(reading time: 1 hour, 25 minutes)
A Drop from Kilrorke’s Eye
Though the great oceanic basins of the sinks looked perfect from a distance, there were occasionally cracks in their foundation that ran all the way through, producing waterfalls down to the World Floor; it was a fall so long that, in cold weather, the water could freeze into an avalanche before melting once more and splashing against the warmer ground.
The cracks in the tilestone would eventually be sealed by tiny animal colonies with mineralized shells, so the falls were understood to be a temporary bounty to the cities and villages in the shadow of each sink. One such fall had first made land directly through the roof of the mayor’s home in the sizable settlement of Corkinit. It destroyed the wood and glass of his skylight and killed him instantly. The stone foundation of the large house withstood, its basement windows and lower doorways working to channel the water into ten new streams.
The surplus of fresh and clean sink water, filtered through the rock, and the power vacuum created by the mayor’s death changed Corkinit overnight. The crashing of the falls made it difficult to sleep no matter the time of day, so the village developed the bad habit of a night life. Its roar allowed whispers to flourish: Corkinit didn’t need a mayor, things were far more entertaining now, all sorts of interesting folk were coming to see, some chose to stay…
The Ordrs did more than stay; they did their best to fill the gap left by Mayor Stronghouse Legendr. They weren’t politicians, far from it. They made no secret of their history in piracy along the supple lips and supply lines of Third Sink. Their current patriarch, Kilrorke, insisted that no line knew those waters better, and that was why he had picked up his daughter and her two children and they had followed the water on its new path down.
Really he had as much a claim to leadership as any, as he was in line with a Custodian. There was something that seemed almost divine, really just blustering overconfidence, about the way he took over the local canal and damming business as it tamed the new streams. One of these streams even ran right through the new house he built, not far from the Legendrs’ ruined estate. They fished their breakfast out of it each morning, right in the kitchen, using the previous night’s scraps as bait. Kilrorke was a man that hated waste, especially of opportunity.
It was the fifth wash of their life there, but only the second for the equally industrious creature sliding through the wet tunnels under the Orders’ grounds. The soil was far too moist for most animals to tunnel in without there being an extreme risk of collapse, but Vitaxia Bocculum produced a viscous slime that hardened the round walls into something pearlescent and watertight. The network of passages grew every day, extending further into the forest outside Corkinit, evidenced by the thick roots that pierced some of the further tunnels.
A lot of ground needed to be covered, and sifted through, if Vitaxia was to find enough bath beads for its research. Lightfolk made the mistake of thinking most significant bath beads had been found already, cut into fancy facets, and placed in jewelry. They had as many legends buzzing about them as stunned onlookers.
“They really should be treated as nothing more than minerals,” the prosite had said when nervously making its proposal. “There are innumerable beads the size of grains of sand, their magic too tiny to make a difference to folk. They can be sifted out from anywhere and collected. There could be the occasional violent reaction if they are incorrectly compacted, but I have the most trained nucle-eye in Porce.” So far it had made good on its promise, using the slime of its body to sift through a new patch of soil each day, buried right under the boots of Corkinit folk.
It raced along in the drops of midday, so excited to add the latest bead to its collection that it swirled all the way around the tunnel like a drop of oil in a funnel. The bead was stored safely in its plasm: a pale purple stone smooth as beach glass. The item had actually been brewing in its body for nearly a rinse now. The complex process involved finding thousands of sand-beads with similar effects, collecting them in a vacuole, and then applying waves of pressure until they fused into a single piece.
With the walls far too smooth to set the stones on and expect them not to slide into each other, Vitaxia had chosen a peaceful place along the edge of the forest to act as its nest for experimentation. There the delicate roots of the groutberry bushes could be manipulated, tied into little pouches that would hold the beads in place.
The prosite stalled when it rounded the bend before its repository. A shadowy silhouette sat at the entrance, tail flicking behind its neck like the drip hand of a clock. Vitaxia quickly manipulated its purple bead, positioning it just behind its eye so the unwanted visitor couldn’t see.
“Good afternoon Sourlick,” it greeted the wolptinger. The animal responded by turning and walking into the repository. “Chatty as always.” It joined Sourlick in the chamber. The air inside was alive with the crackle of engineered bath beads. Any other furry animal would be suffering from extreme static build-up in the fur, but Sourlick’s coat was as slick and stiff as ever. A wolptinger was an animal that would sooner die than admit the world had a say on its body. It was some sort of dark miracle that lightfolk had managed to partly domesticate them.
Sourlick was a mostly typical specimen: lithe shoulders, four nimble legs, a long tail, a long neck bent in the middle, and a wide flat head with disturbingly large eyes. Sourlick’s were green, a trait that had endeared it to its master, whose coat of arms had long bore the color of moss. The pet and representative strolled around the repository like it owned the place, eyes warped and exaggerated when they passed behind transparent beads.
The prosite had to admit the creature had an excellent eye for this sort of task. It always seemed to know exactly which bead would be most inconvenient to take as tax, often coinciding with Vitaxia’s personal favorites as well. The tax had been a significant obstacle to the work; for every five beads it squeezed out of the ground one was taken. It couldn’t be helped. The wolptinger’s master and his offspring were the crucial variables.
“Oh that’s a good one,” Vitaxia claimed as the brown-furred animal sniffed at a foggy gray bead. It pawed at the dangling cradle of roots. “It’s called quizzical look 1A; it causes any folk in its radius to adopt eyebrows raised to their absolute apex. I’m sure Kilrorke could get an excellent price for…” The wolptinger moved on. It cared not for the prosite’s exact words, given that it couldn’t understand them at all. All it knew was the tone. If the blob was pleased with the nearest bead it wasn’t the right bead. The Ordrs had taught their pet to be discerning, to not just fetch, but to fetch the thing most precious to its owner.
Vitaxia kept to the opposite wall to keep the purple bead hidden behind its eye. The stone’s exact effect hadn’t been tested yet, but early indications were that it would be the first functioning catalyst produced. Hundreds of beads were in place now, the ceiling a rainbow through nests of bubbles, but they were nothing more than trinkets without the right kind of catalyst.
“You know, now is not actually the most opportune time,” it peevishly addressed the wolptinger. “Why don’t you return tomorrow and I’ll have a nice one picked out for you?” It looked Vitaxia’s way, nose twitching. It slunk over to the prosite, forcing it to flatten against the wall. The pet purred, more threatening than satisfied. “I wonder if you can even comprehend that there is a tomorrow.” Vitaxia’s voice hardened. “Every new day is likely a shock to you. Not to us. We can’t rest, because as long as the Ordrs have a tomorrow, so do we. Destiny controls all, and we don’t even get our own destiny.”
Suspicious as the little beast was, it wasn’t about to bury its groomed head in the prosite’s slimy body. Instead it wandered away and swatted at a spherical orange bead until it came loose from the cradle, batting at it and chasing it until it rolled out of the repository. When the tinkling of the bead on hardened slime could no longer be heard, Vitaxia relaxed its membranes.
The collected orange bead was called reverse garden 3D if memory served. When half-buried in a vegetable or spice patch it would cause all the plants to grow upside down, with greenery hidden and roots bending in the breeze. It would certainly make harvesting tubers easier, so Kilrorke’s auction of it would be a success.
The reverse garden series was one of the earliest creations, but its last example had been taken now. It brought back all sorts of memories of the prosite’s fledgling efforts and the extremely awkward conversation that started it all: a conversation in which it was literally on the hook. The meeting had all the markings of a chance encounter, except a Bocculum and an Ordr could never meet by chance. Vitaxia was simply swimming along a rather swift stream, lost in aqueous thought, when the current’s speed caused it to become snagged on a fishing hook, piercing through the plasm and painfully catching its eye.
Before it could even understand the pain it was whipped out of the water and held dangling. Somehow it was in a room that smelled of butter burnt onto cast iron and strong cheese rinds. There was a lightfolk man sitting in a chair, holding the fishing pole. He had a trimmed and oiled beard that swooped into claw shapes from his ears to his mouth, like the mandibles of a soldier caste bug. His head was bald, but coated in gray foam that smelled like medicine: a hair regrowth balm. He was in his pajamas, though the florentshine could still be seen from the window.
“You’re not a fish,” he said gruffly, poking at the prosite and making it spin on the hook.
“Noridox sumtriphex!” Vitaxia agreed before remembering it had to speak Wide Porcian. “I am indeed not a fish! You’re hurting me! Put me down!”
“Grandbaby just swept these floors. You’re not touching them with your grease. What be a booger like you doing in me kitchen?” Vitaxia couldn’t spin its eye with the hook still firmly embedded, but there was a pupil pointing down already. It confirmed that the stream did run right through the man’s kitchen floor. There was evidence of his other prey everywhere: boxback shells used as stools, dried shellenfowl necks hung in bundles, and piles of ogtot bones to flavor stews.
“I was just passing through! I have no business with you!”
“You’re a strange prosite,” the man noticed. “Speaking Wide like it be your spit. Your color be off too; I can see straight through your character I can.” He was used to seeing the prosite strains that had long been better adapted to florentshine; their plasm was cloudy. Vitaxia had sought enlightenment, stalled in its meditation only by the roadblocks of the Ordr infection. Still, the efforts had cleared its body of corruption and left it mostly transparent. Kilrorke Ordr saw his face reflected in its round swell.
“It is a strain on a strain to be like this. I have enough of my own problems without folk like you putting knives in my path. Now put me back in the water!”
“Are you a spy?” Kilrorke asked. “If not I’d hire you as one splitty-lick. You were all but unseeable in the water there. What be your name? I’m Kilrorke Ordr.”
“You couldn’t even pronounce my…” Vitaxia stopped. So, it wasn’t the man’s fault at all. This had been arranged. If there was ever to be any choices to make, Vitaxia could only make them in the presence of Ordr. It was certainly time, but it didn’t know if it was yet ready. The bead formation process was still just an idea, one that felt like it was leaking out thanks to the fish hook. “Ordr, you say?”
