Mitts on the Glass
There were two metal blocks on Second Wall, even though only one was named such. The true Metal Block had a much darker color and was home to the ever-growing sheet of bropato Alast had crawled across in his adolescence. The other was across the three sinks, close to the Bottomless Rot and First Door.
Its name was the Tunnel of Sweat, and it too produced something from within that was found nowhere else in the world. They were like two sides of the same tile, for while Metal Block produced the lush life of Porce’s most ancient plant, the Tunnel of Sweat issued only fire and death. None knew the source of its infinite fire, but a wide downturned spout on its face, called Plowr’s Pyre, irregularly roared to life and spewed burning gusts of wind. The cities atop the Tunnel of Sweat, most notably Corner and its eternal rival Truecorner, were spared the effects of this weather.
The land far below was not. The hot winds became gigantic cyclones of fire that sometimes lived for days, moving in spirals around the base of the tunnel, luckily never straying as far as the Tributaroads. Any land that was regularly touched by them was completely uninhabitable, and not just by folk. The sandy edge of the cyclone’s reach suggested it had always been a desert, but there wasn’t enough sand left for burrowing animals or the drinkers of nightly dew. The cyclones touched the ground with such incredible heat that they fused the dunes together into waves of orange, red, yellow, and white glass.
Folk had known those lands; there must have been a time before Plowr’s Pyre was lit. This was known because numerous ruins could be seen deep in the desert by spyglass, or by those foolish enough to wander into it with nothing but the hope that they wouldn’t be caught in one of its blazing storms. There were crystallized towers, churches, mills, and graveyards. In one famous example, by looking through a spyglass whose owner charged exorbitantly for the experience, you could see a tilefolk skeleton standing just inside a window, finger bones grasping the sill, held in place by whipped strands of orange glass full of light.
Alast thought that would be a fantastic way to die. Nobody would have to build his monument; he could simply transform into it himself. When he reached the peak of the next glass dune, his boots slipping yet again, he checked the horizon for any of those famous ruins. There was no sign of anything but glittering glass hills. Something squeaked behind him; he turned around and grabbed Pearlen’s outstretched hand to help her up. Her boots were much louder against the smooth grain of the glass, her slipping more frequent thanks to her poor eyesight. It was nearly impossible for her to discern the small swells and dips in the ground.
“I hate this place already,” she said through cracked lips. She tried to scratch at the tight strap of her goggles, but there was little she could do with the thick padded mittens tied around both her wrists. Alast wore a similar pair. He missed the feel of her fingers, the nails always cut so short. Their hands had been bagged for more than a day to help them crawl across the desert without burning their palms on its absorbed heat.
He knew her goggles were too tight, even if the redness of her burned skin kept him from seeing the redness caused by the strap. His own eyes felt quite dry in the parched air, so it was imperative that hers be kept contained within the goggles. They were specially crafted for her by the surprisingly nimble hand of Whetsaw Plawkippr. Her eyes were infected by burrowing Clawlies when she was still a child; she’d long held out hope that they would die at the end of their natural lifespan. That end came and went in the last rest, with no change to the black spots in her eyes or the littler eyes blinking within them.
The parasites were still there, still demanding that she immerse her eyes in nutrient-filled water so they could filter feed every few drops or so. Their continued presence also seemed to mean they’d established a successful colony within the flesh of her eyes, complete with breeding pairs. Alast never told her, but sometimes, while she slept, he saw tiny bumps moving under her eyelids, indications that a male was flopping about on the wet surface, hoping to stumble into the burrow of a neighboring female. He wanted to grab the nearest tweezers and attempt extractions while they were exposed, but he couldn’t bring himself to lift his lover’s eyelid and stick something sharp and metal that close. What if she flinched? What if she awoke in the middle of it?
For now the best solution was the bucket-shaped pair of goggles, with each glass bucket filled nearly to the top with the permanent chill of Sea Fauce periphery water. There were no currents to feed the Clawlies, so they carried with them a small dripper device and plenty of ampules of pulped vegetable fiber. Every few drops she added a few drops from the top of each goggle, followed by a quick shake of the head to disperse the greenish fiber. The pests preferred chum, but its concentrated oils would prove too irritating to her eyes. Fruit was similarly out of the question thanks to its acidity.
“Do you think they’ll even recognize me with these things on?” she asked her lover from the top of the dune. Even through the slosh of the goggles she saw the Tunnel of Sweat in the sky, its edges wiggling thanks to the heated air. There was no soil built up on its sides. Its constant heat would’ve kept plants from rooting there anyway, so the tunnel maintained its silvery sides and bottom that reflected the florent aggressively. It was much less welcoming than the mist of Metal Block and the creaking of its bropato sheet.
“Will you recognize them?” Alast asked in return. “You haven’t seen them since you were four rests old. They could be gray by now. Speaking of, we could be gray by the time we find them in this place! Are you sure we’re supposed to be this deep into the glass? I don’t see sign of any town.”
“Are we still at a seven degree angle to the edge of the Black Gap?” Alast pulled out a square compass from one of their bags and checked their heading. Seven degrees exact. He told her so. “Then we can’t have passed it yet. The instructions in the letter said we would cross the safe edge of the glass, at seven degrees to Black Gap by way of Beadry, and find the tilefolk town of Crib-ohlk.”
A hum moved through the glass. The dune began to vibrate, forcing them to slide down the opposite side to more even ground. The glass sang the insistent song of the desert as Plowr’s Pyre roared to life. They watched in shocked fascination as it belched a plume of fire. The plume refused to rise, instead spiraling down at incredible speed. It turned into a fire whirl tall enough to reach the lid of a toil and wide enough to fill one’s drain. It took only moments for them feel a fresh wave of heat despite its formation being so many lathers off.
“Is this the safe edge of the glass?” Alast asked. “I don’t feel very safe.”
“My parents are fools,” Pearlen admitted, “but I don’t think they’re fool enough to order us through a firestorm.” Her eyes lingered on the fire whirl regardless. “Let’s keep moving.” The pair turned and scrambled across the glass, forced to rise and fall with the constant fluctuation of the dunes. They kept expecting each peak to reveal a watchtower or waving flag, something to let travelers know Crib-ohlk was there, but saw nothing. The whirl moved in a slow spiral, but it also drifted across the desert, closer to them each time. Its heat came in intensifying waves that drew sweat out of their skin and ate it up within moments. They couldn’t see them under the mitts, but they could feel the striations on their nail beds becoming more pronounced. Their saliva turning to paste. Their neck hair wilting and then crackling.
The desert had drained the lightfolk of energy so rapidly that they now used their hands to help them climb every dune. The mitts began to lose their usefulness; the heat of the glass could now be felt through them and when they looked at their palms they saw brown scorches.
“Alast, wait!” Pearlen called out as she flagged behind. He stopped at the top of the latest dune, but did not rush back to pull her along. He’s always doing this, she thought. He doesn’t understand this isn’t an adventure. Just wants to hurry up and die in an exciting way so he doesn’t have to stumble through a visit to my family. I’m the one stumbling. This sting on my temples is maddening… She scratched at the goggles again, losing a drop of water down the side of her face like a tear. It dried into a greenish streak before it could even fall.
“Hurry Pearlen!” he shouted down to her. “I think I see it! It’s amazing! How do all those trees live out here?”
“Trees? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s too hot for trees.” Alast disappeared over the hill rather than answer. “Alast!” She tried to run and catch up, the spear tied to her pack now clinking against the ground with each step. While she was no expert on what gardens various towns or cities may or may not use to decorate their edges, she was plenty knowledgeable when it came to living conditions. She’d spent washes of her life completely submerged, scouring riverbeds for shellfish and their gems. She knew what plants grew in what levels of moisture. She knew that no tree rooted in glass or allowed a fiery wind to take its leaves.
