(reading time: 1 hour, 28 minutes)
Seven days passed from Rob’s bargain with Fixadilaran Bocculum. He continued his lessons with Ciamuse, but each time his mind drifted further from her lectures. He saw himself crossing the city, the river, and the bone powder dunes to arrive at the doorstep of Cloader of theft.
His plans had always had confidants. He could whisper to Teal. Discuss strategy with his grandfather and Oddball. Order Roary to guard the plans. Count on Alast to overhear. Execute with Dawn at his side, flattering him with exact mimicry of his bonepicking maneuvers. Now his schemes were all alone and lorded over by the soulless gel of a prosite. The plans were on the tip of the pirate’s tongue, and they scalded it with nowhere to go. He wanted nothing more than to speak with Vyra; she would appreciate it. Alas, Clix did not allow them to be alone together. The tilefolk was back to smiles and manners, but any time Rob approached her he found a hairy hand on his arm, pulling him away to a chore or conversation.
Someone should know about our luck with this. Rob felt the lump in his pocket. It was the dead of night, by Fwa’s counting, and the Captain was confined to his cylindrical well of a room. For good or ill there were no eyes on him now; it was time to practice. He needed at least a little before he set out on his robbery.
Captain Rob reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of himself. It sat there in the open palm of its non-native hand: his middle finger. Rob had lost the tip of the digit when Qliomatrok pierced the Mop. His hand was in the Reflecting Path. The tip of his finger was likely still there, which had caused plenty of worry in itself. If a single drop of his blood was in the path his reflection might lick it off the ground, claim Rob’s life force as its own.
In the days after their sinking, when he’d suffered no ill effects he could attribute to such an act, it was safe to assume his reflection had not gotten the chance. The tip of the digit was likely buried under the mirror’s debris. By the time his reflection had moved it the fingertip would have dried and lost its potency.
If everything he’d been told was true, the rest of the finger still had a use. Rob poked at the bend of flesh. It was wrinkled and mummified by the cold of the Winchar Straits. It consisted of the base of the finger and the second bone. Though he’d stemmed the bleeding when he lost the tip to the Reflecting Path, it had shown signs of infection. Rob had ordered Bobat to perform an amputation on the remainder of the digit.
Rather than discard it he’d kept it in his pocket. The darkness of our mind convinced us to keep it, not sentimentality. It’s a piece of us, a fleshed bonepicking man in the line of a Custodian, so it has to have a hundred uses. We remember the plans we had for it, even before the Pipes.
We feared it would come to starvation. Our crew withering and dying, only some returning as skells. All eyes would’ve turned to us to make the crucial decision. Were they allowed to turn to cannibalism? We would’ve said aye, but our first offering would’ve been our own finger. Each of the crew would be allowed one sliver of meat from their captain’s hand, and in our desperation it would be a glorious gesture. A macabre version of kissing our ring. Even in their most monstrous moment they would do it under our banner to make it easier on themselves.
That’s what the world wanted for us. Our rage at Hornhollr saved us that fate. Our theft of the Mop brought us here. Again we see that flouting the order of society has kept us alive. We must flout again. Clix’s order is smaller, but it’s still the wrong sort. The only true order is the house of Ordr. Let’s make use of it now.
Rob stared at the severed two thirds of a finger. He tried to think it in a direction. He bonepicked the fingers of his free hand, making them perfectly straight. He pointed them at the inert digit. It didn’t budge. Perhaps it needed a nudge, like a fledgling. Rob cooed to it slightly, embarrassed even in the empty well. He tossed it gently as if releasing a delicate tidywing. It dropped to the cushions, bouncing slightly.
“I gave you an order,” he growled at his severed finger, nudging it with his socked foot, hoping his toes would whisper encouragement to it. Whichever toe was in charge, probably the big one, needed to remind it who was captain of the body. Too long had it been allowed to live separate from the rest, in the pocket of luxury while the rest of its crew crossed glaciers and swords.
Rob stood and pointed both hands at it. He performed a bonepicking jump, going halfway to the room’s raised entrance. He couldn’t come down with full force, that might shake the foundations enough to wake the others, but he still landed aggressively, sending all the cushions spinning in the air. The finger went with them, but it fell with them as well. He lost it in the jumble of pillows and then spent two hundred drips searching for it. The results were quite discouraging. He seemed to have no connection to it at all, not even enough to sense it through cloth.
We know it’s possible, for we’ve seen it. He thought back to Argnaught’s demonstration where he made all his limbs into running and dancing puppets. Rob had many of the same qualifications for such a talent. His bones were precious gems. He was practiced in bonepicking. He had experienced the enhancing effects the Pipes had on the combat art. Why wasn’t it working? If he couldn’t make this piece move he might have to cut off another just to have a larger sample size. He’d devoted much to his scientific efforts in the past, but never a true chip of flesh.
Fixadil’s plan wouldn’t work without this skill, so Rob paced around the edge of the small room with the finger in his flat palm once more. His mind pored over possibilities both magical and chemical, but he had nothing to experiment with. His bonepicking-enhancing snort powder, made from the cartilaginous spine of a gravitation-defying upper upper rin fish, was sealed in a jar and sunken with the rest of the Mop. His gem-polishing acids had likely ruptured their storage bags and dissipated into the Snyre. It was just his will and his finger.
“It still has flesh,” he whispered. Our mind and body know they’re dying, but this finger has forgotten in its separation. The flesh makes it think it still has a chance. We need to take away its hope. You are dead little finger. You are gone. You’ll never feel softness again. Nor hot and cold. Let go. Become gravefinger. Poke death in its black eye.
He stopped pacing to concentrate. Part of him was dead. Well and truly dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Sloughed off the Gross Truth as waste. The flesh was illusion. False hope. Rob’s gaze intensified, so much so that his vision blurred. The finger blurred as well; it took a moment for him to see the truth. It wasn’t his eyes anymore. The flesh blurred. Slowly it dissolved into the air like a fungus that grew without gaining mass. He saw through it, to his emerald bones like fancy game pieces, and then it was gone. His middle finger was now gravefolk; gone were its reservations about its hidden abilities.
Rob bonepicked it into the air. He made it bend at the joint so it fluttered like a bug. He tried guiding it with each hand, and while both worked the original home of the finger was far more precise. He flew it up to the entrance and made it swoop back down. It now obeyed his orders, but did it have the power to weigh down the girl Chewlry?
He bonepicked the finger into burrowing under the pillows, centereing it under an overstuffed round one embroidered with sixteen figures holding hands in a circle. The pirate only now noticed the newer stitching, where figures had been excised. The finger slowly lifted the pillow into the air, up to Rob’s chest. The pirate took a deep breath, focused the gravitation in his hand to a razor’s edge, and sliced through the air. The finger moved as if loosed from a bow, piercing the pillow through the bottom and spraying feathers in a geyser. Before it could fall Rob sliced again, again, and again. The finger changed directions instantly each time. It struck through the pillow with every motion, utterly shredding it. The pattern was destroyed. No two embroidered hands were still connected.
Captain Rob beckoned his finger back by curling one of its siblings. It drifted through the air. Curious, Rob urged it down, pressed it into the amputation scar. He gritted his teeth, but was forced to stop when further effort would’ve squished the flesh that had grown over. He mentally locked the digit in place and flexed it. It was back on his hand in a sense, even though it was naked and glistening.
He pulled on his gloves. Up until that point he’d always been able to ignore his illness. The spike protruding from his shoulder could only be seen in a mirror. His green teeth could be painted over. The ones he felt under his lip hadn’t broken through yet, hadn’t given him the spiny mustache that adorned his flag. The emerald finger was Rob’s first permanent souvenir of mortality. For now it stayed on his hand, but if he succeeded in returning to the surface and lost the enhanced bonepicking of the Pipes it would go back to being useless… until he lost the rest of his blood and flesh. Once he was all bone he might have been able to reattach it and control it like any other gravefolk. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t be keeping it for long. There was a little feather from the pillow stuck in its tip, a bit of fluff to soften its point, and Rob decided to leave it there. It could be the living sixteen’s contribution to his victory over the Fayeblons.
He left before Fwa’s rising, using bonepicking to soften his steps. With the approval of Ciamuse came the removal of Clix’s surveillance, so making it back out to the streets of Infinicilia was not difficult. Rob climbed the towers once more, though he knew the precaution was unlikely to succeed. The living sixteen only had twice as many eyes, but the city itself still teemed with prosites.
Fixadilaran had marked them a ‘lesser strain’. Based on appearances alone Rob was forced to disagree. The prosites of the city, which more closely resembled those of the World Floor, were much more pleasant to look at. If they had teeth they were more neatly arranged and often transparent. Their coloration was bright, soft, and varied. In opposition slithered Fixadil: greasy, bile-like, and brimming with jagged teeth like a demonic haund.
The pirate knew ‘lesser’ went beyond mere appearances. Fixadil was cunning, intelligent, and opportunistic. The prosite had principles and goals, whereas those of the city simply lurked about. Rob had gathered that they were terrible gossips. Some of them sought status by conversing with the living sixteen, acting as something between diplomats and celebrities. One of them was bound to see the pirate fleeing the safety of the city, and was equally bound to tattle. Clix and some of his more devoted were likely to pursue.
The prosites were nice enough to confirm this for him after he leapt to the pinnacle of one of the outer towers of Infinicilia. Prosites bulged out of a few circular holes near his handholds and eyed him.
“You shouldn’t listen to Fixadil,” a fuchsia one warned. “Thipperon will see through you, and then poke through you.”
“No, she’ll chew him to paste,” a seafoam prosite corrected. “Once he looks like us we can show him around the insides of the city proper. He’ll fit in our tunnels after a good chewing.”
“I always trust the folk who says there’s a way out,” Rob said. He wasn’t lingering to talk to them, just surveying his exact route to Cloader’s jewel-encrusted scab of a lean-to. “As there is always a way out.”
“So you’re naming us liars?” the fuchsia one asked.
“If you fit inside the shoe,” he answered, adjusting the phrase to account for their blobby bodies.
“Fixadilaran Bocculum morbex estrephil. Plaget ebulliithrax ex tragoecidiphil. Tantumic stultus diffunderentur necessec estit in domum suamicril. Homirec, qui antiquil fuerunt verisiphil abiitit,” a newly-emerged purple prosite said. Rob found its tone a touch too foreboding for his liking. He couldn’t just let the comment sit.
