(reading time: 1 hour, 5 minutes)
He’s Very Depressed Regarding his Death
“It be no use; he won’t come out,” Bonswario told Teal. He was told to guard the door, but slumped in his duty thanks to Rob only perceiving his family and friends as threats. They were aboard the Chokechain, and while the new recruits kept the ship sailing most of his old crew were bunched up in the rooms and corridors outside the Captain’s quarters. Teal had walked the path from her ship immediately upon hearing the news that he had lost his flesh in battle and been reborn as gravefolk.
He refused to see her or even speak to her, which was fine by her for the first few drops. Attending to him first was mostly an act of loyalty rather than an affectionate one. There was plenty else on his ship to occupy her time until he got over himself, like the briefing with Pearlen that mostly cleared up the surrounding circumstances.
Kingdom Cumb was a mix of disasters and lucky strokes. The capital of the Broken Fix was destroyed by the flying akers, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Among them was Cumcarumb the sixth, who in his efforts to chase one of the creatures down was struck by a wingtip cliff. There was a dissection, as it was tradition for kingly organs to be sealed away in decorative jars, and it was found that his brain and joints were completely encased in deposits of the bright blue glue. Word was that they were quite beautiful: the pride of the nation in fact.
Bonswario had barely escaped with his life, though none had known it for days. He’d only arrived back in the mirror network one day prior after spending nearly a rinse trekking to a viable pathway. He was shocked to see the state of his Captain, but less so in hearing of the man’s attitude.
Pearlen, Peako, and Rob had faced a similar journey, only they emerged from the Reflecting Path square in the middle of the Shattered Tiles. Luckily they knew of one of Teal’s mirrors in Crosstahl, so they simply followed the Tributaroad Aching Fork into the canyon city. Understandably, they’d left Cardinal Third behind in the crashed body of the aker. Long theorized was the damage that could be done by so much gravitation entering the Reflecting Path, and aside from that it couldn’t have fit inside Pearlen’s shield.
Their failure to reclaim it, in the world’s greatest stroke of luck, was inconsequential. Word had already spread of the splitting of Bombast from Yugo’s force. Overnight their campaign, which had had the force of two stall walls behind it, collapsed. Many had believed Bombast to be a herald of the Spotless, and without his brilliant power shining purple through Yugo they no longer believed in the gravefolk.
He couldn’t even manage to hold onto Third. Tilefolk farmers, numbering in the hundreds, had swarmed the fallen akers where they crashed, killing and capturing any parasites crawling out of their bodies. The purple papist himself was not taken prisoner, he somehow slipped free, but Cardinal Third was reclaimed, and in a most unusual manner.
The tilefolk, especially those of the Shattered Tiles, revered the akers as the pets of Plowr. One of them had perished on impact, its neck breaking like an ancient petrified tree, but the other two had survived. They immediately went to work tending to their wounds and helping them straighten out and lay flat once again. To their shock, once it was settled and all its wounds filled with fertile packed soil, one of them coughed up the cardinal tile. The latest word from the Tandem Flush was that it had safely been set moving along the Tributaroads: a secret path of stops and hideouts even more elaborate than all the others.
That left Yugo, the fourth flying aker, Cardinal Second, and Bombast all unaccounted for, but since there was no longer an organized campaign to destroy the world, Teal thought Rob’s wounded soul was now the most pressing issue. Eventually she peeled an unenthusiastic Bonswario away from the door and ordered everyone else to clear the passageway. They obeyed even though she was not their captain.
“Rob, let me in,” she said after knocking. There was no answer. “It’s an important time; you know that. Your bones are fresh and you need to talk to folk or you’ll wind up zwellbee.”
“I would never,” he protested through the wood. She knew that would get a rise out of him. Zwellbee was an expression: a shortening of the phrase may-as-well-be-dead. It referred to a form of madness common among those freshly stripped of skin and blood. Sometimes they were so disheartened over their heart loss that they acted like normal skeletons, retreating into their skulls and never saying anything or moving at all. They functionally were dead, and lived in a presumed fantasy paradise until natural weathering wore them through.
“Then let me in. The Rob I know wouldn’t waste my time like this.” After a moment the door clicked open. She entered and shut it behind her. Rob’s quarters aboard the Chokechain were far sparser than those he’d kept on the Greedy Old Mop. His old room was much like his laboratory, with shelf upon shelf of exotic materials in glass jars, colorful taxidermy vermin, and stolen books with shreds of paper from other, far less enlightening, stolen books stuck in their pages as bookmarks.
This room had one long metal shelf integrated into the iron wall. The days he had been its captain were scratched on the bare wall as tally marks, almost as if he was a prisoner. There was a desk covered in correspondence, but there were none of the colorful inks or fancy fountain pens he used to cherish.
The man himself was seated on his bed, swirled up inside several thick blankets so that only the front of his skull and his mustache were visible. His legs were bundled up so tightly, perhaps up into his ribs, that his overall shape was more like a fence post growing fur. Teal took the seat from his desk and sat.
“I think you did the right thing,” she offered. “You saved Pearlen and Peako, and without him taking that piece of Bombast’s weapon he’d still be on the warpath.”
“The fact I’m in this state now,” he answered, “means that the right things I did do not outweigh the wrong.”
“Nobody knows how it works Rob. If anything, all it takes is one significant wrong and it pays no heed to the rights that come before and after. And don’t act like this wasn’t your plan all along. You’ve been chasing those bones since before we met. When a haund gets the bone he’s after he makes a meal of it; he doesn’t sit there contemplating the meaning of it all.”
“My choice in the matter was whittled away, something clear to me only recently. We haven’t had time to talk about it Teal, but these are not the bones I sought. They were turned to emeralds by the Bocculum strain: a curse in which my consent was not necessary. Then there’s the Custodian mucking up my entire murky line. Then there are gods and Fayeblons demanding things of me… and questing beasts in my way. These are the bones all of them wanted.”
“So the world conspired against you?”
“Yes, completely. Unfairly!” His claws ripped through one of his wrappers accidentally.
“The result of this injustice being what, that you perished? You’ve suffered only what everyone suffers in the end, and you made it farther than many, and on top of that you’re not even finished yet.”
“We… we’ll never get to jump bones again.”
“I don’t think we were headed back to that under any circumstances,” she sighed, but there was a tiny smirk on her face. “Besides, I distinctly remember your grandfather being a prolific lover as nothing but a greasy skull.”
“If you earn your bones…”
“Then write me a romantic letter. For now we’ve got to get you back up on deck. There’s still much to be done.”
“No there isn’t,” he snapped, throwing off his blankets and pacing about the room anyway. He couldn’t keep his mind from racing, and it was faster now without the distractions of breathing and imagining beautiful women holding rope every fourteen drips. “You didn’t see the look on Peako’s face. He has it this time. The ultimate weapon. If Bombast still poses any threat he will be run through.”
“Peako is unaccounted for,” Teal informed. She stood from the wheeled desk chair and kicked it toward him, thinking it best to keep his mind working in all directions. Rob stepped up onto it without changing its path or speed, bonepicking so he was as light as an ogtot. She spun the chair, forcing him to keep centered.
“What do you mean? That man can’t possible be anywhere but glued to his forge, burning his eyebrows off as he hammers whatever sword, spear, or hammer he’s making out of that evil ore.”
“He disappeared Rob. The Tandem Flush wanted to confiscate the material; they’ve had somebody watching his shop in Crosstahl since shortly after you left him there.” She grabbed the chair’s back, stopping it suddenly. The Captain didn’t so much as sway. “Your bonepicking’s even better now.” She slipped the fingers and palm of her left hand under one of his feet.
“They tried to take it from him!? How absurd. He made more than half the scepters and swords that flushes and their guards wield. Why wouldn’t they trust him?” Rob barely noticed that Teal had lifted him off the chair with a single hand; his now instinctive bonepicking had him light and balanced enough for her to hold like a porcelain cup.
