(reading time: 1 hour, 21 minutes)
Without Love Waxxon
The Captain deliberately chose to not look back after leaving Platone with the curator screaming upon his back. He wanted to watch his first concert of dancing ekapads with Vyra, so he kept his sockets aimed forward all the way back to Tonefoot and the Chokechain. He could not shut out the ringing tone itself however.
Never a student of music, the pirate still heard several classical pieces in the simplified melody, realizing for the first time how the borrowed backbone fit into each composition. All of the flourish, all the different instruments, were certainly necessary, for the ringing tone was horrifically grating to him. Worse still, he was no longer capable of effectively covering his ears now that there were no fleshy lobes to squish against the side of his head and no cupping palms to create calmer pockets.
The worst outcome happened; it was stuck in his head. Upon his return to the village, after dropping off a frazzled and gibbering curator who wandered away, he found most of his crew loitering about the shore. All their heads were turned to the light show, their faces dyed purple and red. The florent had gone out, so those bright flashes, so powerful that they could be felt even if not seen, were the only lights aside from the lamps on the Chokechain.
Rob bonepicked off the shore and straight to the deck. After dropping into a hatch he was finally able to relax his vertebra and look in any direction he pleased. The tone was over before he reached his quarters, but it was still in his skull: Weet-deet-doddalee-dee-doo!
“Weet,” he muttered as he locked his door. “Deet.” Out came a fresh blanket from a drawer, given that he’d left the last one somewhere outside and sopping wet. “Doddalee?” Fluffing his pillows took an age with what little surface area his palms had. “Dee.” The skeleton slipped under the covers and flattened them out, noting how the rolling hill of his body under it had become a series of jagged narrow peaks. His skull sank into the pillow, a soft bulge pressing into one eye socket. “Doo…”
It was the worst ear worm he had ever encountered, even counting the actual parasitic worms he’d seen on a member of his old crew that resembled a bouquet drenched in vegetable stock stuck to the side of his head. All night Rob’s dreams were plagued by the truncated tune. The characters in his visions spoke in its tempo. Feet stomped to it. Yugo laughed to it. Mirrors shattered along with it. Why so many mirrors? And why are we not in any of them? Bombast blasted holes in the stall walls, big as Glory Hole, to the melody like cannons punctuating an orchestra.
The knock on his door even seemed to match it, but that was just his groggy imagination. With no window in his quarters he couldn’t tell if the florent was back to business, but none would bother him with such a frustrated knock if it wasn’t. The Captain refused to answer the door in just his bones this time, so he went to his wardrobe and pulled out something he would’ve worn if he was still trying to compensate for the curdling flesh of a middle-aged man.
He chose a gray tunic in favor of any of his military shirts and donned a fur cape that still had a few sharp teeth stuck in it around the shoulders. In his mind he looked completely dreadful, attributing it to the sunken nothing under his ribs. The person behind the door was knocking continuously now, but they were free to bruise their knuckles until the man was good and ready to be seen.
A pillow stuffed under the shirt gave him an unacceptable paunch, so he ripped it open by dragging one tip of his mustache across it. With a pile of bartlebird down pulled out of it, he rolled it up tightly and then tucked it under again, pleased to find it created much more lifelike proportions.
“Rob, it’s Mixomir. Will you please open up?” the prosite said through the door.
“Oh it’s you; in that case you can wait a little longer,” the Captain growled. He went to his mirror and medicine cabinet, pulling it open. “Your ringaround works excellently by the way.”
“Yes I know; I’m glad you got out of there. We’ve got folk on it right now, keeping it submerged and moving it in case Yugo comes back… or in case Bombast finds it.”
“Bombast? Has he been by asking after me? Tell him I’m not seeing suitors at this time.” There were a few implements in the cabinet that might improve his appearance, quick gifts from his bony crew in an attempt to brighten his malaise: metallic tooth paint, adjustable fur eyebrows, and phosphorescent marbles to give his sockets focal points. There was even something like a shaving brush with a tin of magnetized oil and a bag of iron filings. Skilled application was supposed to produce a realistically flowing beard or sideburns.
“He’s after you, yes,” The flush said, ignoring the man’s tone.
“For what reason? I don’t have his load, or whatever he calls it. Peako’s the actual thief this time.”
“The fiend can’t find him either, so it seems he’s willing to settle for the next best thing. Your location may be the greatest secret in Porce right now. At least… the greatest one the Tandem Flush has. We don’t think Bombast will blow us all into the Dark Empty until he has his pieces back.”
“Lucky for us I suppose.”
“Don’t bother pretending you’re not loving this,” the prosite said flatly.
“The adulation doesn’t matter as much as it used to,” Rob lied. “I’m dead now, so all this attention at my funeral feels too late to be enjoyed.”
“If you were dead I wouldn’t have brought all these bodyguards with me,” Mixomir said, sneaking in the actual reason for the meeting. “They’re not here to protect a corpse.”
“What in Porce am I supposed to do with bodyguards?” Rob asked, standing in front of the door, fully dressed, but making no motion to open it.
“It’s a decision reached by the Tandem Flush. Since Bombast is after you, you are to be protected every drop of every day until his threat is neutralized. I’m told these folk are the best fighters available.”
“We’re really quite good,” an anonymous voice bolstered.
“The best fighters in the world aren’t bodyguards,” the Captain correctly pointed out. “So it’s more like I’m the bait for your trap.”
“Look, just let us in. Nothing will happen to you. I promise,” another random voice added, as if a promise without a face meant anything.
“Now how are you going to protect me,” Rob queried as he silently wrapped his finger bones around the door handle, “when you can’t even protect yourselves?” He threw it open with bonepicking force, smashing the nose of the last folk to speak. The Captain flew out with a flurry of strikes designed to force the retreat of an unknown number of attackers. He stopped on top of the fellow with the smashed nose; there was so much blood running down his mouth that it was still difficult to put a face to his promise.
“Captain! What are you doing?” Mixomir asked, aghast. The prosite’s borrowed bergfolk body was scrunched up in the narrow hallway, flat against one wall thanks to the hasty back steps of the other bodyguards.
“Demonstrating how pointless their presence is,” the green gravefolk explained. “This one is already subdued.”
“You didn’t even give him a chance,” a tilefolk woman complained as she squeezed out from the other visiting warriors. She did look quite tough with her chain mail goggles, heavy club, and missing teeth replaced with the fangs of much larger animals, but her expression was genuinely wounded, as if she couldn’t believe the captain of a ship would dare start a fight without a warning shot.
“None of you have a purpose here if you can’t best me in combat, as I couldn’t even come close to besting Bombast. Consider the next few hundred drops your only chance. Should I subdue all of you, you will leave at once, though do feel free to keep the bruises and cracks, as they are complimentary.”
He didn’t have his rod with him, so the Captain would fight with just his crystal claws. Without waiting for any actual agreement, he flung himself over the flush and made for the open air of the deck. When he burst out of the hatch there weren’t many clear places to land, full as the deck was with strangers. They admired his landing, but he still felt like barking that none of them had his permission to be there.
