(reading time: 1 hour 16 minutes)
Turning History’s Page
The Tributaroads were the greatest paths in Porce, but there was one feature that forced them to divert; it sent the road Flatsprung snapping toward the stalls, where it then split into Yellow Trail and widened into the Stain Plain. Such a turn ended the road’s ambition of stretching all the way from Black Gap to the Threewall Wild, perhaps even ending folk efforts to cut trails into that indomitable wood altogether.
Turned away it was by thirty-two plots of land arranged in two rows of sixteen. Each piece was stubborn on its own, but together not even an Oath could’ve moved them without a conflict that could’ve punched a massive hole in the World Floor itself. These thirty-two akers, topographical siblings in an accord spanning back to the shattering, were called the Line in the Sand. They took no travelers, no matter the offering, and never strayed from each other.
Everyone knew the stories, hence the extreme fear in the eyes and hunched shoulders of nearly every papist in Yugo’s pocket. Their leader had taken them not just near the line, but into it. Nearly five hundred of his coalition marched in a narrow band between the borders of the first and second aker on sinkside. None below his knuckles were privy to the details of the plan, and there was no indication that any of the cardinal tiles were close by.
“Nyt ban da-loc,” a tilefolk with fluffy brown fur mentioned to the lightfolk he marched behind.
“I know we shouldn’t be here,” the woman hissed back, “but I’m not in charge am I? By all rights we should be heading back to Hole to celebrate. Second’s already there having a grand time without us.”
“Dahnarda stan-dlak Yugo fin-dah aker?”
“How should I know if Yugo can slay one of these monsters?” She paused until the person behind both of them shoved them forward with the dull horn of their purple-painted head hammer. “Don’t they say that the cardinal tiles were made from aker hearts?”
“Nah, am bott prykl aker, beyd kupf ek-sah.”
“Hearts, spines, doesn’t matter. What I’m suggesting is that if Yugo and Bomboy kill one they might know how to make a new cardinal tile out of it! We could make seven more of our own without having to traipse back and forth across the floor like some puttering tinkerer! We just take the new ones straight to Hole and watch the light shine in!”
“Denk stan. Mah fwd-uyp,” the tilefolk said in Pawtymouth, promising to pass the idea on to the rest of the marchers in the hope of calming their nerves. It did indeed move through the army swiftly, so swiftly that one of the last folk to say it did so so urgently that they didn’t realize who they were speaking to. Their eyes would’ve widened if they weren’t gravefolk, for the one listening was none other than the duke himself.
“Oh that is clever Mr. Cuticlr, but I assure you that is not our purpose today.” He stopped, stalling the entire procession, trapping them on the neutral strip between the two creatures. He turned to his left and saw one head of the first aker in the line. Each of the ancient animals had horns all their own, and this one’s resembled a fancy fork with long tines and a few pieces of skewered bibcraw meat.
Yugo told his knuckles to hold the line while he ran with swift bonepicking, getting as close to the aker’s head as he could without stepping on its back. With a focused, ear-splitting, crystalline snap of his finger bones, Yugo summoned Bombast down from above. He preferred to hover most of the time, trailing the army like a kite. While the gravefolk waited he examined the aker’s features closely.
Its head and neck were massive, even for its kind. Its matte obsidian hide didn’t retreat into the ground of its body gracefully as they usually did, for its bulging shoulder muscles looked like domes of volcanic ash bursting from the heat underneath. He wondered if there were veins of magmata within it, giving it a fighting spirit surpassing its neighbors.
“Oh don’t move,” he mocked it, “your position is just perfect.” Bombast stepped down from his throne and asked why he had been summoned. “It’s time for our big plan! Can’t you see the potential of this beast?” It’ll crush Rob lower than any worm in Porce, down to where he belongs. You know I’ve heard he’s already been there.”
“Rob? That was the man with the green mustache, right? I don’t see why he’s of any concern.”
“Well he isn’t since nothing can stop us. Defeating him will just provide some emotional satisfaction. More than any folk has ever felt I think. It’ll feel even better than the second cleaning…” The skeleton was practically groaning by the last sentence, but jumped out of it when Bombast nearly walked onto the aker’s back.
“Why are you stopping me? Isn’t the beast up there somewhere?” Bombast asked, pointing into the field past the aker’s neck.
“No, it’s already before us. This is its head.”
“Looks like nothing more than an ugly statue.” The ground rumbled, frightening their five hundred soldiers to their knees. A slight wave moved through the field, making grass and flowers roll, sending the few rabards and ratmuns that burrowed into its flesh bounding out. “I guess it understood me.” There wasn’t a speck of fear in his voice, and worse, not a bit of curiosity either.
“Only legendary figures have ever tamed akers,” Yugo explained. “They’ve never been properly utilized in modern war waging, but that’s about to change. No matter what any army of Porce pulls out, they will flee when we drop one of these on their heads.”
“Drop? They can jump?”
“Oh no jumping. You’re the one that gave me the idea. Just do as we discussed.” Yugo pulled out a rolled document he had stuffed into his pelvis and opened it for Bombast to see. There was an ink drawing of an aker viewed aerially. Several spots and seams were marked, accompanied by arrows that implied an awful lot of unnatural bending. Bombast analyzed it for a few moments, orange irises swirling faster than usual.
“Alright.” He stepped back, his throne of fissile material rotating in front of him. With a swipe of his hand he pulled a stack of circles from one of its armrests, the material separating so fluidly that there were no holes left behind when he was done. One by one he swiped the disks, sending them flying out over the aker’s meadow. Each moved with a mind of its own, quickly separating and shrinking out of sight. A hundred drips passed. “They are now in position.”
“Perfect! Now we just need a speech.” Yugo pulled out a small silver bath bead that looked like ripples in a spoonful of water; it would serve to magnify his voice so his entire force, and the other akers, could hear him.
“Must we?” Bombast groaned. “You take more opportunities for bloviating than you do steps.”
“Look you’re not from here and you don’t know how things are done!” he snapped, realizing too late that the bead was already working. He cleared his nonexistent throat. “Folk fear of the akers ends today! They are creatures of the dirt, so eager to bury us because they know they will be swept away in the second cleaning!” Despite his confidence his folk were still too terrified to applaud. “Watch as I tame it the same way I would scrape muck from my shoe!”
The purple papist whipped out his crescent blade and bonepicked through the air, well over the aker’s head. The creature had the reflexes of a chalky boulder, so it didn’t immediately respond, only when a loop of his chain descended and wrapped around its neck. Kruuuh! The edges of the meadow shifted, layers of soil rising like brown bread sliced out of a deep pan.
Yugo pulled his chain taut from the base of its neck, standing between its shoulders as if holding the reins to his steed. Its physical protest was powerful enough to destroy a village, and his folk wanted nothing to do with it, but they were forced to make a decision when the neighboring akers stirred from their sandy-eyed torpor. The closest one to Yugo’s was already rising, bellowing and kicking at the sky, scratching away at the lowest clouds when its body curled into a slope that no ordinary folk could scale.
“Let’s see some of that faith you proclaim!” Yugo boomed into the bead, managing to hold the aker’s head under control with a single arm. “Which place looks safest to you?” With no time to run to either end of the creatures, his forces piled onto the back of the one Yugo had reined. Many stumbled as it shook under their feet. “You too Bombast.” The alien man stepped up onto the meadow, unimpressed.
An aker’s first reaction to invasion was always the same: an attempt to curl its body like a tightly-rolled rug that would squash anything larger than a bug. The front and back were already curling, so his army bunched up as close to its center as possible. They wouldn’t be crushed until the last moment, which Yugo judged as giving him enough time to provide some educational context.
“Some of you will be familiar with the book Garden of Akerly Delights. Hold still you!” He yanked the chain to still its writhing head. “Written long ago by a quarter-Custodian who found that aker emotions were influenced by botanical arrangements on their backs.” They pleaded for him to get on with it when the other head came into focus, atop a rapidly approaching wall of grass and trees.
“Should I do it now?” Bombast asked nonchalantly.
“Not yet! Listen, I’m teaching here. This author experimented by planting all sorts of different things in different patterns across aker backs. They found that trees along the spine fortified its will, root vegetables in its corners enhanced its kindness, and that animal gourds near its head convinced it to travel more often.”
“Now!” his forces screamed in unison.
“Nowish!” the purple papist snapped back. “At the core of their discoveries was actually the placement of the aker nervous system and its vital pressure points. No device has ever been swift or powerful enough to manipulate them… until now!” He pointed at Bombast.
“Now!” all of Porce seemed to declare. Bombast snapped his fingers. His distributed disks were placed on all the pressure points indicated in the diagram, meaning that they had slowly, and painlessly for the aker, inserted themselves deep into the soil and against clusters of nerves like tangled roots. With his snap the first one went to work, spinning and pushing at such high velocity that it created a bolt of pain unlike anything the creature had ever felt. Its second head, the one that nerve bundle was closest to, cried out, and its curling stalled in the air.
