(reading time: 2 hours, 6 minutes)
The Aych Fauce and Sea Fauce would’ve been considered deities themselves if Porce didn’t already have such stiff competition amongst its religions. For all recorded time they had poured, their flow never weakening. Third Sink would’ve long overflowed if the Snyre drain wasn’t open.
Their waters held their temperature long after leaving their home. Waters of the Aych stayed just shy of a boil, making them incredibly useful for heating ships and homes in winter times. Waters of the Sea were just shy of ice, useful for preserving food and bathing under the harshest light of the florent. Harvesting it was simple enough, as all a ship or sinkside settlement had to do was lower a bucket into the edges of the Fauce’s influence, where its intensity was only a short distance from tepid safety.
The waters mixed the further one traveled from the Fauces, eventually joining in the stable temperature of the Snyre Sea. The Winchar Straits did not exist in these stable waters. There had always been a slight bend to the Sea Fauce that pushed its cold waters into the territory of its neighbor. The frigid water traveled underneath the chaotic heat of Aych, eventually resurfacing near the cooling effects of Third Sink’s lip. The crew of the Greedy Old Mop had been trapped in this pocket of cold since their sinking, but the fresh ice plateau created by Frostbite Cor gave them a path to the edge where Aych Fauce and its perpetually rolling swelling clouds of steam were plainly visible.
Only four had made the journey and could now see the glistening metal curve of Aych Fauce and its superheated falls: Alast Questr, Pearlen Lustr, Kingvy Rookr, and Queenvy Rookr. The four young lightfolk were bundled up against the cold, each wearing three of the best coats left among the survivors. They marched across the fresh ice in search of Frostbite Cor, to appeal to him, and should that fail, fight him to the death.
The Rookrs suggested it initially, based on the words of Corvidley himself. Before he left he told the pirates they had all reached the age of being ‘unforgivable’. He said he knew the precise moment in maturation where a victim became a monster, and that the ice froze him below it. He told the survivors no monster was to leave the cage he’d built for them.
Everything hinged on Corvidley meaning exactly what he said. If it was the truth, there were a few among them who had not reached the desecrating age. Oddball told them exactly how old his son was before he was cursed by the beaded arrow. The young lovers and the twins were all at least half a wash younger than that. Dawn had lost her flesh at a similar age, but with her gravefolk life counted she was too old. She protested, but the others insisted they go without her. It was imperative that Corvidley not have any straw to grasp when trying to deny them a chance for discussion. Roary qualified as well, but he was glued to his uncle’s treasure and none of the pirates would allow it out of their sight.
So most of the Mop stayed behind while they sent their youngest to represent them. The black and blue boy’s trail was not difficult to follow, as they simply walked the fresh ice he used to traverse the Winchar waters. Cor had half a day’s head start, so the young folk made camp as little as possible and slept for only two drops at a time. They could’ve moved even faster if the Rookrs had not insisted on hauling their nest egg along. Even in this dire situation they wouldn’t let it out of their sight; it mattered little, as Alast and Pearlen were too drained to argue over it. Additionally, it slowed them no more than Pearlen’s necessary stops to cut a hole in the ice and wash her eyes with fresh water.
On the first night they coordinated both a plan of persuasion and a plan of attack. Corvidley did not carry a weapon, but the storm about him was likely more powerful than any slash with one of their sabers or spears. Greater effort was put into what would be said, but even so there were only so many avenues. When they settled on a tactic there was nothing left to discuss, leaving them in near-complete silence until they reached a new sign of progress.
The temperature of the air rose with the roar of Aych Fauce. They were forced to shed their outer coats. A drop later they had to shed their middle layer. On the third drop they were down to their ordinary clothing and sweating. Hot as it became, the ice beneath them remained solid as if the world didn’t know what to do with the clashing of natural heat and magical cold. Fog sputtered near the ice, occasionally hissing up in strange plumes like five-pronged serponts.
The four came to an invisible wall of tortured air. They could only place it by running into it or sticking out their ungloved hands. Sometimes it was marked by a cold snap that put ice crystals in their eyebrows. Other times it scalded them, turning their faces red and swollen. They took turns at the front of the procession to give each other time to recover between shocks. They had to keep going, for the wall was on the move; it was surely the edge of Frostbite Cor’s influence.
“We should be dead by now!” Pearlen shouted from her third position in the procession. The wind howled around them, sometimes biting and sometimes scalding, singing and freezing the ends of their scarves. “We’re too close to the Aych! Cor’s storm is the only thing protecting us from the blazing air. If he dies and takes his storm with him, we’ll go as well!”
“Do we have any other choice?” Queenvy yelled back from the lead position. The invisible wall belched hot wind at her, blowing her backward. Kingvy caught her and braced her shoulders so they could push forward as one.
“We might be the closest any lightfolk has ever come to Aych Fauce!” Alast added. They all knew there should have been excitement in his voice, he lived for adventure, named himself after it, but it just sounded like a sad rationalization. They weren’t adventuring; they were being cooked and stowed away in the icebox, repeatedly. They were food in a constant state of preparation, until their very material became too weak to hold them together.
They pressed on, moving at the wall’s pace, knowing something was about to change. The very essences of hot and cold were colliding, so they hoped for something other than a massive deadly explosion. The four were already split into pairs, and they fed each other determination constantly. They yelled in their partner’s ears, which was just a whisper compared to the howling of the air’s chaos.
“I love you,” Pearlen told Alast.
“I love you,” Alast told her back.
“We’re almost home,” Kingvy assured Queenvy.
“We’re almost home,” Queenvy assured him back.
Pearlen struck the invisible wall, scalding and blistering both her hands. This time the wall seemed to suffer as well. It appeared to them as mist, steam, and ice crystals vying for space. They saw puffs, ripples, and tiny whirlpools form and die across it a thousand times over. The wall of vapor twisted like cloth spun from the center before exploding and overtaking them.
The lightfolk were knocked off their feet, nearly untethered from consciousness. For fleeting moments they assumed they’d been flung into the realm of dreams, for the ground, air, and sky changed. The ice beneath their feet cracked, filled with water, froze, cracked, filled with water… Spires of rippled ice broke through like spines of the Snyre. They jutted out in all directions, climbing fifteen foams into the air and growing as thick around as trees. Their sharp tips blew off, revealing them to be tubes full of steam that pumped fresh white clouds into the sky.
Snow crystals sparkled on currents of warm air. Despite their tumultuous surroundings, the temperature became shockingly comfortable, like they had let themselves sink into bathwater as its bubbles shrank and it approached room temperature. The metal curve of the Aych Fauce was gone from sight, blocked out by the rising tendrils of steam and frost. Among the still-growing steam chimneys they spotted the dark silhouette of Frostbite Cor. He stood with his back to them, staring at his own hands. He wandered over to a spire and ran them along it, like a ghost who couldn’t believe he was solid once more.
Bearing the strange bubbling bruises of the confused temperature, the four pirates trudged forward. They did not draw their weapons, not yet. Alast was about to ask who should announce their presence, but Queenvy made the decision for them.
“Corvidley,” she called out, her voice cracking like old toxic paint. Each crack hurt, but she simply rubbed her throat with one hand and went on. “Corvidley Damr!” The cursed boy turned, clearly surprised to find another living thing this close to him. For a moment it looked like he waved to them, but he just tested the movement of his arms in the tepid air.
“You’re not frozen,” Cor said after a moment. His voice brought them to a stop. “I thought nothing could best my storm, but the power of the Aych Fauce is truly magnificent.” He paused. “I told none of you to leave.”
“You told the adults to stay,” Pearlen reminded, rubbing her eyes with a forearm. The Clawlies in them were actually in a lull at the moment, recovering from the boiling-pot feeling created when she closed her eyes in the burning air. “We’re all younger than you. We haven’t found our curses yet.”
“Very well,” Cor said with an implied shrug. A moment later he slowly performed the shrug, finding some of the stiffness of the ice gone. He bent his head from side to side and stretched out his limbs. His joints popped with a sound like giant icicles being cleaved from their bases. “Go out and live your lives. Find your curses. You’ll feel my cold touch no more.”
“We… we can’t leave without our crew,” Queenvy said. “We would like you to release them as well.”
“My first act of kindness in an age… and you turn it down?” Cor asked bitterly. His neutral expression became a scowl.
“The crew is our family,” Kingvy argued. “We don’t have lives without them.”
“As if life was a gift given to you?” Frostbite Cor growled. He walked over to one of the shortest steam chimneys, running his hand over its flow. Surely its hissing would’ve burned a normal hand, but his frostbitten flesh was unaffected. His hand became a claw around its top, focusing the power of his storm into his palm. A skin of ice sealed the chimney, but only for a few moments; its sides cracked and spewed steam in five different directions, forcing those of the Mop to throw up their hands and take a few steps back. Cor withstood it. “Life is not a gift. It is glue that holds a trophy together, that gives the old and feeble-minded purpose. You are trophies for your parents, your employers, and your mentors. All they want is the reflections in your eyes.” Cor reached up with two fingers and touched the surface of his eyeballs with each, just under the iris. He didn’t blink. They were dry and shriveled, incapable of reflecting anything unless by a skin of ice over them.
“We have no illusions about being used,” Alast assured him. “Our captain… our former captain was a man of pride and logic. Whichever he wore best in the moment. He used me and Pearlen in wagers.” He grabbed his lover’s hand. They each had blisters that touched painfully, but it was pain they could share. “Still. He brought us together. He taught us things of true value that we are now free to use as we please. Without him we wouldn’t be what we are… and we don’t hate ourselves.”
“So your hatred can’t extend to him?” Cor rumbled. “You are as foolish as a child. The cruelties of folk are always lying in wait, until the fire twig of opportunity is struck. All of a sudden looking at your child will be too difficult to bear. Like the snap of a rummin trap, they reverse all they stand for, switching from backbone to broken spine in an instant. Something has happened. Now they are cowards. Now they must flee. Now they must lie, cheat, steal… and the poor children are left behind. Doomed to repeat it. Not I. I would rather have death than this storm, but it protects me from that future.”
“So end it!” Kingvy shouted. “Move closer to Aych. Stand under its flow and you will surely die!”
“I would still rather have vengeance than death,” Cor said, expression draining from his face once more. “Oddball will watch another family freeze, only this time he’ll have nowhere to run. He’ll have to face himself, and in that moment I will have something I’ve never had.”
“Vindication. Folk will see its own evil and collapse.”
“We’re pirates,” Queenvy barked. “We see our own evil all the time. It has never broken us before. My brother and I are building our life out of it. Our mischief makes a fine solid foundation!”
“Solidly solid!” Kingvy agreed.
“What is your point? That you are too like the rest of your ship already? That I shouldn’t spare you?” Lumps of ice formed under his feet as he spoke, raising him into the air, giving him a mount from which to proclaim his certainties. “All of the suffering past the sinking is your own doing. Regular folk would’ve drowned. Starved. Burned. Anything to avoid being the drawn wretches I see before me. Only pirates would work so hard just to continue living like the most desperate of vermin!”
“We see what you don’t,” Pearlen insisted. “Change on the horizon. Our storms are not eternal.”
“I am not one of your storms,” Cor said icily, “but I am your crew’s one and only. I am their fate. I am their cold storage. I am their truth and their misery. Eventually, their death.” It was done then. Cor’s mind was as immovable as the greatest bergs of the Winchar Straits. The chambers of his frozen heart were not worn thin by the venom within. With diplomacy done, the pirates pulled out their real talents. Alast drew his Dagyvr saber and a paper cutter knife. Pearlen took her trusty spear from her back. Kingvy and Queenvy pulled their sabers simultaneously.
Their foe assessed their weapons without a hint of concern. He stepped down from his ice pedestal, flexing his fingers. The four young lightfolk spread out, shuffling to form a circle that surrounded Cor. Pearlen dragged her spear in a screeching arc across the ice. She wanted his eyes all to herself, as her long range weapon kept her the safest from any sudden freezing jabs.
Icy fog emanated from Cor’s palms as he raised them in the air. He took great gasping breaths, black bitten flesh stretching across his ribs. A frigid gust issued from his mouth. Then his right hand came down in a flash, the fog shooting out and crystallizing into a club of dense white ice. Down came his left, producing a heavy straight sword. A normal folk would need two hands to wield it, but Cor’s muscles never gave out or felt the burn of fatigue. They didn’t know if he could produce icy armor as well, but either way he didn’t. Perhaps the storm had been his armor, and with it neutralized he was ready to rip and tear like any other naked cornered creature of Porce.
Time was not in the pirates’ favor. The journey had already drained them some, and the terrain hadn’t settled down either. The ice still broke and produced fresh chimneys of hissing and whistling steam. Frostbite Cor could wait until the Aych Fauce stopped if he so desired. Fully aware of these angles, the Rookr twins struck first.
Kingvy and Queenvy each aimed for one of his shoulders as they charged. Cor crossed his weapons behind his neck and blocked both strikes. The twins pushed with all their strength, but their steel couldn’t even chip Cor’s ice. It was concentrated to the point of stony hardness. Cor whipped around, swinging his weapons as one, spewing a stream of ice from his mouth. Queenvy hopped back in time, but her brother’s foot was frozen in place.
Cor swung his club, looking to crush the foot, but Alast slid in on his knees and blocked the strike. He crumpled under the weight of both weapons, fracturing his wrist in the process. Cor was neutralizing each of them with single strikes, and threatening death with each one that followed. If this continued it would be over in just eight moves; it would be as if Cor simply plucked weeds from his garden of ice crystals.
Pearlen looked to interrupt his pace by leaping onto his back. Her weight did force him to bend while her impeccable balance allowed her to stay upright, even with his frozen flesh turning slippery. She turned her spear down, preparing to chop the root that was his spine. Cor roared, summoning fresh ice from the ground itself. Two spears of it erupted near his sides, meeting in the middle in an attempt to skewer Pearlen. Her slender body instead became lodged between the two. Cor crawled out from under her as she struggled to pry herself free of the ice vice.
Queenvy rushed back in, shouting to distract him from the others. Alast was back on his feet as well, injured wrist close to his body, the other arm slashing with his paper cutter. Corvidley took them both on from different directions, giving each a second of his time. His club clashed with Alast’s knife three times before it bent the thin bropato blade and knocked it from his hand. Then Cor tossed the club at Kingvy, striking him in the chest before he could finish extricating his foot. Finally the cursed son turned his full attention to Queenvy and put both hands on his straight sword.
