(reading time: 1 hour)
You can be Courageous and Sweaty
All those bags of tiles should’ve made an awful racket: a sound like an avalanche of polished metal. Sleep would’ve been impossible if they were anywhere other than the sound-absorbing air of the rundown house. Dianarhea had all her remaining staff, as well as every pirate, set to the task of shaking those bags over tins. Captain Rob really was out of touch with the desperation associated with rampant criminality, for he had no idea what they were all doing when he finally awoke from his long rest.
He was in his assigned bedroom, tightly tucked in so he wouldn’t scratch at his wound. His first attempt to move made it throb, the pain bringing back the fullness of his failure. He couldn’t recall if the wild imagination bead had been claimed, but he knew that he failed to claim it. Nearly a rest with nothing at stake, and the spike chose that moment to puncture him.
From his time in the Pipes he knew the vapor that sickened his bones as a child came from bath beads tied to the first: Qorcneas and Hesprid. They, even in death, were the ones torturing him. They must have timed it. To what end? A test? Just a laugh we’ll bet. When he dropped the blanket, so he wouldn’t have to look at the stitches any longer, he saw Claudize stood at the foot of the bed, violently shaking a stuffed sack. With each shake a cloud of glittering powder came out the bottom and drifted into the tin. By the size of the coppery blue mound, Rob guessed he’d been at it for more than a drop.
“What are you doing? Is this strange ritual bergfolk bedside manner?” the Captain asked, hoisting himself into a seated position with the headboard. He looked around, but his shirt was missing. A moment later he realized it was less missing and more occupied. Claudize’s money-packed bag had two sleeves hanging off the side. “My shirt!”
“There’s a clean one for you tucked under your pillow,” the bergfolk dismissed, though he happily took the opportunity to set his task aside and wipe the sweat from his furry brow. “You’ve been out for two days.”
“I was hoping you’d say two drops,” Rob admitted. Another memory jabbed him. “Alast! Is the boy alive?”
“It was close, but he’s with us still. Problem is, he’s only with us figuratively.”
“They took him into the path so they could follow his blood as it left his body. The reflection was slain, but that pushed him out of the path on the side of the Glass Desert… and you know what happens when someone loses their reflection.” Rob nodded.
“He can never set foot in the Reflecting Path again, now there’s nothing linking him to it. Plus, he’ll need Pearlen to tell him every time he’s having a bad hair day. Upswing is that he’ll never have to see himself grow old, unless he commissions a portrait titled morbid curiosity.”
“And for the downswing,” Claudize reminded, “he can’t join us in Rinlatour. It would take rinses for him to get here, at best. He’s decided to stay there for now and keep working that church over. Pearlen’s got some worrying news on that front.” Rob set his bare feet on the cold black wood of the floor. He couldn’t hear it squeak, but he could feel it in his littlest toes. The pirate stood and began stretching, contorting himself into impossible poses with bonepicking, one foot often touching his forehead, so that he could judge what degrees would produce pain in his side.
“What’s that deep soul fretting over?”
“She says that Whelm creature’s planned emergence could be destructive. Could kill the village, or the whole world.” Rob paused, leg locked in the air at a forty-five degree angle.
“You don’t seem overly concerned.”
“I already know I’m not brave enough to go try and stop a beam of light from landing somewhere. Beyond that, there’s not much point to worrying. Pearlen and Alast have sworn to stop it.” Rob’s foot dropped. “I’m sure they’ll seek my help if they need it. My reflection is over there somewhere as well. He’ll lend all nine fingers. We have this city for our worries. Did we get the bead?”
“Dianarhea dirtied her hands and took it,” Claudize confirmed.
“Good on her! That’s one bead down and one to go. I take it that our counterfeit golden trickle bead is in production?” The bergfolk nodded. “Excellent. Now… would you mind telling me what you’re doing to my poor shirt?”
“I recommend you ask the flushess,” he said, scratching at the corner of his eye. That forced him to blink several times in rapid succession, having accidentally transferred some of the metallic dust. “If we’re going to stay here you need to let her chew you up and spit you out.”
“To be expected,” Captain Rob mumbled, pulling out the folded shirt and dressing himself. The moment he stepped out of his room he suspected he had a concussion. The thought was brief, the incongruity of what he sensed once again explained by the rundown house. The manor should’ve been filled with industrious noises, given how packed the halls were.
The flushess’s staff and members of Teal’s crew, many of whom he didn’t even recognize, were out and about, busy with the exact same activity Claudize sweated over. The floor was littered with tins and dishes, some coming from very fine collections. Any time one of them was filled with the metal dust the individual standing over it would move on to the next plate with room left.
The bergfolk were thick on the upper floor, all giving the Captain dirty glares, so he slithered between them and found the stairs quickly. Halfway down the glitter upon the steps caught his eye. A tousle of his beard produced a shimmer of the dust as well. The culprit was Dawn, who had attached herself to a crystal chandelier overhead. She hung off its lip by both knees, spinning it rapidly with bonepicking. Each of her hands was occupied with three full sacks that produced streams of the dust. It drifted to the floor where Rob’s nephew Roary swept it into large dustpans. The boy waved, but looked too exhausted to approach.
It was perplexing that Dianarhea would allow such rough treatment of something as expensive-looking as the chandelier, but the other treasures of the rundown house didn’t fare any better. They were in the process of being carted off their pedestals and heading to one of two places: out the front door for sale or down into the basement to be stripped for their raw materials. Decorative chamber pots that had never seen use. Taxidermy beasts powerful enough to outswim the force of a pulling drain. Antique scepters and gavels no doubt used by the royal flush in times past.
A sack dropped and landed at Rob’s feet right before he hit the bottom step. It slumped over the edge and spilled a pile of tiles. The few that skidded the furthest vanished into thin air before they stopped. Her fortune was still being siphoned by the golden trickle bead. Rob looked up; Dawn had tossed the sack to get his attention. She pointed to a door on the ground floor that led to a sitting room. Then she pulled on her beaded artificial hair, mimicking frustration. The pirate nodded and headed for the sitting room, leaving footprints in the bluish dust.
Dianarhea was in there, not looking much like herself. She was dressed down to work clothes, furry shoulders on full display. Her hair was unbraided and full-bodied, like a sheet of ice formed from one of the waterfalls framing her. Every order she gave applied to herself now, so she was violently bashing a coin-filled bag over the back of a fancy white love seat. The sight of Rob made her stop. She gestured for him to take a chair as she pulled the love seat up to a glass table and dropped her bag onto it. Rob joined her. They both put their hands on the contents of the bag, spreading the coins around, examining their details, using them as a medium to better hear each other.
“The robbery was a success,” the Captain began.
“No thanks to you,” the flushess said. She examined a blue tile closely, thinking it might be fake, but when she bit the corner it vanished. “Great thieves you were supposed to be. Legua quet prendraet laviesi lescoa ouvraient comdes sacquamanet. Folk who would take lives if bodies opened like change purses,” she translated. “I bring a crowd of you with me, only two of you attempt to steal, and both of you fall over half-dead bubbles from it. Is that what experience gets you out in the world?”