“I gave him full access to the path a while ago, but he hasn’t kept me informed. I’m sure he’s using it. I want you to turn your attention to a situation you can actually tip in our favor.” She tossed him without warning only to watch him land delicately on his shelf with a sound softer than two belt buckles kissing.
“And what would that be?”
“Yugo! He escaped, remember?”
“His army has abandoned him again.” She didn’t know how, but she could tell the man smirked on the inside. “Took another piece off him I did. His precious horn this time. Whoever is still loyal to his cause will be too busy removing all that purple stitching from his flag.” He rubbed one tip of his mustache.
“Are you not tired of this game Rob?” Teal asked. “I certainly am. There’s no reason to ignore Yugo. He has had a resurgence each time we haven’t finished him off. We think he still has a flying aker at his command; that can’t be ignored.”
“What would you have me do?” Rob pulled on one bony hand with the other. Klingkt! It popped off and dropped down to the bed. Aiming its stub in its direction, the pirate focused, but the separated piece did not move.
“Well first I’d have you stop whatever nonsense that is.”
“I was just testing to see if I could influence it. It was a bonepicking talent possible in the Pipes. Sadly it seems my gems have not afforded it to me up here.” Upon descending from the shelf he reattached it, but wasn’t quite done testing his powers yet. Without asking permission he climbed all over Teal’s shoulders like a wolptinger, though he was careful not to scratch her. Offended at such behavior, and not having vouchsafed it as a role that could be shared, Rob’s pet wolptinger Fayme came out from under the bed and yowled.
“Join him for all I care,” Teal told the animal. Rob really was no burden, at least not in terms of his weight, even as he sat bunched up on a single shoulder like a gargoyle with stomach cramps. Fayme purred in response, scaling the woman skillfully and curling up on her other shoulder. Captain Powdr found she was still able to walk around with ease. “I’m talking about a hunt Rob. I want you to get out there, to seek him, and to end this. When was the last time you went after some treasure?”
“Romantic pursuits don’t count? No matter how much I treasure the woman in question?” He stroked her cheek with a knuckle; not to be outdone, Fayme nuzzled the other side.
“Then that would make the golden trickle bead my last prize.”
“And you didn’t even successfully take that. It was tossed down into the Pipes. It’s time for you to set your sights on that prized amethyst. Mount a campaign with your crew instead of resting on Rinlatour’s victories. You’re a captain, not a lackey.” The skeleton stepped down and snatched his furriest blanket, wrapping it around his shoulder blades as a cape.
“You’re right Teal. What’s the old expression? If you’re going to mope, do it on the end of a rope? Not here! Not aboard the Chokechain! We have chains in place of ropes, with the resilience of iron bleeding into my crew with every clank. Come!” Willing to tolerate his showmanship if it meant buoying his spirits, Teal refrained from admonishing him when he grabbed the doorknob and turned his entire body rather than his wrist to open it. Once her rolling eyes were fully tamed she followed him into the belly of the ship.
Aye this is exactly what we need. The Chokechain has not experienced this kind of life yet: the life of pursuit! Her muscles need to be stretched so she’s ready for the sprint. His crew was mostly stood around pretending they hadn’t been staring at the door until the moment it flew open. Ladyfish was there, holding the bead-tipped rod that came packaged with the ship. The Captain held out his hand, snickering when she smiled and handed it over.
“Everyone prepare!” he boomed. Raising the rod made the Chokechain shudder. Its thudding rhythm took over the corridor as chains, link by link, were pulled into place. With that item in hand he could manipulate the rigging and sails with ease, but none of this would be any fun without the enthusiastic scuttling of his underlings. “To your stations! We’re setting course for Flytinthee.” That port should have the sort of scummy supplies we need: haunds that track bone scent, black market dotted maps, oh and barrels of aker irritant! We’ll need that.
“Captain, what are we doing?” Alast asked, head popping out of his cabin. The boy hadn’t even bothered to contain his excitement with a shirt. Rob grabbed his cheeks with emerald claws and brought his skull mask so close that the boy could see his stretched reflection curling around each socket.
“We’re setting sail Alast! I can still set sail. The wind is neither hot nor cold, but it still pushes us forward all the same!” He turned to see everyone staring. “Well what are you waiting for? You don’t need invitations; I’ve already given orders!” Rob spun the rod; the resulting jostle convinced everyone he was serious and sent them running. “Haha! Up on deck!”
Fayme leapt off Teal’s shoulder and used the crew as stepping stones to get to Rob’s. Even with her claws out she couldn’t get a grip on his slippery shoulder blade, so instead she squeezed into his rib cage and dangled there, front limbs hanging over a higher rib, staring out between two of them like someone peeking under a curtain. And just like that there’s a heart in our chest again. We’re not beaten. We can’t be beaten now, as we can’t even bruise!
The new recruits were deep in games of dice and cards, but as soon as the sails had unfurled they’d rushed back to their stations. By the time Rob reached the deck there were men and women in the rigging, the bird’s nest, at the helm, and inspecting the inlaid cannons. She had very powerful guns, meant only to be fired when the rod was present, for it could counteract the ship-rocking recoil. Even better, the iron cannonballs could be reclaimed by the rod’s magic, dealing double damage to any structure they were embedded in.
“Bring out the ammunition,” Rob ordered. “I want to practice.” He spun the rod again, which spun the helm this time, forcing the poor helmsfolk to stumble back before their hands were pulled off their arms. Someone had to pull them out of the way quickly once more, for the door behind them opened and wheeled crates full of cannonballs came out.
“Signal for an ekapad, so that our fair city can be informed,” the Captain ordered. Behind him a red smoky flare was fired off, barely faster than his cascade of direction. “Prepare the powder! Bring me my new interpreter! Wash your hands before you smudge my sails! The tide charts! Someone fetch the tide charts, someone with tireless arms who can hold them up in front of me while I walk.” He wasn’t walking though; he was running and bonepicking all over the deck wildly, practically performing as an acrobat. Long had the man obsessed over the disadvantage to his bonepicking caused by the weight of flesh and blood. Now he was free to try all sorts of tricks that had eluded him before, like using the rod to shape the sails into a staircase and then stroll up and down it without it bending in an unsightly fashion.
Even Fayme, limber and lithe as she was, had trouble staying inside his ribs when he hopped from chain to chain. The cannonball carts weren’t moving fast enough, so with a flick of his rod they were torn away from the crewfolk pushing them, made to dance in a circle in the middle of the deck, and then placed next to their respective guns. He even disassembled their wheels, locked them into their anchors, and then rolled the little metal disks back to storage.
“We’re on course now boys and girls!” he bellowed from the beakhead, shining like an ornament when the florent shone through the clouds and reflected off the sails. They rippled in the wind with a sound like swimming thunder. “We won’t stop for anything! We don’t need food or water!”
“Plupalaqua dentre nousqua lefonta!” one of the bergfolk shouted, protesting that most of them did, in fact, still need regular doses of those things.
“You’ll have a snack once we’ve succeeded. I want you to spread butter on your bread with an amethyst knife carved from the soft spine of-”
“Captain Ordr!” someone shouted from the bird’s nest. Rob looked up and saw a skull leaning on its railing, bouncing up and down. A scoop of the rod bent the sail into a ramp shape; the gravefolk took her cue and leapt, rolling all the way down it and into the Captain’s hands. “The aker’s to port!”
All eyes and sockets turned. Distant and difficult to see against the pounding misty backdrop of Slick Rin Drop it was. There was something there though: a black speck against the blue and white, gliding horizontally with incredible speed. There was really nothing else it could be. Birds flapped much more. Debris plummeted straight to the waters. This was a thing between the two, with a thousand times the impact of the latter, and enough of a mind to aim for their vessel, little more than a folducted toy raft in comparison.