Perhaps they do. Somebody’s been doing all the captaining in our stead, preoccupied as we are with these gembones. We don’t even know if it’s Mr. Bucklr or Teal pulling the rigging. These eyes on us feel strange. Could it be what Yugo always felt? Let’s hope not, as it turned him into the vainest shadow of himself.
His guests, or associates, or compatriots, or whatever they were, immediately vied for his attention, waving their fingers in the air or calling out variations on his name. How long can our whereabouts stay secret if this many folk are in on it? They can’t all be extremely loyal to their flushes. He was sure every single one of them had advice for the situation, and he would be avoiding that advice even more than the three bodyguards who burst out from under him and gave chase.
“This isn’t helpful Rob,” Teal shouted at him as he fled across the startled shoulders of the visitors.
“Good morning to you as well Captain Powdr,” he shouted back. A look over his shoulder gave him a few more details on his pursuers. Two gravefolk, plus the tilefolk overly concerned with fairness. One of the skeletons was a dreadful mess of patchwork with cracks running across every bone and a few skull shards sticking up like loose floorboards. It was a miracle they were even half alive in such a state, held together by nothing but brightly-colored seams of glue and a profoundly ingrained bonepicker’s will.
The other was much more pleasing to the eye, fully clothed in luxury leatherflesh rarely seen outside courtly settings. Most of it was dyed a gorgeous deep blue, the depth of the color given pleasing contrast thanks to the white of the collar and cuffs. The face was a work of art, its sculptor having the uncommon understanding that leatherflesh trying to look alive looked worst of all.
Instead it opted for something modeled after marble statues, the expression serene and satisfied. Alabaster skins, polished to a perfect curve, shined under the artificial eyelids. Instead of hair the scalp had grains of frosted glass woven into it in perfect rows. The Captain was able to admire each grain’s beauty as their owner charged him straight up the mainmast.
Left in the dust again, the poor tilefolk had nothing to do but shout up at the bony folk and hope they heeded her back down into an even arena. Rob could only parse her tone, as he was too busy dodging two different bonepicking weapons with nothing to grab onto but chains. The unkempt cracked folk had a bonepicker’s warbling scimitar: a blade so thin that swinging it in bonepicking maneuvers made it bend and crack like a whip.
The weapon was quickly the culprit of a tactical error however, as one such swishing swing sliced into the thin metal of the sail. Rob was up for violent and inappropriate games of many sorts, but not any that damaged his ship. The resulting fury empowered his kick so much that it knocked the gravefolk out of the competition and into the lake. The kick also added another crack to their wrist, which they marveled at on the way down, cackling, as if their only goal there had been to add one to the collection.
“Subdued!” Rob barked as he returned to his fight with the other one, though he hated to do any damage to their leathery ensemble. Their weapon of choice was a bonepicker’s knee-knocker: a femur-shaped metal club with a rounded head. Ideal for striking the joints and blowing them into a hundred chips. Rob’s joints were crystal, further strengthened by a natural bone’s growing patterns, but they were still susceptible to such a strike, necessitating the dodging and climbing that eventually had both of them hanging from the bottom of the bird’s nest’s basket.
“I can keep up with you; isn’t that enough to settle this?” they growled, swinging at him again as he bonepicked himself flat against the basket’s bottom.
“Hardly. Bombast will cook you in his mouth and eat you for breakfast. My bones are much more likely to get stuck in his throat.”
“They’re a lovely green by the way,” his would-be bodyguard complimented as they swung their feet up in an attempt to snag the bottom of his ribs. They barely missed, pulling open his shirt and sending his pillow down to the deck. “Still in the stuffing phase I see.”
“It’s funny you should mention,” Rob said as he dodged the club again, punching it up into the metal mesh of the basket so it stuck, “I’ve been admiring your leather. Who did it?”
“Thank you for noticing. Heeunh!” Pulling on the club didn’t free it; they were certainly capable of a greater pull, but it would’ve broken the mesh and enraged their opponent further. “I managed a few appointments with tanner Devious Proctr.”
“Didn’t I recently read that her waiting list is up to two washes?”
“Oh yes, and she’s so old that folk are tracking how many more of us she can even clothe. I’ve got money on twenty-three.” The club wasn’t coming loose, so they hung from it instead and tried a few slicing blows with the steel-plated side of their free hand. The Captain blocked them with his forearm.
“Can I ask after price, or do we think that’s rude?”
“I’m happy to say. I had five appointments with her for each bodily region. There was the base cost of the materials, dyes, and crafting of thirty thousand tiles, but there’s a further charge based on how long the fittings take. Altogether it was forty.”
“Really? Not too damaging.”
“I should say it wasn’t quite everything,” they added, a little embarrassed. “I had a session for the torso, one for the arms, one for the head, one for the waist, and one for the legs… but I couldn’t manage the final one for the feet. Their quality is nearly as high though, handled by tanner Easy Squeezr. Are you in the market?”
“After a good long look at you I’m beginning to think so. There’s a question of how much to leave naked. A man made of precious stones can’t completely hide them away.”
“Oh I absolutely agree! Obviously you won’t obscure those lip projections… may I make a suggestion?”
“By all means.”
“Get a mostly full head of it, but leave a spot just above the nose. Have them shape it like an eye and then have a small pendant affixed as its pupil, leaving you with an emerald white. The third eye is a noble symbol for gravefolk, representing the acuity of our senses, but yours would be the most splendid I’ve ever seen.”
“Chewy food for thought, thank you. Subdued!” Rob grabbed their club and yanked it free. The bottom of the basket was indeed ruined, but it was acceptable since he was the one doing the ruining. The leathered gravefolk probably would have recovered from the shock quickly, but Rob threw in a solid kick to the head to keep them spinning all the way back to the deck.
Rob followed drips later, his descent much more graceful, but he had forgotten about the tilefolk. She reminded him with a swift tackle that took them both over the side and into the water. Bonepicking down to drown her would’ve been trivial, but she had bellyached about sportsfolkship so much that he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead he picked sideways, driving them to the shore and eventually onto dry land.
She turned out to actually be the most qualified for the position he never intended to honor. Her fighting style was an ancient form of grappling, and she was well versed in using it against bonepickers. She leaned into all of his moves, turning the exaggerated direction of them into confusing tumbles where no single party was more in control than the other.
Rob’s skull scooped up sockets full of dirt as he rolled, which he didn’t expect to be a hindrance. Everyone knew that there were technicalities that came with the gravefolk version of senses, but that didn’t stop them from usually just assuming they were perfect. Much of the time they were right, as covering the sides of a skull did not prevent them hearing nor the sockets seeing.
While blindfolds did nothing, filling the sockets with loose material, especially while some if moved, did create an inability to focus on any single depth. Rob was blinded by distractions, forced to pick directions based on which parts of his body touched the ground at the moment.
