(reading time: 1 hour, 27 minutes)
Always a ravenous learner, Alast didn’t care much for the university town surrounding the Far-Eyed Academy. His knowledge came mostly from experience, and from books scavenged and purchased cheaply alongside other supplies. It was something he had to earn, which in itself taught him to share it with others.
Naturally he assumed a university would function along the same lines. The struggle was over; the knowledge safely stored within. Dissemination of it should have been their greatest joy, yet he’d never seen a series of buildings so tightly locked up. Iron gates stood everywhere, and students couldn’t enter or exit without a faculty escort. They all wore glasses with smoke-colored lenses, and they refused to even speak to him.
They weren’t even questions about their studies of the Black Gap. All he wanted was directions to an area called Silence Beach. When the pilgrims had made their last stop before the gap Alast had snuck up behind them and overheard the name of their final destination. He guessed it was a peaceful clearing where they were unlikely to be interrupted.
They’d become separated, thanks in no small part to the confusing architecture of the university town. Most buildings had doors and windows only on one side, facing away from the gap. Stranger yet, they often had featureless stone walls with silhouettes larger than the buildings themselves standing behind them. It was as if they expected the gap to suddenly suck them out into the void.
He did have to admit it exerted a powerful influence. As he skirted the tightly guarded academy buildings, drawing closer to the edge of the world, he could look up and see the bottom of First Door. It was a surface similar in shape to the underside of Third Sink, yet it didn’t bear the same abundance of life. There were no vines happy to crawl upside down. No birds. He hadn’t even heard the buzz of a bug anywhere in town.
Beyond that solemn slab was a sky blacker than any night. Any cloud that drifted out into it would compress and freeze into a hailstone. Looking at that darkness for too long birthed a dread under his heart, like a black dillydile lurking in the waters of his soul, ready to snap at ripe hopes that dropped too far. He never thought about death much, since there was no point in trying to know the unknowable, but that view forced him into it.
He wondered after any differences in death that folk might experience. There were certainly those that deserved it, so was it more painful for them? He guessed not. Aboard the Greedy Old Mop he had seen it strike more than a dozen times, and there was little consistency in the reaction. Scum had perished with peace on their faces. Friends had fallen in open-mouthed agony.
This was not an adventure, he needed to remind himself. Pearlen’s parents stood at the precipice of death as he tried to find his way through the labyrinth of walls. They seemed a lot like his father, but Pearlen wanted them to live whereas Alast thought about his family about as often as he thought about death. Handky and Curtain must have treated her well at some point, with something like love, otherwise she wouldn’t be so torn up inside.
“She’s counting on me,” he whispered, but the town was so quiet that he regretted speaking. Someone at the other end of the street glared at him as if he’d just shouted at the top of his lungs. They disappeared around a corner rather than approach him, but Alast had a feeling they had something to do with the pair of uniformed individuals that started following him shortly after. Whether they were police or security for the academy didn’t matter; they would slow him down.
Alast ducked behind a wall and found what he thought was a dumpster. He vaulted over it to hide inside, but found the landing surprisingly soft and not at all pungent. It was some sort of donation bin for clothing, so the young man quickly swapped his outfit for something more appropriate to the region: something black and gray with a large drooping collar shaped like a doily. There was a nice hat as well, with a long brim on the front perfect for pulling over the eyes.
Unfortunately there was no disguising the Dagyvr saber he carried on his waist or the two paper cutters on the other side, so when his pursuers were long gone he hopped out and hurried on, using the Black Gap as a foreboding compass. The edge he reached wouldn’t necessarily be Silence Beach, but at least he would be able to look out along the coast and possibly spot a gathering.
The air became much cooler and dryer as he got closer. There was a breeze, but there was a cautious oozing to it, as if it too feared alerting the academy with its noise. Alast felt like the wind was his cowardly companion, gripping his shoulders and tiptoeing just behind him. He rubbed his fingers together; they felt and sounded like paper.
The wall he found, after three full drops of heading in the same direction, certainly looked like it wanted to be the last wall: taller than the rest, painted with the darkest color, and devoid of scratches or graffiti. Its stone stretched fifty foams high, and the only gate he could see in either direction was an iron monster with two locks on opposite sides like a skull’s empty eyes.
There was a ladder built into it however, and a tiny tower at the top, with nothing barring him from climbing or entering. Alast shook out his fingers and ankles. After the rope ladder that led him to Captain Rob climbing had always been a weakness. Rob had tried to train it out of him by forcing him into the rigging on many occasions, but he’d fallen back to the deck each time and wound up with a knot on his head. This was for Pearlen though, and she only ever lifted him up.
A slender device waited for him in the tiny nest atop the ladder. It was a heavy metal looking glass on a thick pole, perfect for looking into the Black Gap or examining the cliffs that opposed it. The presence of the academy’s insignia on its side marked it as a research tool. Students had a special key that unlocked the lens cover, something Alast didn’t realize for a shamefully long time. What he thought was the infinite darkness of the empty was just the stubborn cap.
When he looked down he saw a metal box on the pole with a coin slot on the top. A tiny plaque read: Proceeds further our vital study. Alast had a small pouch of tiles with him for food on his journey, so he plucked one out and dropped it into the slot, expecting the cap to slide down or pop off. Instead the donation box ejected a smaller box from the bottom, both staying firm on the track within the pole.
This second box had its own slot and plaque: Further proceeds go to the city of Mindathagap. Alast sighed and offered it another coin, only for it to eject an even smaller box that also had something to say: Your generosity rekindles the memory of our beloved Jennfur Gigglr. We miss you Jenny!
“Who’s Jenny!?” he grumbled, but still offered the third extension his money. No more boxes appeared, but the cap still didn’t relinquish its grip. “This is why the world has pirates.” He poked the keyhole with the end of a paper cutter, intending to use its flexible paper tip to pick the lock. The machine seemed to interpret it as a threat on its life, instantly disgorging everything it had to offer. The cap snapped open, but all three boxes dropped their bottoms and spilled their hundred coins as well. “Pushover.”
He stuck his eye in the looking glass and made a concerted effort to not get absorbed by the incomprehensibly huge void before him. Everyone knew the stories; it could drive you mad in no time at all. The scholars of the academy grounded themselves with pompous minutia and ceremony; all Alast had was his mission.
The end of Porce offered several strange sights. Plumes of dust slowly leaking off the side and drifting away. Nets of ropes and chains billowing, ready to catch objects from beyond their world. Statues of akers with bodies so long that they acted as docks out into the darkness. It was one set of these docks that caught his eye. There were people occupying them in huddles, and their clothing was too garish to make them residents of that dreary town.
Ritual robes of flaming colors. Things to parade around in as you took the first steps of a new frontier. They had to be the pilgrimage of Bright Hope. Handky and Curtain were in there somewhere, preparing their fall into Whelm’s loving beaming hands. There was no time to gather up the cowardly looking glass’s treasure. The pirate, he never stopped being one at heart no matter how much Teal oversteered them into legitimate business, hopped over the nest’s side and scurried across the top of the wall, refusing to lose sight of them again.
Several of them likely spotted him, but with his disguise they probably saw him as nothing more than a worker repairing the wall. He was careful to not be too conspicuous, and at the first opportunity he found a spot to wait and hide: another nest like the one with the looking glass. This one was much closer to Silence Beach, allowing him to examine the details closely.
Things like ships floated by the sides of the aker-docks. There was no water to hold them up, just the tide of slight gravitation generated by Porce. Large metal knobs lined their sides, many of which had heavy chains wrapped around them. He guessed they were meant to explore the Black Gap, but he couldn’t think of a method to power such vessels back to the world; the chains were likely leashes. Alien as they looked, their pewter figureheads were traditional representations of Oaths and Custodians, all of them bearing eyes of onyx. The ships had been decommissioned for many rests and were completely coated with dust.
The church paid no attention to them, but Alast saw them as his only possible allies. There were tools all over their decks: gaffs, chains, ropes, and anchors. They would be invaluable if it came down to tossing himself into the abyss and pulling two other folk back. Someone stepped in front of the ship he was examining, clearing their throat and waving their arms to draw the others’ attention. Alast was just close enough to hear the woman’s pronouncements.
“Alright everyone! Settle down! I’m sure it’s nearly time. Remember, we mustn’t go until we’ve seen the light of Whelm’s emergence. I will lead us in prayer until that moment comes.” They all bowed their heads and joined hands. “We bow before the Spotless, to see only the polished tile he walks upon. We stand perfectly still, so as not to sully that tile with the dirt of our feet…”
“We can do nothing to save ourselves, but we can certainly inconvenience others,” Alast muttered. Toil Papism was one institution he never had to deal with in his youth. The town in mist was too backward even for organized religion. He couldn’t even remember if he’d ever seen his father look up; there was nothing there but more mist anyway.
Rare was the book that Alast didn’t read front to back, but the Toil Papers was one of them. It had always put him off, and not just because of its archaic prose and lack of cohesion. It was surrounded by its own library of reactions and reflections across the ages. How folk had turned its 1600 pages into hundreds of thousands, he would never understand. His initial understanding of Papism as a shared polite fantasy gave way to disbelief that any folk could take it seriously enough to base their life around it. To him it was like looking in a mirror and reporting all sorts of wild, winged, fire-breathing things that definitely were not the reflection staring back.
A winding sound. Just over his shoulder. Alast whipped around to see another of the looking glasses. It too had its donation box, and probably two to seven more within, but he was close enough to his target not to need it. He thought the sound was just its attempt to draw his attention, but the looking glass clicked as it turned around, aiming itself away from the Black Gap.
The same sound came over the lip of the nest from ten different directions and distances. He peeked over the side to see all of them turning away from the darkness. Decorative edifices on balconies revealed themselves to be looking glasses as well, as they turned with the others. It was like a flock of roosting birds all shifting to greet their queen as she flew in for a landing.
There was something else in those machines, something that knew which cardinal direction bore the most interesting sights. They probably hardly ever turned away from the infinite. The folk of the city noticed their synchronized turn as well, emerging from their balconies, no matter their attire, and gluing their eyes to the nearest one. Something was coming that put the sight of the end of the world to shame.
