Author’s Note: this is the fourth and final volume in a comedic high fantasy series set in the lowest of all settings: a gigantic public restroom. If you’re interested I recommend starting with those that come first: Captain Rob Fights, Captain Rob Sinks, and Captain Rob Robs.
(reading time: 1 hour, 38 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 9 hours, 38 minutes)
Captain Rob Deals
Blaine Arcade (in a sense)
The Fourth and Final Bathroom Break
And it was the one that broke me. Hello again. My name is Blaine Arcade; it’s a pen name of course, to protect me from people who might be disgusted and disturbed by the things I’ve done in bathrooms around the world. Three prior times I have reported my experiences and the stories that came with, so some of this information will be old to you.
There is a thing called a bathroom break in reality, where all the rules of up and down and wet and dry and alive and inanimate don’t have to apply if someone pushes hard enough. The ones I’ve encountered grew more intense each time, the type of bathroom shifting for what I believe to be my protection. Each time I found tales chronicling a far off world, so far off it didn’t exist yet, and the exploits of a pirate captain named Kilrobin Ordr.
Captain Rob Fights. Captain Rob Sinks. Captain Rob Robs. And now Captain Rob Deals. The world he lives in is called Porce, and it’s nothing more than a public restroom adrift in something like outer space. His people are small as microbes to us, so sinks and toilets are oceans, a crack in a door a horizon.
First the obligatory reminders and references. If you wish to learn about the many strange beings, places, and rules of Porce, assuming you’re reading this online, you can find a textual Porce Supplement here. It’s almost reflexive to insert these now, so I will. It reminds me of them. Of how little my effort is compared to theirs. Here are the units of measurement for the porcelain world.
Drip – one second
Drop – one hour
Rinse – ten days
Wash – one hundred days
Rest – one thousand days
Bubble – one inch
Foam – ten inches
Lather – one mile or kilometer
Flake – one ounce
Chip – one pound
Bar – one hundred pounds
Case – one thousand pounds
Here is a map of its lands; I apologize for my lack of artistic skill. You’ve already heard the apology for my writing plenty of times.
We last left the Captain in a comparatively good place as far as his life goes. It had been a rough time since the sinking of his ship the Greedy Old Mop, his internment in the underworld of the Pipes, and his painful embarrassing rise to the pinnacle of Rinlatour. At the end of it all though he was once again commanding a vessel: the Chokechain.
Largely responsible for the drain city’s new leadership, he was rewarded with a nominal position in Rinlatour’s military even as he was asked to stay as far as possible. His bargain with the prosite Mixomirine Bocculum, a creature inhabiting the body of the true ruler, still stands, backed up by the parents of the city’s new heir: his former fellow criminals Skuldug and Claudize.
He continues a friendly relationship with his former crew who still sail the waters of Third Sink on the other side of the world. Contact is maintained by a network of interconnected mirror portals controlled largely by the crew of both ships. That’s where things stood when I rushed to the bathroom with a full bladder and found a messy conclusion.
Only the first one had surprised me so much, given what I’ll call a change of venue; this was the only book to appear in my own personal water closet. The story had been weighing on me lately, almost as much as that liter of ginger ale. Liter is the appropriate measurement, for though I am American my wife’s penchant for international academia had us living in southern Germany.
Sociable in high school but poorly equipped outside of forced mingling, my friend group had shrunk to nothing and I wasn’t finding anybody new thanks to my lack of skill with the German language. A complete homebody… which presented an obstacle to my completion of the Captain Rob saga. If I wasn’t wandering around, peeking my head in every public toilet as if looking for leprechauns in hollow stumps, I would never fulfill my responsibility to the mysterious invisible authors that left me such epic vandalism.
A plan had been forming in the back of my mind: an excursion to try and seek out the last book. Even that much had so many questions wrapped around it, like whether or not I should tell my wife. She knew of these books, and was a partial believer already, but asking her to mount such an unsanitary expedition, especially when she was bringing home the bacon and I was listening for echoes in the shower all day, was a stretch of her understanding that I would not test.
The author or authors picked up my slack, bringing Captain Rob Deals to me. Pissing myself would’ve been a reasonable reaction, but the knowledge of whether or not that occurred is not included. (I have to feel in control of something here.) There was no warning. Our apartment has a sizable bathroom, so the writing was less cramped than before and more organized thanks to the sparsely decorated walls.
Starting at the top left corner of the mirror, the tale journeyed across the wall around the single window of fogged glass, made it across the shower, and concluded on the scalding surface of our mounted water heater: fiery conclusion within sight and earshot of the pilot light’s flame. The ink was a normal black, but it turned glossy and ran a little on the water heater thanks to the temperature. Perhaps that was done to provide a sense of urgency so I would record it quickly.
The other times the pressure to do so was provided by hostile magical entities that tried to destroy both the stories and yours truly. This time things were calm and safe throughout, for me at least. An apartment bathroom must’ve been much safer than the others, the safety coming at a cost of course, one that I didn’t realize until after I’d typed the last word of this powerful adventure and backed it up on multiple flash drives and in an E-mail copy.
The exact statistics never stuck in my mind, but like most people I’m vaguely, in an almost frightened way, aware of them. Lots of household accidents happen in the bathroom. If the enemies of the Captain Rob saga had gotten to me in either of their two attempts my entire life would’ve been written off as one. Just a slip on some wet tile. A thing we never quite figured out how to avoid.
When I heard the sound, almost exactly as I closed my various copies of Captain Rob Deals, that’s what I thought it was. Alone, in silence except for the bells of the nearby church, I assumed I had made that comical slipping sound. Yet my slipper-socked feet were both under me and I was still firmly seated on what I now have to strangely refer to as my ‘work toilet’. The shower curtain fluttered and something slammed down in the tub with a slick smack like beef shoulder on the deli counter.
Pulling the curtain aside revealed nothing but an empty tub, probably a bit dirtier than I should’ve let it get. Only my eyes interpreted the scene that way. Here was the reason I’d never tried to record any of these happenings on video, because I sensed that the technology wouldn’t agree well with the more kinetic aspects of the magic. No video would show what I knew.
There was a dead body in the tub. I felt a hundred things that confirmed it: hair rising on my arms and neck, a change in the air’s density, the silence of a stilled heartbeat, strangely deep hyperventilation, an inability to blink, a trembling, and of course the overwhelming sense of dread that I was next. Reaching my hand down to test if this invisible corpse had substance was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. It may not seem like much to you, but keep in mind the forces at play. The bathrooms where I’ve done my best reading were confluences of multiple points in time and space. I’d had my pants down in the eyes of gods I think.
I couldn’t make myself touch the bottom. The body was there and it would desecrate it to touch it, let alone put my hand through. Swallowing hard, I realized there was really only one person this household accident, this slip in the shower, could be. The author.
In Captain Rob Sinks we met Blad Weebreakr: a ciaman of dubious existence that could be in any bathroom at any time and, I think, any world. This books adds to the understanding of the concepts behind the bathroom break in reality, and the breakers who use them. Our author must’ve had run-ins with them at some point or perhaps even been one. He, or she, or they, left that first book in that first stall and waited for a curious nibble.
After I took the bait they watched over me with great care and provided protection. There’s no telling what invisible slings and arrows and jets of suspicious liquid they suffered. We only know when and where that suffering stopped. I rushed out of there and slammed the door, inconsolable for hours afterward. It’s possible that their death was my fault, as they had to take extraordinary measures to get to me for the finale.
A bathroom is a place intended for privacy where time warps. A bathroom breaker seeks to utilize that warp, but the more personal the use, the fewer people involved, the greater the strain on the privacy limitation. That was why this started in public restrooms; the strain on the break was much lower. My private and cushy home session must’ve been terribly taxing. Either the effort killed them outright or they were weakened enough in the process for a hostile entity to finish them off.
Like losing your imaginary friend… or the big-eared and hard-headed being you assumed responded to wishing well requests. Like losing a Santa Claus that refused to tell you about his shady past or that tattoo peaking out from under his furry collar. It was a death and a death of innocence. My wife was the first one back in there, and she sensed nothing. After touching every inch of it and attempting to converse with any remaining entities, she rinsed it out with hot water and slowly, holding my shoulders, walked me back in. Everything felt back to normal. Perhaps their peers took custody of the body or perhaps it was washed down the drain.
This is the story they died to tell… of a world where every piece is worth saving. This is Captain Rob Deals.
Making Friends at the Glory Hole
A trickle of stone silently made its way through the streets, so thin at first that it could’ve been the tunnel of a worm. Noticing it was only easy because there were few places in Porce cleaner than the twin villages of Morning Glory and Mourning Wood, each of which occupied half of Glory Hole upon Glorious Stone.
The stall wall had its own gravitation, but the inside of the circular hole was wide enough to bend it, meaning that it worked more like life inside the holders; civilization was rounded to fit. A folk could set out from Mourning Wood’s famous Climax Clock Tower, walk all the way to Morning Glory’s florent-drenched marketplace, and circle back up to the clock tower without ever changing course.
The stone trickle followed such a course, one end of it passing through the bright market at that very moment. Morning Glory was an overwhelmingly yellow city of flowers, modest feminine dresses, and the mumbling of prayer. Most of the mumblers would say their home was so well lit because the Spotless was there in every breath and touch, but it was actually the result of florent beams reflecting off a dent in Second Holder’s side.
That light made it especially easy to cast your eyes down in prayer, to see god in the stones of the street, swept so clean that they were almost soft, like the brow of a tiny animal’s paper-thin skull. Everything had to be kept immaculate for when the immaculate returned. Both cities were home to populations that were almost entirely papist, having driven out everyone else with their incessant mumbling and their hunched prayers that blocked the path of carts.
“Oh Spotless hear my prayer,” a boy muttered, balancing on his toes before a statue depicting the deity. He required forgiveness and cleansing of the sin committed the previous night: braiding the long shoulder hair of his tilefolk friend. His uncle had been quick to point out that braiding was women’s work and taking it from them would make their hands coarse and disgusting. He demonstrated such a manly texture with a smack across the cheek.
The boy didn’t get to his request, because of what trickled across the ground in front of him: a worming foamy thing with a bright orange tip and a gray body. It flowed right over his fingers and kept going, startling many others out of their prayer as well. He pulled his fingers back expecting them to be stuck, for the material felt like stone; it shouldn’t have been able to flop down a drip later.
It had poked him, so it was only fair to poke it back. The line responded by throbbing with orange light, but not any kind of radiance he’d ever seen. Sickly. Wet. The fire of a disease burning under the skin, turning the body into a sauna and the muscles into soup. A sting of heat came with it, badly burning his fingertip. The young papist burst into tears and ran off, his cry disturbing a man from his sleep in a nearby dark building.
He tossed and turned in his luxurious bed, its top quality sheets and pillows filled with cruchstoffer down made utterly pointless by his complete lack of flesh. The window was mostly closed, letting in only one beam of the morning, but the gravefolk kept two small pillows jammed in his eye sockets to block it out; without eyelids they were his only protection from the fresh day. Though his mind worked hard to shut that beam out, his body did wonders with it thanks to the crystal composition of his bones. Their purple color, deeper than any amethyst, cleaner than any bruise, turned that single beam into a show of spots across the walls and ceiling.
It was a show of two colors, though the purple did outnumber the softer blue. There was a booming economy built around gravefolk selling and exchanging their pieces, but finding others who had been crystallized by exposure to bath bead vapor was extremely difficult. He had demanded, throwing around much of his donated wealth, that this marketplace produce a purple shoulder, arm, and femur, but the best he could do was blue. Imperfection in his jeweled self. Enough to reduce his recruiting by half.