Like looking through a microscope at the clash of five bickering wedding parties, the sights in his sockets were both disturbing and beautiful. Long larvae with odd numbers of legs curled out of the clumps and then back in. Wide-eyed faces, like the clawlies that used to live in Pearlen’s eyes, but more expressive, almost like those of children, seemed to stare back at him. Fleshy flowers crawled on petals like lips over golden shellfish like cake crumbs.
In the skittering colors he must’ve seen more than a hundred species, many of which he could not even place into categories. This was a world unto itself and he realized, with self-centered flourish, that he was its boundaries: each socket a chaotic ocean where every being was indeed watched by an entity they couldn’t understand.
So enthralled was he that it gave his opponent the edge. She grappled them both back onto their feet and shoved him, his heels plowing through the soil despite offering little resistance, all the way into Tonefoot. They were on a path destructive to the village, as their angle would send them straight through the wall of what was once the town hall.
Disturbed by tilefolk grunting, Lyberry emerged from what was one a barn, apparently her bedroom now, and rushed over. The woman looked closer to polite dress than previously, having a properly buttoned shirt and hair not done up for sleeping, but her lower half wore fuzzy billowing pants and bug-eyed smiling slippers large enough to swallowed three more feet. The eyes on her feet were the ones that stayed open as she threw her back against the town hall’s side, arms wide, and shouted.
“Oh stop stop stop! Captain Rob!” At the sound of his name he bonepicked straight down, plunging his feet so far they vanished. The tilefolk was stopped dead, but that didn’t leave Lyberry enough room to squeeze out from between the bony pirate and the precious wall she would sooner melt on than scuff. “Even as my guests this is highly inappropriate!” she wheezed. “Do you know what’s just on the other side of this wall? You almost killed Waxxon’s lover!”
“If this blighter would’ve picked a proper arena we woul-” The tilefolk was interrupted by a flick of Rob’s skull that jettisoned both sockets full of lively sparkling soil directly into her mouth. She stumbled backward and retched, dropping to all fours and spitting it out. Some things consumed a few drops earlier quickly joined it, but the emesis couldn’t stop her from speaking. “Tah bryk frum!”
“Subdued,” was all Rob offered in response to what was likely a Pawtymouth accusation of cheating, though the viscosity of the words made it somewhat difficult to tell. He whirled around and saw the sweaty wild-eyed face of the curator. “My apologies Miss Foalr. I was brutally attacked this morning by a band of mercenaries.”
“Really?” she asked, unsure if it was polite to be gullible for guests. “What were they after?”
“They were trying to guard my body, as if I’m a child that can’t take care of it himself. Disgraceful. Leaving that unpleasantness behind, who is this Waxxon’s lover? I thought you were alone here until we popped up.” She scrutinized him, in a somewhat nervous way, like some sort of security examination for a bunker full of sensitive information.
“Would you really like to know? It has nothing to do with high seas adventuring or lined pocket picking.”
“Someone’s been telling stories about me.” She blushed, realizing the information that he was formerly a pirate hadn’t actually passed directly between them.
“Forgive me,” she quickly requested. Rob reached out, slipping a finger behind one of her shoulders and finally peeling her off the wall. He hoped that was sufficient to convince her he wasn’t going to barrel through it, and that if he did it most certainly wouldn’t be his fault. “Too caught up in folks’ history I suppose.”
“While generally a forward thinking man, I do believe one must understand the past in order not to backtrack. Please, let’s have a lesson. Introduce me to Waxxon’s lover.”
“What about your… bodyguard?” the curator asked, looking over his shoulder blade at the tilefolk, knees still in the dirt and claws still raking across her tongue. The headless woman growled at Rob.
“That’s our permission to go on without her,” he translated. The pirate took her by the arm, escorting her around the side of the hall’s shell and to the doorless entryway. Even for such a small town it did not inspire confidence. Those in dire straits could still afford enough topa to make a clean, white, pleated dome for their courthouse, but this structure didn’t even have the base to pin that sort of thing to. There was no weather vane, bell, or spire either. The only thing separating it from the other buildings was its overall larger size and doorway.
“We never did finish our tour,” she muttered as she led him inside. It was packed quite full of boxes, curtain rods, bathmats, and statues, with the available paths clearly formed by the slow process of setting things down wherever there was room. Only bonepickers and the folk that built it could navigate without bumping their hips into anything. The Captain followed her, noting that though everything was cluttered she hadn’t allowed a single layer of dust to build up.
“This open air museum of yours was supposed to be nothing but empty shells,” he pointed out as he ducked under a lamp with a bulbous shade.
“Aside from my living quarters, this is the only one with anything more than a furnace left inside,” she explained. “Every remaining relic from Tonefoot is in here, as well as a few things I’ve collected from along the rim. If we just…” She lifted a heavy metal bar and swiveled under it. She held it for the Captain and once they were on the other side they were again quite close to the wall, only it was much darker on this side. The sound of the tilefolk retching and cursing was barely audible through it, weaker than the curator’s breath.
There was one object up against the wall that wasn’t furniture and was uncovered, stood on a wooden pedestal that looked a little too flimsy to properly hold it. A statue of some sort, its squat form was coated in thick cracking paint applied in tens of layers. In the flaking he saw alternating colors: creamy yellow and a gold tickled pink.
The likeness of one of the Green Ring’s many strange animals, he assumed. It was hunkered down on two knobby feet with four clawed toes, its long neck wrapping under its swollen breast so its surprisingly large head could mostly, and coyly as its pearl eye suggested, hide under one of its wings. The wings themselves were the strangest part of its anatomy; its stocky body was all but hidden under them. Though it was made of stone it still conveyed an additional stiffness to them, the outermost layer looking less like feathers and more like rocks pounded by angry waves for a hundred rests.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Lyberry asked softly, stroking the underside of its neck where the paint had already flaked away.
“More context is necessary before I apply a word like beautiful to this.”
“She’s Waxxon’s lover and she kept him going his entire life. When there was nobody else left she stood firm, but it was so firm that she could never return his affection.” Again demonstrating that she wore sleepwear all too often, the curator dug into her fluffy pocket and, eve thought she attempted to draw a single one, drew out a clump of colorful handkerchiefs and spectacle cleaning cloths.
She dabbed at her eyes, performed the snorting version of a deep breath, and then began the figure’s story proper.
Circumstances were difficult enough in Tonefoot without their every move being watched. Dr. Jumpinjack Weedr had just chopped and carried a month’s worth of firewood to the side of the home he’d built just half a wash prior, and the florent was coming down hot. Removing his shirt had only helped slightly, and now he practically wore a second one of sweat and grime.
Minuscule creatures crawled across the edge of his glasses, and when he looked up to the florent the glare was enough to turn them into orange cinders that drifted away. Then he would shake his head and go back to work, for that was all he could do in this accursed place. He would’ve murdered the entire graduating class of his medical college for one glass of decently cold water, but there wasn’t any for lathers and lathers.
That was what they needed most, he realized ten days after they’d set up their borders and started clearing the lake’s edge. The lake was all the water they could ever need for certain purposes, but not for drinking. The multiple boilings cleared it for that eventually, but they had no means of cooling other than burying it deep, and that had hardly any effect.