So important was this event, at least by the metric installed in the looking glasses, that payment could be foregone. The lens cap next to Alast popped off so violently that it flew out of the nest and rolled across the top of the wall. He simply had to see this, so he went to the eyepiece even though he knew what to expect.
A rainbow plume flashed and swelled in the distance, getting larger the higher it went. It looked like a mushroom to him at first, but as it rose and dissipated it became more like a cloud. Alast expected a shock wave, and one came, but it was composed solely of fear. His breath became short and rapid, his most death-defying experiences flashing before his eyes: the battle with his questing beast and Yugo’s assault on the Stain Plain.
For a few drips he was certain that Pearlen had failed and died in the blast. With reason constricted out of his mind, he hoped Whelm’s traversal would make it all the way to Black Gap and kill him as well. Pearlen wasn’t the only person he would perish in defense of, but she was the one who could make him smile when he took that mortal wound.
Yet the rainbow cloud was dissipating. Just a puff, that’s all. A single breath of Whelm’s power. She wasn’t the sort to just dip her toe in the life robbed from her an age ago. She was stifled. Pearlen was alive, no doubt fighting the bright fright bravely. For a moment he felt cowardly, having volunteered for the clearly safer rescue mission.
The rescue! He tried to swivel, but the looking glass refused to turn. Alast practically crawled over it and laid on the nest’s edge. The pilgrimage was alive with cheering and waving hands, their billowing colorful sleeves making them look like a giggling bonfire. They had seen the unmistakable flash, even behind the final wall.
“We mustn’t lose our composure!” the prayer leader bellowed, all sense of composure clearly lost. “Orderly now! Five at a time!” Before Alast could react, five bodies leapt joyously into the blackness. Unsure if they should try to swim or walk, they attempted wild combinations of the two. They tumbled weightlessly, any slight ascent or descent in their departure quickly exaggerating. They spread out like shreds from a blast of confetti, and when they could no longer be called a line five more jumped.
“Stop!” Alast shouted, but none could hear over their own jubilation. He hadn’t yet spotted Handky and Curtain; they were possibly among the first five. There was no proper ladder down the side of the nest closest to the gap, so Alast improvised. The improvisation resulted in a twelve foam drop onto a massive canvas-covered crate, along with two bumps on the head and the removal of the skin from his left shin.
Stumbling out of it, his feet touched the ground at Porce’s end for the first time. It was cold even through his boots. Dread crept up his body; the whole beach felt like the last bubble of a deadly cliff. It was as if he stood at the existential barrier between life and death itself. Another five jumped. The pilgrimage was turning into a bright cone as they spread out. The furthest were still themselves, encouraging the others to take the leap. Alast knew that meant nothing though. Pearlen had told him plenty about the gap before he left; there was an invisible barrier where the air of Porce ended and the Dark Empty began.
Another five went. Another five. The next wave was ten; it looked too fun to resist. None of them wanted to be the last to go: the most reserved in their faith. They put their hands on each other’s shoulders, shuffling forward, quickening the pace. Alast finally reached them, having passed three rows of sternly-watching pewter-headed ships. He grabbed a shoulder and pulled the person toward him: neither of Pearlen’s parents. He’d forgotten to guard against their bright eyes, so he was forced to stagger backward and blink the white spots away.
“Handky! Curtain!” he screamed. There was no answer. He skipped over three pairs of empty tilefolk shoulders and grabbed the next folk he saw with the right skin tone and hair color. It wasn’t her father. The man chided him for trying to cut in line and pushed him down, and then he leapt into the emptiness.
There were only seven folk left who hadn’t taken the plunge. They had hoods pulled over their faces, slightly ashamed that they were still nervous. Alast looked to the end and saw two of them, a man and a woman, holding hands. He lunged for them, but that resulted in a collision with another acolight.
“You want to go first so badly, fine!” the man shouted, grabbing Alast by the shoulders and shoving him toward the edge. The pirate stumbled and lost his footing, as there wasn’t any left. His insides lurched and his breath got lost somewhere in his body cavity. In a calmer moment he would’ve likened it to the shift of gravitation when switching from a world wall to the World Floor. “I won’t judge your impatience; the Spotless will.”
Alast couldn’t reach the end of the dock. He ripped his saber from its scabbard, knowing better than to slam it into the stone, as that would just propel him upward. With most of his focus keeping his movement controlled and deliberate, he gently placed the tip of the blade against the dock and let it drag, adding pressure until it caught in some grit. One swift pull got both his hands on the edge once more. The man that shoved him was more vindictive than he let on, making an attempt to step on Alast’s knuckles as he tossed himself off.
“Alast, is that you?” He only looked up when his cling was firmer than a glue-sealed handshake. It was Curtain. Handky was right there as well; they helped him up.
“Aye,” he answered, gulping air. The quaking in his legs delivered a substantial hit to his subtlety, but he still redirected them away from the lip as he staggered. “Pearlen sent me to… to help.”
“She didn’t come,” her father lamented, squeezing his wife’s shoulder.
“She didn’t come because she wants to live!” he exploded. His love was always there to shout at them before, but now the task had fallen to him. It had been so much easier to be the stoic support. Caring for these people throbbed and burned: an anxiety that was difficult to parse from the terror of clinging to the world by a single finger. “And she sent me because she wants you to live too.”
“We’re going to live forever,” Curtain spat. “Whelm has shared her vision. It’s on its way right now! Surely you just saw it young man. You are our daughter’s partner… not apartner. She should be here with you.”
“She lives in my heart,” he argued, unsure where such poetic language came from. Normally the most abstract he got was telling Pearlen that if love could be counted the zeroes of his would go off any page in Porce. “No matter where I die she’ll be in my arms. It’s the same for her. She’s fighting to save everyone… and I couldn’t be prouder.”
“You don’t mean… she’s fighting Whelm?” Handky asked. Alast swallowed.
“Yes. Whelm lied to you. She’s not the wife of the Spotless, just a permutation of light gone warped in the Reflecting Path. Her complete exit would be a devastating explosion.”
“Oh Spotless,” Curtain fretted, playing with her hood. “Our pearl will be punished! Handky, we must go now! If we meet him soon enough we can beg for her forgiveness.” She grabbed her husband’s hand and pulled him back toward the edge.
“You mustn’t!” Alast grabbed his other hand, but he didn’t have the strength to pull both of them back. Handky ripped his hand away. There was apprehension in his eyes, but he let Curtain do the work. “Please, I’m begging you! Don’t throw away your daughter; there will be no forgiveness.”
“The Spotless can forgive anything!” Curtain shouted, a wet glob in the back of her throat. Her neck was tight, her pride having successfully bound her fear in unbreakable chains. She stopped at the final step. “That’s why our little pearl never should have left us.”
“What do you mean?”
“We thought we got her a good doctor. We did our best. Even if she died that would’ve been for the best. She would’ve respected her parents and the Spotless would have seen that. We would’ve been reunited.” Handky nodded solemnly.
“You monstrous idiots,” Alast accused. It was over. He couldn’t control himself after hearing that. Every action from that point on would be a show of force. His power versus a false god’s. “How dare you leak that sludge about my Pearlen.”
“She’s our child!” her mother shrieked, yanking on Handky’s arm. She already leaned over the side. “We know what’s best for her!”
“You don’t know up from down!”
“Not knowing is what lets us fly!” Curtain let his legs go limp. Both of them tumbled off the side and flipped through the nothingness. They turned away from him, embracing each other.
“Oh….” Alast grumbled. “You deserve what you’re about to get. Pearlen doesn’t. She gave me this task. I can’t face her without being my usual stupid self.” He turned and rushed to the nearest ship. He’d been sure to survey everything well before they saw the light. There was a chain that looked to be the right length and thickness on the deck of that ship. One end of it was already tied to one of the large metal knobs.
Ever the knot expert, he tied one called the surefire investment around his waist. Judging from the size of the pile he had perhaps 250 foams of chain. Her parents would drift out of range if he took his time to measure, so when the knot was secure he ran to the bow and threw himself into the gap.
Weightlessness took him again, and he wondered if this was what the moments between bits of bonepicking felt like. There was nothing to slow him out there, so thanks to his forceful launch he would catch up to them quickly. Once he shot past some of the last acolights to jump he was surrounded by their nervous whispers, giggles, and celebratory hoots. It was like feeling lost at a party where all the other guests had become intoxicated.
The Lustrs hadn’t noticed him yet, as they had their eyes closed and their foreheads pressed together. Alast stretched his hands out toward them, but then he heard a different voice that stood out from the rest: soft, reedy, and frightened.
“Momma, are you sure?” The pirate’s blood froze, and he wasn’t far enough into the gap for that yet.
“Hush child; we mustn’t doubt.” He looked away from Handky and Curtain only to have his worst fears realized. They couldn’t even be called that, because even as he used the idea to convince Pearlen he didn’t believe in the possibility himself. Yet she had relayed how the same sort of decisions forged her. The world hadn’t matured along with her.
A lightfolk woman held her child’s hand as they both drifted. They each wore one of the flaming robes, the hoods wafting behind them as if floating on a river. The young one couldn’t have been more than four rests old, and she had short hair like Pearlen’s. It wasn’t his place, he didn’t particularly like children, but Pearlen’s words echoed in his head. She couldn’t stand that others suffered as she did, that her parents were part of an abrasive blob scraping the youth from dozens of other lives.
“From pirate to kidnapper,” he whispered, grabbing the chain and yanking to stall his momentum. It was his will that the little girl not transform into one of the gruesome illustrations from the Black Gap book, so he would steal her from her mother. “Here I come, and don’t worry kid, I’m bringing some doubt.”
The sugar on top just thought of it as odd weather. The golden trickle bead had never made it rain coins so heavily before, and it was too early for the potluck, but surely everything was under control. In the olden days, before the flush sequestered himself away and began tinkering, there were sometimes great acts of charity that prompted the city to contribute as well. Most of them had reinforced umbrellas for such drizzles, and they pulled them out now. Very few looked up and saw the bodies tumbling alongside the tiles.