“And what’s this one saying?” he asked the seafoam one, moving his hand so it couldn’t slither across his glove.
“My friend was saying that only fools wipe foreign mud off on their own welcome mats, especially when the mud has designs of its own. Fixadil is a disease bubbled up from Tragedy. The old immunity of you folk is likely gone.”
“It’s too bad we’ve already established, via a reliable formula, that you are liars,” Rob said. Still, his feet felt glued to the opalescent tip of the tower. The world put us here, not us. If its natural order can’t handle what we bring back, that’s on it. It needs a toil brush up its bottom to convince it of its own cruelty.
“I’ll be telling on you,” the fuchsia one bubbled. “Clix will love to hear where you’re going. Love it so much he’ll scream.”
“Not if I beat you there!” the seafoam one declared gleefully. The two blobs raced each other down the side of the tower, like raindrops down a window. A dozen more that had been listening emerged and joined in the mad dash to reveal Rob’s wrongdoing. The purple one that had spoken only in Coproglossi remained. Its eye was fixed on the pirate, even as the prosite slowly receded back into the tower.
The fuse on his escape was lit. Clix would have not one, but two chances to stop him: the living sixteen could interrupt or prevent his robbery of Cloader’s home, or they could wait beneath Thipperon. The prosites would certainly reveal the entire plan, so they would know he had to appeal to the ceiling-crawling Fayeblon eventually. Clix can’t stand disobedience. To him and that neckstump brain of his it is the same word as disrespect. He won’t be able to wait at Thipperon; he’ll be too afraid of drawing the ire of Cloader. They will try to intercept us there.
Rob bonepicked his way back; the tip of the tower bent. He aimed himself at the glittering roof of Cloader’s home, just visible past the bone dust dunes. The tower strained against the force audibly. He waited until the final moment, the moment before it would’ve cracked and sent him tumbling back to the wet streets, to let go. The tower sprang back to shape, launching the pirate between the remaining spires of the city as if from a catapult. He was flung well beyond the border. He threw his limbs wide, bonepicking both up and forward.
The launch, combined with the picking power of the Pipes, allowed him to glide through the dank air for an incredible distance. With his cape flapping he felt like one of the dainty gliding rodents of the Tippytops. The sluggish blood river passed under him in mere moments. The Captain didn’t spare any effort to look back at the receding towers of the city, for he had no idea how much distance such a backward glance might cost him; it was his hope to make it all the way to the powder dunes, but when his height flagged he knew it would not be possible.
His landing in the bone dust would’ve been so pleasantly soft, but he had to settle for a nasty mound that looked equal parts decaying trees and ribbing-capped cheese-like fungus. The pirate curled into a ball and slowed his descent as much as he could. His spinning meant he couldn’t see exactly where he was landing, so he closed his eyes and focused on picking. He penetrated the mound and went much deeper than expected. It took him a hundred drips to claw his way back out of the impact tunnel. It might have been easier if he had his Dagyvr bonepicker’s sword, but the living sixteen had taken possession of his weapon. He didn’t need it in such a safe place after all.
From the mound he marched to the dunes, and then through them, not bothering to erase his trail in the calcified sand. He had to save some energy for thieving, especially as he had no clue as to whether or not Cloader of theft was in that morning, so he kept a spirited but deliberate pace all the way. Even so, it took him three drops to cross the final ridge and get his first clear look at Cloader’s home.
It was impossible to identify the strange material of its massive walls; they looked exactly as they did at a great distance, perhaps a little more disgusting. They were something between scab, mud, and wood, striated with red and crimson. Embedded in them, especially thick on the single slanted piece of its roof, were thousands upon thousands of precious stones. All colors were present, but the white of diamonds and common crystal was by far the most prevalent. The gigantic shack looked like a bone spur rupturing the skin of a healthy limb, and instead of sanding it down or sawing it off the victim had instead decided to gild and celebrate it. It had a doorway, but no door. There was a fence of sharpened heartwood, resistant to rot, along the base of the doorway, clearly designed to keep out vermin the size of Rob. Cloader likely just stepped over it whenever he returned home.
Again, to his chagrin, Rob’s theory was immediately confirmed. There was a great rumble in the ground, like the swift collapse of a stone tower, and he was forced to drop to his stomach and seek cover under the giant leathery cap of a collapsed fungal stalk. His nose filled with the smells of the fetid curdled ground. The stench was so awful that his lip involuntarily curled, with almost enough pressure to force his spiny mustache out prematurely. He barely noticed the pain of its pokes, absorbed as his mind was by the source of the sound.
The ground rumbled again as Cloader of theft took another step. With a third he came into view, stepping over the caked bloody hills like they were nothing. While Thipperon’s size was incredible, it was belied by her elongated shape and slender limbs. That was not the case with Cloader. He was a moving mountain, his shoulders rounded by atrocious disfiguring posture, but he could hardly be blamed for hanging his head, given its own immense size.
Cloader didn’t have much forehead to speak of, but his jowls and jaw covered much of his chest. His eyes were hidden under some kind of scalloped leather hat that needed regular adjusting. His face was dominated by his lips: swollen, pale brown and gray, cracked and flaked in several whitish layers.
It was no wonder he longed for Thipperon, as her monstrous form was truly elegant by comparison. Unless one counted her copious finery as clothing, she crawled across the roof of the Pipes in the nude. Cloader wore a baggy outfit but still managed to look far worse. His pants sagged, their constant downward journey paying his rope belt no heed. His shirt was covered in a thousand stains that were as many rests old. It was also far too small, allowing his gut, which was somehow both round and sagging, to hang and wobble freely. Rob could see what looked like hair on it, but given its greenish color it could’ve also been blankets of vines surviving in the soil of his unwashed god-thick skin.
Cloader’s thundering steps were slower than usual, for he dragged a fresh prize from out of the Pipes: the carcass of a monster Rob could not identify. It had smooth smoky blue skin, but he could discern little else, as its head and limbs were bashed and shredded to a red pulp. Its tail dragged behind the Fayeblon, scattering what bones his booted feet had not yet crushed.
This is the questing beast counterpart to Whispr of peace? This is likely true. We’ve felt the lingering power at the graves of the first. They lived. Their children likely did as well, and so did the beasts that opposed them. Rob recalled the common depictions of Whispr. He was a god that would’ve preferred to not exist. His form was shadow creased by dust. His limbs were for curling into a ball and sleeping rather than walking. Sometimes, on the side of a vase or on a piece of scrimshaw, he was curled fully into a circle, limbs spiraling toward the center along with his neck.
Cloader was just as round, but far less dignified than the interpretations of his long lost adversary. He was not satisfied to stay at home; he had to go out and claim things with his giant hands and their chipped vomit-colored nails. There was no peace to him at all. He stole to fill a void that could never be filled. He sought the love of Thipperon even though his heart was an inert membranous steak that couldn’t hold such an emotion.
It started to rain as Cloader approached his shack. Rob stuck out one hand and caught a few drops: blood. Does this place ever get any water? It quickly became a downpour that threatened to wash Rob out from under the fungus. He pressed himself down into the muck with bonepicking. He had to wait, at least until Cloader was comfortable inside. The Fayeblon took one more step, over his sharpened doorstep, but then stopped halfway inside. His swinging block of a head turned to survey the gristly front yard. Blood poured over him, streaming in rivulets off the brim of his hat, but he paid it no mind even as it fell into his under bite and cascaded over his lips. The flow peeled some of the dead skin off them in sheets.
Why does he linger? He can’t possibly see us from there. Cloader’s head didn’t move. With his hat covering his eyes it was impossible to tell where exactly he stared. Rob’s hands opened and closed around wads of fungus. He didn’t have time for this. Clix was coming. The blood rain fell even harder; it started bouncing off Cloader and pooled in his footprints. The Fayeblon’s mouth was perpetually open, but Rob never expected the words that came out of it.
“From one thief to another,” the monster called out, aiming his voice at all of the Pipes, “I know your intent.” Impossible. The creature senses us… but he doesn’t know where we are. We have to stay out of shot of his eyes and ears. “All property is mine!” the monster bellowed. “Unless it is hers, by way of me!” He sprayed blood rain out of his mouth with every word. His speech poured out of him like injurious vomit, further staining his shirt with red vitriol.
“Just a questing beast,” Rob muttered. “I’ve bested your ilk before. I know children that have.”
“Go from this place!” the Fayeblon roared as if responding directly. “Go and keep your life! Go and stay there, in elsewhere, until a more natural death!” The Fayeblon finally wiped his mouth with an elbow. He nodded at the emptiness of his yard, stare only lingering another moment, just long enough to see the harsh rain turn into red mist near the ground. Cloader turned and dragged his catch inside, the spiky doorstep snagging some of its hanging flesh and ripping it away.
Rob only waited a few hundred drips after Cloader was gone from sight. With proper planning he would’ve liked to wait a few drops, or perhaps even burrow into the scabby soil and camp there for two nights to convince the creature his suspicions were just a new constant. He couldn’t be the best thief he could be, so he had to settle for the swiftest. The pirate stood and leaned forward, sliding down the wet hill toward the giant’s shack.
The doorstep barrier might have been useful for keeping out armies of tiny folk, but Captain Rob was a lone vermin. When he reached the base of the walls he simply searched for a crack in their crusty material wide enough to slip through. From there he used a combination of climbing and bonepicking to ascend the crevice, make it to what he estimated was chest height for Cloader, the most likely height where he would store jewelry, and then push his way through.
Once inside he fell only a short distance to a shelf. At first glance it appeared to be a bookshelf holding volumes big enough for wealthy families to live in, but when Rob hid behind one of the objects he realized they weren’t books at all; they were slabs of rock. It was incredibly dim inside the shack, most of the light came from the magical jewels among his collection, but Rob could still make out glittering veins in the slabs. These were sections of unprocessed ore. Perhaps Cloader planned to eventually chisel away the ordinary rock and craft jewelry of his own.
For now the Fayeblon was seated in the single chair at the shack’s center, which was made out of a stone pillar covered in hide. He leaned forward over a worktable, where he had placed the strange carcass. Rob looked around. There was no bed. If Cloader slept at all he did it on that stool. There were some notable fixtures aside from the desk and shelf; they hung from the ceiling by hooks and filled a great chunk of the shack’s space. They were six more carcasses, all appearing to come from different giant monsters of the Pipes. Rob knew such creatures would be legendary, but even the thousand legends in his head couldn’t provide names for them. Now they were limbless headless collections of ribs and dry-aged meat, slit down the middle and gutted.
