(reading time: 1 hour, 34 minutes)
Low-Fat Cream Filling
The party that hoped to crack the sugar on top with a most daring robbery did not have an easy time in the first step of their plan. It was best for them to move between levels as quietly as possible, but that became difficult when the massive chamber that acted as the main port of travel between the military wafer and the cream filling was in such chaos.
The phenomenon Dianarhea described was worsening; lifelong diplomats, celebrities, and magnates lost wealth from their pockets with every passing drop and were forced to give up their homes and travel down to the artisanal spread.
The stone hall, with a ceiling high enough for an aker to do a handstand, was exceptionally crowded. The only thing affording the thieves the room to think was Dianarhea’s collection of bodyguards, who were at this point working only out of their loyalty to the true royal flush.
There were six of them in total, clad in gray leather and wielding bucket hammers: the traditional bergfolk weapon of Slick Rin. It was little more than an iron-bottomed bucket at the end of a stick, but it carried a fighting style all its own. In traditional battles on the polished tilestone of the upper levels, traction was key. Each bucket hammer in a duel would be filled with water, its owner allowed to spread it on one patch of the arena’s floor to act as a slipping hazard to the opponent. There was an equally storied tradition of cheating by replacing the water with something caustic that would burn the soles of the feet.
The hammers were empty for now, held vertically like fence posts to keep the new rabble at bay. Many of them reached out to Dianarhea, shouted to her, for they wanted explanations as to why the sky was eating their family’s fortune. She couldn’t deny that such a thing was happening, for it acted upon the frightened crowds at that very moment.
With so many gathered, the flow of tiles from their pockets and bags looked like strings of bubbles rising from a seabed. Grabbing at any of the blue or copper coins would see them passing through the hand, rising to join the others near the ceiling: a glistening clinking flock of millions. They all knew something had changed, for they’d never seen their treasures move in such numbers. The balance of power was shifting, and no matter how many times they said their thanks or kept themselves from cutting in line, it wasn’t coming back.
“I know everyone. It’s very strange,” Dianarhea proclaimed without slowing down. Her front guards, with their hammers held in front of them like plows, pushed their way deeper into the crowd. They needed to make it to one of her remaining residences so they could have some peace to arrange their plan. “My family is working on an explanation. I’ve brought some of the best minds in economic and magic research.” She waved at the group following her. In order it was Captain Rob, Teal, Skuldug, Claudize, Dawn, Bonswario, Roary, and Ladyfish.
None of them looked comfortable, but it wasn’t the crowds. It also wasn’t the upward-trickling tiles, though it was difficult to stop themselves from grabbing. It was part of their disguise to remain calm, to walk with their arms folded behind their backs as if they’d never wanted for money in their lives. That, plus the stuffy clothing, was the source of their discomfort. They were all dressed up in green and gold, puffy monogrammed handkerchiefs swelling out of their collars.
They had to look the part of economists. Dianarhea would tell everyone who asked, including any soldiers working for the infectious beast, that she had put them together as an investigative force. They could only hope that the prosite would maintain the illusion that the royal flush was healthy and normal, acting only through the altered bath bead. It was the safest way to stifle rebellion, and coincidentally the safest way for the pirates to move about the cream filling and sugar on top.
“Netit boug pasdicea!” Their procession came to a halt. Dianarhea’s guards were forced to stop because the bergfolk before them wore a uniform matching theirs. She was in the employ of the ‘royal flush’. The woman had shouted authoritatively, but she also seemed to be having the time of her life, a frighteningly wide smile on her face. Rob could see the newly-installed sapphire caps on her teeth. A swarm of coins moved about her, first as a belt, then as a sash, and then cascading over her back like a cape. She stood on the tips of her toes, looking past Dianarhea and at her economists. She adjusted her language when she saw they were mostly lightfolk. “Stop. Miss Dianarhea? What are you doing out here with all these inside-out pockets?”
“I still keep a residence near here,” the flush’s daughter answered, keeping her voice calm. “While I can afford it.”
“I can offer you a loan,” the woman said with a sneer. Her gray tongue poked out between her teeth. “No guarantee it wouldn’t slip away of course.” She looked at the others again, eyes narrowing on Rob. Do our best to look empty-headed, just like a real economist. Nothing but two coins in our skull rubbing against each other, producing a grating noise that we pretend is a personality. “Who are they?”
“Some experts from the artisanal spread,” Dianarhea answered. “They’re going to help me research the new trickledown, so I have an answer to all these–” a coin darted by her nose “–questions flying around. My father doesn’t see fit to explain himself anymore.”
“I’m not hearing disrespect, am I?” the woman asked, fingers drumming on her hips. “You’re a little old for an adolescent rebellious phase.”
“It sounds like I’m the one being disrespected,” Dianarhea spat back venomously. Don’t take the bait Miss Dianarhea. This woman knows the powers are shifting like ice. She plans to rise out of the cracks, and an altercation here counts as one of those cracks. It’s the old and new colliding, and you’re presenting yourself as something proud and breakable. “What post is it that you hold again?”
“Miss Rhea, if I may,” Rob interrupted, stepping forward. His weapons were stored away in their bags, so if this went sour all he had was the subtle kind of bonepicking that wouldn’t be noticed. The flush’s daughter seemed apprehensive, but then she pushed her hair away from her brow and stepped back. After all, what had she hired him for if not situations like this? Rob turned to the guard. “I assure you that our credentials are quite deserving of this place.”
“I don’t give a stench about your cre-den-tials,” the woman said, letting her tongue lap at every syllable like a thirsty haund. “Your presence is a statement of bad faith. You don’t think the money tap’s flowing right.”
“I admit that I think it’s flowing differently,” Rob conceded. “You have noticed that something has changed, have you not?” The crowd around them had slowed. Many stared at the guard, waiting for her answer. There was no way she could deny it, not with far more than her salary swimming about her silhouette and ten banks’ tile swarming above them.
“Of course. Just an adjustment is all. Making things fairer it is.”
“Adjustments are our lives!” Rob declared. “Have you ever lost yourself in research? It’s all adjustments, details, and minute fluctuations that might just be floaters in our eyes. No matter how small the difference, we have to be there to observe it.”
“Not if I say you don’t.”
“Are you saying that?” The guard crossed her arms and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She’s unsure if this crack is wide enough. If she oversteps her bounds it could be back to whatever dark moist layer she’s risen from. Rob stared at the stream of coins as it slithered in front of her neck like a serpont and then disappeared behind her shoulder. Our confrontation could have a very different effect. We have to lose.
“What if I am?”
“Well then,” Rob said, removing his golden wire spectacles, folding them up, and placing them in his shirt pocket, “I would have to fight you to defend Miss Rhea’s honor.” He squinted as if his vision was significantly impaired and raised his fists. He wiggled them slightly, drawing snorts and chuckles from the crowd. Clearly the economist had never been in a fight his whole life. You can’t resist such an easy target, and you will be rewarded.
“Right, time to show a book-wiper what the new cream filling tastes like,” the guard said, rolling up her sleeves. Some in the crowd, those being enriched rather than drained, cheered her on. Being bergfolk, she was easily a foam taller than the Captain. When she took a step forward Rob feigned a tensing in his shoulders and a retraction of his neck, like a boxback back into its shell. “What are you afraid of, little lightfolk?”
The composition of the funds surrounding her changed in a way that only Rob noticed at first. One by one the blue and copper coins slipped away, golden ones of larger denominations sneaking in. With each step forward she had a brighter aura. The guard herself only took notice when she raised her weapon and the coins stretched outward, forming a pair of golden wings on her back. The crowd gasped and applauded her unintentional display. Confidence bloomed in her smile and she decided to make a show of it, circling around Rob and making threats. She had a bucket hammer of her own, flicking it so the many coins within bounced up and down, never going to the ground with the natural gravitation.
The crowd didn’t think it very sporting that she use a weapon against an academic who was only now giving his spine a test run, so she tossed it aside and raised her own fists. She threw the first punch. Rob let it touch his chest, but only just. He bonepicked backward to mimic injurious force, landing on his bottom much more softly than it appeared. Laughter rolled through the crowd as he picked himself up and rubbed his backside. The guard’s golden wings flapped once, creating both a light breeze and the sound of cascading metal.
“I assumed one of us would do a countdown,” the economist moaned.
“I don’t count down anymore,” the bergfolk boasted, “only up! Rinlatour’s finally rewarding me.” Her wings flapped again, adding another layer of coins to her glittering down. She looked down at the economist’s pockets to see if his funds were the ones being siphoned, but there were no coins rising from them. He hadn’t stitched them up either in a fruitless attempt to hold onto them. She wonders why an economist wouldn’t have a single coin on him. She needs to be fighting instead. Rob rushed at her, fists swinging in wild windmill strokes. The guard lifted one leg and put the sole of her boot on his chest, effortlessly holding him back. Rob kept swinging, eyes clenched shut.
“Look what the city’s giving her for fighting in public!” a wandering bergfolk exclaimed. “Used to be doing something so improper would make you a pauper for a rinse! What’s happening to our city?” The city took notice, stealing one of their last coins out of their pocket, forcing them to chase it deeper into the crowd.
“The city knows I’m fighting for its honor!” the guard shouted, still holding a flailing Rob back. Gold swirled about her, giving her a shimmering dress that widened every eye around. “You see?” She pulled her foot back and spun around, swinging the growing edge of her gilded skirt. “I’ll fight anyone who thinks Rinlatour’s gone wrong! Finally, it’ll all trickle down me! No more waiting at the bottom with an open mouth. Anything for the city’s rewards!”
Her golden dress merged with her wings and together they swept her off the floor. There was a moment of joyous laughter, like realizing she’d died and turned into a god, but then she looked down and saw the crowd shrinking beneath her. She tried to scramble free, but the funds were too insistent. Her dress merged into a geyser of gold headed for the ceiling, and none of them had any clue as to how to interfere in such a process. Her hand reached out and grabbed at the air, a little more eager for Rob’s neck than a rescue rope, but then the gold swallowed it up. She was still up there somewhere, lost in the resources, but the crowd’s interest waned now that the fight was over. They dispersed, someone stealing her bucket hammer off the ground.
Rob pulled out the silly spectacles again and delicately pushed them against his nose with one finger. He held out his arm with a deep bow, giving Dianarhea her chance to get the procession moving again. They cut through the gold-bleeding port as swiftly as possible after that. Rob only spared one more glance at the pools of money overhead. Whatever’s been done to the bead… there’s no subtlety to it. That woman proclaimed a wild loyalty and it rewarded her so much that she nearly drowned in it. No care given for her actual situation or health. This isn’t an economy. It’s now the tool of one mind, using all the sycophants too greedy to notice or care.