Yet when she crossed the top of the dune she saw what he saw: an oasis of sea green trees swaying in the wind. They were flawless, not a single leaf browned or detached from its branch. How they survived out there was a mystery, for she saw no central shimmer of water. The only animal in sight was Alast scurrying toward it, already halfway there. Pearlen’s throat was too dry to shout without breaking, so she took a deep breath, slid down the dune with an awful squeal, and chased after her thrill-seeking fool.
He disappeared between the trunks of the oasis just as she caught up. Pearlen bent over as far as she could, nearly sending her pack over her head, to examine the ground. The trees rose out of a strange grass she’d never seen before: long, silky, and displaying a variety of hues across a patch in the middle of its blade separate from the extremely pale and bright tips and bases. The tip of her spear moved with her pack, clinking against one of the trees. That doesn’t sound like a tree; that sounds like more glass. She reached out to feel the trunk, only to groan upon noticing the brown mitt.
“There is your girl,” a strange female voice said. Pearlen whirled around and spotted Alast standing in an open space where the grass was especially tall. Across from him strode a woman in a form-fitting dress of indeterminate color. Pearlen blinked twice; she still couldn’t define the shade. It keeps changing. Her clothes are like the camouflaging skin of the rebuttalfish. Her hair too! Is it just my eyes? She moved over to Alast, who seemed fine, and grabbed his arm with one mitt.
“Pearlen, this is Whelm,” he introduced. “She was just telling me that this isn’t Crib-ohlk, but we’re close.”
“I am Whelm the vision,” the woman corrected. “The title is necessary, for I am lightfolk no longer.” Pearlen squinted again, but Whelm looked fuzzier than anyone she’d ever met, like she was made of light and every ray was a sibling wrestling with the others. Is Alast seeing this? Perhaps she’s just brighted like Herc’s eyes. I do have trouble focusing on brighted things.
“If you’re not lightfolk, what are you?” Alast asked. There was no fear in his voice, but that did little to settle Pearlen’s nerves. Whelm drifted through the grass silently, moving around them, keeping an exact distance.
“I am the Porcely wife of the Spotless.” She stopped; Pearlen guessed it was to examine their reaction to such an absurd statement. The Spotless was the god of the Toil Papists; he had no vice, no lovers, and no children. He didn’t even exist as far as the young lovers were concerned. Whelm started circling again when they didn’t respond. “I am made of the florent’s light, and I have come here to the Glass Desert to guide lost souls, to build shimmering bridges between your realm and my husband’s. Do not be afraid of the color in my cheeks.”
“You have the shape of an ordinary woman,” Pearlen said stiffly.
“She’s really not Pearlen,” Alast said, failing to grasp her tone. “I’ve never even seen an illustration like her.”
“That’s because one cannot draw with light,” Whelm asserted, “but do not worry; you are under my care now. You are welcome in my glass.”
“We’re not staying,” Pearlen said, pulling Alast back a step. She couldn’t separate Whelm’s eyes from the rest of her face, but she felt the heat of her stare intensify, even over the distant pulses of the fire whirl. She looked down when she didn’t hear the grass rustle. Her legs were passing right through it. The trees cast no shade. All at once she realized the oasis was a mirage. Mirages don’t make sounds. Either Alast and I are sharing our insanity… or she is something real.
“You are skeptical,” Whelm noted. “That is understandable. I didn’t descend from the florent expecting to be believed. You will have the same proof all the others do. Then you will realize the respect you owe and I will forgive you your transgression in my glade.” Whelm swirled her hands around in the air, crafting something of light. Strands of color were pulled from the grass as well as the trees. She continued circling them, but it turned into a dance with the ball of light as her partner.
She lifted it into the air and shook it, the ball shedding plumes of brilliant dust. Pearlen didn’t know how she created such illusions, but they certainly didn’t constitute proof of anything. It was just a light show. She tapped her goggles to adjust them, but burned the tip of her finger on one of their metal fasteners. The pain gave way to a sudden lurch in her shoulders that splashed water across the top of her goggles. It seemed she was moments from passing out from the heat.
“Just tell us where Crib-ohlk is!” the girl demanded. She pulled Alast again, but he did not move.
“Wait,” he said. His voice cracked, but not his certainty. She knew all too well that he would stand there and die if it meant learning something about whatever burned in the daily beat of the florent’s heart. “Are you not seeing this?”
“It’s just light!” she argued, using a mitt to mop at her drenched brow.
“No it isn’t. I don’t think you can see because they’re faint, but there are things in the light. She’s showing us…”
“Paradise!” Whelm the vision declared, leaping into the air and tossing the ball of light at the ground. It broke up amongst the grass as if made of sand. The light moved over them in a wave, hiding the trees behind new surroundings. Pearlen saw only bright flashes and scattering rays. Whelm was lost in it, just as ethereal as her proof.
“What do you see?” Pearlen whispered in Alast’s ear, but she had to repeat herself louder. The wind had kicked up. She reached behind her back and grabbed the hilt of her spear in a mitt that could barely hold onto it. She said she was made of light; this likely can’t even hurt her.
“It’s a city made of daylight,” Alast explained, reaching one hand out and running it through one of the passing shapes. “Everything lives there. I see light, berg, and tile living together. All the animals are there too. Haunds playing with wolptingers across the backs of akers. Every fang and claw is dulled. They’re all just pets.”
“This is what awaits you inside the florent,” Whelm said, her voice coming from all directions. “This is what life is like under my husband’s sterile touch. All conflict is gone. All life is united, freed from the requirements of their flesh, living just as the woman before you.”
“All life?” Alast questioned. He pulled his hand back. “What about nonbelievers?”
“They are not life,” Whelm answered after a moment. “They are mulch, sent to the Pipes. I’m showing you this to save you, to turn your spirits up to the sky.”
“We’re not papists!” Pearlen shouted. “We have friends, family, and each other. Our Porce is lit well enough without you! Your proof is just illusions; we’ve seen better ones cast by cracked beads!”
“I have better proof,” Whelm offered. Her vision of paradise thinned and stretched, pulling away like the slow dragging of a wrinkled bedsheet. The light crumpled up, grew a dress, and grew waving hair of a thousand colors. Pearlen heard the smile in her voice. “There’s no arguing with my power. Goodbye, dim children.”
Whelm was gone a moment later, having faded into the burning air. She took the trees and grass with her. Spires of glass stood in their place, discolored by caustic minerals and a few bones trapped inside. Through them there was no horizon to see, just a wall of swirling fire. It wasn’t the wind that had kicked up; it was the breath of Plowr’s Pyre. Whelm had hidden the approach of the fire whirl, used its rising heat to make them delirious. Alast blinked away the last of the oasis, smacking himself in the face for being so foolish.
“Run!” Pearlen shouted, grabbing his elbow and dragging him through the glass columns. It didn’t matter how tired they were, how much more light Whelm had poured into their lightheadedness. The whirl cared not. They would be swept up and turned to ash along with everything else that couldn’t conform to the glass.
The heat of it on their backs was unbearable as they scaled the first free dune. They felt like slow boxbacks flipped over on their shells into beds of hot coals, legs struggling but grabbing nothing but air. It roared and howled behind them, transforming air into orange light. They didn’t dare look over their shoulders, but its colors were picked up by the reflective dunes in front of them, forcing them to run through a shimmering sea of brightest flame. They would only know when they were gripped by actual fire if their hair burned away and their skin bubbled.
“There’s nowhere to hide!” Alast shouted. He risked his balance by reaching out and touching her shoulder. Pearlen looked at him, his face lost in sloshing water and scorching glare. I don’t want to die like this. I want to see him. We have to be close. I still have eyes; they’ll be the last to burn thanks to this water.
Pearlen stumbled, unable to see the bumps in the glass. She pitched forward, the head of her spear striking the ground and notching it. Alast fell and rolled with her, aware that their running was just as hopeless. They grabbed each other in a tumbling embrace, kissing, sharing their dry breath and making silent apologies for not being able to muster a single drop of moisture for each other.