While Cloader’s exterior roof was doubtlessly a treasure trove, it was nothing compared to what the Fayeblon kept under watch of his beady eyes. The shack’s walls were bare, as were the shelves and the table, but each of the hanging carcasses was stuffed to overflowing with ancient treasures of Porce. Even surrounded by putrid monster meat, Rob couldn’t help but salivate at the sight of them.
Some of the pieces were so large that he could identify them even from that distance, meaning they were meant for hands at least twenty times the size of folk. Seals of pure gold that bled gold as well, never needing to be inked or waxed. A pipe organ with knotted pipes that played itself. A ship blown from unbreakable glass with sails spun from sugar and honey. These wonders bulged out of their meaty chests and hung down, dangling chains of the rarest and most magical metals of Porce, many tipped with bath beads, some of which bobbed back and forth, dancing under their own power.
Why does he store it all in there? Perhaps Thipperon loves the smell of moldering monsters. He’s marinating the treasure in his conquests, to make it all the more impressive to his muse’s cataclysmic and disgusting femininity. We have to take something from one of those bodies. Only the pieces in there will have the right smell.
The pirate needed to come up with a plan. He wasn’t sure if an empowered bonepicking leap could get him all the way to one of the hanging chests. He tried to focus on other possibilities, but his eyes were again drawn to the strange doings of the Fayeblon. The giant hummed to himself, a discordant tune, while he took up a jagged stone knife and filleted his most recent prize. Its guts spilled out onto the table. Between each slice Cloader grabbed a handful of the innards and shoved them in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. He sucked down a veiny lumpy stretch of intestine like the last buttered noodle in the bowl.
If he’s truly eating that the Fayeblons must be another order of questing beast. None that we’ve seen can consume consistently. They couldn’t turn food to energy because Porce provided their energy. If Cloader can…
Zhhhieww! Something whizzed by Rob’s ear and cracked the stone next to him. He jumped back, into the shadow between two tented slabs. The sound was enough to make Cloader stop chewing. He spun around on his chair and eyed his shelves. Rob retreated further into shadows, but he spotted something rolling across the shelf. A bony finger. It dropped off the edge and flew across the shack to the shelf on the other side. A skeletal hand caught it and put it back in its place.
The Fayeblon’s view was blocked from the sides by the slabs, but Rob could see the trio directly across from him. The launched finger had come from Jermy Stermr of the living sixteen. Rob remembered him as a normal enough gravefolk, he’d shared less than three conversations with the man, but now his bones were covered in yellow war paint. He had no weapons, but he split his fingers from his hand like bladed fans and made it clear he was ready to fire more. They know the same trick as Argnaught, the same one we plan to use in our escape.
To his left and right stood two more of Clix’s family: Sodikin Magleetr and Phanthomas Leafsmokr. Sodikin was gravefolk, and along with Jermy this was his second time retrieving Rob. He had a ball of ropes at the center of his rib cage. He pulled them out much like Cloader and the intestines, threatening Rob with the bindings from across the great fall between the shelves. Phanthomas was the young lightfolk man with the dark skin and the crystal earrings: one of the closer acolytes of Ciamuse. Out of her presence his wan demeanor now looked far more sinister. Rob had to remember that the Pipes granted him bonepicking as well, but not the ability to separate and control his pieces.
The three men gestured to the Captain with waves and downward pointing. They ordered him to cross the gap and give himself up to their custody. They dared not shout it, for Cloader would hear. They were looking to avoid involving the Fayeblon. That could work to our advantage. A bubble from being caught we could shout our lungs out. Of course, Cloader isn’t likely to let any of us go.
Rob flicked his hand dismissively, telling the living three to be on their way. Phanthomas responded with a running leap. Though his frame was slight the jump was impressive and flawless. He sailed through the air silently, once Cloader had turned back to his butchering, and aimed straight for Rob. The pirate had rock on both sides, so he had no choice but to meet the young man head on.
Phanthomas came in kicking, which Rob answered by tilting out of the way and springing back, smacking the side of his opponent’s knees and sending him into the wall. Zhiiew! Zhiiew! More pointy finger bones flew by, one cutting along the side of Rob’s neck. Only then did he realize that Jermy and Sodikin had sharpened them. The rest of their digits flew in, even as their owners stayed on the other shelf. The fingers and toes pestered him like steel insects, jabbing through his clothes and sneaking under his feet to trip him.
By rolling his weight forward and back Rob was able to avoid falling. He focused his gravitation into the soles of his feet and stomped several of the toes, crushing them to dust. The move shook the wood of the shelf. Cloader whirled around again, staring at the slabs. Rob wouldn’t have tried again after that noise, but he didn’t have the chance anyway. Phanthomas was up and upon him, grabbing the pirate’s shoulders and pushing him against one of the walls. The boy’s grip tightened, straining Rob’s bones. He was trying to crush the pirate’s shoulders, destroy his ability to fight back.
Two finger bones inserted themselves up Rob’s nostrils, cutting off some of his air. A bony forearm swung into his gut and then pressed against it, further pinning him. He was losing the fight. His final option now seemed like the only one. He opened his mouth to shout and draw the Fayeblon’s attention… but held it back. There was already a great noise. Cloader was moving, rumbling around much quicker than before. The giant stood from his stool, rushed over to a blank patch of wall next to the shelf with the gravefolk, and punched through it.
The top of the wall gave way like bark. Cloader stuck his head outside and promptly vomited. The sound forced all four folk to pause. It was truly terrible, like a god after a spicy meal spewing the contents of a volcano from both ends. Steam could be seen rising from the disgorged monster organs through the new window. He’s like the other questing beasts after all. He can’t keep food down. Either he tries to keep it down, still denying his nature after an age, or he simply likes the taste.
Cloader’s indigestion likely provided the only other opportunity Rob would get. His giant curved back now filled the chasm of air between the shelves and the nearest hanging carcass. It could act as a stepping stone. The monster’s shoulders bumped the shelf, ruining the concentration of the skeletons standing on it. The fingers dropped out of Rob’s nose and the press of the forearm weakened. Rob grabbed the bone from off his stomach and swung it into Phanthomas’s middle.
The young man was forced back. The pirate turned, loaded all his gravitation and frustration into his legs, and launched off the shelf. He was aimed straight for the base of Cloader’s neck. He would have to reverse the force quickly on impact, springing off the mountain of flesh to then land in the piles of treasure inside the carcass.
The living three weren’t going to give him the chance. Jermy and Sodikin emerged from between the slabs and ran along the edge of the shelf in great bonepicking strides. Phanthomas put his feet in the splintered prints Rob had left behind, launching at the same trajectory. All four converged on the same spot on Cloader’s back. Half a drop after Rob’s boots struck the filthy shirt both skeletons and the boy grabbed hold and rolled. The ball of bodies tumbled to the side and bounced off Cloader’s shoulder, bonepicking in several directions at once.
The experience was an utter blur to the Captain until they struck something wet and slimy. The four bodies split up as they sank waist deep into a silvery goop full of sharp black flecks. The pirate kicked his pursuers away, setting himself adrift in the pond of gunk. There was an edge to the round container they’d tumbled into, so Rob swam for it. The silver goop quickly filled his boots and gloves, weighing him down, so he tore them off and continued.
He caught a glimpse of his own bony finger. The emerald shined, more so than usual. Polishing oil. We’re in a big pot of polishing oil! Cloader of theft wiped the last dollops of vomit from his swollen lips and returned to the desk. He sat down and brought a bucket out from under it, placing it beside the tin of polishing oil. The impact of it created waves around those floundering inside.
Rob found the lip and threw himself up to it, resting on its thin top. He shook off his clothes and wiped his face clean. Cloader reached into the bucket and pulled out a diamond ring. It was not a traditional band of metal topped with a stone; the entire thing was composed of diamond. The pirate watched intently to see if he could snag a treasure from this new bucket, but he was forced to look away at the sound of splashing. The living three were on his tail, swimming straight for him. The splashes died after a moment, as they decided to propel themselves forward with bonepicking alone, like rafts in a strong current.
The Captain was about to leap down to the table when a shadow passed overhead. Jermy, Phanthomas, and Sodikin stopped swimming and stared up, mouths agape. They dove under to avoid Cloader’s fingers as they dipped into the oil and swirled around. When they came back out Rob saw Sodikin’s skull and rib cage pinched between them. Cloader’s hand swung back to the ring… and started to polish. The gravefolk reached out, fingers separating, trying to claw at Rob still, when Cloader, still unaware, rubbed him against the surface of the diamond band. His skull cracked. His torso was crushed to powder against the treasure. The living sixteen was now the living fifteen.
Jermy’s and Phanthomas’s heads emerged. The Captain needed to move before they became aware of what just happened. He stood and shook off the last of the polishing oil. The carcass was close enough now, and Cloader was busy polishing his gems and stuffing them into the fresh cavity of the beast. Rob bonepicked another incredible jump, hurling himself past the Fayeblon’s arms and into the chest cavity of something with long white fur tipped in green curls.
From a distance there had been a certain softness to the mounds of treasure, but up close Rob realized that wasn’t the case. He turned to have his shoulder absorb the impact, but he still bounced and rolled across the valuable innards with significant pain. He was cut by legendary weapons, bruised by historic monuments, and a spherical bath bead became lodged in his ear where it screamed like a folk trying to vacate an entire caravan from their bowels until Rob pried it loose with a flick of his emerald finger.
Silence had been impossible. Cloader turned with an audible snort and looked at the carcass. He wiped the polishing oil off his fingers and onto the table. Then he rose, lumbering over and pulling the slit in the carcass wide with both hands. He stuck his blocky head in, the carcass’s shanks pulling his hat back and revealing his tiny wrinkled eyes.
“Something…” the Fayeblon mumbled, but he couldn’t spot Rob in the chaotic jumble of jewels, giant coins, and mythic suits of armor. The pirate felt the Fayeblon’s inward breath; it picked up jewel dust from the pile. It pulled his hair. Yet he was just a dark speck in the collection, and Cloader couldn’t pick him out.
