He gritted his teeth.
“Our time is short,” he barked at Fixadil. “Compress your plan and give it to me in one sentence.”
“Steal folk jewelry from Cloader of theft: Thipperon’s suitor; she will only accept gifts that smell like him. Have her adorn Chewlry with it. Stash your split bone inside the gift and use bonepicking to alter Chewlry’s weight and make your soul appear clean. Deal?” Fixadil had risen to the edge as it spewed its plan. It again morphed into the shape of an arm and hand, extending itself over the lip, asking for a handshake. Rob had no time to think; a blue blob slithered up Ciamuse’s foot.
“Deal!” He grabbed the liquid amber hand in his and shook once. Without his thick gloves keeping it away from his skin he might never have agreed. He expected its grip to be weak, like shaking hands with a puddle, or at best taffy, but it matched his strength. None of his fingers broke through the slime’s skin.
Fixadilaran Bocculum retracted its fingers and fell back down the drain with the speed of water. It was gone from sight in an instant, as was Captain Rob. The pirate didn’t bother to run and build up speed; he simply leapt away from the edge of the drain and back toward Ciamuse. The bonepicking of the Pipes allowed him extraordinary height, enough to jump over the wall of crystal growths between him and the gravefolk. Though he pushed his bones forward and accelerated rapidly there was still enough time in the air to think.
Fixadil wants me to bonepick at a distance. It’s possible down here. We’ve seen Argnaught do it. He made his hands and feet into dancing puppets with no strings attached. All we have to do is give a piece up. One little piece…
Rob sailed over the crystal and was startled to see a small mound of color, like mingling drops of different-flavored jellies, clumped around Ciamuse’s feet. He growled and forced his weight into his boots, killing his forward momentum and dropping him like a safe full of the weightiest treasures. He obliterated one of the prosites with his landing, popping its eye and scattering flecks of its body.
The others immediately shrieked and scattered, burrowing between the pebbles in the crystal beds. Rob composed himself quickly, while Ciamuse still wore her blank daydreaming posture. He wiped the sweat from his head and breathed deeply. Something fluttered under her robe. Quick as he could he plunged his hand down her loose collar and grabbed the first thing in her lap that didn’t feel like bone. He pulled out a blue prosite that cackled and wrapped around his hand, eyeing him with one of the many thin pupils across its one solid piece.
“What were you doing in there, slime?” Rob demanded. He wrapped his fingers around its eye, its vulnerable core, to make it answer.
“Just having a conversation,” it answered cryptically. “No harm done and none meant. Praescriphil mecrax trex misethrax.” The gravefolk stirred. She ran her hands over her forehead, as if she literally pulled a veil of sleep away. Rob used the one moment where she covered her sockets to hurl the prosite into the distance. He held out his hand for her to take.
“Did you have a good rest my lady?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m feeling much less cranky,” she answered. She took his hand and rose to her feet. “I will bind you to our family a little more today, but we can do it while we walk back.” Together they turned around and left the gardens behind. They walked in silence for a quarter drop until they found the familiar streets just outside the stairs down to their home. They waded through the bubble of water in the street’s center. The only distractions were the occasional flat stones that skipped across the water and down the street. What had thrown them, and to what end, Rob had no idea, but the stones managed to curve with the street and continue skipping until they were out of sight.
“You need us as your family Kilrobin,” Ciamuse claimed. “You will not be whole without us.”
“I mean no disrespect, but how do you know that?” the pirate asked.
“There is something that unites every member of the living seventeen beyond being lost in the coldest veins of Porce. Internal loss. We have lost our lives above, and the families that live there, as surely as if we had died. I can see it in the face-flesh of folk, and I saw it in yours before you even understood where you stood.”
“Go on,” Rob said after a moment. Another stone tried to skip by, but he brought his foot down on it with a big splash, holding it under his boot. He expected it try and wriggle free, but it immediately went still as death.
“I know your pain Captain. I too have lost before becoming lost.” Emotion crept into her voice like a chill down a chimney. “I had a child. He could not follow me into the Pipes. Looking at you, I can almost feel the muscles on my face again, my brow and lip quivering with the knowledge of his absence. You have lost a child, have you not?”
Rob lifted his foot and looked at the stone he’d stopped. He nudged it, but it did not surface. It did not move. He bent down and fished it out, wiping as much water away as he could, looking for signs of the magic that had animated it. The pirate turned and hurled it with all his bonepicking might. The angle was perfect; it sailed parallel to the water before eventually falling into a skip. His throw was mightier than that of any folk above, but he could not make it turn like the others. It skipped right out of the water and collided with the side of a tower. The sound sent the glittering prosites all over the buildings back into their cracks for a brief moment.