“Change of plans!” Rob announced. “Run Away! We make for the ringaround!” A sweep of the rod turned the sails and changed their course. The boat swayed violently, tossing all those who couldn’t bonepick. Despite a few minor injuries there were no protests; the dot was already growing. They could tell it was somewhat diamond shaped with its wings outstretched now. Anything that slowed additional details of its topography was good for their health.
“Load the guns!” Teal shouted, making her presence known. She had no actual authority there, but everyone obeyed all the same. The cannons were rotated within their nooks, straight to the sky, so the ammunition could be dropped in and packed. While that happened the other officers appeared and kept things as organized as they could. They had a heading: the ringaround. It was their only hope of escaping such an imposing threat as a beach forcing itself upon a boat.
The Chokechain had overseen its construction, so it was never very far from their patrols. At the moment they needed to make it six lathers to even see it in the distance. Enough of a fight had to be put up to make it that far.
“Teal, get back to the Employer!” Rob barked as he ran past her on the railing. He sought the highest position on deck for a better view of the sail’s angles from behind.
“We don’t have enough pieces to get everyone through on time!” she shouted back. “I’ll stay!”
“You’ve got your own crew to worry about; mine’s fine with a glorious death! It did wonders for me!” He was already too far away for her to protest further, but he also couldn’t spare a glance to see if she obeyed. On the way he passed Alast and Pearlen as they emerged from below decks. The boy had the longest and thickest spyglass in their collection, and a nod between the two was all it took to communicate their purposes.
Rob flicked the rod behind him, raising a coiled chain on deck like a startled serpont. Alast grabbed it with his free hand and rode it up to the sails, which swaddled him like a baby bird before sending him up to the nest. Through the spyglass he saw and reported on their enemy as he drew closer. It was indeed Duke Yugo Legendr, visible at the base of his steed’s neck, wrangling the chains that aimed it. As far as Alast could tell the man was alone.
Alone? What’s he after? We don’t have a tile aboard. Has he finally given up the charade? Admitting this has always been personal. Finally accusing us of killing him. The crack of its wings reached them, every heart aboard skipping a beat, for that sound was enough to pump their blood for them.
“We need more speed!” Bonswario shouted. “Get the pickers out here!” The Chokechain wasn’t crewed with nearly as many gravefolk as the Greedy Old Mop had been, but there were enough to make a difference, especially with an orchard worth of property bearing down on them. The skeletons emerged from numerous portholes and crevices, tossing themselves off the back of the ship.
Rob had installed metal handles back there for them to grip while they used bonepicking to push the vessel forward. In a sense their captain was down there with them, for the Chokechain also had a bundle of chains, like a giant tassel, that when spun by the rod created forward thrust. The sea churned as all these forces came together and hurried them toward their escape hatch.
With another crack of its stony wings and a pained cry, the aker’s shadow was upon them. Now their hopes were pinned mostly on its inability to turn precisely. Yugo’s first attack came as the great creature tilted, dipping one wingtip into the Draining Sea. About half as thick as their ship, they could not afford to let it impact them even once.
The purple papist’s aim was terrifyingly skilled, for the wall of water and rock headed right to them. Only stalling their momentum with the rod saved them, shriveling the sails like ogtot skin dropped into a fire. Rob aimed the cannons at the same time with the rod’s other end, and his crew lit the fuses.
Their volley was successful, breaking off chunks of its, but barely enough to cause the aker equivalent of an itchy scab. If the beast felt any pain at all it was less than that caused by its unnatural flight. As it passed by Rob and Yugo were able to stare at each other. He’s doesn’t look amused. Before there was always a growling laugh clenched in his teeth. We should think he’d be overjoyed to have leveled the playing field, to see us clad in emeralds. He might have been, if it wasn’t for his mixed coloring. He’s still damaged compared to us, borrowing bones from some poor blue bastard.
As soon as the aker missed it began to turn. Rob judged the tightest angle it was capable of before picking an exact direction and speed to pursue. By his calculations they were still more than four lathers from the ringaround. Surely Yugo would figure out by then that his best approach was from behind.
“Pearlen!” he barked, not knowing where she was but expecting her to land next to him a moment later regardless. She did not disappoint.
“Get down there and make sure everything is sealed. We can’t afford even an idiot’s drooling worth of leakage.” The nearest chain wrapped around her waist, keeping her tethered as she dove off the side and investigated each of the crucial spots.
“Yugo’s signaling us!” Alast shouted, eye glued to glass.
“What’s the bastard want?”
“Wait… wait… I think it’s just rude gestures.”
“Damn it boy!” The aker swooped in again, but Yugo should’ve had his hands busy with the reins instead of the insults, because they had the room to outmaneuver the swipe. The cannons fired in a second volley that found one geyser of aker blood but little else. “This is a bad inside joke!” the Captain frothed. “He always used to mock my aim, claiming I couldn’t hit the ground if I tripped! So he comes at us with the ground as cudgel! Get down here you bone-bruise!”
The enemy did not take the bait, instead puzzling out exactly what Rob had hoped to avoid. He swung the aker wide, taking it far behind them in order to align with their path. He’ll impact for sure. We’re going down. By pirate standards the Chokechain was seasoned, but by the peacetime military ones he supposedly operated under it was fresh out of the yard. No matter his assessment, he was not ready to give it up without a fight.
“Everyone get below decks!” he ordered. “Abandon your posts! Batten down the hatches! Prepare to be sunk!” They scrambled at once, several relying on Rob’s deft use of the rod to slide them down the sails and safely to the deck.
“Rob, you’re going to get yourself dashed! Get down here with us!” Teal shouted, hand wrapped around a hatch’s handle.
“Emeralds don’t come out of the ground cracked. Close that hatch woman!” Rob ripped Fayme out of his chest, ignoring her yowl, and tossed her at Teal. She caught the beast and did as he asked, but more out of self-preservation than compliance. She wasn’t cut off from the misty air on deck more than a moment before Rob heard the surging waters behind. He swung the rod mightily, more powerful than it had ever been swung thanks to his bonepicking, but it seemed too late.
The ship rose on displaced water, the sails dragging violently. They touched the sea and were gobbled up. The cannons filled and overflowed as the Chokechain tipped on its side, like sloshing goblets. They were gone in a flash as well, for the pressure of the aker’s proximity had turned the vessel completely upside down.
It wasn’t the pulverizing Yugo hoped for, but at least his rival’s fleshy crew were drowning. The emerald himself was immune to such a condition, so Yugo would have to leap down and investigate. That meant another pass, as the lousy aker hadn’t taught itself to hover.
“I sunk Robin Ordr!” he sang as he flicked the reins. “Sunk, sunk, sunk! Soon to be dead, dead, dead! Hey! Ra! Rob-boom-ba! Ahahahaha!” The aker leveled out, gliding close enough to the sea to disturb it. Its rider allowed for a much more leisurely turn as they circled around to the wreckage of the Chokechain once more. “Wait a drip.” It was still clearly visible as a dark smooth lump bobbing in the waves, but it was not in the right place. Even without its sails upright it had kept moving at an impressive clip. “Yaah!” He practically whipped the aker with its reins, forcing it to gain speed.
Whatever his old friend was trying, it was pointless. All he had to was make the aker dive and every last soul aboard, bony or no, would be obliterated. They would be in a thousand chips and shards before they hit seabed. There wasn’t a chance the aker could swim, but that just made Yugo imagine its body sandwiching them against the sandy bottom, popping all the fleshies like berries. The vision convinced him to bear down even harder, to ignore the aker’s moans when its belly skimmed the sea.
The angle of their approach revealed something else though: an object dead ahead of the capsized Chokechain. It was no wonder he hadn’t seen it from the air; it was thin with a rounded edge and highly reflective. Dead on he could see the flat semicircular face of it, and the reflection of the boat growing larger.