Rinlatour’s central column was mostly hollow to allow transportation for the water of the slipway as well as folk and goods. That was where Fixadil focused its potluck. The shaft filled with falling gold in a spectacle that could be seen from almost any spot on any level. Lesser showers fell with it, inundating gutters and roofs with wealth.
Captain Rob, Dianarhea, Teal, Dawn, and Roary fell through the central column, slowed somewhat by the magical descent of the treasury. They’d lost sight of Fixadil, but it had to be in there somewhere, still bending the bead to its will. Searching inevitably led them to look out at the city.
“I thought it would be worse,” Dianarhea said to no one in particular. “Perhaps everyone thinks it’s some sort of trap. The city isn’t supposed to give itself away.”
“This is just the sugar on top,” Teal reminded. Roary tossed her a sword, the blade slowing as it went and almost getting lost in the tiles. She snatched it and sliced a viewing line in the coin current. The air glittered all the way to Rinlatour’s outer walls. “Wait until we get to the…” Her voice was suddenly drowned out by the whoosh of stone closing in; they were passing between levels. The sugar on top turned into the cream filling, where tranquility turned into chaos.
Dianarhea’s eyes became fixed on this new horror, unable to focus on any single element of it. This was the potluck: the incentive culture of their history laid bare. The streets were full of warring folk. They swung brooms and shovels at the heads of their fellows. Bergfolk raked money into piles with their long fingers, snapping at any who drew too close. They ignored the welts produced by tiles hitting their head. There was opportunity, and that was more important than their very lives.
The gold of high denominations wasn’t the only color. After their passage to the lower level crimson crept in. The bead adjusted dynamically, so some of the tiles rained down, disappeared back into the central potluck, and then rained down again, bringing any substances stuck to their surface with them. Dianarhea adjusted herself on the loose cradle of coins keeping her stable only to come away with a wet red palm. There were streaks of it all around. Rinlatour was bleeding. Tearing into its own flesh because someone told them there was a prize sewn underneath the skin.
“Jedevraqua coulertequay, pourne pasvoirlaqua,” she whispered.
“I should sink, so as not to see,” Rob translated, giving her a start. At some point he had drifted next to her. “There’s always time to sink later flushess. The good folk of the city can’t criticize you if they die here.”
“If it’s this bad here what are the lower levels like?” she asked, aghast at the prospect. Each was more desperate than the last, so her mind conjured up images of limbs being ripped from their bodies, of severed hands still grabbing at coins as they were tossed through the air. In truth it was the middle layers that suffered the greatest: the cream filling, the military wafer, and the artisanal spread. These were the layers of pernicious hopes where a life of fortune was one stroke of luck or grand gesture away. The ones that felt the cool refreshing whispers from the royal flush: you’ll succeed if only you work hard and be respectful. Those in the bottom crust didn’t believe such things anymore, and they watched the potluck from a distance, aided in their decision by the dripping of three city layers of blood.
“Oh, I think you missed one,” a voice cackle-burbled. Rob swirled his boot in some of the coins to view the area beneath him. There was Fixadil, body bloated and square with the bead trapped inside, flowing coin patterns still visible under its murk. The prosite ecstatically watched an old woman chase after a coin the size of a dinner plate as it slid away. She slipped on someone’s blood and bashed her head against a wall. “Bahahahah! Aaaaah! Classic. Clarbiturate was right; physical comedy is far better with limbs and bones. Donk! Bahahaha!”
Dianarhea crawled through the air, trying to get closer, but Rob held her back with a forearm. He put a finger to his lips to tell her that the element of surprise was crucial. A few more gestures, aimed at Dawn, ordered her to follow his lead. They were the two bonepickers, so they could fall as swiftly as they liked and change their positioning easily. Silently they did so, lining up on either side of the prosite, calculating their pincer maneuver.
They struck just as the potluck crossed the lower roofs of the cream filling. Their speed was astonishing, and their aim true, but Fixadil was more aware than it let on. The tinkling of the golden flow around it was music to its ears, and the violent pushes of the bonepickers interrupted that sound. Upon noticing their approach Fixadil flopped outward toward the buildings, waving the bead so forcefully that its inner glow shifted to one side.
The main column of the potluck went with it, bending so much that it became like a storm, toppling weak structures in its way. This happened right at the border between levels, slicing the coins into two clouds. The upper one, which washed over the cream filling, still contained Teal and Roary. They tumbled safely to the ground, but were cut off from the rest of the party.
The lower portion was now in the upper reaches of the military wafer, once again with a great distance to fall. Rob and Dawn had clashed, having barely missed the prosite. The creature was still in sight, magically tunneling through the rich mass, so they chased after it.
“You idiots followed me!?” it shouted back to the pursing bonepickers. “It’s over; give it up!”
“Come back here slime!” was the Captain’s only response. Fixadil made use of the bead’s magic more precisely, forming a spiraling ramp of coins for it to slide along. Rob bonepicked his way into the middle of it before realizing it was another trap. The coins constricted down to a narrow tube, lodging him in the middle. “But Fixadil, we’re destined to be together!” he raged, pushing out with his arm bones rather than his muscles. This broke the hold and sprayed tiles in every direction.
“You two!” Dianarhea shouted to her remaining companions. She was behind, but still moving, leaping from mass to mass with no regard for her own safety. “It’s headed for the slipway!” They looked and saw she was right, the potluck gale sweeping across the cityscape of the wafer rapidly. In moments they would hit the open air. Fixadil was ready to throw out one hundred fortunes into the wishing well of the Draining Sea if it meant his wish would be granted and Rob would go with it.
“Dawn, grab Diana,” he ordered. “She won’t make it without picking. Keep your sockets on me.”
“Aye aye!” the gravefolk affirmed, flipping in the air and shooting in the other direction. Free to focus on Fixadil, Rob drew his sword and held it forward with both arms. He was an arrow, and he flew as such. The man hadn’t expressed his full bonepicking power since the Pipes, so for a moment he was convinced the deluge of violent sound came from the raw roar of his ability. In truth it was the potluck, forced to move sideways at such speed that each coin hit the buildings below like a hailstone sneezed from Swimmr’s worst head cold. They shredded the roofs and walls, snapping shingles in half and striking folk unconscious or dead.
The screaming did nothing to sway Fixadil. The prosite’s efforts grew even more devious as it focused its money-molding on Dianarhea, having perceived her to be the most vulnerable. The Captain heard her cry out when a ball of tiles closed around her. He was still too far to do anything about it, which meant it was time to pull out the most questionable bonepicking tactic there was.
“Wheel of Unending Frustrations!” he boomed, spinning his sword and the rest of his body around the axis of his wrists. By the time Fixadil rotated its compressed eye around to the other side of the bead the pirate was already a whining blur like a circular saw, cutting through the coins toward his prey. The prosite panicked, forgot all about crushing the flushess, and created another ramp to increase its speed.
The cutting wheel was a common and reliable maneuver, but shouting the move’s name was not. Long and heated was the debate over whether or not declaring your move beforehand had any use. Some, including Spirolisha Craftr, the bonepicking master who held a collapsing bridge together by using her body as a chain link for ten drops, insisted that it struck fear into the hearts of enemies.
Rob never bought into that, but he did recognize its utility as a distraction. It absolutely made oneself the focal point of the battle. Folk, and luckily prosites it seemed, couldn’t take their eyes away from such pronouncements because they expected a show. His own twist on the strategy was to embellish the names each time, leading his foes to believe they would be running into an unexpected variation when it was really just bonepicking as common as nose picking.
“The Reaper’s Sadistic Scythe!” His spin stalled above Fixadil, where he transferred his sword to the iron bonepicking vice of his ankles. This increased his reach, turning him into a ghastly guillotine powerful enough to slice the golden trickle bead in half. Dianarhea would never dare risk destroying it, but Kilrobin Ordr? That man would bust a hole in the hull of a lava-sailing ship if he thought it could work as an escape route.
Fixadil was forced to respect the ridiculous shouting and swinging; it tucked its eye away and spun the golden trickle bead. The potluck curled and crashed like a wave, obscuring everyone’s sight. The next thing the Captain saw was the slipway below them, its endlessly-coursing river loaded with floating barrels and crates.
For a moment he was stunned to see the openness of the world. Thinking about theft shrunk one’s mind, turned every object into the crucial prize, so seeing the clouds, sky, and the opposite world wall dissolved his resolve. The splashing of the coins brought him back. Fixadil was among them, its strategy obvious. The folk could not pursue as easily since they could not breathe underwater. In addition there was any number of parcels to hide underneath, sticking to them like an oystie and riding swiftly down to the drain where dark hiding spaces were practically infinite.
Dawn and Dianarhea landed on a drifting crate some forty foams long. They both rushed to the edge and pointed, holding their arms close together so the gesture looked more uniform to Rob far above. They’ve spotted it! He followed the line they created, but he was too high and the surface too disturbed by the sinking coins.
“I don’t see it!” he called down to them. He was starting to fall, but picking slowed it to a drift. Dawn smashed her leathered hand through the top of the crate, pulled out a fine green pitcher meant to be shipped to someone’s dear grandmother, and hurled it with powerful precision. Its splash gave the Captain a target, so he pointed his blade down, let gravitation take him, and threw even more into it.
He pierced the water so quickly that he was able to immediately spot the vase in the current; it hadn’t even bounced along the bottom yet. Barely ahead of it was Fixadil, gliding through the water with vastly improved agility. Its prosite body was covered in tiny cilia: miniature paddles all pulling it along simultaneously and never in need of a rest.
The potluck was left behind, but no doubt still raged throughout Rinlatour. Every strike that failed to reclaim the bead was another ten lives lost. Even the slipway will run red if we don’t catch that damn cold! Rob surged forward, but Fixadil’s eye was positioned atop the bead, capable of looking in all directions except directly below. Upon spotting the pirate it doubled its own efforts, disappearing into one of many shifting cracks in a cluster of cargo.
Going after it so directly was foolish, and it only took the first tight squeeze between two giant casks to convince him. Rob stabbed one, ignored the billowing clouds of orange juice that came out, and bonepicked up. The cask rotated all the way around, giving him a precious moment to breathe. It shuddered as Dianarhea landed on it.