Every time he left the jungle to purchase supplies with his forefolk he was taunted by the sales catalogs with their full page advertisements for self-chilling Sea Fauce water. Back when he was a student they kept bottles of it around to help preserve tissue specimens, but sometimes late at night he would uncork one of those frosted midnight bottles and guzzle what felt like the most emphatic howl of winter.
The florent made even the memories of it evaporate, leaving him with a thick crumbly paste in his mouth. His wife Hopcheep, his children, and all the loggers, carpenters, and laborers forced to be his citizens certainly felt the same way. He and his family were lightfolk, but most of the rest were tile, so their fur didn’t do them any favors. A few had already taken to shaving completely, giving them naked haggard looks that frightened and disturbed even themselves, but anything was better than letting the heat and humidity cook them in their own skin.
“Daddy, the weird gaggle is back again,” his youngest daughter Pipstep told him as soon as he threw down the last log of spongy green wood. He couldn’t find the energy to stand fully yet, so he supported himself on the pile.
“Are you keeping them out like I showed you? Tell me Buckleberry isn’t kicking them again. If he breaks his other foot-”
“They’re not trying to get in this time,” she interrupted. When he finally looked at her he saw her misery: red face with cracked cheeks, oily hair, and scalded bare feet. Her only shirt was a single red ribbon tied around her chest. It was hardly appropriate dress for young girls where they were from, but he wouldn’t have them suffer more than their two brothers.
“What are they doing then?”
“As if we’re a traveling theater troupe! As if this is all just a circus! Graah!” Fear of his daughter’s judgment was the only thing that kept him from stupidly breaking his own foot on the woodpile. The anger and frustration had to be directed somewhere though, so he set it on a course for the gaggle.
The animals were clumped together two hundred strong, standing quite still, and perfectly obeying the boundary line between the irritated freckle of civilization and the rest of the Green Ring. The sight of it, of the untamed grass and foaming loam becoming a thin fuzzy mat of mowed stripes, vexed the creatures. Their watery eyes, unblinking slimy goggles of black iris and foggy pupil, stared at the border between them and their ancestral nesting grounds.
“Get!” Dr. Weedr shouted hoarsely at them, tossing a hunk of wood. It bounced harmlessly off one of their shells, though it did draw all the necks and eyes of those around it, like a little whirlpool forming in the midst of them.
“They’re not hurting anybody!” his eldest daughter Leaplorel insisted. She was stood there, along with a few of the workers, just watching to see if the gaggle got its nerve back and trespassed once more.
“The stains couldn’t hurt anything if they tried,” her father grumbled, but she was right. They were a terrible nuisance for the past few rinses, running around and defecating on everything, squawking like a cross between a wind instrument and an old woman smothered by a pillow, and bashing their wing shells together in a percussive din all night long.
All of the medicinal compounds he would seek, as soon as the town accepted that it was going to be built whether it liked it or not, were tucked away in the soil. His microscope was all he needed to find them, and even if they made rude noises they would be too small to hear. As such he hadn’t bothered learning about the bigger forms of life that might have something to say about his little settlement.
When the creatures became such a nuisance that he had to identify and understand them he turned to one of his workers, who had purchased a field guide in order to play identification games during his breaks. The fellow was kind enough to lend the volume, and after that it didn’t take long to put a name to the squabbling lumps: calcified shellenfowl.
According to the block of information next to the illustration, the calcified shellenfowl, or cudgellen, could be any number of closely related species of oystie-bird living within the jungle. They were notably different from other shellfish-borne fowl in that they kept their bivalve shells into adulthood. The shells hardened as wing casings, protecting them from aerial attack much like a boxback’s shell. The drawback was that they were fat, flightless, and slow.
They were so slow that they couldn’t quite get the message being swept into them with Tonefoot’s brooms. Each time they’d been carried out of the settlement, and they were each terribly heavy, like cannonballs that had second servings of dessert, they just came waddling back the next day.
“Why can’t we let them come in?” Leaplorel asked. “They just want to lay their nests; the book said they really like to lay in the same spot every time or it makes them morose.”
“Folk are the opposite,” her father said. “They’re the ones that get morose if they do the same thing in the same spot over and over again. That’s why I brought us out here. We’re going to find new things that make everyone’s lives better. Folk think they’re comfortable curled up in bed, sucking on rock candies. That comfort was manufactured, and not by them. By the man who figured out how to crystallize sugar! By the woman who went and found feathers to stuff their pillows with!”
“What does that have to do with anything!?” His daughter was correct again, and he was already regretting raising such intelligent independent children. If he didn’t add some finesse back into his handling of the situation, he might wake up one morning to find Leaplorel had organized the birds into some kind of labor protest.
“These animals need to learn that when folk pick places they don’t do so lightly. We have a mission. It’s more than instinct. More than snuggling and laying eggs.” His wife appeared carrying a broom, so he took it from her, put it low and parallel to the ground, and then waddled forward into the gaggle. Dim as painted eyelids, they only leaned from his pressure at first. When the first one stumbled it clicked and clacked through all of them in a wave and finally got them waddling away.
“How far are you pushing them Jack?” his wife shouted.
“To their breaking point! They tried to do the same to us, but folk only bend when the pressure’s on!” She and her daughter shared a sigh, both wondering if he would discover a medicine for his pride.
The gaggle returned the next day, only a drop later. Jumpinjack drove them off in the same fashion. It was just another chore in the stinging heat, like the mowing and boiling. He did it day in and day out, his progress at least noticeable. Each day fewer of them came back and took less prodding to turn around.
A day finally arrived where there was no sign of a single cudgellen, though one laborer had claimed to hear particularly mournful honking the night before. The Weedr family celebrated that night with a close roasted relative of the birds. The doctor thought things were finally looking up, and he was looking forward to his first full day of examining samples.
The first one he took, a clump of bright green moss, was marred by a dried brown section. The cause wasn’t obvious under the microscope; the frond was simply dead. The many animalcules within the clump avoided it madly, scurrying away at even the slightest touch of chitinous claw.
As he pulled pieces from his collected samples he found a proliferation of the dead spots. Once or twice the pinched piece was entirely brown and became dust between his fingers. The third time this happened he looked over and was so startled he rose out of his chair and knocked it over. The pile of moss on the table beside him, lifted from a ditch within their borders, rich, scented, and wet not a drop ago, had gone entirely brown and dry like a bird’s nest in a high desert limb.
When he rushed outside to see the health of the underlying sediment he heard a terrible crunch under his feet. The grass all around him, around every building in his town, was dying. It only took two days for all of it to go, and it took with it his precious samples. All of the microscopic eggs shriveled. The pollen grains turned gray. Not even inanimate oils and fibers were safe, breaking down before he got a sense of their construction or source.