By now the neighboring aker had managed to turn itself, leaving behind a gargantuan muddy smear, and was crashing in the direction of the papists. If it made it there it would certainly stretch as far as it could and clap down on them like a cellar door, but the disks were meant for more than stalling natural reactions.
“Execute the folduction!” Yugo cried. Bombast held up his other hand and snapped several times more, one for each other distributed node. They came to life, each sanding away at the calcified parts of the nerve tangles. Muscles that were actually just strata of stone twitched, creating small quakes that crumpled the field above.
For Bombast it was a simple maneuver, needing only a handful of folds. The scale of the act mattered not, given that some whole worlds could be destroyed by just a fingertip of his fissile material. The aker could only obey the painful prodding, contorting its body into the shape that most relieved the torturous pressure.
All the while Yugo’s soldiers had to vie for safe pockets and grips. Several times the ground creased under them, and those creases grew deep enough to swallow and crush them with ease, something that did occur to one gravefolk who couldn’t hobble away fast enough on the doorknob prosthetic replacing their left foot.
“You’re losing a couple of your own people,” Bombast noted, though he didn’t slow his manipulations.
“We’re all going to the same place,” Yugo said as excuse. “It’s practically an honor to be one of the last to die in this fouled-up mortal pot. Besides, none will have time to look at death when they see the World Floor from such… an… incredible… summit!” Yugo twisted the chain to apply more pressure. He spoke into the bead again, warning his followers to stay off the wings unless they wanted to fall to their deaths.
It only added to the confusion, for they couldn’t identify anything looking like wings. It took another few folds for them to form, but when they did none could believe their eyes or sockets. What had been a field shortly before was now a peaked arrangement of folded and bent layers, a shape that raised Yugo far off the surrounding ground atop a bent projection like the bill of a bird. The comparison became unavoidable when the two longest pieces on either side obeyed the blunt orders from Bombast’s disks, flapping up and down and generating an incredible gust that ripped out nearby shrubs and their roots.
(Blaine’s Note: I’ve made a note similar to this once before, during the first break. Young Alast witnessed the construction and use of war vehicles made from the papery wood bropato. They bore a strong resemblance to origami frogs. I’m afraid Yugo did the same sort of the thing to that poor aker, creating something like an origami crane.)
“It’s actually working,” Bombast noted with a scrunched lip. “By weight alone this shouldn’t be able to take off.” Yet it clearly had, as Yugo and what remained of his force now soared upon its back, the aker crying out in anguish as it circled its brethren. The papists couldn’t enjoy it either, busy as they were clinging to any tree trunk still firmly stuck in its body. A few of the other akers reached out, stretching higher than the papists thought possible, but they couldn’t come close.
“Akers have some of their own gravitation,” Yugo explained to Bombast. “The tiles we seek were made from them after all. Mix that with the right shape and flight is achieved!”
“What exactly do you plan to do with this gliding property?”
“Drop it on all those who resist! If it cracks we’ll use the others. If you’d please distribute your tools to the rest of the Line in the Sand, we’ll get all these slouches picked up.”
“That won’t be possible. Manipulating each of those disks takes a portion of my focus. I only have so much.”
“Shame you can’t borrow a cup from me,” Yugo lamented. “I’ve got focus for days, washes, rests! Ahh well. How many can we have?” Bombast looked down at the now disorganized line. Many of their obsidian heads slithered through the dust cloud like swimming serponts.
“Four at a time.”
“Excellent! One would’ve been more than enough. Now we fly! We fly my friends! We’ll flatten them all to Kingdom Cumb!”
To Kingdom Cumb
Most of them had never attended such a summit of respectability, and almost none of the most-respected folk there looked pleased at that. The meeting of the Tandem Flush took place atop Rinlatour, not because it was the most secure or traditional location, but because it was already the most efficient travel hub for Teal’s mirror network, allowing flushes, their processions, and their guards to make their way from all over the world extremely quickly.
The venue was the luxurious garden courtyard of the Odettr sugar palace: a sprawling manor of sparklerock ceilings and glass walls, some of which were actually made from sugar. Many partygoers in its past had enjoyed licking exotically-flavored dollops of mousse and custard off panes installed just for the occasion, but there was none of that now thanks to the bad taste of flush in everyone’s mouth.
Yugo’s successful capture of Cardinal Second, as reported by Rob, necessitated the meeting. The Tandem Flush was made up of fifty-five rulers of Porce, each bearing the specific title of royal flush, and each had a vote during the dire times that the governing body was called into effect. Not all could attend the summit, but altogether thirty-one of them were present when their host, Royal Flush Mixomirine Bocculum, called them to order.
A long white table set in the grass accommodated them, but the space surrounding it was cramped thanks to all the military commanders, bodyguards, family, and servers present. Get one bubble closer and you’ll feel the spines under our vest! Captain Rob couldn’t recall the last time he’d been afforded so little personal space. Teal appreciated it even less given that she already felt his sharp hip poking into her side.
Remember that this is our punishment. Yugo has always been our responsibility, and now we’ve failed to shove him back in the grave he keeps rising from. We are a weapon now, as is the whole of the Chokechain. There must be a plan, among these powerful minds, that can wield us effectively.
As an officer in Rinlatour’s military, he stood a short distance from Mixomir. The blue prosite, stretched thin over a bergfolk cadaver, sat in its chair calmly, surveying the look of the other cultures present, though none were so glossy and strange as it. Down the sides, picking at their food with forks so fancy they could barely hold the weight of each bite, were the permanently tilted necks of the Riding Rail elite, bearded woodsfolk men and women from the outskirts of the Threewall Wild, the dried flower-wearers that cultivated the topmost of the Bottomless Rot, curly-furred tilefolk of the richest Tributaroads, cloud drinkers of Airy-go-Round and Revokodor, scholars of the Black Gap, and even representatives of the eternal rival cities Corner and Truecorner, managing to sit next to each other without spilling blood no less.
“Thank you all for coming,” Mixomir began, silencing the numerous discussions. At the table the prosite was flanked by its advisors Claudize and Skuldug, who would be happy to make a scene if any of them questioned the leadership of the body-possessing blob. “Today’s vote is the most vital yet, so we should open this table to as much discussion as possible, even if it keeps us here after dark.”
“I don’t know about that!” a flushess from the Flooded Front scoffed. “Many of us already know there’s no point in trying to cooperate with the Broken Fix. Their minds are addled by that glue holding their cities together.”
“Well that’s the uncomfortable rub of it, isn’t it?” the flush of Oridin said, stroking his goatee. “This vote is necessary because King Cumcarumb the sixth is absolutely mad.” The royals pointed things out back and forth, making the distant king’s persona very clear to those without chairs.
“Some would say he’s only mad because he’s denied a place here.”
“That’s not our fault; it was Cumcarumb the first who abdicated the title of flush.”
“Is he still campaigning to regain it?”
“Of course! But it takes a vote from this body to confirm a new flush, and we meet less than once every five rests on average. We’re driving that average up right now, granted.”
“Will he take his head out of his loins and start Cardinal Third moving again if we grant it to him?”
“He’s thoroughly convinced he can protect it himself,” Mixomir explained. “He’s informed me that he plans to use this opportunity, an opportunity of his own making he was quick to point out, to prove he is worthy of the title. Besides, even if we could change his mind, I don’t believe we would have enough votes to confirm him. I’m told he has personally wronged or insulted no less than half this body.”
“You’re a whole insult to that body you’re growing on,” someone muttered. One of Mixomir’s heavily armed guards twitched, her gauntlets rattling, but Skuldug took care of it with her voice mimicry and throwing talent, immediately producing an apology from the offender’s mouth. “So sorry, don’t know what came over me, some shadow cast on my teeny weeny brain, perhaps by a floating speck of dust.” So believable it was that even the target seemed confused, and somehow Skuldug did it while slurping her creamy soup.
“There’s no possible way he can do it on his own. There isn’t a fortress on Broken Fix that can withstand the powers we’ve witnessed. If he’s not going to properly hide Third we’ll need to supply him with reinforcements.”
“The others are still safely in motion. Can we just allow Third to be captured?”
“The blighters already have one! Wahdah num de plann dahnarda pas dah?”
“Idequa la quelay reduqualaquay.”
“Where’s that fellow with the green lip. I want to hear it from him.” Captain Rob shouldered his way forward, pricking a few folk enough to draw blood; all flush eyes turned to him. “You’re the one. You and your folk fought this Bombast, yes?”
“Aye, we did.” If you can call it fighting.
“So what say you? Does Cumcarumb have any chance of fending him off?”
“There’s a greater chance of the florent snuffing out forever,” Rob admitted to a few gasps from flushes with more delicate constitutions. “Some would correctly call me the greatest bonepicker in the world, and I was wielding a bonepicking weapon crafted by the unrivaled Peako Dagyvr.”