“You’re keeping up!” he sputtered, awkwardly wrenching his sword free.
“As if I’d leave you alone with a prosite or the bead at this point!” she managed to shout, though her sagging eyes and ears suggested her chest had never been so empty of breath. To further her point she took off running once more and leapt to the next cask. The pirate looked toward the city and was shocked to see how far the slipway had already carried them. Judging by the worn and bug-eaten canvas walls keeping out the misty air near the sea, he guessed they were already passing the bottom crust.
There wasn’t much slipway left, so all of its cargo had to be snagged and fished out before it was dumped into the drain. The trio found themselves surrounded by workers all at once, each of them holding a large net or gaff. The poles swayed over the waters, dropping down on anything in range and heaving it toward the side. One of the gaffs, trying to catch a loop on Dianarhea’s cask, pierced the flesh of her shoulder instead.
The worker, savvy enough to recognize the flushess’s face when he saw it, nonetheless did not manage to let go quickly enough. He was pulled into the water and quickly forgotten by the other onlookers. It was far more compelling to watch the most famous folk they’d ever seen arm herself with the hook and slap at the water while screaming obscenities.
One by one the slipway emptied, and Fixadil didn’t dare put itself into the middle of a crowd of folk, especially when it would be so slow on land. Nobody else tried to grab Dianarhea’s cask, so Rob joined her on it when it was one of the last three items in sight. The florent disappeared as the end of the slipway curled into the city, its incline becoming stunningly steep.
Dawn breached the water like a fish, laughing as she splashed back down. This unusual locomotion, halfway between swimming and bonepicking, brought her to a buoyant chest that she immediately latched onto. Tossing it into the air revealed no prosite underneath, so that meant Fixadil was under the one remaining object: an abandoned plank of spongy wood with a mess of bent nails on one end.
The waterfalls of the drain roared around them. It was just a few hundred foams to the darkness below, and if they weren’t careful it could wash them down to the Pipes. Rob would never descend into that hole again, so he pushed off from the cask with enough force to almost toss the flushess into the abyss.
All of that power was utterly necessary, something the flushess realized when she saw the results. Her hired swashbuckler landed on one end of the spongy plank with both feet, hammering it. It didn’t even matter that it was the side with the nails, as they snapped or bent against his bonepicking. The other end of the board was knocked up, overpowering Fixadil’s adhesion and sending the prosite flying off the side of the slipway and onto the stony lip of the drain.
Dawn took the flushess and swam against the current, eventually reaching the slipway’s side at the same time as Rob. They leapt the great distance down to the rock, landing with all the composure they could muster. Fixadil was trapped: the drain on one side and the pounding currents pouring into the drain on the other. His options were to die or be counted amongst the dead in the Pipes.
“I should’ve never bargained with you!” Rob boomed.
“Nor I you!” the blob bubbled back. “Deathbreath Vyra was a much safer bet, but she was spoken for. When I heard you were an Ordr I foolishly hoped this would be one of the fated encounters that worked out for the better half.”
“What be he banging on about?” Dawn asked. That’s right. Nobody knows but the Ordrs and their infection. We still have to tell Roary if he doesn’t already know. We might’ve missed his moment while we were dead. By all rights Teal should’ve known before she carried our thorns in her belly.
“Return what you have stolen!” Dianarhea demanded, surging ahead of the others. The prosite slithered back as quickly as it could, but the awkward lolling of the bead slowed it greatly.
“I will not! Your city bleeds because you are full of the weakness of blood. None would be disturbed to see the flow of neater, clearer, not-even-the-least-bit-sticky plasm. Greed will shred Rinlatour and we will flow into the furrows left behind. I will rule over the new bastion of the-”
They all stopped. The sound was distant, but much too loud to be any crate from the slipway hitting the side on its way down. Fixadil rushed to the edge and stuck its eye out over the great dark chasm. Rob wasn’t sure why, but the sound agitated his heart. Its rapid beating pounded in his ears, but he could still hear the sound when it came again, much louder.
“Bahahaha!” Fixadil laughed. “I won’t be needing this anymore!” The golden trickle bead spun inside it. When it was fast enough to make the prosite wobble it spat the gem out and into the drain. It fell like one of its coins, but out of circulation entirely.
“Nooooo!” Dianarhea screamed, chasing after it, but she didn’t throw herself in. All she caught was a glimpse of its last twinkle… underneath something else. Something coming to meet them.
“You may have had your little secret plan with Mixomirine,” the prosite conceded, “but I have as many crafty vacuoles as my sibling. Taking the royal flush’s body was one goal, twisting the bead was another, the potluck was my wildest dream, but I had a desire even beyond that!’
“Long ago the eight gods ruled Porce. When they perished and faded I don’t believe they ever realized that questing beasts would form in response. Yet they did, and the mad titans walk the Pipes, tormenting themselves over battles that will never come!”
“There to oppose the sickeningly reasonable Dealr was Roondid… of struggle. He has always been drawn to conflict, but Rinlatour has long had its economic facsimile of peace. No more! The golden trickle has become an agonizing red and he can smell it. Up he comes from the depths to participate.
The Fayeblon will seal the city’s fate. Only a ruin will remain, and prosites have become very skilled at populating ruins. Behold Captain Rob, flushess, and skeletal maiden whose name is unimportant! Behold the wealthiest monster in Rinlatour! Roondid!”
The Glass Desert
The polishing mirror was to her back. There was no stopping errant beams of light from escaping, but the mass that could free Whelm was tied into her being. Her folk-sized form had to go through, and there was Pearlen firmly in the way. Her mirrored shield in her left and her spear in her right, the warrior diver had to fight in an element that wasn’t her first or second choice.
“Get out of my way,” Whelm seethed as she picked herself up off the ground. Pearlen’s flying bash had knocked her back at the penultimate moment. True air had kissed her fingers. The storm of light connected to her by her rainbow locks surged, even rumbling with something like thunder. Its myriad colors were a fluid mosaic of her boundless rage, and this girl, whose single lifetime of suffering could never match hers, would not be allowed even the thought of success. Five spears of light primed to strike down and incinerate her organs.
Pearlen gave the dangling canister on her spear a small twist; black liquid dribbled out. She spun the container rapidly, flicking droplets into the air where they stuck and ate away at the clouds of light. If Whelm had a heart it would have frozen in terror. Refryction fluid. How did she come by such a rare substance? How vast was the conspiracy trying to keep her from living?
“I hate to be juvenile about this,” Pearlen growled, “but you do not cross this line!” A flick of the spear on both sides of the mirror ate into the ground. Orange glass gave way to stunning blackness with a sickly green at the corroded edges. It destroyed the light above me! She’s connected to that, meaning this stuff can kill her. I’ve never killed anyone before. She twisted the canister to seal it once more.
“What kind of daughter are you?” the vision asked, walking along the forbidden line. “You must’ve heard about the pilgrimage. Enough of my light got out for half the world to see. Their half. Their corpses are flying away from you as we speak.”
“They make their own decisions; I’ve made mine.” No need to tell her Alast is alive. He might not even be… They could grab him and pull him overboard too. No. He’s fighting there; I need to fight here. Pearlen rubbed the blade of her spear on the corroded edge near her foot, coating it in refryction fluid. “You’re an old day’s light Whelm, and there’s nothing left for you to shine on.”
The vision sneered, flicking her hands into the air. Pearlen braced herself for a blast, but nothing shot toward her. Nonetheless, her skin prickled. Her eyes began to itch, the clawlies uncomfortable with something. Things had happened so quickly that she had never refilled her goggles. Whelm was just a blob in the brightness shifting back and forth, occasionally flushing purple and red with anger.
“What’s the matter?” Whelm mocked. “Feeling a touch warm?” That’s her game. She’s not stupid. It’s obvious my shield can reflect a ray and my spear can wound her. She’s using that other property of the florent. It was impossible for Pearlen to see, but the storm of experienced and abandoned light was closing in, compacting into a dome around her. The temperature rose precipitously.
In moments it felt like a sauna. Pearlen was drenched in sweat, the shield sliding down despite her grip on it. The air of the path was less substantial than that of Porce, so if the same heat was present there it likely would’ve turned her into a pile of ash already. She couldn’t help but moan as another wave of scalding pressure struck. It was no mere discomfort now; she felt her skin burning.
She couldn’t last like that forever, so she had to go on the offensive, but she had to do it without leaving the gateway exposed. Pearlen grabbed at the fluid canister again, its heated metal stinging her fingers. On the third attempt she managed to reopen it. A slash was the best option, as droplets could strike in a nearly complete circle around her. The spear almost slipped out of her hand as she performed it, but it must have been successful. The blur of Whelm shifted suddenly and the heat briefly relented.
Dark spots appeared in her vision where the droplets had struck. They dripped and consumed, turning the pattern of her slash into something like a picket fence. If Whelm wanted to strike she would have to jump over it, thus trapping herself within Pearlen’s makeshift ring of combat. The vision was too close to have the door shut in her face, so she took a billowing cape of light from above and flowed over the barrier like a wave.
Pearlen was not prepared for the crash. The burning came back all at once, plus reinforcement. Her skin felt ablaze, and the only sound seemed to be her lips cracking like the bed of what used to be a salty lake splitting under the florent. Whelm, undeniably powerful but inexperienced in true combat, slapped Pearlen across the face without having her full strength yet ready.
That fortunate fact kept Pearlen’s face from being obliterated, but it was still a stunning burn that knocked her to one knee. Instinctively she shook the spear in Whelm’s direction to fend her off, relying entirely on the dripping fluid. Her wits were slow to return, overwhelmed as they were by the incredible pain searing in her eyes. It was worse than the invasion of the clawlies and any burrowing they’d done since. It was like each and every one of them had cooked a dangerously spicy meal before accidentally setting their tiny stoves on fire. I can’t grab my eyes. My hands are full of weapons. My eyes! I’m at war! There’s nothing to see anyway. War is the last thing worth seeing. Aaaah! What’s…
The ground softened under her left foot. Shuffling backward, Pearlen saw that the fluid’s destruction was not so simple to contain. Everywhere it struck it continued to eat away; the picket fence was now a black wall with only a few shreds left hovering. Her combat arena became more and more like a wet napkin with each passing moment, and she could barely speculate as to the nature of the bottomless trench forming underneath.