He didn’t run to her, but his footing was so sure on the ice that he was upon her in a moment regardless, swinging and slashing with incredible force. Queenvy dodged and blocked as best she could, but she was forced to stumble backward, right into one of the steam chimneys. It burned her back immediately, but there was no time for pain. She converted it to inspiration, biting her lip and bearing it for just another moment, letting Cor get close, letting his frigid blade closer…
“Aaayyaahhh!” Corvidley boomed with his strongest swing yet. Queenvy collapsed. She couldn’t even afford technique, it had to be the swiftest pull of gravitation, so she let her legs go limp. His sword struck the chimney, its concentrated ice shattering its thinner sibling. Out came a jet of steam that blasted him back. The heat was so intense over Queenvy that for the briefest drip she wondered if the florent had exploded and she’d been struck with an incredibly hot piece of its ancient glass. When her mind returned she crawled on her elbows out from under it.
Pearlen finally dropped out of the vice. Kingvy freed his foot. Alast had his saber in his good hand. Queenvy rushed along the side of the steam jet, looking for Frostbite Cor at its termination. All four converged and found him on his back, stunned by the power of the pressurized steam. There was a new black patch on his chest, this time from an honest burn. He sputtered in rage and confusion, but they couldn’t get too close. Thin glittering spikes of ice grew around him and rattled. Two of them formed into copies of his weapons; he broke them from their moorings and struggled to his feet.
“Burned… and I couldn’t even feel it!” he moaned. “The Aych would kill me and I wouldn’t even get to burn up. I cannot hope for a hearth of my own, even as kindling. You will fall, child pirates, and I will wander still…”
“Stop!” Queenvy interrupted. The others looked at her. They saw no reason to stop, the opposite in fact! The world had dealt him a blow and now all four of them were there to deal the finisher. She was ruining their chance, risking all their lives and the lives stewing in the cold pot of the melt crater. She didn’t even have any other words right away. The dying whistle of the jet and the ensuing silence were her argument.
“Why stop now?” Corvidley asked, just as perplexed. “Do you need a break? A sip of refreshing cold water perhaps?” He stood tall and breathed deep, grip tightening on his fresh weapons.
“You haven’t noticed?” she asked him, voice softening. She dropped her saber and walked around, not even looking at Cor. She ran her hands through her many braids, ruffling the green and black feathers tied in their ends. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally, she looked at their foe, but she just breathed again, holding out her hands, encouraging him to do the same. He had no reason not to humor her; he was the one who controlled the very air. Corvidley Damr breathed deep and slow. His eyes widened. Something had changed from the beginning of their fight.
The ground had settled. The five were still surrounded by rippling stalagmite chimneys, they still produced steam, but equilibrium had been reached. The two clashing forces of Porce had come to an agreement, and all was calm. The light of the florent shone through the dome of sparkling mist. The air was still and the ice silent. Queenvy took to one knee and placed her bare hand flat against the ice. Frozen, but slightly warm. Corvidley copied her. They were silent for three hundred drops, waiting to see if the calm would pass. It did not. This was the eye of Cor’s storm bonded to the boil of the Aych Fauce.
“You have told a lie Corvidley Damr,” Queenvy said softly. “You said there was no hearth for you.” He stared back, silently begging her to keep talking, like a child begging his mother for the end of a bedtime story. “This place is perfect.” She stood and looked around, imagining buildings climbing to the top of the steamy dome.
“Perfect for…” Kingvy muttered, moving close to his sister. He grabbed the sides of his head and slowly pulled on his hair, as if seeing his surroundings for the first time. “Is this it?” He ran to the nearest edge of their bubble, mouthing calculations of a sort. He put his palm over one of the calm chimneys, grinned, and then warmed both hands over the now-pleasant steam.
“Perfect for what?” Cor asked. His weapons dropped. “Tell me.”
“Perfect for you,” Queenvy answered, “and us.” Alast and Pearlen approached cautiously; they had no idea what had struck the twins. Alast was particularly disturbed by their change of heart, given that they were now surrounded by obscuring mist on all sides. He had been raised in an ignorant cloud like that, but the Rookrs had a clear vision for the fertile ice of Corvidley Damr. “You can live here,” she assured the cursed son. “Here on the edge of the Aych Fauce’s heat your storm is nothing. Folk can approach you. Folk can touch you again.” She demonstrated her point by walking over to him, slowly extending a finger, and placing it over the black patch of his stilled heart.
Corvidley collapsed at her gentle poke. His breath came in choking sputters. Alast and Pearlen saw an opportunity to strike at the back of his neck, to see what vile snow poured out, but Queenvy kept them back with one gesture. Pearlen instead turned to Alast and helped him bind his wrist with a few shreds of cloth. They trusted her. Queenvy lowered herself to Cor’s level and put a hand on his shoulder. He shuddered under it as if under a five bar boulder.
“No. It’s an illusion. It can’t last. Only the storm lasts,” he gasped, holding himself and rocking back and forth. “Life is hardship. Joy is only the space between the snow as it falls. I know this. I’ve lived this. Nobody will come. None will stay by my side and treat me as alive.”
“Oh they will come,” Queenvy asserted, her voice certain, almost greedy and almost giddy. “Two are already here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Me brother and I have had hungry eyes for a long time,” she explained. “We’ve kept them at bay by opening our treasure bag and snacking on the sight of the glitter within, but only one thing could satisfy. A perfect place. A home. You’ve created it Corvidley! This be an opportunity, and it be as beautiful as she said it would be.” Her brother was the evidence of her claims, as he still ran back and forth taking rough measurements with his steps and drawing lines in the snow.
“How is this perfect?” Cor asked. “There’s nothing here.”
“You can’t see it because you haven’t been trained to see it,” she insisted, practically salivating now. “Like you we were raised by the criminal set, but we had another teacher. An opportunist. An entrepreneur. Our friend Scuttlr.” She looked up to the florent, but saw mostly the swirls of the steam. “She wanted us to be ready when the moment came, to leave the pirate shell behind and become business folk. She told us we could run our own worlds and lives.”
“With this!” Kingvy shouted rapturously, hopping between chimneys, drumming on them. “It be all over but the counting! We’ll be counting our tiles, counting our blessings, counting the days of luxury!”
“It be the Aych water, Cor,” Queenvy elaborated. “It be a resource. The whole world needs water what stays hot. It be an industry, only none of that industry be this close to the source. They can’t be. It be too expensive, too dangerous. Your storm has changed that. You’ve made new ground and claim has been laid. We can stay here. Build. Cut holes in the ice and start harvesting. We won’t need safety equipment. Our water will be the hottest on the market. All we have to do be stay here, make our home.”
She ran and grabbed their nest egg, taking it back to Corvidley. She pulled it open and showed him, piece by piece, their hard won treasures. She put a silver necklace around his head to dazzle him. She threw around words like ‘capital’ and ‘infrastructure’. All the words Scuttlr had fed her. She told him everything she saw. A comfortable house right there, built with fine light wood and topa from the lip of Third Sink. A packaging factory just there, with sealed canisters and drums of Aych water coming out at all drops of the day. A tavern there, where they could all relax after a hard day’s scheming, a warm building where Corvidley could be among friends.
“No,” he tried to reject. The black and blue boy pulled away, ripping the silver chain off his neck. He didn’t drop it, just held it out like a dead rodent by the tail. “These are lies. You have no reason to help me. I killed so much of your crew. I sank your real home. You would never…” Kingvy finally came to his sister’s side, panting. He caught the end of Corvidley’s spitting rant.
“It be true,” he said. “You’re a murderer. You killed me friends.” He turned to his sister. “Tell him about all our killed friends.”
“I was about to brother. Mr. Corvidley Damr. Kingvy and Queenvy Rookr have always worked for friend-killers. Up until this moment we were pirates. Pirates can be our friends, but they can never be our family.” She looked at her brother. “He be the only family I’ll ever have. He be the only one whose death makes our future non-negotiable.”
“You would forgive the horrors I’ve visited upon you, just like that?” Cor asked skeptically.
“No, we wouldn’t,” she answered sternly. “I’m saying all our friends have done unforgivable things. We’ve always had to leave that out of our figuring. Captain Rob did terrible things and we let them go. He killed Scuttlr, but we still would’ve followed him after that. You cannot have our forgiveness Mr. Damr, but you can have our company.”
“Especially once we’re incorporated,” Kingvy added. Corvidley’s eyes darted about. Without realizing it he started holding the silver chain and its stone like a small pet. He stroked it, seeming to remember an animal he had as a child, back when his hands were bright and warm.
Kingvy and Queenvy had their certainty, but Alast and Pearlen waited at the edge of their nerves, holding each other. They couldn’t fight Damr and win. It was all up to the vision of the twins. They had to convince him there was a home there, surrounding them. Alast and Pearlen couldn’t see the Aych outpost of the future; their minds envisioned only the confines of the Gone Old Mop. They rocked back and forth on their feet, trying to feel the swaddle of the sea and hear the mirth of a meal under the wreathed herbs and spices.
“My father still lives,” Cor growled. “His skull still adorns a high shelf instead of the mud, awaiting his deserved iron boot. He… still… lives!”
“And now so do you!” Queenvy shouted back. She came close. Cor was forced to take a step back, a step that rattled and crashed within him: a quake within his soul. The folk around him were statues no more. They could approach. Argue. Fight. Push back with hot hands and racing blood. Queenvy was right there with her thick hair, swarthy skin, cheeks like bread fresh from the oven cracking in the cooler air… “Everything what happens from this point on be your boon or your fault Corvidley Damr.” It had to be his choice; it would never last otherwise. “But we are not beholden to you. If you’re not an opportunity for us we have others to get to. Here in life our time be limited, so give us your answer. Me brother and I will stay here, with you, and plan a settlement and business. Alast and Pearlen will take our messages back with them, to be brought to civilization once they are free, to send supplies and labor to us. Are you in our home? Or are you out in the cold?”
Frostbite Cor took another step back. The furthest chimney from them collapsed as it exited his sphere of influence. Its weak sound paralyzed him, locking him between the normal lightfolk as if he was a tent and they the pegs. They saw it in his eyes. He wasn’t the eye of the storm anymore, nor was he a fixed point. He was one of the snowflakes in the wind. Control was ripped away and he was set adrift. His decisions carried weight that could drown him.
“A girl,” he said weakly. “In this settlement of ours. Could there ever be a girl who would have a creature like me? Could she be a wife?” There it was. Corvidley had not matured since the moment the arrow struck him. His vengeance, his vindication, was all just a façade built by piling snow. He was a lonely young man with the same daydreams he had before. He sought a child’s vision of the future: plentiful food and dessert, friends to run with, and a feminine flame to warm him in the darkness.
“I’m not the wife type,” Queenvy answered, managing a smirk, “and I dislike those who are, but they spring up everywhere. If we settle here, somewhere in those workers and their families, there be bound to be one.”
“You’ll have other things to treasure first,” Kingvy added. “Treasure for instance.” Corvidley Damr looked at the Rookrs. He saw how tight Queenvy’s hand was around the neck of their savings. Even if he froze her to death, turned her hand into a slippery stone, it would be no easier to pry it from her. It was everything to them, and they showed it to him. They draped it over his neck. Cor looked at the silver jewelry again. Slowly, he held it wide in front of him, and then placed it back around his head.
The twins extended their hands. It was not forgiveness and it was not friendship, not yet at least. It was bargaining blessed by Scuttlr. With the heat of Aych Fauce under their feet, opportunity had rarely ever been so warm. They shook his frostbitten hand. Only then did Pearlen and Alast relax some.
All of them felt weak and delicate in the following drops. There was a certain disbelief in every heart that didn’t have a twin beating alongside it. The young lovers couldn’t believe they were going to live or that they would bring an equal revelation back to their crew. They couldn’t believe they were likely saying their final goodbyes to the Rookr twins, whom they sailed and raided with for washes.
Corvidley couldn’t fathom the things he now said freely, that poured out of him like molten metal. He knew only what he felt moments after he said it, with a slight perverse happiness from the knowledge that the twins had to listen. Suddenly he was full of advice and ideas, and his expression changed constantly as if his attention span was a fluttering tidywing suddenly freed from a lengthy winter hibernation.
They spent drops in planning, until hunger rumbled in Alast and Pearlen. The twins seemed strangely immune to it, as if nourished by their resurgent ambition. The Rookrs had fine stationary, pen, and ink in their treasure bag, so they used it to draft a few supply lists and employment offers. Alast and Pearlen would take them with, all the way up to Third Sink’s lip, and help arrange the first line of supplies for the outpost.
The four pirates took turns embracing each other and wishing well, but then they had to separate. It was a long trek back for those returning, and the air quickly became cold again when they were out of the influence of Cor and the Aych Fauce. His icy bridge held and they were able to trace their old steps back, even picking up the coats they’d shed and donning them once more.
With the tension of Cor’s presence gone, Pearlen found herself furious. The memories of their struggle blazed once more: the sinking, the deaths, the foul fire, the gnawing hunger, cracking thirst, and the clawing in her eyes. She’d dangled by a string for much of it, pulled along by Alast, hated by the eventually mutinous crew for her needs. Part of her wanted to go back and kill Cor for every death-dreading they were forced to endure. Alast tried to calm her with talk of the future, their own this time, but it just reminded her of how easily the twins had thrown themselves into a new life.
“I’ve done it twice; I don’t know why I would deny them the chance,” she said, wrapping her four coats tighter around her chest.
“You didn’t do it with a mass killer,” her partner reasoned. “I never knew they were so…”
“No, that’s not what they are. They didn’t invest in us. Their word was on the crew, and their labor, but never their souls. I know I’ve given it my all. I’d steal that bag of theirs and hand it over to any arcane creature that promised Rob’s return.”
“I would as well. He wasn’t a good man, but he had something. The world always tried to cut him down, and he always cut it right back.” They trudged in silence after that, their minds engulfed in the advice Frostbite Cor had dared to give them. Wearing a smile he hadn’t earned, at least not in their eyes, Corvidley had summed up his experiences and handed it over in a sagely wrapping.
“Don’t trust pirates. Especially the dead ones.”
Alast and Pearlen made it back to the melt crater intact. All was explained, and they were received as heroes. Though the Winchar Straits still had plenty of their time to burn through, it was, in essence, over. Without the threat of Frostbite Cor’s return, and with the roodnocks no longer drawn to the wall above them by the divine droplet, the bonepickers were free to climb, seek aid, and return to rescue the others.