“Don’t remind me!” a voice called from the crowd. Rob stood on his toes to see and spotted the hair and eyes of the weaponsmith himself, somehow looking very separate from everyone else despite the scrunching. What is he doing here? We’ll have to snag him after the vote. There must be something molten up his sleeve, something he just needs to cool on before we can have it.
“And? Mr. Greenlipr?” someone asked to draw his attention back.
“It’s Ordr actually,” he corrected. “As I said I’m a trained fighter, a fleshy bonepicker with crystal bones, a sea captain of many rests, and in line with a Custodian to boot. None of that mattered versus the Bombast beast.”
“How exactly did the… not-mattering… occur?” a nervous stuttering flush asked.
“The pants-down is that Bombast’s material as he calls it is indestructible by normal means as well as infinitely flexible. I have no idea how to damage it, short of using some of the more destructive bath beads that tend to incinerate their users as well.”
“And what of Yugo? He is of Porce, so we can destroy him. Would that dissuade Bombast from fulfilling the purple papist’s mission?”
“I’m afraid not,” the Captain informed the horrified collective. “Bombast’s destructive will is separate from Yugo’s. I gleaned a few things from a brief conversation with the creature. First, he intends to destroy our entire world. Second, he has the capacity to do so with ease.”
“Mythic mildew! Then how are we still here!?”
“We remain because he has one notable weakness: his strongest weapon.” Three different flushes groaned. “The material he carries with him carries power far greater than the ones he used in hand to hand combat, but to use that power spends a portion of the material. It is a finite resource and he is going to the great lengths of snatching the tiles away from their homes in order to induce a more efficient end to Porce.”
With his piece said, Rob stepped back into the crowd, now wary enough of him to give a foam in every direction. It was up to the Tandem Flush now. The issue before them was simple enough, no matter how heavy it felt:
Through incidental history Cardinal Third had wound up under the protection of a disgraced family atop Broken Fix. The population of that place had always been low, for though it was the same sort of ancient dispenser as the Soapstone Mines, it lacked the resources within, having been cracked and emptied since the birth of the world.
As a show of strength its current ruler, King Cumcarumb the sixth, had defied the Tandem Flush by refusing to keep Cardinal Third moving along its rotation of hiding spots, moving it instead to his surface level fortress called Plumbcrack. He was well known as a selfish and vain man, and it was generally agreed that any attempt to wrestle the tile away from him could result in its destruction.
So Mixomir placed a stack of square envelopes on the table: the votes of the flushes who were not present. Then he asked the question of the day. Should the Tandem Flush send reinforcements to Broken Fix to help the fool fend off Yugo’s and Bombast’s next strike? Yea or nay? The votes were cast one by one around the table, with Mixomir being the last to cast his yea. Altogether it was twenty-eight for and three against. Combined with the absentees it was forty for and fifteen against. It was settled. To Kingdom Cumb.
The meeting was dissolved, but many lingered to discuss the grave recent events. There were plenty who wanted private chats with both captains Rob and Teal, but they each had their own goals to get back to. Teal had vanished the moment the vote was adjourned, before the first flush even separated from their seat. Rob was still there, gliding in and out of pockets of folk in search of Peako Dagyvr. He found the man standing near the entryway leading to the many mirrors that facilitated the vote. Peako raised his hand at the sight of Rob, suggesting he’d been looking for the Captain as well.
“Peako, you’re looking… not at all like your usual self,” Rob greeted. The weaponsmith extended a hand as a formality, but Rob declined the shake, showing off his emerald claws as an excuse; enough people had been cut already. Peako seemed glad to be past the formality as well; his whole body trembled nervously. His fingers played an invisible complicated instrument at his sides while his notoriously heavy-lidded eyes were open and bloodshot. Nine tenths of his goatee hadn’t been shaved in two rinses while one tenth hadn’t seen a razor in three.
“I need you to tell me everything about it Rob,” the man requested hoarsely.
“Bombast’s material.” Rob crossed his arms, opening his mouth once or twice but producing no words. “Come on man, out with it!”
“It resembles metallic ore,” Rob began, “but with no other consistencies. It’s harder than sparklerock when he wants it to be, but with some unseen trigger it moves as a fluid. There’s also a light constantly generated, moving in waves, an orange that makes me sick just to describe, that looks like undergrowth.”
“How much did he have?”
“Enough to enclose himself and Yugo within it as a vehicle… but other reports have said its size varies. It stands to reason that if he can move it however he wishes, then he can do so to every minute portion, changing its density.”
“Incredible. Half my life wasted.”
“What do you mean?” Peako started pacing, shouldering through people trying to reach the mirrors. One of them was a flush, so a bodyguard shoved the man out of the way. He fell over, but Rob lunged over with bonepicking and caught him. All the while the smith babbled to himself and chewed on his nails.
“The half spent searching for the right wood, leather, metal, stone, beads… All pointless. All I will need is my ability to shape; if my damn hands could just calm down, but they’re so ready. They’re conducting the symphony when the music hasn’t even been written!” His arms flew up and flopped back down like wings paralyzed mid-flight.
“You think Bombast’s material is what you need to make it,” Rob realized. As long as the Captain had known the man he’d been completely obsessed with his quest to create the perfect weapon. Most knew only that: Peako was the mad craftsman who could never take pride because every treasure wrought was a failure. We know better. He has never been after the perfect method of destruction. If he had he would’ve shifted to making bombs or acids, something that could flood and act without a will. What he wants is a cleaver, a thing that cleaves pieces of existence apart, frees them from each other. Just a particularly bad reaction to the Gross Truth. Would give his soul to not be a part of a bathroom, not feel its sludge in the rivers of his mind.
“I know it is,” Peako insisted. “Right now it is a destroyer of worlds. It needs only my guiding touch so that destruction can become a cutting edge: the cauterizer. That will be its name. I cannot wait to meet it.”
“You’re ahead of yourself. It would have to be stolen from Bombast.” Peako’s eyes turned Rob’s way slowly. “And you think that’s my job?”
“You’re a pirate aren’t you?”
“I likely won’t get away with my life the next time I see that pale thing, let alone anything that belongs to it.”
“You need to try Robin. We all need to try… so that I can succeed.”
“Touching in your selflessness Mr. Dagyvr, and I will snag a piece if I can, but the chances are somewhere in the center of a deep dark zero.”
“I’m going with you,” Peako blurted. “I have to see it myself. To Kingdom Cumb! Are we leaving now? Come on old friend, to Kingdom Cumb!
The journey was close to intolerable, given the amount of time it took. Spoiled the elite of the world had become with access to Teal’s mirrors, but they still only offered instantaneous travel between a limited number of points. So far there had been no reason to set one up directly on the Broken Fix, forcing them to instead move their forces to the wall just above and march them down to the outcropping: travel that took six days.
Along the way many contingents joined up and marched together, amassing into a singular force united mostly by their distaste for their destination. Rob’s sailors, with the exception of a skeleton crew back aboard the Chokechain, were joined by a hundred other bergfolk of Rinlatour, two hundred and fifty lightfolk from the farmlands squeezed between the edge of the Threewall Wild and Third Sink, and one hundred and thirty tilefolk of Tookewl: a settlement on the lip of Second Sink overlooking the Toohewt Sea.
Everyone got along surprisingly well, but nothing could save their morale after they took their first steps into Kingdom Cumb. The Broken Fix, before the kingdom, was a land of bridges spanning its many deadly canyon-cracks, and there wasn’t a single one that didn’t charge them a toll, per head, to pass. The booths had clearly been hastily installed in the past few days just to tax the passage of the Tandem Flush’s forces.
Sparking an incident by withholding payment could doom their efforts before they even reached the fortress, so the soldiers paid out of their own pockets, sometimes passing coins between hundreds of folk to make sure they went where they needed to go. One especially confident toll-taker, manning his booth all by his lonesome, processed them individually and swore that if even a single folk’s pet snuck through the king would know about it with just the snap of his fingers. There was some discussion later whether or not that fellow was even affiliated with Cumcarumb’s army.
After reinforcing the king’s coffers they were eventually welcomed into the kingdom proper. The Broken Fix had only two natural resources in great abundance: rubble from cave-ins beneath their feet and the scummy residue from ancient Soapstone deposits. Kingdom Cumb used them both to odd effect, constructing most of their buildings from the boulders and binding them with a shockingly blue adhesive made from the residue. The glue webbed across most walls holding the uneven pieces of stone together. Some towers even resembled poorly balanced cairns left in the woods by dimwitted children.
The fortress Plumbcrack was surrounded by soldiers more than doubling the number the Tandem Flush had dispatched, but they were extremely disorganized. The purpose of their blue and gray uniforms was utterly defeated by all the individual stains, rips, and rolled-up sleeves present. None of them stood at attention when given orders, and they responded to those orders sluggishly as if just delaying a midday snack.