Whelm noticed this as well, and Pearlen thought she saw the color of regret flicker through her: a hue between pink, purple, and gray. There was still room for her above; she could fly away. If she did there would be nothing stopping Pearlen from destroying all of the path surrounding the mirror, sealing the gateway long enough to destroy it back in Porce.
“You’re making me kill you!” the vision shrieked. “I wanted us to be friends!” She fired rays from her eyes that Pearlen deflected. The two shots of color vanished into the fluid’s wastes.
“I’d be happy to discuss it later!” the pirate growled back. “Just fly away.” She blinked. Whelm had never been that shade before: a gross papery brown. She blinked again. The color developed a third dimension and she felt it on the surface of both her eyes. More blinking, as rapidly as she could. Whelm wouldn’t stand there in confusion for long. The cause of the color crinkled between her eyelids and fell away like the crust from a nap.
They’re gone! Those were the clawlies! They must’ve been fried to a crisp by Whelm’s attack. I just blinked out their dried husks! I’m cured! For a single drip of curious bliss, she waited for her vision to clear. Never would she forget the clarity of full folk sight, the sharpness, and she would’ve given up a limb to see Alast’s entire face without having to press her cheek against his.
That clarity did not come. The clawlies were dead, but their tunnels would remain, closing up without ever losing the scar tissue that kept her Porce a blur. So be it. I needed them until now. She was right; Whelm’s newest strategy was to blind her opponent by brightening her body to an unfathomable degree. The vision closed in with a white hot battle cry. Nobody else could see her coming. The sensitive parts of my eyes are already burned away… and I won’t be burned twice!
The warrior of Captain Teal’s employed hopped back, letting one heel hang out of the polishing mirror, just to give herself a window to strike. Whelm’s pounce exploded on the shred of the Reflecting Path that remained. It billowed like a tarp, wrapping around the vision’s limbs as they reformed. Of course it was falling. The refryction fluid had eaten away at the last connection, turning it into a small island in a black sea. The scrap could’ve hung there, delicately, until the path grew back, but the force of Whelm’s strike was too much for its imitation of solidity.
The vision was about to disappear, to fall with the ground that refused to hold her any longer, as if it was jealous of her proposed first steps in Porce. The accursed creature could fly, Pearlen had seen her do so several times, but the darkness of the fluid was not the sky of the Reflecting Path. It was a nothingness happy to eat light along with anything else, and so she fell, losing the wild flowing of her hair and the mingling of her hundred thousand hues.
She was just a girl, painted odd by a god’s errant brushstroke. In that desperate moment there was no room or time for her past, her anguish, her manipulations, or her misdeeds. All she felt was fear, and all Pearlen felt was pity. The pirate lowered her shield; laid flat it extended just far enough for Whelm the vision to grab its edge. Eight fingers snatched and held, but her thumbs passed through the underside, which was just magical glass. They stared at each other, each recognizing her tenuous grasp. So long had it been since anything had threatened Whelm’s existence. When the knowledge of that experience returned it seemed to add greatly to her weight.
One hand slipped. The fluid void tugged on it, unraveling the strands of light that made up her fingers, like rain destroying a painting in progress. Whelm whimpered and threw her arm back up; her whole body lurched. She successfully grabbed hold, but not of the shield. The skin of Pearlen’s bare arm hissed and blackened. That single grab was more light than it should’ve handled across ten washes combined.
“Gyaaah!” she cried, but didn’t try to shake the vision loose. “Climb!” The vision refused the compassionate order, dropping her arm back into the darkness. Her remaining hand blurred, her fingers becoming a bright mitten. Her eyes bobbed in the rippling light of her face like buoys. She saw. Even after taking her lover’s life, Pearlen would have spared her.
“I’m sorry,” the vision wept, her words rising from her like steam because the shape of a mouth was lost in her dissolving form. “It was just a white lie: a lie composed of all colors together.”
“It’s not too late!” Pearlen shouted back. “Alast isn’t dead! It was his reflection! Your church is just as responsible as you. You can fix this!” Whelm’s face was gone. What was left was like a wet clump of her hair, plucking itself apart strand by strand. A green strand fell and twisted. A yellow one.
“You’re more devoted to me than any worshiper. Thank you. You’re… my best friend.” Pearlen dropped her chest onto her shield and reached, but there was nothing to grab. The last strands of light escaped between her fingers, all except one. It wrapped around her pinky, softened enough not to burn.
She couldn’t stay there, weeping into the chasm. The ground weakened under her again, forcing her to stand. The endless storm of light above, with nothing to guide it, dissipated. The desert sky cleared, orange at the edges from the distant fire whirls of the Tunnel of Sweat. Everything above her was gorgeous, and it wasn’t even the real thing. Her foot sunk a little. Pearlen leaned back, letting herself fall out of the polishing mirror and into Porce.
The battle over, her body gave in to fatigue halfway through her passage. Striking the glass would’ve been quite painful, but instead she landed in the ropey arms of Herc Monickr. The man had just arrived with Ladyfish and a dozen more bonepickers. The church of Bright Hope was fully subdued, its members crying as they knelt with their hands upon the glass.
“Where’s our vision!?” one of them demanded, but a gravefolk rapped them on the back of the head.
“You’re alright,” Herc whispered, carrying her away from the mirror. “Are we?”
“She’s gone,” Pearlen answered hoarsely. The burn on her forearm, the perfect shape of Whelm’s grip, throbbed. The strand of her hair was still there, so it seemed the polishing mirror would have worked even as it ended the lives of so many. The regular light of Porce was sufficient to maintain that one little piece.
“You did splendid!” Ladyfish congratulated, appearing beside them with a bandage. She wrapped it around Pearlen’s arm without waiting for permission, but not before dropping the diver’s empty goggles on her stomach.
“I don’t need those anymore,” Pearlen said with a smile. Jailbeta, the skull on a stick, revealed himself to be multipurpose as one of the other pickers screwed the head of a sledgehammer onto his other end. With a mighty grunt, and over the howling protests of the church, he swung himself and shattered the polishing mirror into six pieces the size of a washtub. Though it would’ve been deeply satisfying to smash it further, the employed were under strict instructions to take all the pieces back with them.
“You can’t take those you thieves!” an acolight attempted to insult.
“Pirates actually,” Ladyfish snickered back as she tried to shove the largest piece into a hide bag.
“Legitimate businessfolk actually,” Herc corrected her; the woman shrugged to reveal that she didn’t quite see the difference.
The Black Gap
The expression of the mother was a jumble of knotted emotions. She would have to admit the attempt was bold; what kind of child-snatcher grabs their target while swimming through the Dark Empty? Surely any babe snug in their bed was a better choice; the ones in sheets were even pre-wrapped!
Yet here was this young man grabbing at her daughter just as they were about to join the Spotless in a fresh paradise. His eyes were wild. There wasn’t a single attempt at communication. He just pulled her daughter in even as she screamed and cried.
“What are you doing!? Let go! Help! Someone help!” There was of course no one to assist her. Her closest friends were all around, but the gravitation-free space practically turned them into islands. The only creature visible in any direction with a tether to Porce was the vile kidnapper with his chain umbilicus.
“You don’t get to kill her!” Alast barked at the woman, elbowing her in an attempt to separate the girl. “You have to come back with me; you’ll both perish out here!”
“Momma, who is it?” the girl wept, her cheeks red and puffy. Alast felt monstrous pulling her from her parent, but he just kept seeing her face contort, dry out, and die in his mind. Better it be puffy and red, so full of hot rushing life that it looked like the ripening fruit of a plant watered by battlefield bloodshed. Sorrow and fear faded, but death did not.
“You demon! The Spotless will damn you!” the woman shrieked, attempting to gouge out Alast’s eyes with her free hand. One of her fingers hooked a lower eyelid, causing it to snap back painfully. In his wincing he almost lost his grip on the girl’s shoulder, but his hand reflexively tightened when a fresh sound overpowered their altercation.
The furthest acolights screamed, but the breath left in them would not be sufficient to propel them back to the world. Desperately they swam, but it would take drops for their flailing to actually slow them in the thin air. The cause of this panic was the most peaceful acolight of them all, who drifted in a new eternal pose not possible for the living.
Their head was flattened and curled like a fried vegetable chip, mouth stretched cavernously open. Limbs spiraled one to four times. Skin wrinkled and leathery like a saddle in a swamp with a guilty conscience. Eyes destroyed. Like a worm dried upon stone that leaves a stain behind when plucked free. Just like in the book… only worse.
All of a sudden the woman clung to Alast, squishing her daughter between them so she couldn’t possibly squeeze out. She buried her face in Alast’s shoulder and wept as well. So swift was the change of heart that Alast recognized something. The woman wasn’t even a true believer. The truest of devotees would act as some of them did now: confused. They would stare, maybe even scratch their chins, racking their minds to figure out how the disgusting distorted death before them could fit into the Spotless’s vision. The clinging woman had simply wanted something to believe in so much that she risked her life, for it could only be called a risk if she didn’t believe. She had staked her daughter as well and now expected the same kindness he offered the child.
“Pull the chain!” he urged her. Luckily the girl had the presence of mind to cling for her life, allowing the adults to focus on pulling their way back to the docks. Difficult as it was to ignore the growing wave of panic behind them, he was but one folk. When they landed safely the cold stone felt like the warmest embrace. Everything within him told him to stay there, to scurry to the furthest rock of the Threewall wild and live under it until he forgot the madness-inducing Black Gap even existed.
Pfiish! Pfiish! Pfiish-phiish!
The screams swelled even though there were fewer folk to create them. When Alast turned his head, practically hearing the bones crack as his body fearfully resisted, he saw the desperation of the pilgrims: arms flailing in billowing orange sleeves and raw fear upon their faces. The mass of them resembled a flickering fire under the rain, complete with puffs of false steam whenever an acolight hit that crucial invisible distance. All of the water in their body froze into tiny droplets and shot out of their flesh, sometimes with enough force to strike the others who still lived like particularly icy snowballs. What was left of them was not even enough to tell man from woman. Their twisted forms were like the first and fanciest letter of a signature.