With great difficulty Rob pulled his eyes down to the hoard he waded in. He needed to grab something as a gift for Thipperon. It needed to be something suited to folk, something he could convince her to put in with the girl Chewlry. His hands explored the options slowly, quietly, even with the Fayeblon’s stubbly chin passing overhead.
Many of the items were far too large, prompting Rob to wonder how big folk used to be. Some of it even seemed to be alive, like crystal bugs burrowing in sand. A miniature sapphire bergfolk danced with a tiny dress wire frame across a silver dish. Rob slid it away delicately, without disturbing their routine, and finally found something suitable underneath. He picked it up by the chain: a locket of a metal he could not identify. It was shaped like an egg with one side flattened, and was easily big enough to hold two finger bones.
He popped it open. A red bath bead flew out and burrowed into the treasure. There was a paper note that floated out as well, with script too fancy to read, but the bead had burned a hole in the middle of it anyway. Rob clicked it closed again and examined the front: two fish carved from ivory and painted, spiraling down an etched drain. The pirate stowed it away in his pocket and looked up.
Cloader’s head still blocked the exit. If the Fayeblon was convinced he had a thief trapped, he never had to remove his head. He could simply wait the vermin out; he wasn’t aware of how powerful Captain Rob’s impatience could be. Rob was tired of the Pipes. Tired of sticky red rain. Bored with Clix’s cozy pathos. Irritated by the petty echoes and shadows of the eight gods of Porce.
Rob lifted his bony middle finger and pointed it straight at Cloader’s nose. It still had the little feathery piece of fluff stuck in its tip. He loosed the finger, bonepicking it straight up Cloader’s floppy right nostril. He swirled his hand around when he sensed resistance, doing his best to tickle the sensitive tissues. It was time to answer an old, silly, pointless question: could a questing beast sneeze?
The answer was yes, but only with substantial discomfort. Cloader retracted from the carcass so suddenly his hat fell off. He pawed at his face for a moment, stumbling about. Then came the sneeze. Questing beasts were never supposed to exhale, so the end result was more like violent tremors of the rib cage. The Fayeblon made a sound like the ground giving way to a sinkhole full of sewage.
The Captain recalled his finger all the way back to his hand, ignoring the great glob of bubble-filled white snot it brought with it, and sprinted to the dead chest’s slit. He only needed one more good jump to be free. Cloader put one hand on his worktable and dug around in his nose with the other. Still distracted. Rob leapt with all his might. A few drops later he struck Cloader’s shoulder and bounded again, changing direction.
The stale air of the scabby shack gave way to the putrescent stink and steam of vomit. Rob was through the opening, and not a moment too soon. Cloader’s hand reached out not three drips later, grabbed the top of the peeled window, and pulled it closed once more. The fall was quite a long way, but there was a hot soft pile of monster viscera for him to land in. Rob stumbled free of it and shook off the least stubborn bits of the experience. Jermy and Phanthomas were still in there somewhere. It might take them an age to escape, and that was if they even could. The living sixteen was effectively reduced to the living thirteen. No better time to try and sneak by them.
Rob pushed himself forward, bonepicking and running to leave Cloader of theft and his prisoners behind.
We have what we need to leave, but Clix already knows. He has a plan and has mobilized his familial forces. Three were sent out to reclaim me before the theft, but only three. He wanted a greater force elsewhere. In all likelihood the ground under Thipperon is flushed with the living however many. We’ll have to face them eventually, but for the moment we are free to arm ourselves. There will be only a few back in Infinicilia, if any. We can go there first and reclaim our sword.
And so Rob journeyed in the straightest line the soiled terrain would allow, back toward the waving towers of Infinicilia. He stopped only once to fill his pockets with bone dust from the dunes, suspecting it could come in handy in the fights ahead. The old sand-in-the-eyes trick rarely let a swashbuckler down.
It wasn’t just his weapon compelling him to return, though he would scarcely admit it to anyone. He wanted to know the fate of Vyra. If she didn’t know about the designs of the prosite living in her breast… she needed to. He owed her that much. Perhaps she had been left behind, her room turned into a cell. The damned prosites. He would’ve shared a kiss, and most likely a bed, with the woman if not for that loathsome creature.
He realized, as his bare feet slapped against the first clean tiles of the city, that the loathsome creature was on a chummy name basis with the loathsome creature in his own life. There was his bargain with Fixadil. What had happened to ‘Deathbreath’ Vyra would surely happen to another. It would surely be Rob’s fault, unless he killed the creature at first opportunity. Otherwise he would be an intermediary for the most dreadful disease, a courier of innocent downfall, and a carrier in the foulest most collaborative sense of the word.
Avoiding these thoughts was impossible, especially with a hundred prosites peeking out and snickering at him as he navigated the streets. The Captain stopped when he reached the entrance to the home of the living. Nothing was amiss. It didn’t look darker than usual, which suggested Fwa was still inside, dangling in her florent dance. One less fighter to stand against him then, because Clix took the routine of their lives that seriously. The florent could not take sides, so neither could the brighted bones of that woman.
Rob descended. He made it to the main hall where all the gardens and animals were. Fwa was indeed overhead, singing to herself. She didn’t even look down as the pirate flew by under her, quiet as a severed black bird wing falling in the night sky. Rob knew where they kept all the weapons. The chamber, just two hallways off the main hall, was locked, but the rusty thing was little hindrance. Rob put it between his hands and squeezed with bonepicking until it crumbled and gave way. Once inside he armed himself with his Dagyvr saber.
He was about to grab a regular sword from the stores when he noticed what leaned in the corner, behind a pair of fused shields: Vyra’s roost-spear. He hadn’t seen the weapon in a while. That was the real defeat we saw in Vyra’s eyes. It wasn’t shame. It wasn’t weakness. Not sad haund pup eyes. She was without her weapon. Clix took her greatest talent from her. We should like to wield it, in her name of course. Rob picked up the long thing by its secondary handle: the place where an experienced wielder could stand while the blade was pressed against the ground.
Even if he didn’t know its strategies, a good spin with it could keep multiple foes at a distance. It would serve well as a secondary weapon. He held it behind his back horizontally with one arm, the way he normally would with one of the smaller harpoons aboard the Mop. The empty corridors proved a blessing yet again, as there was no one to see him and the spear collide with the doorway when he tried to leave; it was a long weapon indeed.
Now on to planning our final battle with the living. Many of them are gravefolk capable of splitting their bones. All fighters will be bonepickers. Too many for us to take. We’ll have to make it a game of numbers beforehand, tell them they have fewer pieces on the board than they think. Our pieces will also have to count for five times as mu-
Rob’s bare feet squeaked across the floor as he skidded to a halt. He stood on the threshold of the main hall with his exit it at the far end, and the living thirteen stood in the middle. All of them. Clix had them mostly lined up across the length of the hall. They wielded bonepicking weapons and ropes. The group’s rope maker, Orciet Ticktockr, had apparently long seen this coming. He’d specially made some lovely white ropes that spelled out Rob’s name in green across their twists: the gift wrap for his permanent housewarming.
Argnaught Overturnr had been coaxed out of his room. The obsidian skeleton held a bonepicker’s flesh paddle, but his grip was loose. Rob knew he had the strongest grip of any folk he’d ever seen, so there was only one possible reason: uncertainty. He would have to be convinced not to fight in the numbers game, for his black bones were less a piece on the board and more like a hatchet cleaving the board in two.
Ciamuse sat on the stage, wrapped up as always. Her head hung low. She was attended to by the tilefolk Ump Tweenr. Sat next to them, held in place by Ump’s gentle furry hand around her wrist, was Vyra. The woman stared at Rob intensely, leaning to see through the locked arms of her insistent siblings. Her eyes were less on Rob and more on the long blade of her spear. Her expression suggested she’d just seen the weapon grow out of the ground like a sudden bountiful crop.
“Have you even noticed?” Clix asked, pacing back and forth in front of his troops. “Your haste has made your priorities clear. You came back here, to this warm safe place in the groove of one knuckle of Plowr, under the breath of the other seven, to get your weapon. You were about to leave without even putting shoes on your feet. Did you notice what that says? You’re ready to be sharp, rather than safe from sharp things. It means you are a sharp thing. You’re a boot-piercer Kilrobin Ordr, a comfort-breaker. Let us dull your edge with love. It won’t hurt. I promise.”
“I wish only to take my leave,” the pirate reasoned. “My body and its position in the world is a fundamental freedom of folk. I’m only asking for half of a despot’s decency.”
“We have a whole decency for you Robin. We’d never insult you by giving anything less.” Fingers tightened on ropes. The florent stopped singing.
“Just to be clear,” Rob started, “your aim is to prevent me from leaving the Pipes, by violence if necessary?”
“We understand each other.”
“For the sanctity of your living sixteen?”
“I don’t think you know how to count, Master Clix.” Rob paced himself, mimicking Clix’s pattern, pretending he stood in front of his own crew. Teal was behind him with her eyes of ice tougher than any chip in the Winchar Straits. Dawn was behind him cracking her knuckles. Herc. Roary. Oddball and his grandfather. Alast. Pearlen. Bonswario. Ladyfish. The Rookr twins.
It’s time to start the numbers game. It was the living seventeen; I was dissatisfied. Sixteen. Vyra won’t fight me. She’d love to, but only on her terms, only in jabbing good fun. Fifteen. Fwa is the florent and does not take sides. Fourteen. Ciamuse is their mother; she is to be protected. In order to be protected she cannot fight for herself. Thirteen. Ump is by her side. Twelve. Three are with Cloader. Nine.
“You have only nine fighters, and that number will continue to shrink,” Rob said. He twirled the roost-spear behind his back. He brought it up to a high speed, just enough for its breeze to catch Vyra’s knotted hair.
“The three sent to get you will return soon,” Clix countered. “Our family grows more than it shrinks.” The tilefolk waved his hand and they all took a step toward the pirate. Rob thrust his sword toward them, a vicious stinging gesture. They halted.
“There’s a decent chance I can handle fighting four or five of you.”
“As you said, there are nine!” Clix barked. Rob twirled around and tossed the spear. It moved like a machining saw, enough to cut a gravefolk in half, so the living nine were forced to break ranks and let it pass between them. Vyra caught it as she stood.