“Unfortunate freak accidents,” Rob dismissed. “If you’ll recall, we contributed the plan itself: the brilliant strategy of upbeading.”
“Stop trying to coin the term!” she snapped, tossing a coin at his forehead. It bounced off harmlessly and vanished before it hit the table. “You’re so concerned with your infame that you interrupted our robbery to try and buy a fancy new boat! Some of your old crew has told me what you were like at the height of your power aboard the Greedy Old Mop. They’d said you’d changed. They thought your fall had humbled you. That’s clearly not true.”
“Am I being released from your service?” Rob asked bluntly. She doesn’t have the time, energy, or resources to find another. We’ll see this through. “The rest of the plan is still in place. I’m told the replica bead is under construction.”
“Yes,” Dianarhea admitted. All the flailing with the bag had tired her out, so there wasn’t much scolding left in her. “We’ve had to hurry things. Were you conscious enough to remember what Fixadil said at the end of his,” she gagged a little, “appointment?” Rob froze. She couldn’t have gotten what we got from its sleeping message. Only we were supposed to understand it. “About the potluck?” she prodded.
“Oh!” Rob coughed, loud enough for the flushess’s long neck to recoil. “The potluck. I do recall the word being used, but I think the following sentences were during a protracted battle with agony suffered silently for your benefit. Please explain it to me.”
“In five days Fixadil, in the name of my father, will have the bead rain tiles of all denominations in every outdoor area of Rinlatour, from the sugar on top down to the bottom crust. Everyone will be free to pursue this rain by any means necessary. He has made an official decree that each and every coin counts as a child while they rain down, so blood can be shed to watch over them and keep them safe.”
“How does this concern our robbery?” She looked taken aback.
“There will be a death toll in the hundreds,” Dianarhea said breathlessly. “The pursuit of livelihood will cost lives in every neighborhood. Folk will murder each other over change in the streets. As the true ruler of Rinlatour I will not allow this to come to pass. Rien net dispratet Rinlatour, sauf parchat dequetor. Nothing in Rinlatour disappears, except by flush. We must reclaim the golden trickle bead before the potluck.”
Rob wanted to bite at her with criticism, but thought better of it. If there hadn’t been so many poor in the lower levels of the city, and so many connivers at the top, there might not be such hostility cushioning between the coins. So now the inevitable conclusion of trickledown economics. Blood will do the trickling.
“I see. Can the replica be ready in time?”
“Yes. It will be finished the day before.”
“I will also be ready in time, as will my associates. We will help you reclaim your city.”
“There’s still the problem of our funds until that day. Fixadil has announced an audit of the entire royal family. Some excuse about heirs misusing state funds. It will come to light that I am practically destitute.”
“I assume that has something to do with the way you have all of us assaulting your remaining windfall.”
“It was Captain Teal’s idea,” Dianarhea informed him. “I must admit there’s a cunning brilliance to it. She told me the process is called coin sweating. By placing money in a loose-knit bag and shaking, the coins rub against each other and produce metal dust. The dust can then be gathered, melted, and cast into ingots. These ingots retain their value without being affected by the golden trickle bead, as they are not legal tender. Obviously it degrades the currency, but it’s all degraded when it’s under Fixadil’s nasty… pus-drenched…” she shivered, “banner. You’re expected to do your part.” She stood from the table and grabbed something from behind the love seat.
Out came a much more colorful sack: seafoam green with golden ruffles. The flushess placed it on the table. Two sleeves dangled off its sides; when a coin rolled out of one she shoved it back in and tied them together. Rob looked at her quizzically.
“This was my gown for a diplomatic visit between Slick and Dry Rin. They’ve always been jealous of our ample water, so I appeased them by wearing their colors. That feels like it was a lifetime ago.”
“And you would like me to shake all of the experience out of that rag, along with the dust?”
“You’re a bonepicker; it should be elementary for you.”
“Aye that it would, but I have plans for the day. I don’t want to share the details, but there could be something helpful to us in the lower levels of the city. I’m off to visit them.” He tried to stand, but Dianarhea grabbed his wrist and pulled it between the tied sleeves. Rob rolled his eyes and tossed the loaded gown over his shoulder.
“I know now that there’s no stopping you from your whims,” she said, “but you will be expected to cater to mine simultaneously. Do whatever it is that you’re going to do, but come back with precious dust.” The pirate nodded. “Don’t forget to take the papers I gave you or they won’t let you back into the cream filling.” The man nodded again, but he had no intention of exiting or entering by official means. It would be best if no soul spotted him on his journey.
That was the way it happened the first time after all. A secret kept between himself and the slime of the gutter. In his renewed life of petty theft skulking came as naturally as strolling, so he was able to pore over the nature of the message while sticking to the shadows. He barely even paid attention when he leapt off the side of the city, held his breath, and plunged into the slipway. Its current carried him down the city’s layers, in a great spiral, rapidly. The only faster way would’ve been falling.
The shadows of buoyant cargo containers making similar journeys passed overhead. Rob kept himself skimming along the bottom of the slipway with bonepicking, so there was no risk of colliding with them. Arms over his chest, legs together, he propelled himself along like a sled. The destination would become apparent when the metal and stone of the slipway took on the appearance of disrepair: cracks and rust.
This could be a trap, but what would be the point of it? If Fixadil wanted us vulnerable, and knew we were in that room, it had us. Its guards could have killed us right on that table. No, something else was speaking through Fixadil while it slept. In his two days of recovery, Rob thought he had worked out the nature of the prosite’s peculiar sleep-talking.
It was cryptic, but not overly so. Someone had addressed Rob in that operating room. Above the awful, where you were reborn. That has to be us. We were reborn when we left the Pipes and came back to Porce. Above the awful must refer to Offilee of drains. The drain of Rinlatour was directly above us; she even threw us most of the way.
Rob’s boot busted a rusticle on one of the slipway’s seams, shooting him through a cloud of corrosion. His body spun in the water as his legs compressed. With a mighty push he shot off the bottom, erupted from the cold current, and tossed himself onto the abandoned stone arches near Rinlatour’s drain. The smell of the sea was intense and the air thick with mist and spray. Our beautiful hovel should be around here somewhere. We wonder if it has held up, or if the serponts are nesting in it.
Only when he started walking did he remember the weight of the gown tied around his neck. He pulled it off and spun the sleeves a few times, watching it slow and then spin in the other direction. Having neglected to bring his sword, the heavy sack would make a fine bludgeon in a pinch.
It has to be another prosite. Fixadil got to us when we were incapacitated by the first, only speaking when there could be some ambiguity to our recollection of the experience. Keeping opportunities for denial and escape open. They’re slippery in every way. This one has done the same thing; we’re already wondering what we’re doing down here.
Rob walked nearly a lather, around the ring of the drain, calling out for the messenger to reveal itself. He’d spent enough time down there to know there wasn’t a single other folk soul to hear or report him. Recalling his bargain with Fixadil, he looked down into the drain for any sign of it stuck to the stone. Each glance shocked him, the tiny bolt of fear caused by another memory. He saw the fissure in the Winchar Straits. The sinking of the Mop had seemed to cost him everything, but it was the fall that took him from his folk.