“Ordr I said was the actual order of it, but aye.”
“I am Vitaxia Bocculum. Does my name mean anything to you? It has likely meant something to your mother or your father, whichever was the Ordr. Do tell me it’s not both of them.” The man’s eyes narrowed.
“I don’t know your name from the bottom of the rot,” Kilrorke answered coldly. “You know mine, but that be to be expected. You’re flagellating me waters.”
“Yes, I do know your name; I’ve known it my whole life. I have a proposition for you Mr. Ordr. If we work together… excuse me! Could you please stop that?” The lightfolk was lightly slapping the prosite’s side, sending it spinning on the hook. In the absence of his pet wolptinger he seemed to assume that something had to do the predatory pawing. He smirked, hand shooting out, cutting through the plasm, and wrapping around Vitaxia’s fragile eye. The prosite thought itself doomed for a moment, but then the man gingerly removed the hook and set his prey down.
“What be it that a booger can offer me?”
“First, I must explain our encounter,” Vitaxia started. From there it spun the tale that had been wound into its heritage ages ago. Kilrorke’s fishing that day had not a speck of luck to it because Custodian Kilroy thought his own material as mighty as the world’s. The strain Bocculum had parasitized that strength, for good and for ill, and it would continue to do so until there was no Ordr in Porce. “Or until I undo it.”
“And how would that happen?”
“A chamber like the one that started it in the nostril of Kil: a pressurized bath bead repository. That can turn emitted magic dense enough to be a gas, which makes it far easier for a will or a breath to manipulate. Then I can craft something to counter the profate spores. One touch of a prochance spore will end our connection. Full freedom will be restored.” Vitaxia went on to describe the theoretical model. It could compress bath beads from magical silt and soil, keep them nearby, and regularly adjust the parameters based on the qualities of Ordr.
“What be in it for me?” Kilrorke asked when it was done.
“Well… I just explained that…”
“No, you prattled it would benefit me line. The two of us are already met. You want some flavor of freedom you think you can have by being near us. I’m sympathetic, but only as far as I could sneeze you out. Make me a real offer or this be catch and release.” Vitaxia didn’t know what to say at first. Folk were supposed to be all about family, regularly throwing themselves on the pyre if it meant their children wouldn’t be cold for a single night. This man, even though his kitchen had all the messy touches of four hungry mouths, acted as if the only other being in the world was Vitaxia.
Eventually it realized there was only one thing it could offer, and that was the bath beads the process would produce. They settled, with a solemn promise, on a tax of one bead every two rinses, and in exchange Vitaxia could live beneath the grounds and take any Ordr measurements it desired, provided it didn’t reveal itself to his daughter or his grandchildren. He only collected the first few beads himself. When the tunnels grew deep and thin enough that the man couldn’t fit, he sent in Sourlick as his representative. The wolptinger was an even stricter negotiator, never capable of taking no for an answer.
The purple catalyst drifted out of its plasm and into the center of the chamber. The hundred beads surrounding it swayed in its direction as if it exerted powerful gravitation. They tinkled against each other like a wind chime, sometimes producing a magical spark with a will of its own that would jump and dance around the walls.
Only the tiniest magical flecks could be used to make a catalyst; they had to be so weathered by wind and water that they were moments away from not existing. Their power had to be so minute as to be incapable of holding any identity. It was raw magic: a creative power not seen in any amount larger than that since the Age of Wonder. A billion of them combined made a single bead with no purpose. All other powers around would flow into it, mingle in its empty opportunity, and obey the orders of their holder perfectly.
Sourlick wouldn’t be back for rinses, so now was the perfect opportunity to test it. That meant pressurizing the chamber so it was as close to identical to rocky Kilroy’s clogged sinuses as possible. Vitaxia raced through the beads, observing that they already emitted colored particles, and stretched itself across the entrance. With one push it extruded a membrane of hardening slime that sealed the chamber off from fresh air and florentshine. The bead’s emissions would soon eat up all the breathable air, but prosites could survive without respiration for some time.
The effect was swift; particles from the beads became streams of color that swirled around the catalyst. Its purple hue faded to crystal clarity. Vitaxia rolled with the magical current, across the sides and ceiling, occasionally splitting around a root. The sensation was indescribable, like swimming in the liquid world as it was poured into its mold.
The bead powers varied in strength and usefulness: one that made toadstools flower, one that disintegrated the soles of shoes, one that mimicked the call of a lumasol, one that caused sleep and boring dreams, one that refused to be thrown, and so on… All that mattered now were the possibilities created by the mixing of those powers. Vitaxia just had to direct the currents and find the one that would mix with its hereditary material to produce prochance spores.
The first problem presented itself: two hundred and fifteen beads in the repository. The number of combinations was inconceivable. Even if it began testing immediately it would certainly take more than two rinses without rest to try even a fraction of them. Sourlick would be back for another tax, and the removal of one of the variables might neutralize the whole effort. Vitaxia realized it should have set some beads aside, outside the repository, for the animal to take, but the prosite had been too caught up in the progress. It was a tower of countless stacked generations, about to crumble euphorically.
It quickly decided not to waste time with worries. The prosite stopped upside down, morphing into a fan shape and stretching down toward the catalyst. The fan was stretched thin enough to let the magical vapor pass through, but capable of snagging sparkles of phenomena that caught any of its pupils. It swooped around the catalyst, an insistent filter feeder, passing the most promising combinations down into its body for testing.
There was a thump up above. Probably just the fall of a ripe groutberry. Vitaxia mixed false footprints 2C with voice raiser 2A, creating an effect that could make someone’s trail sing in their voice. That might be helpful if some other bead could help confuse a trail with a lineage.
Another two thumps. Not a berry. A rabard then, bounding around idiotically, unaware of the delicacy of the experiment under its paws. Back to work. A touch of liquid door 1A into the hearty brew of irremovable clothing 3E would make for a doorway that would strip folk naked as soon as they passed through, but a more metaphorical nature was still needed. Vitaxia reached for the poetic chaos of living doodles 2D.
Thumps were a thing of the past, replaced by something far worse. Clods of dirt fell through the ceiling and ripped trails in the vapor. Vitaxia’s pupils snapped to focus and rolled. There was a foot in the repository! Wiggling in two jigs at the same time!
“Don’t move!” the prosite howled, but the bumbling fool probably couldn’t hear. “Keep it plugged!” It rolled as fast as it could, ready to use its body as a sealant to maintain the pressure, but it was too slow. The booted foot wrenched itself free. A beam of florentshine shot down like the spit of an angry god. The suction from the lost pressure turned the pool of magic into a maelstrom. The ground cracked and collapsed, all of the voices lost under the myriad sounds of the beads.
Those voices numbered five, but two of them were far enough away to escape unharmed: twin girls just four rests old. Ternskirt and Hemway Dinnr always knew that Ordr boy was trouble, yet they wound up tramping up and down the creeks with him every other day. This was the last time, perhaps because he was dead. They didn’t look back to see if the ground chewed him up after it swallowed him; they just ran for their lives.
There was a quake as the rest of the repository’s roof collapsed. The geysers of magic dropped in one rushing puff, solidifying as close to their origination beads as possible. The result was jagged spines of vibrant crystal jutting out in all directions. Vitaxia was squeezed into a crevice that hadn’t been there a moment ago, its sides burning, its eye compressed nearly to rupturing. With a slime-lubricated push it popped itself free and tried to make sense of the destruction.
Pieces of the ground were caught in the ends of the jutting crystal, preserved mid-tumble like bugs in amber. Gem-skins crawled across groutberry bushes, their stiffened roots holding them aloft in shapes like birdcages. In the middle of it there were two bodies struggling with the knowledge that they were still alive. Vitaxia didn’t dare approach; it kept under one of the bushes as it watched one boy lift another and brush sparkles off his back.
The prosite knew the young Yugo Legendr only by the lad’s proximity to Kilrorke’s grandson Kilrobin. The two of them were always palling around, making isolated measurements of the youngest Ordr difficult. Their friendship hardly made sense given the way the house of Ordr had subsumed the duties of the Legendrs, but of course it was the nonsensical behavior of folk that had gotten Vitaxia stuck to them in the first place.
Little Yugo was an odd-looking boy with a large forehead and bulging eyes, the latter exaggerated by the strain of dragging his friend out of the repository. Twice he had to stop and wipe crystallized magic from his eyelashes. His purple tears suggested the whole area burned painfully. Vitaxia crept along behind, peeking over the pit’s edge when Yugo set Kilrobin down. He made uneducated attempts at resuscitation, loudly blowing breath into the unconscious boy’s lips.
“You said we were getting to kiss the Dinnrs!” Yugo bawled. “Now I’m stuck kissing you! Wake up!”
“Chest compressions would be ideal,” Vitaxia burbled, but it wasn’t going to reveal itself to another lightfolk. It felt a hot rush in its plasm, something like guilt. It reasoned that none of this could be its fault, since its proximity to the boy was predetermined. This was exactly the sort of thing it tried to prevent. Yugo’s bad attempts numbered three more before he decided to sprint away in search of help. Kilrobin laid there, unconscious, green tears streaming down his face, the little pools they formed in the dirt quickly hardening into a skin like caramelized sugar. Vitaxia only raced to his side when it realized Kilrorke would firmly place the blame on its nucle-eye.
The prosite slithered onto his chest and stared at his wide-open mouth. There was a twinge deep in its eye: a reflex it barely managed to suppress nearly compelling it to leap down the boy’s throat and attach to the delicate fibers of his lungs. Though its plasm was clear of the hatred that clouded other strains, there was no getting rid of the primordial urge of infection. His mouth was a dark passage to a whole other world in which the prosites were armed and legged things. In that place they were users of paper, drivers of steeds, and bound to the bloody rigid nobility of the womb instead of the slippery versatility of an oath.