The flush’s daughter successfully escorted her new employees to a large carriage pulled by whetzoos. The animals were slow, how could they not be with padded feet the size of haund beds, but they had complete privacy behind the black wood and dark curtains. They rode on one of Rinlatour’s many circular roads for more than a drop before arriving in a neighborhood with so much space for gardens between the houses that they couldn’t see their neighbors except from the highest rooms and with a spyglass.
The disguised pirates stepped out onto the mossy bottom stair of a massive stately home surrounded on all sides by wispy round-topped swab trees. There were many windows, but they stayed forever closed and their exact number was difficult to determine, given how they were hidden behind the compound’s most notable features.
Where normal gutters caught precipitation, of which Rinlatour had very little thanks to its roof, those of Dianarhea’s current home seemed to produce water in incredible quantities. It poured over every bubble of the polished nickel gutters, pumped up from under the ground by several vertical pipes at the corners and between the windows. When viewed from the front, the mansion appeared to mostly be a waterfall with one break in the middle for a door.
As the pirates ascended they noticed small stone-edged pools everywhere, placed almost randomly, their positioning in fact based upon the natural formation of puddles from the tower city’s earliest days, when it did not have a roof to keep out the rain. In these pools polished bath beads glowed and flowed, occasionally singing when they bumped into each other. Exotic fish swam below them in synchronized patterns, though whether it was by training or the influence of the bead magic was not clear.
The front door was made entirely of rounded river rocks varying in color from gray to speckled green. Water flowed over them as a thin skin. Those stones look perfect for skipping. Could it be that there’s some truth to the old legends of Rinlatour’s construction? Did they really get all the stone for building it by skipping rocks across the Draining Sea one by one? Dianarhea didn’t knock; she instead announced, in no direction in particular, that she had returned and that she had some guests who would be staying a while. A bath bead, drowned in one of the puddle ponds rather than floating in it, glowed silver for a moment. The door clicked open and pulled back. She turned to her guests with the face of someone about to tell children that wiping their feet was key to receiving dessert.
“All of you: welcome to the Maisondequay Fountqua. In Wide Porcian it is called both the house that runs and the rundown house.”
“Run down? May me pinky toe crack off and become a politician if this be counting as run down,” Dawn whispered to the Captain.
“It is called such because its waters never stop flowing,” the flush’s daughter continued. “They are pumped all the way from the drain. It is cold, pure, and delicious. You may drink your fill of it, but that is not its purpose. This is water that has known the silent depths of the world.” Silent? With the churning Fith and the chattering Fayeblons it’s not exactly a church yard. “This water, as it surrounds you, will quiet you. It will do its best to hide your words in its misty breath.”
“Can we even talk to each other in there?” Skuldug asked, hand raised and wiggling like an eager student. “How am I supposed to whisper sweet nothings in my man’s ear if your house eats them?” Claudize pulled her hand down, taming it by holding it sweetly.
“We can speak to each other inside,” Dianarhea elaborated, “but only when close. If you are more than a foam away from anyone you will not be able to hear a word out of their mouths. You’ll find also that the waters naturally discourage shouting. This is a house that has heard ten thousand secrets and repeated none.”
“Oh so we can talk freely about snatching the golden bead!” Skuldug cackled. The others winced.
“Once we get inside, yes!” Dianarhea hissed.
“Arrhuu… I meant golden bread!” Skuldug insisted, eyes darting back and forth. “They make that lovely yellow cake bread up here, right? Pounding cake? Can’t wait to steal some of that… and by steal I mean purchase at a reduced rate.” The others groaned and pushed the couple forward, past the threshold. Roary was last to enter and sure to shut the door behind him.
A guided tour was not really possible thanks to the blanket of background noise. Dianarhea knew better than to try. In time she would tell each of them, when they had close moments, that she’d spent a good portion of her childhood in the house that runs. Her parents had used it to teach her self-sufficiency by letting her, at a very young age, wander its corridors alone. Any time she skinned a knee or found a bruise inside one of the cabinets she had to calm herself down, for nobody could hear her cries.
To familiarize them with the house she simply used hand gestures, beckoning them deeper, pointing this way and that, miming eating for the kitchen and dining rooms as well as sleeping for the bedrooms. The exterior waterfalls were just one side of the coin, as every room had at least one of its own on a wall. Some had all four covered. The foyer had a crystal chandelier that showered anyone standing directly under it. Its flow was powerful enough to remind Rob and the others of the fauces back in Third Sink.
It was clear from the building’s layout that there were several sets of servants’ quarters in the basement, but as far as they could see there were no servants left to fill them. In order to conserve her rapidly dwindling resources, the flush’s daughter had relieved all but her bodyguards of duty.
Though they all moved through the mansion as a group, except for Fayme the wolptinger who quickly disappeared in its bowels, they were eager to test out the house’s secret-keeping. A confidante was needed for these experiments, and as the loneliest one in the group Rob was the folk of choice. He was first pulled aside by Skuldug and Claudize. The tilefolk grabbed Rob’s shoulders and pulled his head down so he would be close enough to hear. Claudize bowed low enough to put his chin between them.
“Is this how we do it? Can anybody hear us?” the tilefolk asked. Rob looked at the others, who mostly watched Dianarhea demonstrate redirecting some of the wall-water to the hot rocks of the sauna they now stood in.
“It’s as if we’re alone,” Rob confirmed.
“Good. Claudize and I have got our own plan while we’re here,” Skuldug intimated. “We’re finally in a house that won’t rock when we do.” Claudize nodded. “So soon as we can we’re off to whatever bedroom she gives us to jump some bones and knock some boots. Being around all these bath beads might help too.”
“Oh, you mean your effort to start a family,” the Captain said, rolling his eyes. “We do have more pressing concerns.”
“We’re going to be very busy,” Skuldug repeated as if he hadn’t said anything. “Claudize is going to be pressing on my concerns.” The bergfolk nodded again, unabashed. “So you lot handle the plan. We’ll be there for the execution, but try not to knock on our door for anything else.”
“Why did I even bring you?”
“Because we can do this,” Claudize said, though it was Skuldug’s voice coming from his mouth. “You might need someone to say something they would never say.” With that they walked away, not even bothering to let Dianarhea finish. They’d already noted the servants’ quarters designated as their bedroom.
The next folk to pull him aside was his nephew, while Dianarhea walked them through the glass hothouse in the back of the grounds. The young man was careful not to touch any of the exotic plants, as if brushing their hanging leaves would encourage them to listen in. In reality Roary didn’t have much to say at all, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to babble freely.
He shared with his uncle the gossip of the Employer and the status of the various members of his old crew, taking care to filter just for the details Teal had likely left out of her letters. He told him that the Calcitheater was a shadow of its former self. They shared a momentary embrace over the death of Kilrorke, something they’d been denied since the events that sent Rob to the Pipes. Roary asked if the Captain happened to run into Rorke’s ghost down there, which the pirate could only answer with a shake of his head.
The elder Ordr had to tell him that the Pipes didn’t seem to work that way at all. If there were spirits, they were merely extras in the production. The Pipes were a place of rot and monsters. This seemed to bring a tear close to visibility in Roary’s eye, no doubt in relation to his deceased father, so Rob changed the subject to the journey of Alast and Pearlen.
Roary spoke of them at length. Pearlen’s father was gravely ill and they’d traveled to the Glass Desert to say their final goodbyes. Even with his own family fresh in his mind, Roary confessed he was perplexed by their decision. Pearlen never spoke of her family and was positively venomous on the subject when others discussed their own. When the knowledge of Alast literally running from his father’s calls and never returning was added to the equation, it was impossible to see how the result was the trek of a loyal daughter and hands held across the edge of the deathbed.
A point of Dianarhea’s furry but brushed finger showed Roary which door belonged to him, so he nodded and entered to get settled alongside Dawn. It was just down to the flush’s daughter, Bonswario, Ladyfish, Teal, and the Captain. She took them up a grand set of stairs, water flowing in a depression atop the banisters, in order to assign them one of the fancier guest bedrooms. Teal grabbed the Captain’s elbow and pulled him toward the railing. She tried to grab it to steady herself, but came away with a sopping hand. She shook the droplets off as if they were a sludge made of perverted fantasies. She never liked secrets. Told us once that it was like pulling the top blanket over a pissed-on sheet.
“This is the first time we’ve been alone since you died,” she said, glancing at the bergfolk in the lead, “mostly.”
“We were alone in our correspondence,” Rob corrected.
“I can’t exert my influence on paper,” Teal stated plainly. The Captain looked at her expectantly, as if waiting for an explanation of her so-called ‘influence’. “The influence I so rightly deserve to have over you. I’ve kept you alive a hundred times, and I’ve given you happiness that kept you afloat when you most assuredly would have sunk.”
“I did sink,” Rob practically gloated. “I sunk spectacularly. I was sunk by Qliomatrok. I flew into a rage in the middle of one of the deadliest places in Porce, tossing myself into a chasm of bedeviled gods and extremely disgusting puddles.”
“You’re actually proud of it aren’t you?” she asked. Rob pursed his lip, but in a loose way that suggested he’d merely repeated praise he’d heard from others. They weren’t his words, just facts. “You killed Hornhollr. You murdered her in cold blood.” His face stiffened and tightened, enough that she could see the tiny bulges under his nose: the extending buds of his eventual emerald mustache.
“Aye well… I’m not proud of everything. There’s a reason I didn’t return to you all after finding the florent again. I’ve been living as you told me Hornhollr did aboard the Mop. Head down. Clothes and home as filthy as my soul.”
“I have no pity for you.” Rob nodded. That was hardly a statement at all; Teal didn’t take pity on anyone. If she acted on anyone’s behalf it was because of genuine affection or the keeping of her word. She was already here; even if she spent every single moment glaring at him, he would know she cared. “So you’ve decided you’ve atoned enough to be back on the playbill? This house may keep secrets, but you’ve only just arrived. Somewhere between the drain and this place you stopped being an anonymous vagrant.”
“A noble cause dropped on me like a weight,” Rob complained. “It’s as if it were designed to draw me out of hiding: a wealthy, famous, royal woman comes to the doorstep of a notorious pirate and says the only way he can restore his reputation and save an entire city is by pilfering something. I’m only a man; my will can only be sunk for so long.” They heard a tap on the wooden banister and turned to see the others were already at the top of the stairs, beckoning them up. They followed.
On the upper floors they heard water running through the ceiling beams, sounding like a leaky roof but without a single drop actually going astray. All of the guest bedrooms were beside each other, each one’s door marked with a circular stained glass panel of an animal native to the Draining Sea. Bonswario would be behind the hauling foamouth, Ladyfish the one-eyed serpont, Teal the slickrizen, and Rob the berg-hopping bulgebird. They stood before their doors when Dianarhea put a hand on Teal’s shoulder and a hand on Rob’s. The contact connected them enough that they could hear her speech. She told them they would each have two drops to get settled and find something to eat in the kitchen; after that they were all to convene in the library and construct their plan.