The pirate bonepicked with every step, gluing his soles to the wet stone, afraid of even a single slip, lest he fall all the way down to the Pipes a second time. It’s like they’re hungry for us now. Every deep hole feels like it has suction to it. Eventually Rob came upon his dilapidated home. The serponts hadn’t nested in it after all; they’d disrespectfully destroyed it. In fact, they’d torn it apart mere drops after his departure, taking out all their frustrations of the morsel they couldn’t swallow.
The collapsed roof was coated in scum and slimy bubbles. A dead serpont was mixed up in the rubble, its flesh gray and bloated. It appeared to have choked on a large object, likely something that had carried the Captain’s scent and been mistaken for food. When Rob approached he noticed a slit in the creature’s side, clean like the edge of a blade. He peered over that curve of its flesh and saw one of its ribs placed atop the heap. A short distance away there was another. Another after that. Someone had cut the animal open, pulled out its bones, and arranged them in a line. This was the trail he was to follow.
The bones led him to the edge of the drain, forcing him to peer over with bonepicking. The next rib was one level down: a section of the drain riddled with empty chambers behind the roaring waterfalls. The pirate held his breath and leapt down to it, cracking the bone under his boots. Behind him stood a fall weak enough to walk through, with one rib sticking halfway out.
When he wiped the water from his face on the other side it took his eyes a moment to adjust. It was much darker and more enclosed under the stretching stone ceiling. He felt the bones of many a small creature bumping into his toes. When sight returned he was greeted by a serpont skull, but it wasn’t where it should have been. It had risen to challenge him atop a folk-shaped form of bone. This wasn’t a skeleton; there was nothing hollow about it. The bony armored thing spoke.
“Kilrobin Ordr.” Its voice was muffled by the fangs it wore. It reached out to grab him. Reflexively recalling the threat of infection, Rob swung the gown full of coins at the creature. It collided with the sound of every last coin inside, coating the bone golem in precious metal dust. The thing flew and collided with the back wall, some of its armor splintering and clattering to the ground.
Rob was upon it again in a drip, gown wielded as a surprisingly effective replacement for his bonepicker’s sword. He struck the thing again, sending it sliding away. He kept pace, pummeling it over and over, mind lost in terror. The shock of seeing it, of its deep dark eyes, had sent him tumbling down to the Pipes.
“You think I’m on some pleasure trip!?” he screamed at it. “Have one of you foul underworld things escort me back in a sick reversal of my arrival? No! Yaaarrhh!” He brought the gown down again, but the thing’s hand shot up. Bone hissed and jettisoned as tendrils of blue slime, more vibrant than the water of the Draining Sea, emerged to grab the end of his weapon. They flowed up the side of it, coming perilously close to Rob’s fingers. The pirate was forced to relinquish it and leap backward.
“This won’t be a pleasure for anyone,” his host admitted, climbing out of the tiles and standing tall. It turned its palms upward; its bony armor responded by falling away all at once, mixing with the money. Underneath was a different set of armor, but one that looked more finely crafted. It was made of the same cool stone of their surroundings, its seams rippling with veins of darker minerals.
The chest, forearms, and thighs were instead made of water, held inside by the thinnest of membranes. Columns of tiny bubbles constantly rose within, as if it were some kind of naturally occurring bottled soda. Its shape was perfectly folk-like, almost too perfect, with posture superior to Rob’s. The frame was lean and its weight perfectly distributed between its two legs. Rob had thought it couldn’t possibly be a prosite, as their prolith forms were mostly hulking monstrosities devoid of finer features, but there was little else it could be. He also, in hindsight, recognized that its attempt to grab him may have just been the offer of a handshake.
Its face was also unlike anything the Captain had ever seen: a complex warping of stone bands and sealed water with a central stone orb half-emerging from the place where a nose should’ve been fixed. The orb was bisected by a seam like the lip of a shellfish, with one half being slightly smaller than the other, allowing it to rotate into the other one and reveal the unmistakable many-pupiled eye of a prosite.
“So you are one of them!” Rob practically gasped. “What’s the meaning of frightening me with that calcified specter’s skin?”
“My apologies,” the prosite offered, its voice clearer than most of its kin. Rob suspected it had gone to the trouble of building an approximation of a folk’s throat to vocalize through, the bubbles of regular prosite speech probably based in its ‘gut’ at the end of a hollow ‘windpipe’. There was no clear mouth, though chips of the stone did move up and down near its chiseled jaw, looking a little like teeth. The motions did not synchronize well with the actual words. “I thought it likely that I would be attacked on sight, so I donned additional protection.”
“Why have you called me here? Also, how? Out with it, and to be clear I’m not saying I want anything to physically come out of you. Stay in that tactful shell so I don’t vomit.”
“My name is Mixomirine Bocculum,” it said as it bent down to fix the gown, picking out the shards of bone and tossing them away. It used its liquid fingers to enclose the sleeves in a bubble; Rob watched in fascination as the immersed ends tied themselves in an extraordinarily complex knot. The prolith approached and handed it over. Rob begrudgingly threw it back over his shoulder, noticing that it had gotten heavier. It seemed Rinlatour still rewarded him for his self-serving behavior. “My goal is to assist you in removing Fixadilaran Bocculum from the throne of Rinlatour.”
“You both bear the same surname,” the Captain noted. “If I remember my time among you, that would be your strain, yes?” It nodded, the eye rolling entirely around. “What exactly does that mean? Are you siblings?”
“Closer than that even,” it admitted. “You can call me Mixomir. I am one half of my parent, the missing pieces filled in by my own experience. Fixadil is the other half. Prosites only reproduce, and only experience natural death, when a particular stressful event causes a fissure in their being, splitting them into two children.”
“What’s particularly stressful for a prosite? The sight of a woolen blanket that might absorb you?”
“To swear mutually exclusive oaths,” Mixomir explained without acknowledging the jab. “As an example, Fixadil had to be especially wary of others after making a bargain with you, to assure nothing was promised that would conflict.”
“You know of that. Do you speak with Fixadil?”
“We haven’t spoken since the day we were born, but we share a psychic connection. Prosite nuclei are partly crystallized, our thoughts resonant. Though we think very different things, we think them on the same frequency.”
“You speak like a scientist; I guess you spent some time corked in one’s beaker.” It didn’t respond; the pirate scowled and stroked his beard as if it were a house pet he sought to annoy by rubbing the wrong way. “If you’re wondering why I’m insulting you with such biting cleverness, it’s because you’ve insulted me first with that shape of yours. Whether it’s Fixadil’s infection or your slate mannequin there, you’re both just cheap imitations. Go find a way to stand on your own without using the balls of folk feet.”
