(reading time: 1 hour, 36 minutes)
A drop from Kilrogue’s Mouth
There was a time, when the ages didn’t yet have their names, where the akers were feared far less. The gods hadn’t finished dying yet. There was still enough divine blood in the offspring of the Custodians that they sometimes demonstrated extraordinary powers and earned their own legends. Some of them settled for extraordinary infame, happy to be relegated to the role of trickster in the tales to come.
A few figures across the floor of Porce could tame akers well enough to ride them and to build their homestead upon the back of their steed. One of these akers, without rider and in declining health, lived just on the sink side of Fawsingsing. Before its rider perished the beast was instructed to guard over the treasures gathered during their adventures. It was a hundred rests of adventure, so digging in the soil beneath the aker would produce a treasure with every fourth handful.
It was all hidden under the aker’s stony hide, but the greedy folk of Porce sniffed it out and came calling when the aker’s wheezing breath could be heard across the Tributaroads. They came with swords and shovels in equal number, fully expecting success. The dying beast did not give up its prize so easily. It fought with the miners and the monster hunters for a rest more, swallowing up any that it killed so they could rest with the treasure that was so precious to them. Yet the blood could not obscure the shine of the gold. They saw it glitter in the back of the aker’s throat whenever it swallowed one of their peers.
The aker fell on the exact thousand and first day of the assault. Aker flesh was mostly rock and its blood mostly water, so there was no feast to claim. Many of the hunters were gaunt from lack of food, having chosen to stay near the aker rather than go out in search of game. The treasure would be sustenance enough.
They attacked its body with shovels and started reclaiming wealth from under the ground. The entire surrounding tile was dug out, leaving a square depression too wide to see the sides from the middle. It took rests to dig it out and claim every last scrap of glitter. By then the entire depression was under the ownership of a single mining company. They were all too happy to skip the middlefolk of finance by taking money straight out of the ground, as opposed to the old business of weighing ore and having to exchange it.
The company abandoned the site when the hoard was fully claimed, leaving behind offices, housing, equipment, graves, and smaller square pits and valleys layered within each other. One square within a square within a square was Fort Gumboot. The forefolk of that quarry had produced very reliably, so they were rewarded with a magnificent home close to the digging. Even the well that supplied the house occasionally spat up diamonds. Fort Gumboot was abandoned when that well ran dry, and the house, built from the stone as it was dug out, was left rooted there.
Kilrogue Ordr was not the first to squat within, but he was the most successful. (Blaine’s Note: We know Kilrogue to be Captain Rob’s most meaningful ancestor. Custodial lines are meant to be respected, but Kilrogue was said to have diverted his line of the family tree to the… shadiest branches. He was the product of a union with a slave, so I’m sure that accounts for some of the bias against him. I speak up in his defense now because his divine power must have been quite diluted. He made no attempt to correct any inaccuracies written here, as Custodian Kilroy did.)
He rose from his pinched bed one morning to the call of a rovin. He was ready to shoot down and roast the birds for the nuisance they caused, but doing so would likely imperil him and his harem. The man rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned the dryness out of his mouth while one of his more diplomatic bedmates handled the bird.
Just eleven rests old (Blaine’s Note: thirty-one years), Kilrogue was a spry and slinky man who liked to hop both into and out of bed. Before his yawn was over he was on his feet, stretching by standing on his toes and walking around the room. He wore nothing but his ruffled underpants. So much time had been spent sequestered in the stone mansion, away from the florent, that he’d grown a little pale.
Already the characteristic cliff-face nose of the Kilro line was well established. The scoundrel had avaricious green eyes that stayed sharp even when closed. His hair was soft and full, nearly down to his shoulders so his bedmates had something to stroke in the afterglow of their affectionate exercises. Still on his bare toes, he went to the balcony to survey his domain.
The florent sparkled against the metal edifices of the mining towers and their shared conveyor belts. Thousands of birds roosted in their nooks, waddled across the belts, but none of them were rovin. Kilrogue took a deep breath, filled his lungs with the fresh air of the breeze rolling through, and promptly doubled over to vomit into the courtyard.
Folk might have guessed he was in line with a Custodian if they’d seen his sick. The vomit issuing from his throat was a dark purple with iridescent swirls; the fluid was more like a sorbet or a taffy than a traditional expectoration. He was forced to breathe through his nose as it filled up his entire throat for some time. There was no possible way his stomach could ever hold so much. Kilrogue the disgusting faucet did not have to worry about cleaning up his mess, as the peculiar fluid simply splashed into an identical lake below: a lake that had already flooded the first two floors of the mansion.
The birds refused to swim in it, but that could’ve just been the result of watching it leave Mr. Ordr. It had no odor and slid off most materials without staining them. He happily called it his moat, the first line of defense for his squatting rights, and was proud to claim that every last drop had come from his body.
Once the morning was confirmed fresh and beautiful Kilrogue went to get breakfast from his pantry, knowing full well that would mean passing by the balcony where the rovins went to deliver their messages. One of his lovers, a dark-skinned man named Bronzoon, was right where he anticipated, pondering things before one of the small black-feathered birds.
“Don’t sneak by me,” Bronzoon warned as Kilrogue tried to do just that. “You’re supposed to be running things around here, remember?”
“I am running things,” he insisted. “As the runner-of-things I have assigned you to run all rovin-related things. That bird is your responsibility, and I’m sure you’re doing an excellent job. If you’ll excuse me, I have to get some oats and honey to fuel my sneaking.”
“Your enemies have a message for you, and we’re out of honey.”
“My enemies? Good grossness, they’re calling themselves my enemies now? What did I do to deserve that?”
“You know full well it’s because of Suchatash,” Bronzoon said. The rovin cawed impatiently. The birds were an unsettling sight, for while their coats were midnight black their eyes were always solid vibrant colors that spoke of suicidal determination. This one had green eyes, eyes that Kilrogue noted were nowhere as endearing as his own.
“They want her back?” he guessed, scratching at the stubble on his chin. “She can make her own decisions and I think she wants to stay here with us, though she might not if we’re always going to be out of honey. That’s her favorite breakfast. She likes it on…” He tapped his forehead several times, eyes shut tight. “…toasted topa tubers!”
“Very good,” Bronzoon said with a chuckle and a little sarcastic applause. “Now can you remember the name of the folk who commands this bird?”
“Why would I need to remember that? If they’re going to be calling themselves enemy, I refuse to bother with their details. It would be a waste of my time. All the space in my head and heart is for you lot.”
“Return Suchatash!” the rovin cawed. It had grown impatient enough to repeat the message it had delivered to Bronzoon. “She is still of noble blood! We will have her back or we will be your enemies! We will pour the molten iron of war into the mold you occupy unless you comply!”
“You just try it!” Kilrogue barked at the bird. “What they don’t know is that I’m sleeping with some people who can make better war than I make toast, and I make Porce’s finest toast.” The bird’s head tilted. Bronzoon’s head whipped between them; his expression had flicked to one of shock and concern. “What?”
“You just told the bird we have actual fighters!” his lover hissed. “It’s going to tell its master!”
“No it isn’t,” Kilrogue scoffed, but his eyes darted back to the bird anyway. One of its talons scratched across the balcony, out toward the purple lake. Its wings rustled. “They only repeat what they’ve been told and you haven’t said reply yet, right?”
“I don’t know how smart these birds are!” he declared. He wanted to throw his hands up in frustration, but that might’ve sent the bird flying, so they just quaked near his belt.
“How do you not know? You’re in charge of all rovin-related things!” Kilrogue shuffled closer to the bird. “If it is smart we just need to keep it from… getting… away!” He lunged at the creature, but it took flight. Kilrogue and Bronzoon nearly tossed themselves over the balcony reaching for it, but it was already on the wing, already past the first conveyor belts.
“Fantastic! Now they’ll come for sure and they’ll be fully prepared,” Bronzoon shouted.
“That’s only if the bird actually is smart enough to repeat what I said,” Kilrogue reasoned. “Quickly, to the person who actually knows what they’re talking about!” He practically flew out of the room and down the hall, bare feet smacking against the cold stone. Bronzoon followed. They went right past the bath chamber with its copper tubs full of scented bubbles. Two women bathed and played in the largest one, calling after Kilrogue as he flew by, but there was no time for nude frolicking, at least until the bird’s stupidity was confirmed.
The bird expert in question was the fifteenth of seventeen to join Kilrogue’s current stable of lovers. She was Bootyka: an older woman with untamed ash-brown hair that her face was often lost in, like a bird nestling so far into its nest that it vanished. She was currently wrapped up in the sheets of one of the many beds that had been pushed together like an island chain. Kilrogue hopped onto one, bounced over three more lovers, and landed straddling Bootyka. The impact roused her instantly, causing her to sit up and plant her face directly into Kilrogue’s groin. She groaned into his ruffles.
“I know; I’m sorry to wake you,” Kilrogue apologized, “but there is an urgent matter. You’re a naturalist yes? You know every feather from every eggshell in Porce?”
“Mmmf,” she affirmed through the cloth.
“Excellent. I need to know exactly how smart a rovin is. I know they can mimic folk speech, but can they say… overhear tactical information regarding an upcoming conflict, determine the relevance of said information, and then effectively communicate its details to another party?” She smacked his thigh, pushing him away so she could breathe.
“What color were its eyes?” Bootyka asked as she rubbed her own.
“A shallow meaningless green.”
“A green-eyed one can probably think up a philosophical treatise before it has its first worm of the morning.”
“Damn. In that case,” he turned around and raised his voice, “we need everyone up!” He clapped his hands until all the heads popped up from the bedding. “We have a fight on our hands folk. They’re coming to reclaim Suchatash. Get your faces washed and pull your brutality out of the sewing drawer!”
There wasn’t any protest. Half his lovers had lost their fear in battles long past and the other half were too innocent and shy to doubt the others. There was a mound of armor and weapons in the corner of the room: claws and stingers cast off for the comfort of nuzzling. The warriors, numbering seven, claimed their belongings from the pile in preparation. They, like Kilrogue, cared not for the identity of their foe. All they knew was that they had peace, and that someone sought to interrupt it.
Kilrogue moved through them, touching shoulders and planting kisses as he went, until he reached the cause of the conflict. Suchatash was wrapped up in a golden sheet; she squeezed a decorative pillow between her thighs. She was hardly younger than Kilrogue, but far more naïve. Her life was mostly ornamental, until the day her flute playing attracted the descendant of the Custodian to the flowerbed underneath her parapet window.
“It’s my mother?” she asked, eyes brimming with tears.
“Yes I’m afraid so,” Kilrogue said, sitting on the bed and holding her. “She sent an unnecessarily erudite bird to tell us that she’s bringing a fight our way. Don’t worry. We won’t let her take you.”
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me. Perhaps I should just give myself up. You’ve all been so good to me. I didn’t know love could be like this.”