The flush’s daughter moved on, muttering to herself. We can vocalize every single thought we have here. That’s probably how she keeps her calm as her circumstance slips away. Soon that filth will take this house from her too. It’s not our fault, nothing trying to survive can be at fault, but it is our responsibility. We can’t have our life back without having that back as well.
“What else did you do?” Teal asked. She pushed her door open but refused to step inside until she got an answer. Her eyes were like spots of fossilized frostbite. They were harsh, almost dead, forcing him to acknowledge that nothing he said would surprise her.
“What do you mean?”
“I know when you haven’t told me something. You doubled every detail in your letters. I heard all about the living sixteen and the Fayeblons. You even managed to paint a picture of the incomprehensible gods Hesprid and Qorcneas. Yet when it came time for the finale, your escape from the Pipes, your tale was suddenly and suspiciously utilitarian. You found a hole and climbed your way out. I don’t believe a word of that part. What did you do that you would keep from me, even as the other side of your mouth blabbed about flushing everything I knew of history, gods, and death?”
“Alright, I admit there is something,” Rob said, his voice catching in his throat, something he could remember it doing only a fistful of times in his life. “Do you remember when we first met? Do you remember how long it took me to tell you about the incident at Sopemup Beach?”
“This is like that. I am reborn from the Pipes as a new man, possibly worse. You and I have just met. I need time to charm you before I tell you about my past. Will you allot me such time? I think a successful heist would mark my readiness to reveal it, but only to you.” Teal’s eyes didn’t so much as quiver, but she nodded. She closed her door a moment later, leaving Rob alone with the rundown house.
“Let’s try it for ourselves,” he said out loud, purposefully avoiding a whisper. “Can anybody hear us?” There was no response; there was just the constant flow of a wishing well that actually did the courtesy of digesting the wishes. “We’re going to stop that thing. Fixadil is only here because of us, but we’re only here because of it. The chain of causation is inarguably tangled, but we’ll take that prosite apart anyway.” The house just listened. Rob put his hand on the glass bird upon his door. “One time we cheated during the world’s friendliest game of wobbly stool.”
The house listened.
“We had a dream where Teal was gravefolk and there was no room on her bones for judgment.”
The house listened.
“We miss our big green boat.”
The house listened.
“There was an instance where we scratched our privates on a small wire hook of a dress model because it wore a dress that reminded us of dear Flowerfoot. We had to steal it because of the blood stain we left behind. Couldn’t be with a woman for a rinse thanks to the injury. Told everyone we had a mild curse upon our groin because of a bath bead in the pocket.”
The house listened. Rob shuddered.
“We think we love you, you gorgeous house.” He stepped inside his bedroom, glad the mansion would have him.
Everyone except for the grinding biological clock of a couple that was Skuldug and Claudize was present for the formulation of their plan. They gathered around a long wooden table in the mansion’s extensive library. In order to keep the books dry there were only two small waterfalls near the entrance and tucked in a back corner, so the rush of the water was quieter there. Still, they had to be stood around the table in order to hear each other.
“This is where your expertise takes over,” Dianarhea told them, both hands flat against the table. “This table is a blank slate and there are books here full of the city’s architecture, history, and customs. Make out of this a scheme to steal the golden trickle bead away from the creature that wields it.” All eyes turned to Rob, who was leaning back in a chair clearly not meant to lean, kept from falling off the last leg by bonepicking. He stood and placed his hands on the table to look equally authoritative, but his unruly crystal nails tapped and scratched as if he was an impatient woman rapping a counter in anticipation of her bakery order.
“The first step is knowing where we’re going,” he said. “Where is the bead kept?” Dianarhea grabbed the top book from a stack she’d already made for the meeting. She opened to a middle page and slid the book around, showing them all an illustration of a spherical room.
“This chamber is called the geode,” she informed them. “It has been there as long as the top of Rinlatour. All of the most powerful bath beads in the ownership of the royal family line its walls. The golden trickle bead is the centerpiece; the city’s monefric flows from it and into a drain in the floor. From there it magically trickles into the pockets of the clever, hardworking, and respectful. That’s the idea anyway.”
“Monefric?” Bonswario whispered to Ladyfish; his Merdidu was rusty enough to chafe.
“Money,” she whispered back.
“The bead is in the geode,” Teal repeated, “but where exactly is the geode?” Dianarhea turned the page and tapped a new illustration depicting a sugar on top neighborhood.
“The bead used to see minor adjustments from both my father and his economic advisors. It is located at the back of the Jaumuuk Finansr museum of coin and trade in the banking district. The surrounding rooms are for security and diplomacy purposes only, so there are no tours. Very few civilians ever lay eye on the bead directly.”
“We can still pretend to be patrons of the museum to get close,” Rob said, stroking his beard, incidentally shaving some of it with a claw. “What are the security protocols of the geode?” For that Dianarhea grabbed a new book from the middle of the stack. She let the top few volumes fall to the floor, but they only made the softest sound, like pillows toppling. She opened the thin new volume and unfolded a page. A picture of a guard stood edge to edge, the fold dividing his waist from his hips like a belt.
His uniform looked like a fortress unto itself. Every bubble of the bergfolk was covered in leather or metal buckles. He wore a goggled mask with an octagonal metal block over his bulbous nose. It appeared to have a keyhole on the front of it. There was a bucket hammer slung over his shoulder; it had a hinge that allowed the bucket to stay upright at any angle, preventing spillage. A smaller picture next to him showed vapor rising from a fluid within the bucket. The vapor was thick with scattered toxicity symbols of various sizes. It seemed the guards stored a caustic chemical in their weapons: a ranged way of immediately disabling a thief while only polishing the surface of any bead they stole.
“The geode has but one door. It is kept shut at all times except during an adjustment or when one of the lesser beads is needed. It is guarded by two folk. There’s never a moment when that hallway doesn’t have four eyes on it.”
“So we go in through the Reflecting Path,” Dawn suggested. “Some of those beads have to be shiny enough to reflect. We can squeeze out of one, snag our prize like the last wiper on the roll, and squeeze back in. Nobody’ll even get a whiff of us.”
“I’m afraid that won’t work,” Dianarhea said with a shake of her head. “There are two beads within the geode that are both reflective and large enough for folk to move through. They are positioned across from each other, creating a sort of hallway in and out of the path. There are extra guards with pieces of the Reflecting Path stashed in their nasal chambers.” She tapped her nose. Tuhwonk. Lightfolk never got used to the hollow sound of a bergfolk nose, so several around the table flinched. The flush’s daughter smirked. It wasn’t her fault the lightfolk got a raw deal when it came to noses. What a sad life it must have been to never drink through one’s nose, keep something shiny in it, or sing with all the warm air swirling around inside. “Those locks over their noses keep them from losing their pieces and from stealing any of the geode’s beads themselves and tucking them up a nostril.”
“Be there a guard actually in the geode constantly?” Roary asked.
“No. Some of the magic in there is harmful if you stay more than a drop. The guards with the path pieces walk through at irregular intervals, but there’s never more than a third of a drop between inspections.”
“It’s still only two guards,” Rob thought out loud, pacing around the table. He kept one claw on the wood so they could hear him. “We get into the path, disable one of them, convince his reflection to wave to the other as if all is well, and then use that window to snatch the bead and go back the way we came.”
“Again, not so simple,” Dianarhea explained, rubbing her brow. She turned around, ascended a ladder against the wall, and took out yet another volume. This one had a metal cover and spine that was corroded green and white. Brittle flakes of it fell from every spot she touched. Gently she placed it on the table and pulled it open. The illustration she opened to this time was a horrific landscape of cascading black ground with dozens of folk falling over the side. Rob recognized the style as belonging to an artist known for working only in complete darkness, as they were often terrified of the images they produced.
“What are we looking at this time?” Teal asked.
“The results of fludequay derefric. In Wide it’s called refryction fluid,” the flush’s daughter answered. “It’s what the path guards carry in their bucket hammers. It’s extremely corrosive, especially to the materials of the Reflecting Path. It’s a brighted acid. A single drop on the ground of the path will eat ten square foams of it and create this.” She tapped the illustration again. The others now realized that the figures falling into the bottomless hole were reflections diving after the actual folk that had already disappeared down it. “Once the guards see that the bead is gone, protocol tells them to dump their entire bucket in the path. The destruction will spread quickly, likely fast enough to swallow us up before we can escape back to Porce.”
“What lies at the bottom of such destruction?” Rob asked. Our mind always goes to the bottom now. We’ve seen one, so we want to see them all. Should be careful it doesn’t become an obsession.
“Death, nothingness, suffering,” Dianarhea said, eyes wandering off toward the ceiling. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“They won’t destroy the path if they don’t notice anything missing,” Roary said with a smirk. His uncle looked over. “You thinking what I’m thinking Capt- Uncle? We do just as we did when we snatched that sugar crystal from that gum confectioner outside Gross Grove.”
“I was thinking that,” Rob said with a nod. At least we should’ve been. Have we been away from such grand robberies so long? He paced around to Dianarhea to explain, carefully closing the corroded book with the tip of his claw. He didn’t want that world-hole distracting him any longer. “In that instance my nephew and I stole a very valuable and impossibly delicious crystal of pure sugar that had grown out of the gummire. It was a simple enough matter to hire a lesser confectioner and have her sculpt one from a much more common block of sweetness.”
“A fake?” Dianarhea guessed. “You’re suggesting we replace the golden trickle bead with a replica?”
“If nobody knows it be missing, it not be missing,” Dawn said.
“Well they will know,” the flush’s daughter protested. “As soon as the bead is moved from its cradle it will stop redistributing Rinlatour’s tiles.”
“That will take drops for folk to catch on,” Rob said. “We can be long gone by then. We only need our replica to fool the path guards. Surely you have the clout to bring a craftsfolk into this moldy fold of ours and commission a glassy object of the same shape, color, and dimensions.”
“Impossible,” Dianarhea said, her ears wilting. They’d almost gotten her hopes to rise. “No replica could be convincing, for the golden trickle bead’s magic is always evident in its appearance. The illustrations cannot show the infinite motion under its surface. Golden tiles cascade within it at all times, like waterfalls of treasure across every facet.” The statement dropped them all into silence for a while. Dianarhea went back to searching her family’s thousand books, leaving a few hanging out in case she wanted to return to them. The pirates merely struck at the quarries of their memory, fingers tapping chins like pickaxes.
“Illusion 37!” Rob boomed after a few hundred drips. He looked around to see their reactions, but they were still lost in thought. His declaration had been quite dramatic, but he wasn’t touching the table at the time, so he placed both palms flat on the wood and tried again. “Illusion 37!” All eyes turned his way.
“A bead?” Ladyfish asked.