“Duke Legendr?” his tilefolk aide squeaked as she scurried through the door. “There’s a commotion on the street.” She rubbed his shoulder blade under the blankets.
“I know!” he snapped, throwing the blankets off and sitting up. Like his nemesis Rob his skeleton had an assortment of spiked protrusions, the most notable being a horn like a kettle spout between his eyes, currently tipped with a cork so he wouldn’t tear his bedding. “Is there anything we can do about its concentration outside my window?”
“Sir, it’s… bryl-stnd… they’re saying it’s the second cleaning!”
“It is as it says in the Square of Flush’s Courtesy: light will fill the Glory Hole with a slowness daybreak always envied! I saw it out the window! Something’s growing out there, and it’s full of orange light!”
“Orange? That can’t be right.”
“Yes it can!” she said, arguing with her superior in a way she never would’ve dreamed just a day prior. “It’s the light of the two faithful cities combined! The yellow of Morning Glory and the red of Mourning Wood! It’s the orange of salvation! We don’t need the cardinal tiles after all!” He grabbed her by the arm and shook violently.
“Stop flapping your sternum. Of course we need to gather the tiles! Whatever this is it can’t be the second cleaning. The Spotless’s light will be white, scouring and pure. I’ll get to the bottom of this. Been a while since I smashed a false prophet.” The gravefolk popped the pillows out of his eyes and rushed to the other side of the room where his infamous weapon sat gleaming atop its pedestal.
The crescent blade of Duke Yugo Legendr had cut its way across the World Floor and the stall walls a hundred times, earning vicious names like the Spotless’s hangnail and the tongue-lasher. It was as tall as its wielder and connected by a length of chain to steel rings smelted around his vertebrae. Together with his bonepicking it made him a two-headed scourge: a vicious fighter with the slithering of a serpont and the ambidextrous bite of an aker.
In addition to rending his enemies in two, bonepicking made doors trivial, so Yugo pushed his window open and vaulted out; it took only three leaps to reach the disturbance. There was a wall where there hadn’t been, made of the strangest material. It flowed around structures in the way, including the brass statue of the Spotless, covering his back half as if he floated in a river of glowing ash.
Yugo looked up. He could still see the distant reds of Mourning Wood, but they too were bisected by a wall. It was moving. Almost dripping toward the center. Glory Hole’s gravitation did not work that way, so he knew another force had to be motivating the substance. He tapped it with a finger bone. With no plush fingertip he couldn’t discern its actual texture, but its strength was apparent. It felt like it should have crumbled like sand or moldered wood, but it didn’t budge. There was enough heat to ignite topa, but he only noticed it when the gathering crowd had their flesh scalded by attempts to interact with it.
Of greater concern to the duke in particular was whether or not his competitors were just as flummoxed by the practically architectural growth. The city was a hotbed of religious crusaders, preachers, and prophets, each looking to sell the coming end of the world in their own way. Eventually they learned that all happy endings started at the Glory Hole.
To his left he saw Easy Squeezr: a blonde madame who not only offered carnal gratification in her organization, but the absolution of its associated sins as well. On his right, idiotically holding his palm against the scorching material and pretending it didn’t burn him, was Piebald Hecklr: a man who claimed his soul had been personally wiped down to a shine by the Spotless before he was even born. The fellow also claimed to have popped out of his mother with a polished head and the smell of leminy juice.
“Yugo!” someone called out to him, but his sockets drifted back up to the center of Glory Hole. The wall would converge there. It bubbled like magma in places, cracked and shifted, but those were just details. It had a goal. Another gravefolk appeared beside him and tested the material with the long silver claws bonded to her finger bones. “Sir, what is this thing?”
“I have no idea,” Yugo answered without looking at his underling. She was one of his five knuckles, his most powerful bonepickers, but he already sensed that she would be useless. A battle of the intellect was coming. “None of these blasted grog-bottlers do either.”
“It’s the Second Cleaning!” one of them shouted as if to argue back.
“Could it be?” his knuckle muttered. Yugo grabbed the bare back of her skull and thrust it into the material, which bent to make way. He swirled her sockets around in it.
“You tell me!” he barked, crystal teeth clacking open and shut. “See anything divine in there? Or is my stained glass body still the superior spectacle?” She was silent for a moment, as if deciding what answer was least likely to get her beheaded and assigned to doorstop duty.
“It’s just gray in here,” she informed him. “Like looking inside a tree as it grows.”
“Well let’s see if this tree can bear fruit.” Yugo released her skull, but stepped on it a drip later, using her springy spine to launch himself many foams up the side of the wall. He landed on a lip of it too small to support the weight of anyone but a bonepicker and used it as his stage to address the pooling crowds below.
“Fear not good papists! I, Duke Yugo Legendr, will investigate. We will know very shortly whether or not this is the day of the Spotless’s return!” There was cheering. Poor Piebald had barely any onlookers for the continuing mutilation of his hand.
“Rejoice!” Yugo’s knuckle shouted. She joined him in bonepicking, but didn’t ride the wall. She simply used her claws mid-leap to scratch lines in the strange material. The scores glowed and stretched as it grew, letting the whole crowd in on the name of their savior, no matter the exact nature of the situation: Yugo the legend. With throngs now chanting his name, Yugo felt free to expedite the journey; any time another peak of the material took the lead he jumped to it. It seemed indifferent to his presence, but twice he had to jump to avoid being smothered between two great slabs of it.
Checking the other side of its rise yielded no surprises; the other half of Morning Glory was still there. It had crowds of its own, and since they were visible from such a dizzying height the whole of the city must’ve been closer to it than scabbing on a cut.
The great disc appeared to close, but only from its base and all the distant places of first and second stall viewing it. There remained a small opening dead center, some forty foams in radius. The uneven edges of the growth quivered there, awaiting the invisible touch of the hovering white figure that had orchestrated it all. At first Yugo just watched, crescent blade poised to fly out and slice the figure in half. His immediate jealousy of its power faded, because there wasn’t a chance in a million that the pale man-thing was bonepicking.
A lightfolk would need bones as light as feathers to achieve such perfect levitation, in addition to a terminal malady like that of Rob and Yugo. No, this was flight: a power of the gods. He walked on air, conducting music with his hands. The curve of odd rock in front of Yugo changed, its uneven edge warping and molding into strange shapes around a central braid.
“Greetings!” the purple papist shouted to the figure after realizing it was he manipulating the material in such a way. Yugo thought it better to speak before the pattern reached him and braided right through his rib cage.
“Greetings?” the man repeated, hands and work stalling. Obviously he knew the hail had come from below, yet he didn’t bend his head to see. Yugo would not be ignored, so he bonepicked into the air and tossed his blade straight up. Rather than cut the material above him with a satisfying klingt it was simply absorbed and held like a spoon in pudding. That still had the intended effect, allowing Yugo to sit upon his blade and swing on the chain. He stilled himself right in front of the man.
“Yes,” the skeleton clacked. “Greetings are how we greet each other around here.” He had quips and questions enough for days, but the full oddness of the man’s appearance silenced him. A white uniform with orange bands. Long gloves. Long boots. Orange irises with white pupils like little mounds of sugar on slices of acidic fruit. Hair cropped close, each strand’s tip burning orange like a feverish ember. A wave of that light, the same fungal shade as the wall, passed over his body, moving from clothing to skin to hair as if it was all the same substance.
“It’s been a few worlds since I’ve heard English,” the man said. “It surprised me, that’s all.” His hands twitched as if about to return to work.
“You’ll have to stow that surprise, because I speak Wide Porcian. Never heard of English in my storied life.”
“I suppose you don’t need have heard of it to speak it,” the stranger mused. “Get out of my way please; I need to finish coding the ignition sequence.”
“Ignition sequence? That would be this pattern in this material, yes?”
“That’s right.” The man tilted his body like a book falling over and resumed completing the circle. The skeleton dropped off his blade and grabbed it in order to hang, bonepicking the chain forward to keep up.
“Who are you? Also, what is that stuff? Also, make you any claim to the divine power of the Spotless?”
“My name is Bombast.” His body continued to tilt with his progress. Talking while he worked seemed to have no effect on his focus or speed at all. “This stuff is my fissile material. I won’t bore you with its molecular nomenclature. As far as divinity I make no such claim, though my material is sacrosanct. Nothing in the crumbs of this universe is more important than my beautiful payload.”
“Fissile? You’re not planning on blowing your load in the Glory Hole, are you? I’ve got plans for this place.”
“Your plans don’t matter; only mine do. And yes, this hole looked ideal for the placement of a blasting cap, so that’s what I’m constructing. And… constructed!” The braid joined its other end seamlessly. Yugo had climbed his chain and was mere bubbles from where the blade was anchored.
“You must halt!” the gravefolk ordered. “This site must not be destroyed! One day the cardinal tiles will be united here, by me, and we will be raised into utopia!”
“Utopia means ‘no place’. I can get you there much faster. This blast won’t just destroy the hole. This entire world will be gone, and all your worries along with it, just as soon as I finish the efficiency scaling.” His hand dropped down in a claw shape, pulling back up slowly, causing the entire wall to groan and shift. Yugo observed the stone lip where his swing was anchored and saw the effect; the material was thinning. Strands of it pulled away and joined to form an orb at the center of the opening, an object for Bombast to stand on.
“How long will this scaling take?” the gravefolk asked coolly.
“I could blow it now, but that would use nearly all of my remaining material. There’s still plenty of work to do, so I can’t waste a single atom of it. Getting down to the minimum mass needed should take about two and a half minutes more.” The orb swelled under him.
“How pissing long is a minute?”
“Until this ball is the size of ten of me.” Yugo analyzed the rate to the best of his ability. The fissile material’s compression capacity was astounding, for the strands pulling away from the wall were enough to make meadows full of hills, yet they reduced to strings before joining the orb. All he could do was try.
“Is there nothing you desire? Porce has many wonders that I can acquire for you.”
“And I want to destroy them, so I think not.”
“Well we want the same thing, you see. This version of the world is weak and flawed. Its end must be brought about, but in the right way. We must utilize its engineered weakness.”
“A weakness you say?” There was no expression on his face, but his irises seemed to swirl a little faster. The man rubbed his belt with his free hand, finger stroking a groove-shaped notch that was just one of many, one for each world bombed back to silence.
“Yes, the cardinal tiles. They are totems of gravitation keeping Porce fixed in the Dark Empty.” He glanced down. The size of four and a half Bombasts.
“Oh, so that’s why it wasn’t moving. I might’ve overlooked this crumb if not for that.”
“You should be more careful,” the skeleton advised. “Now, if I get what I want and those tiles are gathered here, the world will be destroyed. I’ve just noticed, that’s what you want as well. Acquiring them is as simple as taking them out of the hands that claim to own them. No blasting required. You won’t have to expend an iota of your precious material.” Seven and a half Bombasts under Bombast’s feet.
“You’re obviously wrong about what will happen,” Bombast countered. “I’ve run into plenty of atoms playing god, and I can tell the power signature of those that made this world is all but faded. There is nothing that can do what you claim. These tiles though… they sound real.”
“I’ve seen several of them with my own sockets,” the gravefolk swore. “We should work together. Rip the tiles from their cradles. We can unite them here. If I’m right, you get the death of the world. If I’m wrong, and the air is still in their presence, you can destroy them yourself, throw Porce into chaos, and have your destruction that way.”