“His lungs need a push,” it babbled. The creatures were among Porce’s worst jumpers, spilling themselves on landing, but Vitaxia made several attempts regardless. It didn’t even succeed in rocking the young Ordr’s body. “I’m not infecting; I don’t need that. I want freedom! This is for me! My freedom!” Vitaxia stretched across the boy’s dry tongue and down into his throat.
It paid no attention to the heat of his body, or to the thumping of his heart other than as recognition that he still lived. When it found the walls of his lungs it spread across them and throbbed, forcing them to inflate and deflate.
Just a foam away, but practically a different world, Rob’s eyes popped open. His hands contracted into claws and his knees shot up, but he couldn’t move any more than that. Having inhaled the vapor exposed every grain of him to unfathomable forces; it was in his pores, his blood, and the roots of his teeth. It seeped into the canals of his brain’s surface. Full consciousness was impossible while the magic decided if there was even any room for the boy’s soul anymore.
His mind only partly understood what he stared at. Vitaxia’s body was glued to his chin, and while part of it filled his throat and chest the rest arced over his face. Its plasm was so clear that Rob saw his distorted reflection staring back.
There was yet another crystal around, coiled up with its cord in his pocket. Eventually he would make grand claims about how he acquired it, but it was actually the only gift his Nayrdawellr father had ever given him, and it was given the last time they saw each other. The man wasn’t off on some grand campaign, just off to the Tippytops where he kept his third of five families. The parting gift was a piece of the Reflecting Path, so that if Rob ever felt he needed a man in his life he could look in the mirror and see one that would listen, that would even nod back.
As the boy, half-immersed in the nightmare of undetermined existence, stared at his reflection he saw that it understood the situation. Half-existence was its fate since they were both born. Rob had no words within reach of his mind, but his glistening eyes pleaded all the same. The three beings, all wrapped up in each other, fought for the same life. They were all enemies of the forces assailing one brittle lightfolk body. In that moment the borders between them were loose, the fence posts separating their identities popping out of the bedrock.
Vitaxia didn’t know how much time had passed when a hand grabbed it by the plasm outside the boy and yanked it out. The prosite was whipped around in the air several times and tossed into a bush. There were thorn scratches on its eye, but there was still no mistaking the man cradling the boy: Kilrorke. Rob was coughing violently, breathing on his own again, his eyes still trapped open.
“What’d you do to him?” Kilrorke snarled.
“It was an act of fate!” the prosite insisted, barely finding words itself. “His foot came straight through the ceiling of my experimental chamber!” The blob rushed back, but compressed to a stop when Kilrorke threw up his hand.
“You stay back!” the man roared. Rob’s panting gasps grew louder. When his grandfather turned back he saw a symptom so painful that it pulled tears out of his own eyes. Emerald spikes grew from the corners of Rob’s eyes, toward the sky. Their growth could be seen. Worried that the other end was just as sharp and growing down, Kilrorke pinched one of the spikes between his fingers and swiftly pulled. The spike came out, but brought a tiny amount of tissue and blood with it. “One more. Breathe boy.” Without delay he plucked the second one, which produced a squirt of blood.
“If I could scrutinize his fluids I could possibly…” Vitaxia tried to offer, but the man had none of it. He whipped around and stomped on the prosite, foot flattening against its eye. It had never felt such pain. Bubbles meant to become begging words dissolved before they could reach its surface. The pressure only increased; its eye bulged on either side of the man’s foot.
There was only one way out. There had to be nothing for the former pirate to squish. Such a path was also death for Vitaxia Bocculum, but not for its components. The prosite had promised to stay and deliver its bead tax until its work was done. It couldn’t make a new promise audible, not with the words diffused in its pain, but all it had to do was mean it. Vitaxia swore, on its own life, under its own bubbled breath, that it would never approach an Ordr again.
Kilrorke’s boot hit the grass as two blobs shot out from under his foot. One was clear, and the other white. Their only instinct seemed to be flight, for they vanished into opposite ends of the underbrush. The elder Ordr went back to cradling his grandson’s head. The boy’s eyes were still vacant, pupils as black as the Dark Empty. The man couldn’t think of anything to do but stroke the boy’s hair and quietly tell him to hush that gasping.
He picked up the two emerald needles from the boy’s eyes and rolled them around in his palm. There wasn’t a single concept in his head that could inform him as to how the child’s eyes had produced emeralds, but there were plenty letting him know that the stones were of high quality and quite valuable.
“You’re full of treasure Rob,” he whispered. “You’ll be right if you can keep that power locked up tight. Throw it around and feel better. You won’t want for nothing.” The words might’ve sunk in if Kilrobin’s mind wasn’t consumed by the inner sound of his bones cracking and powdering, making way for their gemstone replacements.
And so came the day of the robbery. Dianarhea’s team of bead-snatchers managed to prepare everything for the day before Fixadilaran’s catastrophic potluck. The flushess’s tile savings were gone, but enough metal dust had been sweated to pay her guards to keep things quiet, at least for a few days. Most of Teal’s crew had returned to the Employer, leaving the rundown house very empty, but just as quiet.
The party gathered in the foyer, wearing their economist disguises. Dianarhea was partly in disguise, trying to strike a delicate balance with her garb. It couldn’t be anything so flashy that only the flushess could wear it, but it had to be believable as the look of someone rich enough to visit a museum of coin in the middle of the sugar on top. In the end she chose a silver gown with its glittering scarf turned inside out to catch fewer eyes. She styled her hair radically different from her usual, having it swoop around one of her ears like a crashing wave and cover half of her face.
Her piece of the Reflecting Path was a small bead of glass embedded in an earring and hidden under her new hairstyle. Everyone else in the party had a similar piece built into their disguises, the raw materials helpfully provided by Pearlen’s heart-wrenching family crisis. Teal’s made up the bridge of her fake spectacles. Claudize’s was the face of his pocketed watch. Skuldug wore hers as a simple ring with frosted etching.
Roary and Dawn would be joining them as well, but as scouts keeping to the path in order to keep down the already suspicious size of their party. The smaller team sizes were advisable for another reason, given the tendency of reflections to pick off folk in large groups and take their places. The pair was presumably already in position, waiting in the reflected foyer for when the counterparts of the thieves moved out.
The only missing pieces were the imitation golden trickle bead and Captain Rob himself. The man had asked for an opportunity to examine the replica alone, as well as to enjoy possibly his last peaceful moments in the rundown house. The others obliged, though there was hardly anything for him to examine. The construction of the replica was the only aspect of the entire operation that had gone smoothly.
It was two and a half foams long, shaped like an overstuffed square pillow, and made of an inexpensive smoky crystal that would hold the illusion of falling coins well. It was hollow, split all the way around its middle like a shellfish, with internal hinges holding it closed. The latch was hidden under an extremely small lip. The only thing within was the much smaller wild imagination bead, held in place by a cradle and strap.
Dianarhea was the only one among them who had seen the authentic bead with her own eyes, so she had crafted the illusion. She thought about it again in the foyer, coming to an understanding as to why the pirate might want his moment alone with it. She had insisted on the same condition when experimenting with the illusions, for she didn’t want the others to see the tears falling in the process.
Her father Hazelnoose had been with her the first time she saw the golden trickle bead. He had plucked a coin from its surface, made it disappear in his hands, and then pulled it out from behind her ear. For most fathers this was a silly act of sleight-of-hand, made all the easier by children wanting to believe in it. His version was real.
The bead was practically treasure incarnate, and he could’ve used it solely to enrich himself. That first day he showed it to her, after telling her to put on her most professional attire, he explained what he truly hoped she would inherit. The bead under him was altruistic, rewarding the kind, clever, and determined. She believed him because he believed himself, because there were plenty of twinkles in his eye and none of them were doubt.
It had only been partly true. He was still just a man, and there were holes in his perception that tiles had leaked through. She had seen it recently in the lower layers of the city. Hazelnoose never saw other folk growing up, so it was another lifetime where they mostly couldn’t join the wealthy castes. Tile, light, and grave trapped beneath the military wafer.
“Cet triquet.” the royal flush had admitted to her once. “Jeneles detretqua pa, malet doiven etrelent. Leurne tournentet auvite quat entendequay unede monefric frapelfond dun sacquamanet.”
“It is sad,” his words went when translated into Wide Porcian, a phrasing Dianarhea had used exactly when living the life he had intended. “I don’t dislike them, but they must just be slow. Their heads don’t turn as fast when they hear a coin hit the bottom of a purse.” As she sobbed, molding illusory coins so they matched her memory, she discerned the truth. Those folk never heard those noises when it came to their money. They were ravenous for the strike of coin against the ground; they had desperation instead of purses. It was a simple miscalculation on her father’s part, but one so devastating that she had to admit it looked evil.
Much of her city’s population wasn’t even recognized or targeted by the golden trickle bead. They waited, mouths up and open because their hands were occupied by the tools of their trade, for trickledown economics to drip down their throats. They worked day in and day out, yet they remained parched. There was an invisible umbrella overhead, streaming their hopes into coffers that already overflowed.
Dianarhea had already pledged a change once it was under her control. She could start righting the rain as soon as that evening. The door before them opened, and Captain Rob stepped out with the replica in his hands. She was relieved to see he hadn’t fooled with the illusion at all. Golden tiles, correct down to every date and striking mark, cascaded from the bead’s apex, down its slanted faces, and then inward toward its bottom point. Not one ever poked out from its glassy surface. It could have even fooled her father.
Rob walked over to a full length mirror. Teal, practically swimming in pieces of the path now, had returned the simple necklace to him. With it brought so close to glass they now all saw Dawn and Roary standing in the mirror. The Captain’s nephew leaned out of it to take the replica from him. The young man was surprised by the weight of it, nearly falling out, but Rob’s palm shot up and held him steady. He whispered something in Roary’s ear; Roary nodded before retreating with Dawn. The bead was too large to conceal, so they would escort it into the museum.