It had to be the smell that had them acting that way; the whole city reeked of the undoubtedly toxic glue holding it together. It was a smell like something slowly burning, issuing a harmful runoff that hung too low to be called smoke. Rob was reminded of some of the throwaway slag produced during the refining of gummine: a substance that was disposed of immediately by deep burial rather than this glue’s honorific role.
The visitors quickly felt lightheaded and nauseous, and only a select few were lucky enough to receive an invitation inside the fortress to speak with the king. Surely his chambers were better insulated against it and filled with counteracting potpourri. Before that though they had to make it up Plumbcrack’s stairs to the main doors: a challenge indeed thanks to them being little more than hardened yet slippery cascades of the glue itself.
Twenty of them, mostly commanders and their officers, were summoned inside, but two gave up after slips on the stairs. Another had to rest at the top, waving the others on between bouts of panting. The Captain made it inside along with Bonswario and Pearlen, all three of them taking a deep breath as soon as the guards shut the doors.
Dehwaaaaaaah! Duh-duh-wah-dehwaaaaaah! An organ wailed. The instrument stood at the end of the chamber, steely pipes reaching to the ceiling, an aged woman with bent back and even more bent fingers dragging herself across the keys. The music was deafening, but the many Cumbians lined up along the walls didn’t seem to notice; they didn’t seem to notice anything at all.
The commanders of the reinforcements walked forward, down a carpet unfurled for them, toward King Cumcarumb, who stood in his most regal attire at the foot of the organ. A wilted pewter crown sat askew on his head thanks to an asymmetrical ear. His terrible posture turned his beard into lichen hanging from a dead branch.
Dreadful dirge shaking the air, an awful selection for a national anthem indeed, the commanders had no choice but to draw closer and try to keep their hands off their ears. That was actually the least of their problems, as the organ pipes issued blasts of air directly on them, enough to move their hair. That’s not air! It’s nothing but fumes! The smell is even worse in here. It’s like Alast’s mist had a disgusting brood within the colon of a sulfurous aker!
The music finally ceased when the king raised his hand. Curiously, the woman did not stop playing; another servant had simply pulled a lever that disconnected the keys from the rest of the instrument. Their introductions were punctuated by the crazed elder humming and smashing fruitlessly.
Bonswario was doubled over, hands on his knees and eyes closed, doing a touch better than the three commanders crawling on the carpet at various distances behind him. Rob looked about to see if he could sneak in a word with Pearlen.
“Pearlen,” he whispered, words dripping out of his lips heavy and moist.
“Yes Captain?” she responded sluggishly, her shield hanging lower with each passing moment.
“The time for our secret strike may be imminent. Can you,” he inhaled deeply and regretted it, “use it here?”
“I think bleurh so.” The sounds coming out of her weren’t quite hiccups, more like bouts of vomiting so brief that the contents couldn’t actually escape.
“This glue has my vision blurring; are you sure you will be able to aim it?”
“My vision’s always blurred Captain. I bleurh can compensate.” He nodded, head so heavy that it nearly pulled him over. Straightening himself with bonepicking and locking into the best posture of the bunch, he listened to the king’s greeting.
“Welcome all to Kingdom Cumb! You look weary from your journey, but I hope you have enough energy for my grand tour. Follow me so I can show you where you’ll be staying. Keep up or I’ll put you in the basement!” His citizens laughed on cue, a sound like a machine still managing to move its parts after being sunk in a bog.
“Possible it be… to see Cardinal Third first business order?” one of the tilefolk grumbled. It was unclear whether his Wide Porcian was poor or if his mind was simply as awash in fumes as everyone else’s. The king, already ten steps into his tour, stopped dead and whirled around. One of his eyes was wide open in rage, but the other was still sleepy.
“So you can sneak it away when I’m not looking!?”
“That wouldn’t even be practical anymore,” another commander barked. “I don’t feel I could carry a cloud out of this accursed place.”
“Accursed you call it! You don’t want the tour, that’s fine. Out!” The woman left under what power remained in her legs, with the others staring longingly. If they get kicked out they can argue there was nothing to be done about it. We can’t be remiss. The tile is in here somewhere and Yugo, devoid as the bastard is of nose and brain, will have no trouble wading through this toxin to claim it. We must find it.
“Some of us… who are less rude, be waiting for this… fancy tour,” Bonswario managed. It was good thinking, as it got Cumcarumb moving again, smiling and running his hands across the blue veins of the walls. They followed him into a much narrower passage lined with rectangular patches without dust, suggesting many portraits had hung there until recently. The previous kings likely. He doesn’t want us thinking of kings; he wants to be flushed by the time we leave here.
“These walls have held strong for thirty rests,” Cumcarumb recited. He stopped and smelled them, eyelids fluttering. “These beautiful walls that fill me with inspiration.” His nose followed a blue vein along its winding path. It was coincidentally heading in the same direction of the tour, so he walked as he did so. “You’re all experiencing its history right now; the gravitation of wise decisions weighs down all impulses here. Plumbcrack breaks the will of the aggressor… Now over here is the breakfast dining room; pay close attention to the hundred egg skillet, which-”
“This will be the death of us,” Pearlen whispered to her two companions. “How are all these bleurh Cumbians still alive?”
“They must have a tolerance… or the sensitive parts of their innards are fully burned away,” Rob guessed. “It’s not just arrogance that convinced him he could keep Third safe. Anybody who attacks this city is subdued by the glue. I doubt Bombast and the gravefolk will care.”
“I’m seeing spots,” Bonswario moaned, pointing out a nearby window. The Captain’s eyes narrowed, but couldn’t focus. The window must have just been dirty, for he saw the dots as well: a line of four black pips out in the middle of the sky.
“And now to the armory,” Cumcarumb continued, a word that reminded Rob of his one other associate mixed in with the reinforcements. Thinking became more difficult all the time as his will pushed through the furry layers created by the fumes, but he solidly remembered that Peako Dagyvr was not only with them on their journey, but that he had ascended the stairs with the commanders thanks to his fame. Rob turned to examine the others.
As the only bonepicker he was the sole body standing tall. Even though they were all hunched or leaning on the wall, it was clear Peako was not among them. Where did he get off to? He’s a genius. We all need to be getting off here in Kingdom Cumb. The powers that be are rigid, but the scoundrel powers of we are fluid.
“You two keep the king engaged,” Rob quietly instructed his crew. “Ask questions about every boring spoon and doily. I’m off to find the tile.” They nodded, nearly falling over from the effort. Splitting up was a laborious process, given how often the king angled his head to see the back of the procession, but eventually Pearlen and Bonswario drifted to the front and so close to him as to have his full attention. After that Rob only needed for one of the twisting corridors to twist hard enough that he could stall his feet and disappear behind it.
The man was certainly not at his best, his footfalls loud and uneven, but the many servants and guards of Plumbcrack were not attentive enough to care. Several times he opened a door to see a cook or maid wilted in a chair, napping with their eyes open. One of them even offered him a bite to eat, but he slurred a polite refusal.
Focus. Stop focusing on focusing and just focus! Where would he keep the tile? The walls are all held together by this glue. If someone did attempt theft they could melt it and pry through the walls with ease. It would take a safe of significant size, and even then its metal walls would surely stand out. Eventually he theorized a downward direction for his search. The ground of the Broken Fix, even in the heart of its capital city, was still riddled with fissures and caves. It stood to reason that the most fortified structure might be a basement with thick natural walls.
He regretted his own cleverness almost immediately, for the fumes became more concentrated the more stairs he descended. By the third flight he was crawling down them on his back, trying to devise ways to get fresh air without actually leaving. Moments from the revelation on how to achieve it he slipped, sliding down the cascading blue bumps until he collided with a wall that still seemed twenty foams away when he hit it.
The man rolled a short distance, miraculously short given that another foam would have sent him down a chasm. Rob caught the only breath the castle would allow and stared down into it. Its stone sides were devoid of glue, but its darkness prevented him from seeing much else. There was one iron lamp affixed to one end, half-swimming in the shadow, meaning that folk were supposed to go down there at least some of the time.
Rob exerted five times the effort it should have taken to stand, making it to his feet. His honed bonepicking afforded him the ability to sense large gravitation forces like the tile’s, but not down to its precise location. Before entering Plumbcrack he felt that it was inside, but with the fumes addling him he couldn’t bring the sense forth to check if it was actually beneath his feet.
A ladder. If Cumcarumb ever goes down there he needs a ladder. Where is it? Piss it’s dark down here. Or has our brain gone dark? Without enough coordination remaining to walk, the Captain slid his feet along the edge of the crack, searching for the ladder. He found it almost immediately, a series of iron rungs near the lamp, and assumed he could reach it by carefully following the edge of the chasm.
Somehow he passed it. Twice. Either its shape was fluid or his perception was. Every moment of it was torture, only one thought coalescing in the bubbling fatback grease of his mind. This has happened before. Our mind is assailed. There is a hole before us, pulling us down. How many times?
When we got our emerald bones. Bath bead vapor and a hole in the ground. Shock that nearly broke our child soul.