“Aye, a bead that I know to be housed in the heights of Rinlatour. Surely you know it as well, Miss Diana.”
“I do?” the bergfolk asked.
“Perhaps not by its scientific name. It is also called the wild imagination bead.” Her eyes lit up and air whistled out of her nose.
“Yes! The one they use at the Bouillonr auction house?” Rob nodded. “I’ve seen it at work a few times before.”
“And what exactly does that work look like?” Teal asked.
“The wild imagination bead generates crafted illusions,” Rob explained. “Miss Diana here has not gone for another book, I wager, because no illustration matters. The bead can produce and hold any series of images the wielder desires. They use it at the auction house to display recreations of items that are too large to actually be transported there: statues, vehicles, and plots of land mostly.”
“I see the plan now,” Dianarhea elaborated. “We rob the auction house of the wild imagination bead, alter its illusion to mimic the magical appearance of the golden trickle bead, and place it inside of the replica, thus making it a convincing copy.”
“Which be allowing us to do all the other sharp steps we just said!” Dawn cackled, clapping her leather hands together and rubbing them. “Stealing a bead to steal a better bead. Can’t say as we’ve done that technique before.”
“It should probably have a name,” Rob noted. “We’ll call it upbeading. I like the ring of that. All we need now is some helpful confirmation. Miss Diana, do you have access to the auction house’s schedule?”
“Not only that,” she answered, “but I can likely make us reservations for any auction they hold within the next few days. The family that runs it is quite old and they were close with my father. We may not have to steal it at all! We could just ask them…” Her ears wilted once again. She looked around as if she was seeing all the pirates for the first time, and then she stared at her hands as if she’d just grown claws like Rob’s.
“Something wrong?” Bonswario asked.
“What am I saying?” the flushess asked the library, tears glittering in her small dark eyes. “The Bouillonr line is a friend of mine because the golden trickle bead never touched them in a draining way. It’s not real friendship. As soon as I suggest taking something from them they’ll report me like any other thief. I hate this feeling of surveillance, like any request is a criminal act. How can all of you stand it? I feel so empty all the time, and like that emptiness is a social ill. Jequa ampoul eclatea, suspendeqau peaulet.”
“She be saying she be a popped blister hanging off some skin,” Ladyfish whispered to Bonswario. “I feel gross just translating.”
“You have no idea how common that feeling is,” Teal said fiercely. “Most economies are built on huge numbers of folk having nothing but that feeling inside them. You have to compost a hundred souls for one to flower.”
“We’re not here to be ethics professors,” Rob interrupted. “In fact I think we’re here to be the exact opposite of ethics professors.” He turned to the flush’s daughter. “We’ll be stealing the wild imagination bead from the auction house?” She nodded. “Good. Roary and Dawn can work up some suitable distraction mid-auction while I bonepick the bead. In the chaos of the crowd nobody will realize who took it. That brings us back to the Reflecting Path. Is there a mirror we can use to access it within the rundown house?”
“Yes,” Dianarhea answered. She turned around only to realize she couldn’t just pull the next solution off the shelf. “Give me a moment.” She hurried out of the library, leaving the rest to stare awkwardly across the table.
“Where are your new friends?” Dawn asked, noting the absence of Skuldug and Claudize.
“They’re currently obsessed with an attempt at interbreeding,” Rob answered, tapping at the corroded cover of the metal book. “I’m confident they’ll show their blushing faces when it’s time to use their actual talents. Speaking of breeding, you’re not attached to anyone are you nephew?” Roary looked up, startled. His lips hung open in confusion as if his saliva had suddenly been replaced with marbles.
“Uncle? You’re asking after me romantic life?”
“I’m asking after our line,” Rob corrected. “I thought your mother would be climbing up your socks by now, trying to stuff a suitable woman up your pant leg. She’s had ten more Kilro names picked out since the day you were born.”
“Aye, but since when did it ever concern you?”
“Since I might not be alive to corrupt the next generation,” the Captain said holding up his claws. They’ve all been staring. Let’s show them we’re not in denial. We obviously plan on denying death its prize, but we don’t deny what’s at stake. We’re still the wise and worldly man they knew, even without a deck under our feet.
“I think they look beautiful,” Dawn said. “Been thinking about getting rid of these leathery gloves and painting me bony tips the same color meself.”
“They’re difficult to cut?” Teal asked.
“Extremely,” Rob confirmed. “The one on my lung is quite close to puncturing I think. I don’t have long. I’m hoping this robbery can give me enough resources to resume researching a solution.”
“Even if you don’t find one, you’ve got your bones coming,” Dawn said, reminding him that being gravefolk was most certainly not the end of life. It was just the end of enjoying it so easily, of having flesh keep your sanity from flying away.
“If I didn’t have them before the Pipes I certainly have them now,” the Captain said. Scuttlr’s name was on the tip of his tongue, but he flicked it back and ground it up with his molars. “Still I’m not looking forward to the spike’s expedition into my soft tissues.”
“I remember the feeling,” Teal said, her face like death. They all knew to what she referred. No matter how poorly Claudize and Skuldug’s effort at family crafting went, it could never go as badly as the hazardous attempt to raise a house of Ordr and Powdr.
“Eia, jusqua centrea, siv qua lay,” Dianarhea told someone as she reentered the library, hurrying them along with her hands. The others couldn’t hear her, but it only took a moment for them to notice the long flat object that two of her bodyguards wheeled in. It was clearly an antique. Its spherical metal wheels squeaked an incredible amount, it was in fact the noisiest antique in all of Rinlatour, but nobody ever noticed thanks to the sound-dampening of the rundown house. The guards brought it to the center of the library, parallel to the table, as ordered. Dianarhea dismissed them and stood next to it, fingers gripping the gray sheet that covered most of it. “We’ll have to duck down to enter, but this mirror should suffice.”
She whipped the sheet off in one fluid pull, but it wobbled on its wheels anyway. Two lumps tumbled out of the glass the moment it was exposed to the light. Several jagged shards of glass, long enough to be daggers and thick enough to stir curtenbeast stew, fell out with them and clattered across the wood floor. They were brighted, but not with the yellowish light of the florent. Instead they were full of a swirling rainbow, like painted ocean plants battered in the currents. They were so full of light that they vibrated, spinning themselves this way and that, occasionally colliding with each other.
At first they were much livelier than the two lumps, but the pair quickly found their wits and scrambled to their feet. Dianarhea was the most confused, for she had never laid eyes on these lumps before. Captain Rob and the others had, many times, though they usually didn’t look so frightened or burnt. It was Pearlen and Alast, completely out of breath and florent-burned in the extreme. They each had a crown of peeling white skin just under their hairline. The fringes of their clothing were singed brown and black.
Without a word, Pearlen snatched the sheet away from Dianarhea and tossed it back over the mirror. She kicked it back; it rolled all the way to the bookshelf, pushing the volumes left hanging out back into their proper places.
Alast didn’t stand idly by either; he kicked the shards of brighted glass under the table, not a moment too soon. The vibration of one of them quickened. Shhiieww! A beam of multicolored light shot up out of it, straight through the wood of the table. Splinters went in all directions. Luckily it was just the one shard to overflow with light. The others’ energy dissipated on its own, leaving just the clarity of glass.
“Alast! Pearlen!” Rob boomed. He clapped his hands in delight, but they all still heard him thanks to the tip of his boot firmly pressed against one of the table legs. “I was wondering when you would join this operation. What’s happened to you?”
“I visited my stupid, pissing, heads-flattened-by-a-very-specific-book parents!” Pearlen screamed at the top of her lungs, but they only saw her mouth flapping. They couldn’t even see the color in her face thanks to the burns across her cheeks, nose, forehead, ears, and even eyelids. Rob pointed at his ears and shook his head, then demonstrated putting his hands on the table and speaking. Alast and Pearlen stared in confusion until all the others copied the gesture. Slowly they held out their hands and placed them on the wood, seeming wary to touch anything at all.
“Don’t take that sheet off,” Alast warned them, “not for a while anyway. We might’ve been followed.”
“Followed by what?” Roary asked.
“There’s this woman,” Pearlen panted. Her cheek dropped and touched the cool wood of the table as if it was wet sand on a beach. “Can’t even call her that. Women have blood and sweat inside. She’s just colors.”
“How were you in the Reflecting Path?” Teal asked. “I have the piece.” She held up the necklace. Alast disappeared under the table and came back up, his arms full of the now-empty glass chunks. He dropped them on the table, though one fell through the hole it had blasted moments before.
“All of these are pieces of the path,” he told them, adventurous pride seeping back into his voice already. “Have you ever seen ones this big?” Rob snapped one up, breaking out the newly-purchased pair of gold glasses from his economist disguise to examine it. He saw traces of that strange rainbow light in several of its seams.
“How did you come by these? I’ll keep this one if that’s alright,” Rob said, pocketing the giant shard before anyone could protest. They were all too eager to hear the couple’s tale. Dianarhea inserted herself into the conversation, shaking hands with Alast and Pearlen, using their grips as evidence of their character. The rundown house could hold all the secrets they could throw at it, but maybe not all the criminals if they were falling out of the furniture. It was beginning to look like an infestation.
“It starts with my parents,” Pearlen said, “pretending to be dead.”
Her parents had insisted that Pearlen and Alast hear them out, but there was nothing in the realm of speech they could do to convince their daughter. She dragged Alast out of the Church of Bright Hope and back into the busy streets of Crib-ohlk. She didn’t even hear the pleas of her parents just behind them; her mind was too fixated on that one word: vision.
They’re really trying to kill me. They loved me when I was a babe, when I was just a heartbeat wrapped in cooing, but now that I’m a person they hate me. It’s the only explanation. No folk could be stupid enough to fall for this sort of thing twice. They can’t stand that I’m out there using their last name, so they use these insane assassins to lure me into these traps. They wanted Gawinthayre to kill me and now they want this ‘Whelm the vision’ to finish the job.
The village seemed to be on the side of Handky and Curtain, for its odd, rounded, glassy street corners got them lost in the middle of their storming off. Pearlen dragged them to one of the streets meant for tilefolk only, forcing all four of them to bow their heads and lumber forward. They wound up in the back of a lizdrop farm’s wagon-loading area. The scaly lizdrops were only about the size of a palm, but their tails could wrap around a forearm more than a dozen times. They liked to bask on the glass, making them one of the few sources of meat that thrived in the Glass Desert.
Pearlen was forced to stop at a dead end, at a thin wall of glass with several lizdrops stuck to the other side, the soft skin on their throats visibly quivering. The pair felt pinned down like bugs in a display case thanks to the ceiling, and they would literally have to push through her parents if they wanted to go back the way they came.
“Just listen,” Curtain begged. “We know what you went through to get here, now hear what we went through for the same thing. We promise, and this is a promise we mean even more than the pledge we made to love you forever upon your birth, that we will not lie to you. Whether you like the truth or not, it is what we have to offer.”