Young Mr. Questr took another fortuitous step, one he did not share with the whole of the crew. As they climbed over the broken crest of Cor’s frozen wave, taking their first steps in the melt crater but not yet being spotted, he noticed a lump under his boot. When he bent down he saw a reflection in the ice, but it wasn’t his own.
He saw it only for a drip, but there was no mistaking it. Captain Rob. Not the pirate himself, but his clever double from the Reflecting Path. It winked at him and vanished. Alast pulled the lump out from under his boot: Rob’s piece of the Reflecting Path. It seemed, though the Captain was gone, his reflection still had a mind of its own. It had returned the piece after Bobat was obliterated. Reflections were supposed to be parasites, opportunists after the blood of their counterparts, but Rob always had a rapport with his. Perhaps it knew that Rob’s emerald bones meant a stunted life, and thus nothing for it to steal. That could’ve opened the door to collaboration.
The boy pocketed the piece, only telling Pearlen and his captain much later.
When the skeletons came back from their first climb they brought with them ropes, climbing axes and hooks, wooden platforms that could be fixed to the wall, and more gravefolk they’d hired to help in the recovery. The lightfolk, the few remaining tilefolk, and the one bergfolk were handled as delicate cargo, brought up the wall inside cushioned packs or raised by pulleys and large buckets. The entire effort took more than two rinses, but those in the melt crater had plenty of fish to keep them going, with the first supply run also bringing them dried vegetables, breads, and extra clothes, blankets, and tents.
There was still the matter of the mutiny, and where the crew of the Greedy Old Mop would go from the safety of Third Sink’s lip. This was to be resolved at the tables of a very large restaurant specializing in the breading and frying of bartlebirds: exactly the sort of comfort food they had been denied in the Winchar Straits. Once the rescue operation was complete the remains of the crew were left in the town nearest the lip, which was called Glont.
The spacious restaurant was Glont Gobblers, and although the pirates ate much and their stoic lady captain paid fairly, the arguments and behavior of the large party drove all the regulars away. The owner eventually had to put his foot down, though he only used three of the five toes. A full five might have convinced them to simply rob him blind. His conditions were that the gravefolk, the majority of their number, had to wait outside during their deliberations, as they certainly were not consuming any fried poultry.
Teal agreed to the condition, but it proved little help to the beleaguered restaurateur. The gravefolk simply loitered just outside. They leaned against the walls of his establishment going all the way around, making Glont Gobblers look more like a gaudy ossuary than anything else. Some of the gravefolk even tried to sneak back in, in pieces, to overhear the discussions. They hid their skulls among the plates of greasy bird bones. More than once a poor member of the serving staff said something behind closed kitchen doors only to have a beheaded pirate offer a rebuttal.
Still, they provided the best service they could to help end the debates in a prompt manner. Even with their efforts the pirates remained past open hours for two days, arguing even after their reaching paws could no longer find biscuits, honey, or spicy ogtot skins. Their stores of everything but birds were entirely drained, as the side dishes proved to leave room in the mouth for the pirates to still talk and shout through.
No authorities were ever called to handle the ruffled ruffians, as they certainly seemed capable of escalating the situation into serious property damage with their giant blue bath bead. The divine droplet stood as a centerpiece most of the time, its contents swirling endlessly. On one side sat Teal, with Nayth Kohlr on the other. The man still acted as representative of the mutineers, though his heart was no longer in it. He wore the expression of a flustered lawyer with an unreasonable client. On several occasions it looked as if only the hands on his shoulders kept him in his seat.
Some sought passage back into Teal’s good graces. Others stood firm with their intent to split from the outfit formerly worn by Captain Rob, and they weren’t going to leave empty-handed. They demanded Teal explain her plans for the future, but the woman was a closed and locked book, the only key being the quill of the original author. Even those standing with her were not privy to her plans, not because they weren’t trusted, but because the mutineers wouldn’t get a single drop of raw emotion from the woman.
They would not get the catharsis of her anger, forgiveness, or disappointment. They would not hear her hand slap the table. They would not see a tear roll down her cheek or a grimace contort her into something less striking. This was a source of great anger, mostly among those who stood directly behind Mr. Kohlr and kept their hands on his shoulders.
Under the guise of negotiating a share of Captain Rob’s treasure bag, their lines of questioning always turned to her private meetings with the man. What they actually sought was the key to Rob’s solid rule of the Greedy Old Mop. He’d never suffered a mutiny. He’d always kept them profitable. The greedy shoulder-hands hoped Teal had gleaned his secret from her closeness to their legendary leader.
She had failed to keep the crew together, but that could be attributed to her inexperience with either the Winchar Straits or the manly heated charisma of Rob’s secret technique. Was it the way he insisted on keeping a laboratory aboard, and how he only shared the results of his experiments with his officers? Was it the way he took chances on scrappy empty-headed oddballs like the boy Alast? Was it his willingness to let the gravefolk unionize and form the Calcitheater?
Teal never gave them the slightest clue. It was no secret she’d had two separate relationships with Rob, there had been two nasty thorny attempts at a child, and that her mind was the closest to his in all of Porce, but she was a wall during negotiations. She brought in the skull of Veer Keystonr to accurately reproduce every estimate associated with the Greedy Old Mop: its old value, its value at the time of sinking, the value of the treasure aboard, the contributions of each and every crewmember to each and every raid and robbery, and even how much food they had consumed.
None questioned the memory of Veer. Some knew his level of accuracy and devotion to it. Others feared he would ‘misremember’ their value as a worker should they object to his calculations. When the tallying was done the mutineers tried to draw her into a battle over each piece of Rob’s treasure, but she had a simple solution that snipped their efforts in the bud. No mutineer would be entitled to any piece of the plunder before the Winchar Straits, as the crew was not dissolving.
Individual members had always been free to take their share and leave before, but this was a liquidation triggered by disloyalty. Teal had no intention of letting the treasure languish, and as acting captain she claimed full authority over it. A second mutiny was ready the moment she suggested it, greasy forks raised like tridents of war, but she cut that off at the legs as well. The mutineers, under the self-selected guidance of their leader Nayth Kohlr, would receive the divine droplet as compensation for their hardship.
It was, without a doubt, more valuable than all of Rob’s treasures combined. It was a bath bead of incredible size, power, and reputation. Its appearance connected it directly to the classical images of the goddess Swimmr; it was the horn of weighty Qliomatrok. There would be no end to the bidders for such a relic. Stunned, the mutineers had no choice but to accept.
Only when they quietly shuffled out, wealthy and defeated, did Teal take a moment to smirk. Now the bead was their problem, and with it all the distrust it would sow. The sale of an item like that would have a thousand chances to go wrong, especially with so many individuals laying claim. Add to that the chance that it would be stolen by one of those individuals or an outside actor. Add to that the responsibility of whatever the eventual recipient did with its great power. All of that belonged to Nayth now, who slumped over as he exited the fried food establishment, hands full of the shining blue headache.
Some others chose to take their leave of Teal’s efforts before she even explained them. They departed on mostly kind terms, while making it clear that without Kilrobin Ordr they saw no point in being pirates anymore. Miss Powdr did not argue. This left her with greatly reduced ranks, but those remaining gave her all the loyalty they would’ve offered Rob: Dawn Shockr, Manathan Shuckr, Bonswario Bucklr, Herc Monickr, Ladyfish Paintr, Kilroary Ordr, Alast Questr, Pearlen Lustr, and the tilefolk cook who always preferred to go unnamed.
Tens of the gravefolk outside this inner circle offered their services as well, as employees more than friends. Added to that was nearly the whole of the Calcitheater. Teal Powdr still had a respectable crew, and they numbered eighty-two in total. Alast was delighted to have all four of his teacher skulls with them still. Their new chain of command was only slightly altered from the old: Teal as captain, Dawn as first mate, and Manathan as second. He would be followed by Herc, then Bonswario, and finally Ladyfish. After that, chaos could have its chance.
There was one more issue to address before Captain Teal unveiled her plans for the future: the fate of Oddball Damr. No proper justice system would incarcerate him for criminal actions aboard a pirate vessel, and there was no charge to suit his specific misdeeds. Regardless of their feelings for the skull that had long impersonated Kilrorke Ordr, he had withheld vital information as to the threat of his son Corvidley. Lives had likely been lost as a result.
Imprisonment bore little difference from the life of the average member of the Calcitheater, and the gravefolk felt no physical pain. The conundrum of how best to punish him solved itself however. When the crew found the body of Kilrorke Ordr and demanded the skull submit himself, they were met by a different voice. Among all the skulls sneaking in and out in the bones of the restaurant, Oddball had fled. It seemed the old weakness of having his family hate him coaxed his departure a second time. The skull would rather run than face his mistakes, only this time the cold wouldn’t nip at his heels.
Teal decided against any sort of pursuit. Their crew was renewed, and there would be no wasting of resources on a soul Rob had allowed to fester within his ranks. It was better to focus on their new endeavors.
The crew would sail the waters of Third Sink once more, only it would now be under the banner of a legitimate business and the stern gaze of a legitimate businesswoman. Teal Powdr renounced piracy in all their names, as theft was always Rob’s will. He did it to earn his bones, to make sure his emerald disease did not steal all life from him. Teal knew the pain of his affliction, its thorns had grown inside her for a time as well, but she would not let the fear of death be her identity as a captain.
With this new identity came new symbols. The Greedy Old Mop was a mighty creaking vessel of greens and yellows. It wore a scruff of ropes taken from the rigging of its opposition. It was full of hidden safes and chambers you would never normally find aboard a pirate vessel. Teal’s new ship, purchased by the careful sale of some of their salvaged treasures, was a much more utilitarian creature.
There were several vessels on the market in the larger port towns of Third Sink, including several storied P.O.S’s like the P.O.S. Volatile and the P.O.S. Snafu. These were quite expensive and too showy for Teal’s tastes.
The new boat she chose was smaller, slimmer, painted a strong glossy blue, and had a lacquered black beakhead sharp as an umbrella end. Teal commissioned a new flag; it was blue and bore the white silhouettes of a woman crossing her saber with a narwhorl’s horn. It would entirely replace Rob’s colors, but his old image of the spike-mustached skull would not be wholly abandoned. A custom anchor was forged in that shape and attached to the new ship.
She consulted with her crew, ceding her authority in one brief instance so they could all vote on a name for their new home. The Calcitheater deliberated on the issue for an entire rinse before presenting the officers with a curated list of one hundred suggestions. In the end the heir of the Greedy Old Mop was called The Employer, for that was its role. It would make them all more honest adventurers. Teal’s reborn crew took a fresh oath: all employees must wash their hands of filthy misdeeds. This had to be done as they no longer shook the grimy mitt of Kilrobin Ordr, but the pristine palm of Teal Powdr.
Profit found their pockets swiftly, for their cargo was decided even before the purchase. The scuttlebutt around Third Sink was that a couple of young enterprising sailors had stumbled onto a new location ideal for harvesting the hottest Aych Fauce water. Some even said these twins, by the name of Rookr, were using bath bead magic to make the work site not just safe, but practically balmy!
The Employer, on its maiden voyage, brought some supplies as gifts to the twins. They pulled their ship right up to the side of a strange warm shelf of ice and were greeted by their friends. Off stepped a batch of workers willing to sign on with the Rookrs, as well as the first loads of lumber, topa, and metal ores for the early construction efforts. Teal’s crew took as much Aych Fauce water back with them as they could, not bothering to meet with the black and blue boy that made it all possible. He at least had the decency to hide himself whenever the ship came by.
And so they sailed, growing more renowned with each trip. They became a multipurpose ship, their familiarity with the Winchar Straits giving them a speed advantage over other boats that tried to seize the early opportunities. Anyone wishing to immigrate to the new outpost, which looked more and more like a town-island each day, would seek the sleek professional luxury of the Employer and its employees. Folk were shipped in and boiling water was shipped out.
As time passed, the itch for adventure struck. They were pirates no longer, but there were still ways to get in trouble. The captain kept her mischievous smirks and hand-waving locked up in her cabin, but her loyal crew heard it leak out in her orders. They started offering passage to those with strange and dangerous reputations. Every other rinse they made sure some of their cargo was slightly unorthodox, just to keep things spiced.
Teal ran a very clean ship, but the galley was allowed to reminisce. They dried herbs and seasonings, tying their branches around the rafters. The spice stick, used to jab the ceiling and rain flavor on the meals of the Greedy Old Mop, had been salvaged by a gravefolk who used it as a walking stick during their glacial trial. It still made the rounds each night, passing warmth between hands.
The employees no longer feared the ice they sailed through, full as it was of starving, freezing, burning, drowning, itching memories. They were not the ones who sunk. It was the Greedy Old Mop. It was Captain Kilrobin Ordr… lost to the depths in a murderous rage. Even in death they learned a lesson from their captain. No more sinking. Their hands would always be clean enough to crawl back up to civility.
Tales of the Living Sixteen: Deathbreath Vyra
She was the first in an age to discover the greatest secret of the Riding Rail. Third Stall had always been the source of endless stories and riddles regarding its size and unique feature. Most accepted the Gross Truth, they knew their world was a washroom, but there were still befuddling aspects. Why was Third Stall so much larger than the other two? Third Toil and Third Holder were the same size; it was only the walls and door that differed.
That… and the presence of the Riding Rail: a great horizontal cylinder moored on each end in the midst of the Threewall Wild. Its soils and bedrock were as metallic as those of Metal Block or any of the toil levers. Its size allowed civilization to be built on its surface, as long as they bent to its strange gravitation will. The rail’s gravitation pulled toward itself, but its round structure meant folk could walk its underside like it was the World Ceiling or its sides like it was any of the world walls. Its cities could be built upside down, sideways, or right side up as long as they conformed to the land’s gentle curve.
The longest buildings had the most notable curves, and the lengthiest estates belonged to the Bathrons. They were a series of noble families that had long owned the Riding Rail’s greatest natural resource: the Oiprink prints. The side of the rail closer to Third Toil bore oily prints, unbelievably massive in scale. They were amongst the best pieces of evidence that the original builders of Porce had been like lightfolk, for the prints indicated four fingers, a thumb, and a clear palm. This was only realized when telescopes advanced enough to observe details of the rail from Third Toil and Third Stone Door.
The print oils were chemically similar to those oozing out of lightfolk hands as well, but the deposits were thick as ore, often dying the ground of the Riding Rail a pink or fleshy tone. The oils were a useful base for cosmetics, perfumes, and lubricants: keystone industries for Bathron wealth.