“Intriguing,” Bombast admitted as he scratched his chin. His mass times nine burgeoned under him, rising around the soles of his boots like baking bread. “With a gravitational totem I could pursue another avenue of destruction. Yes… break all but one and set the last one to give the world a fixed trajectory. Run it into another crumb and kill two birds with one stone. I’ve long wanted to try it, but the distances between them have become so great that it would take more joules to push them precisely than to simply rupture them.” Ten Bombasts.
The man’s hands rose, his bent fingers swirling around each other as if kneading a ball of dough. Yugo flipped upside down and flattened his sole bones against the wall, only then feeling how it had thinned nearly to paper. He aimed his blade at Bombast’s exposed neck in the hopes that he was the sort of creature that could at least be slowed down by a beheading.
The skeleton sprung his maneuver, but Bombast’s hand shot up at an inconceivable speed and grabbed the edge of the blade, holding Yugo in the air like a dart stuck in its target. The material continued to change shape, but it did not catch fire as feared. The blob slithered up Bombast’s back and stiffened, becoming a spectacular throne. The man-thing sat, releasing Yugo with a flick of his fingers.
“You have a deal Mr. Purplebones. Share with me the locations of the totems so that we may begin.”
A short while later, and far below, the folk of Morning Glory let out a collective disappointed sigh. The wall and its light receded with no sign of their savior. No giant curious eye in the Glory Hole. The only thing left to gather around was the man that descended with the last spire of the strange substance. Yugo Legendr stood proudly, one knee protruding in the air as if his foot rested on a massive hunting trophy. He neither spoke nor moved until the stone projection vanished under him and left via the trickle that had produced it.
“Friends, rouse your excitement once more!” They gathered around. He practically jabbed his finger into his knuckle’s eye socket. “Gather my forces! Gather everyone’s soldiers of the Spotless under my banner! The colors of the horned amethyst skull!” Yugo suddenly realized he still had his sleeping cork affixed to his face, so he flicked it away and pontificated past the embarrassment.
“Yes, this is indeed the start of the second cleaning! We must dust the detractors away with the winds of our lord’s emissary: behold Bombast!” Yugo pointed, but the foreigner hadn’t agreed to any theatrics; he simply hovered far out of reach and nearly out of sight. Most of them had to squint just to make out the white dot of him.
“This is a fresh crusade for the tiles!” The papists roared. In moments Yugo was dancing on their celebrating hands flung skyward, light as a feather. His knuckle was right there with him, whispering into her commander’s jawbone.
“Are we truly trying again Yugo?”
“Of course! I can do anything! I just saved the world!”
Toughest Ship to Take
The Draining Sea was perpetually fed cold water from deep in the world walls. Slick Rin Drop gave off cool misty clouds that blocked out much of the florent. The Chokechain sailed these gray waters dutifully, and its Captain was practically overjoyed that the lower temperatures necessitated uniforms that resembled his personal fashion sense.
Long was Captain Rob known as a man who wore an oversized cape of plush green fur, and he had donned it once more after his misadventures in the Pipes and to the peak of Rinlatour. He once again had a crew, and while he respected their autonomy he still preferred a show of loyalty, so in lieu of exact uniforms he asked them all to wear a smaller version of his cape covering one shoulder and held in place by a clasp bearing his mark: a moss-green skull with a spiked mustache.
The crew looked like a blanket of such moss that misty morning, lined up as they were in several rows across the main deck. Many of them had been with him before his fall, having chosen to jump ship from his former first mate’s vessel the Employer. They included lovable rogues like Ladyfish Paintr, Bonswario Bucklr, and his nephew Kilroary. He had Alast Questr and Pearlen Lustr as well, barely able to contain his glee when they chose his more swashbuckling lifestyle over carting drums of hot and cold water back and forth. Of course they insisted they were on both crews, but the Chokechain was the one with their bed, so it was a victory to Rob.
Teal had kept his musician Herc Monickr, his former second mate Dawn Shockr, and the ice master Manathan Shuckr, sore spots indeed, but the latest tragedy to befall the world had a bright side: an infusion of obedient recruits from Rinlatour’s military. There they were on deck, straight-backed and more fresh-faced than a reincarnated dubbascrub. Ten young bergfolk fresh from a military wafer academy. Five tilefolk rangers. Two lightfolk, one an interpreter and the other a fine doctor.
They all accepted their miniature capes respectfully, which was more than could be said for the creature that Rob had deemed the Chokechain’s representative. His crew, new and old, stood obediently while their Captain chased the animal back and forth across the deck in an attempt to attach the smallest cape to its shoulders.
“Fayme! You heel this instant!” the man barked, but the wide-eyed bendy-necked wolptinger acted as if it didn’t hear him. Its eye-shaped head bobbed back and forth with a jump up to the railing and its dainty dash down the side of the deck. The pair passed under the tightly-furled sails of the Chokechain, which resembled industrial slabs of sheet metal. Those unusual sails, immune to freezing, along with the magical rod on Rob’s belt that controlled them, were the principal reasons he’d fallen in love with the vessel.
The wolptinger on the other hand was proving to be quite a burden. He couldn’t even recall how exactly the beast had come into his care. That time had been a whirlwind of artificial gifts foisted upon him by the magic of the golden trickle bead. The preening pet had just manifested alongside the house and the bed with more than one sheet.
He thought her gone after the shift to the new government, occupied and absent as she had been while stalking the halls of the rundown house, but there she was sitting on his shoulder when the day came to shove off back to sea.
“This is why I was always more of a haund man!” he shouted at her, stopping to catch his breath. Fayme had avoided the cape for now, disappearing down the stairs to the other decks. He stuffed the tiny uniform into a giant pocket in his own cape and trudged back to his crew. The newer members couldn’t help but stare, especially when a ray of light broke through the mist, bounced off the iridescent sails, and gleamed on Rob’s fresh horns.
The emblem of the mustached skull had been stitched into his colors ages ago because he knew it was coming. Yugo, when still wearing his flesh, had to deal with his bony horn for two rests. Long had Rob felt the buds, one under each nostril, grow sharper every wash. When they reached the point where they tore his inner lip and stretched his skin so much that his beard couldn’t hide it, they had to be helped along.
Ladyfish had done the piercings for most of the pirates aboard the Greedy Old Mop, fielding some requests so extreme that it was more like running them through. She had made finely symmetrical fleshy nooks for the corners of eyes, the bridge of noses, and the webbing between toes. For her Captain she made two incisions in his upper lip and had him wear a series of expanding wooden rings until the holes were large enough to take the emerald spikes.
Once exposed to the air they grew much faster; Rob as well as everyone who had to look at him considered it an incredible stroke of luck that they each grew with the same curve so he didn’t look like a clock with two broken hands. Symmetrical as they were, they were both quite sharp. The pirate punctured the skin of his hands more than fifty tines before deciding something had to be done about it. Ladyfish was recruited once more, this time with a large sanding strip to both dull them and shape them into a close facsimile of a proper waxed mustache.
Talking around them was a challenge as well, but Rob thought so highly of his motivational speeches that he didn’t let it be a hurdle for long. Now the most discomfort came when he laughed uproariously, and he could tell the best jokes by how much blood they stained his beard with.
“Captain, we should get on with this,” Pearlen told him in a short tone. “You know it’ll be the toughest ship to take.”
“Technically this is the toughest ship to take,” he corrected her, “but among all the things I’m taking today, one of them is your point. Bring out the gate!” Two gravefolk emerged from below decks carrying a large rectangular mirror between them. They set it down behind Rob and held it at a slight angle, perfect for leaping into. The Captain already knew his crew was properly equipped for travel in the Reflecting Path, as the glass eyes of their cape clasps were made from it.
“Remember,” he continued, “we are only commandeering the vessel. Its crew are the valuables, so anyone who spills blood will have to answer to me and may be required to compensate for that blood with their own. Am I understood?”
“Aye Captain!” they answered in unison.
“Excellent. Single file. Roary and the others familiar are first.” His nephew stepped forward, looking apprehensive. To address it Rob stuck his arm into the mirror. “Don’t worry; the path is a lovely room temperature, as always. Get going boy.” He obeyed, leaping from the deck of the Chokechain and vanishing into the glass.
Alast and Pearlen went before the new recruits, and took the longest. It was just as much of a miracle as Rob’s symmetrical mustache that Alast could travel that way at all. His reflection had been slain, supposedly cutting him off from interactions with the path.
After some experimentation under the Captain’s supervision, they’d found that all they had to do was hide Alast inside something that did have a reflection of its own, as long as no piece of him was showing. At first they tried shoving him in a sack and throwing him through, but he rebounded painfully. The sack was deemed too porous; even if the holes were too small to see they were still big enough for individual rays of light to find Alast.
Carefully they tuned and tested their method, until the strategy reached perfection: shoving him into three sacks. Pearlen did the honors of tossing her lover through each time, though he reported feeling, as he frequently put it, ‘more than twice seasick’ from the passage. Even then the method only worked across the momentary journeys of their engineered mirror network, but they could get almost anywhere with it now.
Rob was the last through; his bonepicking leap meant his feet didn’t even touch the Reflecting Path, going straight from the deck of the Chokechain to the blue deck of their prize.
The plan had already been discussed, and the layout described in great detail. Each bergfolk rushed to a door that was their duty and put their back to it, preventing the occupants from leaving. There was confused knocking and shouting almost immediately, as the vessel was always bustling with guests from all over Porce. Meanwhile the tilefolk set themselves to turning around all the other mirrors in the chamber, making sure anyone else arriving found nothing but a wooden wall.
Roary and the others rushed straight for their targets, the officers, while Rob deliberately made his way up to the deck. He startled several relaxed folk along the way, mostly business types looking quite shocked, as if they’d fallen out of the lap of luxury and into a hole in the crotch of luxury’s pants. One of them, a bald lightfolk man small enough to check his reflection in doorknobs, was startled enough to drop his cup of steaming aych soup. The Captain caught it upright and handed it back.
“Don’t worry, this should be a seamless transition,” he assured the fellow. “Have you seen the lady captain anywhere?” The man pointed up with a quivering finger. “As I thought.” He strode on until he found the stairs, but the bottom one shifted when he tried to step on it, folding up and disappearing into the next. He looked up to see a bergfolk woman stood at the top, arms wrapped around a lever that obviously controlled how many stairs were available.
“What in the eclatequa vesquay are you doing here?” she shouted, her curled lips and blocky teeth looking positively feral despite her sparkling silver evening gown. “It’s in my contract that I get a three day warning any time you’re visiting Captain Teal.”
“Good to see you again Miss Dianarhea,” he answered with a smile. “How long has it been?”
“You broke my streak of not laying eyes on you! Leave, we’re in the middle of something.” She pushed the lever further, folding more stairs, but Rob grabbed the lowest one when it was as high as his chest and used bonepicking to keep it from going any further. She gave up when the machinery behind it started to grind.
“We’re all in the middle of something,” he said gravely, “and it’s vital that I speak with Teal.” He let go of the step and again demonstrated that there was little point in resisting him by leaping out from below decks and landing with a thunk in the open air. It was snowing lightly, each flake enjoying a slow looping fall all its own. Their touch on his head and cheeks was a warm kiss, which meant the Employer could only be docked in one place.