The glass angled down; the rolling took no effort now. The desert dragged them down, offered them a shared grave to incinerate in. Their eyes were closed in an effort to make their world nothing but that final kiss, so they didn’t realize the desert joined them in darkness. The ground evened out, their bodies colliding with a curved glass wall. The temperature instantly dropped.
Alast and Pearlen opened their eyes and saw the fire whirl dispersing. It was the largest natural structure they’d ever seen move, but even with all its spiraling hungry energies it couldn’t stand up to the florent. Night had come in a snap of the fingers, and without rays to sustain it the whirl had cooled too rapidly to continue. If they were still at ground level they would’ve seen three other fire whirls snuffing out in the distance, giving way to cooling darkness.
As it was they were at the bottom of a steep ramp. The glass around them was chiseled and carved into walls and a thick ceiling. Lamps hung by chains. They were not lit, but that was the job of the headless figure that came limping toward them, a flame burning on the crown of their head hammer.
“Dah ban wah!? Ban-srup, fwryl-tyl,” the tilefolk said. She hit a button on her hammer that opened a tiny claw at the bottom, allowing it to stand upright on its own. The old tilefolk rushed over and helped Alast to his feet.
“Wahda loc?” he asked in Pawtymouth. His legs stayed bent so he could keep one hand on Pearlen’s shoulder. For the moment she refused to rise. It was better to let Alast speak anyway; his Pawtymouth was far better. Let me converse with my clawlies for a moment, tell them how they were nearly boiled into soup. Maybe they’ll be grateful for how fast their world can run. I should be grateful to mine for having a night sky. Damn folk. Lies and illusions, and more for me because they see my ruined eyes. They think I’m easy to fool.
“Crib-ohlk,” the lamplighter answered.
‘The desert’s burning scalp hides its cool temper’ the proverb went. The village of Crib-ohlk lived by those words. It was one of only a handful of folk footholds in the Glass Desert. Living anywhere above the glass was impossible thanks to the fire storms, but just eight foams down the ground was livable, sometimes even cold at night.
Wood, bropato, and topa were rare, so most of the buildings were sculpted from the glass itself, given metal doorframes and seams to separate them from their neighbors. Arable soil could be found, but only at great depths. Then came the matter of light for them to grow by. This was achieved by a series of chambers, looking almost like tight opposing staircases in the glass, which reflected light all the way down, into garden chambers where marblegrass grew and livestock grazed.
Travel could only be achieved when there were no storms on the horizon, so their produce was meant solely for the citizenry. Crib-ohlk had no exports, only offers of privacy and freedom. The tilefolk founders had fled religious persecution a hundred rests ago, hiding their worship under what most would call an infernal fire.
Alast and Pearlen saw many churches from many sects as the lamplighter walked them through the main street. Folk came in and out not with their holy books, but with food, tools, and laundry. The churches weren’t recruiting; they were simply homes for those that had paid the price of believing their own way. Some of the philosophies there were limited to single bloodlines, accessible only by marriage. The town came to life before their eyes, the streets filling as they cooled off.
“Ask him about the Church of Bright Hope,” Pearlen whispered to Alast, tugging on his sleeve.
“She’s a woman,” he whispered back.
“Alast it doesn’t matter; just ask!” The Church of Bright Hope, according to her parents’ letter, was where they awaited their daughter. The preacher there had taken her father in out of kindness, as they’d drained what little money they had in search of treatments.
“Dah tyl wahda Church of Bright Hope loc?” Alast asked, barely tapping the lamplighter on the shoulder. She had already clearly told them she wasn’t a tour guide. Every additional step they followed was another straw plucked from the bundle of her nerves.
“Taega frylpad!” she answered, throwing up her free hand. “Mah nyt cul-cul stan.”
“She says she doesn’t know,” Alast told her, his head whipping back and forth. The crowd grew denser. Her grip on his arm tightened. Crowds were always a weakness of hers. Even living in the densely populated Crosstahl she had spent most of her time down in the canals, either under the water or clinging to the quiet rock walls. He didn’t realize until a wash into their relationship that she was less of a lone haund and more of a quiet skingle, hoping folk would pass by without noticing she was a living thing. Her fear had only worsened after the sinking of the Greedy Old Mop, when she was forced to take extra rations in their trek through toxic barrens of ice; she’d reported the constant feeling of a hundred eyes on her back.
“Try asking about Whelm,” she suggested. It was the only other information they had.
“Stan dah ek ‘Whelm the Vision’?” The lamplighter stopped, feeding the burning head of her hammer a few flakes of sawdust to keep it stoked. She turned to face them.
“Vishun? Dahnarda dlak styr… lyk cryr-glob.” They couldn’t follow her much further, for she went down an alley where the glass curved into a very low ceiling. It was clearly meant as a safe haven for the headless tilefolk, for anyone taller would have to hunch over as they walked. The two young lightfolk were forced to turn around and explore the village. Their minor burns inside their elbows and on the backs of their legs turned into maddening stinging patches as sweat returned to them. They needed refuge, but not a single church offered a welcoming sign. Most were unnamed anywhere on their exteriors, save for one.
The building seemed to drip from the glass ceiling, the windows chiseled in its top mere shapes that went nowhere. Plenty of lights could be seen within, but they weren’t stationary lamps. They bobbed along and flickered like lightening bugs. Alast and Pearlen saw the sign only when several of these lights passed behind it and illuminated its gold-painted letters.
Church of Bright Hope
“This is it,” Alast told Pearlen, pulling her to the front door. There was no knocker, only a small bell on a string. They rang it and were quickly ushered inside the stained glass door by an old woman. They were left speechless for a moment, but not by the rather sparse decoration of the church’s pulpit and pews. No, it was the woman’s decoration; her eyes were alive with shining daylight, the effect so intense that her pupils and irises were no longer visible.
Such features were not unheard of. Her eyes were brighted; the same process could affect any number of materials, animate or inanimate. They had seen brighted gravefolk and the occasional brighted burn scar. It was mostly caused by spending too much time on the World Roof, too near the Brighted Plains and gates that separated civilization from the immolating light and heat of the florent.
“Are you children lost?” she asked, seemingly delighted by their entranced stares. “Did you follow the light?” She giggled, but when she turned her back and walked between the pews its echo turned it into more of a cackle. It was as if she shared the joke with her god and no one else.
“Actually, this is the exact place we were looking for,” Alast said. “Is there a married couple by the surname of Lustr here? The woman turned around; her head craned around Alast to Pearlen.
“Oh! You’re Handky’s and Curtain’s little girl!” She moved in for a hug, but Pearlen took a step back.
“Please,” she said so as to not seem overly rude, “but we’re very tired and I haven’t seen my parents in an age. Can you take us to them?”
“Of course! Of course! We can see them from here,” the old woman assured, pointing at the left wall. Two lights shined through the glass, bobbing up and down slightly. She moved sideways through the pews, waving the young couple over to a door behind a curtain. She opened it for them but remained outside. As they entered they found a small room with a bed and several devotional statues, about the size of a forearm, of papist saints and prophets standing on pedestals. Alast guessed it was a deathbed room, so those attending services in the end stages of their illnesses could stay close to the Spotless.
Two folk sat on the bed, looking over a copy of the Toil Papers together, looked quite healthy. The woman had to be Pearlen’s mother Curtain, as the resemblance was obvious. Their faces were the same shape, their hair the same color, and their noses shared an identical warm hue. The biggest differences were in their hairstyles and physical build. Pearlen always kept her hair shorter than Alast’s, never enough to curl around a finger. Her build was very athletic, limbs trained and toned not just by exercise, but by the great pressures of the Snyre Sea as well.