When we fell in Winchar, down into the depths, starved and concussed and drunk on clean water.
When we were in the Pipes, nothing but a hole itself. Walking in the crystallized garden-graves of the first. They invaded our mind, showed us we could be blown away with less than a breath. All they cared about was our body. Our bones. We, Captain Kilrobin Ordr, are just the mold that grew inside their creation. These holes are disposal chutes. Destiny tries to take us back and clean us out because we’re the wrong sort of stain for this bathroom. We don’t walk with the sort of dignity they feel entitled to see.
And now we’re here before another one, attacked again on fronts we can’t strangle the life from. It can’t be our chronic Bocculum illness. We’ve had our bout and now we’re immune; Mixomir assured us of that. It’s a concentrated attack. As concentrated as we are not… concentrate! Get the tile! Rob leaned over the side and found he’d finally positioned himself over the ladder. He bent his knees and extended a hand, not sure when it would actually touch.
A tiny breeze hit the back of his neck, tumbling over the scarred kiss Vyra left just above his beard. The sensation was as close to delightful as possible, state that he was in. His hand stalled. What was that? The push to make us fall in? If it was, it became more insistent. Strong enough to be called a wind this time, it coursed down the stairs, circled the room, and flooded down into the crack, nearly taking him with it.
Stones shifted and groaned, the glue holding them squeaking. Plumbcrack changed shape slightly under the incredible pressure, and Rob very much doubted a wind could do that until the next gust ripped him from the ground and rolled him painfully across the wall.
Never have we heard such a booming. What was that? Is there… blood in our ears!? Rob stood once more, feeling a dozen fresh bruises swell across his skin. A chunk of glue-coated rock was skewered on his mustache, but there wasn’t time to crush it before the wind came again, stronger, and stayed.
Many allied with the Tandem Flush had their own designs within the fortress, but those plans were blasted to dust with that devastating sound. Every commander, no matter how seasoned, lost all their experience to it and became a ball of panic, loosely held together, bested by the rending winds that already tore up the surrounding buildings. Plumbcrack was next, but it drew the whole of the force’s ire. Before it could tumble, a lance of bedrock pierced its top and penetrated far past its depths into the hollow of the Broken Fix.
It struck right into the chasm Rob had hemmed and hawed over, dropping in front of him and filling it up. Everything was dust and debris, preventing him from looking up and seeing the lather of land stretching into the sky. He could judge its character, for it was a wall before him, most odd in its jostling, like a burrow trying to tunnel into a cavern and arguing with itself every step of the way.
This wall of land was covered with grass, weeds, and small flowers, though every petal had long since blown off, leaving shocked, pocked, brown, and bald stems behind. The Captain touched it, very aware that it was supposed to be ground and not a wall at all. The gust had ceased for the moment, taking with it most of the fumes, but he was still too stunned to think properly.
Some minds in the vicinity had had their time to adjust, and so went about their mission quickly. They poured out of slits in the invader by the tens, spreading out into the bottom of Plumbcrack in search of their quarry. It was impossible for most to hear them over the thrashing of their delivering meadow, but Rob was close enough. He stuck his eyes and ears down the space between the grass and the rock of the fortress.
“Hurry! Get it!”
“We can’t find anything in this mess!”
“Duke Yugo aimed us true himself! You’ll find that tile or he’ll aim you true off this beast’s side!”
It cannot be! Rob smelled the wall of turf. It was true; he knew that scent anywhere. Yes it was like rock and mulch and all the little animals crawling shallowly within, but there was also the freshness of babbling brook blood and the acidity of straining muscle. An aker. Yugo had attacked with an aker, somehow throwing it off the World Floor and all the way up to Rob’s nose.
Unbelievable as it was, the overheard chatter made their goal as obvious as ever. The Captain concluded that the tile was indeed down there somewhere, and that Yugo would have his amethysts around it promptly. That left no time for Rob find his compatriots, but he would not let another one slip out of his grip. If there was a way out of the aker there had to be a way in; Rob drew his bonepicker’s sword and poked along the grass in search of an opening.
“We’ve got it!” someone shouted from below. “Get it aboard!”
“Do we say aboard with this muddy thing?”
“Just get it on the aker damn it!” They were just out of sight, only a layer or two away; Rob cursed. He stuck the tip of his sword in the turf and spun his entire body, turning the weapon into a screw. The hole bored became five foams deep, more than ten times what was needed to raise an aker’s ire normally, but it went nowhere and drew no response. Clearly he was about to fail; once the aker was dislodged it just had to throw itself off the Broken Fix and it would be forever out of his reach.
The wall pulled up faster than he could’ve run across it, revealing onyx sinew to his left. Such flesh was only present near the aker’s double heads, so it was moments from extricating itself entirely. The great beast stalled however, shuddering indecisively, giving Rob a chance to see a slit. The aker’s been folded! How is that possible? What could… Bombast. Folduction. Yugo used the fiend’s power to folduct the living land! It could’ve jumped up here in the form of an ogtot, or… The pirate recalled the dots seen out the window, the spots shared between his and Bonswario’s eyes. Not illusions or dirt spots after all. Flying akers in the distant sky. Folducted flappers and gliders bringing an army to Kingdom Cumb.
His mind raced now that the air had cleared. A folducted piece of paper had small spaces within that could be chambers to the smallest of bugs, meaning a folducted aker had something like a floor plan: reliable consistent spaces inside that could hold folk. The slit had to lead to one, for he could hear Yugo’s underlings bickering as they dragged Cardinal Third deeper inside.
“Why aren’t we in the air yet? We pulled the signal line!”
“Aker’s sluggish. It was those fumes. Blasted beast needs to pull out before it gets parasites crawling all over it.” We’re no parasite and we certainly don’t crawl, but here we come regardless. Rob scrunched up into a cannonball and bonepicked into the slit. The air inside was damp and cloying. Even with his feet under him he felt unstable, for the passage didn’t have a floor so much as a swollen crease like a heavy tome opened to the middle. One side was covered with undergrowth, much of it chopped down to the base by the friction of the folding, while the other was bare soil dotted with round stones.
We’ve never had the privilege of walking through an aker dissection trail, but there was that helpful illustrated guide of one in our old library. These round rocks should never be visible. They’re hemaliths, meant to grind up any swimming creatures that invade its waterway arteries. The fact that they’ve been squeezed into the flesh like this means this method of locomotion is destroying the creature. It can’t last long… but perhaps long enough to claim all the tiles.
There was another notable feature along the greener side: a chain hammered into the flesh every few foams. He guessed it was what the thieves meant when they said ‘signal line’. It was a method of communication, since hearing their own folk through more than two layers of aker tissue was impossible. Something like three pulls on it tells Yugo they’re ready to destroy the world. Rob recalled the duke’s tendency to spearhead his ventures, and so very much doubted he wasn’t present in that particular spear.
“I’ll just follow this right to you then,” Rob muttered before bursting into a run. Everyone within the beast had to be a bonepicker, he reasoned, as regular folk would find maneuvering in the passages laborious. Sometimes the floor was steep enough to be called a wall and sometimes the passage was so narrow that Rob could only slide through it with stiff limbs. Worst of all, these factors varied based on the aker’s position and movements.
He became caught in one as two folds compressed. Panic spiked when he felt a few of his spikes pierce the soil above and below. If the beast stretched a little bit further he would be instantly crushed, and the emerald powder left behind would not reanimate.
It opened once more, allowing him room to gasp. That meteoric sound is the crack of an aker’s wing beat. It’s the air being broken as it tries to handle something beyond its control. We’re out of Plumbcrack; we’ve taken to the sky. There is no means of escape. A terrible sense of impending doom pounded in his heart, yet he did not slow. Death was inevitable if the fools succeeded, so he thought it better to continue than to huddle up with a patch of intact flowers and cower.
What he hadn’t anticipated was exactly how much could be hidden within the folds of an aker. It was like twenty mansions of passages and empty chambers of incredibly awkward shape. There wasn’t even anything useful to find aside from the signal chains. Those were everywhere, meeting up in clusters before rerouting. Many of them moved in tugging bursts, no doubt sending information to some command body cavity harboring Yugo. Not wanting the papist to have any more information than he already had, Rob sliced every chain but the one he followed.
The damaging din of the wing beats came several times more, usually compressing whatever space he occupied when it did. How much distance does it cover in a single flap? We could be off Broken Fix by now for all we know. He was pulled away from these thoughts by sounds of struggling. It was inevitable that he would run into Yugo’s soldiers, so he readied himself to strike. They were just around the corner, keeping themselves upright by holding one of the chains; it clanged next to Rob.
The pirate leapt over a hurdle of stone, wrapping around the nearest wall at the same time. His target was right where anticipated, his boots ready to obliterate their rib cage and send their swearing skull rolling.
“Rob!” His feet split at the last drip, landing on either side of the woman but still knocking her to the ground.