While this wasn’t much of a problem at all practically, he didn’t have to walk far for more samples, his folk found it emotionally devastating. There was nowhere for his children to play now without an escort. The workers muttered about being cursed for their misdeeds. His wife’s three gardens, fruit, vegetable, and herb had not been spared the die-off. Adding to that was the fact that the grass and its flowers were the only color in all of Tonefoot. The children chose to not go out and play to avoid the reminder of the grass crunching under their feet.
This malaise continued in the village until one of Jumpinjack’s experiments gave results. It was a simple matter of collecting samples from beyond their borders, flattening them as much as possible on glass slides, and then observing and cataloging the life within. Each crumb was found to have an average of fifty-one different animalcules and seventy-three different plants. Added to that was a plethora of fungus and other things so strange they deserved their own disciplines.
In a few of the samples, on a whim, he decided to remove all instances of a single species. In one dish he removed all of a thin red worm. In another all of a blue bouncy thing he hadn’t managed to identify. In a third he took out a discus-shaped algae. In a day he saw the same result in all three: increased discord, decay, and death.
Those who studied animals knew that every creature played a role in its environment. There were pollinators, decomposers, apex predators, and many other niches. The extinction of one caused all the others to shift, like bubbles in foam stretching to fill the space occupied by a popped neighbor.
It appeared that the generations of life within the Green Ring’s soil were so rapid and so dense that everything relied on the natural interactions and excretions of everything else to survive. Dr. Weedr recalled one anecdote where it was confirmed a particular parasite had to pass through the bowels of three different specific animals in a specific order just for its eggs to be viable. The chances seemed absurd, yet it was a common and easy to acquire animal for experimental work.
Down in the ground, among the grains, the breath of every living thing had become the very air, the footprints of the multitudes the ground. By removing one natural element from their land they had upset the delicate balance that everything within two thousand foams relied on. That made every patch of the Green Ring its own world, and to him it meant each failure only necessitated moving a few steps to the left or right.
There was still the matter of the damage he’d done. Building a new life for his family had devastated countless families more, though he found it difficult to sympathize with the tiny creatures that couldn’t even decide how many legs they were supposed to have. Still, Tonefoot was a dead place without the fertilizing droppings of the cudgellen. To revive the soil, and repair his image with his children, he needed to coax them back.
Hopcheep had been a sculpting student, and she was delighted to be set to the task. The idea was provided by Pipstep after seeing her father return home late at night, having failed to find a single cudgellen to spirit back. If the birds were well and truly gone, then they would have to make one of their own in order to bring them back.
Many arguments were had deciding the exact nature of their fake’s pose. Should the head be held high and proud? It would certainly add dignity to the floppy dopey creature, but that would make it less like itself and thus less enticing to its fellows. Should its mouth be open in joyous honking, or would it be construed as an expression of endless hunger? Should the wing-shells be flapping wide or held tightly closed? Should it be nestled or standing?
Eventually a compromise between lounging and activity was reached. She, female plumage was easier to sculpt, would be standing with her head and neck tucked just under the edge of one lifted wing. She was grooming, an indication that all was well, that she was at peace enough to attend to the trifle of arranging feathers in neat rows.
After she was fired and hardened the children painted her as realistically as possible and chose a spot for her to stand: atop a bluff along the lake that could be easily seen from most places in the village. Then it was a waiting game, though the doctor was sometimes pulled into efforts to imitate their distinct honks as a form of signaling.
A rinse passed with no luck, but one morning they heard crunching in the grass before anyone else was up and about. Quietly, so as not to spook their guest, the town of Tonefoot popped their eyes over their windowsills and watched. A lone cudgellen with a tuft of fluffy plumage on his head waddled between the buildings, surveying the walls as one might crumbling ruins. He honked to himself, under his breath, almost like crying.
“He’s sad!” Jumpinjack’s youngest son hissed to his father, having invaded his parents’ bedroom on tiptoe to get a better view of the creature as it passed by. “This was his home.”
“We already welcomed them back,” his father whispered, annoyed at having to do so. “What more would you have me do?”
“He needs to see her,” Hopcheep said, drawing her husband’s pleading stare. “You need to direct him.”
“Go honk for her Daddy,” the boy demanded. “A honk of love!”
“Why me?” Jumpinjack lamented.
“You’re the best honker,” his wife reminded. He couldn’t argue with that. Defeated, he stood and headed for the door, but she pulled him back. “You can’t go out the front, he’ll see you! Wait until he passes and then crawl out the window.”
“You can’t be serious.” Their wide eyes indicated they were. When he looked across the way he saw the equally wide eyes of two more of his children in another window. Apparently, the fate of the world relied on whether or not this floppy creature decided it liked the statue. Once it had waddled around the corner he slithered out the window, lowering himself as slowly as possible to avoid making too loud a crunch.
From there he snuck around a wider path to avoid eye contact. Many of his workers silently cheered him on from their lodgings; at least one of them was crying. The bird got distracted by a falling shovel, which set the two on each other’s course, but there were enough eyes on the situation to wave Jumpinjack away at the last moment. He clung to a wall and held his breath, as if the animal around the corner was a hunting slorth instead of a walking roast.
Once clear of the buildings he ran around behind the bluff, climbed it, and laid flat against the dead grass just behind the statue. Through its legs he spied the cudgellen. Its head was low and it looked as if it was turning to leave.
Qwalunk! Qwalunk! They were excellently crafted honks, both loud and feminine enough to draw the male’s foggy pearl eyes. Qwalunk! It broke out into an ungainly run, startling Dr. Weedr so badly that he had to whirl around and tumble down the hill to stay out of sight. The whole town watched with bated breath as their visitor circled the statue. He made several attempts to communicate with it, but the doctor couldn’t answer without giving away his position.
After several probing pecks, the cudgellen climbed up onto the statue’s back and nestled down. It looked like a total success, but after a short while his head emerged and went under her wing with hers. Something seemed to upset the creature. Periodically his rest on top of her was disturbed by some notion in his tiny head.
They didn’t know what to think when he left a drop later, when Dr. Weedr was finally safe to emerge from behind the bluff. All he wanted was to get back to work, but he was inundated with questions and reactions upon his return.
“Why didn’t he stay!?”
“There was chemistry between them, but it went flat it did.”
“She’s not his type! We have to paint more sultry eyes on her!”
“I know what’s wrong,” Hopcheep said when he returned to the bedroom, nodding to herself with closed eyes.
“You’ve all gone mad?”
“No, it was all too easy. She’s a pushover, just let him sleep on top of her like that. A proper partner has a will of their own. No engagement otherwise. She needs to move.”
“I’m not spending who knows how many tiles and building an automaton of such a stupid creature.”
“Wax.” Her orders proved to be much simpler than he thought, so he reserved his obstinacy for later. One thing they had in abundance was a slippery wax typically used for adhering thin boards to each other. They had purchased several buckets of it before realizing that the humidity of the Green Ring prevented it from ever binding. Five different signs and awnings fell apart before they gave up on it.
With a thick brush he applied a complete coat of it to the statue. Looking at it now made him grimace, as it bore a strong resemblance to a glob of bird fat that had survived frying in the corner of a pan for several generations. It was like crowning his town with a circlet of gristle. He wasn’t even given a day to work after, as he was on honking duty until the bird showed his dim face again.