Curtain, on the other soft hand, was very delicate. She had fretting shaking fingers; her hands seemed lost if they weren’t clasped together in prayer. Her hips and shoulders were bony, her clothes draped over her as if she was some sort of rack. Her hair hung in long loose curls.
Pearlen’s father Handky was rather ordinary-looking, with the sort of face you often saw four or five of in a crowd. What stood out was his clear state of vigor. His face was not haggard, he wasn’t pale, and one of his feet tapped on the ground impatiently while he waited for his wife to finish reading a passage. Pearlen cleared her throat, causing them both to turn. She couldn’t speak any more than that, not for several drips at least, for she saw the truth of the light they’d witnessed through the wall. Bother her parents had brighted eyes that nearly blinded the younger couple. They weren’t quite as luminous as the old woman’s, faint pupil and iris could still be seen, but they were certainly a shock. The last time she’d seen them their eyes had been normal, teary, but normal.
“Pearlen?” her mother asked. She gently set the Toil Papers on the wrinkled bed sheet, careful not to lose her page. She slowly rose and put both hands over her mouth and nose, speaking through them as if to soften her words. “Is that you, my precious daughter? Is it really you?”
“Aye mother,” she answered. Alast suppressed a snort. Most living on the Employer absorbed more nautical language, including ‘aye’ in place of ‘yes’, but not Pearlen. She was pulling it out just to make it clear how different her new life was, just to put an ocean between them and see if her parents would dive in and swim over. “It is me. I got your letter.” Curtain scurried over and wrapped her daughter in an embrace, Handky following a moment later. Alast took a step back, hands behind him, head bowed.
Pearlen watched him through the gap in her parent’s shoulders, knowing exactly what he thought. He was generally attentive, but there were some things he simply could not understand. He’d fled his own family and never looked back. In the entirety of their relationship he’d never said a single word about missing his father. I know this doesn’t make sense to you; it doesn’t make sense to me either. There’s just something in my heart that told me I had to come. Once we’re through this maybe I can learn to forget like you.
“I don’t understand,” she said when they finally let her go. She looked her father up and down. “Father, I thought you were circling death’s drain. Have you recovered?” Handky rubbed his head with one hand, wearing a flustered smile like he’d just realized a massive stain on his shirt.
“It would be too easy to lie,” Curtain whispered, urging him to answer with a few fingers on his elbow.
“Yes, I know,” he sighed before meeting his daughter’s stare. “Pearlen, I was never ill. We just missed you so much, and we have so much to share with you now! We knew, after the way things ended before, that the only way you would even consider coming was if one of us was ending.”
“I don’t believe this!” she fumed. She couldn’t quite make out Alast’s facial expression from the other side of the room, but she knew what it was. No matter how loud I get he’s not going to protest. I could kill them where they stand and he would shove the bodies under the bed. “Do you know what we went through to get here? Stalked by ourselves in the Reflecting Path! Dried out by the desert! Almost immolated by a sneeze from Plowr’s Pyre!” The room got dimmer, prompting her to look to the wall. Several lights were bobbing away; she guessed they were members of the church that no longer wanted to listen in.
“We made a pact,” her mother said. “The letter was the last lie we would ever tell you. There’s no more room for them inside us now. Our spirits are just pure light. We need to share this light with you so we can be a family again.” It was only then that she seemed to notice the dark-haired young man standing in the corner, wearing an expression like he watched two wolptingers sniffing at the corpse of a third. “Who have you brought with you?”
“This is Alast,” Pearlen said, her rage dying down. She kept it stoked, for the conversation was far from over. Now’s a chance to draw their ire. “He is my new family.”
“You got married!?” her mother squeaked. She put a hand to her face as if about to cry, but there were no tears. The young folk wondered if the brighting had dried them all up. “We missed it Handky! We missed our baby’s vows because we left her. Shame on us.”
“You didn’t miss anything,” Pearlen said. “We’re not married.” Their eyes widened, forcing Pearlen to throw up one hand and shade herself.
“It’s not too late then,” Handky noted. “We can do it here. We know the preacher and… well we know someone a little higher up as well.” He smirked before finally taking notice of Alast himself. He walked over and shook the young man’s hand, smacking him on the back. Alast remained silent.
“We’re not getting married,” Pearlen declared. “You two have no idea who I am now. You read about me on the Employer, but I had to do all sorts of things to get there. I fought Yugo Legendr’s henchfolk atop a cardinal tile. I sailed the seas of Third Sink as a vicious pirate. I was sunk by a monster and forced to march through flaming ice for rinses on end. I’m an adventurer now; I’m exactly what you tried to stop me from becoming. Alast helped me. He taught me to be less afraid, to ask more questions, and to disregard anyone telling me to enjoy my life less.” He still hasn’t said a word to them. They care more about him being called husband than whether or not he can speak.
“You were a criminal?” her mother repeated. “Was it that Oobla woman? Did she pull you out of the river and turn you into one of her harlots once she knew we weren’t watching?” Pearlen winced and once again looked to Alast. That single statement could’ve turned him against her in this battle. His blurry face stayed motionless. It seemed for now he would let her omission go, but there wasn’t a chance he would forget it. Now I have to tell him that I dropped out of Redr’s school, that I had a chance at adventuring before he came into my life and I slinked away to be a bottom feeder instead.
“It wasn’t Oobla! It was just me. Just regular old disappointing me.”
“You’re not a disappointment,” her father said firmly. “We know what you’ve suffered now.” He touched the side of his eye. “Cleaning our spirits was very painful for our eyes. The whole time we held each other’s hands and thought about you, about how you felt the same thing every drip of every day.”
“Are those goggles to help with your eyes?” Curtain asked. Pearlen touched their bands, having nearly forgotten they were there. That’s a first. They make me so mad I don’t even remember the spiny little monsters living in my head.
“Aye,” she answered softly. “They actually help, unlike what you two tried to do to me.”
“We only wanted to help,” Curtain protested. It seemed she was already running out of whimpering and apologies. “Gawinthayre had the confidence of the community.” At least I told Alast this story. The mysterious and kind Gawinthayre Dontr. He healed so many with the power of faith alone, only all the illnesses were invisible. Not mine though. The papist fool was actually forced to try something: convincing my guardian fools to lock me away from water and starve them out. Blurring my world for the rest of my life when the bugs dug deeper in search of food. They only wanted to help, but they were only capable of harm.
“Aye, he was a huge help. First he ruins my eyes and then he made off with all your investments in him. You had no money left in Crosstahl and so began your pilgrimage, while I stayed behind to make it and keep it the old fashioned way.”
“We were fooled,” Handky admitted. “He promised he could hurry the second cleaning of the Spotless. There’s no shame in wanting his cleansing foam and light as soon as we can get it.” They bowed their heads and clasped their hands in prayer for a moment.
“This is a papist church I take it?” their daughter asked. “So even after that false prophet took everything from you… you’re still entrenched in this madness!?”
“You must not speak ill of this place,” Curtain warned with a hiss. “The Church of Bright Hope is different from Dontr. The leaders here are real. They truly do know the specifics of the second cleaning. We’re helping them to hurry it.”
“You’ve fallen for the exact same ruse!?” Pearlen shouted. She grabbed Alast’s hand and pulled him toward the door, ready to storm out of Crib-ohlk, back into a fire cyclone if that was what it took to get away from her parents. They rushed forward and blocked the door. “Move!”
“You must hear us out!” Curtain begged, dropping to her knees and grabbing her daughter’s waist. “See our brighted eyes and know that they are this way because of the revelations stored within. We must tell you of our savior, soon to be yours. We must tell you of our vision.”
A Drop from Kilroy’s Nose
At the heart of the Toil Papers are the Earliest Etchings, which the papists believed to be messages left by the Spotless and his immediate disciples, left only partly translated thanks to the vast difference between a mind without sin and those of the myriad folk in Porce. The etchings were recorded at great distance, for they were written in giants’ script upon the three stones that make up the stalls: Written Stone, Glorious Stone, and Graffon Stone.