“I had sons,” Rob admitted. He stroked his beard. Our teeth. It always feels like our teeth are about to fall out when we talk about them. No, they’re still in there. Still sturdy emeralds, readier for our words than we are. “Kilronin came first. He never saw the florent go out. Within drops his breathing stopped. His body became a pincushion before we buried him. He was covered in these.” Rob tapped his emerald teeth. “They erupted out of him as spears… Later, we tried again. We named the next one Gray, thinking perhaps the Kilro name was part of the curse I passed to them. It made no difference. Gray was born already pierced; he hurt his mother on the way out and I nearly lost her too. Aye Lady Ciamuse; I have lost children.”
“You’re done losing,” she told him, grabbing his wrist. She hummed a lullaby and placed her forehead against his chest, just over his heart. “The eight have given you a family that will not die. You have brothers and sisters who share your pain. Someday the living seventeen will be the living hundreds, and your children will run through these streets, utterly incapable of hurting anyone, least of all themselves.”
Rob nodded, just stiffly enough that she could feel his chest move. It was better to let her think she’d won him over. What she described was a dream. The living sixteen were asleep, and sooner or later they would be forced to awaken. Their pirate brother would be long gone before then, back to the Gross Truth, back to the death he would best rather than ignore.
“This has been eye-opening,” Rob whispered. It wasn’t a lie; their little walk had proven quite educational. “Thank you. I know I presume too much, but may I ask a favor?” The lady pulled away and nodded. “I wish to see the entirety of my new home. I’m suddenly consumed by the urge to bonepick my way to the top of one of these towers and survey all of Infinicilia. Would you allow me this short diversion? I would invite you along, but I’ve gathered you don’t care much for the combat art.”
“You are right Kilrobin,” the gravefolk confirmed. “Too much bouncing about for me. I will trust you now as I did in the garden. Please return home within the drop. We’ll have lunch ready for you.”
“Thank you my lady,” Rob said as she walked away, toward the stairs. Once she was out of sight he did exactly as he had told her. His first jump was so powerful that it scattered all the water about him, leaving the stones bare for a drip before it could flow back in. He snagged a pearlescent curl drooping off a tower and flung himself upward again.
Up and up he went, leaping from building to building. They had no edges, no distinct floors, so he became lost in his ascent, like climbing a waterspout. He knew he was near the tops when the buildings started to move, sway, and even respond to his landing on them. The tip of a tower, coated in purple fronds that might have been alive, bent under his weight and tried to throw him off. Rob let it go and moved to a higher tower. There was no solid foothold, but by pushing his weight into his soles he made a stable enough connection. This one moved more like a tree in the wind, so he hung there with one hand on it, bending it this way and that with bonepicking, surveying the city and the land beyond.
Thipperon crawled across the Fith ceiling in the distance. Glittering baubles dangled upside down from her neck. He couldn’t remember which, but the girl Chewlry was stored away inside one of them. What would she, a clean soul, have to say about all this business? Was she as trapped by delusion as the living sixteen, or was it just the will and silver claws of Thipperon that kept her there?
His eyes moved away from the Fayeblon and to the rest of the Pipes. He was high enough to see everything he’d encountered so far, from the blood river where he’d first dropped to the round tips of the graves of the first over a bone hill. There was much more. A jungle of rusty pipe shards. A smaller prosite city with limp dead towers. Domed prosite shrines. His eyes wandered further, past dunes of gray-white bone powder.
There was something. A structure of scab and flaked Fith. Its edges were rough, but Rob could see intent in its construction. It was a little like the bergfolk farmhouses he’d seen illustrated a few times: quaint dwellings outside Bordstalle and atop the Rinvision Stone. Things embedded in its scab roof glittered weakly, like Thipperon’s jewelry. Rob made the connection. It was likely the home of Cloader of Theft. The glitter was jewels he hadn’t yet delivered to the love of his lousy pipe-life. If the pirate’s collusion with Fixadil was to succeed he would need to claim some of that glitter, something he knew Cloader had touched.
He inked the path into his mind. When he left it would be best to bonepick through the tips of the towers, that way fewer prosites would spot him and report his direction to Clix and the others. After that he would have to cross the river and the dunes before arriving on Cloader’s doorstep. Judging by the details he could eke from that distance, the Fayeblon’s home would nearly be a city unto itself.
The Mop felt that way. Somebody in every room, living a life separate and strange from mine. Let the giant thief have his then. The bigger it is, the less he’ll notice is missing. Within the drop Ciamuse said. We’ll need food and rest if we’re to steal from any giant called ‘of theft’. Rob let go of the tower, drifting from foothold to foothold, bonepicking his way back down. It’s unfortunate Ciamuse, but you’ll have to lose another child.