It did show up again, around the time Jumpinjack was losing his voice and his will to live. The visitor went through his courtship rituals a second time, circling her and muttering, perhaps trying to figure out what seemed different. Again she passed the initial inspection; he used his neck to drag the rest of his body onto her back and settle down for a nap.
The cudgellen rested comfortably for a quarter drop, but then he slid off like an ill-fitting hat thanks to the wax. Startled, the bird honked several times and circled her again. When he fell off a second time he seemed to be in ecstasy, neck dancing in the air and feet stomping. He clicked his wing-shells together rhythmically and fell off her again. Then he settled down next to her, nuzzling her waxy side and tucking his head away under one wing. With his eyes out of sight, Jumpinjack snuck back to town, where celebrations were already underway.
The doctor was a little disappointed that his input wasn’t sought for the name. To the others it was obvious that the cudgellen was there to stay, and so needed a name. The consensus called him Waxxon, for his taste in women. He liked them just alive enough to keep him on his feet, to deny him perfect rest.
Over a feast they discussed the future of the species and how they hoped Waxxon wouldn’t shirk his duty to draw more of his kin to Tonefoot. Dr. Weedr ate quietly, happy to see them happy, curious if they really could bring life back to the soil. The early results were more than promising, for the spot under Waxxon’s lover turned green again within days, numerous hibernating eggs and spores reactivated by the phosphorus in his droppings.
Waxxon and his mate spent nearly all their time together as the next wash passed. He left her side mostly to forage, and while Jumpinjack had to take those opportunities to reapply her waxy personality, he was otherwise allowed to return to his work. Waxxon’s attentiveness did eventually draw the attention of others. A second cudgellen showed up, diving in the lake in the early hours for small fish. Then a third that liked to waddle around on the doctor’s roof, though he had no idea how it got up there each night.
Within two washes the flock was back to its old self and the grass and moss were lush under their feet again. In his studies he happened to glean information about the animals, just from examining their relationship to the world hidden away in the soil. For example, cudgellen mated for life.
When the birds paired off they dug nests, inadvertently creating walled depressions that quickly diverged from the area around them in terms of animalcule composition. In a few hundred of the characteristically rapid generations of the tiny world, the lifeforms within adapted to the specific mingled excretions of the mated pair. Removing either of them would kill all life inside the nest depression for quite some time.
For Tonefoot the implications of their pairing had a much more serious dimension. In falling for their ruse, Waxxon had doomed himself to a lifetime without real love. The bird, though he had drawn his family back, made no effort to court any of the other females. He didn’t even forage with the others, because he wouldn’t leave his lover behind.
The workers took to calling him Without Love Waxxon: a name that irked the Weedrs substantially. Their patriarch suggested that they stop applying wax to her in order to make Waxxon fall out of love with her, but he was accused, by every single one of his children, of just trying to get out of the chore. The counterargument was that without the wax she would be construed as deceased; it would break Waxxon’s heart and he might refuse to leave her side until he starved to death, something they had observed in other mated pairs when one of them passed on.
“So we should let him keep his fake love?” the exasperated doctor asked at the dinner table one night. He took a sip from his unpleasantly warm glass of water, having to lift its cover to do so. Even single grains of pollen allowed to drift in could turn a glass yellow or green in two drops.
“It’s not fake to him; his feelings are real,” Pipstep argued. She shoved the vegetables on her plate to one side, obviously considering them a distraction from the deliberation at hand.
“We did lie to the poor creature,” Hopcheep added.
“It’s not a lie if he’s too stupid to understand the truth,” Leaplorel chimed in.
“But he’s alone.”
“Not alone alone. He’s not lonely.”
“He is lonely; he just forgot what having real family is like.”
“They’re all near him. He can go down and have a squawk with them any time he pleases.”
“But he’s not going to! He’s going to stay with her forever and it’s all our fault.”
“Fault is a strong word.”
They had the discussion many nights over many meals, but eventually they had to move on with their lives, filled as they were with the many irritations of trying to live within the Green Ring. A rest passed. His children grew so independent that two of them moved away. Those who remained stopped bothering him about Waxxon, but the man’s spirit was already too thoroughly bothered on its own.
He applied the wax. He painted her seasonally to match the shifting plumage of the other birds. He watched as the flock laid their shellfish in lovely hues of blue and slate. Waxxon checked under his mate constantly during those times, perplexed as to why nothing ever came out of her. Jumpinjack thought about scraping some unhatched shells from another nest and placing them under her when he wasn’t looking, but thought better of interfering in the natural world again.
One day he went to apply the wax and found him huddled by her side, dead. His neck was draped over hers; she finally supported him without throwing him off. The man dropped to his knees and shed a few tears into his hands; he didn’t want them hitting the ground and washing away the poor things between the grains in a salty tide.
“You’re my first citizen to die,” he blubbered over the body. From other fallen birds he’d gathered that Waxxon’s death was natural. His colors had faded in recent washes and he looked ruffled all the time. Despite his fall to nothing other than old age, Jumpinjack couldn’t help but feel he had failed the animal in some way. His lover was the promises of civilization, and they might’ve seemed fulfilled until the last moment, when mortality came anyway and she couldn’t tell him farewell.
“Is there any point to cutting this place down to my size Waxxon? Is there anything to find that can justify the life spent?”
“What a dreadful story!” Captain Rob protested when Lyberry finished her retelling. The curator was taken aback; she always though there was a certain lovely quality to it. Sometimes just seeing Waxxon’s lover moved her to tears, which was why it was hidden away rather than displayed out by the gate. She also had to be protected from the elements, for every layer of paint they stripped away was a season of Waxxon’s epic romance lost to time.
“What do you mean dreadful, Captain?”
“Never try to tell a man of science a story so thoroughly about failure. The vast majority of the process is failure already; a man such as myself assumes that if anyone is going to tell a scientific story it is going to be one that rises above all those failures. A justification. All you have for me is the saddest bird I’ve ever heard about. Almost makes me wish I had plowed through the side and turned the lover to rubble.”
“Well… don’t you dare! Now get out. See if I try to teach you something again.” She turned him around and put both hands on his shoulders, pushing so directly that he was forced to vault over some of the clutter on his way out. When he emerged he looked around, trying to spy his would-be bodyguard, but the woman seemed to have given up and left. In her place was his nephew Roary, pacing back and forth.
“What are you up to boy?”
“Waiting for you to come out,” he answered. “I’m told it be urgent, but I thought you might be jumping that curator’s bones.”
“She was under the impression there was something she could teach me about love, but with my experience there was no need to be receptive. Now what’s so urgent?”
“Mixomir wants to talk to you about Bombast. Seems the creature did something and a lot of folk are dead.”
“That’s no surprise.”
“Folk are saying it be your fault and calling for your head,” his nephew continued. “They want you to turn yourself over to appease him.”
“And who are these geniuses, with their piss-logged brains bobbing about in their skulls?”