Sometimes the print oils were used in decoration when a Bathron wasn’t satisfied with the subtlety of a sprawling mansion visibly curving to the rail’s form. It could be compressed, dried, and combined with rock salts to form large polished stones with warm coloration. These stone were then hollowed and a lamp was placed inside. When the florent was off and plenty of the oil-salt lamps burned, it soaked the area in soft yellows and oranges like bathing in a god’s bubbling earwax.
That was the aura during a ball at the estate of Bathron Tauntr. The burning of the lamps combined with the chuckles and mirth of the 300 guests to form a day of their own, and it would last until a majority of the eyes present simply had to rest. They celebrated the wedding of the Bathron’s youngest daughter, but in the thirtieth drop of the festivities the eldest daughter was drawing all the attention.
Vyra Tauntr sneered at those who pushed her away from her younger sister Kaykee. Kaykee’s bridal gown was a shimmering collection of ribbons and scales; it had been breathtaking during the ceremony but now, after so much moving through the crowd, a sheen of oil had built up on the surface. It was the grime of too much company kept, and Vyra had used it to start a series of condescending comments. She told her sister that staying the center of attention so long had made her grimy, like a bottle of scrub-throat passed between too many hands. This sent Kaykee into tears, threatening to end the party’s dragging tail.
As many of the guests were distant acquaintances of the poorer groom’s family who might never again have the chance to walk such oily steps, they shamed Vyra, booed her, and pushed her toward the edge of the grounds where she might cause less trouble. The woman needed little help, proving just as capable of pushing others away on her own. She stormed through the thinnest part of the crowd, holding up both sides of her own ridiculous dress. Descending the last stone steps, past the uncouth seated kiss of a lightfolk and bergfolk couple, Vyra reached the gardens.
Chatter, that’s all it is, she thought. Every word out of Kaykee’s mouth isn’t even that. She makes a series of noises that happen to appeal to folk, like a songbird or an ogtot that inflates and explodes because it never stops croaking long enough to breathe. Somehow my chatter wound up discordant to their ears. Black teeth would be better luck.
She climbed the curved back of an aker statue, through the trimmed saplings on either side, and sat between its horns so she could watch the arrows’ passage. The arrows had their own noises, but they were much subtler and more honest. Vyra was far from the glow of the lamps now, so the whizzing of the arrows was actually the best indication they were there.
Zhiieeew. Zhiieww. Their flight was eternal and their message always the same. Don’t get in my way or you’ll die. I always have a way, and I’m always saying this. Don’t get in my way or you’ll die. Why couldn’t the chattering of the guests be so honest? The purpose of talk amongst the wealthy was always probing and shifty. A question about a mother’s health was really a question of imminent inheritance. A stated intent to invest was really bragging to bolster a reputation. There were so many variations on their attire, accents, tone, word choice, and cadence, yet they always said the same thing. Don’t get in my way or you’ll die.
There were a few familiar forms; from them Vyra had learned of her own reputation. She was the eldest daughter of a Bathron yet unmarried and without children. It had been collectively decided that she was unfit for such roles, thanks in no small part to her sharp tongue and wicked temper. This was the chatter that followed her as she was expelled from the party, like an abandoned coat with a vomit stain.
“I hear she’s so bitter because of an illness. Soured her womb. It’s now five rests older than her other body parts.”
“She’s flushed with babble, always goes on and on about things that don’t matter.”
“Vyra’s words have always been foul.”
“Nothing to offer the ears of men but acid nothings.”
“Such a shame, she was beautiful before she did… whatever that is… to her hair. Such a poor style. Common on the floor I think; it does look like a mop thick with excrement.”
“The oil certainly does horrors to dark skin, but she makes it look especially disgusting.”
You will be my new family, she thought to the arrows. All I need is company that doesn’t shy away from what it means. Say dark sharp things to me. Expect me to help you and fight back when I don’t. Let’s start a toothy tug of war over a bone and stare into each other’s souls across its cracking length.
Zhiieeww. Zwin! That was a new sound. Vyra took her hands from her chin and placed them against the aker’s cool head. She leaned forward. Arrow’s Grip was always just past her home. When she was a child it was half her nanny’s job just keeping her away from it. It was where the Riding Rail’s gravitation had permanently claimed the arrows of a long-gone conflict, so now they circled the rail’s entirety until they eventually found a fool wandering across. The sounds of it rarely changed.
A tiny flash of green went by. A spark of purple. A wriggling red smoke trail. These arrows were new. Vyra leaned into it more. Their sounds were different; what did these have to say? The deadly intent was still there, but now there was showmanship. They glittered and whistled like fireworks. Bath bead heads! They have to be. No firework lasts forever. Who would fire a collection of bath beads into Arrow’s Grip? What a waste! If I had one I’d…
She couldn’t finish the thought because a fresh arrow passed a bubble from her nose. It was a recent addition to Arrow’s Grip, as she had thought herself safe atop the aker’s head where she’d observed it a hundred times before. This arrow’s head bore a bath bead as well, and its effects were immediately demonstrated. Even though it had not touched her she was pulled from her perch. Its angle was not as perfect as the other new arrows; it sailed into the ground and struck grass.
The arrow burrowed rather than stopping, pulling in plants, roots, and dirt from all directions. Vyra screamed for help and clawed at the dirt, but its momentum had her as well. The bath bead had been exaggerating the force of it being loosed for more than a day, so when it struck it created an inescapable tunnel of gravitation. It pierced the layer of metal ore under the grass. It broke the layer after that. And the next. It left a tunnel full of swirling howling winds in its wake, and Vyra was merely a part of its tumbling debris.
The sound of the arrows was replaced by the echoes of her shouting and the falling of rocks. The bath bead’s powers of infinite momentum sent it deeper and deeper, until it reached a hollow inside the Riding Rail that no living folk knew of. Vyra became the first in the Age of Building when she emerged from the end of the arrow’s shaft. The fall from the top of the Riding Rail to the bottom surely would have been lethal if its gravitation wasn’t reversed on the inside. Moments after she was spat from the hole she was pulled in an arc.
She landed in a fluid of sorts, but there was no splash. Its droplets were far too large and slimy for sounds like that. Dazed, seated on her bottom, and pulled along the inside curve of the rail by the fluid’s movement, Vyra grabbed a piece of it and held it up. It was a whitish blue blob full of bubbles, wavy lines of darker color, and a single orb eye with ten pupils. They dilated at the sight of her and the blob squealed. Vyra gasped and dropped it back into the fluid, which she now realized was just millions upon millions of prosites.
The inside of the riding rail was polished to perfection by the constant motion of prosite lives. They covered every bubble of its surface, moving in waves that crashed against the sides and sprayed colorful blobs in all directions. Vyra looked down the tube of this new land and saw a circle of endlessly fluctuating color, like a rainbow twisted into the shape of a spyglass.
“Well cast me out into the Dark Empty,” she muttered as she took it all in. She’d been taught just as much as any other folk that the prosites were to be reviled first and feared second, but the shock of her fall prevented her from panicking. While she recovered from it, while the prosites pulled her along in their flow without harming her, she realized these were a very different sort, what the prosites themselves would call a different strain.
The ones she’d seen before this were thinner, flatter, and had more animalistic flailing to their tendrils. Out in the open their pupils were sharper and they kept a coating of dirt on them at all times. That was just what she’d seen from fleeting glances, before they collected the material around them and formed it into giant suits of armor. There were a few Bathrons who hired prosites, armored into proliths by piles of copper or platinum, to stand guard outside their curved palaces.
Those were the desperate strains that still fought for survival on the surface. They had lost their Coproglossi tongue, their cultural memory, and most of their ambitions. These plump soft bouncers cradling Vyra inside the rail had lost their ambitions as well, but they still had plenty to say.
“Quisit estrephix?” one under her elbow asked.
“Who are you?” another under her knee asked in Wide Porcian when she didn’t respond.
“You can talk?” Vyra gasped.
“We do approximately three things,” a pink prosite slithering up her thigh said, “talk, swim, and this!” The prosites bulged under her, raising her away from the polished metal. The entirety of the mound squealed giddily, growing taller and taller until it crested and broke up with giggles and satisfied sighs. Vyra slid down the breaking wave and was spun in a circle by the playful prosites. She couldn’t pick out any of those that had just spoken to her, but they all seemed fully aware of what had happened so far.
“What was that other tongue?” she asked them all. “Do prosites have their own?”
“We call it Coproglossi,” several of them answered her, but only one elaborated. “It was Porce’s first language. It was born in the time of doing more than three things. It was a dark time.”
“Tempiphil eratex tenebril,” those around it repeated in Coproglossi. They formed another wave, crested, and broke to rid themselves of the unpleasant memory.
“You’re saying… This is your entire life?” the lightfolk asked. Her question echoed away in the bubbling squeaky voices of the prosites, like the sound of feet slipping on wet tile. “Does nothing else live here?”
“You do now,” a green one said.
“I can’t live here! It looks like fun, sure, but there’s nothing for me. No bed. No food. No water.” The chatter is different though. It means little to nothing. There’s no meaning or meanness. I want some meanness, I want it aimed at me, but not as gossip. Only as one soul tied to another, invested in its failures and disappointments.
“You don’t need those things,” a purple one insisted as it rolled across her shoulder and disappeared between her breasts. Several of them were in her dress now, slithering across her skin. Boundaries had long been bred out of them.
“The last folk in here didn’t,” another said, picking up the conversational slime trail of the last. “They said our tube was the perfect place. We’re counted among the Pipes in here, out of the living world. You don’t have to do any living at all. Sicutphene mortuil ambularex. Tril abrex tua mortua inex risuet manere vigilophil.”
“Wide, please,” Vyra pleaded. “You’re saying nonsense. I need at least a little sense in the words themselves.”
“It was just a little advice,” a red one bubbled, stretching its body into a band around her upper arm. It moved up and down, apparently delighted to be jewelry. “They said: Walk as the dead. Turn your dead lips up into a smile and watch it stay.” They rode another crashing wave. This time Vyra felt it in her spirit as well: a swell of joy that drowned every other sensation and thought. She could only speak a few moments later, when words overcame the draining glee in her throat.
“So you mean what you say, little prosites? I’m like dead folk here? I need nothing? Who was this last folk who made these claims? Maybe you missed something crucial to clear folk thinking. They might’ve had an empty or dented head.”
“They were a Custodian,” a yellow one claimed, “and they lived here with us for fifteen rests. Not once did they drink, eat, or squat.” A chorus of ‘not once’ rippled out from under Vyra. A Custodian? A child of a child of one of the eight? Surely not.
“Do you have any proof?” the woman asked.
“We don’t,” a new mossy green one said, “but the rail does. We’re approaching it now in fact. Look now, while you have the chance!” Several of the prosites around her stretched and flopped, pointing bulbous slimy stalks at a high point of the left curve. Vyra squinted. It wasn’t easy to pick out, the sealed space of the rail was lit only by a drifting collection of lumasol feathers suspended in the exact middle, but there was a visible splinter.
“Can you get me closer?” she asked the prosites. They told her they had little influence over the tide of the gravitation and all the others, but that they would try. Those directly under her flattened against her legs and back, pushing her in the splinter’s direction. They seemed to tire of the effort quickly, but whenever one gave up and fell away a different prosite took its place. Soon she was close enough to see the splinter for what it was: a spear. It was extremely long and had an unusual second handle, so she guessed it to be a bonepicker’s weapon. That led to another thought. “Wait, if I am as death, if this is truly part of the Pipes, can I bonepick?”
“Our Custodian was a wonderful bonepicker,” a prosite answered. “They sailed our round sea on that roost-spear for a jolly long time.”
“Take me closer,” Vyra ordered. The prosites strained themselves. She reached out. Now that she had an object to judge distance by she realized the prosite current was quite swift. If they went by there would be no swimming back.
“Better grab it now,” one of them warned, “we might not be back in this spot for a wash!” Vyra stretched her fingers, but it was clear she wouldn’t be close enough. She tried to leap up, but barely made it a foam closer and spilled her closest supporters all over the place. She had to crane her head up to see the spear now. I can bonepick; that’s what the globbers said. Too bad I never asked a skell how they do it. Jump! No, I’m dead. Just a puppet of bones. Toss!
Vyra pictured herself as a fleshless cadaver strung up like a marionette. She mentally tossed the image of her rib cage toward the roost-spear and listened to the imaginary rattle of limp limb bones. Her body lurched, stomach contents rising faster than the rest of her. Vyra swallowed it down but forced everything else up. She threw that marionette over and over, ignoring the painful impacts when her limbs pushed through the prosites and slammed against the Riding Rail’s metal.
She stretched her arm out. Her inexperience with bonepicking made all the joints pop and nearly dislocated the limb. I’m not waiting a wash just to see this twig again. She pushed one final time as the spear passed directly overhead. Her imagined rib cage bounced off, but her real one hung on. Her hands wrapped around the spear’s length. She flopped over top of it, letting it hold her up across her waist. The prosites cheered as they were washed away, bubbling up in one spot like a geyser of digestive acid in stomach lining.
Vyra hung there, legs dangling, catching her breath. The spear didn’t even wiggle when she grabbed hold, its blade stuck so firm in the metal. She’d forgotten to ask where the Custodian had gone and why they left their weapon behind. It didn’t matter. They were gone, but Vyra was there. She was the spear’s companion now. With great effort and copious grunting she repositioned herself upside down, dipping her feet into the streaming prosites and bonepicking them down until they found metal.
She treated the spear as a lever, pushing forward and back until it gave way. She pulled it free all at once, tumbling with it back into the prosites. With the folk and folk relic united, they were now the only debris in the spiraling sea of color. It was the start of something absolutely new for Vyra, and there was no question that it was better than her old life.
The roost-spear was a weapon, but not within the Riding Rail. There was nobody to run through, and from that she deduced the Custodian’s true purpose in keeping it around. It was a ship. Admittedly it was quite small, only just wide enough for a bonepicker to balance on, but it could achieve incredible speeds and maneuvers in the slime-coated tunnel.
The prosites remembered their part in the technique. Vyra stood on the spear’s smaller perpendicular handle and leaned in the direction of her choice. Bonepicking kept her vertical and gave momentum, while the nearest blobs gripped the sides of the blade and handed it off to their neighbors. Once she was in tune with the curved gravitation of the rail’s interior she could swoop across it astonishingly fast. There was no sideways and no upside down; it was all an endless wave of rainbow beads and the wind of inertia on her cheeks.