“Don’t tell me you’re diving into mirrors again!” the purple papist snarled. “You’re always doing that! Just marry your reflection already!” He pushed, even stomping on the aker, but the beast could go no faster.
The ringaround was within their reach, and Rob was still glued to the deck, upside down and underwater, to make sure they didn’t miss its narrow window. He was sure that the scavengers auctioning off the Chokechain back in Rinlatour had no idea of its most interesting capability, or they surely would have included it in the presentation. Her original captain Dizzy Daymr had been a crafty sort, and while she left no instructions anywhere aboard, its various tricks and traps could be discerned by the trained eye.
Rob had noticed, not five days off the dock with her, that there were signs of wear on the strips of metal that bordered most of the hatches. Not only that, the strips seemed entirely unnecessary in the first place. With deliberate rubs of the rod he saw that he could not only move the iron of the ship and the mystery metal of is sails, but change its very shape. The wear had been caused by Capain Daymr doing the same thing, tightening the strips so each seal became watertight.
Everyone with lungs was safely sealed inside, relying on him and the bonepickers at the back to rush them to safety. This was the first time they’d had reason to attempt the false sinking, and Rob had always imagined a much more glorious return to the surface: a foamy flip and cannon fire that sank their foes. Instead they were like some vermin, eyes glued to the dirt in front of them, just praying that they didn’t feel the cool shadow of a bird and its talons overhead.
The ringaround was an experimental gateway commissioned by Mixomir, to see if a whole ship could be safely transported through the Reflecting Path. The disk was almost entirely blown of glass, much of it normal, but large chunks of the path were embedded in its circumference at measured intervals. Using Teal’s technique of shifting its reflected counterpart to another location, anyone entering was guaranteed to be immediately transported without their reflection having much chance to insert themselves into the proceedings.
There was the matter of being followed, or the gate being destroyed, so Captain Rob had been assigned to oversee its construction and its use. He did his job diligently once the beakhead was through, bonepicking off the deck further into the depths, to the bottom curve of the gateway. There was a hook there, well suited to the tip of his rod. His strength was enough to pull the entire ring, giving it the orientation of a floating leaf.
The timing had to be precise to avoid scraping the mast, and precise it was. The ringaround was not anchored, instead relying on a small circular current to keep a vague position, but its vertical orientation was maintained by two chains attached to complex machined weights, both of which hung far below the surface. Rob’s tilt triggered their inner workings, which would successfully submerge the structure for several drops before returning it to the surface and to its upright posture.
This meant pursuers would have to dive quite far to find it, and it also made travel through it extraordinarily dangerous, as anyone warped by a disturbed watery mirror would attest to, if their lips were still in typical enough shape to attest.
He spared a thought for Alast, hoping that being within the ship was roughly equivalent to being inside three sacks. There wasn’t much choice at this point.
With the Chokechain swallowed up and the gate disappearing into the depths, Rob followed it through. It was among the greatest escapes in the Age of Building as the entire crew eluded not only the aker, but Slick Rin Cliff as well. The other end of their passage was a placid green lake beyond Written Stone, deep in the valley of First Toil.
Yugo’s piercing wail could almost be heard from that far.
Of the three seas within the three toils, the Green Sea was by far the smallest and shallowest. Very few dives had been attempted, but each one pointed to a massive plug of decaying matter within the toil’s pipe as the primary cause. It had at one point, far in Porce’s history, been as deep as the others, and the retreat of its water line had deposited countless nutrients on the ground.
As a result the Green Sea was surrounded by the Green Ring: the densest forest in the world if certain patches of the Threewall Wild were excluded. Its indigo canopy coated much of the valley-bowl, its flowers generating a scent that could be smelled anywhere in the stall if the wind was blowing.
The area’s edge was an infinite supply of fast-growing wood, valued highly as a shipbuilding material. The Greedy Old Mop had been built of its boards through and through. Such treasures at one point convinced folk to mount expeditions, to discover whatever wonders lived at the center of the ring. To their dismay, and often to the death of a large percentage of their party, all they found was the Green Sea. It was full of life, but the plants and animals were all jumbled up together, and many too small to sift out. Drinking its tinted waters resulted in violent sickness or gut flora that would grow vines up the throat. It didn’t even work as a fertilizer, for soil treated with it only grew the creatures of the Green Ring, almost none of which were good for eating or had a pet’s temperament.
So the industries stayed at the edge, eventually building great pulley systems in stages that could move the logs up to the lip. All the folk were there, enjoying a life of shade under the lip and a beautiful, as well as pleasantly distant, view of the circular forest stretching down into that puddle of an ocean.
There was one bald spot hampering that view, but it was so small that it would take a mounted telescope to see it from the lip. A peaceful clearing with a green floor a touch lighter than everything surrounding it. Eleven buildings, none of them higher than a story, with barely half a tale to tell, dotted it randomly. They were simple constructions with large doorways and no doors. Lots of little things in the breeze of the Green Ring liked to eat paints and dyes, so their sides and roofs went unadorned. Most of the details came from signs and plaques posted around them, loaded with dates and names of folk who were recorded only there.
There was also, between the empty papist church and the gutted chandler’s workshop, a lake. It had been nearly useless to the folk who lived there briefly, as its water could not be drunk without being triple boiled and could not be allowed to sit afterwards either. It wasn’t even good enough for swimming, as leaving it left an unpleasant film on the body and diving more than a foams down resulted in encounters with a small type of fish that seemed particularly fond of nibbling the regions between folk legs. They also loved the taste of nostril hair.
Those pesky fish had their dominance within that body challenged when something broke the surface for the first time in a long while. Out came not a flicking fish tail or a rotting log disturbed by gassy buildup, but a proud vessel of the Rinlatour navy, having found the lake’s stillness quite useful as a mirror door.
The disturbance caused a head to peek out from the least empty building; it belonged to a lightfolk woman with long, brittle, yellow hair. Her timid nature was clear when she rushed to the lake’s edge, her run more of a tiptoeing skitter. She wore a full set of pajamas covered in a strange amount of buttons that surely pressed their shapes into her while she slept, but she had convinced herself it could be appropriate daytime attire by throwing a long cream-colored robe over it. There wasn’t a soul there with any regularity to tell her otherwise.
“Oh goodness, goodness, goodness,” she fretted, flattening her hair and doing a few lunges to loosen her muscles. She had been told to expect unexpected guests, but had decided that such a thing was impossible to do by its very nature. It certainly bit her now, as unexpected was a weak term for the variety of folk emerging from the boat.
The Chokechain made its way to the shore swiftly even without extending any oars. Metal ramps loudly unfolded from the edge of her deck and struck deep into the soft mud, thick with glittering specks of emerald and sapphire. Down marched a procession of every kind of folk, and possibly a new one, for she’d never seen a skeleton entirely composed of crystal. Added to its already anomalous face was a strong horned mustache, and theorizing how it came to be prevented her from responding when the articulated pile of bones addressed her.
“You must be the caretaker,” Rob groaned, pulling the drenched bedding off his shoulders and dropping it into the mud with a sopping wet pweck.
“Curator a-actually,” she stammered, alarmed by the procession’s continued march past her and into the clearings between the buildings. “Excuse me but where are they going? There aren’t any beds in there if that’s what they’re after. There’s nothing for them at all.”
“Relax,” Captain Powdr said as she joined them. She still had a hold of Fayme, but the animal protested with its claws until she dropped it.
“She doesn’t like to use her claws does she?” the curator fretted, spinning all the way around to watch Fayme run along the bank and chase hopping ogtots.
“She bites folk a lot, but not the furniture,” Rob said, “probably because it can’t bleed. She’s going to be very bored with me now.”
“We’re not here to wreck the museum,” Teal continued. “Everyone just needs a few drips off the ship. We were just about sunk. Technically we were.” The curator was visibly relieved, but she still watched the crew out of the corner of her eye.