“The Tandem Flush.”
“I see. Three or four of them sent bodyguards… not to protect me from Bombast, but from the rest of their body. Perhaps I should’ve been more receptive to that at least. Oh well. What’s done is done. Did they say what my surrender to the fiend is supposed to achieve?”
“Buy some time I think,” he said with a shrug. “Don’t believe appeasing him will slow him down.”
“Doubly foolish, as I can’t even give him what he’s after.” Rob swirled one foot around in the dirt. “Get some jars Roary; collect some of the soil and take it to my cabin.”
“You want me to pick up some dirt? What for?”
“Research purposes.” The Captain started back toward his ship, but as he went he bonepicked onto all fours and ran one of his eye sockets across the ground, filling it up with splashes of the greenish soil. He examined it as closely as possible as he continued on. We’re discovering new life right now. Things we didn’t even know were there, threatened by him all the same. Nowhere to hide, and no comprehension of the need to hide.
Home is where you’re Buried
The roar of Slick Rin Drop, a fall so wide and long that if its waters suddenly stilled they would make more than enough land for three different civilizations, made it impossible for them to hear each other. With their journey through the caverns behind the fall in its third day, neither of the two had heard much of anything aside from their own thoughts.
All that needed to be communicated was that their agreement was still valid, and that he would be paid in full once they successfully found the beast, planted that rock full of whatever-it-was, and got out with it after that-thing-that-was-supposed-to-happen. The tilefolk made his employer work out a hand sign before they disappeared behind the noise. If he held up six fingers, representing the six days the contract endured, and his employer did not hold up seven fingers, for the seven hundred tiles that would be his payment, then he would immediately turn around and head back, stalling perhaps only long enough to murder him for breaking their agreement.
He preferred to work alone for many reasons, one of them being that folk always camped and moved slower than he did. With a bounty on each wall, the tilefolk couldn’t afford to stay in one place too long, and hadn’t been able to afford it for his entire adult life. Sleeping in the same place twice made him nervous. Three times was impossible, as he couldn’t even shut his eyes. A bed was out of the question, as just about every kind of pressure-triggered trap imaginable could fit inside mattresses and pillows.
For once having a companion worked out well enough, as his employer was in some kind of terrible rush. He was a skittish lightfolk man with tired eyes, patchy facial hair, and caramel-colored skin. The pack on his back looked extremely heavy, yet there was a nervous spring in his step even across the slippery uneven rocks of the caverns. Sticking out of it was all manner of fancy weaponry, but the tilefolk didn’t much care.
Stealing any of them would certainly fetch a wonderful price, but he had his reputation to consider. If he was paid to do a job he would do it, barring any harm to children or the animals he found to be the cutest. Besides, he had the only weapon he needed by his side: his trusty head hammer. (Blaine’s Note: Just as a reminder, the head hammer is a traditional tilefolk weapon resembling a human head on the end of a stick. In addition to giving them something to head-butt with, it can be held aloft to provide a focal point for conversation with non-tilefolk.)
He had carved it himself from ironwood, but without much of an artistic eye or understanding of lightfolk facial proportions the resulting face was a little too long and jowly, like the glue holding an old woman’s jaw together was slowly coming undone and drooping. It had served him well for more than a rest, and not just in the task of bashing. It made a wonderful partner for conversation during especially lonely and paranoid nights, so much so that he had given her the name Prec Bla: Sweet-talker.
Sometimes, when the light struck her face badly and soured her expression, he missed his old hammer. It had served him even longer, and it had less judgmental eyes, but it was destroyed when an arrow struck it between its understanding eyes and created an irreparable splitting headache. Its destroyer had been courteous enough to give him funds for the ironwood of the replacement.
That pirate’s profile in the world had certainly gone up since then; the fool was suffering as a result. Once a man’s name stopped being whispered and started being shouted his intentions went out the window. There were too many other people interpreting his actions, changing their meaning.
The tilefolk wasn’t particularly comfortable working Slick Rin either, for though it was projected a great distance from Fourth Wall it was still the wall with the highest bounty on his shoulders. If all went well none would learn he was ever there, given that just four days ago he was working caravans on the Tributaroads.
His new employer had appeared from out of a mirror, nosing in on his morning mustache trimming. The tilefolk had walked the Reflecting Path before, but had never managed to cross such a vast distance so quickly. He asked the man why they needed to trek for days behind the great waterfall, and the answer was that not all mirrors and still puddles were connected in such a way. The closest he could get them was an outcropping near the edge where the florent could still be seen.
With the exception of shellfish the caves were mostly devoid of life, as the force of the waterfall was too intense for any bird to fly through. That made it notable when they climbed over a boulder and found an entire field of grass, shrubs, and the occasional tree. Standing as guardian was the head and forelegs of an aker.
The animal looked miserable beyond measure, its head hanging low and its legs lying on the ground like those of a steed that had lost the will to go on. The source of its pain was obvious: giant creases and cracks spread across the meadow of its body, some leaking springs. The tilefolk had never known of an aker that willingly left the World Floor. They were alike in that way, both pulled from the safety of flat feet in the pursuit of something they really couldn’t care less about.
Akers fell into the category of extremely cute by his measure, and he had made it clear he would do nothing to harm one when his employer mentioned they’d be running into one of the beasts. He was assured that, while they would need to take a shovel to it, no real harm would come to it beyond that inflicted by their opponent: Yugo Legendr.
As proof, his employer pulled out a large melon from his pack as they approached the sullen animal’s head. Such a fruit was the traditional offering when one intended to cross an aker’s back. Its rind was scratched and leaking in places thanks to the swords surrounding it in the pack; such a state for an offering could be construed by the proud beast to be disrespectful, but this one didn’t even bother to sniff at it.
His employer set it down gently under its nose, and when it didn’t respond he waved the tilefolk over. They were going to cross regardless, at least to the halfway point where the animal’s spine reversed direction as it approached the second head. It was probably bad luck to trespass on an aker when it was in no condition to protest, so the tilefolk muttered a prayer under his breath to counteract it. His family had always been worshipers of the eight, but his criminal lifestyle didn’t fit very well into such a structure. Over the rests he had cobbled together his own religion from superstitions, godly gossip, and a series of luck charms and numbers. He was still alive, so that meant his form of devotion was sufficient.
One of the creases aligned perfectly with the spine, though it was so wide that calling it a ditch was acceptable. The pair walked alongside it, as the first few steps down it made the animal tremble, which was a jarring quake to them. His employer paused when they were far enough to make the first head invisible in the distance. He waved his hand, indicating that he wanted his bodyguard to take the lead.
The tilefolk used his hammer as a walking stick, necessary in places thanks to a few creases having failed to flatten. Hills were never a good sign on an aker, especially when paired with cracks and fissures. If the beast died it would leave behind enough plants and soil to permanently affix a bastion of life in the cave. Though he thought of himself as a simple man, he recognized they might be passing through the birth of a new place.