“Yes, but there are two on my team. I think your doubting daughter can handle four as well.” Rob smiled at her, asked her to come out to play. Ump tried to grab at her wrist, pull her back down to the stage, but the woman whipped her arm away. She grinned her corroded grin, cackled in the way she only allowed herself outside the vacuoles of Infinicilia, and leapt over the fence of warriors between them. She flipped in the air and landed next to Rob, perched on her spear with its handle in front of her. She treated it as an iron sage would her cane, or a passionate politician would their podium.
“Vyra!” Clix shouted. “I should’ve known. You haven’t been thinking about what you’ve done at all. All that sulking was over your own hide, not what you’ve done to our family. And all for some boy!”
“Boy?” Captain Rob boomed. A few of the living nine took a step back. Had he bonepicked his very voice? Surely not. “You may have muddled your age, but you shouldn’t be foolish enough to think me a boy you headless psychotic!”
“You have the heart of a boy!” Clix fired back, undaunted. “As with your bare feet, you do not see what you cost yourself. You didn’t come back for your weapon. You came back for her.” He pointed at Vyra, who looked to Rob. The Captain tilted his head and smiled a little. Vyra cackled again, venting acidic gas up in a plume. “You want her to run away with you, as children sometimes do.”
“Back to the analysis of our odds,” Rob said. We’d take the heart of a boy over the fuzzy brain of an ignoramus any day. “Another of your number has just changed their mind.” The nine looked across their own in confusion, shrugging at each other. “He’s so impressed by my manipulation of your numbers, so close to Vyra, and so disinterested in your designs in general that he has just decided not to fight. Isn’t that right Argnaught?” All eyes turned to the obsidian gravefolk. He shrugged himself and dropped the paddle.
“He’s right,” Argnaught admitted. “This all does seem more foolish than sitting in my room, thinking about the old days.”
“Another traitor?” Clix moaned, scratching the top of his shoulders with one hand.
“And Mr. Overturnr is so impressed by my defiance that he’ll be joining our team as well,” Rob said. He held out his hand.
“Don’t push your luck,” Argnaught said with a snort. He turned and walked away. “I’ll be in my room, napping. If you’re still here after Vyra, tell me what happened.” He disappeared around a corner.
“I could’ve told you that wouldn’t work,” Vyra said, smacking Rob on the shoulder. “He hasn’t used his picking for anything other than puppets in an aged age.”
“You’ll forgive me for trying,” Rob said out of the side of his mouth. He cleared his throat to get back to his estimations. “And so the living nine becomes the living eight. That’s just four opponents each. It’s already sounding like a casual stroll on a dry sink lip.”
“Robin, why are you doing this?” Ciamuse asked, genuine hurt in her voice. All eyes turned to her. She had her dark cloak pulled across half of her jaw even as she spoke. “Why are you destroying our family? I explained everything to you. We took such nice walks in the streets of this fine clean city. Where is the stain on your soul that convinces you to act this way?”
“Don’t strain yourself my lady,” Clix advised. “We’ll handle his punishment.”
“Yes, absolutely forbid that she should strain herself!” Rob snapped. He took a few steps forward. Clix’s line destabilized further. “You did explain everything to me Lady Ciamuse.” His voice crested over the warriors and broke against the gravefolk sitting on the stage. She retreated further into her cloak even as Ump stroked her shoulder. “Your explanations were wholly unsatisfactory. Your wisdom, no matter how much these fools eat it up, is nothing but denial. I have plucked the real lumps of truth from your sickly sweet porridge. Aye, the eight gods existed, and so did two before them. The Fayeblons are real. The Pipes are not the realm of punishment many above believe them to be, just a dank den of decomposition.”
“It is our home. You are safe here…” Ciamuse begged.
“No soul is safe anywhere in this cursed world!” the pirate exploded. “A Fayeblon could crush this place with one foot whenever their decaying senile mind felt like it. You only think you are safe Ciamuse, but of course you think that. Your words are just the ignorance of a child.”
“How dare you!” Clix roared, but Rob was on the move. He struck the ground with his sword and sprang off the bent blade, flipping over the living eight and landing at the edge of the stage. With a flat palm he shoved Ump; the tilefolk woman slid harmlessly along the wooden curve of the stage’s lip. Rob grabbed Ciamuse’s cloak. The skeleton screamed in a wholly new voice. She clawed at Rob, but she’d never felt the need to practice bonepicking in her pampered second chance, so her strength couldn’t compare.
“I’ll show you what a real explanation looks like,” Rob claimed. “Here is proof that you haven’t stumbled into utopia. Here is the ignorance you’ve enjoyed for so long!” He yanked the cloak, ripping it off Ciamuse’s bones and tossing it away. The gold filigree on her skull, hands, and feet did not extend to the rest of her body. She’d never allowed anyone to look under her various cloaks, and now, before the eyes of her obedient family, the reason was clear.
Crouched in the cradle of her hips was a small creature with a swollen cracked head, the cracks looking vaguely like the shifting of landmasses. Its eye sockets were huge and bird-like; it had a small toothless jaw that hissed under Fwa’s florentshine. The bony creature scuttled behind her spine to hide, but realized the futility a moment later. It climbed Ciamuse like a rummin up a tree and perched on her shoulder.
The living gasped and recoiled in horror. It took them all a moment, as it had been many rests since they’d seen such folk, but they eventually recognized the creature. This was Ciamuse’s child: the living skeleton of her unborn fetus.
“You never lost your child at all,” Rob growled. “He has been with you this whole time, napping in your hips and whispering in your ear. He is the source of the philosophy of the living sixteen, and he is nothing but a bone-cornered creature of terror.” The gravefetus hissed at Rob again, pointing at him with its minuscule and sharp finger bones.
“How did you know this?” Whinnymoo Ticktockr asked. She’d let one end of her husband’s fine rope fall to the ground.
“During one of our delightful walks,” Rob said, “there was a time when she needed a quick rest. Now it’s clear that this bone spur within her needed its midday nap, and that she just let her mind wander while he was down. I don’t think she does any of her own thinking anymore.” Ciamuse’s head was turned as far away from Rob as possible. She sobbed gently while the gravefetus continued its tantrum of squeaks and hisses. “A prosite crawled into her robe. When I pulled it out it told me it was having a conversation. That begged the question: with what?”
“What is the meaning of this Clix?” Orciet asked angrily. Both the bergfolk were visibly disturbed. “Did you know?”
“I did not,” the tilefolk admitted, “but this doesn’t change a thing. In fact, it’s joyous news! We have a child everyone! Of course Ciamuse was always so good at taking care of us! It was true mothers’ love! Is there anything more pure? The maternal instinct is a woman’s direct line to the gods who cared for us.”
“This is your definition of purity?” Rob asked, holding out his hand toward the gravefetus, pulling it back when it snapped at him. “This is a thing never born, yet still given life as gravefolk. It mostly takes scoundrelism to turn folk bony. Do you know how rare a gravefolk child is? Even as a pirate I’ve only ever seen three!”
“Wait, you’re a pirate?” Boable Muskr asked. Rob paused.
“Hardly relevant now, or rather, extremely relevant. I know evil when I see it, as I’ve done a fair bit myself. Imagine. What dark thoughts are in that cracked little head if it earned its bones before earning its first breath? What foul creature spawned such a child? You have no idea what you’ve been following, and you have no idea if any god would sanction such a union as that… or such a family as this!” The bergfolk couple threw down their ropes and stormed away.
“Whinnymoo! Orciet!” Clix called after them with outstretched hands. “It’s extremely rude of you not to congratulate our lady Ciamuse on her child. He’s a new member of the family!”
“But Orciet! You made this lovely rope,” Clix argued pitifully.
“The craftsmanship won’t suffer without me,” the bergfolk answered without slowing down. “They’ll still tie folk up fine.” The couple disappeared down a corridor. With that the living sixteen had been reduced to just the living six. Rob looked over the others, hoping for more to abandon the cause. Unfortunately, they were not as disturbed about the gravefetus as he hoped. Should’ve known. Even folk who admit they’re acting likes babes don’t have to stop acting that way. They’ll just pivot. They’ll fawn over this creature like a true child. Our numbers game is over. Six it is.
“There’s still one thing you haven’t accounted for!” Clix growled. He drew a strange weapon, of both tilefolk and bonepicking styles. It resembled a plow of upward blades, like the twisted claw of a tunnel tickler. “That is our resolv- waaah!” Vyra spun herself and her spear across the floor, tripping the living six up with everything available to her. Her limbs moved like paper petals pierced by a metal pin. The elegant but painful-looking move got her past all of them and to Captain Rob’s side. She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away from the stage, toward the exit. Their flight was on.
“Do you truly have a way out of the Pipes?” Vyra asked as they ascended to the open streets. Her head and hair whipped around twice as she chose a direction.
“I do, by way of Thipperon, but I can’t take you with me Vyra. It will work only once, and only for me.”
“No matter. Wherever I go I’m not coming back here. There’s plenty of pipe I haven’t walked yet. This way.” She pulled him down a street that curved aggressively. To Rob it felt like a spiral that could only terminate in the middle, yet they still wound up on a new avenue. They could see the wasteland of the Pipes through an open gate at the end. The view wasn’t completely unobstructed though, as the gravefolk Lemny Freshr stood between the escapees and the boundaries of Infinicilia. The skeleton lifted one finger and waggled it back and forth, chastising them.
The tip of the finger split from the rest, followed by the middle piece, and then the base. Every finger turned into three separate pieces, but kept their orientation with the rest of the body. Skull separated from neck. Jaw from skull. Teeth from jaw. Arms from shoulders. Legs from knees. Hips from spine. Lemny stretched out every bone, becoming a warrior nine foams tall. The shape of folk still held, even though there was empty air between every joint and socket. The gravefolk took a step toward them.
“They can fight like that?” Rob asked.
“Very well,” Vyra answered.
“The stride length… We won’t outrun them.”
“So let’s make them less comfy,” Vyra said. She mounted her roost-spear and started bounding toward the gate, bouncing on its blade. She wanted to go straight through Lemny before the others caught up, and that was fine by the Captain. He leaned forward and ran, his speed allowing his chin to nearly touch the ground without falling over. Lemny had a saber long and thick enough to cut five heads from their necks without slowing, but the escapees were undaunted, especially when they heard the other living five coming up from behind.
Clix and the lightfolk woman Gretchid Openr were the only fleshed ones; all the others knew how to control their bones independently. One by one they snapped and cracked free of their natural shape, loosening and stretching until they were as tall and fluid as Lemny. They started to catch up, taking giant strides. They were easy enough to hear, as the end of their steps had all their bones clicking as they compressed back into each other.