“We’ve burned dishonesty out of our eyes,” her father insisted. “You can see it.”
“I can’t see anything in there,” Pearlen spat, but her shoulders slumped. She leaned against the glass wall of the lizdrop pen. “But we need to rest before we start our long hot walk back, so you might as well talk.” She grabbed Alast’s hand; he squeezed her fingers. It was the only thing he needed to communicate. “Start with the moment you left me, with my ruined eyes, in a wet Crosstahl ditch.”
“We know it was wrong,” her father began, “but we didn’t know what else to do. We honestly though that once you came out of Dontr’s healing cell you would be all smiles and we would see the beautiful clear eyes you were born with.”
“Healing cell they called it,” Pearlen scoffed to Alast. “It was just a metal box with a cot, pumped with holy toil water mist.” Alast’s grip on her hand tightened. That’s right; he already knows what it’s like to be dumped into a fog by his family. He lived with that far longer than I did. It’s okay, my boy. No matter how adrift we are we can be a fixed point to the other.
“We watched him bless the water,” Curtain offered as excuse. “We were horrified when you came out with eyes redder than we’d ever seen, with those specks turned to shafts. I couldn’t bear to see you in so much pain… and you said you never wanted to see us again.”
“What I said was that I couldn’t see you again,” Pearlen corrected.
“We moved everything to Crosstahl for your education with the Redr woman,” Handky continued, “so we didn’t know who to turn to when we found out what that place was actually doing to you. She was supposed to give you enough manners to go into the study of the papers. All we wanted was for her to wash your mouth out a little. Once we pulled you out you were acting so rebellious. When you came home, sopping wet, those things fresh in your eyes, we knew we had to get you to a specialist, someone who could address your behavioral issues and your infestation.”
“But we made a mistake!” her mother blurted before Pearlen’s swirling fury, hot as the fire whirls above, could interrupt. “When we left we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and one copy of the papers to share. We left everything else behind for you to use.”
“Selling it all was a month of lodging and food,” Pearlen recalled.
“It was a pilgrimage, as you called it,” her mother went on, taking a step closer. Alast and Pearlen slid along the wall, making it clear they didn’t want to be touched, but Curtain stopped in front of the glass instead. The beams of her brighted eyes moved across the wall. The lizdrops felt the slight heat of it, so several of them wriggled along behind it, trying to catch up and bask in her gaze. “We knew that we had stepped on the wrong path because of an inner darkness. We needed to find those who truly knew the Spotless.”
“There was only one truth bright enough to make us sure,” Handky added. “The florent. Nobody could misrepresent the Spotless’s greatest gift to folk. We set out for the Brighted Gates, ready to take whatever punishment the light would deliver. Whether we were burned up, accepted into his arms to join the ghosts of the righteous, or turned away for a mission here in Porce, we would accept it.”
“We walked across the walls, living on nothing but the charity of other papists,” her mother recounted.
“You could’ve learned to hunt like I did,” Pearlen slipped in.
“The charity was sufficient. We saw what Porce was really like. Everywhere is truly fallen. We must be on the eve of the second cleaning, for that is the only explanation of how things could be unrelentingly filthy. We saw whorehouses with whores of all three folk mingling, taking customers at their money rather than their kind. We saw towns built upon stains and proud of it. We saw the letters of the scribblings upon Written Stone, their peaks looking like arrows, guiding us toward the World Roof.”
“The heat and light were incredible,” Handky said, “but we soldiered on. We kept our heads angled down to protect our sight, and eventually we stumbled over other pilgrims guided by the same sense of loss: tidywings pulled out of the night toward the boxed flame of the Spotless.”
“Our ship’s doctor always warned me never to look directly into the florent,” Alast said. Pearlen could hear the tautness of his voice caused by phrasing what he really wanted to say in a less insulting manner. “Of course he was tilefolk so he actually said ‘mah tyl nur hyl-nar poss, nyt lyk loht nur wan glob-dirk’.”
“You’re not supposed to stare because your eyes can be burned by the disappointment of your ancestors staring back,” Handky added superstitiously. “We were ready for that judgment.”
“Praise the Spotless… judgment is not what we found,” Curtain said. She rolled her eyes slowly, making the scrambling lizdrops form a moving circle on the other side of the glass. “We found her. Just wait until you see her Pearlen. She’s the most beautiful folk to ever exist.”
“Whelm the vision,” Pearlen growled.
“What? Yes! How did you know her name?”
“We’ve already met, Mother. On our way here, not drops ago. We thought we saw an oasis in the glass, but it was all a mirage cast by her. We told her we weren’t buying her wares and she tried to kill us with a pillar of fire.”
“It’s true,” Alast added.
“There must be some confusion,” her father insisted. “She builds those gardens of light to save those lost in the desert, to direct them here. There are five or six folk in the church right now who never would’ve made it out alive if not for her help.”
“You’ve already decided she’s the good one, I understand,” Pearlen said. Whelm is just the next wild animal they’re putting in my crib with me. Something I’m supposed to stroke and let lick my face with its acid tongue. To doubt their parenting skill is to doubt their love, and how could I be so very hurtful to them, so ungrateful for the wounds they provide. “Just finish the story.”
“Whelm is a prophet,” her mother obliged, “who lived during the time when the papers were first compiled. She was there when a very important square was left out, the one that tells us how to trigger the second cleaning.”
“The prevailing theory is that the cardinal tiles must be united at the Glory Hole, is it not?” Alast asked. How it must sting for him to withhold the story. Why yes Mother, Father, my boy did stop that very thing from happening. He shed blood, sweat, and tears making sure your friends shed fearful piss.
“Whelm says that’s all a misinterpretation,” Curtain continued, bright eyes hopping to Alast and making him squint. The lizdrops scattered. “The second cleaning will come when Porce is lit well enough for the Spotless to see by, so he knows exactly what to mop up and what to leave behind. It has always been the job of folk to prove their worthiness, to generate more light than darkness and demonstrate that we deserve his scrubbing attention.”
“It says, in the square of occupation, that ‘filth is only filth when it can be seen as such. If it is just a smell it is as the mortal world: impermanent’,” Handky elaborated. “Whelm tells us that the light we provide must be of both sorts: poetic and real. Many believe that uniting the tiles will pull our world up in the Dark Empty, towards the same light that feeds the florent, but it is not the way. All the light we need is right here in Porce. We just have to let it out.”
“And how do you do that?” Alast asked. “Also, I may have missed this, but did you explain how this Whelm woman is still alive if she watched the papers being compiled an age ago?
“She is lightfolk, but no longer like us. Now she really is light. She walked into the Reflecting Path to learn about brightness and her physical body eventually burned away, leaving a woman made of nothing but the Spotless’s ideas. Think of it. No more oily skin and hair. No more visiting the water closet. No more wrinkles.”
“There’s never going to be even a drip in my life where I waste my time thinking about wrinkles,” Pearlen insisted.
“Go on,” Alast said, eager to get the information out.
“She met the Spotless there and he was so impressed by her sacrifice, by her bravery, that he proposed to her! She is the wife of god, Pearlen! We met her past the Brighted Gates as she gave sermons to her other acolytes. We could only approach at night when it was cool, but nothing has ever been so worth the effort. She brighted our eyes with visions of paradise.”
“So what are you doing here?” Alast asked. It’s all just information. Stay calm. Everything they say is insight into what they might do. He’s right to keep asking questions. I can’t bear to. I don’t want them thinking I have any interest in this madness. I want to go back to the Employer and rip off these damned goggles. We can dive into our own blue paradise whenever we want.
“Whelm can only exist in a world made of light,” Handky answered. “Porce is too dim for her, so she’s stuck in the Reflecting Path. She needs our help. We’ve brighted our eyes so she can see through them.”
“You mean to say she could be watching us right now, using your empty head as spyglass?” Pearlen shrieked. She took her back from the glass and grabbed her spear. She didn’t know which way to face. Whelm was in every wall of the desert; she was in every beam of a devoted eye.
“She can’t hurt you,” her mother assured, holding her hands up, but it only made her illuminated eyes cast her fingers as shadows, locking the young folk behind bars of darkness. “We’re not in the path.”
“But we saw her in the desert,” Alast reminded.
“That’s because there’s so much natural glass here. The angles of the many dunes allow her to project and mix those projections into images that look solid, but she can only cast herself that way out in the desert, and only with eyes to see her. That’s why all of us came down from the gates and built our church, so we could walk with her, see her without the flatness of a mirror.”
“What is the church’s mission?” Pearlen asked. She swallowed her fear and sense of urgency. She felt that the rainbow phantom surrounded her, that every moment in Crib-ohlk pulled options out of her like sweat. She can be killed. Anything my parents call immortal must be truly flimsy. Bobat died in the path. If we can bring Whelm to a surface we can shatter her. (Blaine’s Note: Pearlen is recalling the Greedy Old Mop’s traitorous physician, who was killed when the mirror he was close to escaping was shattered by the horn of the obese sea monster Qliomatrok.)
“It’s so simple,” her mother said. “All of the light the florent has ever created never left. It just went through the glass of the world and built the Reflecting Path. She told us that if we can unite enough pieces of the path, make an unrivaled mirror the size of the Spotless’s eye, then all of that light can come back out. Whelm the vision can walk amongst us one again, bringing with her the gift of ancestral light, turning Porce into prism. That light is the key ingredient, and our efforts to craft the mirror are the stirring of the pot. Daughter, that’s why we needed you to come to us. You need to be a part of this! We would be the most miserable wretches, the most negligent in each and every land, if we didn’t bathe you in all the light we could offer!”
“I most certainly do not need to be a part of this!” Pearlen shouted. “And another thing…” Alast grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. She whipped her head in his direction, sloshing the water in her goggles.
“You’ve been gathering pieces of the Reflecting Path?” he probed. “How close are you to completing this mirror? Is salvation nearly upon us?”
“You’re a papist?” her father asked skeptically, but it turned into a small smile. “Then I’m overjoyed to tell you that we need only a bar and ten chips more of the glass. Once we fuse the pieces we’ll have a portal large enough to walk three whetzoos through! Whelm says that’s the size we need.”
“Will you show us?”
“Of course,” Curtain said, her voice turning silken. “Just come with us back to the church. New members arrive with more glass every day, found and donated from all corners of Porce. Pearlen, please. Listen to your fiancé.”
“One look,” her daughter said stiffly. Why is he so much smarter than me when we’re off the ship? I win every game of strategy on deck, but the drip I get out of the comfort of its rock I have no idea what I’m doing. At least I figured his angle out. We may be former pirates, but our old Captain still lives. He’d smack the eyes out of my head, clawlies and all, if I didn’t take the opportunity to steal pieces of the Reflecting Path from the most gullible folk in the world.