It was fun like few had ever had. Vyra spent her time inventing tricks, flipping and spinning in the air before falling into a cushion of prosites. The creatures had some sort of internal metronome allowing them to keep time perfectly, but Vyra never asked them how long she’d been there. Her mind savored the mystery of how much time her fun could shovel into its mouth and turn into a rude belch. Her sister’s wedding party was likely over. Did she have a child with her idiot husband yet? Two? Had her ill father finally passed without his unattached eldest to take care of him?
When Vyra slept, massaged into relaxation by the rise and fall of the prosites that carried her, she saw time stretch out in front of her, into the darkness at the ends of the rail. It was great fun… for a time. It wasn’t a full life for Vyra though. She missed food and fresh clothing. Baths and walks in the gardens. It was difficult to admit, but she also missed the chatter of the spoiled elites she’d grown up with. The prosites of the rail’s strain were so content, and once they had taught her Coproglossi they had little to offer.
The endless rainbow stretched on, and Vyra had nobody to be mean with. It brought back memories of her greatest lover: a horrible man her family had all hated. He was rude to his core, even finding a way to track mud into their mansions without ever stepping in any. Vyra missed his purity. You didn’t have to chisel past passive manners and decency to find his poisonous center. Vyra could drink that poison and be fine. She loved mean folk, because their lashing out was simply honesty about the pains of Porce. It was cruel folk she couldn’t stand; meanness was just a fully sharpened wit.
So there came a time, a time unfixed in her new endless life, where she decided to move on. She could’ve searched long and hard for the original hole created by the arrow, but there were easier exits. Besides, she had no plans to return to the oily ranks of the Oiprink. The Riding Rail had two curved ends, each embedded in the world wall. Outside the rail the ends were anchored in the Threewall Wild, where no sane folk traveled.
Inside was a separate story. The prosites all curved back into the flow so as not to run across the jagged stones at the ends. They were jutting shelves of varying color, but mostly gray and white. After she said her million goodbyes to the friendly blobs she bonepicked her way over to one of the ends. Her feet hit solid ground; it had been so long that the sensation paralyzed her, like a bug stuck in a glue trap.
It was time to put the bonepicking away and walk like folk once more. There was a clear path ahead, even though it did twist, turn, and sometimes become a very steep downward journey. Occasionally she found ancient signs of folk, like braziers stuffed with lumasol feathers to light the way forward. There was still no florent, so the place inside the world wall was yet more of the Pipes.
The Pipes were dead. That much was clear. In all her time journeying down the space between Porce and the Dark Empty she never saw folk. The only sounds were various dripping fluids and collapsing rocks. The only life was prosites, but they were few and far between, fleeing from her with a hiss even when she addressed them in Coproglossi. There was still no cure for her loneliness; her rapier of wit was left drifting in front of her like a ribbon. How she needed an opponent. How she needed a vicious friend as raw as her.
Eventually she came to the great clash of stone and rust where the world walls met the World Floor. She did not pass through the Fith, as its body clung only to the underside of the floor. Any bones absorbed into the ground of the walls simply fell as rain without ever knowing its shifting or its hunger. Vyra followed alongside it, watching its slow churning day in and day out.
She walked half the world without finding anything other than death and abandoned prosite civilizations. After a long session of walking, she couldn’t call any space of time in her life a day anymore, she decided to sleep in a patch of petrified fungal caps. There’d been nothing like a pillow or mattress for ages, so each time she rested she stripped to the nude, wadded up her old ripped dress from the wedding, and used it as a pillow. Vyra was adrift in dreams that flowed like the rainbow sea when something that desired her body found it naked and supple.
It crawled out from under an ancient collapsed archway. Its thick black skin swelled in places, eventually popping with a nauseating sound. The bubbles came slow and thick because its flesh had nearly solidified in its solitude. It was content enough to dry and die over the course of an age, as its world was full of nothing, but it was coaxed back to life by the strange sounds coming out of the nearby fossilized fungus patch.
Its lone eye bubbled to the surface once it was halfway to the sounds. A naked tilefolk resting on her side. Her mouth was open slightly, but she wasn’t just breathing. No, this was speech, muttered and unconscious. The black prosite oozed closer. Vyra didn’t know she spoke in her sleep, as it was a habit started within the Riding Rail. The rainbow blobs talked to her while they carried her along, and after a while her resting mind answered.
“Salvex luxiprax, tu perdidistiphil?” the prosite asked. She didn’t answer directly. Her eyes stayed closed. It started with Coproglossi because it had heard a few of the dignified tongue’s words out of her, but it repeated its question in Wide a moment later. “Hello lightfolk, are you lost?”
“Where are you?” Vyra muttered, still dead to the world.
“I’m right here,” the prosite answered. It could feel her breath now; it shuddered and rolled its eye all the way around.
“I can’t hear you. All I hear is their chatter. They’ve got endless plans for the future, but their future has a clear end. They’ll live in the same houses, eat the same foods, marry the same fools, and veil all their insults.”
“The fools,” the prosite agreed. “One should move house as frequently as possible.” It counted her fingers, toes, and eyelashes.
“Rip the veil away. Tell me how you’re going to hurt me. I’ll tell you what I’ll do to you. I’ll tell you long and slow. The only thing longer and slower will be the hurting itself. Be mean to me; show me that you care enough to lash out.”
“I am among the meanest,” the prosite assured the sleeping lightfolk. “I will do as you wish. I will infect your words. My poison will mingle with yours and come out with every breath. We’ll be toxic together, and I’ll hurt you on the way to profection. You can tell me what you think of me each night, as we both sleep.” Lordiceb Mortuum, prosite of a prehistoric infectious strain, black as the night in a deep hole, slipped a tendril into Vyra Tauntr’s open mouth.
“Auuchh! Accchkaaa!” The woman bolted out of rest and hacked. Her eyes watered. There was a foul taste all the way down her throat, like she’d drunk a flagon of graveyard dirt. Terror replaced shock as she crawled around grabbing at bones and stones. Over and over again she tried to cough the stuff up, but it wouldn’t budge. She felt it move, stretch across her lungs like wet batter conforming to the shape of a bowl. When it was done stretching, when the retching receded, she realized every breath she took had to pass through it to get to her body. “What is this?” she asked the world, tears streaming down her face and into her nail beds as she clawed at her throat. She begged for answers, but none came.
Only the symptoms of infection came. As she wandered the Pipes, often in a daze, she felt her gums soften and her teeth grow gaps. Her throat was thick with slime. When she was out of breath, panting, she emitted black puffs of gas that burned whatever they touched. Whenever she tried to stick a finger down her throat and force the thing’s expulsion she came away with burned fingers and blackened nails. Her infection was there to stay. Deathbreath Vyra never did get to name her condition exactly. Lordiceb did not speak to her from within; it simply waited for her to get the uncontrollable itch to move on. It pieced together her history from her sleep muttering and became certain it’d made the right choice.
She had been pushed out, but she was still a creature of the surface. She needed companionship and the fires that only burned in her homeland. She would do whatever it took to go back, and her desperation would be stronger than Lordiceb’s. So it waited. Profection could be achieved at any point. Once her wit and determination brought her back to the florent, then it would be time to blossom.
Eventually Vyra found company in the form of the living. They took her into Infinicilia, offering her family immediately. She might not have taken it if not for her mysterious condition. They were boring folk for the most part, as oblivious and vain as her old family, but they were folk to watch her when she slept, in case the poison within her did anything new or strange.
They were too polite to help her. They never said anything to her face of her black smile. They never commented when an errant cough instantly rusted a fork at the dinner table. All were accepted into the living whether they drew breath or not, whether that breath was clean or smoky. It was the prosites of Infinicilia that gave her clues. In strain they were somewhere between the likes of Lordiceb and her old rainbow of friends. They spoke to her at least, especially when she used Coproglossi. It was strange to her how much the slime in her throat receded when she spoke their tongue.
The prosites there were not fond of the topic of infection, but she gleaned details of a lost power of control and persuasion. On the one occasion she heard it brought up in Wide Porcian they called it a ‘seed of sickness’. Sometimes they laughed when her back was turned. Yet, there was no urgency to the knowledge. She was safe among the living number. There was no way out. There was no reason to question her decaying breath or understand its deep desire.
There was no way out.
Pirate of Drains
“Vyra please,” Rob pleaded as they crossed blades.
“Just fight me Rob; you’re not a beggar!” she shouted back. “Battle me. You think you’re alive enough to get back up there, so prove it!” She pulled away, but it was strategy rather than retreat. Thipperon of scales crawled across the Fith in the distance. She was the only way out. Vyra had Cloader’s locket; all she had to do was get there first. The Captain gave chase. He couldn’t even estimate the time to her success fast enough, as she switched from running to bonepicking. Vyra mounted her spear, compressed its blade, and launched herself away, clothes and hair fluttering behind her.
The length of her spear could hold more power than Rob’s sword, but he had to try regardless. He flipped into the air, striking the blood red soil first with his sword and then with his feet. He accelerated, turning his body into a wheel. He’d used that technique often, but never with enhanced pipe picking. His progress shredded everything in his path: bones, scabbed ridges, and even boulders. The pirate wheel whined like an industrial saw through a thick board; the sound was the only distraction keeping Rob from succumbing to dizziness.
Vyra’s leaps were practically flight, but she only had a chance of powerful acceleration at the end of each. Rob had one every quarter drip. He failed none. The fire of survival burned in his muscles and lungs, turning each emerald spike into a hot poker that urged his soul onward. Vyra’s burning was smothered by Lordiceb’s tar. The back of her mind couldn’t join the rest in the battle, for it cowered under the prosite’s shadow.
She landed in a great red puddle just as Rob’s wheel tore through it, spraying blood to each side. Her impact splashed in all directions, but the pirate was there, spinning through it and threatening to slice her back open. There was no time to launch again; she had to swivel her spear and lean back, pushing the blunt end to clash with Rob’s wheel. Kwuuunnngggg! The Captain stopped dead as both weapons vibrated against each other.
They were locked in positions impossible for normal folk. Rob leaned unnaturally far forward on one foot, pushing to topple Vyra. Vyra was in an even stranger position; together she and her spear resembled a capital A turned on its head. Her body leaned back. One foot was pressed against the ground and against the blade of her spear. The other was cocked straight out, pushing the spear into Rob’s weapon. This clash of gravitation forces held for a mind-boggling amount of time. The fighters grunted and snarled with each and every breath.
Their battle did not go unnoticed. They each spared a glance for the sounds of crumbling Fith in the distance. Thipperon’s long neck had swiveled in their direction; she was coming. Her wegger-like legs slowly pulled her spindly body across the ceiling of the Pipes. Each stab dislodged a great loamy chunk of it. They could already smell its rich scent, like soil crumbling off the roots of just-harvested cheribarbs.
“She has known me far longer,” Vyra argued urgently. “This gift will be more believable coming from me. I have the better chance. You should stand aside Rob!”
“You have no chance at all,” he rumbled right back. “Your disease will claim you on your first footprint up there. Stop denying it.”
“You’re so cruel!” Vyra broke off the clash, flipped upside down, and pushed forward. Her feet expertly controlled the roost-spear while her hands shuffled her forward. Rob answered with cyclonic tricks that constantly switched the direction of their rotation. Their blades threw sparks that sizzled and died in the tumult of blood. Some landed on drifting scabs with white papery edges, burning into them, surrounding the fighters in wisps of nasty smoke.
Rob stopped spinning, pinning one of Vyra’s feet with his own to keep her still, and tried to check Thipperon’s progress. His vision was obscured by the smoke, but there was no doubt she drew closer. He heard the Fith fall. There was no telling which of the bonepickers was stronger, but if each battled with all their heart and the vinegar they’d pickled in, the fight could extend for drops. Time necessitated a different tactic. He had to force an admission. Which tactic? Charm? Do we have any of that left? No. She’s already charmed and we haven’t even been trying. She likes the sharp horror of us. We all have something awful inside waiting for its chance to get out. We’re the one who gets to enjoy that chance. That’s what she needs to understand.
“You’re an idiot,” Rob declared as he broke away and pulled his body backward through the bloody mud. He lowered his sword.
“Idiots are the ones who stop fighting!” she shrieked, leaping high into the air. She came down with ten times her natural force, spinning her body and spear into a devastating drill. Rob sidestepped her impact and picked with her momentum, spinning around her as she drilled into the mud. He continued his verbal assault all the while. Another chunk of Fith fell, this one splashing into the blood.
“You don’t deserve this fight,” he spat. Vyra gritted her teeth and spun faster, but Rob kept pace. “Who was it that said fighting was like making love? It might as well be me, given how much I repeat it. Making love to the Vyra who mocked me as she picked me up off a bloody bank would be wonderful, but not this Vyra. Not this pathetic shadow: one of sixteen!”
“Shut up and strike!” She stopped her spin dead and thrust her spear. Rob back-stepped. She thrust again and again, pulling her body forward with bonepicking rather than actual strikes. Back step. Thrust. Back step. Another splash of Fith.
“All I would strike is quivering jelly!” he boomed. “You are just the vessel for a crafty slime. You are its beast of burden.”
“There’s nothing… nothing inside!” She swung wildly, whipping her knotted hair into her own face. “It’s just the bad air of the Pipes. When you’ve been stuck here as long as I have you’ll have the black breath too!”
“Your denial disgusts me! We’re both trapped and vicious vermin Vyra. I have only the slimmest chance of seeing daylight again, while you have only the tainted desire of the slimmest chance of seeing it again. The difference is obvious and crucial.” Vyra stopped, panting and scratching at the hilt of her spear. She stepped down from it, eyes blazing with hatred for… something. She held up the locket and then popped it into her open mouth. She bit down. Acrid black gas escaped the corners of her lips. If Rob wasn’t going to fight he could lose a different way. All she had to do was blow and Cloader’s gift would be destroyed.
“Ah go owr nobohy goes,” she threatened around the large object pressed against her tongue. A close splash. The tinkle of the Fayeblon’s jewelry overhead.
“There it is,” Rob said, his voice dropping. “There’s the truth you won’t admit. If you believed there was any chance of leaving with that locket you’d never risk destroying it. You know you’re doomed, but you won’t know that you know it. You’re miserable Vyra.” Her eyes softened; Rob came close, his steps barely disturbing the blood. “You’re miserable and you’re doing it to yourself, even when you have a generator of it cozy in your breast. You can’t have a life, but you can have some dignity. You can have my respect if you stop being such a failure.”
Vyra took the locket out of her mouth and examined it. Tears welled up, but didn’t fall. She bit her cracked and scarred lower lip. Slowly she reached out, let the locket slip to the end of its chain. It dropped. Rob caught it soundlessly and slipped it into his pocket. Expertly, with nothing but bonepicking, he had his severed emerald finger open it, slip inside, and pull it shut.