His feet pushed off. If one child was more important than Pearlen’s parents then they all were, so he searched the drifting desperate for any others. The girl was the only one. There were a few folk around his own age, but most of them were like Handky and Curtain or older. There was no time to wonder exactly what constituted a child, not when his mission still went unfulfilled.
Handky and Curtain were dead ahead, but not struggling like most of the others. They simply held each other with foreheads pressed together and eyes closed. Whispering prayers. Alast recognized it as devotion to each other rather than any god. It seemed they recognized their failure, but were content to die for it. A few others were as well, or perhaps they still believed, thought that the paradise existed within the mind even in one of those desiccated corpses. Those folk had their legs crossed and their palms together in prayer. When the Dark Empty took their water they were left with ankles and fingers spiraling around each other.
The chain tugged; Alast looked behind to see that some of the drifters had grabbed onto it and were pulling themselves back to land. He could hardly blame them; all he could do was hope that their interference didn’t cost him too much momentum. Pearlen’s parents were close to the boundary now. Most of their friends around them were brown and still.
The chain tugged again. He slowed. It wasn’t just those who were fortunate in their proximity to his rescue operation. There were so many folk on it now that they covered the chain in places, like clustered furry larvae preparing for metamorphosis. Only one possibility presented itself, and it was confirmed when Alast looked off to the sides and saw acolights spinning away in random directions at high speed. Some had used others as platforms to leap from, dooming them in the process.
“Handky!” Alast shouted. The man did not look up. “I’m almost there, but you have to reach!” The older man’s head twisted, but Curtain’s hand pulled it right back. “Pearlen doesn’t want you to die!”
“They don’t want help!” an acolight behind them screamed, his hand already outstretched. “Save me! Please! I don’t want…” Pfiish! The largest ejection of water struck the couple, drawing trickles of blood in places, but pushing them slightly.
“Reach!” Handky’s hand shot out almost involuntarily, as he didn’t even open his eyes. Alast reached out with both arms and grabbed the man’s wrist, pulling them in like a Guppadril swallowing its prey whole. It was impossible to see how close they were to certain death, but Alast swore he could feel it, like the coolness surrounding a block of ice. Always he had faced death from the traps and scares of Porce itself: a lengthy fall, a vengeful bonepicker, and even a questing beast. The Black Gap was so impersonal by comparison as to feel alien. It wouldn’t take your blood, flesh, or vitality. Just your existence.
“What made that?” Handky muttered, fingers digging into Alast’s side as if he was the child.
“That’s been unmade,” was the only answer Alast had, and he wasn’t sure where it came from. Curtain still had not said a word or looked at her savior. She was completely unaware of the more heartening scene pulling them in. Those that had found solid footing once more had also found other ropes and chains on the ships, copying Alast’s technique even though they couldn’t match his knotting prowess. Bravely they threw themselves back into the void to fish out the others.
The last horrible pfiish had come from the man behind Pearlen’s parents. In total twenty pilgrims were lost to the gap, rewarded for their most enthusiastic faith in Whelm the vision. With no way to reclaim the bodies, and with them growing more distant with each drip, many of the acolights had to say goodbye with a pathetic wave. Few of them felt like praying.
“Thank you Alast,” Handky said after swallowing his pride. They were back on Silence Beach, free of the chain and a safe distance from the docks, leaned up against one of the cold oppressive walls. Curtain sat in the dirt with her back against stone, head buried in her knees. Her husband rubbed her shoulder, but that did nothing to coax her out. “We would be… those things if it wasn’t for you.”
“Pearlen is the one you should thank,” he corrected. “She sent me.” He paused. “I have no idea if her battle is over,” he realized aloud. “We’re still alive, so either she fights on or she has succeeded.” The young man started to pace.
“You mean she’s… physically stopping Whelm from emerging?” her father asked. “Our daughter could never…”
“Except for all the times she has!” Alast shouted at him; he nearly kicked Curtain in the forehead to pop her face up and make her listen to the exchange. There was nary a time in his memory where hatred had burned in him so recklessly. “Did you think what you did to her would hold her back? She made the person that she is, and that’s why I have faith in her above all else!”
“The Spotless made her,” Curtain said, her first words since being shamefully rescued. They were muffled through her sleeves, but her voice did not waver.
“I’m not here to argue,” Alast replied. It would feel strange to scream at such a scrunched up thing in denial anyway, like demanding a shellenfowl egg lead a military campaign. “Pearlen Lustr wrestled a cardinal tile away from a handful of Yugo Legendr’s bony knuckles! Pearlen Lustr fought a bead-cursed immortal in an indecisive arena of stunning heat and burning ice! She will defeat Whelm the vision, the wife of a lie. What will it take for you to believe in her?”
“You’re not a parent Alast,” her father excused weakly. “You don’t know what it’s like to hold a life in your hands every day and know that one slip could end everything. It makes you so fearful. Folk like us need help.”
“Pearlen and I have arms as long as Porce!” Alast knew exactly how long Porce was in lathers. He knew the world’s height, width, and even estimated weight. His math tutor gave him the exact value and units of gravitation for each wall, major structure, and cardinal tile. The pressure at the greatest depth of each toil and sink. Porce was calculably vast, yet he still felt the need to compare his bond to its most intimidating numbers. “We’re always holding each other… We’ll never know how that isn’t enough for you.”
With that he walked away, back to the love of his life, the winding walls of the university incapable of disrupting the compass that led him to her. Her parents were free to follow, but he never looked back.
A clawed hand the size of two lifeboats grabbed the lip of the city’s drain. The fingers were long and had bulbous warty joints that each looked like a unique battle helmet from a barbaric civilization. Each claw was a brown sickle, its color somewhere between mud and urine.
There were plenty of places to hide in the old stone catacombs, more if the partly-flooded places were counted, but to hide from the questing beast was to admit failure. Still Captain Rob, Dianarhea, and Dawn gave the hand some respectful distance. They were fresh out of plans, given that the potluck had already claimed many lives, the Fayeblon was summoned, and the golden trickle bead was lost to the Pipes. Fixadilaran was glued to a column on the other side of the monster’s hand, cackling as it observed.
To make matters worse, Roondid of struggle demonstrated itself to be the sort of creature with two hands. The second one clamped down a stunning distance away, trapping the trio between them. Damn! It could’ve had only one; we’ve seen a quester or two with no hands! The pirate judged the distance between the two and came up with a rough estimate of Roondid’s size. Likely as big as Cloader of theft… perhaps thinner given its slender fingers and wrists.
It didn’t make him wait long. So great was its mass that they could hear the wind generated by it hoisting itself up. First to appear was something that looked like the ears of a laggeren: tall, fuzzy, and ribbed on the inside. When its eyes came into sight they realized they were not ears, but its stretched and stiff upper eyelids, meaning that when it blinked the lower lids had to rise all the way up.
Up until now Rob only had a mild curiosity as to why the Fayeblons he met always hid their eyes. Thipperon of balance had obscured them behind a jeweled veil. Cloader of theft under a filthy hat. Offilee of drains behind her matted hair. Now it was extremely obvious. Roondid’s eyes were minuscule to the point of it being comical, but only if the creature wasn’t close enough to hear your laughter.
More typical questing beasts had eyes that usually could not look away from their eventual goal, allowing those who encountered them to immediately tell if they were the target by whether or not they saw pupils or whites. Perhaps Fayeblon eyes were so small because they were built to counter gods, and larger eyes might see the things beyond their bodies: distractions like magic, ambition, and armies of devotees.
They were especially absurd given the rest of the monster’s form. The small cone propping up its beady eyes and floppy lids expanded into a gargantuan flat jaw that took up its head from shoulder to shoulder. This jaw was almost perfectly circular and hinged by two bulging muscles that were nonetheless pinched and confined to the back of the head, leaving it with the look of a giant’s waste bin.
The teeth within came in jagged cramped rows, and they rose and retracted in fluctuating gum tissue like waves on a choppy sea. Below its chin was a sagging throat sack that extended all the way to its waist. Roondid was the first to be mostly naked. So large was it that the mere act of rising into view took long enough to enjoy a leisurely snack, so they had not yet seen its single article of clothing: a loincloth composed mostly of shards of rusty metal.
Skin like a root vegetable sprouting fungal hair under a wet sky. Patches of yellow-white and purple-gray. Hate in its lump-of-coal pupils. The other Fayeblons were much more civilized, able to distract their impotent rage with small-minded interpretations of their own folklore aura. Thipperon pretended to be an arbiter of balance, Cloader a master thief, and Offilee… lived in a drain.
Roondid was ‘of struggle’, and it seemed the monster could never figure out how to spin such a concept into an identity. It made no attempt to communicate with them, simply opening its flat hole of a mouth and roaring with such inward intensity that it nearly sucked them off the lip. Its stretched limbs and cannon-like torso were physical symptoms of its insanity, and even more powerful than they looked.
That was amply demonstrated when one of its fists came down on the trio, as they were the only living things in sight. It cracked the stone as they leapt out of the way, each crack quickly filling with runoff from the surrounding falls. While none of them stood any chance of actually killing such a legendary thing, Dianarhea, without bonepicking, didn’t even have the ability to avoid it.
Dawn solved this by grabbing the flushess, spinning her around by her wrists, and tossing her into the deep recesses of the stone, perhaps even out of Roondid’s reach. The angle of the toss was flawless, allowing the woman to slide across the wet rock rather than impact against it. She shouted something as she disappeared into the shadows, but neither of them could hear over the chaos.
Rob perhaps had the best repartee with Fayeblons of any folk in Porce given his nearly-flirtatious relationships with Thipperon and Offilee, but it was obvious Roondid lacked both speech and the vital feminine essence of those two. So his first attempt at diplomacy was a vicious bouncing slash with his sword that wrapped around Roondid’s wrist. The monster clung to the side of the drain like a ladder, so if its grip could be broken it might fall all the way back to the blood-raining pit from whence it came.