Pearlen slung her spear back over her shoulder. Her parents tried to touch her, but she wriggled around every attempt, lither than any of the lizdrop tails. Together they all walked back to the part of the village where they could stand at their full height. They didn’t have to knock at the door of the Church of Bright Hope, for someone inside saw the beams of Handky and Curtain through the surrounding glass and let them in automatically.
Several folk stopped them on their way through the building, demanding to be introduced to the adorable children. Pearlen was used to that sort of person from back in the days when their family was whole. The politeness was merely a ritual of comfort: a cog comfortably turning in the teeth of those around it. It didn’t matter if the clock’s time was off, or if it sounded only death knells, as long as the pieces fit together and kept turning.
The church had no uniform, which seemed odd to her. Her parents, back when they hopped between churches as the luster of the last one wore off, had wardrobes consisting mostly of choir robes and acolyte scarves. She saw two possibilities in the varied garb of these bright-eyed members. One was that they were simply too diverse to corral in such a way. She saw plenty of lightfolk and tilefolk. There were a couple of gravefolk with skeletons fully brighted. Some of their accents suggested they came from as far as the Riding Rail.
The other possibility was an order from Whelm herself. They already knew the phantom was murderous, so there was little chance her plan was actually benevolent. No, this mirror of hers was not going to pave the way for the second cleaning. It had to be to another end. An end that some folk would surely seek to prevent if they knew of it. Uniforms were a sign of a mission, a grand statement. Whelm only wanted certain folk to hear what she had to say. Only the obedient ones. She didn’t want to advertise without the ability to target, hence the brighting of the eyes. Through them she could find her subjects, not through colorful robes and united song.
“It’s a grander sight every day,” Curtain squeaked when they stopped outside a door near the back of the church. She turned the handle and scurried in, grabbing their shoulders and dragging them through.
The young folk had expected a second pulpit and pews, perhaps with the glass walls dyed fanciful colors, but what they found was a great tunnel in the glass, its walls ribbed as if by waves of fire. Pearlen thought of it almost as a burrow for a giant leathery worm. Members of the church scurried this way and that, comparing and chiseling pieces of glass at worktables. Their activity centered around a base of iron nearly twenty foams wide; despite its slightly melted appearance it capably held a crescent shape, ends pointed toward the curved ceiling.
Between its two points were hundreds of pieces of the Reflecting Path of all sizes, cuts, and levels of wear. Some were so cloudy that light could barely pass through them. Some of the larger ones were jagged and highly irregular in shape, their edges stained red and brown with blood both new and old. Veins of tin and silver, applied amateurishly, bonded the pieces to each other, creating a web of metal that almost looked slimy.
They could tell the mirror’s shape would eventually be circular, but for now it was only three-quarters completed. The loose pieces at the top sparkled in sharpness. Alast and Pearlen approached it in awe. Fools or no, the structure was quite an achievement. They’d never seen such large pieces of the path or so many of them. When they came within five foams of it the partial mirror filled up with tides of soft colors. There was no room for their reflections at all.
“That’s Whelm’s light,” Curtain told them proudly, “the light the Spotless will clean by once we let it into Porce… and this is polishing mirror.” She shed a tear at the beauty of it, of her daughter’s silhouette framed in the divine rainbow.
Pearlen was about to speak when she heard a few giggles. They came from the other side of the mirror, so the couple circled around to see. There were twenty children seated before the mirror with crossed legs. Their little hands kept them folded up as they rocked back and forth. There was a tilefolk man stood before them giving a sermon.
“Of course these folk have children,” Pearlen whispered to Alast. “They always have children. All of this is meaningless without someone to inflict it on.”
“What exactly are we doing?” he whispered back.
“I don’t know… I want to slow them down. I…” She looked down and saw her reflection in the glass floor. They were so close to so many pieces of the path that she could see her reflection’s will. It already held its spear aggressively. Normally they’re all smiles. They can’t wait to see you so they have a chance to steal your blood. But not now. She looks coiled like a serpont ready to strike. She doesn’t like Whelm either. Whatever she is, she’s not just a reflection that finally found a voice.
“Pearlen, your parents are circling around. Make a choice. I’m right behind you.” Pearlen heard the tinkle of someone sorting through shards of the path. Weak as her peripheral vision was, especially with the goggles in the way, she could still make out something like a wheelbarrow off to her left. The shimmering mound spilling out of it had to be pieces of the path not yet prepared for their attachment to the polishing mirror.
“You see?” Curtain said, sticking her head around the mirror. “We told you that-” Her daughter wasn’t listening. She and her partner were running, drawing the eyes of the children and workers. They pushed over the man sorting the fresh pieces and each grabbed two armfuls of the thickest and largest shards. “Pearlen! What are you doing?”
“Making off with your madness!” the girl shouted back, forcing out a bark of a laugh. Even with his arms full, Alast managed a disrespectful fluttering wave of his fingers. With that the two of them fell straight through the glass ground and into the Reflecting Path.
“It’s… it’s so different,” Pearlen muttered once she found her feet again. She’d never spent much time in the Reflecting Path; the only piece of it she’d ever had access to was Rob’s by way of Teal. Their journey to the desert, on the back of a reflected ekapad, was her longest sojourn there. As a reflection of Porce it was identical to it in most ways, but understanding the differences was critical to surviving it.
Everything was softer and fuzzier because it was made of light. A wall was little more than a curtain that visitors could push through. This effect was exaggerated by Pearlen’s damaged vision, so to her the path was like looking at the world with eyes mostly closed, details gleaned between interlocking lashes. She took a deep breath, the air wasn’t as rewarding as that of Porce either, and looked to her right expecting to see Alast. He was actually on the left, as the path reversed everything.
He was at least there, sword drawn. Of course. They’ll be right after us. They have a thousand more pieces already shaped into daggers. The two thieves took off running, but not toward the door. They headed down the tunnel, toward what was clearly the light of day. The polishing mirror would never fit through the door, so the tunnel had to terminate in a wide open area if they were ever going to move it for the eventual Whelm-releasing ceremony.
“Be careful not to cut yourself,” Pearlen reminded Alast as they ran.
“I think they have better things to do,” he said, gesturing behind them with an elbow. Pearlen glanced that way and saw two figures running behind them with weapons drawn. They were not pursuing members of the church, but their own reflections. They moved like bodyguards, doing their best to rush their twins down the tunnel. They’re not even after our blood. Is Whelm so powerful that one strike of her light could evaporate it all? Do they have to protect us just to have a chance at our liquid life later?
There was a fluttering sensation around her ankles, so she looked down. They waded through something that wasn’t quite liquid. It clung to the sides of the tunnel perfectly like a skin of oil on water. It was all the colors they’d seen in the mirror, in Whelm’s waving hair and eyes. The tunnel looked the way she imagined Whelm’s throat looked. We should’ve expected this. Her colors were in the mirror, so she has to be close by.
“They’re not following us,” Pearlen noticed without slowing down.
“Maybe they think it’s trespassing in her home,” Alast reasoned. “Or that she can handle us on her own.” The circle of daylight grew; they were close to the end. It looked pure and bright, suggesting it would open to Porce’s surface rather than any part of subterranean Crib-ohlk.
“Our reflections are the only ones here,” she noted. That in itself was strange. Reflections followed their other halves everywhere, attending to each and every reflective surface in the hopes they could get a glance of the real life they’d been denied. The tunnel was full of members of the church, so the path should’ve been equally full of their reflections. Instead it was just Whelm’s swirling rainbows on all sides.
“We’ll puzzle all this out later,” Alast said, “first we need to get out of the path somewhere away from the church.” She nodded just as they crossed the threshold. Crib-ohlk was nowhere to be seen. The tunnel opened up into a fan of scored and flattened glass. Everything around them looked coarse and scratched, like the church had cleared the area with stiff rakes that had likely made the most horrific sounds on the pane of the desert.
Their long walk back to the edge, where they’d first left the path, should’ve been much safer in the reflected world. The fire whirls of Plowr’s Pyre would be there, but would have none of their strength. They’d decided to risk the fire the first time around because they feared their conniving reflections more, but after barely outrunning a whirl the options seemed a little more balanced.
“This is far enough, let’s go back,” Pearlen suggested. The ground was too scratched to provide a portal, but it wasn’t far to the dune-like sides of the tunnel’s entrance. They stepped into the glass. Normally the transition between worlds was instantaneous, like passing through a sheet of paper without ripping it, but something was wrong. Everything warped in their vision and they felt as if their feet were glued to a spit that just rotated them back to their starting position. They stepped out of a different dune, but still in the Reflecting Path.
“It’s like in the Winchar Straits,” Alast guessed. “This glass is the same as all that natural ice. Too many curved surfaces, so it’s too easy to get lost. We need to find a real mirror or a body of water.”
“We’re not going back to Crib-ohlk,” Pearlen insisted, holding her armful of shards closer to her chest. “Not yet. We need to get back to the Employer.” She knew Alast was about to ask her what she meant by ‘not yet’, but there was no time. A wave of color poured over the dune they’d just left. All around them they spotted crests of the stuff moving up and down, surrounding them like a predatory lake swallowing up a helpless cluster of trees.
“Run!” They had no idea which direction to pick, but their reflections led the way, beckoning them onward. They were forced to leave behind the flat ground outside the tunnel and move back into the desert. In moments they were trapped in an endless expanse of dunes, rising and falling so much that they couldn’t even look back and see the tunnel’s entrance. Twice they were forced to pivot when a wave of color broke over a dune and splashed them. The droplets burned their clothes and skin; the mist the breaking waves left behind created a heat even more intense than the air of the actual desert. In their scrambling they ended up dropping most of the stolen pieces of the path; they were down to seven when Whelm appeared.
She was in the distance, riding atop a wave of her light. They realized all of this color was just her dress flowing off of her and across the glass. It was the light she used to make her illusions, to convince Pearlen’s parents she had divine power. It was beyond clear now that in the path it truly had power. If they were washed away it would turn them to ash in moments. Another wave broke ahead of them. Another to the left. Another behind. The light lapped at the soles of their boots, which created acrid puffs of smoke. Whelm flowed toward them all the while, her wave moving across the dunes without rising or falling, even as Pearlen and Alast had to scramble and tumble over every dip and peak.
Their only hope was the indifference of nature. In the struggle Pearlen’s goggles had nearly emptied. The clawlies were beginning to wriggle and protest the dry air, but it was impossible to miss the spinning tower of fire that approached them. You owe us, Plowr’s Pyre. With what you put us through last time, surely you can save us now. It’s only fair. She only had to point and grunt for Alast to get the idea. If they were lucky the light of a reflected fire whirl was enough to combat Whelm’s, or at least push it back.