Now would be the perfect time for a speech, but we don’t feel like shouting over the falls again. All these thieves will have to settle for a motivational nod and confident eye contact. Rob walked down the line giving his nods, careful not to make any one more emphatic than the rest. This heist was the culmination of all their hard work. It was the last step on the stairway of Rinlatour. The Captain just had to shake the feeling that he hadn’t earned it as much as the rest of them. The city had sniffed him out as a scoundrel and stuffed his pockets every step of the way, like a geyser of scum blasting his boots skyward.
We’ll just call it cruel fate. Mixomir did tell us we were doomed to deal with Fixadil. That’s what’s driving us back together. Rising action or falling, it’s all just the world trying to convince us that our actions have one to one consequences. There is no towering or sinking. There’s just how audible suffering is in the thinner air of higher elevations.
The pirate accidentally emphatically nodded at lightfolk eye level as he passed Skuldug. He did so a second time at an empty space. The tilefolk grabbed his arm and pulled him, an act they all interpreted as permission to finally set out. When they closed the door of the rundown house it was still in the frigid early drops of morning. The museum housing the geode, which in turn housed the bead, wouldn’t even open to the public for another two drops, but they had quite a ways to walk before reaching the pulley-elevators that would take them from the cream filling to the sugar on top.
There were faster methods of transportation available, both public and private, but Fixadil had dispatched confrontational guards into most spaces in preparation for the morrow’s potluck. Their best hope was to stick to back streets and little-used elevators that barely functioned, manned by bent gray bergfolk who were barely alive.
Most of them couldn’t help breaking character when the last elevator dropped them off at the top of Rinlatour. They had forgotten how very open the sky was and how far away clouds could be. Added to that was the spectacle of roofs, awnings, and domes of the sugar on top. Legally mandated it was: every single building at that height was to wear its wealth on its sleeve. The tiles were made of crystal that sparkled in the florentshine, also looking uniquely beautiful when it rained and frosted. The wind made the buildings sing sonorously, with solos performed by large birds as they swooped down and nearly brushed the crystal.
“This is too much,” Claudize sighed, the first one to speak since they boarded the final elevator. The flushess turned to him, her guilt obvious. “Whatever made you think someone could earn this glare fair and square?”
“That’s not the tissue at hand,” Rob reminded. “We all make our mistakes; we’re here to find out exactly what righting them is worth.” The others nodded. Dianarhea’s new hairstyle helpfully blocked her falling tear from view.
The party proceeded through the streets, arriving at the public circle that shared a curve with the indented stairs and front doors of the Jaumuuk Finansr museum of coin and trade. They were just on time for its opening, which meant they were too early to steal anything. Nothing was more suspicious than a person expecting long lines at a museum. They backed off and ducked into a small bakery out of sight of the building. The woman behind the counter was quick to demand they purchase something, with only Rob able to produce enough coins from his pocket. It bought each of them an overpriced brownbud scone, especially given that their collective nerves made them taste like topa.
The museum’s face was imposing, aggressively angular against the circled streets, like a dam biting at the edge of a river. Its front bricks were massive, metal-plated, and struck like a variety of historical coins. Mounted scales taller than any bergfolk widow’s peak stood beside the doors, their brassy trays stacked with ingots of various metals, swaying back and forth as they received subtle value fluctuations from the golden trickle bead deep within.
Half a drop later, when they stood in front of it, Captain Rob nodded slightly to a glass sphere topping a banister at the base of the museum’s stairs. The warped face of Roary nodded back; the two groups climbed the stairs together. The Captain, still flushed with coin despite having emptied his pockets at the bakery, purchased the tickets. Just four visiting scholars and a shy noble. Just a tour of the golden trickle bead’s weather across fifty rests.
“Back when I was a teacher I took some students on this tour,” Claudize whispered in Rob’s ear. “Had to lie to them, tell them everybody poor deserves it.”
“Let’s make them deserve it,” Skuldug’s growl added, hitting his ear bone emeralds like a spade. He was again impressed, given that she’d whispered it to him while twenty foams away, turned away from him, and pointing at a silver barrel stuffed with gold. Rob dug the voice out of his ear with a handkerchief and a finger, and then pretended to be a patron for a while, about as long as it had taken them to eat the scones. After that he gave the signal: a sneeze followed by two sniffles.
One by one the party split off and headed for the washroom, giving at least twenty drips between departures, with Rob as the last to join. He stopped at the door, took a deep breath, felt the soothing absence of the emerald spike under his fresh scar, and pushed it open. As expected it was empty, all the stall doors flung open. The wall over the sinks was one long mirror. Rob had no reflection, as it was off mentoring reliable Pearlen.
“We would like to see ourselves,” he muttered, “as everything keeps telling us we’re not here. The wind blew us away a lifetime ago, with the rest of that gas.” He grabbed the edges of the sink. “We’ll go touch something. Go put our grubby strong paws on it and really give it a feel.” He vaulted over the fixture, passed effortlessly through the glass, and landed in the reversed restroom.
The others were there, having already removed or stored away the extraneous pieces of their disguises, faces bare, bold, and reserved. Roary and Dawn were there with the replica. They all held the hand or shoulder of someone else in the party, because they were not alone. Several of their reflections were present as well, hoping to get a taste of them as they had of Alast.
The hangers-on consisted of Dianarhea, Skuldug, Claudize, and Roary. Teal and Dawn had spent so much time back and forth, hopping across the World Floor from Third Sink to Slick Rin, that their reflections had been forced to bet on a single location to stalk. Only Roary’s had bothered to leave the Employer, arriving in Rinlatour just a day ago. Nonetheless it was troublesome, as it held a reflected replica of the replica, and they all foresaw what a headache that could be.
Rob put both hands on his nephew’s shoulders and squeezed to confirm that he was solid. They moved out as a single file line with Roary in the middle. Skuldug led with Dianarhea directly behind, as she had no trouble seeing over the diminutive tilefolk and directing her to the entrance of the geode.
The exhibits, even viewed perfunctorily, were disappointing. All the information was there, printed across the walls in Merdidu in a font that somehow looked expensive, but there was no soul to any of it. Every coin in every case was polished to a shine. If it was too corroded to shine they had re-plated it, stripping it of its experiences. This isn’t money; it’s the bones of money. We don’t know what it bought or who it bought. We don’t get to see how the city decides who to elevate. It has its own standards and they call them history. After three spacious rooms full of waterwheels used to turn the early flow of the bead, they found a marked door: emplodequa suelentet.
“Employees only,” the flushess translated in a whisper. “Two more doors like this and we’re there.”
“Remember to mind the refryction fluid,” Rob advised. “There will be a single guard, but we must first isolate their reflection.” Rather than open it, Skuldug simply clawed through the thin material of the reflected door. From there they turned down a dark hallway, breached the second door, walked again for fifty drips, and found the final one. With the guard likely just on the other side, leaning against the bead large enough to act as a doorway into the geode, they couldn’t simply barge in.
Dawn used two of her fingers to poke holes in the wall, bonepicking them with such speed that the wall simply tore instead of stretching. The others bent over and used them as peepholes. The proximity of their goal finally dawned on them. The next room surely looked quite different from its Porcely counterpart.
Its furthest wall was a bulge making up one side of the geode. All surrounding materials appeared ripped, frayed, and compressed back together. It was a room of scar tissue caused by uses and accidental spills of the refryction fluid. One drop of it could obliterate an entire foam of the path, but it wouldn’t stay that way forever. Eventually the reflection would heal.
The guard was there, armored nostril to knee, a lock over his nose and a slender bucket hammer slung on his shoulder. Black steam rose from the liquid within. He leaned against the pocked wall. The bead doorway was next to him: a rounded rectangle of luxurious red. Looks like a candy that could burn through the bottom of your mouth. The guard’s reflection was on the other side of it, leaning the same way as if someone paid it to do so.
They had already worked out a way to lure it to them. Skuldug brought her sharp-toothed grin to her peephole after calculating the exact angle for throwing her voice. She lobbed a sweetly-worded offer through the opening so that it landed on the reflection’s helmet. None of her companions heard the offer, but it had been discussed in planning.
‘Nodequa povotet rendret votequay tontolet inconscequa etvo donet acestetqua,’ was the version she had suggested at various points, translating to an offer to make the reflection’s counterpart unconscious and possibly give it access to his blood. It took the bait immediately, walking over to the door swiftly enough that the robbers had to scramble off to the sides to avoid being seen. Dawn kept watch the entire time, and while the real guard’s head tilted curiously at the sight of his reflection leaving his side, he did not step away from his post. Perhaps he assumed that even reflections had the occasional errand to run.
“Do you understand Wide?” Rob asked the false bergfolk. It nodded. “Good. We need a favor from you, and in return we will incapacitate your better half and leave you with him. Do we have a deal?” It nodded again, excitedly, dropping its bucket hammer. That caused a flash of panic, but the black fluid that spilled out was just as unreal as its armor.
“You will stand in front of the bead until the other guard appears and waves to you,” Teal ordered the reflection. “When they do you will wave back. That is all.” It nodded again and clapped its hands together, shaking them in something between prayer and applause.
“Get in position Dawn,” Rob ordered. He joined the gravefolk along the wall, each of them using the peepholes to line up with one side of the guard as best they could. Roary passed the replica to Teal while he pulled some weapons from behind his back that would’ve been suspicious as part of the Porce team’s disguises. Dawn took a Dagyvr saber and Rob had his bonepicker’s sword.
They raised the weapons and pressed their sharp tips into the thin wall, mouthing a silent countdown to each other. On one they both bonepicked into the air, making the angle of their bodies match the hilts of their weapons. Their gravitation shifted and they fired off like arrows, piercing the wall and creating a much larger version of their peepholes.
Claudize rammed the door with his shoulder a drip later so the others could pour in. They found that Rob and Dawn had succeeded with surgical precision; both swords were embedded in the wall on either side of the guard’s helmet. They were so close in fact that they held the guard in a standing position from pressure alone. Even after several raps on his face the bergfolk didn’t respond. The sheer shock of the maneuver had caused him to faint.