“Museum?” Rob muttered, looking about. This is no museum. It’s a ghost town. Looks as if the ghosts have vacated as well. Teal flicked his shoulder blade. The resulting resonant note moved through his entire body, forcing him to pay attention. This pleased her more than just about anything ever had, as before it had often taken a hearty slap on the face to divert him. The woman actually cracked a smile, though her teeth stayed hidden away.
“You were in charge of the ringaround and you never even paid attention to where it went, did you?” she asked.
“I was occupied with the fraught waters I sailed, not this invisibly distant puddle. How do you know what this place is?”
“Your crew still talks to me obviously. This is the museum of Tonefoot… and she is its curator: Lyberry Foalr.” When she realized she had become the topic of conversation she bowed.
“What kind of museum is this exactly?” Rob asked, ignorant of the fact that he hadn’t introduced himself or explained what kind of folk he was exactly. Before she could answer he was already walking into the cluster of buildings. A glance in their doorways demonstrated that most of them were completely empty. “Perhaps we’ve arrived at an auspicious time; it looks like you’ve just been robbed of all your historical valuables.”
“This is an open air museum,” Lyberry explained, though she did look in the doors herself, not understanding how someone could mistake it for a crime scene. “I’m preserving not the folk who lived here or their admittedly inconsequential exploits, but the town itself.”
“And this strikes you as… a worthwhile endeavor?” the skeleton asked.
“Absolutely. This is the only village within the Green Ring, and it can only hope to survive as a museum. Living here was miserable.”
“The Green Ring?” he repeated, looking down and swirling his toe bones in the loose glittering soil. If he still had his flesh it would’ve felt luxuriously soft for ground, almost pillowy. “I suppose that is where we are. Why in Porce did Mixomir have the ringaround connect here?”
“It’s obvious,” Teal answered. “Look around; there’s nothing.”
“Excuse me-” Lyberry protested, but far too weakly to be acknowledged by former pirates. They didn’t hear anything quieter than masculine belches if they didn’t want to.
“The ringaround is a trapdoor so you don’t have to lose a ship. The whole point would be defeated if you sent it somewhere that was also being contested,” Teal continued. “Nobody would contest this place. Plus, there’s a natural placid body of water here large enough for most ships to emerge. There’s even someone harmless to monitor.”
“And why do you?” Rob asked, turning to the curator.
“I’m sorry, why do I what?”
“What do you get out of this arrangement?” the Captain clarified. “I imagine the value of it is being tested right now. I’d wager none told you what a handful I can be.”
“Your arrival was certainly a surprise,” Lyberry said, phrasing it as mildly as she could. “The royal flush is funding my museum. In exchange I am to offer any services I can to the folk that pop out of the lake. You are the first, so it’s imperative that I assist you if you need anything.”
“The Chokechain has everything we need, thank you,” Teal said in order to dismiss her. She wants to discuss Yugo and his aker, but there’s nothing to discuss. Bastard wouldn’t even let us hunt him. There’s no chance of finding us here. Don’t think we’ve ever even seen this lake on a map, and we’ve seen maps detailed enough to show recent footprints.
“I am in need of a tour,” Rob said, snagging Lyberry back.
“Rob don’t harass the woman,” Teal groaned.
“A museum is not harassed by its patrons!” he insisted, pretending to take great offense. “It is patronized by them. Isn’t that right Miss Foalr?”
“Yes of course,” she sputtered. “I would love to be patronized! Uhm… right this way sir.”
“Captain,” he corrected, following her, “Captain Kilrobin Ordr.” Teal did not join them, instead doing her best to calm the flighty woman with an assurance that she would watch the crew and make sure they didn’t barrel headlong into anything historical. The curator, muttering in a way that would make any experienced tour guide declare her hopeless, mentioned that they should start at the entrance to the town where she’d put up the largest plaque. Largest is an understatement; it’s bigger than some of those huts.
The plaque was actually a very strange shape: more like a doorway with a wall on each side. It acted as the entrance Tonefoot never had in its brief life, proudly displaying the name in bronze lettering over the arch. The history was stamped into the plated walls on either side, the good on the left and the bad on the right.
“Tonefoot was founded in 4379 A.B.,” Lyberry recited even though the words were right there for him to read, “by the son of a doctor who sought new medicinal compounds deep in the jungle. He brought with him his wife, their five children, and tens of hired laborers. By the end of their efforts, just two rests later, he was so ashamed of his failure that he had his name scratched off everything here. It was the only thing they bothered to do before leaving.”
“So this museum doesn’t even know the name of the man who built it?” Rob asked.
“No, but that’s never bothered me. I preserve what I found, not what I never had. One has to let the sand slip through their fingers to find the beach glass it buried.”
“Sounds backward to me. There’s nothing to preserve at all if the folk are gone. The very concept of preservation is a folk invention. Nature just divides being into two simple states: being and ceased.”
“Tell me Captain, if a scrawn were to scuttle in front of you and suddenly die, and you wished to preserve its memory, what would you do?”
“Take its shell.”
“Why the shell and not the body?”
“The body will rot, necessitating immediate chemical preservation. The shell is just a biologically arranged stone and is thus much more durable.”
“There you have it,” she said with a smirk. “Tonefoot is a series of scrawn shells. Some may see it as a boring sort of museum, but they’re focus is in the wrong place. If one wishes to preserve, they will find greater success by preserving durable things. These buildings endured long enough to become history, which makes them more than the folk who built them. They are completely gone, and so we can’t even call them the past.” Rob was ready with a retort, but stopped when he realized it was a pointless arrangement of undeniably clever words. Under his eagerness to have the final say he found the acknowledgment of her point.
“It’s better to put a shell on a shelf than try to pickle a ghost,” he summarized slowly, tapping his chin with a crystal note.
“Yes, that’s exactly it!” the curator bubbled. “A folk name doesn’t even last on the tongue. It’s no great signifier of who they were, not compared to the shape of the wood and rock that was hewn by their hands… And may I say… It’s no surprise you took to it so quickly Captain. You are a beautiful embodiment of this philosophy.”
“You think so?” he asked, voice choking up an octave. Rob twirled and stretched one leg, examining the emeralds in the fresh light of the Green Ring.
“Of course. Look at you. If your composition is as it appears you’ll be lasting more than a hundred times longer than a typical gravefolk. Haunds won’t even try to chew on you.”
“I haven’t even polished myself yet,” he thought out loud, picturing the blinding shine he might be capable of. That led him to stare straight up up into the florent, which he’d never been able to do before thanks to the risk to his eye tissue. His skull lingered at that angle, momentarily overwhelmed by the power of insensitivity. That light can no longer hurt us. We can stare into it for the rest of our lives if we so desire. In a staring competition there’s a definite legitimate chance that that thing, older than my line, might blink first.
Lyberry politely gave him his moment, holding her hands behind her back and swiveling on her hips to look busy. His sockets did eventually come back down, but not all the way; they spied a landmark beyond and above the treeline. A shelf of smooth stone. An unrecognized ore.
“You’re looking at… Platone?” she guessed, standing next to him and bending her neck until it matched the angle of his.
“Platone? Really? We’re that close to it here?” the Captain asked.
“Yes.” She pointed at the plaque and read off another sentence. “Tonefoot is called such because it rests at the foot of Platone, and the many nights where the ekapads lit up the sky crimson and violet almost convinced them to stay.”
“I take it you’ve heard one or more of its concerts.”
“Many,” she confirmed. “More than a hundred wild ekapads live around here; they congregate at Platone about once a rinse. My favorite is wind chime weeping.” (Blaine’s Note: This was a rare instance of the true author not elaborating on part of Porcely life, and I think it was due to them being in a hurry to get the story down. Though it isn’t directly stated what Platone is, details from the first bathroom break and the map make it clear.