Rob looked over the side and saw the young town of Aychrook. They were near the flow of Aych Fauce, so there was no solid land for lathers, the buildings instead anchored to a massive ice sheet. Ice and frost built up in lumps at most corners, but it was placed there intentionally to strengthen the structures. Some of the taller buildings even had balconies carved completely from ice, allowing one to look down and see the blurry streets below like serponts swimming under a frozen pond.
All of Teal’s guests on deck were equally fascinated by an outpost in such an inhospitable environment, but they’d been looking at it for more than a drop, so it was no longer as strange as the man with the emerald lip horns. It was quite a gathering, with most in formal evening wear. The pirate practically drooled at the sight of a brooch so ornate that it took up most of the chest of the man wearing it; it even had a pewter cup holder for his flute of magenta toil water. Mustn’t take that. She’s going to be furious with us already.
“Please remain calm,” he declared. “By order of Royal Flush Mixomirine Bocculum, I, Captain Kilrobin Ordr, am commandeering the vessel called Employer for classified purposes. If all of you would please head down the stairs and back to your respective mirrors; the lovely Miss Dianarhea will show you the way.”
“Rob, what is this?” Teal asked, appearing from between two tilefolk carrying ornamental head hammers. Beautifully cold as ever. Rare was the occasion that Captain Powdr gave up comfortable clothes for a gown, so he must’ve picked a truly vulnerable moment to invade. Her cascading hair, with its distinctive obsidian shine, was bound up in a heavy bun and held in place with a giant hairpin in the shape of a broadsword. Her shoulders were exposed, and her age had her collarbone sticking out much more than it used to. Who are we to judge, bones sticking out as ours do?
“Captain Powdr,” he addressed formally, “relinquish command of the Employer immediately, so that she may get to work fighting the good fight.” The woman glided forward, her challenger fully aware of the probability of a good smack across the face. She had to be careful with that now of course, lest she poke a hole in her pristine ivory palm. He was denied the exact nature of her response when another party arrived.
A plume of steam and ice swelled over the side of the deck, from Aychrook. The stuff moved softly like whipping cream, but within moments it was hard enough to walk on. A man launched himself from it and landed in a fighting stance, a glassy saber like a slash of winter wind in his hand. His skin was a blue that could only be achieved by paint or bath bead, and he was blackened in places like the rind of an overripe fruit. Rob had seen this creature before, but only shirtless and crazed. It was none other than Frostbite Cor: the cursed devil that had seen his first vessel, and many of its crew, to a premature grave at the bottom of that very sea. She’s not even far from here.
“You!” he couldn’t stop himself from growling. It wasn’t just him however; many folk followed up the ice ramp he’d created. They wore purple uniforms with red sashes and had drawn sabers. Standing at their head was another familiar face, though she looked far more mature than the last time he’d seen her. “Queenvy! As I live and breathe.”
“I’d been told you were still doing those things,” the young woman said without a hint of affection. She turned to Teal. “Is he causing you trouble?”
“He wouldn’t be Rob if he wasn’t,” she answered. “He’s attempting to draft my ship. Bold of Mixomir to try and take it, especially when he already confiscated a bar of my path pieces for that ringaround experiment.”
“This would be better discussed in private,” Rob interjected. “There’s no need for the mayor of Aychrook to get involved.”
“A murderer boards my most lucrative business partner and attempts a takeover,” Queenvy summarized. “That sounds not only like I should be involved, but that I should have Cor freeze you where you stand before my guards chip you into an ice sculpture of a much less flattering shape.” Rob was taken aback by the icy hostility, but only because his constitution had been softened by the forgiveness of the rest of his old crew. Teal did tell us that Scuttlr gave the twins a business sense. Murderer is a harsh word though. We chased her and we both fell in a hole.
“Go ahead,” Teal told her. Rob’s thoughts slid to a sludgy halt. It was not his intent for an actual fight to begin, nor to lose one immediately to the fallen demon that destroyed his first of, hopefully, three lives. Rather than step forward and accept the challenge he bonepicked backward, sliding rather than stepping, making his way to Teal’s ear in a single drip.
“Listen Teal,” he whispered hoarsely. “Aye, I’m enjoying this, but it’s not exactly what it looks like. I’m the one commandeering the ship, but that’s only because it would be someone else if not me. Surely you’ve heard that the Tandem Flush is in effect.” She didn’t nod, her pupils didn’t so much as twitch, but Rob sensed her confirmation. “Your path system can’t be allowed to fall into the wrong hands; I need to tell you exactly what kind of wrong these hands are.”
She didn’t seem inclined to believe him immediately, but when Pearlen and Alast appeared and vouched for him her expression shifted minimally, like a glacier groaning as it scraped seabed. When she next opened her mouth, after a very tense silence that actually saw a drop of sweat fall from the left tip of his mustache, she asked her guests to please leave the Employer in an orderly fashion.
Still, she didn’t want him aboard the ship at all given his shouting. Queenvy graciously offered them a private conference room at an inn of Aychrook so they could discuss things without any grandstanding. The two crews were left behind at an uncomfortable standstill as the officers of both vessels disembarked and made their way into town.
It was a cozy settlement, odd considering its frigid and arcane origins. The scalding air and water around Aych Fauce was made hospitable by the conflict between its heat and the magical vortex of cold generated by Frostbite Cor’s cursed body. It snowed there almost constantly, but its folk wore clothes better suited to spring time. Each snowflake became a bug’s breath of steam when it hit the ground, creating a lovely soup of low fog. The tails of stray wolptingers bobbed up and down in it like snorkels.
The room they were given was similarly warm, well-decorated with comfortable chairs in toil styles around a circular central table. On one side sat Captain Rob, First Mate Bonswario, Alast, and Pearlen, with Teal, Dawn, Queenvy, and Manathan at the other. They were ready to start, the awkward silence stretching only because Rob couldn’t take his mind off Cor.
To think we thought ourselves lucky in eventually reaching our old station again. Feels like it took a rest. And in that struggle we likely became the first man to break out of the Pipes. Here’s Corvidley Damr punished for his insane vengeance with a whole township relying on him. Did we see any guilt or shame in his eyes when he looked at us? A little. Not for us though. For those he killed. We have half of a whole mind to send him down there. Finding his way back will truly earn this affectionate forgiveness.
“Everything’s behind schedule,” Queenvy said to hurry things along. She still had feathers tied in her hair, as she’d always worn aboard the Mop, but her hair was much shorter now and they were tied in the fluffiest stripe down the middle, a red one hanging down over her forehead. She plucked at its fibers, clearly annoyed. Much more sour than her old self. That’s what a life of business does to you if you don’t shade it with passion.
“I’ll get to it then,” Rob offered. “First, a gift. I haven’t forgotten your delight with big maps Teal.” He snapped his fingers, prompting Alast to produce a rolled bundle from under the lip. He untied the string around it and unfurled it across the entirety of the table. Luckily it was a good fit, though the corners did hang off thanks to the difference in shape. The map had to be square to accommodate all the angular structures depicted.
Maps of Porce mostly presented singular pieces of the prism world, with a complete map usually being a booklet of some sort. The one before them was not just the World Floor or the Threewall Wild side of Third Stall; every piece was there, each face of Porce present next to another, laid flat like a series of crackers, each colored with their own flavor.
Teal ran her flat hands across the vellum, one palm stroking the central lip of Third Sink as if she’d always wanted to wipe it clean with a godly sweep. Rob smirked. That’s not all. He nodded at Pearlen, who brought the map to its full potential with her souvenir from their greatest caper. She had a shining ring around one finger, a hypnotizing rainbow band that defied definition. Holding her hand near her lips, she gently blew on it.
The band unfurled, revealing itself to be a string of light: a single strand of hair from the entity known as Whelm the Vision. The piece was almost alive, enough so to obey her simple orders and give off a tension-melting bodily heat. Another incredible quality was its lightness, allowing it to snake along in flight with only folk breaths for updraft.
If one wanted a map showing topography in three dimensions the best choice was usually a cartographer’s stall: an unfolding mounted prism crafted from wood, metal, or glass. Teal and the others of the Employer thought it was the only option until now, but something strange happened whenever Whelm’s hair flew by a mountain range or a giant tree of the Threewall Wild. Those spots on the map contracted like dread-filled flesh, pinching themselves upward into amazingly accurate proportions. The effect even worked to recreate the complex shapes of the fauces across all three sinks.
A hill rose under Teal’s index finger; she pulled her hand back. The show was going just as well as the Captain planned. He’d commissioned the map himself and had the cartographer use a special ink made from the connective tissue of a soft-bodied animal as of yet unclassified by science, though he was confident it would eventually be officially named Rob’s limpert. The substance responded to heat with contraction, an effect that lasted an untold amount of time after death.
Any fire twig would’ve done the job, but the heat from Whelm’s hair made for a far more beautiful show, like watching a flying serpont tour the world during its creation. It circled Rinlatour as it rose, dove into the puckering of the deepest Tributaroads, and made its way back to its owner. Pearlen wound it around her finger once more.
“It’s beautiful,” Teal conceded, “but you didn’t wrap it. I assume we have use for it at the moment.”
“Indeed.” With a flick of his wrist Rob spilled several handfuls of tiny metal totems across the map. They came in dozens of different shapes, but most were recognizable as military units: folducted towers and wagons, armored whetzoos, infantry quintets sharing a base, wheeled cannons, and many more. The Captain continued as he righted them and moved them to specific places on the map. “Tell me what you know of the situation so far.”
“Not much. The Tandem Flush has been called into effect for the first time in fifty rests, so all of the royal flushes are operating as a single governing assembly, with their decisions made by majority vote. It’s reserved for threats big enough to take over a stall.”
“Correct, except in this case we must replace take over with annihilate and a stall with the entire world.” He pushed one of the few painted totems forward so that it rested in the center of a circular depression in Glorious Stone. It was topped with a purple skull and a wavy horn. “Duke Yugo Legendr has thrust himself into the Glory Hole and back into the light of day. He is after the cardinal tiles once more.”
“He’s always been after them, and every flush has been expected to handle him on their own. We even stopped him once; what’s different this time?” Rob reached into his cape and pulled out one last totem kept separate from the others. He toyed with it for a moment, but solemnly, as if he had to actually consider the consequences of placing such a dangerous thing on the map. When he relented it went down right next to Yugo. It was a figure of a lightfolk standing atop a boulder, both of them painted with iridescent orange dots all over. The only other color was two swipes of white for his eyes.
“This individual is the real problem.”
“Who is he?”
“He is called Bombast, but the Tandem Flush has no information on his history. I’m told he looks like lightfolk, but is something else entirely. That stone under him obeys his every command, changing into any shape and performing any action.”
“It’s a bath bead then.”
“Impossible. Bath beads can have almost any power imaginable, but they can never change their own properties. This stuff moves like dough when he wants it to, and other times is hard as diamond. Also all bath beads are crystals, and this thing looks like a chunk of stone. And there’s no good time to mention something so frustratingly amazing, so I’ll just add it now: the man can fly.” The table was quiet.
“What’s he after Rob?” Manathan asked; he was the only skeleton any of them knew who could sound like he still had a throat with a cold lump of fear in it.
“All Mixomir has shared with me is that he’s helping Yugo recruit and single-handedly winning immense battles. As we speak they’re attempting to steal the cardinal tiles and bring them all to the Glory Hole. Once six of the eight are on stall side we’ll be shifting in the Dark Empty, increasing our chances of smashing into anything else that’s floating out there.”
“And the flushes think they’ll succeed?” Teal asked gravely.