One of the swords had cut the bucket from his hammer, but Dawn had caught the canister upright a bubble from the floor, not spilling a single drop of the corrosive fluid. She found that it had a cap twisted on the bottom of it, so she sealed the container and handed it off to Skuldug, who put it on her belt for safekeeping or, more likely, sale at a later date.
They took turns peeking into the red bead. As they’d hoped it led straight into the geode. The curved walls were a collection of polished beads of every color, the air inside so cold that it furthered the sharpness that contrasted with the Reflecting Path so notably. The middle of the chamber had a small curved canal: a river of gold coins. They didn’t quite have the angle to see the golden trickle bead, but what else could produce such a sight?
“Here’s your prize,” Rob whispered to the reflection as they removed their swords and gently lowered the guard into a sitting position. It started to giddily hop over, but Dianarhea pulled it back.
“You must wave when you see the other guard,” she reminded it. Its posture became sulking, but it kept to its word, standing in front of the red bead doorway for a fifth of a drop. Eventually the other guard made her random check, standing behind the blue bead across from the red one. She waved and the reflection waved back. All was normal.
With the checks timed irregularly the robbers now had to waste as little time as possible. Rob led the way into the geode, bonepicking so as to step with only the tips of his toes in case of pressure-plated traps. It was certainly hazardous to the unconscious guard’s life to leave him alone with his reflection, but he was sealed up tightly in his armor without a single hair exposed.
“Just as I remember it,” Dianarhea murmured as the party spread out in the geode. The golden trickle bead was set in its perch: a stone facet tilted against the wall and connecting to the canal. Coins poured out of it as a stream, but their movements were so graceful and deliberate that they hardly made any sound. The jingling of keys in a pocket would be far more irritating.
“The river be disappearing when we snatch it,” Dawn said.
“It’s no matter,” the flushess addressed. “It only flows like this when it’s making adjustments; it regularly ceases.” While they spoke Rob approached it. Their replica was perfect, but he could feel a difference: a minute resonance in his emerald bones. Holding an authentic bath bead made him feel powerful, but like that power could be swept away at any moment: just one gust added to a whirlwind.
He grabbed the real thing on both sides and plucked it from its facet, bracing himself for an alarm bell or a flashing bead somewhere around them. Silence. The last of the coin stream emptied down the canal, disappearing into a large hole near the geode’s only door. The Captain stared at Teal and flicked his chin toward the facet, telling her to put the replica in its place. It was an excellent fit. She pulled her hands away as if it was scalding, a flash of relief and excitement on her face. It was the most sincere look she’d given Rob since they’d been reunited.
“Back the way we came,” Rob urged, tucking the golden trickle bead under his arm. They turned back to the bead doorway, but froze a moment later. They could no longer see the Reflecting Path dyed red within it. The stone was full of swirling fog now. Claudize pulled his sleeve up over his hand and used the cloth to touch its surface; his hand bounced off.
“What’s going on?” Roary asked the flushess.
“I don’t know!” Dianarhea hissed. “I’ve never come or gone from these beads before! I used the door!”
“We’ll take the other one,” Rob pivoted, pointing to the blue bead. They didn’t make it even a step in that direction however, as the same fog had filled that gateway. Dawn tapped it with her saber to confirm its solidity. It was unlikely that the beads shared an identical power, but any of the other beads in the room could’ve been the culprit. All it took was one the size of a pearl with the ability to control Reflecting Path access.
“Don’t panic. Everything is going according to plan.” Their heads whirled at the voice, which certainly didn’t belong to any of the robbers. Most of them had heard its swampy bubbling tone before. “Of course, it isn’t your plan.” A yellow bead cut like a flower with a thousand petals flashed, off to the left side of the golden trickle bead’s facet. It flashed three more times, faster with each, until something came out along with the yellow light.
It faded, revealing a grotesque yet statuesque figure stood taller than either Dianarhea or Claudize. Clad in black and gold, fingers loaded with rings oiled by its skin, stood Fixadilaran Bocculum. The hideous swell of gloopy flesh that was its head spilled down its shoulders and across the front of its robe. Its single borrowed eye, its proper nucle-eye perhaps stuffed in the deceased flush’s skull after his brain was liquefied, stared at them hungrily. Its flapping slash of a mouth flashed its rows of needle teeth with each word.
“You’re a little early for the potluck,” it snickered. The profect prosite folded its stolen arms behind its back, popping its shoulders in the process. Then it strolled back and forth, gaze crawling across each of the robbers individually. “To think I almost ignored the tips of my spies. One of them comes to me claiming to notice, in the middle of a wondrous show at the auction house no less, that one of the attendees did not have a reflection.”
Rob’s grip on his sword tightened. He dared not look away from the creature, though it was also unnecessary. He could feel Dianarhea’s panic and rage emanating from her. The others all knew this feeling, the blood penalties of the game of robbery, but it was something else entirely for her: a household pest poking at a model of the tower that somehow held all its folk. She was being scolded by her jailor for daring to take a walk. If it doesn’t shut that flap she’ll be directing all that pathos our way.
“I would have disregarded it… but then the wild imagination bead was stolen,” Fixadil continued. “There was no reason at all for thieves to skulk in my new paradise, unless they plotted against me specifically. Then I got this feeling, influenced I think by residual bergfolk instinct from this body. The word coup kept whacking me in the back of the head.”
“You’re the usurper you nasty stain!” Dianarhea cursed it.
“Is that any way to talk to your own flesh and blood?” it mocked before turning to Rob. Piss on us. “And somehow I knew you were involved. If not the brave Captain, another Ordr then.” It looked at Roary. “That juvenile is one as well, isn’t he?” It looked at the bead tucked under Rob’s arm. “I didn’t think something like guilt could reach a man like you standing at the edge of that sea cliff you’re always posed upon.”
“You know that thing?” Dianarhea seethed, pushing Rob’s shoulder. He could’ve bonepicked himself as solid as a statue, but he let the gesture move him.
“Oh Kilrobin and I share an immortal bond!” Fixadil declared. “Give me a moment. If I’m going to see the looks on your faces I want a nice salty snack.” It leaned down near the bead’s facet and rubbed an orange dome-shaped bead. Out came sprigs of fried and salted rosegary. “This is the nibbles bead, can make almost any unhealthy food you desire. It’s been a boon as I explored this folk digestive system.”
“We don’t want to hear any of your gross details!” Dianarhea snarled. They all pictured the same thing: Fixadil crawling through the flush’s intestines like a spelunking tourist.
“I’ll get on with it then,” the prosite said as it popped the snack into its mouth and licked its already moist fingers. “Without Captain Rob I wouldn’t be the noble two-legged animal I am today. Did he not tell you? I spent an age trapped down in the Pipes with ruins and cowards, just waiting for a callous Ordr from above to save me from the tedium. This beautiful man granted my wish! He carried me, almost lovingly, I felt cradled really, from the depths of Porce and into the florentshine at the base of this grand city!”
“It was the only way I could get back up here,” Rob blurted, refusing to take his eyes off Fixadil’s. He could barely stand the feeling as the mood of the others darkened. Teal’s face was no doubt back to slate, but the sulk in her shoulders practically made the floor creak.
“Unbelievable,” Dianarhea uttered, tugging on her hair. “I hired the man who destroyed my family to fix my family! Muertet malveilentet mulatequet! I was going to buy you a baiquent boat!”
“There’s more to this situation than I can say now,” Rob rushed to explain, “but we’re here to stop him. We’ve already got the bead; we just have to escape.” They don’t believe us. The only reason they’re by our side is the sheer number of blades corralling us into a corner. That’s fine. We’ve got time to prove ourselves before they’re free to walk away. They will know that only half of this is Kilrobin’s fault and that the other half is Ordr’s.
“I wasn’t stuffed in the tiny balcony bead for five drops for my own amusement,” Fixadil spouted. “I felt the need to guard my greatest treasure before its final performance. I also consulted some experts in the field of guardianship.” The flowery bead flashed once more, producing more bergfolk. Royal guards. Some with pikes and some with bucket hammers. A total of ten of them emerged, quickly making the geode feel cramped. Several of them put blades to Captain Rob’s throat, giving him little recourse when Fixadil stepped forward and snatched the golden trickle bead back. Its claws tapped across its surface ecstatically.
“Rinlatour will eventually scrape you off its boot!” the flushess promised. “It doesn’t have to be us!” Fixadil furrowed the mound of boiled flesh vaguely in the position of a brow. It hoisted the golden trickle bead into the air, supporting it on one flat palm.
“This accursed tower will not be scraping with its boots,” the liquid fiend said. “It will kick its fellow folk with them. It will sell them for the briefest of distractions. It will attempt to eat the leather from the sole. Rinlatour is a desperate climb to the top, where every holdfast is the body of another. All of this will be much easier to see… when the potluck begins!” It flicked the bead with two long fingers. Twiiiiiiing!
A shock wave of magic rattled the geode, dulling the shimmer of the other beads as they bowed before the most powerful of them. The wave itself was invisible, but Rob felt it in his skeleton as a violent pull, like a child being dragged to religious services. The empty canal filled with coins once more, but this time it was a cacophonous collection of rapids, the flow so aggressive that it began to flood around the hole in the floor.
“You were doing this tomorrow!” Dianarhea protested, as if a rescheduling was outside the realm of possibility. Two of the guards grabbed her arms and held them behind her back, but she thrashed against their efforts.
“I am no fool,” Fixadil said, stepping into the canal. Its eye closed as the coins flowed around its ankles. A disgusting groan of pleasure bubbled out of its throat. Surely the battering of the coins would’ve been painful to flesh that was properly alive, but to the barely functioning wet preserves Fixadil had created it was like a massage. “Perhaps your plan was multi-pronged. There could be other parties at my crystal palace or anywhere beneath us. I won’t give them a chance. The city’s chaos will be of my design.”
They didn’t have to wait long for Rinlatour’s reaction to meet them, even sequestered in the geode. There came a sound, unsettling to all but Fixadil, even its guards. It was constant, made of so many parts, each so faded that nothing could be picked out. It was one great mass of pain and panic. The cry of the city.