“This is the only way to love,” Kilrogue assured her. “Sharing grows the heart while jealousy and fighting shrink it. I’m hoping we can minimize the day’s shrinkage with the moat I’ve created. Speaking… of…” Kilrogue threw a hand over his mouth and rolled off the bed. He ran to the nearest window and vomited once more. The purple slime had no taste and a temperature that matched the ambient air rather than the wet warmth of his stomach. Two months after swallowing the amorous discharge bead and it still had not worked its way through his tract. He was beginning to think it felt right at home; that was how most things felt in close proximity to him.
“We need someone to raise the signal bells,” Bootyka informed him while he finished spewing purple over the windowsill. “I can’t hit what I can’t see.” She lifted her quiver and counted her arrows. Each one had the feathers of a different bird as its fletching. “You should do it since nobody else wants to swim in your fluids.”
Kilrogue nodded, as he couldn’t quite speak yet. When his composure returned he immediately vaulted out of the window and fell into the thick gloppy lake below. His ripples barely traveled before they disappeared. It had become so deep that his feet could no longer touch the ground while his head was above it, so he had to make his first honest swim across it.
Four towers were visible, one for each corner of his harem’s hall. Their original purpose was to make pronouncements to all the treasure miners via crier and bell, but their new role was as romantic lookouts for the squatters when they wanted to feel a full midnight breeze. As such, the bells had been lowered so they wouldn’t snap their ropes and strike anyone on the way down. As previously discussed, Bootyka would act as sentry during any defense of the home, alerting the others to the direction of an attack by firing an arrow at the appropriate bell.
Even with bloodshed looming, Kilrogue was able to enjoy his swim. If he hadn’t, he might’ve given up on life and drowned on the spot. From the time he was young his mind had been filled with tales of Custodian Kilroy and his many deeds across the spectrum of moral cleanliness. In his fledgling mind there was only one thing to take away from such stories. Kilroy always enjoyed himself. Like his namesake upon the stall, his smile was ever present despite being hidden. If fun could not be had in desperate times, life would be nothing but dreading those times.
Kilrogue left a purple trail up the wooden supports of the first tower, like an invertebrate’s slimy tail. He was mostly done dripping when he rolled over its railing and onto a fine blanket transferred there from inside the mansion. He picked it up in both hands, rubbed it, and inhaled deeply. Scented candle wax. Golden ink on a lumasol quill. The smells of his lover Darydadnee. She was probably perched on a balcony already, sharpening her ax with the whetstone he’d given her on the last Feast of the Slippery Solstice.
He whipped the blanket around and tied it about his neck as a cape. After that he mounted the torso-sized bell back on its rope, raised it to its highest point, and tied it down. Three to go. He dove off the side and back into his vomit. If he was being honest, he found the iridescent yet milky fluid somewhat refreshing. It wasn’t a sign of ego, of a man pleased to be immersed in nothing but himself, but a testament to the bead’s power. It was barely the size of a pinky finger, and even thinner. The purple crystal was smooth like a shellfish living amongst the strongest currents. When he first plucked it from its nest in the Bottomless Rot he couldn’t believe anyone would ever discard such a thing.
The bead became active in the presence of clear-hearted affection, producing drops of magical fluid from its tip, one at a time. There were monsters in the rot that didn’t take kindly to the odor of love, so Kilrogue had to protect himself by swallowing the bead, thus preventing the smell of the magic from hitting the air. What he hadn’t counted on was the sheer amount of love in his soul, the flavor of which simply could not be contained. Single drops turned into a flood. The monsters came in droves…
The bell of the second tower was raised, but in the process Kilrogue accidentally kicked a dark glass bottle and sent it rolling. He caught it as its neck dangled over the edge and brought it up to his face.
“I remember you,” he cooed. The bottle had been filled with black toil water. It wasn’t actually black in color, just very dark blue, but it was called such because it came from the lightless depths of Youbend. No feat of engineering could bring it to the surface. Only the native creatures of those depths, the meldews, the extent of their intelligence as unknown as a rainbow-eyed rovin, ever brought it up. His lover Joghorn had shared the obscenely expensive bottle with him to celebrate the rekindling of their relationship. Kilrogue smiled and sighed before smashing the bottle on the railing. He whipped it about by the neck and listened to its biting whistle. It would make a fine weapon. He dove.
After the third bell was in position he noticed a length of colorful rope, alternating twists of orange and yellow, tied around the clapper. He removed it delicately, careful not to sound the instrument and frighten his bedfellows. When he wrapped it around his wrist a memory shot through his arm and pulled hot sweat from his neck and behind his ears. That’s right; the rope belonged to Nightglory. She brought ropes and blindfolds to bed with her every night, even when she didn’t have anyone to use them on. Kilrogue was up for the game of course; he was up for any game played lovingly and honestly.
The fourth swim helped clear his head and the thrilled sweat. Before throwing himself into the last lookout he scanned the horizon. There was still no sign of any raiding party, so he entertained the notion that the rovin had been snatched out of the air by a lucky stroke of predation. The thought didn’t last long, as they already knew Suchatash’s mother was posted at the edge of the mine square just waiting for her excuse to dive into her daughter’s affairs.
When his scouting lover had first spied their enemies she reported they wore full battle regalia and even carried flags with them. They seemed to think their nation was at stake, as if Suchatash had been annexed instead of charmed out of the castle. Kilrogue brushed the serious attire off, wishing them the best of luck in trying to plant their flags in his liquid love.
The fourth bell went up even easier than the other three, but he was still slightly disappointed with the final tower. It was the only one that didn’t offer him a souvenir from the good times at Harem Hall. Had he forgotten to make love on that spot? Surely not, as it was now one of only ten or so dry places around the flooded compound. If everyone survived he would have to return and plant a seed there as well.
With his task complete he turned away from the bell and prepared to dive once more, but his foot struck a small wooden crate with no top. Its contents, mostly bottles the miners had used for urination, rattled. The bump did squeeze something anomalous out through the slats. The object bounced once, with a soft sound like an infant cloud fallen from its nest, and then wobbled in front of Kilrogue’s feet. He knelt to investigate. Palm-sized. Wrinkled. A very odd color he couldn’t exactly classify. Dark white? Liquid gray? He could barely see a shadowy lump at the center of the peculiar raisin. Whatever it was it certainly had never played a part in his lovemaking.
The urge to vomit struck. Though he threw his hand over his mouth his leaned posture prevented him from keeping it back. It sprayed between his fingers and doused the raisin, the pressure pushing it several foams away. The force only mounted, so Kilrogue rushed to the railing and let it fly out over the lake, the wind whipping some of it as a violet mist.
The raisin responded to the moisture on its surface immediately. The runoff of the amorous discharge bead seeped into it, altering its internal color significantly. The object swelled and lost its wrinkles, going from the shape of a bustnut to something more like a pastry bag. As it inflated it grew transparent, revealing the lump at its center to be a many-pupiled eye. The eye careened about in confusion, piecing together both the time and place. The awakened creature slithered up the railing and sat next to the vomiting Kilrogue, patiently letting him finish.
“Luminatr’s lungs! What are you doing here?” the man asked the creature when he finally turned and noticed it.
“You… revived… me,” the prosite said, eye rolling as if it searched for the right words floating in its plasm. “I… was in… torpor.” Its bubbly voice, though utterly unfolkish, sounded something like a yawn.
“Torpor? Were you that raisin I sicked on? You look a little like… a prosite. Haven’t seen a thing such as you since my time in the rot.”
“I am a prosite,” it answered, eye rolling as its nod. “My name is Wraxulto Bocculum. The last thing I remember is being sealed in an ivory cornucopia and buried deep under the ground.”
“I suppose that makes you a treasure and a prisoner. Part of the hoard this place was built to excavate. Sorry, how exactly did I revive you?”
“I was in torpor,” it answered. The eye rose to its top and stretched its slime body up into a shape like a vase or a muscular torso. “I was a fine jarred warrior! I hope the tactic has survived to this age, whenever this is.”
“I’ve never heard of a jarred warrior, sorry.”
“Oh.” The prosite deflated some. This flattened it enough that it nearly slipped off the railing. As it pulled back it seemed to recognize the height of the tower for the first time. “I loyally served a folk house. In exchange for my bravery I was pampered and provided shelter from the selection pressures that were degrading my kind.” Wraxulto balled up and bounced, rolling over to a post. When close enough its slimy surface projected out into a hardened point, piercing the wood impressively.
“I see. You said you were jarred, so does that make you a surprise weapon? My guess is that when your masters were cornered they would pull out a canteen or a sack, open it up, and then you would fly out and attack.”
“You have the concept,” Wraxulto confirmed. “I wish I could show you in action. Oh yes! Your question. The house I served must have stored me away with all their other treasures, not knowing I couldn’t survive indefinitely. My body had to enter a deep sleep, losing most of its water. Eventually I would’ve become inert as a stone, but you splashed me with something that allowed me to return. What was it? It feels wonderful, and I’ve never had such a splendid coloration.”
“It’s discharge from a bath bead,” Kilrogue explained. “The stuff is made of love, so I know you must be very pure for a prosite. This lake before us is the same substance, and it burns those with selfish hearts. The bead resides in my stomach and I’m proud to say it hasn’t given me a moment of heartburn.”
“Very odd,” Wraxulto noted, “but appreciated! I am indebted to you!” Kilrogue offered it a smile and wondered what its gooey face could possibly offer in return, but there was no time to examine it. Floosh! A splash. It was followed by nine more. Kilrogue picked up one of the empty bottles of the crate and stared down its neck, using its bottom as a makeshift spyglass. Through it he spied several freshly hewn wooden boats that had just slid down a gravel ridge and into his moat. Each had three or four armored soldiers inside, loyal servants of Suchatash’s mother no doubt.
The woman herself led the charge, one knee against the bow of the head boat. Everything from her breastplate to the chain mail on each toe of her war socks was golden. She carried a spear with her nation’s flag wrapped and tied under its point. The details of her splendor grew clearer each drip, for her soldiers made quick progress, using their sheathed weapons as oars.
“You said you wanted to show me your fighting skills,” Kilrogue reminded as he lowered the bottle. “You’re about to get the chance. See those folk out there?” He pointed. “They aim to imprison a wonderful woman who just wants to stay with my folk. Are you perhaps indebted to me enough to fight by my side?” Wraxulto briefly morphed back into its brave torso shape, but then reformed into an approximation of a lightfolk hand. It extended toward Kilrogue. He shook it.
“I give you my promise that I will fight this battle to the fullest of my ability. I will not leave this watchtower until not a single foe can be seen from it!”
“Excellent,” Kilrogue said with a nod. “I hope your fullest is enough.”
“Just you watch!” the prosite declared. It stretched and grabbed the bottle out of the man’s hand, enveloping it completely. After conforming to the bottle’s shape it squeezed: kwitch! Though muffled by its plasm, Kilrogue still flinched when the bottle broke into twenty shards. Wraxulto arranged those shards into a circle and started them spinning like a waterwheel. “When you folk invented arrows,” it bragged, “they just palely imitated this!” The shards reached such a speed that Kilrogue could barely tell them apart. “Yaawaah!” One of them fired out of the pinkish blob and whistled through the air. Two drips later it struck the bare neck of one of the oarfolk. He clutched the bleeding would, letting the purple depths claim his weapon. Before any of his fellows could grab him he slumped to the side and fell into the lake.