“We had everything of our own!” it shot back, finally showing some emotion. Blue tendrils flicked out of its seams, but only for a drip. “You were in the Pipes Captain; you saw the ruins of our cities. They were the pinnacle of Porce civilization, even compared to the spire we’re in now. We were diplomats and philosophers. We had poetry that lasted-”
“Seasons,” Rob interrupted. “I remember that slimy yarn from the times all the prosites of Infinicilia dribbled it out.” He walked away from the falls, putting his back against a wall in order to start shaking the gown. His bonepicking pulses were so rapid that the dust fell like a snow flurry. In no time at all he could draw on the pile with the tip of his boot. “So,” he grunted while he worked, “tell me why you’d want to help me.”
“Fixadil and I have the same goal, but we have different means of achieving it,” Mixomir recounted. “We both seek the elevation of prosite society to its former glory, but while my sibling has chosen profection and the destruction of folk as method, I have selected compassion.” Rob stopped to spare a skeptical scrunched face. “I know it’s difficult to believe, but that’s precisely why my work is so important. Diplomatic relations between our kinds have never been properly pursued. I want us to stop hiding in the dark, content to suck on algae and nurse grudges.”
“Peace. I could see how Fixadil’s hostile takeover might put some pepper in your negotiator’s nose.”
“Exactly. What has happened in Rinlatour is a disaster, but if I can be part of the plan to stop it there is hope. I trust you can see it in my very color. Where Fixadil is murky I am bright and clear.”
“One thing you should learn about lightfolk is that we’re taught very early on not to judge by color. Imagine how tangled the strands of the rainbow would be if we did that.”
“Prosites are different. Our liquid souls are plainly visible from the exterior. Being so closely related, my plasm should be just as clouded with pathogenic animalcules as Fixadil’s. It is not because I have cleared myself of that ancestral hate. I aspire as righteously as folk, and all my kind is capable of it. I want to show you, so I am here.”
“So when Fixadil was unconscious, that was you? You used your connection to speak through him and tell me to meet you here.”
“And what is it you think you can do for us exactly? We don’t need insight into its personality so much as a good squishing implement.”
“I can split Fixadil from the body of the royal flush,” Mixomir claimed. Rob ceased his shaking. “Killing in the flush’s current state is fraught with legal and political consequences. You’d be killing the ruler of the land as far as judges are concerned. You know, prosite justice was always easier thanks to the plainness of our plasm.”
“That’s interesting, but we aren’t even planning on desecrating the flush’s body. We’re after the crux of the power in Rinlatour. His authority won’t matter when we have it.”
“The golden trickle bead,” Mixomir pointed out; the pirate winced. Damn, it really has done its research. Now this meeting has to end up friendly or deadly to make sure it doesn’t leak our target. His thought was interrupted by a strange sound out in the drain; something seemed to move through one of the waterfalls, something gigantic. Mixomir’s attention was drawn as well, though its spherical eye turned more than its head.
“There are a few monsters down here,” the Captain whispered, gauging the reaction of Mixomir’s pupils. “I’m chief among them, but they’d slurp you right up.” He mocked the prosite with a wet slurp, but he hadn’t gone back to noisily shaking the gown, just in case it would draw the attention of whatever was out there.
“You don’t frighten me,” the prolith claimed. “The very screw-threads of my mind, chemical chains going beyond Porce itself, have long warned me of your house Kilrobin Ordr. That’s the other reason I’m here, to get my encounter with you out of the way.” Rob dropped the gown and crossed his arms. What’s this blighter saying? It sounds like destiny talk. We’re in line with a Custodian, but we’re too far gone from destiny. It pokes at us with emerald spines and nothing more.
“Explain yourself,” the Captain demanded. “I’d never heard of the house of Bocculum until I stepped in it.”
“No, someone would have to tell you. Fixadil and I simply had the knowledge when we were born, that one day we would meet a Kilro Ordr and it would change the direction of our lives… or end them. In fact, it was a niggling feeling of that sort that told me exactly when to speak through my sibling.”
“Keep talking.” The thing out in the drain shifted again, but both parties paid less than a glance in its direction.
“Custodian Kilroy Ordr started this tradition alongside one of my ancestors. A prosite can only infect a single organism, but a strain can infect an entire line. The Ordr family has a chronic illness of Bocculum. All of you, at some point in your lives, will run into one of us. We will leave marks on each other. If I help you I think I can reduce the pain of this encounter for both of us.”
“My parents never mentioned such a thing,” Rob flouted, only realizing a moment later that only his mother would be susceptible; she, as the daughter of Kilrorke, was the Ordr. His father was called Nayrdawellr. “My sister and nephew are clean of you as well.”
“Our encounters can be deeply personal,” Mixomir reasoned, stepping closer. Rob’s back was to the stone, so he had nowhere to go. “There are plenty of reasons to keep them secret, or to ignore them completely after they’ve happened.” The prolith dropped to one knee; its hand morphed into a tentacle so it could draw on the precious metal dust.
The slithery digit produced an image in moments, leaving Rob to think it was no wonder that prosite culture had been so impressive. With built-in paintbrushes like those a cathedral ceiling could’ve been produced in the same time it took a wegger to build a web in its corner. In the dust there was a tree, with its roots forming the face of Kilroy peeking over his wall. Though the image was too small for names or faces, Rob recognized the numbering of its branches as identical to his family tree.
Mixomir paused, lifting the tentacle for the first time since it had started, possibly to portray how very different the two parts of this diagram were. When the tip came back down it drew something like a parasitic vine on the tree, a vine that was sure to wrap around every branch at least once. Rob noticed that the vine was rooted in the center of Kilroy’s forehead, but this meant the Custodian Kilroy and not the original trickster.
“Did Kilroy exist?” he asked. “The first one to stick his nose in another’s business.”
“Nothing, don’t know why I asked. Go on.”
“This is what our families have endured,” Mixomir said, “though I doubt any of your family trees have recorded it this way. Your sister and your nephew are not marked,” it tapped their respective twigs, “but they may have had experiences. My inherited knowledge does not cover anything contemporaneous with my own life, lest it involves Fixadil.”
“So why am I stuck with both of you? Am I such a sore spot for Porce that it has to infect my days with twice as many pathogens?”
“There aren’t many Ordrs left.” Mixomir’s tone was somewhere between sorrow and spite, the sound of someone avoiding starvation by growing their least favorite vegetable. “Without Ordrs to act on, the Bocculum line has been reduced as well. Our tenacity matters not in this situation. Fixadil might not have even been your first.”
“What does that mean?”
“Your affliction,” the prolith clarified. Rob slid along the wall, the spike on his shoulder clawing the stone. “It was produced by exposure to bath bead vapors, the same medium that created your line’s infection. It is possible that it was no accident, that there was a Bocculum behind it, perhaps trying to undo the connection.”
That was the moment where it stopped mattering what creature rested on the lip of the drain. Whatever it was, it was smaller than Rob’s fury. The pirate grabbed up the gown and swung it at the prolith again, smacking it in the chest. Mixomir slid backward, but stayed upright. The Captain kicked off the wall with bonepicking, landing on the prolith’s squishy shoulders, proceeding to beat its head from his stance atop it. It only managed to dislodge him by deflating the watery portion of its head and bending its imitation spine into a shape that would instantly kill lightfolk.