The other robbers knew what Dianarhea imagined even without seeing the pupil-shrinking madness in her eyes. Every coin from the wishing wells on up had taken to the air and now fell back as rain. The inner monsters of folk emerged from their chrysalises of hardened greed, too tantalized by the precipitation to keep to their silent scheming.
“Stop this Fixadilaran!” Rob demanded. We don’t have room to bonepick in here. Even without those pikes aimed at us one shift in trajectory will have us skewered. “There’s nothing to gain! You won’t even find enough prosites brave enough to climb into Porce. The ones that are here already don’t even recall your tongue.”
“It has got to start somewhere,” it answered him with a wicked mimic of a grin. It turned around and waded through the churning tiles until it stood before the facet holding the false bead. “I must compliment you on a job well attempted though. The craftsfolkship on this is marvelous!” Its squishy head swayed sickeningly in each direction as it peered at the replica’s underside.
“Would’ve fooled you,” Claudize said weakly.
“As we’ve already established I am no fool.” It ran its free hand over the top of the replica. “Still, I am curious. The wild imagination bead must be hidden inside. That’s how you’ve given it the falling tile effect under the surface. So if that’s the case… there must be a little switch…” It probed along the lip until its index finger stopped under it. “There you are!” The replica popped open as Fixadil laughed deeply, mouth flap wide open.
“Here I am!” the contents of the bead agreed. Out lunged a blue blob that lodged in Fixadil’s open mouth. The usurper stumbled backward and fell into the financial flow, but the mostly perplexed onlookers could still see the battle raging on the crown of the royal flush. Fixadil attempted to chew up the intruder, but its plasm body was unaffected. Its stolen claws reached far down its throat, but they couldn’t extricate it either.
The guards were poised to assist, but there was nothing to stab at without damaging the flush’s body. They didn’t dare to approach either, lest this spreading blue disease infect them as well. Fixadil flopped out onto the floor, raking deep furrows into the pudding of its face. It gasped and burbled, back and legs tensing and twitching.
“Nobody move!” Rob warned his fellows. “It is our ally.”
“What is that?” Skuldug asked. “How did it get in our bead?”
“Just wait!” The pirate circled around the convulsing body with his hands out. One of the guards got too eager to fight and jabbed at him, but with one bonepicking flick of the wrist he was able to snap the end off the pike and throw it into the man’s neck. The others happily gave him some space as their fellow collapsed.
The process did not take long, though it felt much longer to those who heard the murky death rattles of Fixadil’s profection. The blue blur briefly disappeared down the flush’s throat. That was when Fixadil’s claws moved to the neck, squeezing to keep the invader from reaching the lungs. The resulting pressure popped the folk eye out of its head, but when its convulsions flipped it over the orb happened to squish right back into its socket.
Fixadil managed to get back on its feet, or so it initially seemed. It became apparent that both parties now wrestled for control of the body, as the wobbly but determined stance of the legs conflicted with the vicious panicked clawing of the arms.
The head bubbled more than ever, spraying globs everywhere. Though Rob was too numb to feel delight there was at least some vindication when a single blue bubble appeared among the amber colors of a thin scab. Another formed and popped. Three more. The blue bubbles overwhelmed the others, pushing the nastier colors to the area around the mouth flap.
“Raauuurraahhhglaaah!” the jumbled entity howled. When the sound became triumphant the brown mouth flap stretched and broke off, landing with a squelch. A nucle-eye emerged and stared up from between the legs of the victor.
“Mixomirine!” the defeated prosite raged, slithering out from under the new occupant of the flush’s body. “How dare you look upon my life with envious eye!”
“It’s not envy sibling,” Mixomir answered. Its occupation of the corpse was less hostile down to every strand of hair, so the head was much closer to its original shape, just with a thin blue jelly covering the leathery dead features. “You’ve crystallized into a bloodletting edge and endangered my work. You’re making the folk hate us all the more.”
“Kill it!” the brown blob barked from the floor, but the guards did not budge. Instead they stood at attention, weapons held across their chests, waiting for a proper order.
“What’s going on?” Dianarhea hissed at Rob. “Did you bring another prosite into this!?”
“Don’t be mad,” the pirate requested with something disconcertingly close to a whimper. “The blue one is named Mixomir. It introduced itself not long ago and told me it could split Fixadil from your father’s body. The two of us made an extra secret plan just in case something went as screwy as it’s just gone.”
“Yes, hello,” Mixomir greeted the robbers. It had clearly spent a long time planning and guessing as to what a friendly wave of a folk arm looked like, but it hadn’t been enough. Its attempt was limp-wristed and awkward, like someone swinging a dead skingle by its tail. “It’s an absolute pleasure to meet some non-Ordr folk.”
“Hey, I’m an Ordr!” Roary protested.
“Oh… I’m sure you’re lovely too. Just try to keep your distance.”
“I ord… demand that you kill that blue-faced freak right this instant!” Fixadil shouted, but it was no good. Without the flush’s body the prosite had no authority or legs to stand on. It wasn’t so stupid as to miss this fact, so it slunk toward the back of the geode while it made its last ditch efforts at command.
“Mixomir, don’t just stand there,” Rob told his coconspirator. “Make some decrees!”
“Of course!” it blurted; the prosite attempted to point at the guards, but the digits still hung ridiculously, as if it demanded they kiss its hand. “You there. I am the will of Royal Flush Hazelnoose Odetter. Capture Fixadilaran Bocculum!” The guards looked at each other through their armored masks. Fixadil had carefully stocked his personal guard with treacherous scum, but it had the side effect of purging it of loyalty. They would take any order that meant they were still employed in the sugar on top.
They stood elbow to elbow and trained their pikes and hammers on the floor before them, closing in around Fixadil. Unfortunately the prosite had one more thing to climb over before it reached the back wall: the golden trickle bead. The treasure was dropped the moment Mixomir sprung from the replica, and they’d all ignored it as the two drops of slime battled it out.
Fixadil’s resourcefulness was not to be underestimated, and it was just as thorough in its contingency plans as its sibling. In slithering over the golden trickle bead its weight caused the bead to lean up and obscure the prosite from view. Five drips later one of the guards reached out and tugged the bead away, only to see Fixadil spread across the surface of the nibbles bead, having morphed its body into the shape of a hose.
“Eat this you imbeciles!” The bead issued a stream of oily foods, aimed at high velocity by Fixadil’s plasm. The guards were pushed back by breaded bivalves, candied back fat, and starchy griddlecakes. The artery-clogging assault provided just enough time for the prosite to leap onto the golden trickle bead and fully envelop it.
The bead was more than twice Fixadil’s size, so slithering while stretched thin across it was extremely difficult. This was overcome by a swift dive into the coin river at the geode’s center. The fiend’s vile laugh vanished under the jingling jangling current.
“Don’t let him get away!” Teal shouted. “We can’t stop the potluck without the bead!” One by one the guards recovered and attacked the river, making wild guesses as to Fixadil’s position. The robbers joined in, but Fixadil had spent much time practicing with the bead’s magic. All they ever caught was a face full of sprayed coins.
“The hole!” Rob warned, bonepicking toward it. “It’s the only way out!” Dianarhea was closest, so she threw herself across its entryway, making her body into a dam. The coins crashed against her as a wave. Fixadil and the snatched bead vaulted over her like a fish desperate to reach its spawning grounds. The flushess couldn’t roll fast enough; bead and beast disappeared down the black chute.
Nothing mattered if the crown jewel was gone, so she made a desperate grab down the hole. The current increased while she was distracted, and the flushess was flushed down the drain with the rest of the golden trickle. Her frightened shouting faded, but help was already on its way. Captain Rob was in the air over the hole, bonepicking himself into a compact form, legs locked and arms straight down. He plunged away after her.
It wasn’t a Captain Rob robbery if you weren’t completely devoted, so Teal, Roary, and Dawn followed after him.
“Wait, so you’re the flush now?” Skuldug asked Mixomir.
Spying on the church hadn’t been effective for several days now, as the polishing mirror was moved shortly after the pilgrimage began. The tunnel behind the building held nothing but debris of their construction efforts. The only information Pearlen, Ladyfish, or Herc could gather was that pieces of the Reflecting Path were no longer being delivered.
Because they’re not needed, Pearlen fretted as she chewed her nails. She has all she needs. Somewhere in this desert she’s opening her door, wiping her feet on the mat, and taking a deep breath for her explosive emergence. Even if we find her we have no way of stopping her. The mirror has to be shattered before that.
“I don’t have time for this,” she complained to her guide as they trudged through the desert’s dunes in the Reflecting Path. They’d been walking for more than a drop already, and the reflected Rob wasn’t the best conversationalist. It, or he, Pearlen could never decide which was best when it came Rob’s other half, couldn’t even tell her what it led her toward.
Her anxious mind had turned to the possibility of it being a ruse. Her own reflection had finally caught up to her and was now following just ten steps behind. If the two of them successfully isolated her and jumped on her as a team there was a small chance they might be able to smother her to death.
Or he’s just getting me lost. My compass won’t work in here because the cardinal tiles in the path are fake. I’ll die of dehydration. She jogged forward until she was in front of his reflection. It looked at her but didn’t slow down, so she was forced to turn and walk backward while she spoke.
“Mirrorob, what are you trying to show me? If you can’t figure out how to tell me I’ll turn around.” It rolled its eyes: a strange behavior for a reflection. Their faces were always simplified versions of proper emotions, like theater masks. Happiness was a mad grin, sadness puffy cheeks with closed eyes, and anger seething fury. They didn’t even have expressions for confusion or disappointment as far as she could recall.
Yet Rob’s could act so much like him. It knew the subtleties of sarcasm, disdain, and frustration. In some ways it seemed more complex than the man himself. The only explanation she could hypothesize involved the Captain’s crystal curse. It brought him closer to death, granted him bonepicking. If his reflection had internalized that fact, if it knew it had even less of a chance of stealing his life than the average mirrored man, that might have convinced it to focus its efforts on other things like proper emotion and being helpful rather than predatory.