“Bluntly, yes. They already marched through Airy-Go-Round and forced Cardinal Eighth out of Revokodor. Simultaneously another wing of their force attacked Oridin. Seventh had to be relocated as well.”
“Where are they now?” Queenvy asked. Her hanging feather was already out of fronds, plucked to a translucent red quill.
“Nobody at my level knows,” Rob explained. “As a precaution every tile overseen by folk protectors is now on the move, taken in constant circles along secret trails that are nonetheless near their shrines to prevent gravitation disruption. There’s an issue with that strategy though, as well-trained bonepickers can hone in on their gravitation signatures.”
“Like when you all found me with Cardinal Second way back when,” Alast noted.
“The Tandem Flush has to use every tool at its disposal,” Rob said to draw the conversation back to their reason for being there. “Mixomir is technically a flush, and he thought he had no choice but to bring up Teal’s mirror network. While moving armies via the path will never be practical, moving items and commanders is downright essential.”
“They wouldn’t hide the tiles in there,” Teal correctly guessed.
“No; No cardinal tile has ever been inside the Reflecting Path. There’s a not-absurd theory that taking that much gravitation outside the world proper would unleash a catastrophic reaction of some kind.”
“If the whole world’s about to be at war, the Employer will act as its own admiral,” Captain Powdr said to renew her objections.
“You don’t have a choice Teal. That’s why you should be glad that it’s me. I’ll just pretend to be in charge of your boat and your mirrors. All of us will watch out for what you’ve built while the network’s being protected and used.”
“Even if Rob forgets, we’ll be on it,” Pearlen assured.
“No offense you two,” Queenvy countered, “but you’re not anything compared to the Tandem Flush.” She turned to Teal. “Don’t agree to this. Just turn all your mirrors around and break the ones that are most dangerous. None of this be our fight.”
“This absolutely is your fight,” Rob argued. “You live in Porce too, and your little treasure hoard won’t nourish you if the Dark Empty gets in here.”
“Who are you to talk of hoards!?” she shouted back. “You had us dragging bags of treasure through ice floes like they were your own flesh and blood.” There was more venom in her, but she held back when she looked at Teal. The young woman had briefly forgotten that Teal and Rob attempted a mingling of flesh and blood, twice, and each attempt had died disastrously inside her womb.
“I already have a suspicion as to where Yugo and Bombast will strike next,” Rob said after a moment. He reached down and slid the figures of Yugo and Bombast with a single finger, off Glory Hole and toward Metal Block. “There’s only one that’s-” He stopped and stared, as did the others. The map was incredibly detailed, but no amount or grade of specialty ink could produce the effect animating Glory Hole at that moment.
The circular spot had been replaced with an open eye that darted about as if memorizing the faces of everyone present. None knew how to react, for they couldn’t even tell exactly what they were looking at. The eye’s lid was the paper of the map, but the rest was the flesh one would expect of a lightfolk eye, down to its little red veins. It was blue, and there was no indication whether such a detail would ever help them identify its owner.
Bonswario threw himself across the table and slammed his fist down on the eye. Rather than lift it he rubbed it around in a manner he assumed would be most painful if that eye was actually attached to any nerves. When he finally leaned back the Glory Hole was back to its old self: just a paper depression in the map.
“Those have been showing up,” he growled to Teal and her officers. “Don’t know what they are. Spies probably.”
“Then that blighter heard everything we just said!” Dawn clacked, crawling onto the table and scouring every line of the map for signs of more.
“That was an eye not an ear,” Rob reasoned. “All the ones we’ve seen so far have been eyes. Besides, all of us are already known as associates, so none of this should surprise whoever that was.” (Blaine’s Note: This far down the rabbit hole, perhaps I should just call it the drain, I try not to interrupt as much with my little interjections, but this one seems necessary. You might recall that I encountered a similar eye during the third bathroom break, occupying and animating the knob-hole in a hotel’s ‘do not disturb’ sign. When I read this for the first time I felt a horrible, dripping, sinking feeling. I had to conclude that both eyes belonged to some variety of bathroom breaker, and that together they might’ve made a single person’s pair.)
“Where are they going next?” Teal asked, seemingly undisturbed by the intruding eye. Of course… she never liked any eyes on her. Told us once the world would be better off if everybody was blind. If you could just hear the hatred in a voice and crawl away from it, never to hear it again. It would leave the hateful sitting in a pile of themselves, howling, begging the world for someone to abuse.
“Metal Block,” he answered, pushing the two figures the rest of the way.
“Cardinal Second is the only tile that’s not guarded by folk,” Alast elaborated. “Guarded instead by the mighty bropato plant. It’s the only one that’s not moving right now.”
“Fantastic,” Queenvy snapped, “go tell your superiors then. I’m sure they’ll put an unwilling army on it right away.”
“They’re not going to do anything,” Pearlen said, her judgment of the flushes’ decision quite clear. “The bropato will attack anyone that tries to take it, no matter what side they’re on, and the flushes don’t feel it prudent to keep forces perched on a cliff with no solid battlefield present to challenge the enemy. They’ve already decided Second is a lost cause.”
“Which is why the crew of the Chokechain will pick up this particular loop of slack,” Rob insisted. “We’ve got a secret weapon in the form of Alast, who has been on the plant’s good side and on its inside.” He clapped the boy on the shoulder.
“I can get us in there safely,” Alast tried to assure those on the other side of the table. “Once we’re at the shrine we can guard it; as long as we don’t try to take it I think it will infer our intent.”
“So we set a trap,” Rob added. “They will be similarly unable to bring an army, as their average soldier would be nothing against the plant. I expect Yugo, Bombast, and his knuckles to be the only infiltrators. We’ll be waiting with my best bonepickers… and any of your best you’d be willing to lend Teal.”
“Nobody seems to know what this Bombast can even do. How is it that you plan to fight him?”
“Should bonepicking them into a corner fail, we do have something else up our sleeve.” He glanced at Pearlen. “Thanks to the intruding eyes I’m not prepared to share the information at the moment.”
“I’d send Frostbite Cor to help you,” Queenvy suddenly offered; there were several raised eyebrows and a pair of implied ones on Manathan’s skull. She’s just trying to impress us. It’s a shame that the boy’s powers actually are impressive. “He could freeze anyone in their tracks, but if he leaves Aychrook it will be immediately overwhelmed by the fauce’s heat and melt into a boiling sea. As you can imagine, that would be bad both for business and flesh.”
“So you’re keeping him then, noted,” Rob said tersely. “I’d like to have a word with him by the way.”
“You go right ahead Rob. There’s nothing you can do to him; he could probably teach you a thing or two.” She knew the rage that would elicit, but the Captain kept his wits about him. All the same, Teal wouldn’t humor either of their grandstanding or moralizing.
“Fine,” she said to put an end to it. “The Tandem Flush will have my mirror chamber, but no other part of the Employer. Rob you’ll serve as the go-between.”
“As if he can stop hisself from going all over everything,” Queenvy added sullenly.
“You have my word that I’ll betray the spirit of my position and look out for you,” Captain Rob assured, standing with his officers. “Enjoy your new map. By the way it’s extremely difficult to roll up while the topography is active, so,” he shook his fingers at the map as if dusting it with salt, “good luck with that.”
With their meeting adjourned they went their separate ways, returning to the snowy and warm streets of Aychrook. Rob was surprised that Queenvy did not insist on some kind of tail to watch him, which implied she had much confidence in her settlement indeed. He wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity freely given, so he ordered his officers to return to the Employer and make sure the rookies didn’t cause some kind of interfixture incident.
The pirate wandered for more than two drops, examining the local shops and homes. Though everything was cozy at first glance, a basal element revealed itself in almost every instance. There was a fishmonger whose stand somehow avoided smelling strongly of fish. The hair and apron of the woman attending it were very lively, constantly animated by a strong breeze somehow blowing up from the ground. Frostbite Cor. The power of his magical blizzard was absolutely refined now. Even though he wasn’t there his wind sent all the fishy odors straight up and out of town.
Ice masons had beautiful sculptures guarding both sides of their doors, but they were not cut. These white roodnocks spiraled around columns were clearly molded. Cor again. He was the very soul of the place, so Rob knew if he looked in every alley he would eventually find the boy.
The florent was not quite out yet when he got his wish. The encounter was unceremonious, like rounding a corner and finding yet another ice sculpture. He was sat on the edge of a large fountain, its water steaming at all five of its levels. His bare feet were dipped in it, occasionally kicking out. Six people sat by his side, talking and laughing with the folk that made their home possible. He had friends, at least as long as he was useful. The pirate waited until his companions left, noting the approaching darkness once they checked their pocket watches.
Frostbite Cor stayed right where he was, smiling at the water as if he could see his reflection through the skin of steam. Plish plish. Another pair of feet had joined him, not directly across, but still a healthy distance away. The pirate had set his boots next to him on the stone. Cor saw that Rob did not have a weapon with him, other than the thoughts sharpening his wit at that moment.
“Do you even know how many folk you killed when you sunk my boat?” Rob growled, but his voice was so low it practically bubbled. He wanted to sound more like a judge than an attack haund.
“I do.” He pinched his blue nose as if avoiding the smell of rotting bodies. “Kingvy gave me a list once with all their names on it. They weren’t the only folk who died because of me either. I spent rests destroying crops, homes, lives…”
“Yet you sit here warming your feet. You’ve accepted the Rookrs’ forgiveness as if it represents every string of my dear Mop.”
“You’ve got it wrong. The Rookrs haven’t forgiven me; they told me from the beginning that I could never have that. We’re business partners first and foremost. They do have some affection for me… especially Queenvy… but that’s just from our proximity. We’re friends only in the sense that you have to be friends with someone you’re close to.”
“So it’s the same as the folk who just sat next to you. They leave as soon as their shift softening you is over. None of them invited you into their homes. Tell me, do you sleep on these streets?”
“They’re very warm.” Cor took a deep breath, exhaling fog. “I’m sorry about your grandfather.” Aye that’s right. He crushed the skull of Kilrorke. I’d almost forgotten because that man should’ve died a hundred times. It was overdue by any measure, but any mourning we would’ve done was numbed to nothing. We were a sort of dead when it happened.
“Your father’s still out there living a coward’s life,” Rob remembered out loud. “Have you forgiven him?”
“I don’t believe in forgiveness at all,” Cor admitted. He ran a hand through his short black hair crunchy with frost. Rob couldn’t remember if he’d been bald back in the Winchar Straits; he wondered if a warm home spurred it to grow once more. “I think every folk has to decide how much harm they can live with inflicting. I am blessed to have Queenvy in my life, but I know that every chip of sympathy she has for me hurts her because she can never forgive me.”
“And so you’ve decided to keep hurting her, to take and cherish what you don’t deserve.”
“She even lies to me for my benefit. Tells me that I’m only so responsible for the folk I killed because I was driven mad by loneliness and numbness.”
“You’re not supposed to be able to recover from going mad, right?” It was a real honest question. Rob saw a skin of frost cloud his pupils: frozen tears. “I seem fine now.”
“What you need is a little hammering punishment, to even you out!” Rob tried to leap on the boy, unclear on his own exact intentions, but his body didn’t go anywhere. Bonepicking balance kept him from falling over, but he was firmly stuck in place, as his side of the fountain was frozen solid. It must’ve happened in the span of a drip, and with the tiniest effort on Corvidley Damr’s part.