“Brilliant!” Kilrogue blurted with a clap of his hands. “You just keep that up while I take the fishy approach.” The prosite didn’t have time to respond, and doing so might’ve caused it to spit out some of its fine weapons. Within drips Kilrogue dove off the side and plunged into his emissions.
He had enough practice to know what to expect from such a swim. The more open a folk’s heart, the more pleasant their experience with the fluid. Those who rejected love, opting instead to nestle their hearts in possession or envy, were disgusted by the sight of it. To them the fluid appeared a murky reddish-brown and was thick with oil, fat, and chips of bone. They would smell it and recoil as if they stood before an ocean populated entirely by dead fish. Touching it would leave no injuries, but would burn intensely all the same.
It was the opposite for Kilrogue. The color was splendid, like balm made from flower petals. It smelled like ripe fruit grown giant and thick underground. When he was submerged his view was, while tinted, clear as crystal. He could look down and see the footprints his people had left in the gravel during their initial trek. The discharge never picked up silt from the bottom, so the few patches of grass that had taken hold after the site’s abandonment were still there, swaying in the kiss of the current.
The boats above him, his target, were just as obvious. To those bitter love-clawers the lake’s surface would reveal nothing, so they wouldn’t know he was there until the moment he emerged. The man Wraxulto had shot was already on the bottom, feet and hands still trying to float back up. He didn’t so much as twitch, so Kilrogue assumed he had already perished. It was tragic, but it was surely the fault of her mother; it wasn’t Kilrogue who designed a battle plan that gave no opportunity for the opposition to offer mercy. He took one last look at the corpse before ascending toward the boats. The blood from its neck wound did not cloud; it simply flowed down and pooled, demonstrating love’s ability to overshadow blood completely.
Kilrogue grabbed the broken bottle from his waistband. He was so accustomed to the discharge that he didn’t even need to breathe in it. Part of him wished he had simply sequestered his harem under its surface, but not all of them were so well adapted. They were still learning, still casting off the ever-cracking armor of pride. All the options had already been discussed, and all twigs of possible peace already carried off by a dozen rovins. This was the only way.
He broke the surface and splashed one of the crews with purple discharge. They panicked, feeling its burn. Two of them immediately fell over the side and started their sink. Kilrogue grabbed a third and pulled her off. The woman pawed at him, surely begging to be saved inside her head, but he slipped out from her grip. One thing he didn’t know was what it would feel like to drown in all their missed opportunities; he hoped there wasn’t too much regret mixed in with the encroaching darkness.
That was one boat down, but the others showed no change in course. Perhaps if he found Suchatash’s mother and incapacitated her the others would retreat. He swam for the next boat, but he wasn’t even halfway before Wraxulto demonstrated that it would keep to its word. Two more bodies dropped into the discharge with shards of glass in the seams of their armor. The boats changed course in response, heading straight for the prosite’s tower.
Kilrogue followed underneath them. Though he was many generations removed from the Custodian, there were still licks of divine power within his muscles. It came out mostly in the heat of conflict, in spurts that he found more embarrassing than his bouts of magical voluminous vomiting. Some of his fellows had told him that his inner hero was showing, which drew a blush to his face. He wasn’t a hero; they were merely a class of brawler. He was a lover, far more admirable to the world if not to its gods.
Still, those outbursts had their uses. He flipped under the boat currently in the rear of the formation and kicked its bottom with both legs at full force. It was just a tipping attempt, but the kick sent it into the air and then splashing back down. In the soldiers’ struggles to keep it upright they successfully tipped it over and found themselves sinking. Many of them were capable swimmers, but it was not water. Spiritually, they were out of their depth.
The war party responded yet again, this time by splitting up. Most of them headed for Harem Hall, but the head boat stayed on course for Wraxulto’s watchtower. Kilrogue had complete faith in Bootyka and the others, so he stayed on Mother Conflict’s tail. The prosite had plenty of bottles for ammunition, but those at the front of the boat now blocked their exposed necks with their gauntlets and their hung heads. The downward angle the jarred warrior would have to aim from quickly became untenable.
Kilrogue reached the boat just as he saw a foot dip into the discharge. They were climbing the side now. It would be a terrible shame for that creature to be revitalized just to be squished a drop later, especially since it was the first friendly prosite he’d ever met. It occurred to him, as he hoisted himself onto the back of the boat, that his new friend was so amicable precisely because of the amorous discharge bead. The fluid was a distilled form of selfless affection, and it had been absorbed into the very plasm of the prosite, even changing its color.
True or not, he only knew the helpful one, so he felt duty bound to rock the boat. Kilrogue leapt from the back and onto the tower, holding a beam with one hand and brandishing the broken bottle with the other. He’d placed himself directly in front of Mother Conflict as she tried to step off the boat. This finally gave him a good look at her face: maternal rage lost somewhere in a sea of frustration.
“What did that bird tell you?” Kilrogue asked. “I think it may have exaggerated; jealous of the verdant splendor of my eyes against its own it was.”
“What have you done with my daughter?” she snarled, feet dropping back to the bow. She pulled her spear from off her back. “She is not one of your tarts, eager to be iced by the rotten humors of a Custodian gone bad. She is next in line to occupy the Porcely throne of Occupid! She will be the Sitter Supreme like her mother before her!” Mother Conflict spun around and revealed the golden shape hanging over her rear end: the steed shoe seat. Such a likeness of the seat of Second Toil might have carried a lot of respect back in her stall, but the sight of it clanking on her armored buttocks just made Kilrogue snort and chuckle.
“I’ve done many things with your daughter,” he admitted, “and she has done many things with me. She has also done things with other folk, and you only get to know about them if she wants you too. We would all die for her privacy, for it is also ours.”
“Nothing of hers is yours!” the woman roared, stabbing the tower with her spear in an attempt to skewer his ankle. “She has very important business to attend to atop this seat.” She slapped the metal curve.
“Look,” Kilrogue bargained, “why don’t you just join us? Every day on this lake is lovely, and I bet you’d look spectacular in your swimming clothes.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere!” She swung again, forcing the man to climb the tower backwards. She hopped from her boat and pursued, reaching the railing around the same time, grabbing his leg as he rolled over and pulling herself along for the ride. The two wrestled across the floor, which prevented Wraxulto from having a clean shot at Mother Conflict. The jarred warrior, once loosed, was never one to stand by, so it arranged the shards within its body into a row, made them protrude, and then hardened the plasm around them into a makeshift dagger. It hopped down with a wet sound and charged point first as if intending to joust straight into her ear canal.
The prosite would’ve succeeded if Kilrogue hadn’t recognized the move and rolled her out of the way. The blob pulled back, its many pupils widening in confusion. Mother Conflict was again reaching for her spear when she spotted the pinkish slime.
“Is that a prosite!? I can only imagine how unsanitary that house has become if it has attracted that sort of vermin.” Wraxulto’s eye narrowed once more; it slithered closer.
“Our goal is not to kill this woman,” Kilrogue warned. “I love her daughter very much and I don’t want to cause her that distress. I forbid you from striking Wraxulto.”
“No promises,” the prosite burbled. Apparently what the woman had said caused great offense; its surface looked puckered in rage. A moment later it morphed back into the shape of a folk hand, properly wielding its dagger this time. It bent back in preparation of a strike, and there was only one thing Kilrogue could think to do. With one swift motion he bucked the woman off, turned, and grabbed Wraxulto around the fingers, bending the blade back. Kilrogue stood and rushed to the railing, shaking the prosite up and down. Its elbow bulged and wiggled like the udder of a pregnant whetzoo.
“It’s a deal!” the man exclaimed. “I’ll take care of her and you’ll help the others defend the hall. We shook on it, so no take-backs!” Kilrogue hurled the prosite out into the lake, but there was no time to check if it could swim. Mother Conflict came up behind him; her spear slid between his side and arm, drawing enough blood to fill one of the abandoned bottles.
“You don’t even know how to fight properly,” she said with a sneer.
“I said no take-backs, but you should really take that one back!” He lunged at her with his broken bottle in the hopes of slicing her knuckles and disarming her. The bottle and the spear clashed a few times, but with each strike Kilrogue’s weapon grew smaller. Mother Conflict roared and struck a final time, obliterating the neck of the bottle and cutting the top of his hand. He wanted her to take it back, but it was true. He had enough bravery within him to slay a personal demon while wearing a ball gown and rouge, but he didn’t have the skills with a weapon or his fists to make it meaningful. His reputation was earned, but only by those he kept as company. Men and women like Bootyka were his true weapons.
He attempted a Custodian-powered kick, but she dodged the strike easily, grabbed his ankle, and pulled. He crashed onto his back, the wood crafting a fine knot on his head. Mother Conflict straddled him a drip later, wielding not her spear but her golden toil seat. She brought it down like a pair of fangs. It penetrated the wood on either side of his neck, locking him in place. That was when her spear reappeared, the tip of it pressed against his large nose. A drop of blood pooled in the cleft of his lip.
“Great, now I’ll have to wipe the seat,” she muttered when he sneezed red droplets all over her prized possession. “Howlr forgive you if you’re to be a permanent stain on my line.” Her grip tightened.
“No! He’s a stain on mine!” a voice shouted, turning her focus away. Wraxulto, somehow having sweated off much of its pink color, leapt from the railing and attached itself to Mother Conflict’s face. She dropped her weapon and reeled backward, clawing at its slimy form and failing to find purchase. The blob had created suction as it masked her, so the part of it over her mouth inflated and deflated as she struggled to breathe.
Kilrogue grabbed both prongs of the toil seat and pulled, wrenching it free of the wood. He tossed it away, regretting it a moment later when it struck the bell. The sound surely drew the attention of her other soldiers. His regret retracted a drip later, for he realized it was helpful to lead them away from his lovers. He also couldn’t resist the joke that presented itself like a bowing lord with no pants.
“Hey,” he giggled, “the bell toils for you!” He followed the woman around as she stumbled, leaning back when she clawed the air near him. “Can she hear me through you? I said the bell toils for you!” In place of an answer, the prosite’s body stretched and twirled into the shape of a tentacle. Then it whipped with all its might, yanking the woman over to the railing. With one more yank it tossed her into the lake, detaching at the last moment with a pthop.
“Retreat!” Mother Conflict spat once her head broke the surface. She grabbed the edge of her boat to keep from sinking. All her determination must have left when the liquid penetrated her armor and started streaking uninhibited across her prudish skin. It surely burned like a tumble into a campfire. The woman flopped into her vessel and kicked it away from the tower, screaming for her soldiers to rejoin her. They did so in short order, as if they’d been prepared to back off the entire time. It seemed they weren’t quite as invested as their leader in this little family squabble.
“Enjoy your bath! Ahaha!” Kilrogue declared out over the retreating boats. He wanted to say more, but he was interrupted by another spray of discharge that the folk below had to quickly paddle away from. Over it he heard the victorious chants from those back at Harem Hall. When it was finished he wiped his mouth across his forearm and turned to thank the plucky droplet that had made such a crucial difference. He smiled, but his expression faded when he had his first full look at the prosite since its return.