It was forced to test the full range of its ability to express in order to convince Pearlen there was actually something she needed to see. Mirrorob removed its shirt, apparently unconcerned with modesty, and tied it around its waist as a skirt. This was followed by its best impression of Whelm the vision, though Pearlen had to incorrectly guess a bird, a star, and a bad date first.
When she realized that its flowing arms and tiptoeing were supposed to be the ethereal dance of the monster’s lights she asked if Mirrorob meant Whelm was their destination. The reflection nodded. Pearlen apologized and asked that they run instead of walk; time was crucial. Mirrorob was happy to pick up the pace and did so with his makeshift skirt flapping behind him.
That’s strange as well. Have I ever seen a reflection take off a piece of clothing? No. I always thought their skin had to be whatever the real version’s appearance was. Pulling on their shirts would stretch their being or rip them open. They’re not even supposed to be aware of clothes as things of any consequence.
She closed her eyes and shook her head a little to disperse the thoughts; focus needed to stay on Whelm. It was just so difficult given how different Mirrorob was compared to her image of the true man. It wore his merchant disguise from Rinlatour, and Rob always looked so much smaller without his luxurious green cape. Or perhaps she was just growing up, seeing that she was the same size as the adults now, seeing the demons on their shoulders that kept folk from growing any higher.
The duo, trio counting Pearlen’s reflection, journeyed over eight more glass dunes before they reached their destination. Mirrorob slowed and dropped to all fours, with Pearlen copying as they crawled into a series of thin orange swells in the glass, likely ripples from the edge of a fire whirl. Some of them were thin enough to see through, and there was plenty to see in the cleared center of those ripples.
Moments after they arrived Whelm’s light, which had been gathering in the reflected sky for drops like a sea of clouds, funneled down into a shape not too dissimilar from the fire whirls. Its thousand colors were blinding, so Pearlen had to squint and lower her head more, touching her chin to the glass. Oh gods, that’s it. One full look would take what’s left of my eyes, but it’s all above me: every last ray of light she could corral gathered from the florent over ages.
And it was Whelm’s plan to unleash it so she could walk the world once again, with no concern for the lives that couldn’t withstand the florent at a million times its normal intensity. Pearlen panicked for a moment because she realized Whelm might be up in that cloud somewhere, scouting for intruders. She was able to calm down as her eyes followed the funnel to the ground, where it joined with the woman’s hair.
Whelm paced back and forth in front of the polishing mirror. Its shape was complete now, but there were still cracks across it marking the borders between pieces. Pearlen couldn’t see well enough to discern the disappearing cracks. Whelm’s acolights were on the other side, blowing liquid glass to seal them. When that work was finished the vision could take her meteoric first step.
“She’ll go through any time now!” Pearlen whimpered, fingers digging into her scalp. “What do I do? What do I do? What would anybody do?” Mirrorob had no answer for her, and even if it did there wasn’t an impression in the world that could convey it. For the moment she could only observe Whelm’s naked portrayal of her innermost feelings.
The vision was clearly nervous. The space, though marked with the reflected tents of the acolights who had marched the mirror out there, was free of any folk reflections. Pearlen thought it likely that she had threatened them into leaving the area, perhaps destroying one or two to convince them she was serious.
Such entities had been her only companions since her incidental imprisonment. Day in and day out she had pretended they were capable of talking back or caring about her. In a way it was worse than being alone, as the path turned her into an outcast among its natives.
It was no wonder that her illusion wore thin. Pearlen saw her, in this private nervous moment, frozen in the young age she’d never been allowed to pass. She’s just like Frostbite Cor! What is Porce now, that there are so many of these folk trapped in their own youth? My parents would’ve done the same to me, their quacking doctors blinding me and making me dependent on them. Age is not elusive, but maturity is. Even Teal, strong and stoic, still has a squishy heart for the Captain.
There was a much smaller mirror by one of the tents which Pearlen only noticed when a member of the church stuck her head and chest through. She had a copy of the Toil Papers under one arm and wore the beaming smile of ignorance. She called out to Whelm to get her attention, but it was far more intense than she expected.
“What are you doing here!?” Whelm fumed, storming over, not even bothering to arrange the crashing light waves of her dress into illusions of dainty legs. “I told you nobody was to see me before my emergence!”
“I… we… just thought you might want the papers with you,” the woman sniveled. She held the book out and closed her eyes as if she expected her arms to be bitten off at the elbow. Whelm snatched the book away.
“Get out!” The acolight disappeared. The moment she was gone Whelm grabbed the mirror’s frame and bent it over; that way anyone else trying to interrupt her would just get a mouthful of reflected glass. “They’re so stupid! Can’t even follow a simple order unless I scream it! Why do I even want to go back, if everyone out there is as mindless as those in here!” She looked down, only now realizing she was holding the book.
A reflected copy might’ve been too fuzzy to be legible, depending on its text size, so Pearlen knew it was a true copy. That, and the smoky smell that made it all the way to her. Whelm’s hands of light were scorching the covers. The vision let the book fall open to a random page. She read as she paced.
“Thou shalt not overcome weakness without the Spotless as guide. Thou shalt not escape prisons of thine own construction without the Spotless as key. Thou shalt not hoard treasure without the Spotless as overseer. Thou shalt not…” Suddenly she ripped the page and tossed it skyward. “I’ll do as I please!” A beam fired from the palm of her hand, each finger and nail a separate pastel color, burning up the page in an instant. “You can’t stop me dear husband!”
“This is what they fell for?” Pearlen furiously muttered. Whelm was being short with her underlings, lashing out, and now burning the greatest achievement of the religion she’d worn as wedding gown. She listened and watched as Whelm cackled, tossing out another page with each step and shooting it out of existence.
“Thou shalt do nothing without mommy and poppy’s permission,” Whelm mocked the book. “Even if mommy and poppy are smaller than their leaders who are smaller than their gods, you must be smaller than them still. Never be bigger. Never disrespect the smallness of their itty bitty bustnut brains!” She threw what remained of the tome down. “This is what I think of your Square of Forbidden Lives!” One more shot with both her hands turned it into a pyre. She danced around it awkwardly, singing the song of a person who’d never seen a face that could grimace at their poor performance.
“She’s insane.” Mirrorob tilted its head slightly, suggesting that there was little else Whelm could be given the situation. Its expression also made one other thing clear. Pearlen was the only one in a position to stop her, and that position was not crouched behind the glass fretting. She snuck away, only standing once she was sure Whelm couldn’t see them.
Can’t do anything from this side. I’ve no weapons against her in her own realm. The answer was to make it back to the real world and assault the mirror, but the problems with that were many as well. She had a piece of the path tucked away in her clothes, but if she crossed over now she would be surrounded by acolights. Additionally there was the danger of using glass dunes to cross over at all, given their tendency to warp images. There was another unfortunate parallel with their misadventure in the Winchar Straits: an abundance of warped natural reflective surfaces made it very easy to become lost in the Reflecting Path.
All that left her with was a desperate sprint back across the desert to the mirror within their Crib-ohlk hideout. The fluid in her goggles ran low and splashed up with each step. Her breath became ragged, her chest tight with a hundred things that weren’t exertion. When she looked back she noticed that Mirrorob no longer followed her. It seemed to think its job was done; perhaps it was finally headed back to its owner’s side.
Pearlen was able to return without incident, and she found Ladyfish and Herc with smiles on their faces. Their expressions startled her, as she’d almost forgotten folk were capable of joy. They sat on their knees around a table, sorting pieces of the Reflecting Path by size and sharpness.
“We didn’t find it,” Herc told her, “but the church discarded a whole barrel of pieces! They must’ve been inadequate for that infernal mirror.”
“No,” Pearlen huffed. She ripped off her goggles so they could see the terror in her eyes. “They got rid of them because that infernal mirror is finished!”
“What?” Ladyspiller practically belched, examination lens popping off her eye. “Back to the Employer!” With a sweep of her arm she dropped all the pieces from the table into a bag at her side. Herc was even quicker to make it over to the polished glass wall of the small home.
“I’m coming back as soon as we get some bonepickers,” Pearlen told them, not providing a moment for objection. All three of them leapt through the wall and landed in the mirror chamber of their ship. “I know where she is.”
“I’ll throw you some bones!” Ladyfish spouted as she dashed off down the corridor, meaning that she would gather the bravest and best bonepickers she could from the ship’s crew of capable fighters. Herc ran off after her, likely to inform the acting captain of the situation. Neither of them noticed that they weren’t the only travelers present.
Pearlen rubbed her eyes, but these three silhouettes were unfamiliar. Two were tall and lanky bergfolk, but one of them was covered in a bluish haze that didn’t look like fur or clothing. The third lacked a head on her shoulders. They stood before the mirror to the rundown house. That’s right! Their robbery is likely underway, but who are these three?
“Hello,” the blue one addressed. It shook its arm in a way that looked strange even to the visually-impaired Pearlen.
“Who are you?” the young woman snapped, but she was too out of breath to intimidate.
“Relax,” the tilefolk woman said. “We’re with Rob: Skuldug and Claudize. Blue boy is Mixomir; fresh face him.” Pearlen did recognize the names from recent conversations. Though the Mixomir fellow was far more suspicious than his unfamiliar name, she was hardly in a position to do anything about them if they were trespassers. Instead of interrogating them she collapsed against the wall and panted.
“Is she alright?” Mixomir asked its two companions.
“She’s been off fighting a light monster in the Reflecting Path, if memory serves,” Claudize explained. “There’s actually a small chance the entire world will be destroyed if she fails. Ouch!” Skuldug had smacked him across the lower back.
“Don’t say that! You’re putting failure in her head!” She turned to Pearlen. “We believe in you!” She rubbed her stomach just under her lower lip. “You’ve got to keep Porce around so our little one has somewhere to live.”
“I thought we weren’t telling anyone yet,” her husband muttered.