The boy pulled his feet from the water and stood. He started walking away, the only sound Rob’s strained grunts as he tried to bonepick free. The florent went out. The pirate wanted to roar after him, but there was nothing left to say and he already knew what retort would eventually come. That stalactite of frozen piss would try to say we’re the same. He thinks we’re hurting everyone in our life and the only solution is to find new folk we haven’t hurt yet. Throw me back to the living sixteen he would.
“Damn I miss you Vyra,” he grumbled. The sound of her name seemed to strengthen his picking, for he shot into the air and landed on his back outside the fountain. Each foot was locked in a jagged block of ice, simple enough to shatter with a bonepicking punch if he wasn’t distracted by a terrible pain. The emerald spike on his shoulder had struck the solid ice and left his entire skeleton vibrating. His gemstone teeth sizzled against each other, his skull rattled his brain, his curling claws flapped in their beds like loose shingles in a gale, and his resonating mustache made his lip itch maddeningly.
When his bones finally stopped ringing in his ears he tilted up to his feet and stomped back toward the Employer, ignoring his awkward icy boots.
Some Strings Attached
Metal Block had but one city, and it was really more of a series of towns strung together by roads, calling itself something more to garner some attention from the rest of Porce. Playsh it was called, and its largest buildings were pushed up against Metal Block’s lip so they could be used as anchors for giant winches that aided in the harvesting of bropato.
It would’ve been something to visit the world’s greatest supplier of the wood, to see papery streets like spiraling stairs full of folducted wagons and sledges, but their business was closer to the middle of the fixture. Teal’s network had two mirrors set up in Playsh: one to purchase bropato in bulk from a respectable supplier and one on the outskirts so they could harvest small amounts themselves. Captain Rob and his band of saboteurs took the latter, as directed by their resident bropato expert Alast.
Much of the party was waiting at the harvesting station where the young man used to work before his days as a pirate; he’d told them that the couple living there, Orbon and Birdie, would be happily hospitable to any friends of his. There was another errand for him to run first however, so he split off and headed for the cove of mist where he’d been raised.
The plan was to take just Pearlen with him to confront his past and perhaps, if he was still alive and still there, speak with his father Salta. For some reason, surprisingly enough to make both halves of the couple gawp, Captain Rob insisted on going along. They hadn’t even entered the mist before he agitated the situation.
“Really, is the rope necessary?” he balked as Pearlen tied a length around his waist. Such guide lines were normally reserved for trekking through harsh blizzards where the wind might drown out their voices. The mist was eerie in its silence, so they could simply speak if they got separated.
“We’re doing this for Alast remember?” Pearlen chided. “If he says it’s necessary then it’s necessary.” She checked the knot around her own waist. Alast was in front, his lover in the middle, and Rob grumbled in the back.
“It’s very easy to get separated in there,” the anxious leader explained, still pale and a little woozy from getting sacked thrice and tossed through the path again. His hand quivered as he dipped it into the wall of mist before them. He pulled it back immediately, turning his wrist to stare at the faded rope-fiber scars. “I’m not sure why I feel this way. I’ll go anywhere! Rob… I’d follow you into the seventh layer of the Bottomless Rot, and I’ve already been here, but something about it has me shaking. I feel like the ground’s collapsing.”
“This is for peace of mind,” his partner reminded, holding his shoulders to steady him. “After the Glass Desert I knew exactly where my parents stood, so now it doesn’t matter what place they’re actually standing on. Their relative position to me, regardless of distance, is so far that I can’t see them, and if I call out they can’t hear me. I only value the folk who are close.” She tugged the rope playfully.
“Oh! We’re being symbolic,” Rob said with a roll of his eyes. “Should’ve just said so. Let’s get a move on; I’m curious as to just how awful this place is.”
“It’s poison,” Alast warned. “We shouldn’t stay more than a drop, and watch out for rusty spikes and shellfish; they grow all over everything and they’ll give you a weeping infection.” He took his last deep breath of clean air and stepped forward, instantly disappearing in soupy white-gray fog. The others followed.
“You didn’t even know what an infection was the last time you were in here,” Rob chuckled. “I remember the first time I told you about animalcules. Aye boy, some animals are too small to see. You thought it was a lie.”
“If it was it would’ve been one of a thousand that you told me,” Alast said. He had his saber out in front of him, tapping his way along a raised path of slimy boards. “All your fibs made me ravenous for the truth just so I could sift out the deceit.”
“A valuable part of any buccaneer’s training,” the Captain excused. He took a deep breath and found it extremely unrewarding, like sticking his nose under a wet rag.
“Now the animalcules seem much more natural than this place. Especially now that I know the Gross Truth. After all, if giants built the toils just to squat on, all of us must have been too small for them to see. There is no smallest world and no biggest one.”
“Well that’s a bold assertion boy. Nobody could ever prove it.” He tried to stop, but Pearlen tugged on him. It wasn’t far to the town, yet they still heard nothing. “Shouldn’t we be hearing some proof that this world exists?” The tapping paused.
“It is strange,” Alast admitted. “We’ll hit Mrs. Fererin’s gardening shed in about a hundred steps. Unless…”
“Unless they abandoned the town after Yugo’s proliths sacked it in search of Second,” Pearlen finished, dutifully remembering the circumstances that brought them together. “We knew they might be gone.”
“Or dead,” Alast added. The tapping resumed. He was correct about the shed, though it couldn’t truly be called that anymore. A tap of the saber went straight through its wall. The trio bent down to see; it was nothing but a brittle shell of the reddest rust they’d ever seen, almost like blood as the mist glittered on its innumerable pocks. There were holes large enough to climb through and the shelves inside were long collapsed. The shapes of the metal gardening tools were still visible in piles upon its floor, but when Pearlen touched a spade it fell into wet clumped dust.
Rob delivered a swift kick that obliterated the entire structure, startling Pearlen. Before she could protest the man flopped down in the pile as if it was fresh snow and waved his arms and legs to leave a silly silhouette.
“Who knew you could do this with rust?” he asked with a grin. “Fascinating.”
“What makes you think you can just wreck the place?” she seethed. “I put you in the back for a reason Captain!”
“Aye, I won’t forget being stuck right in the back young lady… but don’t worry,” he flailed some more, tossing rusty dust, “Alast despises this cloud through and through. Any catharsis to be found here will be from smashing it to pieces.”
“He’s right,” Alast said, “but we should make sure nobody’s still living here before we barrel into their homes.” There was another tug on the rope, so Rob sighed and followed along, though he no longer bothered to stay on the elevated path. They continued on, and though their path crossed a web of others, the wooden bridges seemed to be the only thing that survived Alast’s time gone.
Each house was an empty hulk of rust. Rob destroyed the first two before they really got a chance to enter one, but when they did they found something most disturbing. Everything was in its place, the only exception being items meant to be atop shelves that had crumbled. Mattresses were on the splinters of their posts, complete with moldering blankets. Chests, their shape still intact thanks to metal bands even though the wood was long gone, were full of things of clear financial value: pearl jewelry, carved whetstones, and glass eyes with inlaid gem irises.
“lots of people lost eyes to infections,” Alast recalled. “The mist lubricated their sockets, so whenever they whipped their head the glass eye would spin.” Rob could only see Pearlen’s back, but he noticed a quick little swirl in the fog that might’ve been a hand gesture from the young man.
“Obviously I’ll wash them then,” Rob tittered as he scooped up the treasures along with a handful of rust and pocketed them. “How much further are the remains of your home?”
“Not far,” Alast answered. “I… I think it’s safe to say that nobody is here. Even if the folk were muted we should be hearing the baying of twistenbeasts… but what happened? They didn’t take their belongings when they left, and there are no bodies if they were killed.”
“Could they all have wound up gravefolk?” Pearlen suggested.
“I wish. That would mean I was always right about there being something wrong with folk that wanted to live here. Gravefolk still have use for their material wealth though; you know how much tile Manathan spent on tickets for the drifting theater.” The rope pulled Pearlen and hers pulled Rob’s. The tug took them past another five houses and stopped in view of the remnants of a low fence with a muddy pit beyond.
“This is where you kept your twistenbeast,” Pearlen guessed.
“Aye, and my window’s right there.” He pointed even though the others couldn’t see him. “Right there even if I can’t see it.” The path to the front door was overgrown with blue-lipped shellfish, some with spikes so long that they looked like hands with demonic fingers. He wasn’t sure how to proceed, but the Captain took care of that by ignoring the rope’s order once more. He strode to the front and used bonepicking stomps to shatter and flatten the shells, creating a cacophony like a row of ceramic vases toppling one by one. Alast and Pearlen were able to follow in his footsteps.
His house was one of the more intact ones, but only because the shellfish had largely replaced the walls, growing on each other in thick layers like bracket fungi. Some of them clicked and squirted jets of water, but otherwise they didn’t protest the visitors. They made their way through the kitchen, finding not a crumb, and then the bedroom of Salta. His mattress was still there, and so too was the imprint of his body, though it was full of greenish water and a few particularly round ogtots that hopped in and out.
Last was Alast’s room. Even in the disrepair one might expect of a ship sunken for a hundred washes, it was clear that it had been emptied by folk hands. The bed and all his belongings were gone; the shellfish were so large and aggressive that their shells clicking sounded more like the jarring slap of stone against stone. One of them was almost as big as the bed had been, standing taller than Rob and proudly displaying opalescent bands of blue and white inside its lips.
“Dad figured out I wasn’t coming back,” Alast noted as Pearlen grabbed his hand.
“If he had time to do that he wasn’t smashed by proliths,” she noted.
“Nobody here was smashed,” a fourth voice confirmed. Alast and Pearlen were violently pulled backward, but that was a tug from their Captain. He corralled them behind him with one arm and drew his bonepicker’s sword with the other.
“Who’s there?” he barked. The young lovers were more than competent in battle, but Rob had caught something strange about the voice that put him on edge. It seemed to come out of the giant shellfish, and only when the lips were open.
“I’m not here at all,” it answered, “mostly not.” A woman’s voice. Aged. Like a ghost bored by the choices of their mausoleum’s interior decorator.
“So you’re not a giant talking oystie then?”
“No, but its enclosed space is a good place to base my voice in. There’s a lot you people don’t understand about the power of an enclosed space.”
“Do you know what happened to the folk living here?” Alast asked. A quiet moment.
“It’s more that things stopped happening to them. It was a largely involuntary mass bathroom break. Not the first we’ve seen, but this is the first world we’ve seen it in.” The shell clicked open and shut, almost annoyed that someone else spoke for it. Perhaps she sensed that, for when she spoke again it came from the mist behind them. “I’m not here to discuss the populace though; I wish to speak briefly with you, Captain Kilrobin Ordr.” They whirled around, but if she was there she was behind just enough mist to be invisible.
“I dictate who speaks with me,” Rob boldly stated, “so I also dictate the terms by which they speak to me. Before we get into whatever nonsense you’re pulling, answer the boy’s questions.”
“Fine,” she answered, though from another spot that seemed to be inside a wall. “You wanted to know what happened to the people of the mist?” Alast nodded, and she seemed aware of it. “They hid away in here for too long. Eventually many of them stopped believing there was a world out there, so the world rejected them, let them slip through its material and into Moment’s Peace.”
“Do you know what happened to them individually? My father’s name was Saalt; he lived in this house. I want to know where he is.”
“I don’t know the specifics, but I can tell you he isn’t anywhere. A bathroom break is rather final if you don’t know how to use it.”
“You keep saying bathroom break. Explain it,” Rob demanded. The voice drifted over them like a fluffy seed on the wind.