Glorious Stone bore the most, with much of it concentrated around a hole in the rock, big enough for townships to live in the gorge of its circular curve. The first copies of the papers were bound there and the first temples to the Spotless built. Even in Papism’s infancy the Glory Hole was always seen as the place of the Spotless’s return. He would come as a shining foam radiating love to cleanse the spirits of folk who believed in his physical absence.
As old as the rest of the etchings was the face that stared, covetously the papists believed, at the Glory Hole from across the lid of Second Toil. His beady eyes and impudent, almost obscene, nose peeked out over a drawn edge, with the three-fingered hands of a creature grabbing at Graffon Stone. It was the face of Kilroy.
Written under it: Kilroy was here. It was a warning to all papists, vulnerable as they were to deception while the Spotless brewed his foam in the florent, where it was whipped into a froth by the stomping feet of all the faithful giggling dead. Kilroy, the trickster, the being that always showed up where and when he was least wanted, sensed this thousand-rest opportunity.
He was the worst kind of curiosity. He was the nose in all the most private and shameful business. He only came to embody these legends more when the etchings were turned into carvings, when the greatest stone workers in Porce’s history turned the etchings into permanent topological features of the three stall walls.
This did not take place in the Age of Building or in the Age of Tragedy that was generally accepted to be Porce’s prehistory. Kilroy was carved out, turned into hills, ridges, and hidden buildings, in the Age of Wonder. The eight gods of Porce, themselves the second divine generation under Qorcneas and Hesprid, ruled the Age of Wonder after creating it.
Plowr made tilefolk from tile dust. Swimmr made bergfolk from toil water. Greetr made lightfolk from distant memories streaking by in the Dark Empty. Dealr made the gravefolk from the lightfolk to make peace.
The gods had not yet warred and dwindled, so they had plenty of time for love. They laid with their own creations, bore the children known as Oaths who guarded the pieces of Porce. The Oaths had children of their own, passing custody of the promises down to the Custodians. One of them was sat upon the bridge of Kilroy’s nose, a literal bridge with stone rails and a grassy flowering floor, enjoying the view. Actually I was standing, preparing for a morning jog through the invigorating mists that shot from his nostrils as geysers. I wasn’t the only one either; plenty of folk ran there in the mornings. His was the runniest nose in all Porce.
(Blaine’s Extended Note: It’s me again reader. As these volumes have gone on I’ve gotten better at not interrupting, but I must break that streak here. I’ve once again become involved in all this. You see, the sentences you just read in italics were not there when I initially recorded this in the hotel bathroom. You’ll notice as well that they’re written in first person, something normally reserved for our characters’ inner thoughts or these bold notes. They aren’t thoughts; they’re corrections.
What you just read was a correction straight from the star of this tale deep in Porce’s past, which is still our future. It was Custodian Kilroy Ordr, named for the same legendary trickster whose monument he exercised on. You’re likely wondering how this is possible, and I have an explanation. I know this explanation is correct, or at least correct enough, because if it wasn’t Kilroy’s voice would penetrate the boldness of this note and correct me. Isn’t that so? Yes, that’s correct humanfolk.
There he is. The gods of Porce were capable of death, as we learned during Rob’s last adventure. He saw the graves of the first. He was also able to commune with them through a gas like powdered bath beads, generated by magical crystals that grew from their graves like mushrooms. …Guess I have it right so far.
When a person or animal from our world dies, there might be an involuntary twitch. They are no less dead, but there is still fleeting movement and chemical activity. It is the same with Porce’s divine beings, just scaled up to account for their unfathomable powers. Yes, keep going; it’s a very helpful comparison. The muscle spasm of a dead god was still an intelligent and powerful spirit that could access some of their former glory. The same spasm from an Oath, only half-divine, would still show consciousness and power. The same spasm from the quarter-divine Custodians would have a voice, but not much else. Please feel free to jump in, Custodian.
You’re doing wonderfully, just a few extra details for your readers. No, I am not the full will of Kilroy Ordr. I am his story. I exist enough to make sure my tales aren’t mangled. The individual who recorded the life of my descendant Kilrobin has all the broad strokes, but has taken artistic license with many of the details. It’s Kilrobin’s job to correct those, but this small tale has invoked my name greatly. I’ll make sure I’m done justice.
I first noticed the Custodian’s presence in the narrative when I had my wife read it. She pointed out one of these additions, a thing I had never written or read, which finally convinced her I was telling the truth. It only further cemented my certainty.
I would guess that, under normal circumstances, even the gods of Porce could not reach into the past of our world and say anything. The Custodian’s voice only joins us now because of a weak spot in the barrier of physics itself. If you’ll recall, I have opened every one of these novels with the phrase ‘bathroom break’. I did not mean them as jokes; I saved their true meaning until now, when you would be so entrenched in the narrative as to hear me out.
They were bathroom breaks in reality. Sorry Custodian, had to borrow the italics for emphasis. I’m not offended. I don’t get offended. Just here for the sake of clarity. There’s something about the very nature of the bathroom that makes it a special place in our universe. I’m no physicist, but pretty much everybody has heard the theories about events so small and fast that the mere act of observing them changes the outcome.
I think the bathroom, and by extension a bathroom break in reality, operates under a similar principal. If observation changes the very reality of a thing, then the bathroom has some sort of metaphysical shielding against observation. Things that can observe it go out of their way not to. It’s a place both private and extremely unpleasant in some ways. The bathroom, which never has more than one intelligence in it when functioning properly, is therefore largely immune to observational changes.
The person or spirit within the bathroom becomes one with its reality. I point to the sense of peace people usually have when undisturbed in a quiet bathroom. It feels as if time does not pass. It feels like the bathroom could be anywhere in the world because they’re all pretty much the same even if the hardware (wetware?) is different. This feeling is the bathroom’s reality. It is unfixed in time and space. It is the ultimate form of privacy because you are hiding from the universe itself.
This unmoored privacy can also serve as a gateway. If only the water flows in place of time, then there is nothing stopping entities from any point in history or the future from communicating with those of any other point. If a bathroom can exist anywhere in the world, then they are all the same bathroom, so that takes care of the distance issue as well.
In Captain Rob Sinks we heard the strange story of a man named Blad Weebreakr. He was called a ‘ciaman’, which meant that he was merely an implied person. His existence seemed scattershot, quite literally so, only existing in specific moments and places like the pellet holes a shotgun might leave in a sheet. He only appeared in bathrooms. I think he figured out how to work these ‘bathroom breaks in reality’.
Whoever has left me these narratives has been doing the same thing, as has the entity trying to stop me from recording them. My time in them also seems to be how Custodian Kilroy Ordr knows his story is being butchered. Alas, I have tried asking him many questions about our future, but he is only interested in correcting this small part of the story. So we continue now, with our Custodian preparing to jog across his namesake’s nose as we recede out of our boldness and back into our quiet bathroom reading material.)
The Custodian, though bearing the outward appearance of lightfolk, was anything but. He was nearly twice as tall as most of them, with radiant skin and eyes in the purple hue of his grandmother: the god Luminatr. His mischief, and his tendency to appear where he wasn’t wanted, had earned him the legendary name. That and the big nose, which was by far the largest factor.
His clothes were whatever he wanted them to be, their appearance changing all the time. The jewelry he wore was molded into the shape of small animals: skingles, ratmuns, and numerous bugs. These dollops of copper didn’t nestle in piercings; they crawled all across his body and remolded themselves into different creatures whenever they felt like it. They only retreated into the folds of his clothes once he started running, so as not to be blown away by his godly speed.