It was not Wraxulto. It was very similar, surely, and he was no breeder of blobs, but this was not the same creature. Its color had paled. Its eye was smaller and the pupils a different shape, more like curling vines than before. Its surface now had fine, stubby, white hairs. The prosite sat atop the railing, morphing and bowing before it spoke.
“I know your name,” it said dreamily.
“You… absolutely do not,” Kilrogue argued. “I never told you. That is, if you are still… you.”
“It matters not. Your name is Ordr.”
“That I can’t deny,” he said stiffly. “I am Kilrogue Ordr: in line with Custodian Kilroy Ordr. Last light of Luminatr, but well lit all the same. How did you know? And what has happened to you Wraxulto?”
“I am Wraxulto no longer,” the prosite explained. “I doubt you realized, but an individual prosite cannot make conflicting oaths. Doing so causes us to split so that each half may hold to one promise. Wraxulto promised to stay in this tower until the battle was over. When you grabbed it you forced it, by handshake, to guard that building at the same time. We separated in the discharge. Look over there.”
Once again in the form of a hand and forearm, the prosite bent backward and pointed at one of the balconies of the mansion. Kilrogue grabbed another empty bottle to use as spyglass, first checking it thoroughly for any more creatures he might accidentally revive. Through its warped bottom he saw another prosite sitting on a railing.
This other one was not Wraxulto either. It was just as similar, but it had all its own differences: gray coloration with only a kiss of pink, an egg-shaped eye, and a thicker smoother membrane. He half-expected it to wave, but it was far less friendly than the other one. The blob bounced itself right off the balcony, landing on a piece of floating debris from one of the boats. Its end stretched into a shape somewhere between a flipper and a rudder, which it then dunked in the liquid and used to propel itself across the lake.
“Does that one have somewhere to be?” Kilrogue asked.
“Its name is Draminulto Bocculum, and it has no reason to stay now that it has fulfilled its promise,” the prosite next to him explained. “I am Wraxivix Bocculum, and I believe I was lucky enough to inherit most of the discharge that reinvigorated our parent. My poor sibling won’t have as much of this innate happiness, this… goodness.”
“Are you saying that my sick didn’t just awaken you?” the man asked. “It changed you?”
“I believe so. We really were nearly out of water, so our body drank it up with abandon. If it’s in our plasm it’s part of us. It will be a part of our line for generations, though its influence will likely reduce with each.”
“I’m sorry; I had no intention of altering you.”
“I know. None of this was my intention or yours. It was that of our ancestors. That is how I knew your surname was Ordr and that your first name would begin with Kilro.”
“I don’t understand.” The prosite seemed to tell the truth about the diminishing influence of the discharge. Wraxulto had been exuberant and pleasant, while this new one was more somber and aloof. He felt a touch drained himself, and not solely from the battle. Hearing about the Custodian in his past frequently made him feel helpless, like a seed on the wind. Folk always told him that the same two things determined everything about him: his bodily inheritance and the whim of the world. He thought he’d avoided those things in that lovely square hole; they were below most of the winds that would move him and away from those who would only admire the blood in his veins.
“Wraxulto spent its life waiting for an Ordr,” Wraxivix continued. “It is part of the Bocculum line. Long in the past, we infected the fate of your family. Now, sometimes skipping across a generation or two, the Ordrs and the Bocculum strain always reunite. It always leaves them changed on both sides. I was born having met you, so I doubt if I will ever see an Ordr again. It will be great peace of mind for me.”
“Well, that’s a lot to take in… and I’m more used to expelling things,” Kilrogue said. For once he actually felt like vomiting, if only to cover the awkward silence. “I’m surprised my line hasn’t tried to kill yours off. Grandmother Kilrosie wasn’t the friendliest, especially to slithering things upon the ground.”
“They’ve both tried,” Wraxivix admitted. “Nobody likes having their fate woven into a pattern with those of others. The result might be a beautiful tapestry, but it is utterly inanimate.” It noticed Kilrogue’s quiet sigh. “I think we’ve done well today though; the results are encouraging at least. The material you’ve added to my line is fundamentally amicable. It could open the door to more cooperation in the future.”
“Yes, that’s my future,” Kilrogue agreed. “Plenty of cooperation. Perhaps our lines will get along famously.”
The simultaneous upbeading heist distracted all of them except for Pearlen. Her companions, who had been assigned to help her survey Crib-ohlk for more opportunities to rob Whelm of her shards, were instead going over their interactions with Teal and Rob, trying to decide what tiny slight had doomed them to the blistering desert. They were even forced to disguise themselves with heavy cloaks, their sweat already making the garments cling to their bodies.
Ladyfish and Herc didn’t even need the disguises, as the Church of Bright Hope and its head had only seen the girl before. Their eyes would’ve glazed over after the third drop of watching the church’s entrance, but there wasn’t enough moisture left to glaze them. Ladyfish opened her canteen, dipped two fingers in, and used them to put single drops of water into her eyes. She blinked at the door on the other side of the street, but it still didn’t open.
“You did say that mirror was being built in the back, yes?” Herc asked the girl. “Is there a particular reason we’re scouting the front?”
“There’s no cover in the back,” Pearlen explained. “It’s just a ribbed tunnel of glass. They’d notice us for sure.”
“Do we even know if they take any of the path pieces in through the front? If they don’t then we won’t be able to snag any.”
“That’s why we’re scouting,” Pearlen hissed. “Besides, we’re here for more than pieces. We have to find a way to stop Whelm the vision. She almost killed me with an illusion; imagine what she’ll do if she’s free of the path.”
“I wager the others haven’t even tooken nothing yet,” Ladyfish sighed. “They likely still eating fanciful finger foods. First thing theys take’ll be a moe-noe-grammed nappykin.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead.
“Stop with that talk Ladyfish,” Herc pleaded. “It’s bad enough being stuck out here without thinking about the refreshingly cool heights of Rinlatour.” He turned to Pearlen, throwing his hood back so she could see the shine the heat had put on top of his ears. “Can we cut through the false motives here to find some progress? Stealing pieces is fine, stopping a villain is fine, but we’re here for your parents.” The girl bristled at the accusation, but wilted a drip later. It was too sweltering to maintain a good bristle.
“We might save them, but only incidentally. They’re the reason for the majority of my suffering. I don’t owe them a thing. Feel free to treat them as combatants…”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Herc interrupted. “Our little party could travel lighter if we drop these sacks of pretense. If what we’re really after is a separation of your parents from the church, we can just find them, snatch them up, and drag them through the nearest glass. We can store them in the Employer’s brig until that light clears out of their heads.”
“Your eyes are a little brighted Herc, so I think you know it’s never going to clear out. Besides, I want them to know they’ve devoted their life to a monster. If we abduct them and tell them it’s for their own good, they’ll just think they’re martyrs.”
“Let’s pick a stratagem-stone and run with it,” Ladyfish said, agreeing with Herc. “Doing anything be better than standing round here, sweating like a toil under a three bar hairy bum.”
“Fine,” Pearlen relented. “You two take a break. Go back to the Employer and cool off. I’ll stay here and try to think of something for when you get back. One drop.” Herc and Ladyfish nodded, retreating into the alley behind them. Its sides were polished glass, so they were able to share their piece and travel, taking the newest part of their mirror web back to the Employer. Pearlen had her own piece tucked into her belt, but she was afraid to use it in her stealthy purpose. Whelm is in the path somewhere. All she has to do is shine on me when I’m in there and I’ll be the reflection of a corpse.
As much as she hated to admit it, the others were right. There was no sense in just standing around, observing and hoping that the church would collapse on its own. I’m here to assault them with laughter, from high on hoof of noble steed, but I can’t. They’re succeeding. That’s the way they’ve always been. They find something on the rise, ignorant of why it’s rising, and ride until it crashes. They always get to escape: the blameless well-meaning idiots who let themselves become the debris flung in the eruption.
“I hate them!” she seethed, body heat practically boiling the water in her goggles. “Calm down. I said I’d find a more productive way to hate them.” She needed to see inside the church, to know what the next step of their plan was, but there was no way to walk in without getting spotted. Even if the entryway was empty those brighted-eye folk could see and hear through their thin glass walls. There had to be another way.
Though they’d looked around for several drops, none of them had realized that there was something above the town’s glass roof until she saw one of the lamps, hanging by chain, being pulled up. It was the middle of the day, so the light coming through the ceiling was too bright to focus on. Still, she put her hands as visor over her goggles and watched the lamp rise. It disappeared into a lattice of glass and light.
They’re refilling the lamps for when night comes. Several other lamps to her left and right followed. There’s another floor up there; that means there must be an entrance. Pearlen couldn’t look up for long, but when she focused her ears she could hear the footsteps of the lamp-fillers above her. They moved like clockwork, taking just fifteen drips to refill each lamp and lower its chain back down before moving onto the next. The girl picked out the footsteps that were nearest and tried to shut out all other sound.
Tlick tlick tlick tlack tlick. The townsfolk must have thought her strange given the way she took twenty steps, stopped, waited, and then took twenty more. She decided that if anybody questioned her she would simply call it a religious ritual; there were enough odd beliefs in that town to make it plausible. And if they’re tilefolk babbling at me in Pawtymouth? What do I say then… What’s their word for religious diligence… fryltar. I think that’s the one.
Tlick tlack tlack. The lamp-filler’s path took this way and that, so far from the church of Bright Hope that she could no longer see it. Eventually, when everything around was quiet, the sound ran her straight into a wall of orange glass. The sound descended. When it reached goggle level a well camouflaged door opened in the glass, eight foams to her left. A tilefolk stepped out with an empty oilcan, rubbing the last greasy drop between their fingers. They stretched their shoulders; Pearlen heard several bones pop.
It must be a tight space up there if even a tilefolk felt cramped. There wasn’t time to think anything else, for the door was swinging shut behind them. Pearlen shuffled over, back to the wall, and leaned so that the end of the spear slung over her back would catch the door at the last moment. She slid inside and closed it, standing perfectly still in the hopes that the tilefolk hadn’t heard the small delay in the door’s closing. Nothing approached. Even if they had heard, they were likely just a civil servant and didn’t see it as any concern. What harm could she do up there?
They were difficult to see at first, but when she leaned in she discerned rungs carved in the glass opposite the door. There was barely room to climb in the shaft, as her elbows kept bumping the opposite side. Worse, the shaft itself didn’t go straight up; it followed the natural striations of the glass. In a couple places it ceased being a ladder and became more of a serpont burrow, forcing her to wriggle her spine and crawl with her shoulders.
It did eventually make its way above the town and turn into a grate floor. She knew she was on the right level when her feet bumped into the chains wrapped around the glass. The space would’ve been barely tall enough for a tilefolk to stand, so Pearlen resorted to crawling on her hands and knees. It only took a short while for her hands to be covered in red grate patterns. Every movement stung, but she pressed on, finding her way by the shapes of the streets below.