“Simply put, it’s an abuse of the metaphysical privacy afforded by a water closet. It can take you to different places and times, but only if you seek to do things as inconsequential as relieving yourself.”
“So are these townsfolk dead?” Pearlen asked.
“Probably. We don’t know where they wound up, but all information indicates that they were very ignorant. Even the shock of a new situation might’ve killed them. Navigating the space between bathrooms, known as Moment’s Peace, is not for the uneducated. That’s the entire reason we bathroom breakers established the Thing in the Drain.” The Porcian trio paused, all feeling the same twinge of bizarre recognition.
“Children’s tales,” Rob scoffed. He wasn’t wrong. Most, in their youth, had heard stories of the Thing in the Drain. Always the same drain it was, even though Porce had many: the dark hole of Dry Rin Cliff in the wasteland basin known as Desfosse. A tree had grown out of it once, one rivaling Bropain and Bropeak of the Threewall Wild, but all that remained in the Age of Building was its roots clawing in and out of its former pot.
Many claimed to sense a malevolent will from that hole. Some said the thing was a monster. Others said it was a curse. A bath bead. A Fayeblon. Only one word could be agreed upon: thing. Many expeditions had been mounted over the washes, but nothing had ever been found but feelings of dread and discomfort.
“You’re the Thing in the Drain?” Pearlen asked.
“Only part of it,” the voice admitted. “Thing here refers to a public assembly and a governing body. It’s a Scandinavian word, sometimes also pronounced ting.”
“We’ve never heard of the Scandy Navy, so if you could stick to the most pertinent information,” Rob requested.
“You don’t actually need to know much of anything at this juncture,” the ciawoman said. “An introduction and a warning are my only goals. Captain Rob, Bombast is a different sort of foe than you’re used to. He won’t attempt to spy on you, as he has the utmost confidence in his success.”
“The eyes we’ve been seeing around; they belong to you,” the pirate guessed.
“Yes. We were just looking for a good chance to speak with you, and now we have it. We are the Thing in the Drain, and when the time comes we will offer you assistance of a kind. Whether you accept it or not is up to you. Now for the warning-”
“You already mentioned Bombast’s confidence.”
“No, it’s not about him. Other parties will attempt to contact you and curry your favor. They will want something very specific from you, and it is the opinion of the Thing in the Drain that it would be the worst folly for you to comply. Our eventual advice will be vastly preferable, as evidenced by our coming to you before the crucial points. We turn to you not out of desperation like they will, but out of respect.” There was a stirring in the mist, and then an emptiness.
“Is she go-” Pearlen started before she was violently pulled. Alast was dragged right after. The rope snaked through the thorny carapace of the house and back onto the wooden walkways. So swift they were that Pearlen and Alast’s feet didn’t even touch the boards; it was like they were rodents in the talons of a soaring bird. They were halfway through the soggy township, having plowed straight through a few rusty walls as well, when they realized they hadn’t been snatched by anyone other than Rob. His bonepicking footfalls cracked the boards with each step, steps that were nearly twenty foams apart.
At the edge he spun, swinging them painfully out of the mist and back into the open air. Alast was none too happy to have another rope burn on his body, a full belt of one no less, but one look at the Captain’s disturbed expression kept him from protesting. He answered them as if they had voiced their displeasure.
“Something about her put me off. Besides, we were nearly there a drop and I took your dosage instructions seriously boy.”
“Are we to be allied with the Thing in the Drain, of all things?” Pearlen asked, stunned by the absurdity of it. “My parents always said it was a demon, but they also thought modern medicine was demonic, and popular music, and a thousand other things…”
“We haven’t even been offered an alliance, not yet,” Rob reminded. “We’ve got other things to think about at the drip.” Alast and Pearlen remembered that the others were likely waiting on them at the harvesting station. There wasn’t much left to say, for if Alast’s father had a fate it was no longer relevant to his child’s. It might not even have been relevant to Porce. Alast showed them the way to the edge, though they simply could’ve followed the cork-like smell of the bropato.
The home of Orbon and Birdie was much as he remembered it, but places decayed much slower outside the mist. Upon entering he found that it too had remained abandoned since he left. It must’ve been covered in wegger webs up until a drop ago, for there were two giant balls of the stuff wadded up in a corner. That was courtesy of Bonswario, who always harbored a hatred of the bugs.
“Sorry Alast,” he said as he wiped the last of them off on a dingy tablecloth. “Your friends weren’t here.” The young man nodded. The harvester couple was always capable and prepared, so he wasn’t worried that they were sucked into the same vortex that claimed the misties. He was sure they had simply moved on, adapted.
“It’s alright,” he told the others. “Are we ready to go? This should be a real treat for everyone.” There was no argument, for their party was entirely adventurers and warriors: Captain Kilrobin Ordr, First Mate Bonswaio Bucklr, Second Mate Ladyfish Paintr, Alast Questr, and Pearlen Lustr. Each carried a fine Dagyvr weapon, several of them quite new thanks to Teal’s mirror-gate straight to Peako’s shop in Crosstahl. Also in their toolbox was Pearlen’s magical shield, which could serve as a last ditch escape portal into the Reflecting Path should they fail.
She was all smiles during their descent down the bropato face, delighted at Alast’s delight. He took unsurprisingly well to acting as a tour guide; in his opening instructions he laid out their path and goals as well as the amazing things they would see on their journey to the paper heart of Metal Block.
“Watch your step here everyone; we’re moving off the lifts now. These paths are no longer cut, so chunks of the wood could give way under your feet.” He took the first step off the boarded scaffolding and onto the uneven material. A fresh breeze rolled in, the spiced cork smell of the great sheet washing over and invigorating them. Tiny flowers grew in dust-gathering pockets of the wood, and Ladyfish was sure to ask Alast if the bropato would mind her plucking a few and putting them in her hair.
“Go right ahead. I know nobody really understands this thi… entity, but you can get a sense of it. It doesn’t care about too much. It mostly wants to grow. I was the same way the first time I was within its walls, but I only wanted to grow my mind. I do wonder if it will sense a difference in me.”
“It better recognize you,” Rob hoped out loud, “otherwise we’ll be slicing our way back out.” He had been there once before as well, but just the boy had descended into the dimness, lit only by roosting stars and luminous white flowers.
“I don’t think it will hurt us, but it might not help us as much as before,” Alast guessed. “Last time it carried me most of the way to the center of Metal Block, where the shrine is. If it doesn’t do that this time it’ll take us days to reach it. We’ll have to camp three or four times.”
“And I assume it won’t want us warming our buns with a campfire,” Bonswario sighed, “seeing as the whole place be made of the most flammable stuff in this here water closet.”
“Topa’s more flammable,” Alast corrected, “but you’re still right.” They quieted as the path became much steeper. After rounding a corner the open world was gone from their sight and everything became much stuffier. It turned several more times, each one adding a great wall between the folk and the sky. Eventually they came to a slab of metal ground extending into darkness, decorated only with great piles of rope and boards.
“It’s the ladder,” Pearlen noted. She grabbed her boy’s wrist and rubbed her thumb against the scars on the inside of it. “The eleven day climb.”
“What it took to leave the mist behind,” Alast muttered. He turned to the others. “This is where I stop being the guide. An old friend is going to take over. Knobby! Knobby are you still back there?” It took a while, but eventually something clomped out of the darkness: a shambling horror of musty pelt, scattered eyes, and an odd number of mouths. With Knobby, his floppy ears, and his hooves wide enough to crush heads came his distinctive odor.
“Blechh!” Ladyfish retched as the flowers in her hair shriveled.
“It be like something died in me nose!” Bonswario declared as he pinched his nostrils and covered his mouth. “Then it died a second, third, and twentieth time!”
“I’ve spent an obscene amount of time trying to classify that animal since last I saw it,” Rob said gravely, “and still a definition eludes me.” His eyes narrowed. “I hate it in a way.”
“He’s a little… urh… cute,” Pearlen defended. “If you squint.” Knobby responded by shuffling over to her and rubbing his forehead into her chest. She held her breath and petted a tuft of his fur, her fingers earning a coating of brown dust for their trouble.
“Your eyes are bad, so your squint is twice as powerful,” Rob reasoned. “Besides, he’s such a blur I already feel like I’m squinting.” Despite his insults he approached the animal and raked his emerald claws across its back: a very satisfying scratch that had the beast moaning gutturally.
“He’s smarter than he looks,” Alast assured them. “Perhaps each of those eyes is attached to a brain somewhere in there. Knobby, we want to go to the shrine. At the center, where the tile is. Will you please take us there?” The animal didn’t respond until the pirates stopped petting him, but eventually he turned around and clomped back into the darkness. They had brought some flameless lanterns with them, but his smell was indicator enough of the right direction.
The spirit of the bropato was with them, which became apparent when they were just four drops into their journey. They hadn’t seen metal in half that time, and the walls had become lush with pale vegetation and limp corners of the wood bobbing under the weight of nestling lumasol. The floor under them came to life, rising as a single sheet and pulling them smoothly through the caverns. Knobby was left behind, but they didn’t worry for him as they’d passed several more of his kind bunched up already, or perhaps it was just a really long one.
Alast had not exaggerated about the plant’s possibilities. They arrived at their destination so swiftly that the hands of Rob’s pocket watch weren’t even to the dark half of its face yet. They saw some of that florentshine making its way down through a chasm above, just enough to illuminate the shrine. The small building was surrounded by orbiting orbs of metal, varying in size from a folk fingertip to a Fayeblon fingertip.
“We know Cardinal Second is still in there,” Alast informed, “because those spheres move under its gravitation power. Don’t get in their way; it’s a skull-cracking blow if you do.”
“Duly noted,” Bonswario said as he hefted his pack off his shoulders and dug out and opened a whitish folducted chair. After sitting down he told them not to worry, as the chair was made solely of topa and non-bropato wood.
“That’s it then,” Captain Rob said, his voice walking a tightrope between relief and disappointment. “We’ve provisions enough for six days, so we’ll wait and see if our foes show themselves. Settle in. Get comfortable. Don’t piss where you shouldn’t.” The crew went to work unpacking. Since he saw fit simply to supervise and polish his mustache with a handkerchief, Pearlen thought it a good time to whisper with him.
“Captain, pants-down, there’s something I need to say regarding our secret weapon.”
“Don’t hold it in then.”
“We can’t make use of it in this place. I’m positive everything would catch fire. We could accidentally kill the plant.” Rob stared up at the shifting sheets and drooping vines of the roof. Where even is the center of this thing? The will can’t possible survive in every separated piece of it. There must be a heart or a brain or something of that stain. Wherever it is, it is safe within a sea of itself. Part of a world and therefore as immortal as the rest of it.
“Right, Miss Pearlen. In that case you are not to use it, under any circumstances, including the death of everyone here.”
Three days passed uneventfully, though Rob considered it excellent field research in regard to the bropato. He’d already deduced that the sheets making up the walls of that chamber were separate from the rest of the plant and rotating, possibly even orbiting like the metal spheres. Their revolution rate was approximately six drops, or five interminably dull conversations meant to pass the time.
“Should we check if the tile truly be in there?” Ladyfish asked as she tossed a leather ball full of scented grain back and forth with Bonswario.
“I can feel its presence,” Rob assured them; he was practicing his bonepicking balance by leaping between the metal balls. He would’ve spoken more freely, but decided against it any time he was out of sight behind the shrine.