“You’re so mean to me Rob,” she whispered, her voice fluctuating between pain and laughter. “You’ve poked a hundred holes in me with your emeralds.” Something rose in her throat with a suppressed belch, but she swallowed it back down. If Lordiceb came out now Rob would surely kill it. If it came out later Vyra might kill herself before it could take over. Still, its rage was apparent. Gas billowed from her mouth and hid her eyes. “Go insult the world for me… and thank you for all the hurt.”
Deathbreath Vyra sucked the acidic gas back in and blew it out through her nostrils. She embraced Rob. The smell emanating from the enraged prosite was strong, and it was all Rob could do to stand still. She wanted to hurt him back for his troubles, and he would endure it. He owed her that much. She pressed her spear into the muck so it could stand on its own, and then she held both sides of Rob’s face. Her nails ran back and forth through his beard. She grabbed his jaw like a water jug she was about to pour over her own head. Vyra sighed. She leaned in to kiss him on the lips, but then gently turned his face away.
Her lips touched close to his ear, the gas to his skin. The beard under her kiss burned away and the flesh seared. It bubbled, blackened, and scarred in moments, but Rob gritted his teeth and held. It’s just pain. It means so little compared to her hurt. Vyra released him. Without a goodbye she pulled out her spear and walked away, kicking blood out in front of her. She mounted the Custodian’s weapon and catapulted herself into the distance. Rob reached up and touched the kiss with a pained hiss. He smelled his own burning hair. She made sure he could never forget her or how good it hurt when they touched.
The smoke about the pirate was sucked upward and gone in an instant, into the nostrils of Thipperon; it did not reemerge. The Fayeblon had already anchored herself with her sharp back legs and extended down to Rob. Her long fleshy neck twisted so her head would have the same orientation as the lightfolk.
“I saw it,” the monster wondered aloud, “the one with bad breath.”
“Aye,” Rob answered, rebuilding the crumbled archway of his composure, “you did. Vyra and I were fighting. She has just left.”
“You and it having a lover’s tiff?” Thipperon crooned. “That’s no good. I wanted to see it have lots of little babbies. I want some newfolk babbies to curate my ornaments and rearrange them. I could awake and find a new look every time.” The monster went quiet, but a moment later she dropped closer to Rob, expecting some kind of response.
“That’s very clever,” he rambled, trying to look at her gilded approximations of eyes rather than her crooked scrimshaw teeth.
“That’s why I walked over here when I saw your little sparks. I wanted to ask it when you two expected your first litter. If you’re fighting I might need to go catch it and put you two in a little box until babbies come out.” The Fayeblon paused, as if mentally conjuring the exact proportions and number of air holes such a box would require. “Now it has jumped away and made my walking for naught. Irritating.” Her head rose, indicating she was about to go back to her business of wandering the ceiling like a webless wegger.
“Your arrival is actually fortuitous!” Rob shouted up to her, prompting her head to return. “I was headed in this direction to find you. It’s as if you predicted the future.”
“Hmmm… Yes it is like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could do that; I’ve seen many futures become current time. As I recall, and I recall as well as I predict, I told it that it would be drawn back to me. There is nothing that glitters so much as I in all of Porce. What pretense does it have for its return? Not that one is needed. I will accept its raw desire.”
“I come for two reasons.” Best to be forward. Gift first. Then the request while her focus is split. Wait a drip… We struck a bargain to go with Fixadil, but the blob isn’t here. It said it would find us, aye? Not our fault if it didn’t. We’re going while we have the chance. “The first is that I’ve been asked to bring you a gift from Cloader of theft.”
“Oh? He always brings those himself. Is he getting clever now, having folk do it? I think I like that. This way I don’t even have to look at him to get his gifts.” Her largest set of clawed hands fluttered about her draped ornaments, primping them and making a few silver bells around her neck sing. The pirate squirmed, pulling her attention back. “Does it itch?”
“Oh, aye…” Rob blurted, shaking one of his legs and flinging lumps of coagulated blood. “Forgive me; my skin still isn’t used to the waters and soils of the Pipes.” In truth, what it wasn’t used to was the cold oily feel of a prosite slithering across it. Fixadilaran Bocculum had not botched its own plan. Somehow it had kept its eye on Rob the whole time, and even kept pace during his fight with Vyra. The prosite was deep in the bloody puddle, just waiting for the right moment.
The Captain couldn’t help but flail when he first felt it slide into his boot and up his pant leg, but once he realized what it was he calmed down quickly. Fixadil did just as bargained, moving stealthily until it was on Rob’s chest. The prosite flattened and spread out, barely disturbing the wrinkles of his clothes. It was now along for the ride.
“Give me my present,” Thipperon demanded nonchalantly. She lowered a secondary hand. Its wrist popped several times as it rotated to the open palm. Captain Rob stepped forward; he reached into his pocket and pulled out the locket, sparing one drip to bonepick the finger inside, to make sure it was securely in position. Then he placed it on the black flesh of Thipperon’s palm.
“It’s very small,” she said disapprovingly, leaning in and sniffing it, checking for Cloader’s scent, the force of the sniff lifting the chain. “I can barely see this sparkly grain. Where am I to put it so as not to lose it to a breeze? Pressing it into my gums should keep it firm.” The Fayeblon’s mouth opened wide, revealing a throat the color of a mummified tumor.
“If I may make a suggestion!” Rob interrupted before his finger disappeared into her gullet. “Cloader gave me specific instructions. That gift is so small because it is meant to go around the neck of folk. In his newly-sprouted cleverness he has realized there is one spot of your magnificent body that is not yet decorated.”
“Oh? Where?” Thipperon’s neck wound between her limbs and under her stomach, searching for the supposed naked patch. She seemed almost embarrassed.
“Your pet wears no jewelry,” the pirate pointed out. “That girl you keep: Chewlry Bubblr. This locket would look absolutely splendorous around her neck. It’s the way it would’ve originally been worn when it was made. May I?”
“Cloader’s cleverness is something,” Thipperon cooed. She ran a hand across her neck as if suppressing a flash of perspiration. “I almost want to look at him now. Please, little it with emerald teeth, make me more splendorous!” The Fayeblon tilted her head, lowering the diamond chain bearing the crystal closet. It stopped bubbles from the blood. Rob took the locket back from her palm and approached. There was a ripple across his chest; Fixadil could not contain its excitement.
The door glided open soundlessly. There was the girl Chewlry, just as serene as the last time he’d seen her. She wore a smile; it was not new. Somehow Rob was certain that smile had never faded between visits. She sat on her cushions, legs crossed, one pink breast hanging out of her translucent green robe.
“Hello,” Rob coughed. She was beautiful. Far too young and soft. Nothing compared to Vyra, Teal, Oobla, Viligree, Bastorielle… We do see the purity though. She is without experience. She was born here in the Pipes and has thus never known the taint of life. “If I may, young lady.” He held up the locket with both hands, spreading its chain to make a hole for her neck. Without a word she sat up and leaned forward. Her smile grew. We never considered her role in this. Does she know we’re up to a trick?
She didn’t protest as he placed the jewelry around her neck, simply leaning back instead. She touched the locket once, glanced at it, but did nothing else. The Captain stepped back and nodded to Thipperon. The Fayeblon leaned in to see the gift.
“It does look good on it, and it looks good on me.” She cackled. “So clever! Now it has a second reason for its visit, yes? What is it?”
“Aye, lovely Thipperon,” Rob said, clearing his throat. “This is the end of the gift-giving and the end of Cloader’s words. I represent only myself now, and I’m afraid the only gift I have is my humility. I come seeking your favor. I have been told that you alone, in your power and wisdom, possess a way for a folk to return to the World Floor.”
“It wants to go back up there?” Thipperon scowled a little, her neck coiling like a serpont about to strike. “It knows it can live forever down here.”
“I think this permanent life is meant for beings like you,” he explained. “I do not have the strength to live forever. I wish very much to return to my friends and family. To age and die with them before my time here separates us a sea between islands. I wish to die, a natural gray, by the side of my gray woman.”
“I do have a way,” the Fayeblon admitted, “and I regret ever telling folk. You’re always bothering me for it.”
“It is not my intent to antagonize. I’m just a disciple of a god asking for a blessing.”
“God is right,” the Fayeblon affirmed. “Like the other gods I do not simply give things away. There is a test it must pass if it wishes to regain the surface. Porce knows me as Thipperon of scales, as I maintain balance. If Porce put it down here then Porce wanted to be rid of its evil, but if it can prove none remains inside, it may pass.”
“What form does this test take?” Rob asked even though he was well aware.
“This form.” Thipperon reached over her shoulder and grabbed something between her shoulder blades. Catink! Metal latches snapped. Her hand returned with a silver object, thirty foams long, in the shape of a wire hanger. She turned one claw up and placed it under the bent center, the object teetering back and forth. She then plucked Chewlry’s closet from its mooring and attached the chain to one end of the object. It bent to that side. Thipperon took a second empty closet from her collection and placed it opposite Chewlry.
“This scale,” she continued, “will weigh your spirit. My pet’s spirit is clean. If its is heavy with evil it cannot be allowed to return from whence it was cast out. Tests must have consequences; that is how I keep folk from swarming like gaddyflies. If it fails I will pinch it.” Several sets of her claws pinched together, the smaller ones pinching several times. The sound of their metallic strikes lingered as shock in Rob’s spine. A pinch from her was death.
“How many have passed your test?” the pirate asked as he stepped closer to the empty closet.
“None,” the Fayeblon answered with a smirk, “and I have pinched hundreds into two hundreds. Now get in before I change my mind. Wipe your feet so you don’t get blood on the cushions.” Rob took a deep breath and held it. He bonepicked up, scraping his filthy feet on the edge as he sailed into the closet and sat down directly across from Chewlry’s open door; the girl watched without a hint of concern.
The scale lifted away from the puddle, high into the air. Thipperon stopped exactly halfway between the bloody bones below and the Fith above. Her claws tapped the scale, spinning it around on her finger. She tapped it again to stop it instantly. Rob heard the monster hum. The jeweled closets responded by creaking up and down. This is the test; we need to pick now! Rob stretched out the remaining digits of his maimed hand, probing the space across the way for his lost bone. The locket around Chewlry’s neck shuddered.
Gently but forcefully, Rob picked the digit downward. He had no idea exactly how much evil he had, or the force it would exert, but he made sure his closet never fell below the height of the girl’s. The task quickly proved arduous. Sweat trickled down his temples. Breath hissed in and out of his nose. He spared a thought for the strength of the locket’s chain, but there was nothing that could be done about it now.
His eyes drifted up from his target and found Chewlry’s. She stared back, with one eyebrow raised. Her smile was still there, but more sly. She knows what we’re doing. Of course she does; she can feel it pulling around her neck. The girl doesn’t speak, so she’ll have to get Thipperon’s attention some other way. He mouthed a plea to her, but a moment later he realized it wasn’t necessary. She’s not even moving. She doesn’t care that we’re cheating this test. A pure soul? Perhaps in the eyes of something as foul as a Fayeblon. She may never have committed acts as black as ours, but she has had the thoughts. This is her first chance and she’s our happy co-conspirator. Thank you Miss Bubblr. It’s very kind and not-so-kind of you to help wretches and beasts like us.
Captain Rob bonepicked her closet into a stable position well below his own. He couldn’t see her face anymore, but he knew that sly grin was still there. Thipperon’s head appeared in the space between them. Her neck bent to examine Chewlry and then whipped back to Rob. Her massive wrinkly lips twitched.
“So strange!” the Fayeblon declared. The pirate tried to judge her tone; if she was angry it was well hidden by puzzlement. “Its spirit is lighter than my pet’s? Never have I seen such a thing.” Rob lowered his hand imperceptibly in the hopes she wouldn’t recognize the action he took. “How is this possible? I keep the folkgirl so clean; there is not a speck of evil on her creamy flesh. It looks filthy, little emerald it.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Rob said, hiding the stress in his voice. He gritted his teeth and turned it into a smile. This couldn’t be kept up for long.
“Oh I see!” Thipperon declared. “Yes, it is right. It is full of emeralds! That treasure makes it so light, for treasure is pure and good. It certainly makes me feel light as lumasol. Never has the Fith decided I was too heavy to moor in it. Not so strange after all. Folk full of treasure. I should like to keep it…” Rob swallowed. Fixadil prickled across his hairy chest, plucking out a few strands. “…but gods do not go back on their word. It has passed the test, so we will make the irritating walk. Come emerald-it.”
Silver-tipped fingers closed around his closet, pushing the door shut. It was removed from its chain and thrown on its side. This broke Rob’s concentration. He tumbled with the cushions. Ten drops later it was clear they were safe. Thipperon merely carried them, held under her undulating stomach as she stabbed her way across the Fith. The scale had been put away, and the girl placed back in her usual spot.
“Stay silent,” Rob whispered into his collar. Fixadil made no response, which Rob took as compliance. With the door closed the closet proved surprisingly dark. When he got to his knees and looked through its sides he saw only the leathery black flesh of Thipperon’s palm. It was out of his hands now, and into those of one of the Pipes’ senile lumbering monstrosities.
He had no idea how far Thipperon would take him, and there was little to do to pass the time. He tried to reclaim his finger bones, but with no idea as to their position or orientation he found it impossible. He guessed Chewlry hadn’t opened the locket either; she likely wanted to keep some spoils of their collusion. Rob stared at his now permanently-incomplete hand. He jammed the pointer finger on his left hand into the empty space, squeezed either side of it, and pulled it through. He lost count of how many times he did this in the monster’s trek across the Pipes.
Drops passed. These would’ve been your last drops Vyra. This is where you would’ve accepted the truth if we hadn’t forced it out of you. Thipperon would open this little door and find you squirming, that slime seeping into all your fluids and flavors of flesh. Stay a living one. Don’t go crawling back to Clix. The closet rumbled. It swung in an arc, tossing Rob against the side once more. Next came a rough grinding sound on all sides. Some of the crystal panels shattered and rained sharp pieces on the pirate. The silver frame bent in several places as the grinding swallowed the whole closet.
The sounds stopped just as abruptly. Rob hopped to his bare feet and tried to open the door, but it was held shut by a great weight on the other side. The smell of the Fith crept in, but also that of fresh water.
“Thipperon?” he shouted. “Have we arrived? Is it safe to open the door?” There was no answer. The pirate put his ear to the side and listened. There was the muffled sound of the Fayeblon retreating across the ceiling, stab after stab. Unceremonious. It does make a sort of sense. Why would anyone ever say goodbye in the Pipes? There’s no place to leave to… unless you’re us.