All the others around Kilroy’s nose gave the Custodian a wide berth. Not true. We were all very friendly. There was more waving than an ocean. His powerful legs allowed him to treat even the most overgrown patches on the nose bridge like mere weeds. He leapt over them in single bounds, quickly finding himself alone amongst the dark green trees and fluffy shrubs. He stopped and took a deep breath, but found it unsatisfying. There was no mist in the air at all. Without it there was no reason to even be on Kilroy’s face. That mist gave mornings there their tingle, their flourish. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t heard the distinctive whoosh of the nostrils geysers in quite a while. He took it upon himself to investigate.
Graffon Stone, like the others, has its own gravitation. The sky on one side was a view of the distant World Floor while the other was the World Roof. Kilroy’s nose had a distinct bulbous end, so moving across the curve of its tip changed one’s view rapidly. The Custodian knew he was close when he crested it and saw the skirt of Graffon. If things were functioning normally the view would’ve been blocked by massive banks of mist tinted in all the colors of the rainbow.
No mention of my prior defense of this place? That’s quite an oversight. Early devotees of the Spotless once tried to steal the entire nose from Kilroy’s face! Moving it was an impossible task for them. They liked to claim they had divine heritage as well, but that its quality was intellectual rather than hereditary. Personally I think everything is hereditary and any claims otherwise are immaterial.
Their plan was to use bath bead bombs between the eyes and let the nose fall to the floor. They would then build a village around it, treating it as nothing more than a hill. It was a needlessly complex form of theft, but they were always tying themselves in knots over the simplest things anyway. They wanted it gone so they wouldn’t have to look at it from the Glory Hole across the way. It really was just a nose, but they read all sorts of intentions into it. They thought Kilroy the trickster had shapeshifted his nose into the likeness of drooping male genitalia in order to mock anyone trying to make Second Stall an upstanding decent place. It wasn’t his fault his nose looked that way. As I said, it’s all heredity.
When Kilroy found the towering nostrils of Kilroy, the problem was immediately apparent. The openings, though big enough for armies to march through, were almost completely blocked by jagged green crystals that grew around the entire rim of each nostril and toward the center. Small holes remained at the exact middle, and they issued trickling puffs of the invigorating morning mist. I knew they were bath beads right away. I should know; I picked enough of the crusty little things out of the corner of my eye each morning.
They were bath beads, crystals of godly magic, the residue of all magical acts, and they posed no actual barrier to one so close to their origin as Kilroy Ordr. Rather than scale them and tumble through the hole he was able to put a hand to them and will them to bend out of the way as if made of cloth. It was the left nostril by the way. The nasal cavern was so large, and the fence of crystal so thick, that his slow walk forward, green stone spreading at his outstretched hand, took nearly four drops.
What he met on the other side shocked him. Are you shocked when something of one color becomes something of many colors? If so, then yes I was shocked. The curve of the nostril had no natural stone visible; it was all coated in layer upon layer of bath beads. There were a thousand shapes, colors, and clarities. Some of them glowed or blinked. Some sang. Some sang in harmony. Some held ancient spirits that had chosen them as magical cages rather than finding their fates in the top or bottom of the world. Ancient spirits were just spirits to me. ‘Neighbors’ might be a better word.
Kilroy walked among them and up the curved walls, the gems rippling around his feet. The air in the nostril was nothing but suppressed mist, its colors concentrated by pressure and a lack of florentshine exposure. It was now clear why the mist was so pleasant; it was a refreshing dose of magic. Kilroy had it in his very blood, but it was always strongest in his sleep. Yes, that’s why I woke up with them crystallizing in my eyes every morning. Breathing it in at the start of his day made the rest of his waking time feel like a dream. It had a similar, but much stronger, effect on all the common folk who ran the bridge as well. If I was writing this for the uninformed masses I would now play off their assumption that anything magical shoved up Kilroy’s nose must have had something to do with Kilroy himself. There were plenty in Porce, even in the peaceful Age of Wonder, who would rush to blame the trickster for all the magical treasures stored away in his cavernous nose. Hah! Predicted it. I almost wish I wasn’t limited to my personal life. I could spice up everything in my line; in my day they would’ve belonged to me anyway.
In truth Kilroy, at least then and there, was nothing but a landmark. The true culprit in this magical hoarding didn’t want to reveal itself, but was forced to when the Custodian wandered too far up the nose. He found something even stranger than the bath beads, sprinkled among crystal columns like giant nose hairs. These new objects certainly had magic to them, but they were far more ethereal than beads. They hung, perfectly still, in the rainbow mist, only moving when the Custodian’s proximity made ripples in the air.
They were spherical, green, and transparent, alive with tiny ciliated structures under their skin. Unsettled, the Custodian made sure not to bump into any of them. Unsettled isn’t right, but I don’t have a better word. All our words were spun out from the etchings, expanded upon by Greetr when she first recognized the echoes out in the Dark Empty. Maybe you have a better word, seeing as you built your own tongues from scratch. I knew those objects were foreign. I mean foreign to Porce, infused with something that was, without a doubt, beyond our world.
As if called, the strange spheres silently retreated deeper into the mist. Kilroy was smart enough not to pursue them. His presence was known, so it was a simple waiting game. Whoever they were, they would see he had all the time in the world. His oath was already abandoned, and there wasn’t a single obligation to pull him back into the florent. He was happy to be a thorn in their side, one that stuck with them until the single drops of blood his presence drew became close to lethal.
This is the biggest correction of all. This could’ve been the one that called me through so many drains to be here today. I never abandoned any oath. You do not make an oath by being born and being told you have responsibilities. Others have spread that narrative and they’ve been wrong each time.
As a further correction, I did not actually have an infinite amount of time to stand up that nose and wait for something to drip out. There was a standing arrangement with the woman who would one day be my truest love: Bakayla Sintraydr. Even then I would’ve left a giant infectious pulsating cyst in that nose to go and talk very small and pointless things with her.
Kilroy stood there, the tiniest smile upon his face, his ears trained to any sound separate from the singing of the bath beads. The magical collector oozed out from a white column behind him. It skillfully took up the beads around it, mixed their materials, and built a towering suit of enchanted armor. Fresh crystals grew from its shoulders, elbows, and knees. It didn’t bother to craft a face, but its true form could be seen through the swirl of crystal that served as the head.
The Custodian’s stealthy foe didn’t even take a step; it moved forward by having the gems of its feet merge with those in front of it, like raindrops on a window meeting and becoming one. No ordinary folk would’ve heard its approach, but Kilroy had too much god in him to be fooled. He saw beyond what his eyes suggested as his field of vision. Just as his grandparents could gaze upon entire stalls, Kilroy knew all that happened within several foams around his body.
The Custodian whirled around at the first swing of its mighty arm. He stepped back just in time to avoid a strike that shattered the ground into a thousand shards. The prolith, with no need to be silent any longer, surged forward, stomping through the beads it had worked so hard to cultivate. Kilroy couldn’t be allowed to leave after what he’d seen. There had been too much work, and it wasn’t just the sort of work folk knew. It wasn’t just lifting and moving. It was cultivation and careful fluid manipulation. It was separating single drops from a lake of bubbling magic.
The prolith made a show of its armor’s abilities, ordering the many beads that made up its knuckles to radiate power. The golem’s hands erupted in colorful flames, bolts of lightning, twinkling lights, and hissing gases. The Custodian was unfazed; he knew a bluff when he saw one. This creature was willing to seem mindless, to smash a few beads underfoot during its assault, but it wouldn’t risk its entire rock garden.
It barreled forward, great stone shoulders swinging, trying to smash the Custodian’s face. Kilroy stepped forward to meet it, one hand behind his back. With one swipe of his forearm he broke one of the golem’s arms off its body and sent it flying. Before it could even react to the dismemberment Kilroy delivered a head-butt to its chest. Cracks radiated out and destabilized the armor. It dropped to its knees, the magic on its remaining knuckles snuffed out as if all circulation had been cut off.