Folk came and went beneath her, the smells of many different types of incense wafting up. All she could see was splotches of color, but the scents were likely ingrained in the holy robes of all kinds of clerics, shamans, and oracles. The scent of slipperpetal was supposed to facilitate communication with spirits. A whiff of gummire reed meant one of the sects thought it could suppress the carnal desires of their flock with distracting aromas.
One of the citizens checked their face in a pocket mirror. The beams from their brighted eyes bounced off and struck Pearlen above them. That’s one of the brighted; I can just follow them the rest of the way. She was right, as less than a fifth drop later she passed over the main door of the church of Bright Hope and found herself within its ceiling. Far less light came through in the areas off the street thanks to paint on the glass, so the skin on the back of her neck finally stopped burning.
Her parents’ room was right there, but that wasn’t her goal. The polishing mirror must not be completed. If this chamber extends over that one, we can wait until it’s abandoned and lower a pendulum to smash it with. Or we could snag pieces of the path on fishing line and bring them up one by one. You’re ahead of yourself. Get there first. Pearlen continued her crawl, but slower to avoid generating noise.
Giggles from beneath slowed her down. She was over a nursery for the youngest children of the devoted. They must’ve just had a snack, for the smell of cookies drifted up to her. I remember those treats. Mother called them ‘good girls’, because they would always crumble before they snapped. I tried so hard to chew them, to get them to make a nice crunch, but they just become mud in your mouth and make it hard to talk. It was a great way to shut me up, give them some quiet where they could pretend I was a more obedient child. She breathed deeply of the nutty syrupy aroma. It’s not just similar. That’s her damn recipe.
An itch struck her left eye, nearly making her hiss. The clawlies were getting hungry again; perhaps they smelled the cookies too. More likely, the salty tear in her eye formed from the memories disturbed them. Pearlen carefully reached to her belt and pulled out a phial of the colored nutrient-rich water. If she wanted to administer it properly in that confined space she would have to lay on her back and use the dropper. This required a very slow turn, a repositioning of one elbow, and then of course she needed her-
“Welcome back!” Whelm the Vision shouted. She was there in the glass directly above Pearlen, eyes blazing with all the colors of a pastoral painting-fed bonfire. Licks of pink, yellow, and green danced about her, merging her hair and gown into one great cape. “You’re just in time for hymns!” Her hand shot toward Pearlen, claws of light extending. It couldn’t escape the glass, but the shock of it made the girl flinch with her entire body. Tlank! Her elbow broke through the glass lattice. Then her other one. Then the rest of her. Pearlen crashed onto the floor of the nursery, the impact knocking her unconscious. The last thing she felt was the chubby fingers of babes poking at her arms and cheeks.
A drop of water rolled between her eyes, followed by a second. Rain? No, every drop followed the same path. She tried to open her eyes, but they felt swollen and dry like molded balls of grain. The water shouldn’t have run all the way down her nose; the goggle strap should’ve diverted it.
Swimmr help me! They took my goggles. I’m going to go blind; they’re going to finish taking the world from me! She tried again to focus, but the only thing brought to the forefront of her mind was the pinpricks: each clawly footstep inside the matter of her eyes. She groaned.
“She’s awake,” a female voice said. “Start putting it in her eyes. Handky and Curtain mentioned she needs water in those spotted eyes of hers; it’s some sort of condition.” A hand grabbed her chin and gently titled her head back. A drop of water struck her left eye, and then one in her right. It did clear her vision enough to make a few things out. They were in a dark room hastily cut from the glass. The walls were covered in white scratches at a thousand different angles.
Pearlen tried to move, but her wrists were tied down. Her fingers pushed, and some rectangular shapes gave way under them: keys. Her struggle produced a most cacophonous hymn. She was tied to a wheeled organ in what she realized was some sort of storage room in the church. Three of the brighted stood before her. She didn’t recognize any of them, but with her eyes as they were their faces were just twisted balls of dough contaminated by twigs and dirt. If any of them were her crewmates in disguise she might not even recognize them.
“Water…” she muttered, the dryness of her throat asserting itself. The word dropped from her mouth like a desiccated worm.
“We’ve been giving your eyes water,” the female said again. “Don’t worry. We’re taking care of you for your parents.”
“Water… isn’t good enough,” the young woman groaned. She wriggled back and forth, the organ dutifully interpreting her struggle in song. “There’re bugs in my eyes. They need food. There needs to be food in the water.”
“Don’t try and trick us now, you bruised little tart.” The woman seemed to think she was chastising a toddler. “Water’s good enough.” One more drop of it hit each of her eyes. While it undid the dryness of the desert, the clawlies would soon realize there was no nourishment in it. They would take offense.
“Just ask my parents!” Pearlen protested. “They’ll tell you how to stop botching this.”
“We already did. They told us water, so we’re using water.”
“Where are they? Bring them to me!”
“You’ll see them soon, but our vision will be speaking with you first. She’s going to fix those eyes for you permanently.” Pearlen struggled against her bonds until another set of hands grabbed her from behind and steadied her. Do they seriously not remember that it takes special water? I shouldn’t be surprised. Half the time I screamed about it they thought I was faking. Focus! Whelm’s coming. She wants to bright our eyes; they’ll never be ours again. How long has it been? Where are Ladyfish and Herc?
“Let’s pull this up,” the woman of the church said, grabbing the person next to her and maneuvering them in front of Pearlen. No, not a person. There were only brighted in the room with her; this third one was her reflection in a standing mirror. The scratches on the walls must have prevented Whelm from appearing, so they brought in an aid. The girl had only a moment with her reflection; it cast its eyes down and shuffled away.
Normally there was nothing that could stop a reflection from observing its quarry, but Whelm the vision was well outside the normal. She struck fear into denizens of the path and Porce alike, and now it was time to strike Pearlen. Her colors bled into the mirror, brightening the room significantly. The scratches in the walls shone white as if heated to their melting point. A rainbow of fire became so many standing clustered weeds. Whelm’s fingers appeared and parted them. She grinned.
“Finally, you’ll sit still and give me a chance to explain myself,” the radiant woman said. “I’m going to heal you Pearlen. Isn’t that wonderful? You’ll be all better and then you will serve the best and brightedest.”
“Don’t you mean the Spotless?” the girl spat.
“Of course, but none can find their way to him but through me. Your mother told me you’ve got an infestation in your eyes. I’ll fry them in an instant with florentshine.”
“Not before they panic and destroy what’s left of my sight.”
“We’ll take that risk. Even if you go blind I’ll still be able to use what’s left. I’ll spare plenty of time to see for you.” Whelm’s eyes sank and her lips fluttered. A thought had distracted her. When her focus returned she looked more determined than ever. Her face turned and she addressed her acolights. “Leave us. This will be a deeply personal journey for her.” The underlings did as they were told, scurrying out the single door and shutting it behind them.
“I don’t know what you are other than a liar,” Pearlen said. “You’re certainly not the wife of the Spotless.”
“It’s hard to be a wife to someone who doesn’t exist,” Whelm said casually. She licked her lips over the delicious idea sloshing around in her mind.
“So you admit it? All this is a charade. What do you really intend to do with the polishing mirror?
“Well that part is somewhat honest,” Whelm said, affronted. “I do have some substance to my soul. The polishing mirror is my way back to Porce. No more lonesome eons.”
“If you’re so lonesome, go talk the ears off all the reflections. None of them will even interrupt your sermons.”
“Bite your tongue,” Whelm warned. “If you only knew how much I’ve tried to draw from them already. An opinion. A thought. They’re worse than paintings because they pretend to be alive. The gods have treated me as one of them since I became a casualty in their war. I wonder if they buried a shard in my grave over in the real world. They probably didn’t even bother to dig a full one. I’d wager they barely planted a seed when the said they were honoring me.”
“You mean the eight gods?” Pearlen asked. “You’re claiming you’ve been alive long enough to have known them. That’s impossible.”
“Impossible for flesh perhaps, but mine is long gone. I am light now. Anyway, we’ll get to the unlikelihood of my being shortly. First, I have an offer for you. I’ll cure you of your infestation and you agree to be my body in my Porcely affairs.” Pearlen recoiled, the organ cringing with an equally disgusted pair of notes. “Don’t look so taken aback,” Whelm said with a roll of her eyes. “Talk with me folk to folk. I’ve already admitted the truth. We’re both women forced to carry the weight of others’ folly. We should be on the same team. We should be philosophical sisters.”
“You play a little rough for a sister,” Pearlen grunted as she pushed her heels against the ground. That succeeded in shoving the organ back a few bubbles, but there was a long way to go before she was out of the mirror’s range. All she can do is brighten that mirror; if I can just get out of its angle…
“I think you could learn to love me,” Whelm chimed. “Think about it. When I can use your eyes I can share with you all the little details you’re missing. I can tell you what that adorable boy of yours really looks like. What was his name? Alast? I liked him. With us together we’ll almost be a complete folk. We could share him! I’d love to be there for a kiss, watching his eyes sink into the pleasu-”
“Gyah!” Pearlen exclaimed, both to help her shove the organ and to quiet Whelm’s disturbing daydream. “You’ll have nothing of mine witch! What would you want my eyes for anyway? Once your gateway is done you’ll be out here yourself.” Keep her talking. The others will look for me as soon as they see I’m not at my post.
“That’s true, but it never hurts to have contingency plans.” Whelm ran a hand through her hair and started braiding it. Whenever she finished a section it detached and drifted to the periphery of her light so she could start on a new lock. “Besides, I don’t know if an actual body will be returned to me when I leave. If I’m still just these colors… I would like an associate… a friend… to be my proxy.”
“The answer’s no,” Pearlen insisted. There were so many insults building up inside her, but no energy to fling them. Shifting the heavy organ already had her gasping and her muscles burning. “I’m as disgusted by the honest opportunistic you as I am by the altruistic prophet version.”
“Let’s alter those eyes then, and see if it alters your mind.” Whelm’s expression darkened. Her fingers flicked out of her radiant hair while her palms stayed hidden. They moved through the current of her crop like predator’s fins, combing out the colorless light of the florent. Pearlen squinted.
“My eyes are closed! You’re wasting your time!”
“I’ll burn straight through your lids; it’s no skin off my face. It’s up to you how much it hurts and whether or not your boy can still stand to look at you afterwards.” You have to be close to the florent to get brighted, but it doesn’t feel like she’s lying! I can feel it on my cheeks. That is fresh florentshine. She must keep it pure within her somehow. I need more time. I need…
“Your life story!” the girl blurted; the light receded.
“What?” Whelm asked.
“You said we would get to your unlikely origin. If I’m to listen it would be better if my mind was not consumed by searing pain. Just a friendly suggestion.”
“I would like you to listen, sister Pearlen.” The prisoner opened her eyes when her captor didn’t immediately resume speaking. The smile that seemed to anchor the light of her being was no longer there. Her features floated a little, her eyes like buoys in rough seas. Pearlen realized it was a little like seeing a tear as a quivering skin over someone’s pupil. This was in fact honesty. In that dark room, free from her devoted fools, Whelm was ready to confess. “Do you believe in the eight gods?”