“The only real problem I’ve ever had is because of you!” he roared. “At least part of you was in the one that did this to me, and I’ll settle for partial vengeance!”
“It was just a theory!” Mixomir shouted, waving its hands. It didn’t get to keep those hands, as Rob’s attacks forced it to switch to weapons it was more comfortable with; the stony arms cracked and sank under the watery membrane, becoming debris-spiked whips. Its strikes were not meant to kill, but Rob dodged them all the same. He charged again, spinning the gown as fast as he could. A bubble from his next strike, the gown hit the ground and slowed. We didn’t miscalculate. No matter! We can’t let him get away!
The fight continued around the curve of the drain, Rob matching every word out of Mixomir’s mouth with a grunt and a swing. The creature had to be lying about its peaceful intentions; it was far too skilled in combat for it to have never fought folk before. For every gravitation-defying bonepicking maneuver the Captain produced, Mixomir had one where its gelatinous inner form was able to bend out of the way.
Still Rob thought he would be able to take the fight, if his weapon hadn’t become so unwieldy. The gown bulged and grew heavier with every swipe. The Captain had to shift his calculations, treating the bag as the center of gravitation rather than his waist.
“You’re just playing into Fixadil’s scheme!” Mixomir shouted, pointing a rigid whip at the bag. “You are the worst impulses that he is exploiting.” Rob swung the swollen gown once more, but it finally ripped and splashed its treasure in an arc across the stone. Many of the coins disappeared behind the falls, tossed into the largest wishing well in the world, but some of them bounced back after colliding with a wall of flesh and hair.
The pirate and the prolith stopped. They put their arms behind their backs and bowed their heads. Several steps back. A nervous cough. They had a visitor. She was so large that she had to be the source of the sounds they’d heard. They couldn’t see her gargantuan body, but she must have clung to the columns of the drain like a skingle to a branch. Only her head fit on the level where the two fought, her weak chin resting on the floor as if she didn’t have the strength to hold it up.
Rob had seen this face before, and Mixomir knew it from Fixadil’s experience. She was Offilee of drains: Fayeblon of the god Swimmr. The last time the Captain had seen the questing beast she looked lost in her own fog bank of imagination, as if she hadn’t seen another living thing in two ages and could barely comprehend his presence.
The difference this time was stunning. Her eyes were still hidden under her curtains of moldy hair, but her lips were full of emotion; they quivered like a child’s. The one hand they could see, its long knobby fingers wrapped around the nearest column, shook. Her fingernails were chewed down to the quick, the tissue of their beds swollen and purple. She had a knot of dark flesh on one of her cheeks, a cheek she turned away from them when she noticed their stares. That meant it was a strike rather than an accident, something she was ashamed of.
“My dear!” Captain Rob blurted, throwing down the shredded gown and wading through the tiles. “What has happened to you?” The last time they’d met he had fought a much smaller questing beast in the part of her hair, and she’d proven extremely helpful in getting him back to Porce. She did that without ever leaving her giant swing deep in the drain, yet something had driven her up into Rinlatour.
The Fayeblon didn’t speak, he didn’t know if she could, but she did sniffle. A glob of pale green snot ran out of her nose and swelled on the edge of her lip. Rob could see something swimming in it, long, hairy, and eyeless, like something too rudimentary to even call a prosite. It seemed equally likely that the creature was a parasite, Offilee’s best friend in the whole world, or both.
“Can I take it your attempts to kill me are over?” Mixomir asked quietly. It had spent much more of its life in the Pipes than Rob had, yet seemed far more reluctant to approach the giant.
“This lady needs our help,” Rob said, actually offended by the implication that he would ignore an innocent ailing woman. He guessed the Fayeblons were actually sexless since questing beasts could not reproduce, but the way Offilee wore her hair and held herself suggested femininity to the pirate. He removed his gloves and laid his hands on one of her fingers, stroking as if she was a blind old wolptinger. “Tell me what happened.” The Fayeblon sucked her slimy friend back up into her nose, initiating a bout of what they guessed was weeping. The hair on Rob’s arms prickled; if he had looked over he would’ve seen thousands of cilia on Mixomir’s moister portions doing the same. The endlessly inward breath of a questing beast was even more disturbing than usual when pregnant with negative emotion.
Offilee’s head moved out of the fall and then back in several times. Rob interpreted this as acts of pantomime; the Fayeblon said she had been minding her own business, swinging serenely deep in the drain. Her free hand rose, fingers curling menacingly into a fist; something had approached her from underneath. The fist pressed against her bruise gently, her breath hissing regardless. The entity had punched her.
“Horrible,” Rob grumbled. “Was the culprit familiar to you?” Offilee nodded.
“Our discussion isn’t finished Captain,” Mixomir reminded softly.
“I’ve largely made up my mind, but do feel free to keep talking,” Rob said, almost taunting. “Seeing as Offilee doesn’t prefer words I can handle a conversation with both of you simultaneously.” He turned back to the Fayeblon. “Go on dear, let it all out. I’m a better listener than the face in the mirror.” Hand gestures poured out of her wildly. Snot dripped from alternating nostrils, the creature swimming in it looking more distressed each time. The pirate nodded along with the most emphatic parts, occasionally uttering words like dreadful and unacceptable. Eventually Mixomir did attempt to proceed.
“There’s one more thing to hear before you make up your mind Kilrobin. I don’t know everything that goes through Fixadilaran’s nucle-eye, but the things it dreams about are clearest. I know the name of its ultimate plan, and it approaches rapidly. It is called the potluck.”
“Yes I’ve heard this one,” Rob said with a wave of his hand, not taking his eyes from Offilee. “Redistribution of wealth to the most violent and unscrupulous, the fall of the cream and the rise of the oily. A prosite weeding out those with principles to surround itself with reliable mercenaries. Mildly clever and overly dramatic at best.”
Offilee pulled on her hair out of frustration, causing the Captain to step forward. He took the lock of hair from her and draped it over his left forearm. After that he demonstrated the overlooked utility of bonepicking by holding out his other hand and locking the fingers into extended rigid shapes, turning it into an effective comb. The knots in her hair were aggressive, with a bite tighter than a Darid’s Arid scarid, but they audibly broke up under his persistent claw-combing.
“It’s even more… dramatic than it presents,” Mixomir continued. “I have seen the blood on the coins from Fixadil’s wildest fantasies. This will not be an attempt to reshape Rinlatour’s cake layers; the cake is going to be eviscerated.”
“Make it sound like something worse than bad table manners,” Rob requested as he moved to another section of the Fayeblon’s frizz. The combing had calmed Offilee greatly; her cheek squished against the column like a pillow and there wasn’t a drop of snot in sight except for the glisten its receding had left on her upper lip.
“I mean that the violence cultivated will not be a culling. Fixadil yearns for the complete annihilation of folk in Rinlatour. It wishes to infest this tower with prosites, so the previous infestation must be cleared. With its dim interior and access to unlimited moisture, this city is the perfect breeding ground for our kind.”