Kilroy’s hand shot forward, crashing through its crystal dome, wrapping around the prosite’s eye. He pulled it out, sending its armor collapsing onto its side. The prosite screeched and burbled in protest. It tried to climb the custodian’s arm, its oozing body sliding up it like a sleeve, but it could only go so far; its slime could not separate from its central eye. Kilroy squeezed. Its many pupils dilated and it retracted back to his fist.
“A valiant effort,” the Custodian said, “but a failure. You wads are barred from the florent’s light. What are you doing here?”
“We’re not in the florent’s light,” it grumbled. “Ethocilex esequil notumix splunkedix nisipri advenix Orationeamil.”
“Speak so I can understand you,” Kilroy ordered, his grip tightening slightly.
“I said this cave has known only Coproglossi before you arrived!” it repeated.
“Fair enough, but my demand stands. What are you doing here? Why have you blocked off all this lovely mist and ruined my morning run?”
“There would be no mist if not for me,” it claimed. Kilroy rarely saw the prosites; even before his birth they had been forced to remain in the damp darkness of the inner walls. I really had nothing against them. Folk belong wherever they want to be. Conflict over land is as natural as stealing children or ignoring experienced advice. This one’s liquid body was extremely thick, its eye only visible because most of its mass bulged underneath his fist. “Kilroy’s nose was just a cave when I found it. I’ve been collecting ever since.”
“What is it you intend to do with all this magic?”
“I haven’t exactly decided. I just know that I want it. I have a promise to keep to an old friend, a promise that I would never stop seeking the power they died without attaining. I intend to honor it.” It paused for a moment, examining the Custodian, only now realizing which quarter-god had wandered in. “You are Kilroy as well.”
“I am. I came to blow my nose.”
“Then I apologize for attacking you. I thought you were offended by my presence. I know your stories. You don’t get offended.”
“Also true. You’ll need to knock out all the beads blocking the entrances to the nostrils, so that I may enjoy my jogging once more.”
“Absolutely,” the prosite assured. “It was just an oversight really. Their purpose, to build up pressure in the bead vapor, has already been served. I was so caught up in my invention that I forgot to remove them.”
“Invention…” Kilroy repeated.
“If you would please let me down, most interesting Custodian,” the prosite said. He didn’t know their affect from the chirping of midnight bugs, but the Custodian thought he detected a hint of nervousness. It reeked of it. “I’ll get to work dismantling those barrier beads.” It tried to slip free, but the Custodian’s grip was like stone without a single pore.
“You do have names,” he recalled out loud. “What is yours?” It didn’t respond immediately. “Come now. You know my name. I have no choice but to be suspicious of you if you won’t turn over yours.” It muttered some half-excuse. “You’re too transparent my literally transparent friend. You have no back to hide anything behind. Tell me your name or I will pop your eye.” He didn’t need to squeeze to threaten; the prosite could see, even in the gap across the expressions of their kinds, that the Custodian had no reservations about such an act.
“I am Creosophenol Bocculum,” it finally answered.
“Oh. No wonder you were embarrassed to tell me. I’ll call you Creo. You’ve got me curious. Tell me about your invention. I already know it’s those strange bubbles that pulled away moments ago. Bring them back and let me see.” The prosite heard another implied threat in the last few words. There was no disobeying if it wanted to keep its life. A bubble formed next to its eye, grew to nearly identical size, and then burst. The resulting sound acted as an order. The ethereal orbs slowly emerged from deep in the shadows and around the columns. As said, my sight is not limited to my eyes. I saw even those behind me and knew, without counting, exactly how many they numbered. It was a significant figure. One for every living Custodian.
“These are profate spores,” Creosophenol explained. “They come from my hereditary material, but they’ve been nourished on nothing but bath bead magic. They are dormant now, but with one touch of life they will metabolize into their full potential. They could only form in pressurized magic, with no contaminants from outside to bring them out of their torpor prematurely, and thus the stuffed-up nose of Kilroy.”
“And my labored breathing,” the other Kilroy noted. “What are they for?”
“Before you judge me, may I tell you of what my folk had?”
“Porce was nearly silent before the three folk under the florent. We still couldn’t stand its light for very long, so we kept to our walls and drains. Our cities were alive as we were, their towers waving in the wind like fronds. We whispered poems to crowds of thousands, verses lasting a rinse. We were society. We nearly forgot our viciousness. Then you came and awakened in us our dark purpose. We must carry it out, and it is not our fault.”
“What is this purpose?”
“Infection. We are destined to covet the bodies of folk, to take them as our own and become profect. We all still desire it, but only some strains still have the capacity. My strain, Bocculum, has the greatest instinct for it. It’s a towering wall of roaring flame within my eye. No matter how intelligent I become, no matter how much I study autidex aliquamiphil etex philostixadril, I cannot see over it.”
“This is like what you do with the ground and water? You take flesh and turn it into armor?”
“It’s more than that. Profection is living paradise. It’s peace within our eyes. It clears them so we can see what we truly want as individuals beyond our instincts.” Its pining tone soured Kilroy’s expression slightly; it was quick to reframe. “But I don’t seek it! My profate spores are a higher calling.”
“Try it,” Kilroy suggested.
“Try to infect me. I want to see if you can.”
“I… I would have to crawl into your mouth.” The Custodian loosened his grip and opened his mouth as wide as he could. Creo saw the unusual coloring in his gums and all the way down his throat. Kilroy urged the prosite forward with his eyes and an impatient grunt. It slipped out of his hand and slowly slithered up his arm. Creo thought it was a trap, that a god was going to devour it, but even in its fear it couldn’t help but lust after the slim possibility of success.
It flopped into his mouth and shot down to his lungs, flattening itself against the soft tissue there. Its slimy body naturally excreted all sorts of compounds meant to facilitate infection, but they simply rolled off the walls of the Custodian’s lungs without being absorbed. I don’t have to taste anything if I don’t want to, so I can’t tell you that part of it. What I can tell you is that I didn’t so much as twitch. I knew my nature was far too grand to be vulnerable to it. Still, it was enlightening to watch it try so hard to become something it could never be. That’s one of the worst feelings in the world: knowing that to succeed you must destroy and rebuild yourself. Knowing that you, as you are, can only fail. That death is simply step two in a ten thousand step process toward change.
Try as it did, Creo could not initiate infection. Kilroy spoke, telling it everything was fine, his voice echoing all around it. He told it to come out. Creo squeezed its way back up, rolled over the Custodian’s tongue, and went back to the end of his arm. Kilroy bent it at the elbow, bringing the prosite close as if it were a pet bird using his wrist as a perch.
“Even your line, supposedly the best at it, can do nothing to me,” the Custodian said with a tiny grin. The prosite bristled, tiny bubbles popping across its surface. Its invented spores closed in a little.
“I can with these things,” it said darkly. “I told you we had society until you came along. I want it back. We cannot achieve this with single infections, even if we could take Custodians like you. These profate spores are different; they don’t infect individuals. They infect lines. They can be infinite thanks to the godly magic they were cultured in. One breath of their contents would attach my line to yours. Prosites would become a chronic blight on your family tree, yellow leaves here and there, occasionally making one fall.”
“That is your plan then? Sneak one of these to every Custodian and bind your future to theirs? Parasitize Porce’s budding for your own benefit?”
“Yes,” Creosophenol declared, but its voice faded and its pupils widened. It was such a brilliant plan, so brilliant that it had to finally tell someone, but it was over now. A Custodian had found out prematurely. Kilroy would breathe fire up his own nose and burn it all out. It had come close though. Perhaps one of the other strains could find traces and take up the work.
Custodian Kilroy Ordr reached out with his free arm, grabbed one of the profate spores, and popped it against his face. It released a multicolored cloud of sparkling wiggling dust. He breathed deeply of it, not letting a single sparkle escape. The prosite couldn’t believe its eye. All the bubbles that were its words were stuck deep inside it, unable to surface.