“I do,” she answered. “My old captain has seen… remnants of them. I’ve always prayed to Swimmr, but only while submerged.” Whelm laughed airily without showing her teeth.
“She would like that I’m sure. I never had a favorite growing up…”
There wasn’t a soul that could walk and talk that wasn’t part of the war; that was how it seemed. I was as young as I look now, but even in my youth I knew something was different. My parents and grandparents said that nothing like it had ever stricken Porce. The birth of the war was like the birth of a whole new kind of creature: one that knew only how to thrash and tear itself apart.
Pearlen, you and all your folk, can never understand the shock of it. Porce was like a dream before Qorcneas woke from his carefully maintained slumber. Violence was motivated only by miscommunications. The folk of each god had their rivalries, their scandals, but none had turned armor into uniforms.
When Qorcneas emerged from Youbend he was alone, but not alone enough for his tastes. To him the world his lover had created was an abomination. The children she had created without his consent, the eight, were the most incensing. All of their offspring sided with Hesprid, except for Whispr who sided with neither. This created a conundrum. How was he supposed to wage his war with no soldiers to fight on his side?
The answer was the prosites, who had long kept to their own cities in the damp-dank-dark of the world walls. They wanted no part of their conflict either, but Qorcneas did not give them a choice. He ripped them from the walls, tore them apart, and stirred them all together. With a blast of power that deathly stew turned into the first dark clouds the world had ever known. Imagine it Pearlen. All clouds were blue and white before that day. Thunder wasn’t invented yet. All the lightning was red, and it kept to the heart of the ekapads.
The clouds crept across the skies of the World Floor, and from them poured a violet rain that spread disease. His first blow was to weaken the farmlands of the tiles. The rain sickened crops, livestock, and folk alike. When the tilefolk lost all their hair… that was how we knew they had the disease. It was catching, so we couldn’t give them refuge. They were left clawing at the bases of the walls, trying to squeeze through the iron fences we put up to keep them out.
Qorcneas knew his lover’s weakness. She never destroyed life, only changed it. The disease was a living thing, so she would not cure those stricken. It was up to her children, the folk they’d created, and all the hybridized Oaths and Custodians to kill in her stead. For a time there was nothing we could do against it. We were on edge every morning, feeling like we had to walk atop our furniture, because the floor was not safe.
It was Luminatr that gave Porce hope, but who also drew my family into the war effort. We lived on the edge of the Reflecting Path… You should have seen it when it was whole Pearlen. Picture this Glass Desert, but make it silver and white. Populate it with reflections who could project themselves into our world as long as they stood atop it, much like I can out in the dunes. They weren’t so bloodthirsty back then, because it was much easier to visit their counterparts.
Travel via the path now is such a rare and precious thing; you need a gemstone of it. Yet back then it was the very ground stretching for lathers and lathers! It was my backyard! I chased rabards into it, only to giggle when I wound up catching their vaporous reflections instead.
Folk came to us in the thousands from Third Wall to cooperate and strategize. They sent us craftsfolk to help build Luminatr’s idea. The only raw materials we needed came from the path: just small pieces we broke off the edges. They were turned into standing prisms of metallic glass. Luminatr descended into the path and cultivated the florent’s light that had long been stored there after it shined through our world.
She found that she could shape it, direct it through the prisms as destructive beams. Rows of them were built in view of my home, forcing us to move. They had to fire at all drops of the day, and that sound… it was so loud that you couldn’t sleep through it. So bright that you could go blind if you didn’t wear special smoke-tinted goggles.
The beams tore through the clouds with ease, as prosites have always been very sensitive to florentshine. Qorcneas had to try something else. This time he kept his slaves whole, breeding them into better fighters. He refined their ability to build prolith armor and protect themselves from the light. I felt sorry for them. You could see it in them, each generation forced to be crueler and dumber than the last.
That was when battles were born. All folk allied, sharpening and hurling each other at stomping stone giants. I was still away from it all, watching the beams cut through armies nearly a world away. Sometimes, when they all fired at once, they were like a great fence of light keeping the monsters out.
He’d already taken our happiness from us, and hope was a poor substitute. We still had it though. It looked like Luminatr’s light cannons would win us the age… but it was not to be so. Qorcneas realized what a tactical advantage the Reflecting Path gave us. Not only could we use it to store and direct all the florentshine that had ever shone, but it provided transportation across the walls without having to cross the parts of the floor that he’d conquered.
There was no prosite or monster with enough power to do what he wanted, so he did it himself. I even saw it. My duties around our new home included welcoming visitors in the path and directing them to their proper stations. I was nothing like this. My light wasn’t my power wasn’t my clothes wasn’t my skin. My dress was yellow. There were flowers in my hair, and when I was over or in the path all sorts of colorful reflected bugs flew around them. Since they were of the path there was no buzzing or whining.
You could wade into it like a pond, but you know it doesn’t feel like water. It’s a thousand little prickles on your every hair and pore. The sensation was up to my shoulders, right up to here. Sometimes I swear I can still feel it, but I think that’s just because it was the last pleasant thing I felt.
That’s right. In this form I can’t feel anything at all. Even though I’m brighter than a blazing star there is no warmth. I can’t taste or smell or feel even the thin imitation textures of the path. My emotions run wild, uninhibited by the boundaries that are supposed to mark the territories of my senses. The anger of even a slight offense will burn inside me for days as a deep betrayal… There’s nothing from Porce to slow it down, to force me to react. It feels like I cannot be destroyed or diminished, and when an invulnerable thing is in pain… Am I so hard to understand? Wouldn’t you use these fools in my place?
As I said, I was up to my shoulders when I saw him. Qorcneas sailed through the sky as something indescribable beyond its darkness and size. I had no idea what it was at the time. You probably know nothing about Hesprid, but she used her power slowly, to build, to help things grow until they could walk on their own. Not Qorcneas. He would never build anything, and his power perfectly rivaled hers. He still had all that power saved up to concentrate into one destructive shattering blow.
The old Reflecting Path covered the wall from First Sink to Third Sink, and he struck the dead middle. It took so long for me to even feel it. The shock wave submerged me in the path, but I shot back out, trying to keep my head in Porce. Despite the distance it had to cover I didn’t have time to make it back to true land.
The glass rose in a wave, cracking at its crest. I couldn’t be half in and half out when it reached me, so I submerged completely to keep my head on my shoulders. Everything was just… reaction. I wasn’t thinking about the integrity of the gateway. When the destruction passed overhead I thought I would just be observer, as with every other part of the war. Someone had to see it for it to mean something, right? That person had to escape it to tell the tale.
Only, nobody did tell the tale. You’ve never heard it. The whole world thinks the Reflecting Path broke in some natural cataclysm. The gods I served are nothing to them. Instead they’ve taken up the Spotless, and I can tell you for certain that he wasn’t there. He was never anywhere. A fictional god suits folk better these days it seems. They don’t actually know what it means to worship. We worshiped because we actually received their blessings. They were real gifts Pearlen, presented to us in wrapping.
And if modern folk can do whatever they want with their book-dwelling god, then so can I. I proposed to him and made him my spouse. I’ve just as much right to that claim as they have to his blessing…
As I was saying, there were no observers in that war. Only participants. When the path shattered it was like an avalanche of giant spears. They struck all around and pinned me in place. The pieces were confused as to what they were now. Some reflected me and some didn’t. Some held me down, cut me, but didn’t even let me touch them back. Their solidity was only there in their aggressive biting dimension.
I cried out for help, but there was nothing any folk could do for me. Everyone back in Porce had to cope with the immediate aftermath of Qorcneas’s strike. I never found out if my family survived, if they wondered what happened to their beautiful Whelm. They likely spent little time on thoughts of me, their minds absorbed by the implications of their attempted counterattack.
They tried to use the cannons, but they were worthless with the path destroyed. All that light could no longer be properly redirected. I know this because that lost light, desperately searching for its target, bounced around in the gargantuan shards that trapped me. It broke up into a thousand baby beams. One of them shot by my ankle and burned me. By then there was no moisture left in my throat, so I couldn’t scream. I swear to you that I felt it. It blistered my very soul.
It was a barrage, and light never tires. It didn’t take long for one to strike right through me. My body had a hole, where before I’d never even been pierced for earrings. The light didn’t just cauterize the wound; some of it stayed behind and incorporated into my ragged flesh. All this light had only turned around because it was touched by Luminatr. It was made to destroy prosites, so I don’t think it knew quite what to do with me after passing through.
Another beam took the back of my head and one of my eyes. My elbow was shot through. My right thigh. My heart. My sternum. I wasn’t even aware of my own consciousness at that point, but somewhere in my thousand holes the light figured out where it could go to rest. It became me and I became it. Thus the form you see before you.
This is why I need the polishing mirror. I cannot exit with just one piece of the path, for the gateway is too small for all of the light that makes me up. Perhaps I could send it out one piece at a time as a narrow beam, but that would fragment my mind and perhaps kill me. The mirror will be large enough, about the size of one of Luminatr’s cannons. You see? This is just survival. The lies I tell the church of Bright Hope are just my rations; they will keep me going until I can be free of this place.
“Oh, you’re finished?” Pearlen mocked after Whelm was silent for a few moments. “I couldn’t tell, as I’m certain you’re supposed to sob at the end of a sob story. I guess you can’t do that anymore.”
“I thought perhaps you would sympathize,” Whelm growled. “If we were to…” Eeeent-deee-deee! Pearlen pulled her fingers away from the organ keys.
“Sorry, I thought I was supposed to play you a sad song.” They stared each other down, Whelm looking as if her pupils were the barrels of Luminatr’s light cannons. “You might’ve had my sympathies… if you didn’t try to kill us back in the desert. You thought we should perish because we were smart enough to see through your mirage. As smart as you.”
“You can’t blame me for that. You two were lost in the world’s most notorious and hostile desert, wearing oven mitts and goggles full of water. Of course I took you for idiots. I just told you that I’ve changed my mind. I want you to be my partner Pearlen. Every member of this church could be your servant. Your parents would have to do whatever you say. After we get all of you a safe distance away of course.”
“What do you mean a…” Pearlen froze. In her mind she saw the last piece of the Polishing Mirror glued on: the complete circle of cracked path. Whelm smiled and laughed, at both her freedom and the foolishness of her underlings. She stepped into Porce, and brought all of her light with her. “When you come out of the mirror… it’ll be like one of those cannons firing.”
“Close,” the vision admitted. “It will be like all the cannons firing. All of my substance must come through at once if I am to remain intact.”
“Everyone in your church will perish.” Mother and father. They would finally bear the consequences, but they wouldn’t have even a full moment to regret it. They would be obliterated in a single stroke of light.
“The whole town of Crib-ohlk would be destroyed if I completed the mirror here,” Whelm said, smiling wickedly. “I haven’t decided where I’m going to do it yet. If you agree to let me live through your eyes, should my freedom not return sensation, I’ll move it out in the middle of the Glass Desert. That way nobody would die. Most likely. There’s no telling quite how large the blast will be. We might make the desert much larger.”
“Why would you risk destroying Porce if you care about living here so much?” Pearlen spat.