Three more times Rob sprung from one side of the wrist and cut across to the other. While his efforts drew sludgy blood, the scratches were barely enough to draw Roondid’s attention. With shocking agility it leapt to a higher lip, found Rob as its target, and jumped back down with both hands poised to flatten him. Again its roar, like all the battlefield screams of the world shoved into the same mass grave, threatened to pull him in. The pirate avoided them both by bonepicking into the air and hanging there when the Fayeblon impacted.
The stone cracked into five slabs, two of which immediately tumbled down the drain. Rob was left with no flat surface to land on, so he pivoted midair and shot around the curve of the drain, in the direction he recalled seeing Fixadil last. Roondid could not be shaken from its prey, so it followed him hand over hand, quickly overtaking him.
That might’ve been the end of it if Dawn didn’t land atop its maw: the flattest surface around. She touched down right in front of its eyes, burying her feet in the fold of a purely-aesthetic nostril.
“There be something on the tip of me sword! See?” she taunted before lunging and jamming the blade into the white jelly of the Fayeblon’s eye. She expected its fury to become a slow sweep of its hand, and was prepared to avoid such a move. Unfortunately the monster used its powerful jaw muscles instead, popping the top half of its head into the air at nearly a right angle, like a catapult. The gravefolk was flung most of the way across the drain and was forced to desperately pick her way to a holdfast.
That left Rob alone with Roondid. It trapped him once again between two hands, staring down at him, judging whether or not a single meaty speck like that was worth its time. There were so many more above them, at hair-yanking war with each other, but that energy faded rapidly. There wouldn’t be much blood left to bathe in if it didn’t smash the pirate quickly.
“It’s no use Robin,” Fixadil taunted from the shadows behind him. “The Ordrs have lost this round; there’s always next generation.”
“Keep your comments to yourself!” Rob boomed, but he couldn’t even spare a backward glance. “I’m fighting here!” Roondid’s hand swept in, but there was space between the fingers, so Rob hopped, went horizontal, and slipped through one of the gaps. There’s nothing to attack! If we go for the eyes we get launched like Dawn. They have no vital arteries because their blood is mostly meaningless. A smaller questing beast can be beaten by crushing its head or limbs, but we’d have to drop a rock on it the size of…
The Captain looked up. There was another shelf overhead, even thinner than the one supporting him. If Roondid could be made to grab it breakage was possible. A concussive collapse. It was the only plan that bothered to show up, so the pirate went for it. There wasn’t sufficient power in his picking to jump straight to it, so he would have to vault off part of the Fayeblon’s body.
Darkness came over him; something pushed his head down. A sudden smell surrounded him, like a taxidermy animal had its rotten guts stuffed back in. The only lights came from jagged triangles at the level of his feet, and they were inconsistent. The bastard ate us! He hadn’t been completely devoured, as the garbage lid of Roondid’s mouth was not so precise. The Fayeblon had bitten the edge of the cliff, so the daggers of light he saw shone through its tumultuous teeth. The pirate lost his sense of direction in the cloying darkness, but he heard voices.
“Rahh! Let go of me you hairball!” It was Fixadilaran.
“You want a powerful body? There’s one right there!” Dianarhea. Rob dropped onto his back and slid, no natural acceleration necessary thanks to picking. There was no perfect gap in its teeth, but there was no option except to risk being sliced in half. A tooth did drop like a guillotine, but a little too late, only close enough to take a drop of sweat from his bald head. He stood just as Roondid lifted its jaw once more.
Dianarhea was just beyond the marks its teeth left behind. The flushess had emerged from the shadows, unafraid of the behemoth before her, and snatched the prosite while it heckled the Captain. Dawn had given her a wonderful idea when aggressively spinning her. Even with a firm grip on its nucle-eye, holding onto a slimy prosite was a difficult proposition. The flushess spun in circles, building up the force to rival a bonepicking maneuver.
“You’re not… even… part of this!” Fixadil shouted, its voice growing thin as its liquid body stretched into a snot-like rope.
“Don’t you dare tell me I’m not part of Rinlatour!” she roared back before slamming her foot down and hurling the blob out into the drain.
“Raaaaah!” it screamed, voice bobbing from one end of its body to the other. Roondid was still pulling back from its gnawing attack, mouth still wide open. There was nothing for the prosite to grab onto and no bones within it to pick. Their enemy vanished over the precipice of shuddering teeth. The Fayeblon’s dentition clamped shut, and they heard Fixadilaran Bocculum no more.
“That’s one problem down,” Rob congratulated her. “Any ideas for this one?” Roondid was staring at them again, its eyes somehow even angrier. The sweltering draw of the war above had mostly faded. It had missed all the fun, and there was no one to blame but the specks in front of it. Its hand rose once more, curling into a fist that could sink any ship.
A nodule appeared in its flesh, just under its raised armpit. The growth quivered, tiny spines trying to poke through the skin. Is that Bocculum? It’s trying to infect a Fayeblon the same way it did the flush! That can’t be possible; it’s too much bad luck! Fixadil did its best to prove him wrong, writhing within the giant monster. It had already escaped the decorative esophagus and made it into the body wall. One of its chemical tactics had to work. One by one it produced waves of infectious material, probing for the key to controlling the beast.
Meanwhile the fist came down and separated Rob from Diana. Its talons opened up. One landed on each side of Rob, shredding the stone as they closed in for a mortally-wounding pinch. Instinctively he bonepicked up, but it was too late; his head struck the flesh webbing between its fingers and his sword failed to cut all the way through. He was pressed into the leathery vice. All the little emerald spines across his skeleton dug into him. The thin membrane between life and death stretched.
He fell, gasping, sword clattering to the stone. His clothes were twisted in the squeeze, his collar pulled up over his face, so he had to pull it back down to see. Roondid’s claws were extremely busy anchoring it to the lip. There was much more weight to support thanks to its new opponent. Rob, Diana, and even Dawn from across the drain marveled at the titanic struggle before them.
Offilee of drains, in one leap, had appeared and latched onto the other Fayeblon’s shoulders. Her approach was as silent as she’d ever been. Huzzah! We see now! She didn’t even cry aloud before when injured. Such strength! Offilee grabbed Roondid’s upper lip and yanked, sending its arms scrambling to the right in order to keep a grip. Rob took off after them, cheering wildly for their new comrade.
“I’ve always believed in you Offilee! You’re a goddess! Fight for your dignity!” The pieces of her tale fell into place as he ran. He had no idea what the Fayeblons actually were to each other, but they of course interacted. Cloader eternally vied for Thipperon’s affection. Perhaps the two in the drain were more like siblings, with Roondid as a hair-pulling older brother. Her brother was the one that had gotten too rough with her before, forcing her up into Rinlatour, where Rob and Mixomir had found her.
Normally she was safe and secluded on her swing down below, but the economic strife Fixadil created led Roondid straight to her cherished personal space. It’s a damn good thing we gave her that pep talk! It might’ve just saved the whole city!
“Thank you, whatever you are!” Dianarhea shouted.
“She’s a goddess; that’s what she is!” Rob informed. “Take back your drain Offilee! You will forever have our gratitude!” One of her long arms wrapped under Roondid’s jaw, pressing against the muscles at the back and preventing the teeth from puncturing her flesh. With her other arm she grabbed one of her brother’s wrists. Her face turned to Rob. A Fayeblon’s smile certainly didn’t look natural, learning how to do it must have been a painstaking process, but she put in the effort regardless. A proud grin slowly grew until it was everything visible under her mop of swamp tree hair.
The bump of Fixadil had stilled, calcified into the mostly-dead flesh of the god-beast. Perhaps it was still screaming in there, lamenting its lost profection.
Offilee yanked with such primordial power that they heard a bone in Roondid’s skull crack. The foe Fayeblon’s jaw bent, giving it no choice but to relinquish its grip and fall. They rushed to the edge to see, but the two gargantuan bodies were gone in three drips, obscured by darkness and the mist of the pounding waters. The moment they were out of sight Rob collapsed upon the stone, leg hanging off the side but remaining rigid with picking.
“I see who you are now,” Dianarhea panted, sitting down next to him and crossing her legs. “You’re not good for anything; you’re just surrounded by women who solve all of the problems you cause.” Rob was two words into his vehement denial when he paused. It was Teal who kept the crew safe when Yugo smashed into Dhonshui. Pearlen who reclaimed Second when it was lost to his knuckles. We never would have overpowered the living sixteen without Vyra. And now Diana has disinfected the germ we hosted. The undeniably womanish Offilee has saved us a second time.
“I am too good for something,” he insisted. Captain Rob was back where he started, having finally paid the price of his bargain to escape the Pipes. Rinlatour had paid it as well, and now it seemed it would be the one to be reborn. The golden trickle bead was gone and the potluck had stilled. The folk above slowly absorbed what they had become, and two folk at the top, along with another Ordr-affiliated prosite, had an opportunity they would most certainly absorb. “Clearly I can tell who the best folk in Porce are.”
As with the second bathroom break, the main narrative ends here. This is just Blaine once more (the guy from the notes). Last time, in Captain Rob Sinks, the proper epilogue was extremely defaced by bathroom graffiti. This time I had the peace of a hotel room, so that didn’t happen. Yet I’m not giving you the whole epilogue as it actually appeared upon the porcelain.
The reason is that there were actually two separate epilogues after the radical changes in Rinlatour. One discussed the aftermath for Rob, his new associates, and his former crew, which I will paraphrase in the following paragraphs, while the other… The other you will get to read in its entirety. The grave reality of its implications needs to be the actual ending note of this volume. That gives me only this initial series of notes to speak to you, human to human, no folk involved.
For now things in Porce find stability, at least for those we’ve followed. Captain Teal, Herc, Roary, Dawn, Ladyfish, and the rest successfully return to Third Sink using their network of linked Reflecting Path passages. In fact, Teal becomes the wealthiest woman of that ocean and its surrounding outcroppings once they reclaim and sell nearly every piece of the path that the Church of Bright Hope had collected. The Employer becomes a bustling hub of trade and even diplomacy, as she allows her best clients access to their rapid travel technique.