“Pearlen!” He helped her up, amazed that she’d made it so far into the wallet-like belly of the beast. Not only that, the mirror shield on her arm had not a single crack. If worst came to worst they could escape into the Reflecting Path with it. Even if they fell from the middle of the sky the softness of its false ground combined with Rob’s bonepicking could keep them in one piece. “How did you know to board this monstrosity?”
“Do we say board?” she asked before remembering the more relevant question. “I mean, where else would I have gone? When it crashed into the fortress everything crumbled around us. Bonswario and I got split between debris. It was either crawl in here or stay there with the glue!”
“Obvious decision or not, it was genius. You have the weapon with you?”
“Aye… but if we fire it in here we’ll hurt the aker.”
“I fear it is done for already. You and I may earn their ire, be banished from all aker fields for the rest of our lives, but there’s nothing else to be done.” Pearlen swallowed and nodded.
“Where are they?” Rob pointed to the chain and they resumed following it. They discussed strategy in whispers, having to repeat themselves in the aftermath of wing beats. Pearlen prove herself useful immediately, for she happened to have an excellent theory regarding the command center.
As long as she’d known him, Alast had always been fond of toy folduction. Like knot-tying, it was a crafting activity that relied more on precise motions of the wrist than the fingers, a delight for him given the tremors he sometimes suffered after his rope ladder. He often left paper sculptures of animals all around their shared bed, and many of the birds had something in common: a crease between the wings that rose like a peak, sometimes bulbous at the end.
Pearlen often slowly unfolded and refolded them along the creases to see if she could replicate his work, and her fingers always crossed over that bump: the most obvious feature of the undone thing. If translated to the scale of folk, that bump would be a permanent large opening near the animal’s center, and the ideal spot for a headquarters. She could even approximate its layout and tell her captain where she could wait in ambush while he did the work of distraction.
“And that’s what I’ll do,” he confirmed as they drew close to the bump’s position. The chain was in constant motion, probably because it was one of the few left intact. They could barely hear over its rattling, bu there were voices up ahead. “I’ll go in first and attack, moving past Yugo’s banter in an expedited fashion. When I’ve got Bombast turned away from my entrance I’ll give you a signal. That’s when you emerge and fire at Bombast. It must hit him. Are you sure you won’t mistake him for anything else? The distance could be seventy foams.”
“I see colors just fine,” she assured him, “and nothing else is that awful orange. What’s the signal?”
“I will shout avaricious death mask snatch, then feign performing an avaricious death mask snatch. You are to enter by the end of the first word. The projectile should be leaving just as I throw myself aside, as I start the word snatch. If you kill me you’re off the crew, got it?” She nodded.
A few more details would’ve helped, but they were out of time. They turned to see a slack-jawed gravefolk pointing at them with a trembling finger bone. The woman, as made clear by her shriek, immediately revealed them to the surrounding area. Rob had no choice but to hurl his sword, breaking her skull and sending the rest of her skeleton tumbling.
Rare were his murders where he didn’t provide an opportunity to beg and betray, but this was war. Thinking barely faster than he moved, the Captain reclaimed the weapon and threw himself into the bump before anyone could leave it, that way they would think him alone. The chamber was as Pearlen had guessed; it had a high conical ceiling and a relatively stable floor. It also bore the only decoration within the aker: banners of the purple papist’s many factions hanging from anchors in the beast’s flesh.
At the center of it all was Yugo with his hand over an iron pedestal dispensing the web of chains. No doubt there was some assembly of knobs and figurines within its top, something to provide visual confirmation of each tug received, but the mechanics of it couldn’t have mattered less in the moment. The more crucial mechanism present was the thing Bombast, stood there with his usual vacant expression, his fissile material compressed onto his back and around his shoulders as some sort of pack.
They weren’t alone: six more gravefolk huddled in the back. A few of them stared, but the others were too wrapped up in their work of wrapping up Cardinal Third. The tile was already half obscured under layers of purple and gold cushioning cloth. Rob judged them at a glance, guessing that at least two were elites of Yugo’s knuckle force. There would have to be some banter after all, at least enough to goad Yugo and Bombast to fight without aid.
“Robin!” Yugo squealed with delight. “You owe me Bombast; I told you he’d be joining us.”
“I made no such wager,” the bored fiend stated, though he did stare at the intruder with arms crossed.
“I’d say we should stop meeting like this,” Yugo continued, “but we do have to do it six more times, especially since you seem to be my good luck charm for getting cardinal tiles.”
“You really do have no respect for anything do you?” the Captain asked, beginning the arduous task of circling the outside of the chamber without anyone becoming wise to his maneuvering. “Tearing the akers from the very ground. It’s a cruelty I’ve never even dreamt of.”
“A lack of imagination then.”
“The presence of a heart! Perhaps I’d saw a horn off one’s head if it were sufficiently sedated, but even then it would only go into the hands of the most qualified craftsman or museum.” Another booming wing beat interrupted him, but it was further away. He remembered there had been four dots in the window. “You’re already destroying the world, shredding the very ground you walk on.”
“Pulling up weeds. I can rephrase all day old friend. What are you here for? Only an idiot would challenge Bombast again. You don’t even have your crew this time.” Yugo pulled his crescent blade out from behind the iron pedestal. He swung it just fast enough for the heavy thing to audibly cut the air. “Guard the tile,” he ordered his knuckles when one of them tried to draw their own weapon. “This fight has always been mine.”
“Oh so you want to do this without your Mr. Lodestone over there?” Rob asked, pointing at Bombast with his sword. He was more than halfway to the other side of the chamber, but if his opponent was going to be Yugo instead the aiming would be more difficult. The force of their fight would have to be precise enough to get Bombast to step out of Rob’s way and into Pearlen’s. The pirate stole an upward glance. Two platforms near the ceiling. Wooden balconies mounted in the beast’s flesh, with several more banners over their railings. A jump up and down from them could make for a quick reposition.
“Lodestone he says,” Bombast chuckled, cracking a smile that was also the littlest bit insulted. “As if magnetism could do what I do. Magnetism isn’t fit to bring me my morning coffee.”
“Just an expression,” the strange man said with a roll of his eyes. “Are you two killing each other or what?”
“Or what!” Rob shouted. He made the first move by bonepicking to the far side of the chamber. Yugo was ready for it, throwing out his bladed chain in an arc that would’ve sliced the Captain from his ankles if he didn’t alter course. Embarrassingly familiar with each other’s fighting styles, Rob stalled in the air long enough to kick the flat of the crescent down. The next set of moves happened so quickly that it was difficult to follow: Yugo lunged before the blade was kicked, Rob backed against the wall before Yugo hit, and they both wound up climbing the side of the chamber like bugs in the middle of a significant disagreement during their courtship dance.
Pchi! Pchi! Each fighter punched the wall, embedding their arms like nails holding up portraits. Their blades clashed and shrieked as they hung there, a full twenty foams off the floor. The Captain couldn’t afford to steal glances at Bombast’s position lest Yugo steal some blood in turn, so any further positioning would have to be done mostly by educated guessing.
Logic dictated that, as the most interesting thing in the room, Bombast would be watching the battle. That meant his head was tilted up, distracting him, but also that he wasn’t obligated to shift much in any direction to make room for them. Rob played with his position, withdrawing his arm, running backward along the angle of the wall, and plunging it again in a place he thought more suitable. Yugo mimicked every step of the way and they went right back to swinging and hacking, occasionally sneaking in a kick.
The only way is to drop down on one side of him, pushing him into line with the opening. We can stabilize on the balcony and aim the dive from there. It was as good a plan as any he would find in the aker’s skin folds, so he freed his arm again, spraying dirt clods, and kicked off in the direction of the nearer balcony.
The wooden platform, though hastily constructed, held up against a bonepicking stomp admirably, but not so well against the guillotine slash of Yugo’s crescent. It bit deep into the boards. Rob preferred it go a little deeper, so his heel shot unnaturally far up before snapping down. The strike sent the blade all the way through the bottom. It twisted on its chain, preventing Yugo from extricating it easily. While the purple papist tried, Rob had his single moment to acquire Bombast’s position.
Only three drips at the most, but he had to divide them in half because something across the way, crouched between the second balcony’s railing posts, needed his attention. How did he get here!? No matter. That’s his plan. It only helps ours, but ours has to happen first! With a drip left he looked down and saw Bombast squarely in the middle of the floor; he was playing with a small portion of his material by shaping it into a miniature of Yugo’s crescent and making it dangle and jump in an identical way. Doesn’t feel threatened in the slightest! But if we aim for his toy…
The pirate hopped over the railing and practically fused his legs with bonepicking, turning them into a deadly hammer that could crack the aker’s skull. His forward momentum vanished, transformed into downward thrust. His accuracy proved perfect, and so too did his judgment of Bombast’s reflexes. The fiend stepped back twice in the span of the drip while also sending the tiny crescent melting back into the body of his pack. Even when he seemed oblivious to his surroundings there were still pieces of his mind working at peak efficiency to protect his treasure.