Vyra flipped on her last jump, supporting herself with just three fingers as the rest of her body guided her spear into a clash with Lemny’s saber. While their blades were locked Rob caught up and snatched Lemny’s femur. The pirate tossed it away, destabilizing the gravefolk. This gave Vyra the upper hand; she sliced diagonally and cut the rib cage in two. Lemny collapsed into a pile. Now they were the living five.
Rob and Vyra leapt from the edge of the city and drifted down to the scabby ground of the Pipes. Vyra scanned the ceiling for Thipperon, found her slowly scuttling near the dead prosite city, and turned in her direction. Rob grabbed her wrist and pulled her the other way, toward the bloodfall and pool that had welcomed him to the Pipes. He assured her he had a better plan than beating them to Thipperon. There was no time to argue, as the living five were descending already. The three gravefolk, Boable Muskr, Mehtier Kindlr, and Grobnine Fetchr, landed first and resumed closing the distance between them.
“Oh I see,” Vyra said as they pushed deeper into the decomposing hills surrounding the river. “We’re going to turn them into snacks! Scaredy little rin cakes!” There was a pile of bones between them and the riverbank; they were large enough to be one of the creatures hanging in Cloader’s shack. Rob was going to change course slightly to get around them, but Vyra just roared and powered through, spinning and slashing and cracking and cackling. Her spear cut through ribs as thick as Threewall trees.
“Such prowess!” Rob complimented from behind. “How did you ever let them keep you down?”
“If you’d hurried up in getting your pretty beard damned to down here, I could’ve left them far earlier!” she shouted back. “Just needed another miscreant to scheme with!”
“You do remember I lost everything to get here?” he asked with a chuckle. “It took a lot of dead friends and crew.”
“Death always brings folk together! Makes it so there’s fewer folk to talk to in the first place! Ahahaha!” She splashed into the river, breaking up some of the coagulated crust at the top. Rob advised her to stop there, but there was no time to say anything else. The three gravefolk were upon them, stretched limbs stepping over the last little hills. Their weapons came down like swooping birds, trying to catch Rob and Vyra between their arcs.
Vyra used her spear as a paddle, tossing a wave of bloody mud at them while she dashed to Rob’s side. She put her back to his. It was an effective formation for two normal lightfolk, but these were dangerous and determined bonepickers up against other masters of the art. They needed the edge of their blades stuck in every conceivable angle of Porce to win the day. An average sword would’ve taken one side while an average spear took the other.
Rob instead handled anything at chest height or lower, while Vyra took to the sky directly over him. She bounced up and down on her spear, swinging it over Rob’s head to deflect any swooping disjointed limbs. Meanwhile Rob dueled the kicking legs of the living three. With powered-up picking he was free to experiment, so he grabbed the sides of his own blade and pulled it back, flicking it forward like the tip of the tower he’d launched from in Infinicilia. It warbled and obliterated a kneecap. Mehtier had to drop to the other knee, stretched neck hanging low like a wading bird. Vyra’s spear came down between neck and skull, flinging Mehtier’s head off into the distance, where it plunged into the bloody river.
“You’re coming home,” Grobnine snarled at them. “You will be among the living!”
“And you among the dead,” Rob retorted, sheathing his sword. Vyra dismounted her spear and hung on the Captain’s shoulder, smirking. Grobnine and Boable had no idea what the pirate referred to until they heard the low growls and heavy breathing that suddenly surrounded their disturbed patch of riverbank. Their skulls spun all the way around slowly, as if they couldn’t quite believe what they’d willingly walked into.
The commotion had drawn out the bone-mealers. The fleshy fat beasts looked hungry as ever. There were five of them, and a sixth was slowly pulling itself out from under a heap of reptilian shells. Their mouths hung open. Rob had remembered what Vyra told him of the creatures, the first things he met in the Pipes. They liked their prey dead and gone, like the playful gravefolk that had already cut themselves up into bite-size pieces.
“Run! Grobnine screamed, but it was too late. A juvenile bone-mealer grabbed his ankle and chomped. Kik-kurack! The fat creatures threw themselves at the gravefolk, bouncing off each other and snapping at the bones flying about like bugs. One scream disappeared down a throat. Then another. Mehtier’s skull bubbled up to the lake’s surface.
“I still live!” the skull declared as it bobbed in the blood, but a bone-mealer belly flopped into the lake after it. It dragged the gravefolk under. The blood stopped churning. Vyra and Rob were in the midst of the creatures, but they barely reacted to the lightfolk. The juvenile sniffed at their bloody pant legs, but there was a whole river of delicious congealed blood right there that didn’t have any gross warm flesh getting in the way. Most of the monsters dropped onto their bellies and basked on the riverbank, letting their mouths hang open so a few pale scrawns could clean the bone chips out of their gums.
Vyra shushed the pirate playfully, telling him not to disturb the adorable little beasties. Sweat dripped from both their foreheads. They felt light as feathers, as all the gravitation they’d disturbed in the fight was still settling back into their feet. Even drenched in blood, it was another moment where a kiss could’ve been attempted. Both would’ve thought better of it, but they had a distraction saving them from having to voice their reservations.
“What have you done?” Clix asked. The tilefolk shuffled into view, eyeing the bone-mealers warily. Gretchid was behind him, but she refused to move into the den of the beasts. Even as lightfolk she was too disturbed by their filthy toothy maws.
“I’m sorry Clix. I’ll see you back home,” she said before turning to leave. Clix watched her go, but didn’t even protest this time. He moved closer to Rob and Vyra, still with a firm grip on his weapon.
“It’s over Mousr,” Rob said. He let his sword continue to rest in its sheath. “We’re done being your prisoners. Ciamuse isn’t a muse at all. She’s a woman bossed around by her own bony babe. Your little world is tainted, dysfunctional. You’re a man of similar qualities.”
“Where’s Grobnine? Mehtier?” Clix grumbled, bloodshot eyes narrowing. Rob could see his pulse in the fluttering patches of skin over each side of his collarbone.
“All Three are dead,” Vyra told him.
“Your brothers and sisters Vyra,” Clix growled. He had tears in his eyes now. “Your family.”
“Folk to talk to,” Vyra said dismissively. “Didn’t realize until too late your talk was babble. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone anymore. That part of me is nice and dead now thanks to you. I’ve patted the dirt over it flat.”
“We had everything.” The tilefolk moved closer, was just four foams away. “Immortality, safety, blessings, and family. It was perfect. You two are fools. Jesters in the court of destruction. It doesn’t matter. I will defeat you and bring you back. I’ll tie you down and force feed you until you call me father and Ciamuse mother. While you’re growing up all over again, the living sixteen will swell again. We’ll fill that cradle of a city and our mirth will rock it back and forth while the gods sing our lullabies.”
“I would ask what happened to you above that made you this way,” Rob said, “but you’re so relentlessly dull that, for the first time in my life, my curiosity fails me. We’ll be off now.”
“You’re going nowhere!” Clix charged forward, flipping his weapon upside down and holding it like a set of fangs. Captain Rob reached into his pocket and then flung his hand outward, covering Clix’s face and arms in the bone dust he’d taken from the dunes. The tilefolk stumbled back, sticking out his tongue and coughing. He dropped his weapon to rub it out of his fur and eyes. When he opened them again he saw Rob and Vyra smirking. He heard heavy breathing.
The bone-mealers lurched, getting back to their feet. They sniffed around the tilefolk, bumping his back and sides with their snouts. Tilefolk were just as unpalatable as lightfolk, saturated as they were with the aggressive peppery flavor of heartbeats, but this one had a tasty-smelling coating. A gray warty tongue climbed up Clix’s back, pushing all his fur the wrong way.
“Ehhh! Arrah! Away you beasts! Bleyg dah snoz-blacht din-a-da!” One of them snapped at his arm. Clix turned and ran for his life, bone-mealers galumphing close behind. They heard his frantic shouting for fifty drips. After that, they had silence. They were a living pair, alone on the bank of a bloody river. Thipperon of scales scuttled across the ceiling in the distance, dropping rusted shards of pipe and greenish globs of the Fith.
“Thar she wriggles,” Rob said weakly. “This is where we say our goodbyes Miss Vyra. Thank you for all your help. Thank you for showing me the graves. This has been eye-opening, even if it also made those eyes itch some.”
“Is that all you have to say to me? Thanks? There’s something between us. I know what this swampy smile does to folk. One breath could melt your sword if I wanted, but you’re safer than most, as my breath is short around you. You’re a mean miserable man who hates Porce and its rules. I’m just as mean, and probably more skilled in misery.”
“What do you want from me Vyra?”
“Just tell me it’s not in my head. You feel it too, yes? We could be good together.”
“You are not imagining it,” the pirate said softly. He reached out and took her waist, pulling her into an embrace. She hugged him back, resting her chin on his shoulder so he wouldn’t even feel a sting of her breath. “There would’ve been something if not for your condition, if not for you being trapped here…”
“There is something,” she interrupted. “I’ve just found it.” Vyra ripped her hand out of Rob’s pocket. He hadn’t noticed her slide it in during their embrace. She shoved him with one palm, bonepicking enough to send his feet sliding across the mud. The pirate bonepicked down, sinking into the muck but steadying himself. He grabbed the hilt of his sword. Vyra planted her spear in the ground and climbed up, standing on the end of it with one foot. She looked stable as stone. She held Cloader’s locket in front of her, dangling by its chain, and examined it.
“What are you doing?” Rob asked, though he had theories halfway through being shoved.
“I know the broad strokes of your plan,” she said, poking at the locket. “Put a piece of yourself in this, give it to Chewlry, and use bonepicking to balance her spirit with yours during the test. Very clever. I should’ve thought of it.”
“So you knew of the test and didn’t tell me?”
“Could you have passed?”
“It’s of no use to you.”
“Says you. I want to see the florent again. You have your crew to go back to, and I have my friends. I can prove that I want it more than you.” She stomped on her spear as she switched feet. “I would just go steal my own prize from Cloader, but there’s just not enough time. One of the prosites is bound to tell her about this before too long. I need this chance, and I really am sorry it started as your chance.”