Their reflections didn’t seem to like this plan, as they broke away and ran in different directions. Whelm’s flooding light didn’t bother with them. She was still too far away to shout, but they heard echoes of her voice, frothing and furious, at the chaotic edges of her light. Pearlen looked back and saw a desert consumed by her power, stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction. She no longer doubted that Whelm had enough light to fill up the entire world.
They couldn’t shake the strange feeling of the fire whirl’s approach, for this time it was utterly silent. Before it had shorn the air and roared across the dunes, but now it was just an image. It didn’t whip their hair or clothes; they couldn’t tell if it generated heat at all or if that was the light Whelm emitted.
There was no time to hesitate as the two forces neared their clash. Alast and Pearlen leapt into the wall of spinning fire, breaths held. The structure was so large that they hadn’t considered its thickness, opening their eyes to find themselves awash in flame with nothing else visible. Pearlen tucked her three remaining pieces under one arm and probed around with the other until she found Alast’s shoulder.
For the moment their plan seemed to work. Whelm’s light could harm them, but it was on equal footing with that of the fire whirl. None of it followed them into the burning maelstrom, and there was no sign of its owner either. The couple pushed forward for six hundred drips before they finally found the end of it, but it wasn’t truly the end. The air cleared. They stopped and looked up, all the way to the florent in the cloudless sky. It was the eye of the whirl. Were they in Porce it would be the only safe place within it. They saw that it stretched for half a lather before turning back into a spiraling tower of flame.
“It’s beautiful,” Pearlen said. It was barely a whisper, but it landed like a shout. Alast flinched as if surprised to find himself not alone.
“We’ll walk with it,” he suggested as he took a few steps in the direction the whirl seemed to move. “She can’t get to us as long as we’re inside it.”
“What if it just takes us further into the desert?” She felt her stomach crumple. “Alast we haven’t eaten in nearly a day. We can’t just walk twenty lathers without finding a real mirror.”
“I read about the whirls,” he said confidently. “They start from the pyre and move out, dissipating at the edges… mostly. Even if this one spins back some it should take us close to safety.” He took a deep breath. “It’s moving; let’s go.”
“Wait,” Pearlen said, pulling him back by the hand. She set down her pieces of the path and told him to do the same. She took him by the waist and brought him close enough to see every detail of his face. They spent nearly all of their time together, but were mostly close in the darkness of their cabin on the Employer. She rarely examined him that finely, like checking the grain in a slab of marble.
He pulled off her goggles as they were empty but for a few greenish droplets against the lenses. Her hands slid across his chest, up the trembling soft skin of his neck, and to his jaw. He’d never tried to grow a beard, but she felt the rigid stubble just under his ears. He could if he wanted to. He was surely a man now, and certainly only a boy when they met. Am I a woman? I took care of myself for so long, but no. If I was I’d be free of these feelings. I could leave them and let them roast over Whelm’s fire pit.
“You came all the way out here with me,” she whispered, still unable to make it sound quiet in the stillness of the whirl’s stare. “Never a word of complaint.”
“I’m just saving them up,” he said with a smirk.
“I’ve been saving this up too.” She leaned in and kissed him, holding him as tightly as she could. Sweat tingled and itched across her chest and stomach, but he still couldn’t be close enough. She touched her eyelashes to his and felt them flutter. She ran her hands through his hair and nearly knocked him over with her gratitude. He kissed her back, trying to match her enthusiasm, but he never could in that moment. With the fire whirl surrounding them Pearlen saw it as their whole world. They could cover everything else, burn it all away, with the heat their love generated. Nothing could get to them.
“We have to keep moving,” he said, gasping when they finally separated. “We have to keep up with it.”
“It has to keep up with us,” she said, chin shooting up and shoulders held wide. They took up their bounty and followed the whirl, satisfied as long as it moved away from Whelm the vision.
“What is she really?” Pearlen asked after a long silence. “My parents couldn’t spot anything divine if it stood over them and pissed holy water on their heads.”
“Well, we know now that divinity is real,” Alast said, referring to the knowledge that had been shared with them when they found out Captain Rob still lived. The details were vague, but he had somehow confirmed the existence of the eight old gods of Porce, and apparently their rivals the Fayeblons as well. “She claims to be the Spotless’s wife. So far he’s as fake as he’s always seemed. Could she be a reflection of some sort? One that successfully stole the life of the woman on the other side?”
“No,” Pearlen said with a shake of her head. That didn’t feel right. She couldn’t quite place it, but there was something about Whelm that gnawed on her. The woman hungered for something, something she never had in her early life. It’s not attention, not exactly. She revels in it, but she doesn’t hesitate to let it go. She barely tried to convince us to join her out in her mirage. One rejection out of us and she tossed us in the fire. “Reflections can’t succeed in stealing life. That would be unnatural. It has something to do with all of those colors she’s got bound up in her hair and clothes. It could be a bath bead that exists in gaseous form.”
“Rob would love to have that argument with you,” Alast said with a chuckle, but it turned into a cough. Their throats were dry enough to crack and they hadn’t even seen the reflection of anything edible. They stopped speaking to conserve what little moisture they had left, but it wasn’t long after that the fire whirl slowed and weakened.
The flames thinned and gave way to regular winds, though Alast and Pearlen could not feel them in the path. He grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back a step. There was someone there: a silhouette visible through the dying fire. It took Pearlen an extra moment to see it; she couldn’t even react before the last of the fire vanished into wisps like worms spiraling back into the dirt.
“Captain?” Alast blurted, dragging Pearlen forward. “Are you ever a sight for dry eyes! I could weep over the adventures I’ve missed with you! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in Rinlatour with Teal and the others?” The image of Captain Kilrobin Ordr was before them, though altered some from their memories. His fingernails had gone emerald and turned into jagged curving claws. He was dressed up like a scholar in gold glasses that looked even smaller than they were thanks to his stony outcropping of a nose. He smiled at them without showing his teeth, but said nothing.
“Alast,” Pearlen said when she realized, “this isn’t the Captain. This is his reflection.” The Rob of the Reflecting Path nodded and clapped politely. It pointed off in a direction. They followed the gesture and saw what looked like the end of the desert: greenish foothills and a few trees full of yellow needles. “He’s showing us the way out!” Reflected Rob turned and walked away; the two followed.
“I still don’t know what he’s doing here,” Alast said. “He should be close to Rob. Surely the Captain doesn’t have enough power over his reflection to send it across the World Floor to escort us.” The reflection looked over its shoulder, frowned, and shook its head.
“He’s doing this of his own volition,” Pearlen guessed. The reflection nodded. “It’s just like Rob with Yugo.”
“What do you mean?” Alast asked.
“Rob and Yugo were at each other’s throats longer than Yugo even had a throat, right? Any time Yugo threatened Porce Rob would claim he was pulled into it, but you know he chose to fight him. They didn’t have to clash as much as they did. Honestly, if you really want to fight someone, really want to be victorious, there’s only a single fight that counts. To the death.” Perhaps I shouldn’t speak ill of his other half. They do communicate with each other, like they’re making plans against the rest of us. “This reflected Rob is as offended by Whelm as ours was by Yugo. He’s here to protect the Reflecting Path, but be very… Rob… about the whole process.”
The reflection didn’t respond to that, and they kept up their direction and pace for several drops. Leaning on the reflection would have collapsed it like a warm cake, so the fatigued couple only had each other for support. The soles of their feet were raw from the heat and the effort. Pearlen felt her lover’s wrist and noticed the skin was more disturbed than usual. She turned it over in her hand and examined it. There were fibers embedded under the skin, entombed there from his scarring journey down an eleven-day rope ladder. The fires they’d bathed in had scorched the fibers even under his skin, blackening them and making them more noticeable. Droplets of blood bubbled up at the sides of the fibers like a bracelet made of injury.
They were able to keep going thanks to the hope in the distant trees, especially once they recognized the landscape. It was very close to the mirror tunnel they had installed upon arrival. No reflected ekapad would be necessary this time. The correct mirror went straight to another one within the confines of the Employer. From there they could move to any number of stations they’d set up across Porce. They didn’t even have to wait for their scheduled rendezvous with someone from the ship, as they had their own pieces of the Reflecting Path now tucked into their belts.
Their gateway mirror, visually identical to any normal one if you weren’t wielding a piece of the path, was actually a glass storefront. The store had at one point sold hiking and camping equipment for those wishing to trek along the edge of the Glass Desert, but it and its neighbor businesses were long gone thanks to a wildfire some washes prior.
The storefront had but one crack thanks to its thickness. It was made of a piece of the desert, so it was tinged with its orange and golden colors. Pearlen and Alast leaned up against the wooden walls on either side of it, catching their breath and preparing to depart.
“Thank you for your help,” Alas told the reflected Rob. It offered a curt nod. Its eyes darted back and forth; there seemed to be something on its mind.
“Whelm is a great evil, isn’t she?” Pearlen asked. The reflection nodded. “You’re trying to do something about her.” Another nod. “We should come back, once we get a plan, and help you.” It didn’t nod immediately. Don’t be so much like your Porcely half. Take our help. There’s no way you can handle her on your own. The reflection closed its eyes and nodded once more.
“You want to come back?” Alast asked, picking at the bloody flesh on his left wrist. “I’m all for stopping great evils, never get my fill, but we could just go for an easier one. The others could use our help with that heist I’d wager.”
“Alast. I have to come back. Did you miss all those tiny faces under the polishing mirror? All these hopeful idiots have children. Whatever Whelm is going to do, she’s going to do it to them… all while their parents tell them to look up, smile, and trust.” Somehow, even after an eternity marching through the hottest place in the world, Pearlen found a drop of moisture within her still. It fell from her eye.
“Alright. We’re not suffering for choice, but I guess this adventure it is. Shall we… start planning?”
“I think,” she panted, “we can plan in our dreams. We’ll double task with a… a nap.” She smiled and pulled out the biggest piece of the Reflecting Path she had left. Alast did the same. Together they turned to the storefront and climbed through the glass.
Finally, something worked as intended. Their journey was not a journey at all: just a few drips of the slightly-scratchy feeling of passing through. They went from the glass-specked dirt of the desert’s edge to the bluish wood of a cabin inside the Employer.
Captain Teal had secured an excellent deal on an identical set of mirrors: tall, rectangular, and with heavy metal frames. When the couple stepped out they saw the rest of these mirrors arranged along the walls of the room. Each one had a metal silhouette of its destination across the top of the frame. Across from them they saw the miniaturized quarries of Astringo. On its left was an enshrined Cardinal First for the city of Cardinos. On its right the shining skyline of Lunginvess.
Most relevant was the mirror bearing a tiny Rinlatour atop it. They would have to visit the Slick Rin city before returning to the desert, to secure Teal’s blessing for their endeavor. The mirror chamber had portals all across the world, and they weren’t the only ones with pieces of the path, so a guard kept watch at all times. This time it was Manathan Shuckr, the ice master, and technically the acting captain while Teal and Dawn were away.