“That was before we met the good Mister Mixomirine!” she squealed, smacking him again, simultaneously stroking her stomach fur. “The folk’ll have to know about their heir so they can ready their adoration.”
“I’d rather we didn’t discuss this in front of her,” Mixomir interjected. “I know this ship is safer for us than anywhere in Rinlatour right now, but it’s still a delicate situation.”
“I don’t care!” Pearlen squawked. “Whatever scheme you have, thieving or political, matters not. I need to fight Whelm the vision! She’s made of light! What in any corner of Porce am I supposed to fight her with!?”
“Made of light? Is this creature a reflection?” Mixomir asked. It went to stroke its folk chin, but mostly just slapped itself in the face. “I can control a thousand cilia, but somehow these ten fingers have me flummoxed.”
“Something like a reflection,” Claudize answered. “She used to be a real woman right? Been living in the path since the last age. She’s coming back though with a giant mirror made of pieces of the path.” His hands rose to the ceiling in a grand gesture; he told it a little too much like an inspiring bedtime story. “Like those there.” He pointed at the bag next to Pearlen, the one full of pieces that Herc had dropped upon running off.
“I have an idea!” Mixomir declared; it tried to clap its hands together, but they missed. “Wait here young lady. I’ll be right back with just the thing to get you to leave us be.” The borrowed bergfolk turned around and entered the Rinlatour mirror, bashing its head when it forgot to duck.
“Where’s he off to?” Skuldug asked. She put her hands on her hips, but a few of her claws clinked against the canister on her belt. Having just remembered it was there, she pulled it out and turned it over in her hands a few times. “I suppose you could use this too,” she said wistfully, tossing it to Pearlen, who only managed to catch it by letting her spear fall over.
“What is this?”
“Snuck it from some guards. It’s refryction fluid. One drop can destroy a huge piece of the path. I was going to sell it, but in a single gestation I won’t have to sell or steal anything anymore.” Pearlen’s grip on the cold metal tightened. Finally, a stroke of luck. She didn’t know exactly how she would deploy such a weapon, but an acid that could burn light had to have its use. On close examination she found that there was a metal wire loop that could be pulled from the top, perfect for draping over her spear and turning it into a makeshift bucket hammer. Better yet, there was a small latch on the bottom that made the black fluid come out in a trickle.
Mixomir emerged from the mirror once more just as she finished combining her weapons. He had a large object held over his head like an umbrella: something metallic and expertly cast. He set it down next to Pearlen; she realized it was quite light given the lack of impact made on the wooden floor.
“I don’t know if you’ve realized, but I’m actually a prosite,” it said giddily. Now that it was close she could see a film of blue slime covering the bergfolk teeth. “I didn’t make this body, but I’ve made many glorious ones from the minerals of Porce.” That’s right! Prosites can form anything around them into an armored shell. Surely that technique has more varied applications.
Mixomir wasted no time in demonstrating; the plasm coating on one of its arms swelled and stretched as it reached into the bag of pieces. From there it flooded the bag and dissolved the pieces into a pearlescent solution. Her inner pirate panicked at the sight of the treasures vanishing, but she let the creature continue.
The bag collapsed as its contents emerged in a wobbly suspended glob. Mixomir transferred it to the exterior of the metal disc, massaging it into the metal. In the sharing of their various schemes Pearlen had seen illustrations of the replica golden trickle bead, and she now noticed that the disc was the perfect shape to hold it. Whatever Rob and Teal were up to they had at least come into contact with their goal.
“A few more… good… polishes…” Mixomirine uttered. The last of the liquefied glass became embedded in the bead’s facet. Its arm disappeared behind the other side and made one final addition by molding the metal into two handles. “Perfect.” It stood and demonstrated the use of the tool, holding it across its forearm and pointing it at Pearlen.
“It’s a shield!” she spouted. “A magically mirrored shield!”
“This ought to work against your monster,” the prosite said proudly. “Since it’s made up of the path its function will follow the will of the holder. Out here it’s a gateway into the path, and in there it will simply be the strongest mirror there is. Should repel any amount of light.” It handed the invention to her. Pearlen instinctively tried to adjust it, but it already suited her arm perfectly. Mixomir had apparently sized her with one look.
“Thank you,” she said hoarsely. Mixomir finally succeeded in a folk gesture, waving off her thanks.
“It’s nothing. I think we were always meant to work together. It’s a shame that there’s always someone who has to call it scheming. Now be on your way, we have business to get back to.” She was going to protest, but that was the moment her reinforcements arrived. Ladyfish had sent her a batch of four bonepickers to start, and they were so fast as to get there far before her.
“We’re to go on ahead with you, some others will follow,” Switchimp Frostr informed Pearlen. She was a gravefolk with a small chest stuck in her rib cage. Its lid was slightly open and pouring a thin stream of bright violet sand: a trail for the mentioned others to follow. With her was Bittykit Ritnr, a leatherfleshed lady growing some delectable mushrooms on her perforated scalp. Behind her stood Jailbeta Ripr, though standing was something of an exaggeration. He was just a skull on a long wooden rod, but his bonepicking skills were so impressive that he could hop as fast as a normal folk could run, not to mention swing his body at a velocity perfect for freeing teeth from insolent grins.
Last was Millerwind Rundr: a thickly leatherfleshed man with something like a saddle built between his shoulders. He dropped to one knee so Pearlen could mount him and be granted his bonepicking speed. They were all brave warriors and endlessly loyal, so it took less than a full sentence to get them through the mirror and barreling through the cut glass of Crib-ohlk.
“Now, where were we?” Mixomir asked when they’d gone.
“We were picking out names for little snot nose!” Skuldug cooed, hugging herself.
“No, I don’t think that’s where we were…”
“Taxation,” Claudize redirected. “We were talking about a bigotry tax.” Their discussions resumed.
Pearlen’s panic reignited once off the ship and doubled outside the town. The Glass Desert was the same expanse as always, but she hadn’t been out in the full force of its heat for some time. Having cast aside her goggles in the earlier confusion, her sight blurred worse than usual. Her eyes felt stuffed with burning hay, and she didn’t dare close them or rub them for a single drop, lest she lose their path to the mirror.
“There!” she rasped, pointing to an unusually tall dune with a spiral. “It’s definitely past that! Keep going!” Millerwind leapt over the dune and bonepicked a soft landing so his cargo wouldn’t bounce loose. “We can do this.”
“Of course we can!” Jailbeta jabbered as he bounced alongside on his stick. “Why you acting like this be the first time you ever fought anybody?” He bounded over to Bittykit, bit one of the mushrooms off her head, and twirled to toss it to Pearlen. “Swallow that down; it’ll petrify your liver so it be’nt so soft and cowardly! You might also see green-winged oysties, but ignore them!”
She tossed the mind-altering mushroom away, but any affirmation of bravery was dried in her throat. It feels like I’ve swallowed a giant scab. I’ve been nearly dead plenty of times before… but this is only the second time that matters. This is my parents’ trouble. If I die now I might as well have died while locked in that closet, sweating out the quack medicine they paid so much for. If I go now it means my life was never separate from theirs. Dying now is dying in the womb.
“So I won’t,” she told herself. “I’ll save Porce.” They continued on until she recognized the unique color of a thin sheet of glass. The clearing was just ahead. She told the others to quiet their approach, but not to slow down. Jailbeta couldn’t soften his stick-stomping, so he allowed Switchimp to carry him as a staff.
There was no more time for strategizing, as they saw the infinite colors of Whelm the vision. They gleamed through the swells of glass, hopefully just emanating rather than flowing. The party of five charged in, throwing themselves over the last ridge, withholding the war cry that would’ve made the proceedings that much more bearable.
Everything was there, yet somehow Pearlen was still shocked to see it. The polishing mirror stood at the center. A worker was on a ladder on one side of it, sealing cracks with a rod tipped in molten glass. That’s why she hasn’t come through yet! Pearlen stepped on Millerwind’s shoulder and launched toward the mirror.
The acolights had noticed. They were shouting, running around, taking up arms. Pearlen couldn’t waste time with them; the bonepickers had them handled. I’ll knock that man down so he can’t finish! She took aim with her spear, ready to hurl it. Someone charged her, but Jailbeta stuck his rod-body in their legs and tripped them up. The employed knew it was their job just to clear her way, and they happily spilled the blood of the church to do so.
It’s for their own good. This is the real bitter medicine. I won’t stand for the harm their ignorance has done. Anyone can escape it. Alast did, and he had it far worse. You always have to fight to get out of it. They can never let you walk away.
Her rage boiled over, making her the first to give in to the war cry. Her furious shout alerted the glassblower, but there was little he could do atop the ladder. He had stopped mattering moments ago though, as the one tiny crack that remained at the mirror’s edge was not enough to inhibit Whelm.
The light intensified, whining as the first beams escaped the polishing mirror. Pearlen shut her eyes and pumped her legs, raising the shield so it covered her head. She would meet those rays with the same intensity. There was no doubting its destructive power when a middle rung of the acolight’s ladder turned bright yellow and melted; the man caught fire on the way down and stopped screaming before he hit the desert.
“I’m not afraid of you!” Pearlen roared. She wasn’t looking at the mirror, but she didn’t slow down. The heat prickling on her skin told her how close she was. Twenty foams. Fifteen. Ten.
“Then why do you look away!?” Whelm’s voice shouted back. She was coming through. Her fingers were on one side of the massive mirror, touching Porce with white hot determination. The ground was heated enough to burn Pearlen’s feet through her boots, so she had to pounce. With the elegance of her hundred thousand dives in the channels of Crosstahl and depths of the Snyre Sea she sailed through the air toward the exact center of the polishing mirror, her body balled up and protected by her glorious new shield.
Blast and glass met at the boundary between worlds. Only a fraction of Whelm’s light escaped, but it was enough to light the sky brighter than any fire whirl. The deflected geyser shot up, tall as Rinlatour in a display that could be seen half the world away. The view from the Black Gap was spectacular, its message heard and praised loud and clear.
Continued in the Finale