Rob bashed his shoulder into the jammed door repeatedly. It gave only a few bubbles each time, but eventually there was room to squeeze through. Even with his abysmal expectations of the Pipes, the path upward was still a strict disappointment. His mind had played with images of Custodial elevators, uplifting shafts of bath bead magic, or perhaps a trained aker with giant trimmed roots as reins.
The way out was nothing more than a dried crack in the Fith, barely wide enough for him to crawl in places. Thipperon had simply shoved the closet up into it and twisted, like plugging a leaky roof with a chunk of spongy wood. The sides were blackened and crumbling in most places. To Rob this suggested the shaft was the result of extreme electrical activity, as it was reminiscent of some of the glassy burn shafts sometimes left in the ground by lightning strikes. It was far too wide and deep to be a normal strike, so something like a bath bead must have been involved. With the aid of bonepicking, and occasionally a stab with his sword, Rob slowly ascended the shaft.
“We’ve done it!” Fixadil bubbled. Its yellow-brown side poked out from Rob’s collar. The prosite was giddy, but still kept its wits about it. It stayed plastered to the pirate’s chest so he couldn’t strike at it.
“Aye,” Rob agreed. “Now there’s just the small matter of climbing lathers of substrata.”
“I do wish I could help,” the prosite said saccharinely, “but you’re the one with the clawing fingers.”
“This is where we separate,” the pirate insisted. “The journey up will likely take days, and I will not sleep in your presence. I will not suffer Vyra’s mucus-coated curse. I’m sure you can slither up on your own.” The prosite responded by bulging out of his collar, nearly costing him his grip on the Fith. It jumped away, to the opposite side of the shaft, and stuck there with a nasty wet sound.
“This is a wise decision given the information you have,” Fixadil complimented, “but I never would’ve infected your body. I can see the nature of your ailment. Nothing I could do would stop those spikes from growing. There would be precious few rests of profection in a doomed vessel like you. I’ll find someone with… higher standing.”
“Get out of my sight!”
“Gladly.” The prosite turned its eye up and slid away, soon leaving the Captain utterly alone. Without anyone to converse with he was quickly plagued by apprehension. There was no way of knowing exactly how far the strangeness of the Pipes would last. There were two main concerns as he climbed: hunger and gravitation. Treated as dead in the Pipes, he’d never felt a twinge of hunger once that created by the Winchar Straits wore off, but once he was counted back in Porce it would surely return, and it might do so when he was still days from the surface. He would also lose the enhanced bonepicking, which would force him to mostly lift his own weight once more.
These concerns did take shape, but in manageable fashions. Both gravitation and hunger returned slowly over the course of three days, like soda water losing its bubbles. Each pull on the Fith took more out of him than the last, but the increments were so small as to be barely noticed. In a stroke of luck, the Fith did some of the work for him. There were places where it wasn’t blackened, where the green shifting humus of the walls moved with its own current. Rob found the ones that shifted upward and rode them great distances, like riding a tree as it grew.
He stopped only on the most stable ridges to sleep, and only three times before the shaft started its transformation. First came the water that the shaft had smelled of the entire journey. It trickled down the sides of the freshest patches of Fith, making it swell. Using the blackened places as natural charcoal filters, Rob licked some of it from the walls. Hunger clawed at him by that point, and the fluid was his only remedy. He expected it to taste foul, but it was naturally cool and pure.
If it’s as clean as it tastes there is only one likely source. We must remember that we’re not on the side of Third Sink anymore. The Fith carried us to somewhere beneath Slick Rin Cliff. This must be water of the Draining Sea. Could it be the actual drain? What a place for a thief to wind up… the city of fairest funds itself. We have to get there first, hope we are not washed back down.
The trickle became waterfalls. Rob sometimes had to cross them with bonepicking jumps in order to find dry climbable paths once more. Their burbling became constant roaring as they grew and took over most of the shaft. Even in the driest places it fell like rain, crawling into Rob’s sleeves and pants, making him swat at the sensations as if Fixadil had returned and was searching his body for an orifice to infect.
When the waters drowned the Fith it was replaced by walls of stone: cold to the touch, blue and gray like rock coffins, and devoid of scum or moss. There were no handholds left, so the Captain had to make his own with bonepicking sword strikes, slowing his progress greatly. It had to be nearly over. Everything was now loud and clean, the very opposite of the granulated churn of the deep Fith. Aye, this has to be the top of the drain, where the sea meets gravitation. We’re there. Just another drop. Just another lather. Then we can see the florent again. We can get a new ship. Get a new crew… They might have lived. We would have, and we taught them to be like us.
The Fith was gone and the shaft no longer had the faintest resemblance to its deeper end. It was now a perfect cylinder of stone with water pouring against every bubble of wall. It was wider than most buildings in even the biggest of cities, so Rob could no longer leap from one side to the other. Progress was only possible thanks to the folkmade carving of the stone, which now offered him relatively dry spiraling plateaus and countless support columns. The roaring rush of the Draining Sea drowned out all other sound, so Rob didn’t notice the drain’s resident until he saw the nasty gnarled ends of her feet.
He recoiled at the sight; at the center of the drain, hanging over the churning darkness of the shaft, was a toenail. For the briefest moment the Captain thought it was Qliomatrok pouring herself down the drain just to get one last stab at him. That was a world away, in different waters. The mistake could be forgiven, for the growth in front of him spiraled and looked like her horn at its end. The resemblance became weaker the further up he climbed. The pieces eventually separated and found roots on different digits.
There were two feet of warty blue hide. They hung limp on bulbous ankle bones, toes pointing all the way down, weighed that way by their uncut nails. The ten nails grew in flaking yellow sheets, occasionally marred by a warping bubble, and eventually all spiraled together into the keratinous stalactite Rob had first noticed. This new monster was as large as the others he’d dealt with, so Rob guessed she had to be another Fayeblon. Her feet didn’t so much as twitch, so he considered that she might be deceased. Questing beast corpses were normally absorbed back into Porce via rapid decomposition, but the rules might have been different for beasts born to fight gods.
The only thing to do was continue his ascent and gather details as they came into view. Her legs numbered a reasonable two, but they were long and skeletal, their general shape revealed by the way her wet dress clung to them. The clothing reminded him greatly of the rags worn by Cloader of theft: filthy, covered in rips and holes, and stained by so much history that their original color was irreversibly buried. She wore nothing but the dress.
It wasn’t magic that kept her hanging in the middle of the drain; it was a swing. The Fayeblon’s bottom was planted on a grate of metal mesh. This grate was supported by one giant chain on each side. Each link was large enough to fit a man through the middle. The Fayeblon had just two arms, but she seemed to have two just so one could hold each chain. Her fingers were long, knobby, and fused together in places. The nails spiraled up the chains, weaving in and out of the links, eventually growing over every bubble of their surface, turning a length of the chain that dusty decrepit yellow.
With her fingernails wrapped around the chains and her toenails hanging foams beneath her, it was clear she hadn’t moved in an age. Rob stopped his climb behind her, about even with her shoulders. From there he saw the hanging clumps of her hair, which reached past her waist. It was the color of seaweed vomited up into an old man’s beard and allowed to dry. It was impossible to tell if its texture was dry and crackling or oily and sopping.
The pirate glanced up. The chains disappeared up the shaft, lost in the spray of the waterfalls, but the lip of the drain felt close. His heart picked up speed, forcing him to shove his hope back down into his chest before it could spill over his expression like the indignity of vomit. It was best not to draw her attention if she was alive, so Rob skulked about behind her in search of an easy way up one of the many columns.
Puckt! A bone in her neck popped. The sound froze Rob in place. Puckt! Pockt! Pockt! Her wrinkled neck slowly turned. Her back was stuck in a permanent slouch and could not twist, but her neck proved frightening in its flexibility. The beast’s head turned almost entirely around, and though it was slow Rob had no place near enough to hide from it. All he could do was stand there, bow, and introduce himself.
“Greetings,” he offered, bending forward slowly. The pirate’s mind raced. Which Fayeblon is this? The living sixteen did say that three lived near them, but the third was Roondid of struggle. There’s no ‘struggle’ about this hanger-on. If we are at the bottom of the Draining Sea, this is a drain. That would make her Offilee of drains. “I am sorry to disturb you. Are you… Offilee?”
The creature did not speak, but she slowly nodded. Her expression was impossible to read, and not just because of her gaunt jaw, swollen hanging lips, and crooked yellow bottom teeth. Her ghastly locks also covered her eyes completely, along with most of her small nose. That’s three Fayeblons now that cover their eyes. The eyes are never necessary with questing beasts, as they are drawn to their counterpart no matter what. The eight gods are dead and nearly gone, so what effect does this have on their eyes? Shrunken and white perhaps, like those of cave fish. Pupils darting in all directions because they sense the god’s influence but can’t pin them down.
The Fayeblon nodded for twenty drips before her head eventually slowed to a stop at its lowest position. She still stared at Rob, producing nothing but an inward wheeze. The Captain paced back and forth across the stone platform, seeing if her head would follow. It did, but only minutely.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” he ingratiated. “I’m sorry if I’ve missed any decorum in entering your home, but I didn’t know you were here. I’m merely trying to reach the top of this drain. Could I perhaps have your permission to continue on? I’ve long been separated from my life.” Offilee stared, her reaction just as impenetrable. Her open mouth implied a vacancy of thought, but the compressed droop of her neck indicated intense focus or fascination, like a wading bird slowly stalking fish, pretending to be nothing but the shadow of a cloud. She nodded, as before. “That’s very kind of you. I’ll just take my leave and let you get back to your… swinging.”
Rob slowly swiveled on his feet, not overly happy with putting his back to her. He didn’t want to crack any of the stone within her line of sight, lest she accuse him of vandalism, so he searched the columns for the quickest way up. Puckt! Puckt! Puckt! The pirate spun around, nearly certain he would face the Fayeblon’s open mouth trying to chew him up, but her attention was elsewhere. The Fayeblon looked straight up into the light and spray.
His heart thudded in his chest. This is not fear of her. We know this fear. It cannot be. Surely our road has been difficult enough. We’ve spoken to the gods before the gods; why would they direct such efforts at us still? He tried to deny its approach, but it was as inevitable as the fall of each and every drop of water in the drain.
Eeeaarrr! The screech filled the shaft, overpowering the sound of the falls. It sounded thrice more: Eaaarr! Eaaarrr! Eaaaaaaaaaaarr! There was a flash of light, a burst of florentshine, that temporarily blinded Captain Rob. He threw up his arms to protect his eyes, and in that moment it glided into view as a luminous diamond shape. The shape turned in the air like a kite, gliding on the disturbed air around the falls. It descended as it circled the drain, screeching each time it saw Rob. Eaarr!
The pirate drew his bonepicker’s sword and rooted his gravitation in place. The chill of the wet stone sunk into his toes as the radiant diamond made another pass and its features became clear. It was a monster twice the Captain’s size with slender limbs and body. A triangle-shaped head bore two luminous eyes with a bubbling diagonal gash of a pupil. The tip of its snout was swollen and round, anchoring two giant curling fangs like scimitars. The fangs, along with its eyes and many skin membranes, were brighted just like the bones of Fwa Nippr.
Sails of skin stretched between its neck and all its limbs, so that when it held them out it created an efficient kite shape. It could only glide, as the monster’s entire journey was meant to be a fall. It was surely born in the florent: the exact opposite location of the genesis of Rob’s quest. The pirate fought to return from the Pipes, to go from undeath back to life, and Porce could not allow such a change without a fight.
Despite eluding, outwitting, and charming three of the mightiest questing beasts to ever seek vengeance, it did the pirate no good. They were not opponents made for him. This beast was. It was born in what many would call paradise, forced out by divine nature, and embroiled in a heartless descent that was its whole purpose.
We know that pain, beast. It didn’t break us the first time and it won’t break us now. You will see a grave in the Pipes, not us. The questing beast landed across from Rob and flashed its brilliant brighted teeth. It was to be a fight to the death: one last chance for the world to nullify his unnatural achievement. Offilee leaned in for a better look. Folk and beast were as puppets to her, and it looked like they were going to put on a little show.
“You want me to steal the florentshine?” Rob barked at the beast, sword raised high. “You want me to tear it out of your body so that I will feel guilt. This world keeps characterizing me as the monster. If I want that light I have to take it from prey, have to purloin it from a godly bowl with my grimy mortal hands. You put me in this situation!” He tossed his head up and down, not sure where to direct his rage. All the religions said the gods were in the florent, yet he had seen two of their graves in the Pipes. “If you’re telling me I am a criminal of a lifeform, I accept your label. Pin it on me… and see if you still have your hand when you pull it back!”
Eeeaahh! The brighted beast stood on its hind legs and threw out its gliding membranes with a loud flap. They emitted beams of light, like the screen hiding a god’s nakedness from their worshipers. When Rob’s eyes adjusted to the light he noticed the round holes at the end of each limb. From them bags of brighted flesh were produced. They filled with gas and became leathery balloons at the end of short flesh ropes. The two front ones smacked against the ground with a powerful hollow gourd-like sound: Ptoon! Ptoon!
The beast charged at Rob, attacking first with its fangs. The Captain held out all his limbs and made them rigid, centering his gravitation. His body moved at angles suited only to inanimate objects. It was an idiosyncratic style, even among pickers, with the best comparison being a playing card with four tiny stones embedded in its corners. He spun like such a card being flicked across a table, one foot holding him upright at each point. Making himself flat in this way made the beast miss its first several bites.
Each time it missed Rob tilted, slamming a fist or a foot into the top of its head, battering it with his stone corners. He could not hope to maintain the advantage permanently, as questing beasts were perfectly-matched opponents. It changed its tactics all at once, leaping on the Captain like a net and wrapping him up in its luminous membranes. Rather than go for another bite, it used a front limb to bash about his head and shoulders with a fleshy balloon. Each impact felt like an obese tilehoof sitting on his face. The blows knocked his strategies right out of his head and left him dazed.
Can’t think. Not swiftly enough. Beasts… flaw… surroundings! The questing beast was a perfect rival, but they paid little attention to the world around them. Using one’s environment had long been the best way to best them. This was the drain of Slick Rin and the home of a Fayeblon. Surely there was some utility in that.