“I don’t see how this potluck could kill everyone,” Rob muttered. “Do you?” he asked the Fayeblon. She shook her head slightly and pointed to the next section she wanted him to comb.
“The exact twist of the knife eludes me as well,” the prolith admitted, “but the animus is there I assure you. I’m rarely this sure of anything.”
“So he’s got a surprise for us,” the pirate thought out loud, hitting a particularly stubborn snag in the monster’s hair. Twice he pushed on it, but any harder and it would have pulled the hair from the Fayeblon’s head, inadvisable given his uncertainty as to whether or not such beasts could grow their hair back. Instead he stepped out over the waterfall and wetted the clump. After that his fingers sailed through easily. “We just need enough grease to keep things going smoothly. That can be our surprise.”
“I’d rather we not be cryptic,” Mixomir said. “Are you telling me that you’re willing to collaborate?”
“Yes!” the Captain boomed. It was so emphatic that it startled Offilee; her mouth hung open as if she watched a folk hung in the air doing flips endlessly. “It is amazing, this determination!” He looked down at his hands, popping all the knuckles as he flexed his fingers. “I’m as surprised by it as you are my dear. I think it comes from meeting you once again.” The Fayeblon threw her hand over her mouth and gasped.
“We have many details to work out Captain,” Mixomir pleaded. “We must meet at least once more…”
“Yes, yes, bring your liquid self to the rundown house later and sneak into one of its falls. Only show yourself in my room. The others will likely require much convincing.” Offilee leaned in, confused as to how the subject had turned away from her. Rob was happy to bring it right back, his hand stupidly throwing out a cape that wasn’t there. “First we must give some of our confidence to Offilee, just as she has done for us.” The Fayeblon’s blood was far too much like sludge to blush, but her cheeks did seem to burgeon slightly, as if she had a mouthful of steaming stew.
“My confidence levels are unchanged, though you’re a touch more mad than I expected.”
“Aye, well knowing my line does not mean that you know me. I am Captain Kilrobin Ordr and the Ordr is the least of the three names. I’m down in the drains, I’m robbed of my normal attire and my ship, and fate has me tied up like the catch of the day, the catch of the age!” He stormed through the coins, kicking them into the air. His feet detached from the floor, but not in a leap. Rob bonepicked his body so that it behaved exactly like one of the coins, flipping end over end. He stuck the landing perfectly, feet like suction cups.
Offilee gasped again, her free hand waving. Her desire to applaud was too strong to ignore, but she couldn’t let go of the pillar if she was to keep viewing, so she was forced to smack her hand against the back of the other. The action shook the entire level, loosening ancient dust from the ceiling and sending the tiles sliding in all directions.
“Let’s not get too excited!” the prolith warned.
“Notice how I landed!” Rob demanded of them, pointing at his boots, ignoring Mixomir. “Feet down and chin up! It’s the only way to be proud!” The Fayeblon rubbed her flat chin, curling a finger around one long silver hair on it. “Even though you’re a questing beast, even though destiny has tried to tell you your life isn’t full, you still have your head up and your legs down!” She checked to make sure her legs were down. “You have this same confidence in you Offilee! You must fight as we’re going to fight!”
The Fayeblon’s expression faded. She ran her fingers gently down her bruise.
“The fact that you can feel that injury means you’re still alive,” Rob insisted softly. “The dead do not feel pain. They get no say in anything. You have a say Offilee, and it’s alright to be frightened. It’s alright to be so frightened that you almost shake yourself to pieces. You can be courageous and sweaty at the same time!”
The Fayeblon took a moment to recover from the pirate’s enthusiasm… but then she nodded. The creature thrust her chin as high as it could go, the force of the action seeming to dislodge her from the edge of the drain. Rob bonepicked himself mostly over the edge, as rigid as any plank he’d forced his foes to walk, and observed her descent. Leaping from column to column, her mop of hair diminished down the dark drain without a moment’s hesitation. Rob took a deep breath once she was gone, noting for the first time that he couldn’t feel the jab of the filed emerald spike at all.
“It seems you can instill the will to fight in any living thing,” Mixomir complimented once the sopping wet pirate returned. “A trait admirable or despicable depending on the kind of company you keep.”
“I’m keeping yours aren’t I?” he asked, bending over and shoveling coins back into the ripped gown. “Now help me gather these up and shake the preciousness out of them. There’s a terrifying woman waiting for me and I don’t want to disappoint her.”
Darkness is Simply Shade
Whelm the vision knew she had an enemy: the one who managed to stumble through the desert, a bubble from death, and still refuse the illusion. This Pearlen girl wasn’t even fond of her parents, that much was clear, yet she had stayed a nail in Whelm’s plan, tapping and cracking and costing her time and glass. It would only get worse now that her lover was dead, desiccating just under the floor of the Glass Desert. She would be back, either in pursuit of the polishing mirror or her remaining family.
The girl had others helping her. Her parents, devoted as ever, didn’t have much helpful information to share beyond that. Still, they could be of use. Whelm had the benefit of being interested in one thing only, while Pearlen’s interests were torn. All that mattered to the ancient color beam was the portal, so she composed an elegant sermon of pilgrimage that would split the focus of her foe.
She delivered the sermon herself within the church, using its glass walls as canvases. Floating in the curved ceiling, drifting over her flock with gown billowing as elegant fins, she spoke to them. A vision could not have a vision; she could only be one. She could not tell them effectively without showing them.
“The time of my emergence rapidly approaches,” she told them as they sat perfectly still beneath her, hands held, humming Whelm’s hymn. Their brighted eyes glowed under their lids. The colors around them were still being composed, but when the eyes opened they would see the vision of paradise that had drawn them from across the far reaches of gullibility. “The Spotless will take my hand and escort me over the threshold.”
One pair of eyes was dimmer than the rest, but the peeking members of the church that noticed thought nothing of them. All were welcome in the general sermons, and the man’s dark skin likely accounted for the dim quality of the light behind his lids. He hadn’t shared his name, but none with brighted eyes were required to do so. He considered it a shame, because he’d picked out one of his favorite pseudonyms to share if they’d asked: Cashui Juskiddr.
“Sadly, we cannot all be together when the light shines true,” Whelm continued. A few of her congregation gasped. The older women clutched at brighted beads that throbbed with light, an effect that quickened with their pulses. “The new light will shine in every corner of Porce and no darkness will remain. Everything will become our paradise. Shine your eyes upon our future.”
Their eyes opened all at once. No matter how many times they saw it, they never grew weary of it. Whelm’s paradise was portrayed with her living energy, so it was subtly different each time, the same way folk couldn’t make an identical yawn each time they awoke. The walls of the church were gone, replaced by fields of flowers across rolling hills. The swell of those hills matched the dunes outside Crib-ohlk: a promise that even the hardened desolation of the desert would bloom.
Whelm joined illusory daylight stars in flight. There was no florent, for it wouldn’t be necessary in this Spotless future. Whelm, medium and midwife, would bring forth all the light lost to the Reflecting Path. The raw power of it would crack the florent and spill all the spirits into the ocean of radiance. The Church of Bright Hope would be reunited with their loved ones, and they would walk hand in ray through the fields. Her acolights wept golden tears from the pews.