“Avaricious death mask snatch!” Rob bellowed. His legs ached from the impact. There were still clods in the air from it, but he still had a little moving to do. He hurled his gravitation into one cheekbone, one flank of ribs, one knee, and slid far enough to convince Bombast to turn and look. To put his back to the entryway.
Yugo broke through the bottom of the balcony, landing with an even greater force than Rob had. The skeleton went down on all fours, bounding forward, the crescent held in both hands, chopping the ground with each gallop, but it was already clear to Rob that everything would be decided before their weapons clashed again.
Pearlen’s timing was perfect; she stepped over the threshold and knelt to stabilize her mirrored shield in front of her. It was not the weapon, merely its barrel. In her other hand she held the single strand of Whelm the vision’s hair. The rainbow string danced like a worm excited to be used as bait. She had spent many nights playing with it, whispering to it, coming to realize the power it still held and the will animating it.
It was one shot, one blast of the bygone war that shaped Porce’s Age of Building, to be used at her discretion. The few officers and sailors aboard the Chokechain that knew of it agreed there would be no more fitting opportunity, especially after their failure in Metal Block. Spending it now meant the final grasp of death on Whelm’s memory, but the hair pulled itself out from Pearlen’s pinch all on its own, diving deep into her shield.
In the Reflecting Path it immediately absorbed much of the ambient light that followed it around, aurora clouds of it that Whelm had failed to free and no longer consciously guided. The strand spiraled a thousand times in the path’s air, wrapping light around itself, coiling it into a magnificent serpontine beam. Pearlen said nothing so as not to draw Bombast’s eye, but as the beam neared the surface of the shield once more its approach could be heard as an accelerating whine like flaming hailstones.
Emerging as arguably the greatest power living outside the Pipes, the beam could barely be contained and directed. Pearlen’s skin burned and bubbled in the places contacting the shield, but she would hold strong even if it took the arm and the knee guiding it. Even so it pushed her back, forcing her to dig her boots into the aker’s loose soil.
The gravefolk and Bombast could look at it directly without going blind, but the full force of its color and power were stunning all the same. Its firing turned its whine into a resonant wail that could no longer be described as piercing, for there was nothing left to pierce. The very air was its sound and strike, its lightning thrust. Her aim was true.
Bombast rose to the challenge. His forearm locked in front of him as if he were holding a shield, and his material obeyed the silent order, slithering over his shoulder and forming a sleeve. It expanded in an instant into a diamond-shaped shield, pointed in the middle as if it wanted to break up the beam like water. With a flash of that orange light, much swifter than the usual, its surface crystallized and hardened. The two forces collided.
Rob could not stand to look, and he also could not stand at all. The pirate was trapped flat on his back behind Bombast, having tipped himself over like a book to avoid the energy as it hopefully pierced the fiend’s body. At first he couldn’t tell if it was, but some of the color was splashing off to the sides, disappearing into the aker’s flesh as it fused the sediment within to glass.
These plugs of glass were pushed out like splinters almost immediately, followed by surging fresh water. Blood pouring from wounds. The aker’s cry was all about them, but thoroughly suppressed by the wail of Luminatr’s light cannon.
Yugo was upon him, staying just as low, having abandoned his blade to get there faster. It dragged behind him now like a tail. The bonepickers clashed, locking arms and pushing each other around on the floor. Upon the forehead of Yugo’s growling skull Rob saw the reflection of the truth. Bombast withstood the ongoing assault. But he’s shielding! He must know it can damage him. We must break his concentration!
Rob tried desperately to push their tumble toward him so they could sweep his legs out from under, but Yugo was wise to it. They were evenly matched in their bonepicking, so all they did was wobble back and forth like a card balanced on a fingertip. Exacerbating the stalemate were Rob’s new spines, a couple of which lodged in the floor and refused to move. Yugo, by virtue of his horn, was able to stab with his entire head, a move that successfully punctured his foe twice before Rob grabbed it and stilled it.
Not all of Bombast’s material was occupied as shielding; a lump remained on one of his shoulders, churning as the fiend decided what shape to use against the light artillery. Part of it stretched and bent in a form like a stinger. It would be an ideal thing to send whipping across the floor and stabbing Pearlen in the thigh to ruin her aim, but another party had even more ambitious plans for it.
Another one of a kind weapon struck from above: a flung sword dropped precisely from one of the balconies. Its blade was extremely thick and segmented to the point of looking like scaly hide. Its hilt was a glass cylinder with three vibrantly different bath beads compressed like colored drops of oil. The blade stuck fast in Bombast’s shifting material, but only because it was shifting. It had caused no damage, just a stick in mud, but that was precisely what Peako Dagyvr wanted.
Descending on a rope, the weaponsmith was fully determined to claim his prize. He looked like an assassin with a very busy night ahead thanks to the cloth mask covering his face and the collection of sheaths upon his back. To him each one was a failure, even though the richest folk in the world would empty their safes for some of them. Their only use was here and now: stepping stones to true greatness.
Yugo’s knuckles had adjusted to the confrontation well enough to act now, and they went straight for Peako. The man responded swiftly by driving a knife into the ground, its blade aimed at the attackers. With a handle of headstone, an edge that had killed more than a hundred, and a bath bead embedded within called the grave reclaim bead, it made short work of the gravefolk. Streaks of disturbed dirt fanned out from its edge and when they were under each skeleton they began sucking them down, putting them in the graves they should’ve occupied.
He drew out yet another tool, though there was no sheath that could hold such a peculiar shape. When Rob caught a glimpse of it as his tumbling battle found a new angle, he couldn’t quite guess its purpose. It was only when Peako snuck up behind the distracted Bombast and made use of it that it became clear. With one handle in each hand, guiding a ridged metal mouth somewhere between a shellfish and a plow, Peako wrapped and snapped its jaws around the exposed lump of Bombast’s material.
Klinkt! The cut was clean thanks to its fluid state, the stuff safely locked away in the cutter’s maw. Peako wasted no time, immediately fleeing in the direction of Pearlen, disregarding her screaming ancient beam as if it were nothing more than a chirping lightening bug.
“What!? No!” Bombast boomed. He reached out with one hand, manipulating the stolen mass with his invisible influence. Peako was dragged backward, but he refused to open the jaws or relinquish them. He came perilously close to the raging of the beam. It was only the continuous assault that kept Bombast’s focus split enough, kept him from forming the stolen lump into a circular blade that could cut itself free.
He won’t make it out and the cannon must be nearly dry. Rob turned back to Yugo. He let the purple papist take control in their grapple; Rob was forced nearly a foam into the dirt. It poured onto his chest and neck. Yugo’s rage might have forced them both down into the next layer, but Rob countered by relocating all his gravitation into his right fist, the one wrapped around Yugo’s wavy horn: the part he was so proud of that it adorned all his flags. The pirate squeezed harder than he’d ever squeezed anything, harder than most gemstones when they were squeezed into being by the underground groaning of nature itself. Keesh! The amethyst projection shattered in his grip. Yugo disengaged and rolled away, writhing and clawing at the stump in perceived agony.
The hope that he could strike with the beam as his partner died, for just as his sword came swinging down on the back of Bombast’s head the ray faded. The fiend turned his shield and blocked it. The pirate persisted, mounting gravitation against the barrier. Foolish and desperate. The same failed tactic from Metal Block. Only this time he wasn’t sent flying; his trusty bonepicker’s sword, by his side and in his enemies’ since before the Greedy Old Mop, broke at its bend. On its way into the wall it slashed Rob’s side deeply, collapsing him. Blood soaked into his clothes.
Bombast didn’t have time to finish him off, not while part of his precious payload was getting away. He extended his hand again, and even though Peako was already out of the room and around the corner, he was dragged back into sight.
“Pearlen, help him!” Rob sputtered. Despite her burns she responded immediately, pulling her spear from her back and hurling it at Bombast. He didn’t attempt to block or dodge, allowing it to strike him in the neck. It stuck, but only just barely, as if he was made of wood. The fiend spilled no blood, not even a substitute fluid. Peako was nearly in his grasp; the fiend’s fingers seemed to stretch toward him, orange fungal light flashing in his nail beds.
The flung scaly sword, still stuck in a material vein in Bombast’s shoulder, finally activated. Rapidly it unfolded, each line of scales becoming a row of teeth operating on its own, clamping down on the villain and his weaponized ore.
“What is this!?” Bombast seethed. He grabbed at it with both hands, shield softening and warping back into a sleeve. Each time he got a hold of one of the rows biting down into him it broke up into its constituent teeth, and those stuck fast as well as if coated in thorns too small to see. Each piece of that probably took him as long as a regular sword! Still such a thing is not powerful enough?
Though the pestering assault did not have the power to seriously wound such a creature, Bombast was no longer sure. He ripped and tore and crushed, removing it piece by shrinking piece. It took all of his attention and by the time he looked back at the doorway it was empty; Pearlen and Peako had fled together.