“Zounds!” the gravefolk exclaimed at the sight of them. He shot out of his chair between two mirrors and approached. “You two weren’t scheduled to be back for days. What stain have you happened upon? You look like crispy bwag nuggets!”
“Good to see you too Man,” Alast said with a smirk. “It’s a long story, but rich with rewards.” He held up two pieces of the path like a wolptinger showing off its fangs and shook them.
“The size of them!” the skeleton declared, teeth clacking together. “I want to know everything!”
“Not now,” Pearlen said. She could smell and hear the Snyre Sea just outside. Better than a nap would be a plunge into it. The tiny spiked legs in her eyes would relax and do all the sleeping for her. There would be no sound but the ponderings of the current between fauces. “Why are you standing guard? You’re the captain.”
“Nobody listens to any orders I give,” Manathan moaned with a flick of his palm. “I put Curdine in charge. She knows her way around a wet seat. Besides, I’m watching over the whole world in here, including Teal and the others.” His skull flicked down. “Say, what’s happening there?” Alast and Pearlen looked at their hands and found their robbed shards of glass behaving oddly. Their clarity had been replaced with waves of rainbow light, unmistakably tinged with Whelm’s power.
“They must have absorbed some of it when she was chasing us,” Pearlen guessed out loud. “Do you think she can see us through them?”
“Maybe,” Alast said with a shrug. “It shouldn’t matter. She’s off in the Glass Desert and she can’t enter our world until the Polishing Mirror is complete. “Still… we should take these to Teal and Rob and see what they have to say.”
“I’m afraid it’ll be quite a walk,” Manathan said, rubbing the back of his skull. “The portal they set up was in the middle of the city, but they’ve shifted base nearer to the top. If you go through you’ll have to make your way up a few layers and find a place called ‘the house that runs’.”
“As long as none of those layers are as dry and mealy as the desert we just went through we’ll be fine,” Pearlen affirmed. “A rest first though.” Manathan offered to look after the plundered pieces of the path, but they wanted to keep them close. Alast went straight to their cabin and collapsed onto their bed. He spent more time playing board games on those sheets than actually sleeping in them, but this time he was out within moments. Pearlen would join him shortly, after a quick plunge into the sobering sea.
Drops later they were back in the mirror room and fully equipped for their next trip. They wore fresh outfits, blue and gray with long sleeves and buttons shaped like knotted raindrops. They thought they were the most ‘bergfolkish’ things they owned, and thus the least conspicuous. They each had a pack over their shoulder where their stolen pieces were hidden away. Worryingly, the rainbow light within them had not faded and they felt warm to the touch.
Even after restful sleep their skin hadn’t softened; their burns looked fresh as ever. Alast’s wrist had successfully scabbed over though, and Pearlen’s eyes were settled enough that she wouldn’t have to wear her goggles for a while. Manathan was once again there to see them off and provide the best directions he could to the rundown house.
“So remember you’re entering the artisanal spread,” he repeated. “Find the edge and follow the curve of the slipway through the military wafer and into the cream filling.” Alast’s thigh was already halfway in the mirror when the skeleton grabbed his shoulder. “Don’t exit the path anywhere but in the house or you might get caught, tried, and brutally murdered!”
“Aye, thank you ice master,” Pearlen hissed, pushing her boy forward and then jumping through herself. She stuck her head back out. “Try not to get brutally bored while things are off happening.” She disappeared into the tower-topped glass.
“No respect,” the ice master grumbled. “They should get around to stealing some of that.”
Neither of them had ever been to Slick Rin Cliff or Rinlatour. Even in the fuzziness of the Reflecting Path it was breathtakingly beautiful. With its wealth and insular culture it felt quite a bit warmer than most bergfolk civilizations. There were more colors on the signage and more flourishes in sign lettering. The air looked warm with the steam of street food even near the sea where it competed with cool breezes. When they found their way to the edge, in order to track progress by following the rise of the spiraling slipway, they looked out onto the cliff’s waterfall and the frothing banks of mist that connected it to the Draining Sea.
“The opposite of the fire whirls,” Alast noted at the sight of it. He grabbed Pearlen’s hand.
“Yes. This will be our relaxing soothing adventure,” she promised. “The danger here will run cold and we’ll brush it off our even colder shoulders.” He chuckled, which brought a smile to her face. “We don’t even have to worry about our reflections here.” Alast looked over his shoulder just to be sure, he always suspected his reflection of being especially crafty and depraved, but she was right. One side effect of the new travel method they’d developed was that their reflections could not keep up with them in the instantaneous crossing of vast distances. The false Pearlen and Alast were somewhere back in the Glass Desert trying to decide if they should pursue their other halves or simply wait for them to return.
When they were done gawking at the distant cliff their eyes followed the curve of the slipway. Utilized just to transport goods down, it would be useless to them. It disappeared around a stone column as wide as several homes, forcing them to realize how far they would actually have to go. Rinlatour was a city, but its scope had it rivaling many of Porce’s larger landmarks. If they were to go by foot it might take them days to reach the cream filling.
This was circumvented by locating the nearest ekapad station and coaxing the reflections of the animals into accepting them as riders. They were nowhere near as ornery as the real musky charged beasts, so it took little encouragement. There was another benefit to animal reflections; they hadn’t the intelligence to be ambitious. They followed their solid halves around just to alleviate loneliness rather than to attempt blood theft.
Both of them were accustomed to riding the reflections, so there was no risk of getting sink-sick. They were free to look down and see rafts full of goods sliding down the slipway. They spotted a freshly-built ship on its way down, sails so tight they’d obviously never been unfurled. It made them homesick even though they’d just come from the Employer. Their rest had been too short, merely one comfortable stepping stone in an uneven row of sharp slippery ones.
Pearlen felt something move against the small of her back. They were still midair, passing by the outer edges of the military wafer. That section of the city preserved various secrets behind curtains and wooden doors, so its streets were largely hidden from the exterior. The ekapad balconies were the most notable features sticking out and even they were utilitarian in design. When her animal touched down on one and eyed its true self in the water of a calm trough, Pearlen reached over her shoulder and dug around in her pack.
Her hand wrapped around a path piece; she felt it twitch. She pulled it out to examine it just as Alast touched down next to her, tiny jolts of red lightning scattering across the metal plates. She didn’t even notice, for the path piece was the brightest she’d seen it. It wasn’t just twitching; it was in a steady state of vibration.
“Ahh!” she blurted as a wave of heat scalded her hand, dropping the piece only to have Alast lean over the side of his mount and catch it. The reflected aker was so far from solid that his lean made the whole creature bend on its single leg like a slumping dessert. He couldn’t keep hold of the shard without pain either, so he tossed it back and forth until it landed in the trough. The odd convergence of physical and magical forces made every last drop in the trough evaporate instantly. It was especially troubling to the young bergfolk boy watering the animals back in Porce. After he poured the last drop they all went up in steam, as if he was being scold-scalded for doing it wrong.
“Iles devrailet lourequa lenuage depla alorquay!” he yelped in frustration. Translated to Wide Porcian he was proclaiming, as he threw down his bucket, that the military should just hire the rain clouds if they disliked his technique so much.
Pearlen and Alast dismounted long enough to see that the bottoms of the packs were blackening and emitting smoke. Each of them had a theory or two about their behavior, but there was no time to share them. We shouldn’t have taken them out of the path and then put them back in so quickly. There’s no master directing all this wild old light now, and it has no idea where it’s supposed to go. You and me both, sherd. Let’s see who explodes first.
They didn’t dare leave the path outside the designated safe house, so they remounted the reflected animals and took off on the lightning once more. Pearlen ignored the growing heat on her back. She squeezed the reflection’s neck, leaving imprints of her hands in its flesh in the process, urging it to speed up.
The rundown house was not particularly close to the edge of Rinlatour, so the animals would have to be ridden into the heart of the city. They weren’t too eager to dive into a roofed area, but the lightfolk were able to apply sufficient force. Once inside their jumps became much smaller and more jostling. It was nearly impossible to make out the landmarks that were supposed to guide them.
They tore through the cream filling like starving ratmuns through pastry, blasting through waving banners and knocking down street signs. Street after street passed as flashes. I can’t see any of it yet I know this is the richest place I’ve ever seen. These rich creamy colors. I bet the real version smells like varnish, polish, and whipped cream. Alast had to call out to her when her ekapad streaked off course. He’d seen the ivory fence that marked the edge of the neighborhood they were after.
The twin trails of lightning hopped over it and into an expanse of carefully trimmed trees separating some truly massive homes. They were castles within a castle, some of their towers literally stretching to and joining with the ceiling of the cream filling. Some were topped with glass greenhouses that appeared to have their own weather, including rainfall, within.
“It’s that one to the left!” Alast shouted as loud as he could, pulling his beast toward it. Pearlen followed. The heat against her back was quickly becoming unbearable, so as soon as they touched down near the front steps she whipped the pack off her back and held it at a distance. Alast did the same. The reflected ekapads were gone, desperately streaking back toward the open air, before they even reached the front door.
Using his shoulder as a battering ram, Alast powered right through the thin material of the reflected door. He grunted and pushed it wide like the slit of a serpont’s eye so Pearlen could follow him through. There was no time to marvel at the watery walls and pouring chandelier, and their sound dampening qualities did not exist within the Reflecting Path.
“Is that a mirror?” Alast asked, rushing up a set of stairs. Three bergfolk reflections escorted a tall flat object upward, though it seemed to move on its own. That meant the folk that owned those reflections were most likely dragging it to the next floor.
“It’s covered,” Pearlen said. The poor air of the path usually kept fires from starting, but it didn’t stop the pieces of the Reflecting Path from burning through the bottom of the pack and tumbling down the stairs. She chased after them and used her shirt to pick them up, but the blazing rainbow light screamed within them.
Alast’s didn’t burn through until the mirror made its way to the next floor, and he dealt with them by kicking them forward one by one. The couple cursed loudly as they scrambled along, hoping their nasty words would come across in Porce as some kind of expediting haunting. Finally they left the hallway and entered a library. There were the reflections of their friends, all gathered around a table: Teal, Roary, Dawn, Bonswario, and Ladyfish. Captain Rob was conspicuously absent, but they already knew where his reflection was off to.
“Hurry up!” they both screamed in unison as the mirror slowly wheeled its way to the center of the room. Alast picked up his pieces of the path and juggled them: a talent he’d never had before but was made necessary by their extreme temperature. When finally the cover of the mirror was whipped away they jumped through, tumbling to the floor and spilling their prizes everywhere. One of them detonated, unleashing a beam of light straight through the table it had rolled under. There it is. There’s the damage Whelm wants to do. That was one tiny piece of her light released into Porce. My parents are helping her collect thousands. That mirror will not be completed! I will keep Porce in the dark.
Continued in Part Four