It is a cellphone: an outdated flip phone with full buttons. A crude drawing of it exists on the map, though it was made even cruder by my attempt to reproduce it. When the boy Alast first joined Rob’s crew there was an instance where he was enthralled by a repetitive song he’d never heard before, played on a traditional instrument by Herc Monickr.
The musician explained that the song was called a ‘ringing tone’, and there were many of them that formed the backbone of Porce’s most famous symphonies. While none in Porce seem to understand the concept of devices powered by electricity, they were able to deduce that the structure producing these chain links of music needed a ritual to function.
Enter the ekapads: the mail carrying animals that jump their way across the tiles and walls on bolts of lightning. Their presence, in significant enough number, reactivates the cellphone and makes it cycle through its selection of ringtones. To the Porcians it is one of the more mysterious relics of the giants beyond history that built their Gross Truth. To us it’s just a dropped phone, one that was likely too covered in toilet water or residue to be worth retrieving.)
“You should open the tour with that,” Rob commented, walking toward the mountain as if magnetically drawn. Lyberry scurried after him.
“W-where are you going?”
“I’m off to have a look. Tell me, will the ekapads gather today? I want to hear one. I’ve heard that fleshy folk can’t get too close or it bursts their eardrums, but there’s no skin stretched across my drums anymore.” They were in the trees almost immediately. Rob was too dead to notice, but anyone with bare feet would’ve immediately understood how much work the curator had to do each day to keep the jungle at bay.
As the only toil that empty, First Toil was a uniquely humid place. Its plants and animals all seemed to be covered in sweat as if every womb and seed contained a sauna. Vines had pushed themselves above shrubs in the hierarchy of greenery, hanging thicker than ropes and bulging at their lowest points as water collected in their tissues. As Rob ripped right through them their contents splashed down and nearly washed away dozens of newborn creatures.
The pirate was familiar with a few beasts that reproduced by various spore. There were shellenfowl: semi-aquatic birds born from shellfish instead of eggs. Equally good roasted up and served with root vegetables were the rabards: furry bouncy animals born from large gourds that sometimes rolled around in the moments before birth.
These were just the most versatile of such animals, the ones that had spread to nearly every mildewed corner of Porce. The diversity of the group was actually staggering, though it failed to stagger Rob as he waded through it toward Platone.
The softness of the ground was due to the soil’s high contents of castoff reproductive materials and the tunnels within: dewy sticky balls of fluff, thin nut hulls, burst berries, papery packets, and countless ripped grains of sand. From them were born myriad creatures found nowhere else in the world.
Despite their limited range they were extremely industrious, with high metabolisms, energized instincts, and disgusting brood volume. Mowing a patch of ground within the Green Ring did little to stop them, and treating it with salt after wasn’t much of a hindrance either. Lyberry did both every day to keep her museum free of their corrosion.
“I’m not sure if there will be any ringing tonight,” she said as she hugged close to his spine, using him as a battering ram to avoid touching most of the jungle, “but even if there is it won’t be for several drops. We should really head back!”
“Go on ahead. I can find my way.”
“This isn’t how I imagined my first tour going; I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to get lost during a guided tour.” He stopped.
“Are you saying you’re lost already? Just follow my trail…” When he actually turned he saw that there wasn’t much of a trail there. Curtains of slimy growth had descended to take the place of the vines he broke. Each bony footprint swelled like sponge recovering from a squeeze, and some of them even swelled more than the surrounding ground like baked goods rising up in revolution.
“I… I think I’m stuck with you.”
“There’s good news; you get to see Platone up close! Come along.” They resumed, though Rob was sure to actually place her hands on his shoulder blades so she could follow as closely as possible. When the walk dragged on for a half drop he informed her that they would be bonepicking the rest of the way.
“But I can’t-” The skeleton shot up into the trees, gagging the woman clung to his back with a mouthful of leaf litter. There were a few pests crawling around inside, but she spit those out quickly with no harm done. Once through the canopy Rob leapt from branch to branch, pleased to see the shelf of Platone grow before him. What strange colors… and look at the portion above the hinge! Like a room screen, but there’s a translucence to it. It’s what a mirror would look like if there was no Reflecting Path on the other side.
Even now there were a few ekapads present, asleep as settled furry lumps on Platone’s precipices. He’d never seen them so relaxed, without a single spark crackling between their horns. The wild ones were larger, with more haggard brown coats and larger horns that spiraled more aggressively. They paid him no mind, as even his bonepicking strides were nothing compared to the craters left by their single hooves.
Landing on the structure was also dangerous, but only during its active times. The lightning would pass through every part of it and fry them instantly; there was no warning of this either, as all the trees scorched back during each concert regrew within three drops. Lyberry knew of the consequences however, which is what made her yelp when they landed atop it, near a large fissure separating some layers. She tumbled off his back and flailed, performing what she assumed the choreography of death should look like. The pirate simply moved forward and bent himself over the gap, seeing if anything could be discerned about Platone’s inner workings. There was only darkness.
“Hello!” he shouted down into it, expecting an echo.
“Hello yourself!” the fissure shouted back. Rather testy for an echo.
“Who’s down there?” This time a sound came as answer. Whik tik whik tik whik tik whik tik… Sparks revealed a silhouette rapidly ascending. The pirate’s battle-trained sockets recognized the climb as powered by bonepicking. They had a large spear, about as long as the fissure was wide, and spinning it with sufficient speed and force caused it to grab the stone wall and propel them up, raining down sparks in the process. Such a spear was usually only glimpsed in books detailing the bloodiest parts of bonepicking history; he’d only ever seen one folk wield such a thing effectively.
She shot out and cackled blissfully in the air, twisting and turning like an egg flipped from the pan. Refusing to land on her feet, she instead touched down on the tip of her spear, which barely bent under her altered weight. She hung from its handle by one relaxed arm, like someone swinging around a lamppost.
“Vyra!” Rob gasped. “As I live and br… uhrm… browse.”
“Rob,” she greeted, stepping down and strolling closer, swishing her spear behind her like a haund wagging its tail. “You’ve lost weight.” He remembered he was not only bony, but completely nude as well. While not taboo in many parts of Porce for gravefolk, he still shuddered in slight embarrassment. Vyra was on him before he could react further, running the backs of a few fingers across his cheekbone. “And you threw out the kiss I gave you.”
The woman was largely as he remembered from his laborious trials down in the Pipes. Dark of skin and wild of eye, wiry strength visible through her feminine shape and fancy garb. She was awfully dressed up for someone who had been perched in a dark hole with a spear at the ready. Her tunic was rusty orange and leafy gold, with a scarf that looked sweltering thanks to it being wrapped about her collar and neck at least ten times.
Her hair was freshly styled as well: a departure from the rummin nest of loose braids before. They were tight as cords now, ready to crack on any steed’s flank to speed them up. Beautifully as her onyx braids held the florent’s light, they, nor the gold trim of her tunic, weren’t the brightest thing about her.
Vyra’s teeth and gums, so rotted and blackened before that they earned her the name Deathbreath Vyra, were now a pristine white, as if she’d never even tasted a brown grain of sugar. She knew it too, as she hadn’t dropped her braggart’s grin since she emerged.
“Vyra,” the Captain said again dumbly. “How can this be? Just as before, I’d like to know everything about you.”
“So this is Platone,” she twittered as if she hadn’t heard, turning away and looking around. “I arrived two nights ago and it was too dark to see. Now that I can I have to say, really unimpressive. It needs two and a half splashes of color.”
“The colors come during the concerts,” Miss Foalr said, asserting her presence for the first time since Vyra joined them. It wasn’t much of an assertion, for she still sat flat on her bottom. Her breath had not recovered either, so every word was thin as an eyelash curtain.
“Oh, you’re still here,” Rob said, tapping his forehead with the butt of his palm; his skull rang like a flicked glass. “Vyra this is Miss Lyberry Foalr. She curates a sparsely attended museum near here.”