“No! Never has anyone! How do they dare!? It’s not physically possible to dare that much!” Bombast blasted forward, the strike of his heel leaving a crater in the floor that punched all the way to the next layer. There was a terrible cracking sound like the aker’s wing beat; the fiend had broken the air with the speed and force of his pursuit. He’ll catch them! Rob hurled the broken base of his sword. It was deflected in the doorway, but it made his target pause for the briefest moment. “You will not follow me!”
With a swipe of his finger across his arm, Bombast pulled a transparent orange skin from his material. The patch was smaller and thinner than a layer of tears over an eye; when he cast it aside it drifted down light as a feather. He was gone around the corner before it landed, but when it did it combusted amazingly. Red fire climbed the sides of the doorway. Eating the top as well, the conflagration on the ceiling burned downward with equal intensity.
The Captain stumbled closer, the cut side of his body dragging with each motion. Shadow crept into his vision, but did nothing to dim the blood red fires. We’re a pirate. We take things. Things that we deserve but would never be given. We all deserve this victory, no matter what the world says. No matter what other worlds say. He pushed his face into the doorway despite the intense heat. There were paths in the aker’s flesh to the left and right, but only the left was ablaze. Every bubble of it, as far as he could see, was alight. It wasn’t possible to pursue.
Not possible for a man ruled by death. Not so, a scoundrel that’s earned their bones! Rob bonepicked off the doorway, shooting down the left corridor like a cannonball screaming through its barrel. There was no time to dwell on the implications, but he’d dwelt on them plenty. His days as a fleshy man were already numbered, though he admittedly didn’t know the number. With every rinse the growing spines claimed more of his life, filling him with stabbing pains and untenable sleeping positions that tore up his favorite sheets and pillows. There hadn’t been a woman in his bed since his mustache reached the edges of his lips, and not for lack of those willing. He simply didn’t want to hurt them.
Nothing but beautiful stone, yet they grew because he was a living man. Somewhere within was the drive to expand, to consume, to invade and control. It was time for that to end, for his knives to only have a certain length and never threaten any more than that. Rob repeated this in his head over and over as he flew, bouncing off the blazing walls whenever he reached a fold. He was still on track, because the pain still consumed him.
According to the rules of Porce it should have hurt more. His brain and flesh should’ve been aware only of their dying. Yet there was a separation within him: a barrier that formed between his spirit and his body. What is this? No simple wall between life and death. This was always here. Something distributed, but now reforming. What could this be? What could Kilrobin be?
His cape burned up, throwing off every strand of fur as a red fir needle. Boots melted. Skin bubbled. Skin blackened. Skin flaked. The wound in his side was the initial carving stroke of a succulent roast, but the meat quickly dried out. His eyes popped, spraying their fluid as boiling geysers, leaving behind belching fire in his sockets. His tongue flicked out, but it was only a flaming memory of his venomous rants and growls.
The nose, generously described as impressive, peeled away from leaking cartilage. The baldness was exaggerated by the vanishing of the scalp. Ears gone. Kiss on his cheek from prodding Vyra destroyed. No heart left to race. No stomach left to sicken. No fingerprints to leave on his crimes. The trial by fire left behind a man composed of his own treasure, so that it could never be plundered. A man who felt no sympathy for follicles and scars and blemishes and missing pieces. The perfect pirate.
Bombast cornered the two thieves when the raising of the aker’s wing turned their path into a wall in front of them. He stepped out of his heated trail and smiled, but it was not the thin false one he normally wore. Pearlen and Peako had never seen such genuine relief on a face, like a wegger realizing its supply of silk hadn’t dried up. He held out his hand; Peako and his prize were yanked away from the wall.
“You don’t need it!” Peako snapped as he thrashed. “You have so much! I need it!” Pearlen grabbed his waist, but her weight did nothing to stall the pull.
“Avaricious death mask snatch!” Rob roared as he burst out of the fire behind Bombast. He meant the bonepicking maneuver in earnest this time. Never had he truly tried that one, because it worked best with piercing fingers purely of bone. When properly executed the attacker’s hand grabbed their foe’s forehead and cheeks, pinched, and removed all the skin along with the eyes. Many considered it overly cruel, but nothing was too low to use on the explosive terror plaguing Porce.
Claws of emerald struck Bombast when he turned, but they only scratched, revealing more of the orange glow under his surface. The fiend was face to socket with a spiny skeleton all of mossy emerald, flaming shreds of cloth and blackened streaks of flesh still decorating it. There was plenty to take in, but Rob raked his claws down Bombast’s face and temporarily blinded him.
Bombast’s material broke up into a hundred spheres and pulsed out around him in a protective bubble, thus forcing the green man back. It had to be the same man pestering him moments before, as there was little chance of that mustache being worn by two in any single world.
When the fiend looked up Rob saw the streaks of orange blinding him. There was no flesh at all underneath, just more glow. He’s made of something like his material, meaning he’s just as invulnerable. As if to prove the point, Bombast’s face evened out. A moment later there was no sign of the injury at all. The pirate dared not glance away to see how the others fared, so as not to remind Bombast of his true objective. Instead he threw himself back in, squeezing between the orbs of his shell and bombarding him with spiked bonepicking elbow drops.
The blows were shielded with ease. The orbs stretched into splinters and shot back to their master, threatening to skewer Rob, but there were no guts to grab, so he was able to drop to the ground and back up like a haund trying to wipe something from its chin. When the skeleton stood his foot bones landed on the edge of Pearlen’s mirrored shield. She and Peako were nowhere to be found.
“W-where are they?” Bombast demanded. He whirled around, tabulating a hundred different things about his surroundings, unable to pinpoint how they could’ve escaped. The only way in or out was filled with fires more than hot enough to kill any man.
“Oh I’ll show you,” Rob teased. “Right this way.” Even though his clothing was all but gone the cord around his neck, made of fine durable leather, remained. At the end of it dangled his piece of the Reflecting Path. The skeleton crossed his arms over his rib cage and dropped out of sight, disappearing into the shield.
Bombast pursued, throwing himself into the air and aiming his white boots squarely at the shrinking green spot that was Rob’s crown. Takrink! The skin of glass shattered as the metal underneath was punctured. The path would not take him, as if it sensed his motives.
“It can’t be…” The fiend ripped the metal skin apart, folding it with his incredible strength as if the shreds were hand towels. There was no trace of them. His piercing eyes could see through the tiniest particles of the material, but they hadn’t become jolts of lightning hopping between its bits of being either. They were just gone, and his precious payload had been drained.
Never had Porce seen fury of such a stripe. It surely would have brought down the aker, if it wasn’t already flagging from the arrows of Whelm’s light. The great beast glided into the World Floor, throwing up clouds of dust that wouldn’t settle for days. Three tilefolk farms were wiped off the tiles, and their neighbors would arrive soon, pitchforks in hand, for retribution. Bombast would be long gone by then.
The fiend dealt one last blow to the noble animal by flying straight out of it, punching five holes in its flesh and hide. Stock had to be taken to assure that no more material was lost to the drains of that nasty bathroom. He recalled the pain-inducing disks from the other akers, ripping them out just as cruelly as he’d extricated himself. They were wet and glistening with crystal clear aker blood, but he paid that no mind as they were reabsorbed into the main mass of material. He tabulated again. Something was wrong. So great was his distress that he gesticulated wildly, even though it normally only took a flick of a thought to manipulate his treasure. It became a sphere similar to its original configuration all those ages ago, allowing him to see the exact missing pieces.
Dynamically as he shaped and split it, properly separated pieces always had the same square shape when represented on the original sphere: slots like drawers removed. Something like fear made him quake. His folkish form, held almost since his birth, prickled with unsettling peaks and troughs of his substance. There were two pieces missing, and their holes were ragged like bite marks. Not only had that spiny green demon and his ilk stolen one, but one of the sets of aker pieces had not returned when called.
A look at the sky with his most powerful eye revealed it was still airborne. The other two were in the process of falling, their blood coming down as rain once the disks had pierced them. One crashed behind him and the other in front, the impacts creating shock waves that couldn’t come close to disturbing how disturbed he already was. The fourth aker was just a dot in the distance, its destination a mystery to him.
Mysteries were not tolerable. There was only one final answer to all of them: oblivion. Porce was doing its best to stop him from claiming the work, but nothing was lost yet. They couldn’t destroy it. Nothing could but its discussed and designed death. Tragically, that would have to wait until the pieces were reclaimed. They wouldn’t have one speck of its dust. None of its potential would go unspent.
Bombast screamed. No voice. Only force. The aker under him slowly flattened as it undid the folduction and the crumpling of the crash. Papists crawled out wherever they could like bugs, only to be blown away by the winds of Bombast’s ire. When they finally stopped tumbling and choking on dirt they saw their orange and white beacon of triumph blast off into the sky on his own. It seemed the partnership was over. Odd, considering nothing looked cleaned. If anything it was messier than before.