“It won’t be just Porce that is illuminated,” Whelm continued. “Our light will travel, swifter than anything in history, to the Black Gap beneath First Door. It will pour out into the Dark Empty, taking from it its namesake qualities.” She paused, as this was the first time her folk had heard this part of the prophecy. Fill up the entire Dark Empty? What did that mean? “It will become the Bright Overflow: an endless untapped realm of potential.
We will need pilgrims to be there, to take the first steps in the name of my husband. This is why half of us must become those pilgrims. You will stand at the edge of the Black Gap, and the moment you spy the light of my emergence in the distance you will take a step of faith over the edge. Our light will arrive before your second foot lifts, and you will stumble into tender new perfection.”
The illusions moved, flying across the flowers with five times the speed of an ekapad. In moments it was beyond anything recognizable as Porce. The Bright Overflow was too young for blooms, so its ground was a sea of luminescence: gold and purple. Gentle geysers grew, mightier than any tree, for there was no ceiling to stop their growth. They curled around Porce’s gravitation, making a new sky of colossal and barely fathomable rainbows. Hands in the congregation rose one by one. Volunteers.
“Admirable, but I will select the pilgrims,” Whelm told them. “Please stand if I call your name: Higgs Bosonr, Plutch Cleanlr, Carjunior Fatbackr, Handky and Curtain Lustr…” The list went on, but the man with the weak eyes had heard enough. Whelm’s intent was clear. He couldn’t leave yet; it would be too suspicious for someone to step out while Whelm lit the room. His thoughts were consumed by how to report this pilgrimage. The main hall of the church couldn’t hold all of its members; many were far in the back working on and guarding the polishing mirror. In total the vision called more than one hundred names.
When it was finally over he left with the crowd, silently shedding Cashui Juskiddr and returning to Herc Monickr. Once out of the church’s line of sight he felt safe to quicken his pace. He had to, for the last thing Whelm promised was that the pilgrimage would leave immediately, within five drops. She claimed it was so they could arrive right as the mirror was complete.
After their last glass heist the crewfolk of the Employer had decided to move their mirrors, just in case they’d been spotted by anyone from the church or a lurking Whelm. Now they were situated in the home of the annoyed lamplighter that had first shown Alast and Pearlen around the town. They became far less annoyed when Teal had authorized a payment of thirty tiles a night for the use of the tilefolk’s home and backdoor.
Herc checked twice to make sure that door was closed, though it likely didn’t matter if Whelm was onto him. She could fit through a door crack or sleep cozily within a pupil after all. When he turned around he found Alast and Pearlen, ever vigilant, eating a small meal of sponge bread and chilled green stew. It was perfect food to be called away from at a moment’s notice, bland to the point where heating would do nothing for it.
“Bright Eyes is back,” the boy said, clapping the crumbs off his hands and standing. The room was kept dark, with only one ancient candle going in the corner, though its base was bigger than the stewpot.
“Don’t call me that,” Herc said with a grimace. “I swear it was much more fashionable back when I was in the Brighted Plains.” He was careful not to scold Alast too much, for the boy had paid terrible tribute to the desert. His reflection was gone, the Reflecting Path forever closed to him. When the time came to journey back to Third Sink and the Employer he would have to do it with a steed and rinses worth of provisions. “There’s serious news: Whelm is making a most devious maneuver.”
“What?” Pearlen asked.
“She knows we still aim to stop her, so she’s splitting our objectives to drive us in different directions. The mirror will remain here I think… but she’s sending your parents, along with many others, to the Black Gap.” Pearlen stared back, only able to make out his silhouette thanks to the dim candle. She crushed a piece of bread in her hand, practically condensing it to grainy crystal.
“What has she ordered them to do?”
“Leap out of the world,” Herc told her. “She told them it would become livable the moment she emerges from the mirror.”
“That’s insane… and I know they’ll do it!” Pearlen moaned. Though she’d never been there herself, she knew all too well the nature of the Black Gap. Teal kept an impressive library aboard the Employer, taking the place of most of the explosive scientific equipment Rob had on the Greedy Old Mop, and in her collection was a black-bound tome with black pages and dark blue script. It could only be read by the glow of phosphorescence, which turned the enigmatic ink iridescent.
The tome came from the Far-eyed Academy near the gap. Even among academics they were famously cloistered. Their knowledge was never even meant to leave their walls, and if it did it still tried to protect itself by being generally impenetrable. Pearlen had still taken the time to pry the information out of it though, as she had a strong interest in the gap. It had always reminded her of deep water: the only place she could ever find peace.
The only place I could ever get away from them was ten dives down. Even if they did follow me their foolishness couldn’t travel in that medium. Every word is inane bubbles down there, every gesture an attempt to swim. I dreamt that the Dark Empty was the world meant for me, for those who could hold their breath their entire lives.
Alas, it is not for folk at all. It is a void without air, light, or water, its suspended islands further than grains of silt in a tilestone washtub. It doesn’t even have gravitation. Every man and woman that has entered has died, barely getting out a sentence after they started floating. Most of them said it was wonderful to fly, and then they died. That’s exactly what folk falling from cliffs would say if you slowed them down. The only way to survive is to wear a seamless protection suit with an air hose, but even then the temperature swiftly becomes intolerably cold, like winter that replaces ice and snow with a more emphatic recitation of its own name.
How I wanted it to be my fantasy escape, but I went and developed a healthy mind. The Black Gap is just the only escape that’s ever offered to anyone. I turned away from it, but they’re still trying to follow me there. Let them. Let them become those horrific illustrations, limbs twisted and mummified like worms dried out on rock.
“The mirror has to be our priority,” she said after a while. “There are far more lives at stake if it’s completed… including theirs.” Pearlen waited for the tears to flow, but they didn’t come. There wasn’t enough of a quiver in her eye to even disturb a single slumbering clawly, so she cast her head down instead. She still had the clump of bread stuck between her fingers, but Alast’s hand glided over hers, knocked it loose, and locked their fingers.
“You know, I’ve never been to First Door,” he told her softly. “I have to go everywhere in Porce at least once, until there’s nowhere left to quest.” She grabbed him suddenly, almost violently, and scratched the hair on the back of his head, perhaps trying to dig the terrible idea out of his skull. She finally cried, but for him. All of it turned into a rocking embrace, almost like a widow trying to dance with her husband’s body.
“You’re not going!” she insisted. “They’re not worth it; I won’t lose you over them. You’ve already lost sight of yourself.”
“That’s of little consequence,” he said flippantly. “I’ll just have a portrait commissioned every two or three rests. Besides, you heard Herc. Whelm is sending a whole crowd of them. Some of them might take their children. At least one among them will deserve a savior. Maybe there’s a little girl, the next Pearlen, who will hold her breath expertly when her parents tell her to step off Porce.”
“I forbid it! Someone else will go!”