“That’s not important,” Vyra said, insensitively but not venomously. “I’m sure you’re a lovely folk, but I’ve got big things to discuss with this scallywag.”
“My life may not be a very big thing, but I can’t stay here if-”
“Like how you’re even among the living!” Rob interrupted. “Tell me at once! Did you convince Thipperon to give you a lift?”
“Not even close,” she teased. “She’s awfully sore at you by the way, now that she knows you tricked her with that finger bone of yours.”
“Concerning. How did she find out?”
“I told her.” Rob’s jaw went slack. “What? I was bored and you left me there to rot. Fair is fair.” He tilted his head in concession. Definitely the same Vyra.
“Captain, we should really get going,” Lyberry interjected. She was on her feet now, but only because the banging arrival of an ekapad had startled her. She couldn’t be blamed, as its touchdown sent red lightning crackling across the metallic surface of Platone. The curator stuck close to him, putting a hand on his shoulder to make sure she was grounded. Vyra responded by dismounting her spear and, in one fluid motion, slipping its blade under the woman’s palm and gently tossing her hand away.
“You’ve got climbing arms don’t you?” she asked the meeker milder folk. “Head on back to wherever while I’m talking to him.” She turned back to Rob. “I’ll give you three more guesses as to how I got out.”
“You built a pressurized vessel that could rise through the Fith?” She dropped one of her three raised fingers. “A newly discovered strain of prosite revealed a path to you?” Down went the second. “Argnaught rearranged himself into a flying craft that you rode upon, and the two of you found a path through the hollows in the walls?” The last finger dropped, forming a fist that knocked between his eyes playfully.
“Should’ve tried that last one,” she muttered. “No, old Argnaught’s still down there I think, far too at peace with himself. I got here just like you did, by striking a bargain with the powers that be… or the powers that were if we’re being picky.” Rob examined her clothes once more, this time recognizing the combination of colors. They were present in the worst waking fever dream he’d ever had, moving about him and through him as a curvaceous cloud of smothering life.
“Hesprid,” he said.
“The one and only she,” Vyra confirmed with a nod. “The god that brought Porce to life and brought life to Porce. The original originator. Queen-mother of genesis.”
“What are we talking about?” Lyberry asked, suddenly very distressed. She was likely a competent historian, but the details accessible to those who had descended into the Pipes were beyond all moldered recordings. She knew of no gods before the eight. Vyra’s glare was still quite barbed, so she held herself rather than grab at her chauffeur a second time. Another aker came crackling down, not too far above them.
“What exactly does Hesprid hope to gain from such an arrangement?” the Captain asked. “Her being dead and all?”
“Nothing but a handful of audiences with you, green sleeves.” Her face lit up a little, suggesting she’d just found the perfect pet name for him.
“What do I have to offer aside from my prestigious company?”
“Nothing yet, but we’ll get to that,” Vyra assured. “I’ve got many tales to tell, straight from divine lips, and they’re so weighty it’ll take several nights to tell them. She doesn’t want you making a decision on her offer until you’ve heard them all.”
“These audiences are an offer now? Seems all the old woman does now is bargain. I suppose we’re all reduced to that in our things like death… More important than anything to do with her, does Porce get to keep you now? Are you back among the living? My observation that you still have your bonepicking suggests otherwise.” Her enthusiasm faded; there was a tense twitch in her throat.
“I think it depends on how all this shakes out,” she admitted. “For now Hesprid’s letting me keep the talent.”
“That puts an awful pressure on me,” Rob intimated, drawing close to her. “I left you down there once, and I would do a large number of things to keep you up here now.”
“But not everything, right Rob?” She smirked and snorted when he didn’t add anything. “You won’t crack under that pressure. What a pathetic sight that would be.”
“Excuse me!” Lyberry yelped at the height of her insistence. “He might not crack, but I’ll crackle if I stay here much longer!” Another two ekapads landed, their fur already so charged that bolts jumped between their coats across a distance far enough to hold a footrace. “Whoever you are and whatever bead magic makes you unafraid, I’ll have to request you return the captain to me for now.”
“Her life is in my claws,” Rob acknowledged. Vyra grabbed his hand bones and inspected them, quite impressed to see the that they were actually claws. He kept his hand limp while she used one to draw on her cheek. Two scratches made a small red x, mirroring the burned kiss he’d worn on his flesh. She smiled wickedly, aware Rob was doing the same, ignorant of the horror coursing through the poor lost curator.
“Who are these disturbed folk?” she whispered, but there was no time to speculate. A concert was on its way. The ekapads brayed and bayed together, muzzles pointed skyward. Though marvelous and painful as deaths go, Lyberry was spared the smoky blackening of her various tissues by her emerald escort. He wrapped her arms around his spine once more and strode away, but he had to stop and turn back while Vyra could still hear.
“Vyra! What of Qorcneas? Did he not send a representative for all this bargaining?” His trip across the graves of the first was not a one-sided affair. The fever dream through Hesprid’s will was perfectly countered by the dark draining slog across Qorcneas’s plot. He had not been a god of life. Being in his presence was like being the last coal of a campfire as the night encroached.
Vyra did not answer, but someone did. Her mouth opened in wide agony, lips drawn over her teeth like they were being sucked down into her gullet. Though her teeth had been cleaned, he now saw there was still a black pallor on her palate. Her chest quaked. A large lump, big as a fattened Fayme, pushed its way up her throat. Out bubbled an oily black slime until it covered her eyes and the rest of her face.
A new eye emerged, faceted with thin splintered pupils. It narrowed on Rob. When the Captain saw her cleaned teeth he assumed Hesprid had been kind enough to cure her of her terrible infection: the prosite burrowed into her lungs. The creature had been biding its time, waiting for its clever host to free herself from the Pipes, before its attempt to take over her body, as Fixadilaran Bocculum had done to Rinlatour’s royal flush. Their dynamic had clearly changed, but it was still there, acting as Qorcneas’s herald.
“We haven’t been formally introduced,” the prosite burbled, a laugh in half its popping bubbles. “I am Lordiceb Mortuum.”
“And what do you want?” Rob snarled at it.
“Just what Vyra wants. To talk when the time is right. To lay down Qorcneas’s law.” A purple strike, lightning not from the animals but born deep in the stone, flew out of the fissure and all the way to the distant cloudy cliff face behind the two messengers. “I’ll be waiting on her bated breath, hehehehehehe!”
“Captain!” the curator squeaked, but it wasn’t unnecessary, as they already sailed over the trees. The skeleton twisted midair and watched the phenomenon unfold in dazzling thunderous color. Twenty more akers rained down suddenly, hopping across the various raised plateaus with a focus on a central ten or so.
The mysterious mirror at their back lit up, its light bearing an incomparable quality. The pirate was immediately curious what such a light would feel like on the skin, for it looked like a light drowned in chilled, yet still liquid, glass. Images appeared as well, perhaps words, but he had to get back to escaping.
Rhoohsh. The trees behind them caught fire as lightning passed by. The leaves went up like they were extremely dry, their red ashes taking to the wind. The gods protect her, as long as she has her use. We need to draw this out and think of a way to keep her, so every proposal will require much time to think over. The mountain sang, shaking the land and resonating in his every joint.
Eight Minute Break
OFFICIAL MINUTES: Meeting of the Thing in the Drain to discuss Bombast whereabouts and associated strategies, taking place in randomized subterranean chamber of Desfosse with full physical presence of nine members at 78656231: 455902217 alone time.