“A god only cares about what they create,” was her initial answer. “The current world doesn’t even remember the old one. They did not honor my sacrifices, so I will not honor their works. If I destroy, I will use the light to rebuild. I will start caring about my subjects once I become the actual Spotless. All spots will be in the eyes of my folk as they try and stare at my unbridled radiance. Your eyes already have spots, so it’s perfect for you to be the first.”
“Nothing’s changed,” Pearlen hissed. “I won’t help you.”
“Oh you don’t need to ask. I’ll help you out of the kindness of my heart.” Whelm angled her head down, but her eyes stayed fixed on her prisoner. The colors of her hair blended together and emitted white rays from the mirror. Pearlen squeezed her eyes shut and squirmed, but it would do her no good once the light reached the full intensity of the florent. Already she felt it on her skin, pulling the sweat out of her. “You’ll only burn if you struggle!” The girl stretched her body out, but her feet still couldn’t reach the floor. Now the root of every eyelash felt ablaze, like tiny fresh rivets in her flesh.
Recoiling only made the wail of the organ join her scream, the latter of which had to be done through her teeth so her tongue wouldn’t burn. There’s nobody to hear me. They could be right outside this door telling each other it’s for my own good. The clawlies scrambled within their burrows, twisting around to find the source of the uncomfortable heat. The pain gave her no choice but to open her eyes and hope that Whelm was right, that the light would fry them in an instant and she could cry their ashes away.
The brighting assault stopped the moment her eyes opened. Whelm’s face was turned away, but there was nothing to see in the empty scratched room; something in the path must have drawn her attention. Pearlen didn’t want to make a sound, but she couldn’t stop herself from gasping. The clawlies chewed on the ends of their tunnels. The girl banged her head on the top of the organ repeatedly in an attempt to create a pain that could at least distract her from their excavation efforts.
“Don’t whine; I’ll be back with you shortly and we’ll finish up,” Whelm said. The woman drifted off the right side of the mirror and vanished, the room darkening. Left there to suffer, Pearlen continued to bang out the melody of her malady on the organ. Her mouth stretched open in a weakening scream.
“Pearlen! Something’s wrong with her, go! Go!” Everything was a blur, but she recognized the voice. It was Herc; they’d finally found her. The musician and Ladyfish appeared in the mirror and crawled out of it. Ladyfish, always swift with her knife whether it was filleting a fish or trimming her nose hair, cut Pearlen’s bonds in a flash. The girl’s hands shot up to her eyes, but she kept herself from scratching by pressing the base of her palms against her eyebrows.
“My goggles, fast!” she cried, holding out one hand. It was pure luck that the acolights had left her supplies atop the instrument. No sooner had she said it than Herc pressed them into her palm, along with one of the phials of nutrient water. Her desperation turned the assembly process into a reflex, and moments later she was blinking in the greenish fluid as the clawlies relaxed their poking grips on her inner eye tissue.
“You alright or just half-right?” Ladyfish asked, rubbing her shoulder.
“I’m fine,” Pearlen huffed. “If you’re both here… who distracted Whelm?”
“It was Rob’s reflection that drew her away,” Herc explained. “It met up with us when we were looking for you and took us here. That thing has every bit of gall the real man has.”
“Still not likely to hold her for long,” Ladyfish reminded. “Let’s flurry-scurry.” The other two didn’t object. Herc was carrying his piece of the Reflecting Path openly, so he led the way. Pearlen’s thoughts raced as she stepped through into the thinner air of the path. We can’t just leave. The mirror can’t be finished. So many could die because of my family name. Why did I never change it?
Yes, she would have to return, but for now it was best to flee back to the Employer where Whelm’s light couldn’t shine. The church’s structure was much weaker in the less-solid path, so Ladyfish’s knife cut them a trail through the walls with ease. They crossed the street in two bounding leaps and went through the alley wall, which practically dumped them into Ice Master Shuckr’s bony lap aboard the ship.
“You all look terrible!” the gravefolk exclaimed, as if they’d just trudged across his rug with muddy boots. “How did scouting go so very wrong?” None of them answered immediately; they simply braced themselves against the many mirrors of the room and caught their breath. Manathan rubbed the back of his skull. The fellow clearly needed to say something and was unsure how many moments of rest were appropriate before they heard it. “Listen, Pearlen… I’m afraid there’s been a complica-”
He had waited too long to speak. The subject of the news slid out of the Rinlatour mirror and stepped on Ladyfish’s foot. She didn’t protest, shocked as she was by the sight. It was Dawn and Claudize, holding an unconscious Alast in their arms. His skin was deathly pale, lips colorless and cracked. His breath sounded like it traveled through an entire stack of wool socks. Pearlen lurched forward and grabbed at them. She didn’t have the strength to hold him up, so all four collapsed to the ground as Dawn gently slid him into his girl’s arms.
“Alast, can you hear me!?” she cried, but he wasn’t aware enough to respond. She ran a hand down his cheek. It feels like topa! It’s like there’s no life left in him. She turned to the two skeletons. “What happened to him?”
“It was earlier,” Manathan babbled. “There were so many folk coming and going and coming that I didn’t notice… Rob was here and he changed the plan when Alast was right there… We weren’t paying attention to-”
“Alast had a cut in the path,” Dawn interrupted. She pointed out what should have been a minor scratch. “His reflection’s got a taste of his blood.” A bolt of terror struck through Pearlen. She felt like a weather vane in the midst of every type of storm simultaneously. Her family was killing everything in its proximity. The bugs in her eyes weren’t working with her for a single drip despite their free housing. And now, on top of all that, her love was dying in her arms, his mind sunken in sand, numb to her touch and deaf to her cries. It was too much. The girl reeled, stroking Alast’s hair, eyes stretching into the glass around her in search of a world less cruel than Porce.
“Pearlen,” Ladyfish prodded. She shook the girl’s shoulder lightly. “There be still ticking in his clock. We finds and kills it. That hands all the blood back.”
“We’ll go back with you,” Herc added, rising to his full height. “Alast’s been spending more time in the Glass Desert than in Rinlatour right? His reflection is bound to be around Crib-ohlk somewhere.”
“Now that it’s got his blood it won’t need to stick around,” Dawn said. She drew her bonepicker’s sword to indicate that no matter what the odds of success, she would be along as well. “It be fleeing as we speak. We have to go. Now.” They looked at Pearlen. She had lifted her goggles, spilling green trails across her face, in order to nuzzle Alast.
“It’s not fair,” she squeaked. “He dragged me along on ten different adventures and everything was fine! I pressure him into one and now he’s dying. How did he do it so effortlessly? I should’ve stayed in my channel. I should’ve had a mouthful of water so I could never speak to him and put him here.”
“Pearlen!” Dawn barked. “We have to go kill it.” Pearlen sniffled in response. “You’re in no shape. The three of us will handle it. You stay here with him.” She snapped her fingers and pointed at the desert mirror. Herc and Ladyfish climbed inside without hesitation. They were nearly gone before Pearlen finally got her wits about her.
“No!” she blurted. “I have to go. I’ll kill it; he would want me to do it.” She stood, keeping Alast’s head elevated until Manathan could figure out he was supposed to come over and support him. “Man, get the doctor for him. If he asks where I am… tell him I’m on a quest.” The gravefolk nodded. She turned and joined the others, pulling her goggles back over her eyes and filling them once again. Her hand touched the spear on her back. Completely unaware of its existence for the last drop, it now felt like the only possession that mattered. It was the needle that could bring Alast back, but it was for bloodletting rather than transfusion. She would only see him open his eyes again if she saw every drop his heart had ever pumped.
Ladyfish had a helpful suggestion, as she’d seen a few people pass away from blood theft before. While the blood was invisibly transported from one body to another when they were in separate realms, the transfer would show if they were both in the path. Manathan, who had his own piece of the path around his neck, moved Alast into the mirror and leaned him against the other side.
Almost immediately, a drop of blood swelled from his cut and drifted into the air as a weightless droplet. It moved in a straight line, sliding along the alley’s glass wall when it made contact. Another droplet followed shortly behind. Ladyfish instructed Manathan to keep pressure on the cut, though that would only slow the process.
The four of them left Alast behind with Manathan and Claudize, following the thin red smears as they transferred from wall to wall. Normally the Reflecting Path, even in cities, felt abandoned. The reflections clustered around mirrors, waiting for their chances to strike. Crib-ohlk was all glass and mostly mirrors, so the reflections wandered the streets in abundance as if they were just out shopping. They paid no attention to the drifting bloody trail, as they only valued the blood corresponding to their true selves.
Sometimes they had to shove to make sure they didn’t lose sight of the droplets. The liquid’s speed never altered, even as it rolled around the foreheads of wandering reflections. Pearlen had her spear drawn, but she resisted the urge to cut through the wispy crowds. The beings cared about very little, but would swarm if their neighbors were indiscriminately slaughtered.
Whelm was alone with these things for a full age. I remember when I first met Alast, when I thought him only his thievery, and I watched him from under the water. He was just a warped image. I liked him better that way at first. He couldn’t hurt me with the water’s surface between us.
But to be trapped with just that… to see the folk you might love as nothing but their ripple. It would make you think of yourself as a ripple. A consequence. You can’t control yourself because the world always does it for you. That’s why it doesn’t matter to her, no matter how many she kills. She’s just the ripple after the stone is tossed. The crack in the mirror.
The blood took them beyond the borders of Crib-ohlk and out into the Glass Desert; all but Pearlen hesitated. There was nothing out there to mark their way back, and the blood only left a stain when one of the dunes was high enough to catch it. It continued on with no regard for their footing, almost losing them over a dune too slick and steep to climb. They rushed around it at top speed, only to sputter and stumble when they found a figure leaning against the other side.
Captain Rob! Reflected. The quiet captain rolled his eyes as if he’d been waiting for them. He beckoned them in a different direction. They couldn’t afford to waste time wondering about directions, so they swiftly agreed to split up; Herc, Ladyfish, and Dawn went with the captain while Pearlen continued on after the blood, borrowing and pocketing Dawn’s piece of the path.
She sprinted to catch up with Alast’s blood, as the droplets were too small for her to see from a distance. When she had one in sight she caught it on the head of her spear and kept the blade rotating. The blood continuously rolled along the metal in the direction it was trying to go, so she was able to use it as a sort of compass from then on.
There was no time to look back and see which shining hill her compatriots had disappeared over. I would guess that fake Rob has them distracting Whelm still; we are in her domain now. How has that thing avoided being outright destroyed by her cannon-light? It’s every bit as tenacious as the real man, at least when it comes to saving its own skin.
Perhaps that’s why Alast’s is fleeing into the desert. It could be killed by the fire whirls, but it thinks it can lose any pursuers in all this glass. It’s taking the adventurous path, just as my boy would.
Lost in thought and the fugue of running, Pearlen didn’t notice when the ground steepened severely. She pitched forward and rolled down a winding glass ditch; the tip of her spear scraped against the wall with each tumble, ripping it more like cloth than glass. When she came to a stop she was foams below the ground, trapped between two swells of orange and brown glass like sandstone. Her ankle had twisted, the pain pulsed all the way up to her thigh, but she couldn’t rest for even a moment. The drop of blood jumped off her spear and continued on. It splashed against the wall and rolled around a corner.