Pearlen still dives from its deck nearly every day, even though there are no more clawlies begging for it. Her vision improves slightly, but only enough to notice. She still needs Dawn to tell her when Alast is spotted on the docks, having been forced, with the death of his reflection, to travel most of the way across Porce on foot and steedback. Their reunion is joyous, and only after they’d spent drops relearning the contours of each other did the subject of Pearlen’s parents come up. He withheld no details, so she learned of what her mother had said regarding the obedient death they would’ve preferred for her. She took it stoically. They were the real children, and they were still alive, so they still had time to mature.
She showed Alast the last strand of Whelm, which she kept tied around her finger at all times. Occasionally it got hot, but a dive into the Snyre calmed it down. Once she told Whelm’s complete tale to the crew, the employed unwittingly became the most knowledgeable in Porce regarding the Age of Tragedy.
Mixomirine Bocculum executed its plan flawlessly, thanks in no small part to its new partners: Skuldug and Claudize. When Dianarhea and Rob chased after Fixadil they left the body of the royal flush behind. Mixomir infected it in much the same way its sibling had. To be fair, it, as we twenty-first century Earth people would say, ‘wore it better’. Perhaps because Fixadil had brute-forced the process, there was little resistance left in the corpse’s flesh.
Hazelnoose Odettr, as interpreted by Mixomir, was a glittering blue entity. The ears and nose were smoothed and squashed under a membrane, but it was still a work of art compared to the oozing eruption Fixadil had crafted. As the occupant of the royal bloodline, Mixomir took the throne of Rinlatour over the hoarsely-screamed objections of Dianarhea.
With the bead gone, the prosite established a more traditional economy. The potluck was an excellent excuse to reclaim and redistribute the initial wealth as Mixomir’s new ruling committee saw fit. What resistance formed was quickly quashed with financial gifts to tactically-chosen parties.
The prosite demonstrated itself to be a levelheaded and kind ruler, currying public favor on a platform of ending economic segregation between the folk. Its initiatives in this regard were overseen by the interfolk couple of Skuldug and Claudize. It was very frustrating for a time, given that Skuldug was heavily pregnant with her first child, and the anatomy of tilefolk, with the mouth somewhat squished by any swelling in the waist, had difficulty speaking in such a condition. There was a lot of snapping and pointing that Claudize had to interpret and swiftly carry out.
Their child was born as a healthy bergfolk and quickly became a sensation with the denizens of Rinlatour. Mixomir and the proud parents swiftly capitalized, declaring the child the heir to the throne since Mixomir could never reproduce in a fashion that the folk would accept. All the while, the blue flush brought in its own people from the Pipes via the drain. Intelligent prosites that still had their ancestral language trickled up, becoming another part of Rinlatour’s rich tapestry.
The ruling trio understood how unfair all of this was to Dianarhea, but they weren’t going to give any of it up. They offered the flushess a respected and extremely well paid position in the new regime, but she declined, no longer able to recognize her home and unwilling to watch her dead father walk around his office every day. Instead she joined the crew of Captain Teal Powdr to act as a liaison with visiting magnates, socialites, and dignitaries. Whenever Rob visited the boat she took a holiday.
As for our Captain… Winding up back in the drain seems to have convinced him that there’s no redemption for the things he’s done. He can only make peace with them and joke with those around him, nudging with malady-sharpened elbows until they laugh along. There are people to nudge, but they are not in Rinlatour or aboard the Employer.
Despite his new insistence that he was a piece of beautiful garbage only talented in finding talent, Mixomir and its partners recognize Rob’s contribution to the new city and his worth as an ally. They reward him with ownership of the Chokechain: the ship he so admired at the auction with its magically remote-controlled metal sails. Our pirate is a captain once more, but on the new waters of the Draining Sea in Slick Rin Cliff. Officially he is on the royal flush’s payroll as a salvage, rescue, and scouting ship, though his on-paper association with the military wafer is just to put a legitimate veneer on whatever venture he chooses to stick his prominent nose in. They prefer he stay at arm’s length, one of our arm lengths is an ocean to them, which he will for a time.
Alright. Hopefully that gave you a few warm and fuzzy feelings. There’s only one bathroom break in reality left, and I won’t see you until then readers. Here is the true epilogue of Captain Rob Robs. Prepare yourself. Don’t let your bones rattle.
A million crumbs of a world too bright to fall were scattered across an extremely tiny region of the Dark Empty. The spill was barely notable in the scheme of things, most of the crumbs only several hundred million lathers apart. Every day they grew further from each other, still propelled by the force of the ancient explosion that birthed them.
Each had the potential to be its own world, and many of them were, visited and seeded by the first gods in history to actually be faster than light and lighter than nothing. Suuv was one such world, its shape strange compared to the others. Regardless, it had all the necessary prerequisites for mortal life: an enclosed space that could hold breathable air, sources of stored chemical energy, and surfaces rough enough for roots to take.
Suuv had four wheels on its exterior, their rubber long frozen. Windows of glass, so many lathers thick that they had to be called crystal, lined the world and gave its inhabitants a view of the Dark Empty whenever they wanted one, and often when they didn’t.
Its folk found ancient writings in something that used to be called a glove compartment, and from them they forged language and writing. Plain as the day created by the overhead lights, their home was born of the substance SUV.
The endless catacombs of the Soft Cliffs of Backseat provided a seemingly infinite supply of insulation and fiber to protect them against their winters. Laughing could be heard from the plush entrances to their tunnels, as they were unaware of the blizzards raging just outside. These cold fronts, called conditioned air, always struck the same places, right about where the knees of a sitting continent-sized giant would be.
In the darkest times of their civilization Backseat was at war with Frontseat; many bloody battles played out across Floormatagonia. That place seemed destined for conflict, given how filthy and pest-infested it was before the birth of the first sword. Like most wars it was over nothing, but ostensibly it was because Frontseat refused to commit military assistance in dealing with the dark-lurking creatures of Truunk. Many a child was taken by the beasts, lost in darkness forever.
Peace was created by the great Automotivator Cruuz. She was the most brilliant woman of the wheel, deaf as a stone thanks to the mysterious honk that only came once every forty rests. She taught the whole world that arguments over Frontseat and Backseat were childish irritating things. They could take turns living wherever they desired, as long as they treated each other like siblings.
Suuv was a world of underground festivals, with children bouncing across the tunnel walls harmlessly. It was a world of exotic flora finding nourishment in anything of Floormatagonia, be it soil, snow, or the ears of those passing through. The flowers bloomed in colors equally grotesque and gorgeous. It was a world of jarred flames that barely ever needed refueling, and when they did they took just one drop from the great reserves of Ghastuunk.
Suuv exploded. Its folk, all one hundred and twenty million of them, had but one mercy: their life deep in the seat tunnels prevented many of them from seeing the wall of fire approach. There wasn’t a single survivor, as Suuv’s gods had long died and faded after expending their energies on creation. There was no space to even survive in, as the blast blew out all the crystal windows, exposing the interior to the ravages of the Dark Empty.
As far as that sort of blast went, it was very impressive. The reserves of Ghastuunk, where the initial spark was tossed, did most of the work and resulted in pleasing brightness and pungent fumes. It burned much longer than a world usually did. When it was finally extinguished it was a twisted hulk of melted metal. The initial blast sent pieces flying, but they were all too small and damaged to ever hold life of their own.
One piece in particular was not harmed, born as it was in such intensities, far in both space and time from the land of Suuv. Shaped like a seed, the object rode the force of the blast out into the emptiness. Silently it went, unaware of the gulf of time that passed. Each journey was longer than the last, to be expected thanks to the growing distance between crumbs. It was no matter, as its half-life was a handful of eternities.
The object flew by a crumb, but slowed as it passed. This one was stationary, so unusual among the pebbles of the old world that it was almost overlooked as nothing but a speck of cosmic dust. A wave of orange light, somewhere between sludgy lightning and fungal growth, pulsed across the surface of the seed-like thing. It observed carefully for a time… and then changed course.
The analysis revealed it to be another world, this time more rigid in shape. Melting through the crystal window of Suuv had taken precious energy, but there was a crack in this world allowing immediate access: the Black Gap. All the automated telescopes across the crack in the door followed the object’s approach, but it sailed over them and kept going.
It crashed in fertile tilefolk fields far into the Cracked Tiles, uprooting an entire crop of Taterats as it plowed to a halt. The premature tuber-critters, pale and blind, skittered away from its sick heat, root-tails wriggling. Even under Porce’s florent its dull metallic substance didn’t reflect. Its light, that orange throb like the skin of a folk who’d eaten far too much of a single colorful vegetable, was all its own.
That glow crossed over it once more when its top finally unfolded in several layers. A figure emerged from its depression of its exact shape, rising mechanically before stepping out onto rich Porce humus with its immaculate white boots.
A man. Rather like one anyway, but in all the worst aspects. His height was average, his musculature so perfect as to resemble an anatomical drawing. Everything below his chin was covered by strange clothing: something between ritual dress and a military uniform. The shoulders were wide and stiff. White gloves went all the way to the elbow, not to be outdone by the knee-high boots.
Pieces of it, the number unclear, merged across his chest with curved bands of orange metal. His belt, white and orange like the rest, had a glowing buckle, the glow traveling slowly around its circumference. The entire man occasionally had the same wave of gross light move across his uniform, not stopping at the skin of his face or the roots of his hair.
His face was devoid of expression, like a wax cast of a wax cast of a wax cast of a proper folk face. No pores, freckles, or gaps in his teeth. Blocky black eyebrows, a dot of orange at the end of each hair. Every hair on his head the exact same length. Ears that never twitched or produced wax. A nose that never sneezed or sniffled or worried about what might be growing inside and when it might come out. His eyes were the most foreign and striking feature: flawlessly white but for an orange iris with no pupil inside. They looked almost like slices of candied fruit.
The man looked out upon Porce, taking in the rising stall walls on one side and the protruding sinks on the other. Between them was the dark impenetrable green of the Threewall Wild. Peaceful clouds drifted by overhead and there was the distant sound of a waterwheel turning and the workings of its accompanying mill. He rolled a rock under one boot curiously. He took a breath so deep that no folk could match it, but its richness could not absorb into his non-flesh.
“Oh, this absolutely must go.”