“Vyra,” the Captain pleaded. “You can’t use it. I know what created your smile and breath. I know the name and nature of your infection. If you succeed and reach the World Floor it will kill you immediately. You have nothing to gain by stealing that.” Her nostrils flared at the word infection, spewing streams of acidic vapor. She placed the locket around her neck. She cracked her knuckles.
“I’m fine. Florentshine will clear up my lingering ailment. I’m not a dead woman walking. I’m living. Part of the living…”
“I am a dead man walking,” Rob said. The statement dropped ten chips of ice into his stomach. “Petrified pretty from the inside out. Nature has cruelly scarred us both, but I’m the one who can have a piece of life on the surface. I don’t say this out of selfishness. Even if I couldn’t go back I would stop you from trying Vyra, because I care about you. I won’t see you killed and deformed by the tar inside you!”
“There’s nothing there! No infection! Nothing! I’m going back to Porce and breathing deep!” She wilted, grabbing her spear on the way down and tumbling into a fighting stance. Captain Rob would know just how healthy she was. The bonepickers charged toward each other, disturbing the blood yet again.
Tales of the Living Sixteen: Argnaught Overturnr
The ocean of Second Toil was also called the Lastern Sea: a combined name derived from two legendary sisters, nymphs of the Greywater named Latrina and Cisterna. They walked the surface of the sea, cleaning it with their pure footsteps. The Lastern was known as the best basis for civilization in all of Porce. Its waters were full of fine food fish and nearly clear of contaminants. Scum could barely grow under the influence of the Greywater, and parasitic bugs could not breed in its dampness. As a result even the natural things on the lid-plateau of Second Toil had an inherent cleanliness to them. Illness and infection were uncommon, making labor inexpensive and plentiful.
That labor built the great halls, markets, and streets of Mileddo: the city under Second Lever. The standard of living was nearly as high as the waists of the original users of Porce; there stood the tallest buildings in all the word, with the exception of the bergfolk marvel of Rinlatour. The architects of Mileddo worked under a silent oath; one day their towers would reach the belt buckles of one of those old giants who saw only a place to dump their waste.
As the heights of Porce both literal and figurative, Mileddo needed continuous protection and devotion mimicking that of Latrina and Cisterna. They lived in the shadow of Second Lever, and Second Lever was weak.
It started at the beginning of the Age of Building, when the Gross Truth was first spread as knowledge for the common folk. Most relearned their maps on a different scale. Their seas were wastewater. The bountiful swell of Topa in the distance, swelling and spiraling around Second Holder, was just paper for wiping giant bottoms. Second Stone Door, the Graffon Stone, and the Glorious Stone were just the walls of a stall. Second Lever was a little more difficult to understand, as their own plumbing hadn’t reached the complexities of the old world giants’. Even though it was large enough to hold cities of its own, and fields between them the cities could war over, Second Lever was just a mechanism.
If pushed down by forces only the gods could generate, it would drain the Lastern Sea in mere moments and replace it with a new one. Down would go all the bustling raft townships and dock cities. All its friendly sea monsters would be dumped into the Pipes. It would be a disaster the likes of which had never been seen in the Age of Building. Only those in the Age of Tragedy, the stirring of the heat in the Tunnel of Sweat, the shattering of the tiles, and the breaking of the Reflecting Path, would rival it.
Luckily, there were no gods left to generate such a force. The city of Mileddo still worried, for Second Lever’s metal-rich stone bore much rust and many cracks. Pieces of it fell away from time to time, crushing anything underneath. The inside of the lever was partly hollow, and there was one shelf of its internal material posited to be structurally unsound. The shelf, colloquially called the threat of heavy rain, was lathers across and prone to shifting groaning sounds that could be heard down in Mileddo. Every such sound fertilized the fears of the folk below. Something had to be done. Enter the gravefolk and their bonepicking.
With the many bounties of the Lastern Sea came snobbish attitudes and the desire to label and cast out a group of undesirables. As was often the standard of Porce, the gravefolk fit the role well. They had failed in their first lives, earned their bones with crime and disrespect, so they had no place in Mileddo, but there was a place for them over it. Rather than cart in and build expensive gigantic supporting columns to undo the threat of heavy rain, the gravefolk took up positions under it, placed their hands against it, and used bonepicking to hold it in place.
Thousands of gravefolk did this day in and day out, seeing mostly by torches and lamps brought by admirers. This place, this temple to the half-dead heroes and their redemptive labor, was inside Second Lever. It was called the temple of Holditin, as that was their task. Without their bonepicking the chunk of rust and stone might give way, break through the bottom of Second Lever, and devastate Mileddo.
The gravefolk stood in rows, hands raised to the stone all day or all night. They slept in shifts. The temple was ornately chiseled from the surrounding rock, so the walls had dips about the size of the average gravefolk so they could lean against them while they held the chunk aloft. Though the walls were naturally rust-colored, the temple’s image became more dignified over time as great artists painted their respects all over, even across the bones of some of those hard at work.
Mileddo let the gravefolk have a true admirable purpose there, so much so that they fostered respect and celebrity among them. Visitors came from all across Porce to ascend the criss-crossing ramps of the temple and speak with those bearing the weight. Families visited the bones of their patriarchs and matriarchs regularly to shower them with tokens, gifts, love, and stories. Gravefolk came in such numbers, seeking a position under the chunk and within the love of the fleshed, that many had to be turned away.
There was one skeleton that earned a spot on sight. He was given a beautiful alcove in the stone, under a blunt stalactite of the chunk, and given personal space of more than nine foams on each side, far more than most of them got. At the edges of the alcove his neighbors were only three foams apart. With ramps above and below, with four hundred gravefolk practically chained together on both his left and right, stood and held Argnaught Overturnr.
There was no question as to his power. He came to the temple of Holditin in the humility of bony nakedness, and yet he was feared and admired for his obsidian bones and their glossy notches. Talk of him had beaten him to the temple steps. This was the miner from Dry Rin who could bonepick when his eyes still had white and color. Curiously, none of them had heard tell of how he lost his flesh. They couldn’t even find rumors and they were uncomfortable talking about it themselves. It was some sort of anti-story: an event that seemed too personal and mundane to take hold in another’s imagination.
That was the only anti-story about Argnaught. When he arrived he demonstrated his bonepicking prowess by tossing stones five times his size and lifting an entire traveling choir from Lunginvess while they sang in their stands. His movement was just as impressive as he hopped from ramp to ramp, shaking the hands of the other gravefolk lined up against the walls.
Argnaught took up the offered alcove and held the chunk high for five rests. The floor around him became littered with all manner of gifts and favors: dried bloodcup flowers, tins of perfumed oil and salts, valuable hinged pocket shrines that revealed tiny ivory sculptures of one of the eight gods when opened, thin scarves draped over his arms and ribs while he worked, special editions of the Toil Papers, embroidered devotional squares to the Spotless, and letters of admiration sealed with wax kisses.
“I can’t believe how many women are kissing hot wax for you,” his nearest neighbor, a leatherfleshed man with a copper funnel for a nose, griped to him one day. Argnaught’s other neighbor was taking a short break, off letting her great grandchildren play a fortune telling game by rolling her fingers and toes. “None of them even know you only take kisses from men. I’m over here echoing it through the lever and I haven’t seen a suitor or dressor in an age.” Argnaught did not acknowledge the man.
“How many of us?” the obsidian man eventually asked his neighbor.
“How many of us skulls are holding up the threat of heavy rain?”
“I think there’s an official count on the sign by the entrance. What did it say last time I was down there? Something over four thousand.”
“It’s a big number,” Argnaught mumbled. He pulled one hand away from the stalactite and examined it. “That’s why folk believe it. You can’t even look at all of them at once.”
“You got a point rolling around in your empty head?”
“Nobody understands the things they can’t see all at once. The Gross Truth had to be explained because we can’t see the world all at once, just a toil, or a sink, or the forest around you. When you stop seeing things you start making assumptions. I think I made an assumption about the shelf over us… I assumed we make a difference. Hearing its groaning every night. I think I’ve learned its language. It’s always settling, but it never actually threatens us. It’s just yawns and groans.”
“You’re saying Holditin doesn’t matter?” his neighbor asked, his voice a whisper. “You think if we all let go at once there wouldn’t be rain?”
“Whether it falls or not, I’m saying it doesn’t make a difference. Four thousand bonepickers is a lot of power, but there’s nothing heavier than rock. The chunk goes on for lathers and it’s not a thin layer. I don’t think four thousand bonepickers strong as I could move it.” As if in response, the chunk groaned. A few pebbles fell from the ceiling and bounced down the ramps. Shuffling folk snatched and pocketed them as souvenirs. Argnaught put his mind inside the sound like a hollow nut floating in water. He rode the sound’s current deep into Second Lever, and then deeper into Second Tank. His skull rolled back on his shoulders, prompting his neighbor to argue against the insight he clearly lacked.
“We’d better hope we matter. This is a sweet life for the dead. We’re revered. We have purpose. We get love. You never would’ve met Roobob without this work. It’s real enough for the myriad visitors who-”
“Tell me,” Argnaught interrupted, “are you bonepicking up right now? Or are you simply holding your arms to the stone?” His neighbor’s arms seemed to straighten in response. Argnaught didn’t push for an answer. He only bonepicked himself for two or three drops a day, and only because he felt guilty if he didn’t. Some of it was for the bright-eyed children who came in droves and pointed, but most of it was for his husband of one rest: Roobob Filletr. The reason he hadn’t followed one of the groans deep into Second Tank.
There was only one place they could meet, as Argnaught’s life was consumed by the dim light, long drops, and warm conversations of the temple. Roobob came as an admirer: a chandler offering a piece of his work to the obsidian god of bonepicking. He came with a tall black candle and set it, burning, at Argnaught’s feet, gently pushing all the dried flower petals away so they wouldn’t catch. He said not a word during that first visit, simply bowed after placing his gift and left. The candle was a work of art. Its flame held even when impish children tried to blow it out. There was a cleaner who came by every rinse or so who scraped candle wax off the floors, but the only thing he scratched at the sight of the black candle was his head. Though its top was hot and wet, no drop of wax ever made it to the bottom. It simply dissolved into the air, vanishing against the waxy side as if reabsorbed.
Yet the candle shrank. Argnaught watched the thin gray smoke day in and day out. Even without any breeze to push, the smoke still came to him, winding between his black teeth and pooling in his skull. It made Argnaught feel like there was a fire in his head. It was a warm crackling idea put there by someone else, and Roobob didn’t even have to say a word. He did it all with a silent visit and a handcrafted gift.