“It’s peculiar to think about,” Pearlen added as she ran her hands along the slowly shifting walls. Alast walked behind her, folducting a shed scrap of the wood into the shape of a bird. There were numerous such sculptures littering the ground at that point: a menagerie of boredom. “This time we’re one hundred percent sure that Yugo is wrong about the tiles. Before we were reasonably sure because of scientific observation and gravitation phenomenon and a dozen other technical things, but now we have the Captain’s testimony, and even if we didn’t believe him, Dawn and Diana saw a Fayeblon as well. The eight gods existed, so they likely created the cardinal tiles.”
“The legends being true would be wonderful,” Alast said as he tossed the bird; it soared a short distance. “It’s such a good tale. Luminatr saw that Porce was tragically unbalanced: a world in disrepair. She yoked the light itself and gave us predictable night and day. Meanwhile Dealr struck an accord and created the gravefolk, so that we could hear from the dead and fear our demise less. As they worked the great Plowr visited the eight corners of Porce-”
“Visited is probably revisionist language,” Rob interrupted as he passed in front of the shrine. “I believe the gods were much more violent than they let on…” He had more to say, but he disappeared around the other side once more.
“Plowr battled at the corners!” Bonswario declared dramatically, shaking the ball. “He slayed the eight mightiest of the akers what lived there. From their bodies, with a chisel the size of a fauce, he hewed the tiles and imbued them with the defining powers of the corner lands! Our shape be the shape thanks to his deed.”
“I like akers,” Ladyfish protested. “Hope those big folk didn’t kill ‘em for it. Like to think theys gave theyselves up willing-like.”
“Not a chance,” Rob said on another pass. They would’ve been safe from his input for another ten drips or so, but there came a strange sound from beyond the chamber. The pirate leapt up to the top of the shrine and stood there in the light, sharpening his ears, for his claws, sword, and mustache were plenty sharp already.
At first it was a distant whine, like a lumasol with a bug’s wings instead of its typical feathery ones. The bropato around them took notice just as they did; its sheets sped up, causing Alast and Pearlen to step away from the walls. The party drew their weapons as the plant grew more and more agitated. One sheet changed its path, crossing over the chasm and dimming most of their light every few moments. All the while the whining grew louder, becoming a buzz, and then revealing itself as a series of deafening rapid chops. Whatever approached it could not be simply animal or folk, sounding almost like giant machinery.
“Steady,” Rob told them, but his word was drowned out. Just for us then. Steady. That old bastard will surely have something to say about our enhanced facial feature. Remember that it looks far more dignified than his ever did. The bropato bulged more than ten foams off the ground. The sheets pulled away from the pressure as quickly as they could, but it wasn’t swift enough to avoid shredding. An explosion of brown confetti heralded the object’s arrival.
Such an imposing and heavy-looking thing should’ve dropped as soon as it didn’t have the tunnel of bropato supporting it, but after its rapid spinning came to a halt it drifted down and placed itself upright. What they saw was a cone of metal nearly as tall as the shrine itself, patterned with squat spikes and sharp deep grooves. Orange light, like a luminescent liquid metabolizing through the tributaries of a fungal network, passed through it in pulses. One of the grooves flexed open into a slit, making the metal squint in a way that should’ve been impossible.
“Ha! It’s just them. What did I tell you?” Yugo’s voice said from within. “Go on open it up. Let’s have a chat.”
“What’s the reason?” the papist’s companion asked.
“It’s always good to pick the enemy’s brain! I haven’t got one anymore, so I’m immune to it on his end. Hurry and crack a window in this thing.” Klikt! The giant drill bit split along its many seams and opened up, like a flower blooming upside down. Nothing supported the pieces, yet they hovered in the air. Two figures were stood there, one smugly and the other with folded impatient arms.
“This place is invitation only,” Captain Rob announced. “If you were welcome it was written on the pages you shredded to get in. Porce doesn’t want you here Yugo.”
“Is that all you have to say to me?” the purple skeleton asked. He nearly took a step forward, but then pulled his foot bones back. Instead he leaned on his standing crescent blade with a disappointed tilt to his head and horn. The man never wore clothes so as not to obscure his precious gems, but he was wearing a luxurious silvery cape that mirrored the green furry rug on Rob’s shoulders. “The last time we saw each other you nearly killed me! Dropped me out of a Dhonshui nose like snot that wouldn’t swallow. An apology would be appropriate.”
“At least I got a few pieces,” the pirate snarled, pointing to the bones that were now sapphire instead of amethyst. “Who did you steal those from?” Yugo swished his cape so that it covered the blue bones.
“They were donated to the cause.”
“Like that flayed folk-pelt you tried to wear?”
“When you think about it a donated set of skin is just a gravefolk offering the clothes off their back,” Yugo reasoned. “My body’s the same as it ever was.” His voice grew excited and jabbering, as if he teased a flopping haund pup. “You’re the one with some pretty new jewelry! Love the mustache. Tell me, does it hurt? I know what one must endure to look that good.”
“Is the tile in there?” the purple man’s companion asked, pointing at the shrine. Rob’s crew had spent most of their Captain’s banter staring at the creature they correctly assumed was Bombast, from his pupil-free orange eyes to that same film of light that lived in their metal shell.
“Where are my manners!?” Yugo continued. “Robin, this is Bombast. He’s a holy weapon from the Dark Empty come to aid me in my quest.” Bombast didn’t bother to look any of them in the eye.
“What are you?” Rob asked him directly.
“Unfinished business,” he answered with a tiny grin.
“You mustn’t take the tile,” Pearlen told the intruders. “Bombast, you must know that Yugo is a deeply silly pile of bones. Arrange him into a wind chime and listen to his tinkling; it will make more sense than what he has told you.”
“Highly likely,” Bombast agreed, “but I have time to pursue wild leads. If there’s even a chance that this prophecy of his can significantly damage this crumb of a world without my having to use any fissile material, it should be pursued.”
“What have you against Porce?” Ladyfish demanded.
“Are you asking what about it offends me? Nothing; I don’t get offended. The closest thing would be that strange gap that I utilized to enter. With your reversed gravity it should be spewing your atmosphere out into space, making life impossible. I would guess it’s the conflicting gravity of its top and bottom that form a kind of seal.”
“Well that’s elementary,” Rob boasted, placing the tip of his sword on the roof. “A child’s guide to gravitation that is. Tell me, are you a man of science?”
“No… I wouldn’t call myself that,” Bombast pondered aloud. “Science and I are both tools, but the former is just a mean to the latter’s end. In this case that end is a hole in this place large enough to evacuate all its breathable air.”
“Why!?” the Captain demanded.
“That is not a question for me, but for my wielder.”
“Is Yugo your wielder?”
“No,” he said, interrupting Yugo’s emphatic nod, “my wielders are long dead.”
“But that would leave us no avenue for discussion!”
“You got it.” Klikt! The pieces of the drill snapped shut. The object slid across the ground toward the shrine.
“Pry it open!” Rob ordered as he leapt down onto the metal orbs and hopped between them. He followed his own command with a bonepicking thrust that put the tip of his blade in one of its seams. The sword compressed with incredible force, enough to tear through an iron-hulled ship, but the drill didn’t crack or dent. Instead every bit of pressure rebounded, sending the pirate flying.
The others couldn’t even make an attack, as it had already reached the spheres and plowed through them, sending them off on chaotic peeling paths as well. They struck each other like bells: a sound that disturbed the surrounding bropato greatly. The cavern shook, but less like a quake and more like the twitch of a flank muscle. Everyone with footing lost it while the drill simply leaned against the shrine’s stairs and forced its way in, crumbling several stone columns.
They could only watch as the small building fell apart. It wasn’t even allowed to rest in rubble, for the drill emerged from its ruins unscathed. Without delay it headed for its tunnel, with its foes forced to assume Cardinal Second was holed up inside, something confirmed when the metal spheres tried to follow it.
“Brutal Pinching Pincer!” Rob roared as he landed behind it, centering the tip of his sword yet again. Such a move was a team effort, so Pearlen threw herself in front of the intruder. She raised not her spear, but her brilliant mirrored shield. From its face launched the final hidden member of their party, lurking in the Reflecting Path for a surprise strike: Dawn Shockr. Teal had been so kind as to lend one bonepicker who was really worth ten.
The gravefolk acted as the shaft of her own weapon: a rare specialty thing called a bonepicker’s hollow-spade. Each half of it resembled the bent-leg form of a traditional bonepicker’s sword, but their metal tips were fused to create a diamond shape capable of storing tremendous force. Throughout Porce’s history it had been used to pierce aker flesh, breach castle walls, and sail through the bellies of giant monsters as if they were made of polite reservations.
“Have a big old chomp of the dawn you bastard!” she cried as she she sailed through the air. The points of her weapon and Rob’s struck opposite sides of the drill at the exact same drip in the hopes of crushing it. Their blades compressed, halting their foes’ progress. That’s the best we can do! What is this material!? The forces rebounded again, with Rob thrown into the rubble. Dawn’s weapon, meant more for raw destruction, did its job by launching her into one of the walls. Though the bropato was much softer than stone, the hilt of her hollow-spade hit her sternum when she impacted, obliterating her rib cage inside her leatherflesh, leaving her head to roll and her imitation hair to rattle.
The momentary slowing did nothing to Bombast and Yugo; their progress resumed before the bonepickers had even struck anything. The others were still on their feet, and united they went for an attack, though they already sensed that nothing could be done. Alast, Pearlen, Ladyfish, and Bonswario all struck its metal sides with saber and spear, and all felt like flies trying to bite through a curtenbeast’s leathery hide. All it had to do to shake them off was rotate a single time, doing so with such blinding speed that its spikes ripped the weapons from their hands and tore deep gashes in Bonswario’s and Alast’s forearms. Pearlen’s spear lodged in the ceiling.
Defeated, all they could do was watch dumbly as the object inserted itself back into the tunnel and disappeared into the depths of Metal Block. The bropato’s agitation continued for some time, its sheets spinning so much that Pearlen was able to reclaim her weapon without climbing the sides. Eventually though, before any of the folk uttered a word, they calmed. The tunnel was covered as if it wasn’t there, the great plant’s growth likely already focused on filling it in.
“Don’t worry Dawn,” Alast said, scooping up her skull and checking to see if all the shell-chains of her hair were intact, “between the Employer and the Chokechain we’ve got a mausoleum of extra bones for you to pick from.” The skull was oddly quiet.
“Those were,” she eventually said, “me originals. The ribs I was born with. Other skellies tell me replacements never feel the same.” He had no way of refuting that, so he just carried her to where the others were gathered, amongst the stalled balls of the shrine. They recognized their failure, but the bropato wished to reward them for their efforts regardless. Flat noodle-like strands of it, nearly transparent, appeared between the seams of the floor and rose up under both Alast and Bonswario. They wrapped around their wounds, tightened, and broke off, creating soothing bandages.
“What do we do now Captain?” Bonswario asked when he saw Rob sheath his sword.
“I don’t know,” the man admitted, grabbing one side of his mustache as if he hung from a cliff by it. “Something tells me that means nobody knows. Nobody of this world anyway.”
“There has to be a way to stop it,” Pearlen growled, but didn’t have anything to offer beyond that.
“We failed, my loyal soldiers. One tile is claimed by our enemies. Seven more are in their sights. If we are to succeed next time… it will require a different commander. I will have to transform into a soldier as well. It’ll take everyone and everything. Perhaps then we can scratch it.”