“Congratulations on your invention,” Kilroy said, urging it to respond.
“You’ve infected your line. The fate of your children is now tied to the prosites. The Bocculum strain. We will be there, with them, fading and resurging, across generations. Why? Why would you do this to them willingly?”
“A child is the product of things done to them,” the Custodian answered, not a second thought in his head. There was a second thought in there, but it was for my dear Bakayla. “It is tragic that identity only comes from a violent ripping separation, but that is the way of it. When I was born I was saddled with an oath, ordered to protect the Broken Fix for my entire life. If I had done so I would’ve been nothing but that promise.
I would’ve been another link in a piece of chain mail rather than the shattered discarded metal fragments I am today. I would look as if I had no experience, because all the hits and digs would’ve likely gone to my neighbors.
I hope your spore is potent. It will give my descendants something to rebel against. They will look at my decision and hopefully get angry enough to hate both of us. Fighting the fate I’ve just created will give them lives and make them all the truer.”
“You are a strange one,” Creosophenol eventually responded. “Are you interested in helping me get these to all your cousins?”
“Not in the slightest Creo,” Kilroy said. “You should know from what I just said that you’ll benefit by doing it yourself. You’ll have to do it without all these bath beads though.”
“What do you mean?” Kilroy shook his arm until Creo flopped off, landing on its discarded suit of gem armor.
“I’ve decided I want them. This whole dark garden would make a wonderful gift for my lover, but I think it would be better to break them all and have them set. Turn them into ten thousand gifts for ten thousand days.”
“You have no idea how long it took me to grow these… most of them were seeds smaller than splinters!” the prosite protested. “This is my home and my legacy!”
“I really don’t care,” Kilroy said, staring off into the glittering ceiling, finding the square bubble he would break off and make into his first gift. I was already anticipating being late, so I was really hoping a nice beady gift would keep her from slapping me. I actually loved it when she slapped me, but only when we were being playful in the bedroom. The other kind was awful. The cold slap. Anyway, that’s the whole reason I took those beads. I saw a thousand opportunities to win women over after they’d put up with me for a little too long. Taking them allowed so much more love to happen.
“My spores?” the prosite queried.
“Take them; they’re hideous. You can even take that fine suit there, just get out. I’m tired of you. This is my nose after all.” Creosophenol was smart enough to not push what had already been incredible luck. It slunk back into the hole in the golem’s head, quickly sealing the crystal helmet. Its spores gathered together and adhered to each other in a tight ball the size of a tilehoof. It touched itself to the prolith’s shoulder, where Creo opened the armor and touched a rope of slime to it. The rope stretched, allowing the prolith to drag it along like a child with their kite.
“One more thing,” the Custodian said with a raised finger, turning to look at the prolith as it plodded away. “Everything in here is mine now, but I can’t carry it all at once. I want a guarantee that you won’t return with a pick and chisel some of it away.”
“What guarantee can I give?” Creo asked, its voice ringing through the crystal.
“Your word will suffice. I want you to promise me that you will never again pick Kilroy’s nose.” Something changed in the dense air of the nostril-cave. The rainbow vapor became thicker, obscuring the Custodian in a bank of it. The prosite realized that the Custodian had at least partial control of it. The magic in it was very much like his breath, and it was up both his noses. It was no wonder he had enjoyed the byproduct of the profate experiments so much on his morning runs: a double dose of his own breath like kissing his own soul.
“I cannot promise that,” Creosophenol said through its mounting fear. The vapor began to swirl. The Custodian’s face was lost in it, but the prosite sensed a darkening expression. The prolith’s arms shook, forced closer to its body. He was increasing the already quite high pressure in the chamber.
“And why not?”
“I’ve already promised, remember?” Creosophenol rushed to explain. “My friend, now gone, has my promise that I will do everything I can to achieve great power. These beads are that power. If I promise to give them up, it will break that vow. It will break me!”
“You chose your words carefully,” Kilroy noted. Creo whirled around, no longer able to tell which direction his voice came from. It was all around the prolith, infused in this giant breath. The armored feet of the golem began to slide, grinding the beads and dirt under it. Creo put hands to the ground and lowered the helmet, but the force grew. It was like trying to resist the mightiest of storms. “You said vow rather than oath; you correctly guessed I would have no respect for the word oath. You’re welcome to break the promise you make to me, but you’ll have to know what consequences that will create. Now. Make me a promise or be crushed inside that glittering pebble.” A crack appeared on the helmet, sending Creo’s eye bouncing around in its own slime. The pressure still mounted.
“You don’t know what breaking promises does to us!”
“I don’t care. Promise me.” Another crack. A third. Powdered magic hissed out of the armor’s joints.
“I promise to never again pick the nose of Kilroy!” With the promise made, Kilroy used the magic to expel the infectious material. The vapor rushed forward as a wall; the incredible gust picked up the armor, despite it weighing nearly two cases, and tossed it toward the blocked nostril. On impact the green crystal wall shattered, raining debris across Graffon Stone. Most of it fell back to the stall wall, but Creo was sneezed out with such force that it was thrown out into the gravitation pull of the World Floor. It would have to fall all the way. The ball of spores wiggled madly under the winds, losing pieces to the sky here and there, but there was nothing their creator could do about it.
While Creosophenol Bocculum fell, an unstoppable life process was at work inside it. All life follows one of two strategies to last: immortality or reproduction. The prosites are not eternal, but their bodies do not follow the cycles of backboned animals and folk. They have their own lines and their own ways of branching them. They reproduce by splitting down the middle, the one eye at the center becoming two. The two halves separate and go their own ways as individuals.
Reproduction to a prosite is death. Of the two resulting minds, neither is the former. They are guessing halves that rapidly fill the voids of their own spirits with new ratios of fluid mixtures. Normally a prosite does everything it can to avoid becoming its children, but Creosophenol had been forced into its only known trigger.
Conflicting promises. Its body sensed the paradox of its promises, and acted without Creo’s permission. Each half would take up one vow so as both could be completed. As the prosite fell, crystal hands scratching at its helmet, its very material ripped in two. The process was so violent, so painful, so obliterating, that, whether it was two yet or not, it didn’t even noticed smashing into the World Floor and leaving a crater big enough to build a house in. The prolith mostly shattered, its crystal splinters turning into striations in the crater, making it look like an iridescent seashell. The front of the helmet was thrown a few foams; there was a blob within, congealing like a yolk in the bottom half of a cracked egg.
When the two came to their senses they emerged from the wreckage of their armor and slithered close to each other. The slimy creatures circled, hoping to find each other’s blind spots and stare in quiet horror, but each had a pupil in every direction. They were both clearer than their parent, with grayish gel making up their surfaces between their waving tendrils.
One was a little bluer, with teeth-like hooks at the end of several tendrils. It poked them into the ground and pulled itself along. Its pupils were thin clusters of lines like bundles of sticks. It hadn’t decided on a name yet, but eventually it would be called Creoxolitin Bocculum. In place of childhood memories it would have its promise to never again stuff up Kilroy’s nose. That would be simple enough; the rest of the world was out there for it to enjoy.
The other paler prosite, its pupils uneven dot clusters like bubbles in oil, was stuck with the greater burden. It had to seek power with every last fiber of its being. The promise churned and burned within it. That vow was starving by nature, and nothing could sate. Even now it didn’t feel that it could linger and watch the slow departure of a happier shade of Bocculum. It had to move out from under the nose of that vicious predator of a Custodian. Driven like a questing beast, it broke away from the circling of its sibling, disgusted by the happiness the other’s nature would allow. This one would be called Litophenol Bocculum.
In their birth they forgot all about the profate spores that bobbed in the air, still loosely moored to the bath bead armor. Every so often the wind took one from the bunch, but none of them drifted back up Kilroy’s nose. There was already one in there, its pop echoing in the ears of every Ordr, even in those not yet born.
Continued in Part Three