He returned when the candle was almost gone, and Argnaught took care to memorize him that time. His suitor was gravefolk, without metal coatings or leatherflesh. He wore humble robes with a collar of melted black wax. There were a few scratches on the sides of his eye sockets, suggesting he’d let a rodent nest in there for a while. He still didn’t speak, but Argnaught guessed he had died a younger man than he had himself. Something about the lightness of his footsteps and the pristine condition of his limbs. Roobob brought out a second black candle, lit it with the flame of the first, and switched them out. He left again.
Argnaught had rinses to think about everything these visits could mean. One possibility became a hundred as the days wore on, but as they ground down the number shrank back to one. The candle would be a constant. Its smoke was penetrating warmth; it would sink into his bones and kindle his spirit. The wax never touching the floor was diligence; the craftsmanship would never waver and the dedication would never be sloppy. The silence was certainty, as no questions needed to be asked.
It was a declaration of love. It was a proposal. When Argnaught’s theories were chiseled back to one, and when Roobob came to place the fifth candle, the obsidian man uttered one word: yes. The other skeleton brought out a snuffer and extinguished the candle. He walked through the smoke, which rose in large billowing plumes in this, the culmination of its efforts. Wreathed in rising warm dust the gravemen shared an embrace. Argnaught was working, and so was not to take his arms away from the stalactite, but he would spare a few drops for his fiancé. Roobob pushed his arms back up to the stone. They weren’t going anywhere.
Hundreds of tourists were present for the ceremony, crowding and clogging the ramps, leaning to get a look at the wedding of Porce’s best bonepicker. The mayor of Mileddo performed the ceremony, saying it was the least she could do for the benevolent bones keeping back the boulder. Argnaught hadn’t expected quite that much fanfare, but Roobob casually mentioned that he knew the mayor personally. That seemed odd, but even a mayor needs candles now and again.
Roobob visited every three days, and the day when Argnaught openly questioned the Holditin purpose was a third day. His husband arrived like clockwork, wearing his favorite cream-colored robe. Trails of black wax like petrified raindrops spilled across his shoulders and chest. He had with him a basket of goodies: adventure pamphlets to read to Argnaught while Roobob paced circles around him, polishing oil to rid the obsidian of tourist fingerprints, and wax footpads to absorb the impact of his constant bonepicking.
“Good day my love,” Roobob said in his youthful voice, wrapping his arms around Argnaught. Argnaught went to hug him back but Roobob gently held his hands, swung his arms low playfully, and pushed them back up to the stalactite. He reached down and pulled the older wax pads out from under his husband’s feet. He stared at them for a moment, looking dissatisfied with the depth of the impressions. He made no mention of it as he slipped the new ones in. “I have so much to tell you before we read today’s adventure: The Grabby Hands of the Horrid Porce-o-pus. There’s a rumor swirling that the mayor wants to give you a key to the city. I don’t know how big such a key would be, but if it’s small enough you should wear it around your neck. I can make you a strap for it.”
“What good is a key if I can’t leave the temple?” Argnaught asked. “Whatever lock is in the city will remain forever shut.”
“It’s just a symbol you old jewel,” Roobob teased. “They appreciate you, and so they bring a piece of the city to you.” He pulled out an orange pamphlet and flipped to the first page. “Long neglected is the question of what a beast would do with hands. I, Attendant Santizer Handcleanr, was forced to accept this when I faced a monster with not two, but eight hands,” he read.
Argnaught had a dark thought, the latest in what already felt like a long day of them, and slowly lowered his arms. He waited, testing to see how long it would take Roobob to notice. It wasn’t long at all. Argnaught heard him stop pacing behind him and close the pamphlet around one of his finger bones. He approached and gently grasped Argnaught’s arms. He tried to pull them up, but the obsidian man wouldn’t let them budge. Roobob tapped the back of his skull.
“I’ve been doing nothing,” the mighty bonepicker said. This prompted Roobob to circle around in front of him. “This is a friendly place, but our purpose is false. If the chunk falls there will be nothing we can do to stop it.”
“Don’t be silly. The pickers here have held it up for generations. Holditin is the only reason there isn’t a giant mess beneath us.”
“Perhaps holding it in is not so good for us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it might be nature’s will for this load to drop. No giant has used this pot in civilized times, so it is naturally decaying. If folk spent their time holding up every rock and leaf that falls, there would be no free hands for anything else.”
“Free hands are a curse!” Roobob insisted. He waved the pamphlet around. “That’s what today’s story is all about! You weren’t even listening. Here, let me get to the end. I bet this will answer your questions for you.” He tried to resume his pacing, but had to scramble in front of Argnaught when he stepped out from under the blunt stalactite.
“Are free feet a curse as well? I’m just taking a walk. I can walk in my own home can’t I? With my husband?” He grabbed Roobob’s hand, crinkling the pamphlet, and tried to pull him out of the alcove. Roobob resisted.
“You don’t want to wait for the story? Fine, I’ll get right to its moral. Hands and feet with nothing to do are an utter disaster! When they wander the mind wanders. If I told you all the things I thought when I wasn’t making candles… you’d push me out of Holditin so fast.”
“Our hands are not idle,” Argnaught argued. “They’re holding each other. Come, walk with me. I want you to hear the groans of the chunk on the far right side. They have their own sound; it’s inviting.”
“You’ve been away from your post before, haven’t you?” Roobob accused. “How often?”
“More lately. Everything has been fine. The chunk will fall when Porce wills it.”
“You should be under it!” Roobob squeaked, pulling his hand free and accidentally shredding the pamphlet. He dropped to his knees and scrambled to pick up the pieces. “Look what you’ve done. I’m not going to see you for another three days; I’d think you’d be so pleased to see me that all these thoughts would go to the wayside.” Argnaught beat him to one of the shreds. He picked it up between two fingers, examined one side and the other, and then dropped it over the side of the ramp, letting it drift down to the low entrance of the temple. Roobob practically threw himself over the railing to grab it, but was too late.
“Holding it in only hurts us,” Argnaught said sagely, rubbing his husband’s shoulder. “We have to let nature take its course and make its messes. If Mileddo is truly scared, they should move out from under Second Lever’s shadow.”
“The shadow is reassuring, as it is your shadow Argnaught! You can’t do this to us. You’re the most beloved bonepicker in the temple. The others could lose their morale if you leave. The tourism would surely suffer too. Livelihoods depend on you, even if lives don’t!” Argnaught stepped back. He made his body language passive, receptive. Roobob sensed the change and gently nudged him back toward the alcove. “There’s my stalwart jewel; Let me put you back in your setting. You know I’ll be gentle.” He pushed softly.
“How do you pick what stories to read to me?” Argnaught asked as they shuffled back.
“How do you pick? They always seem to have a moral. I realize only now they are full of characters with missions. They have minds as solid as we want the chunk to be. Nothing deters them from their course. They never have any doubt or misgivings. There are no arguments and no time for rest.”
“That’s just the nature of accomplishment. You know it. You worked all day in the talc mines and achieved your perfect black bones. You work all day here and save countless lives, not to mention enriching mine.” They were back under the stalactite. Roobob still had a quiver of panic in his voice, but he controlled himself, kept his arms off Argnaught’s. He wanted the obsidian man to raise them of his own volition.
“I see now the nature of your accomplishment,” Argnaught said stiffly, voice dripping with sadness. “Your idle hands were tasked with embracing these old black bones. For stability. I held up this stone because you held me up. Who gave you this task? The mayor? Was there a meeting of all the businessfolk and tour peddlers?”
“Argnaught, it’s not like that. Yes, there were suggestions, nudges, but I love you, I do! I didn’t commit my life to yours just for them. I adored your commitment.”
“I’m sorry,” the obsidian man said. He raised his arms, but only to caress Roobob’s cheekbones with the back of his knuckles. “You have nothing left to adore.” Porce’s greatest bonepicker walked away from his post. No amount of Roobob’s arm tugging could slow him down. He strolled past his neighbor with the copper funnel nose. The man said goodbye, but immediately eyed the prestigious empty alcove.
Down the rows he went, ignoring the questions and comments thrown by the other pickers lined up against the wall. They called him a coward and said they’d miss him. They freed one arm from their work and tossed their cheaper gifts at him. When his path collided with a large touring group they split around him. The other pickers sang a song in unison to draw their attention back. A little black piece was being squeezed out, but Holditin was still largely successful, the song did its best to assure the fleshy folk.
Argnaught did not go to the entrance. He instead went deeper, to where the carving was never finished. He found the darkness of a natural route into Second Tank. Folk didn’t live there. It was too dark, too wet, and too full of monsters that would eat the light if they ever saw any. Roobob followed him to that precipice, crying and wailing, begging him to stay.
Argnaught asked Roobob to join him. The obsidian man spoke the language of the shifting stone now, after so much listening, and he wanted to follow its invitation deep into Porce. Perhaps it was the still-hidden gems calling to their obsidian sibling. He told Roobob they could be together in the darkness, be wild and learn what real danger was. The younger graveman refused and turned to leave.
It was just as well. Argnaught loved him, but he did not expect the commitment to extend to the depths of Second Tank. He stood there for the longest time, listening only to the dripping and the moaning of the stone. Their invitation stood. There was a place for him with no expectations. He wouldn’t have to work to earn his love; he could simply live without it.
Argnaught threw himself to the waters of the tank. He bonepicked down, but only slightly, so his sinking was slow. He’d never thought about how deep the water of the tanks might be, but when he felt the incredible pressure at the bottom he knew it was deeper than that of the sinks or toils. There was no current, so any movement in the placid seas had to be that of truly gargantuan sea monsters.
He felt around on the bottom in complete darkness for more than a rest before finding a cavern. In it there was a pocket of trapped air connected to several tunnels. Argnaught walked one of them at random, for the stone no longer called to him. This was a part of Porce so deep that all voices were unnatural intruders. Walking without the water around him was the strangest experience of either of his lives. Without its weight and without light his mind was just a fluttering pattern of thoughts, moving by the simple physical rules of their density changing. Heavy thoughts. Light thoughts. Heavy thoughts.
He found the Fith. He found the Pipes. He found the living sixteen and the source of his obsidian. They offered him a cozy bed and a friend for when the thoughts got too heavy, for when he couldn’t hold them up any longer.