“You should listen to him,” Herc interrupted. His eyes pierced their embrace, their beams wedging between the two young folk and pulling them apart. “We’ve justified the Employer’s involvement by acquiring pieces of the Reflecting Path, but we have plenty of them now. Captain Teal doesn’t even like to sell them anyway. You won’t be getting any other volunteers for the gap. I’d defend you both to the death, but I wouldn’t take up the strap of an explosive pack such as this.”
“I won’t be of much use here anyway,” Alast reminded her. “Stopping the mirror will take folk who can be inside and outside the path. That’s not me any longer. And if I wasn’t here I’d just be scraping any death off Rob’s back that happened to fall there. Nowhere in Porce is safe from my thirst for adventure.”
“Why do you say things that make me love you and worry for you at the same time?” she asked with a strained smile. “I can’t stop you?”
“Well, you could use some sort of spiked club or barrel of hot oil, but nothing much short of that will do it,” Alast said confidently. He pulled away and started packing some of the things he would need for the journey. “When do they depart?” he asked the musician.
It was easy for the pilgrims of the church to depart that night, as their bright eyes prevented the need of lanterns or torches. In the dark their caravan looked like a procession of very organized lightening bugs. Alast could safely follow at a distance and observe the winding line of light all the way to the Black Gap. Pearlen and Herc had rushed back to the Employer and gotten him the best camping supplies available: a tent barely taller than his sleeping nose, a small iron pot with a crimson bath bead at the bottom that would cook his food without fire, sharpening sheaths for his paper cutters, disinfecting balm for any burns the stare of the church might inflict, and a kiss from Pearlen that she promised would last on his lips until they saw each other again.
They all recognized that it was nearly impossible for him to succeed in full. He was one man against the church’s most fanatical scores, and he wouldn’t even have any guilt on his side. None of them would hesitate when they were only harming themselves. If the fateful moment came down to simple physical restraint, he would only be able to save the lives of one or two, assuming none of them tossed him over the side when he interfered.
Knowledge was the only weapon they had to give him, and the only knowledge they had was that dark tome aboard the Employer. It was rushed, something that certainly would’ve caused finger cramps if the fingers were fleshed, but the Employer’s forger did an excellent job of copying several key pages and illustrations onto more traditional paper. These were quickly bound in leather stamped with the well-known, good-intentioned, medical aid symbol of an eye rinsed under a fauce, and then passed off to Alast.
He read through them on his first night trailing the pilgrims. Though he was among the least squeamish aboard the ship, even including most of the gravefolk who didn’t have stomachs to turn, Alast grimaced at the sight of the recreated illustrations. The technical details scribbled next to the drawing, like the cadaver’s weight, length, and degree of limb twistedness, did little to separate him from the hollow horror depicted on its face. He read:
Far-Eyed Academy, Division of Medicine
Retrieval: Cadaver #49 was retrieved from the left side of the Black Gap during routine fishing. Scrape marks indicate it had been floating under a stone ridge with insufficient inertia to dislodge on its own. It was immediately preserved with soapstone tarpaulin and transported here, where it has been kept in a bed of spiced woodchips to retain the remaining moisture. Life of a local gap fisher was risked during transport, but she successfully defended the cargo from the thieves that have lurked about the Babaloney foothills.
History: The true age of the body is impossible to determine; it could’ve been stuck under that ridge for nearly an age. Whoever they were, it seems likely that their fall into the gap was accidental, as only the momentum of a downward tumble would have much chance of sending them below the gap in the first place. This theory suggests they may have, in their last moments, pushed off from another suspended object in an attempt to return to the edge, only to fail and strike too low. This other object could have fallen with them or been another victim of the incident.
Characteristics: #49 is a lightfolk male aged approximately nine rests. No hair remains to determine color. Skin is too dehydrated to determine tone. Three teeth are missing, replaced by carved bath beads with the dull magic of chewing food inside the mouth without actually moving the jaw. The beads indicate they may have been from wealth. The clothes were stiff initially, though quickly disintegrated when returned to Porce atmosphere. The fisher could not recall their appearance, meaning they were likely nothing out of the ordinary. There is no indication of injury or illness.
Manner of Death: The manner of death is utterly typical for gap exposure. The limbs were outstretched, indicating efforts to swim in the void. The point of no return was crossed in the briefest of moments, for there is no sign of one part experiencing death before the rest.
Passage was instantaneous, as the snap freeze effect of the Dark Empty caused the discharge and freezing of all water in the epidermis, dermis, muscle tissue, and all but the core of a few organs. The lack of pressure propelled the frozen droplets outward, creating the distinct tiny black craters evenly spread across the flesh called ‘death freckles’. They are not immediately noticeable despite the surplus of them, as the wrinkling and darkening of the skin obscures them.
The eyes, moist as they are in life, are completely destroyed in the moment of passage. The sockets are empty and show some tearing where spears of icy ocular fluid were propelled outward. The tongue has been reduced in diameter down to a sixth of a bubble. The gums are receded, with the roots of the teeth visible. The ears have flattened against the side of the head; bending them back to a natural angle would break them off, and we certainly have enough ear jerky in the sample collection already.
The limbs and neck are all spiraled, strongly resembling worms dried out on stone. The bones are broken in so many places as to make cataloging the number and location impossible. They have turned practically to wood chips, held in place only by the integrity of the dried muscle tissue surrounding them.
#49 is notable only in that a larger percentage of organ tissue is intact. The lungs are the only ones completely obliterated, reduced to one two hundredth their size and flipped through the cavity wall into the trachea. Stomach, intestines, bladder, and heart are flattened due to the pressure shift. Liver, kidneys, and gallbladder are best preserved, much of their interior appearing to be recently deceased at the time of this autopsy.
On reflection… #49 may be far more recent than initially stated. The outer wear could’ve formed rapidly if the stone it was stuck against shifted. The fisher also stated that she had laid line at that location before and not caught anything. #49 may have fallen an age ago… or two rinses ago.
It is my official recommendation that the surrounding area be canvased, and locals interviewed regarding a missing young man with three bead teeth. We must always remember that the Dark Empty isn’t just devoid of light and gravitation. It eats all indications of life and time. It fumbles us and breaks us in Porce’s smallest span of time, leaving us unrecognizable as things that ever thought.
Alast looked up from the page and saw his suicidal quarry plodding along. They were away from the edge of the desert now, making their way into the fertile farmlands of the tilefolk. These days in the Cracked Tiles, among fields of giant melons that would birth beasts of burden, through peaceful villages where the only thing louder than the wind was the butter churn, the acolights would grow serene and sure. They would see the bounty and believe that the Dark Empty only needed a few rays of florentshine to flourish.
He knew the truth of it. There had been eight gods in Porce and now there were none. The power radiating from their bodies would keep Porce warm and alive, like a campfire, perhaps for a few ages more. Outside their prism world was the land that couldn’t be explored. It was most of everything, and it was nothing.
The young man pulled his pack onto his shoulders and marched on. He wouldn’t let a single piece of Pearlen’s life, even her parents who swung on various branches of foolishness, be crushed in the three to four dimensions of its depth.
Continued in Part Seven