“Oh no you don’t! Get back to the heart you belong in!” She chased it, limping around the bend, but it had disappeared. She could no longer tell it apart from the thousands of other droplets it had joined. Alast’s reflection whirled around to face her. For once she was lucky that the clawlies had scratched away her clarity. Even without the finer details, what she saw chilled her heart and made the surface of her mind crawl.
By definition it was a perfect copy of Alast, from his dark eyebrows and curly hair down to the squeaky-looking boots of the sailor’s uniform he’d worn in Rinlatour, but everything that could be different within that framework was. Its eyelids were so retracted that they were essentially nonexistent; it didn’t blink. Its pupils were sharpened down to pencil points. Its lips were pulled back, not in a smile, but in a forced way that suggested invisible dental equipment held them there.
Its posture was hunched and wild, fingers curled like claws. The chest swelled and deflated rhythmically as it tried to mimic breathing, but all it was doing was forcing air in and out of its cavity of a body. Some of the stolen blood bubbled out from between its clenched teeth with each false breath.
The rest of it poured. Out of the mouth. The tear ducts. The ears. The navel. The beds of the nails. The hair follicles. There wasn’t a single structure inside the reflection that could hold onto its crimson treasure, so it leaked out from every possible spot. It refused to coagulate in the path’s less-than-air, so the streams down its chest stayed glistening. It dripped.
The creature stood there almost proudly, bleeding as a boast, a declaration that it could only die that much if it was alive. It must have thought it was safe down in the winding ditch, for it had stopped to celebrate. Pearlen saw its frenzied dance steps as messy bloody footprints all over the glass. It had slapped its hands against the walls and dragged them in swoops and loops, draping the sides in red banners.
“Alast…” she whispered before remembering this was not her boy. It was just a piece of him grown so arrogant that it pulled away from the rest, ripping out its moorings and endangering his whole soul. “Come here.” She pointed at her feet. “Right now.” The reflection slowly shook its head, stepping back from her. Pearlen felt another drop of blood hit the back of her head. Her boy was still bleeding. It rolled up her scalp, through her bristly hair, and leapt from her brow. The reflection bit it out of the air, drooling far more blood in the process, and then bolted away from her.
Careful not to slip on his celebrations, the girl pursued. The reflection was only as fast as Alast, and that was at the best of times. Now it was weighed down by chips of stolen sloshing lifeblood, and it was slipping in every puddle of it that it failed to contain. Altogether it was slower than Pearlen, but twice she didn’t take the opportunity for a stab. I’m so stupid. It’s not him. I can kill something that looks like him, no problem. Just do it!
The image of Alast begging for his life was glued in her mind. He had a swollen gut, so one good poke and he would burst, spilling screams and his contents alike. The hesitation cost her as a radiant wave washed over the top of the chasm. Both the girl and the reflection stopped dead, flattening themselves against opposite walls. Blood swelled in the reflection’s mouth as it looked straight up, puffing out its cheeks before flowing from the corners of its lips.
Pearlen did the same, though much less messily. The ocean of light above unmistakably belonged to Whelm, as it was full of her mesmerizing colors. Her laugh carried on it like the howl of wind. The color’s current slowed as it reached the end of the ditch and succeeded in taking up the whole sky for those trapped underneath. It bulged upward like a dome, swirling, taking shapes. Pearlen couldn’t help but picture a cathedral ceiling that some artist had slaved on her back, atop a ladder, for decades to complete.
Whelm must have made the image as detailed as she could, to what purpose the girl couldn’t guess. Either she liked the theater of being a god’s wife, of planning parties with guest lists full of deities that just wouldn’t quite be able to attend due to other engagements, or the artistry was meant to serve as a blinding flash, something so brilliant and stunning that it would give her a moment to strike.
In that ceiling Pearlen saw a paradise of meadows and vine-wrapped marble columns. Nymphs hid from each other around them playfully while a rainbow florent, one color for each old god, illuminated each and every blade of grass. One of the nymphs smiled slyly and turned her gaze down to Pearlen. It was Whelm, entrenched in her own pastoral; she had painted herself directly over Alast’s reflection.
The vision’s arms swung out, her brown nymph hair becoming that dreaded collage of colors. Her hands dragged the rest of the ceiling, stretching the image, melting it. The brilliant woman dove as a droplet, fingers and nails stretching to inhuman lengths. Why is she going for the reflection? Ah! She might not know! If I… Pearlen pulled out her piece of the Reflecting Path, but the vision was already upon them. She impacted soundlessly, like a ray of florentshine on a peaceful lake, but it was full of force and heat. Her cathedral cloak enveloped Alast’s reflection like a serpont swallowing prey larger than its own head. The rest of it moved as a wave, pushing Pearlen. The girl, still holding her piece, was shoved through the glass wall of the ditch and back into true Porce.
The heat of the desert was different from Whelm’s. It was less focused, more like bugs trying to crawl into her pores. Scents returned to her nose: the distant boot soles of Crib-ohlk’s entrance, the unbreathable air around the fire whirls, and even the bloody residue on her spear. She was very much still in the ditch, but safe from Whelm for the time being.
The reflection was not so fortunate. Whelm stood there patiently, just on the other side of the glass, waiting for Pearlen to get her bearings. She held the reflection in front of her, one arm stretched around its midsection to bind it in place. Her opposite hand was over its mouth; blood cascaded between her fingers. Pearlen stumbled back the way she came, vaguely aiming herself for the slope, so Whelm followed, forcing the reflection to walk along with her. She spoke only when she saw the raw hatred in Pearlen’s eyes.
“Oh my,” she said with syrupy sarcasm, “I didn’t mean to hit him quite so hard. Where does it hurt Alast?” Her hand caressed the blood-soaked front of the reflection’s uniform. The creature thrashed in her grip, but its strength was nothing compared to hers. “Since you refuse to share him, I just had to take him.” Pearlen’s legs kept marching her up the slope, as her mind raced in a different direction.
She thinks that’s really Alast! To her all that blood is pouring from the injury she just gave him. Can she really not tell the difference? It might’ve been an age since she last touched a real person. She must have forgotten the behaviors of blood since she hasn’t a drop of her own. I can’t go back in there… She needs to kill it… and I have to mourn.
“Let him go,” Pearlen said numbly, only now realizing her lip had become swollen at some point. Every part of her body had its own sad story to tell, so she couldn’t even remember the ballad of the busted lip.
“Happily,” Whelm replied, “as soon as you stand still and let me bright your eyes.”
“I’d rather have these bugs in my eyes than you.”
“Insulting me while your boy’s precious quivering neck skin is toasting in my grip? I’m beginning to question whether you care about anyone.” Pearlen bit her lip, it protested in pain, and cast her eyes down for a moment. “That’s right. Now let’s do this before Alast bleeds to death, shall we?”
Whelm ran out of wall to display her hostage upon; Pearlen had reached the comparatively even ground of the desert. The lighted lady responded by dragging herself across a seam and stabilizing with the hem of her dress near Pearlen’s feet, shadowing the girl. The reflected Alast’s drops of blood struck the glass like upside down rain. Pearlen dragged one boot across it half-expecting it to smear, but it was technically a world away.
“He didn’t do anything to deserve this,” Pearlen feigned. She blinked as fast as she could, annoying the clawlies so they would poke around, irritate her eyes, and produce tears. Though not the best actor, she’d mastered the genuine sniffle. A sorrowful sniffle was much the same as the ones she took when her head emerged from a long dive in frigid water. It was the body trying to reassert dominance over the air, secretly keeping itself from panicking into hyperventilation.
“Then save him!” Whelm encouraged; her fingers stretched again, turning from a muzzle to vines that crawled up the reflection’s head and nestled in its sopping crimson hair. She pulled it to an unnatural angle, causing the reflection to spray blood from its nose. The droplets sizzled across Whelm’s cheek and vanished.
Pearlen dropped her spear and paced in circles, grabbing her head and scratching at her ears. She muttered something entirely separate from her thoughts. Whelm bent this way and that, pushing Alast’s reflection against the barrier between them, smearing its cheek and the blood, trying to force her to look. Eventually Pearlen screamed at Whelm, loud as she’d ever done, cheeks and forehead red as they’d ever been, and stomped on Whelm’s face.
“You monster! I won’t! You don’t know my Alast; he would do anything to keep you from winning! Deal with the rejection I’ve handed down! That’s what a real folk would do!” Whelm’s fingers of light spread and branched even more, covering the reflection’s body in a web. The hand on the reflection’s face pulled back, everything beyond the elbow sharpening to a glittering scimitar.
“A real folk has a presence in the world,” Whelm declared. “They have a body and an impact that can’t be ignored. Watch as your love enters the life I’ve lived for an eon. Watch as he becomes false and death!” With one lightning swipe the scimitar dragged across the reflection’s neck. A spray of blood hit the barrier between them. Pearlen didn’t have to feign shock this time; the sight of his reflection dying was all too close to the real thing.
Enough real tears gushed from her eyes that she nearly washed the clawlies away; her goggles were full to bursting, dripping at the seams. Her legs dropped out from under her and she found herself rubbing the glass as she sobbed, trying to mop up the blood she couldn’t even touch. Alast’s dead face was there against the glass, but the pooling blood covered the eye and mouth, leaving only a sandbar of cheek in a red sea.
“Alast!” she screamed, thinking of the one leaning against the mirror back in reflected Crib-ohlk. If not for the luck of this double, he could really be dead. Is this a consequence of my parents… or of me? Beyond the edge of the puddle, Whelm rose from the glass as a specter. It was the same trick she’d used when they’d first met, using the curves of the glass dunes to project herself into the true world. Pearlen looked up from her kneel to see the woman lording over her. She expected a smirk, but Whelm’s face was suddenly tight-lipped. When she opened her mouth to speak her teeth looked like icepicks.
“This Porce isn’t even the one I was forced from. All of you are dumber. You die so easily, like tidywings circling candles closer and closer until they go up in a flash. I won’t feel bad about being the candle. Light is good… and those who can’t handle it deserve to die. Now stay out of my way.” Whelm’s color took to the wind, her hair and limbs disappearing before the rest of her.
Pearlen collapsed onto her back and stared up at the florent. It took a while to regulate her breath, but she couldn’t tell exactly how long. She might’ve stayed there for drops if three faces didn’t appear, staring down to check her condition. It was Dawn, Herc, and Ladyfish. Their slight smiles indicated that their path had proven less harrowing.
“I thought you were going to occupy Whelm,” Pearlen grumbled. “I had to deal with her.”
“We thought mirrored Rob was taking us that way too,” Herc said, “but it turned out he wanted us to snag these.” All three of them reached into their pockets and pulled out more pieces of the Reflecting Path, no doubt pilfered from the acolights. Pearlen snickered thinly, the fatigue making her feel like a scarf with too many holes to even be picked up by the wind.
“That ought to scald Whelm’s undies.”
Continued in Part Six