“Arraa!” Rob bellowed as he forced his wrist to bend unnaturally, pushing his sword up through one of the beast’s membranes. Its grip loosened enough that he could shoot himself along the ground with bonepicking. The pirate threw himself right over the ledge, toward Offilee. He worried about colliding with her, but his beast prevented it. It snatched him out of the air once more, but with no ground to brace against the fighters tumbled off to the side.
Rob could see nothing through the spinning and the beast’s light, but when they struck water he knew they were mere foams from the curved wall of the drain. He pushed off from the skin-flapping beast and found the wall. There was only a moment to react, to completely realign his gravitation. His floppy pant legs slapped the wall. Before he fully understood his own tactic, Rob pushed against the stone and ran along the wall behind the waterfall. His mind was saturated by a cloying flashback like a soaked blanket over his head. He remembered his desperate bid to climb the icy chasm back in the Winchar Straits. He remembered the faces of his crew as they watched him fall to the Pipes. As they watched him die.
The bright light was back, just on the other side of the water, following his path across the drain’s curve. It wouldn’t stay there for long. As soon as it was sure it had the angle correct it would strike. The Captain had to strike first. He pivoted toward the wall and ran up it as far as bonepicking would allow. There was a splash below him and a screech as the beast realized its prediction had failed. There was no time to look down. The walls and the waterfall were no good to him. His best chance was the hanging mass of obstacles that was Offilee of drains. He pushed off with all his might, shot through the waterfall, only losing a hint of his altitude, and aimed for the beast on her swing.
Rob pulled back before colliding with one of the chains just above her climbing fingernails, allowing him to grab hold. The chain rattled, but only slightly. Offilee stayed still, something quite helpful when Rob climbed the chains and observed the surrounding water for any sign of the beast.
It wasn’t difficult to spot, for its light still shined through the falls. It burst out a moment later, leather flails flailing, gliding toward the Captain. It crossed the gap in mere drips, and had no qualms over disturbing the chain. It latched onto the metal with such force that the swing twisted. Offilee’s nails cracked and shed yellow flakes into the abyss.
It swung its fleshy weapons at Rob, but he curled into a ball, threw himself through the middle of a chain link, grabbed the other side, and tossed himself upward. The beast followed, scrambling up the chain, batting at him whenever it saw an opportunity. Rob made those opportunities few and far between. The links were a round surface, allowing him to bend his bonepicking to their contours and make changes in direction far more difficult to judge.
He was in one link and out the other. Up and down. He hopped to the other chain and the questing beast followed, sending the swing into an arc and cracking Offilee’s other set of nails. Unbeknownst to the distracted brawlers, the Fayeblon pulled one of her hands away from the chain, held it in front of her face, and stared at the broken nails.
This is making us dizzy… and we’re not winning. We need to hit the beast with something before fatigue floats us down the drain. Rob had both arms wrapped around one side of a link. He spun in and out of it rapidly, hoping the sword, angled out and hidden under one arm, would hook in the beast’s flesh when it struck. Instead of biting with its fragile fangs it hopped away from the chain and hung in the air. Then it smacked Rob with a gasbag and cost him his grip. The Captain fell, landed in the filthy straw of Offilee’s hair, and rolled painfully across her skull. He was only stopped by the part in the middle of her crop.
The beast dove down and landed on the other side of the part. Eaaah! It charged again, making sure Rob didn’t have a moment to exhale. He feared tripping in the knots of Offilee’s hair, so he was forced to keep his maneuvers simple, countering every gasbag strike that he could, but it was four weapons against his single sword. One struck his temple and nearly knocked him over. Another slammed into his gut and forced him to bow. A third came down on the back of his head and brought him to his knees. The fourth was coming.
Rob tossed himself backward, but he was tangled up in the hair immediately. It almost seemed to constrict, binding his arms to his side. He was about to make the desperate move of cutting her hair, not something done to a woman lightly, when the Fayeblon’s head moved. He looked over at the brighted beast and saw that its fourth gasbag had struck the part in her hair, just where the Captain had been a drip ago.
The flesh there was very sensitive, assailed as it was by constant dripping and the tug of her heavy hair on both sides. The spongy whitish skin had ruptured under the direct hit. Dark stagnant blood flowed down the part. It streamed over the Fayeblon’s face, coating her nose and dribbling off her under bite. There was a moment where none of them moved. They were so accustomed to the water’s roar by that point that it seemed silent. The brighted beast stared at the blood splashed across its gasbag as if confused. It struck one of its own. I doubt a questing beast has ever done that before. It appears to be learning what guilt is. It’s a shame it won’t have the time to slough that one off.
Krikt! Kuruck! The nails on Offilee’s left hand shattered all at once. She reached up and grabbed the brighted beast by its back foot. It scrambled for purchase and screeched, digging at the scalp flesh, but she lifted it with ease. Her fingers opened again and readjusted, swallowing the beast into her palm, almost seeming to suck it down. Its screech was muffled under her flesh and bone.
The Fayeblon squeezed. There was a burst of light between her fingers and a sickening sound full of pops and snaps. Brighted yellow blood poured out from the bottom of her closed fist. The Captain was too stunned to move; he watched in morbid fascination as her hand pulled back and then flung the limp floppy corpse of the smaller beast against the wall. It splashed through the water and smacked wetly against the stone. Even without life its body did not dim, so the pirate was free to watch the light fall behind the waters, all the way down and out of sight.
Offilee’s other hand passed over him. Fingers came down in front and behind, but she didn’t grab or squeeze. The Fayeblon gently raked Captain Rob forward, rolling and untangling him. She leaned forward and set him down gently, back on the platform where he’d first introduced himself. She stared at him blankly, mouth open, making no attempt to clear the drying blood from her nose or lips. Her hands returned to the chains.
“You have my sincerest apology,” the pirate coughed out as soon as his wits returned. “I had no intention of harming you or your beautiful nails. The beast caught me by surprise. Thank you for vanquishing it. By its very nature I know it to have been the last obstacle in my path to freedom.” He scrutinized the lower half of her face. The movements in her flesh were too slow to be called twitches, but he sensed vague positivity. “Did you enjoy the fight at least?” A smile grew, like toadstools spearing cave soil.
“Even in it, I recognized it as a fine show,” Rob boasted, sprouting a smile of his own. The Fayeblon nodded enthusiastically. “I started off with the complex stone-corners style of bonepicking, but was forced to transition to simple confused-cyclone once those weapons came out.” The pirate reenacted a small portion of the fight, jumping and flipping. “Aha! It was grand! They won’t want to believe up above, but I’ll make them…” He stopped, mid reproduced punch, and saw that Offilee’s head had stilled. Her smile shrank. Either she has used up her supply of thoughts for the day or our charm is wearing thin. Either way… “Yes, well. Thank you so much again. I won’t darken your drain any longer. Goodbye, benevolent Offilee.”
The Fayeblon reacted no more, so the pirate slowly turned and went back to looking for a way out. He could walk, there was a spiraling ramp behind the waters, but it would be quite arduous. His hunger returned now that the fight was over. He put one hand to a pillar and stared up, mumbling bad plans, when the Fayeblon’s hand suddenly wrapped around his waist again. She lifted him and, without any warning, threw him directly up the drain with all her might. This is one way! The Captain bonepicked up to add even more altitude.
He tore through banks of mist that grew thicker in the ascent. At his apotheosis he broke through them, saw them as bulbous frothing clouds beneath, and then saw his surroundings. Waters fell in an unfathomably large circle all around him, interrupted only by stone archways that converged as the largest ceiling Rob had ever seen. Gravitation took back the loose ends of his clothes, followed by his body. He started to fall.
Rob grunted and bonepicked with all his resolve, with the last shred of extra power from the Pipes, and threw himself to one of the thin ridges on an archway. He slipped and rolled on impact, smashing into the wall. We’ve done it! We’re free of the Pipes! This is Porce in true. This is Slick Rin Cliff to be specific. The very drain of the Draining Sea to be more specific. The flooded cellar of Rinlatour to contextualize it for the folk we’ll tell.
When he had the strength Rob got to his feet and walked to the very edge of the ridge. There was the Draining Sea extending off into the distance. Behind it was its other half, the greatest waterfall in all of Porce: Slick Rin Drop. (Blaine’s Note: Slick Rin Cliff is one of two urinals in Porce. The other is dry. This one seems to have its own permanent water cycle, as if the flushing handle is stuck down. Water falls from Slick Rin Drop and drains eternally, eventually making its way back up to fall again.)
Above the pirate towered Rinlatour: the largest single folkmade structure in all the world. It was the capitol of bergfolk civilization, a tower city built from the circumference of the drain, and it was a place of incredible wealth, knowledge, and influence. The pirate hadn’t just been returned to the world, but to the greatest concentration of its various powers. He ran his maimed hand across the wet stone. Then he stroked the fresh waters into his beard and shined his bald head.
“It tastes good,” he told the world as he rubbed a wet finger across his emerald teeth, making them squeak. “How dare you try to be rid of me!” he barked at the blue-tiled dome ceiling and all its mosaic portraits of bergfolk slaying sea monsters. “I am Captain Kilrobin Ordr! Of a long line of proud parasites on your skin. I’ve much left to take. Birthrights to correct…”
The Captain explored the drain of Rinlatour, plotting exactly how far he should ascend.
You can consider the book proper to be over. This is just me, Blaine (the guy from the notes), from here on. Just your lonesome little frame tale reporter. There is a small chunk of the story left, as I’m sure you’re saying right now as you tug on the loose threads of captain and crew. I will report on them briefly, but I want to give you a little more context first.
As I’ve said there are four stories in total. After I encountered the first one I thought this would be like any other series of books I’d read in my youth. Captain Rob would be a grand adventurer with a few roguish flaws, but eventually everything would work out. It was after I recorded this book, after I was attacked in the stall by that mysterious force, that I realized that wouldn’t be the case.
Captain Rob is not an adventure. It is four snapshots of a life of endless struggling. Captain Rob Fights was mostly the story of Alast: a bright-eyed boy learning how intense learning the world could be. Captain Rob Sinks is a lesson that even bright things can be terribly dangerous. It was loss, death, suffering, anger, and entrapment. When I read it through the first time I didn’t know if things were going to get worse or better. I was no longer sure that an ending had to be a solution.
Things in my own life have made me even less sure. When I finished editing Captain Rob Sinks, when I caulked the last hole with my tortured similes, the world as I knew it was in a rough place. The political landscape in the United States, where I was born and lived during my bathroom breaks, was a nightmare. Idiots in fancy clothes were on every channel of every form of communication, accusing the world itself of favoring the truth. It’s a kind of imbecility that cannot be fought. It usually wins because it seeks only to destroy, and destroying is the easiest thing to do.
It is while I write this epilogue that the truth I’ve been ignoring dawns in full. Porce is a bathroom. It was built and used by humans. Those humans have been gone for hundreds or thousands of years. The peoples of Porce describe it as a single piece within an endless black void called the Dark Empty. I can’t help but make comparisons between the Dark Empty and what we know as outer space.
It seems that Porce is a piece of debris from a destructive event that annihilated the entire Earth. The bathroom is just a pebble flung far from its boulder. I’ve also mentioned before that I believe the narratives presented to me in private are true. The attack convinced me of that. This means that the story of Captain Rob is, by our standards, yet to come. It means our planet will be destroyed and humanity will likely be wiped out.
Porce is a world with gods and magic, and it would be easy to blame one of those two things for the coming catastrophe. That wouldn’t require explanation or introspection. It would just be good old rabbit-out-of-a-hat nonsense. The old me, before the enlightenment of my bathroom breaks, would’ve accepted a single word as explanation enough. Alas, now that I have seen a new kind of nonsense reach the highest offices in the land, I’m forced to draw a different conclusion. We’re at war with the truth, meaning we’re at war with the Earth, meaning one or both of us must be destroyed.
I believe humanity will cause the destruction that creates Porce. It will cause a fundamental change in the interactions between life and the inanimate rules and substances surrounding it. Humans can’t change the rules underlying their existence. We can’t live forever. Perhaps lightfolk can. I’ve been given the story of Rob and of those surrounding him because the pirate’s life is some sort of example. Perhaps he was, is, and will be the first being who can actually challenge his world.
Now, back to the details of the narrative itself. I regret that I could not recreate the actual epilogue for you, as it was vandalized before I got to it. Some fool, once again eager to do nothing but destroy, erased the last piece and left only smudges. I assume he wanted to ruin the experience for a reader because he couldn’t think of anything better to do with himself. So, I will tell you what I gleaned from the beginning of the third narrative, without describing the third bathroom break to you, as that is for the next volume.
There are several things that I know about Rob’s fate immediately after escaping the Pipes. He stays in Rinlatour, making a quick living as a thief and bodyguard. He makes camp low in the tower-city, near where he arrived, where nobody lives thanks to the numerous large sea beasts and the waterfalls’ fog. Once his funds are sufficient he sends messages via ekapad to several associates around Third Sink, probing for information regarding the fate of his crew.
Eventually he finds out that they are alive and learns the details of their new legitimate business. He clashes with the hardest details, including the history of Oddball, Corvidley, and his grandfather Kilrorke. He accepts Rorke’s death as something long overdue. The Captain considers making a return journey, but on the first step of that journey turns back.
His crew defeated Qliomatrok without him. They disarmed Frostbite Cor. They were aboard a new ship, under a new flag and a new captain. Teal was among the finest women, and she would be among the finest captains. There was nothing he could offer them. To return and demand the leadership position would be a disservice to Teal’s struggle and hard work. The pirate also understood that he wouldn’t be able to maintain their professional status for long. Science, adventure, and his dark insecurities would claw at him and drive him to turn that boat to choppy filthy waters. It was better to let them have their rebirth.
Captain Rob sent just two letters detailing his fate. One went to his nephew Kilroary, as he was the closest family Rob had left. He told the boy to mind his new captain, but to know that he might call on him one day to return to the banner of green skull and spiked mustache. He told Roary not to tell Alast, Herc, or any of the others that he lived. It was better to let them have their lives free of his influence, at least for a while.
The second letter was sent to Teal. He made the same request of her. He also asked that she keep whatever portions remained of his treasure safe. She was the only one he told the full truth of the Pipes. He confirmed the existence of the eight gods, the two before, and the Fayeblons. He told her it was naught but a graveyard with a few clingers-on to life. He did not feel the need to mention his bargain with Fixadilaran Bocculum.
This is where I leave you for now readers. Do not fear, for even if my digestive system vanishes I’ll still find cause for at least two more bathroom breaks. The third tale of Captain Rob will be edited soon enough, assuming the worst doesn’t happen between then and now.
If Earth doesn’t go to pot before then.