Bathroom Breaker Rebecca ‘Rainyday’ Deckland, public facilities
Bathroom Breaker Eezeez, behind a bush
Bathroom Breaker Gadolid M. Neckentier, outhouse
Bathroom Breaker Easterly ‘Foodbaby’ Frome, public facilities
Privacy Invader Carter Johnathan ‘Portajohn’ Beams II, portable toilet
Bathroom Breaker J’teyo, private facilities
Bathroom Breaker Petroly Havnietzki, private facilities
Bathroom Breaker 112, catheter
Facilitator Calistix Benefactr, Porce
FACILITATOR’S OPENING REMARKS:
1. Facilitator welcomes everyone to the meeting and reminds them of the lack of stakes. All parties who have not been introduced to each other are. Hands are visibly washed before any shaking, as is customary. Facilitator explains his title, which is noted by the Privacy Invader to be very prestigious considering the Facilitator’s lack of experience. Facilitator was chosen for the operation given their origin in the bathroom world of Porce: one of a surprisingly small number to discover bathroom breaks.
Facilitator proposes this lack of representatives is because of a large resistance in Porce to the nature of their world as a bathroom. Without belief in it as such they cannot distort time into alone time, and thus cannot create bathroom breaks in reality.
Privacy Invader responds with queries regarding break integrity. The questions, concerning whether or not Facilitator is too invested in the proceedings for this body to be effective, are seconded by some of the breakers. Facilitator assures them that they have been cleared for duty by all proper channels and if they have any further queries they should be directed to the Master Bath.
COMMITTEE TARGET REPORTS:
KILROBIN ORDR COMMITTEE:
2. Breakers Foodbaby and J’teyo issue their report. Target Kilrobin ‘Captain Rob’ Ordr has made an unexpected move from the Draining Sea of Slick Rin Cliff to the Green Ring of First Toil. The move was achieved by Reflecting Path transmission: a method of travel still inaccessible to the breakers.
Breakers were able to track target down by eavesdropping on target’s associates aboard the vessel Employer. Visual surveillance was reestablished within two hours (AT). Breakers confirm that target has been contacted by deity emissaries but has not yet heard a proposal. Breakrs of the Hesprid and Qorcneas committee confirm this matches their intelligence.
Facilitator asks for emotional status of target and it is reported that target seems likely to remain within the Green Ring for the near future.
Privacy Invader queries regarding any prior relationship between Facilitator and target. Facilitator answers in the negative and accuses invader of slowing the proceedings with unnecessary questioning. Invader then questions the level of focus on target, but the assigned committee is quick to rebut. Target remains crucial for a number of factors, the greatest of which remains target’s origin outside Porce proper, making target ideal for subversion to breaker causes.
PEAKO DAGYVR COMMITTEE:
3. Breakers Neckentier and 112 issue their report. Target Peako Dagyvr remains elusive via constant Reflecting Path travel. Target’s workshop in the city of Crosstahl, though still full of valuable weapons and resources, is abandoned; its only entrance and exit is under constant guard by representatives of the Tandem Flush.
Breakrs have had to resort to lesser intelligence networks in order to get leads on target’s location and activities. They stress that the rest of their report was based on circumstantial evidence and guesswork.
Target carries the entire stolen supply of Bombast Fissile Material (BFM) with him at all times. Target is believed to be seeking a means of neutralizing Bombast’s control over said material. Facilitator questions whether such a thing is possible, but a definitive answer cannot be given.
Invader queries further, strenuously requesting more information about target’s exact activities. Breaker 112 provides a theory: target is searching for one Duke Yugo Legendr and the airborne creature upon which he rides (aker). Some work was done tracking this secondary target, who now resides behind Slick Rin Drop. The duke has in his possession Cardinal Second, successfully claimed from the remnants of his collapsed military force before its full dissolution. Invader asks if target’s interest is in the duke, the aker, or the cardinal tile, but a definitive answer is not provided.
Invader suggests forming a committee to simply claim the BFM from target while unawares. Facilitator overrules based on protocol, sighting likely disconnection from AT for any party that would attempt it. Invader then suggests that such a price is nothing for saving all of breaker kind. Facilitator explicitly forbids any such rogue activities, citing concerns of liability for other committee members.
4. 112 makes note of Peako Dagyvr’s psychological profile. It is suggested that, should he succeed in transforming the BFM fully or partially into a traditional melee weapon, he might become suitable for service among the breakers. It is noted that those who complete lifelong goals often immediately fit several of the criteria upon completion, most notably bb2 (post-success relaxation), bb3 (post-success sluggishness), bb6.1 (temporary lack of concern for others in their life), and bb8.5 (temporarily and pathologically open to suggestion).
Facilitator accepts the recommendation and establishes a committee, its activity contingent upon weapon completion: breakers 112 and Haynietzki. Invader suggests favoritism designed to get another Porce native baptized in an expedited fashion. Facilitator dismisses the concern, citing 112’s familiarity with the committee’s subject and Haynietzki’s psychological evaluation skills.
HESPRID AND QORCNEAS COMMITTEE:
5. Breakers Rainyday and Eezeez issue their report. Having visited the Pipes and completed a power analysis on the remains of the two deities, breakers classify both as inverted subatomic particles: one matter and the other antimatter. Targets show no signs of bonding instinct. Archaeological and historical scouring reveals no entities likely to be minor deities associated with bonding (protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, etc.). All matter of Porce is believed to be of its original state aside from its chaotically altered gravity fields.
Facilitator requests details regarding targets’ remaining power. Rainyday clarifies with details based on the observed departure of the emissaries. Targets are deceased enough as to be locked within their plots, but still conscious enough to imbue other living or semi-living entities with minor deity abilities. Influence can be exerted from any distance within the world via that connection.
Invader requests details regarding Facilitator’s prior worship of the eight gods that were targets’ children. The query is deemed irrelevant by Facilitator and all present breakers. It is suggested by multiple parties that invader somehow makes AT feel even longer.
Breaker Eezeez concludes by stating there is no chance of resurrection or direct interference, and by regretfully informing those present that the proposal stored in the emissaries was transferred silently, its content a mystery. It is noted that the breaker proposal will have to be issued to Captain Rob as a counteroffer.
6. Breaker Haynietzki and Invader Portajohn issue their report. Target Bombast proves exceptionally simple to track given the trail of destruction target leaves behind. Target is running his own investigation of sorts, attempting to find information regarding the locations of Peako Dagyvr, Yugo Legendr, his aker, and Captain Rob. So far target has had no success, due in no small part to target’s unwillingness to learn about Porce or engage with its peoples on their level.
Haynietzki notes target’s best effort, involving Peako’s previously mentioned workshop. Target arrived there only thanks to Peako’s renown as a maker of weapons. When target entered the shop guards attempted to stop target with verbal commands and, when target did not respond, physical force. Both were killed by strikes to the head, done in such rapid succession that blood was transferred from one’s skull and into the other. Invader notes target’s precision capabilities and infers that such devastating blows indicate target has not familiarized himself with the anatomy of Porce’s species and did not know which smaller portions of the head would result in incapacitation.
Further information suggests target, in failing to locate Peako in his workshop, left after dealing significant damage to the building. Few weapons, though powerful and magically notable, were destroyed; it appeared to be fully an act of frustration.
Invader notes that target currently terrorizes villages and cities all across the World Floor, capable of traveling at speeds second only to the Reflecting Path channels thanks to his BFM.
7. Reactions and motions are put forth by all present nonphysical breakers. The votes went as follows:
Should the counter offer to Captain Rob remain as is? 23 yea 4 nay passed
Should Facilitator Calistix Benefactr remain in the role? 26 yea 1 nay passed
Should Privacy Invader Portajohn be reassigned? 27 yea 0 nay passed
Should Peako Dagvyr be pursued by committee? 20 yea 7 nay passed
Is Master Bath’s involvement required? 11 yea 16 nay failed
8. These minutes, taken by nonphysical Bathroom Breaker Mira Sèluc are hereby discarded to the drain of Desfosse in the hopes, and not the certainty, that they will find their way into the hands of the proper authorities. I acknowledge that none of this is of consequence, and that I can stay as long as I want, because there’s no one to tell me otherwise.