His mind was mostly on the fighting he might have to do. Yugo was as tough as opponents came thanks to his bonepicking and reinforced crystal skeleton. Trickery would be his best bet, so he pulled on Sweet-talker’s jaw, opening the secret compartment in her mouth and confirming that his smoke pellets still sat safely on the groove of her tongue.
Eventually the end of his hammer sunk into the aker’s back more than it had been. His employer rushed forward and stopped him. Apparently the softer dirt was a sign that they’d arrived at the aker’s center. The man held up his hands, indicating a space as tall as his torso: the depth to which they had to dig. He pulled a fancy silver shovel from the weapons of his pack and started in immediately. The tilefolk had a shovel blade among his supplies as well, screwing it onto his hammer’s unoccupied end and joining in the effort.
They hit fresh water quickly, collapsing black mud slowing their progress. The tilefolk knew this meant the aker was bleeding into its muscles, another bad sign. Most peculiar to him though was the absence of the trae blum: the flower that bloomed in large patches when akers were about to pass on. Was something keeping it alive? Torturing it?
When the desired depth was reached, the water deep enough that both men had rolled up their pant legs to their knees, his employer pulled the whatever-it-was out of his bag. It had an unsettling look to it, like a disease moved in tides across its surface. Without that creeping seeping orange light it would’ve been a rather ordinary, if oddly shaped and roughly textured, rock.
The lightfolk set it down gently, mostly submerging it. Whating! A guillotine blade came down and cut the chunk cleanly in half. Both men fell backward, soaking their clothes. The blade, a crescent as long as they were tall, was attached to a chain that reclaimed it from the hole a moment later. Looking up they saw the purple papist posed over them. The gravefolk walked around the edge, sliding the flat of his blade on the mud, smoothing it like icing.
He hadn’t missed. The strike was just to get their attention; it was incredible luck that he wanted it instead of their heads. The pair scrambled out of the hole and stood next to it, unsure if they should attempt an attack in the face of something resembling professional courtesy. Yugo tried to talk to them, tried to give a grand speech by the look of his body language, but not a word could be caught over the roaring of the falls. The lightfolk put his hand to his ear, to indicate as such, while the tilefolk did his kind’s equivalent: miming a scratch of the armpit where the ear was located.
It was good their communication had to be slow and measured, otherwise the tilefolk might not have stopped himself from blurting out the first thing he noticed: the jagged spot where Yugo’s horn used to be. The man’s flag, used to recruit so many papists that pieces of its famous face were often used as bookmarks for the Toil Papers, was always prominently emblazoned with that curving kettle-nose horn.
When Yugo finally realized they couldn’t understand him he ground his teeth until he came up with a solution. Using the tip of his blade as pencil, he wrote out a message in the loose soil adjacent to their hole.
– You’re Peako Dagyvr and Dlak Garbr. What are you doing here? The tilefolk felt something like all his pores squeezing out a drop of sweat at once. Yugo knew of him, which meant he might know of his deeds. He might know Dlak was the one who, under well-paid direction by a third party, infiltrated Metal Block and stole Cardinal Second away before the papist could get to it.
That was practically an age ago, especially considering that the skeleton had gone through about two and a half armies in that time. Besides, there was nothing to complain about, as Cardinal Second was right there with him, hovering behind their conversation on a leash. While Dlak sweated nervously, Peako was already using his shovel as a quill, though his handwriting had significantly less flourish than Yugo’s.
– Need to use this hole. We’re no threat to you. Back and forth they went, their conversation spiraling around the hole as they looked for fresh patches to write on.
– Aker’s my property. Rock’s not yours either. Belongs to Bombast.
– I’m here to make it mine.
– What do you mean?
– This aker flies because of Bombast. It wasn’t a guess. Peako saw no other possibility. After seeing with his own eyes the degree to which the fiend could manipulate his payload, the craftsman realized it could act like the smallest and most vital cogs in a clock. Pieces of it must have been positioned within the aker’s body, pressuring it to fold and take to the air.
– What of it?
– You are partners no longer, yet you flew the aker up here. The pieces are still in place.
– He would’ve taken them back if he could. Something happened. The aker’s body is either providing interference or changing them.
– Get to your goal before I run you through. You’re the reason I lost Cardinal Third, and everything else after that.
– Then why are we even alive? Poor Dlak couldn’t follow any of this. He understood Wide Porcian just fine, but he never learned to read it beyond recognizing his own name. His contracts were sometimes written in it, but what mattered most was the number at the bottom. This forced him to judge the situation by how agitated or pleased Yugo’s lettering looked. So far its quality hadn’t degraded, so the skeleton was hopefully something akin to stable.
– You would have failed without Rob. He’s the one who actually cares about my place in all of this. He is the guiltiest.
– Stopping Bombast is in everyone’s interest, but for me it’s a coincidence. I want only to craft my perfect weapon, and this is the material needed. This hole is my forge.
– Looks a tad wet.
– Natural forces will do the shaping. Bombast controls his material because it’s part of wherever he comes from. I think leaving it in an aker, in living Porce ground, makes it part of Porce. It loses its loyalty to him.
– Do you know what he is?
– Not a clue.
– How did you find me?
– I heard you attacked Rob in the Draining Sea. Nobody knew where you were after that. Hiding behind Slick Rin Drop made the most sense. I guessed you flew straight from your failed attack to the falls, giving me these coordinates.
– You lie. Rob guessed. He sent you. Why didn’t he come himself?
– He’s busy.
– Busy with what? What could be more important? He keeps ignoring our fated encounters! I’m starting to take it personally.
– It’s Bombast has him riled.
– What’s that stiff upper body have that I haven’t?
– Since your aker has some of his material, nothing really.
– That’s right! I’ve decided. You can use that hole if you offer me something in return. Tell me where Rob’s hiding right now.
– He’s in a village at the foot of Platone in the Green Ring.
– That didn’t take much prodding!
– It will not surprise Rob. He knows what I’m after and what I’d do to get it.
– Our business is concluded then. I am going to have to kill your friend though, for an old indiscretion.
– I only hired him to protect me from you, so it all works out. I’ll just be in the hole. Without another written word Peako turned around and took his shovel back to its intended purpose. Dlak tried to get his attention, but to no avail. Yugo was much more successful in getting his when the skeleton tossed his crescent blade right at the befuddled mercenary, forcing him to roll right through part of the earlier conversation.
As the scuffle began Peako shoveled mud atop his stolen piece of Bombast until the orange glow was completely obscured. He patted the top layer flat and then sat next to it, muddying his clothes even more, to wait for a reaction.
Dlak tapped Sweet-talker’s ear, popping her mouth open. A smoke bomb dropped out and exploded in the grass, obscuring everything around him. Yugo responded by bonepicking backward and spinning his blade in front of him, a tactic that quickly generated a powerful gust. The cloud was blown out into the roaring waters in just drips, yet somehow Dlak had disappeared.
Frustrated, Yugo drove the tip of his weapon into the dirt, far enough that it elicited a twitch from the aker. Even a small revenge like Dlak had been denied him. It was no matter, for soon he would pay a visit to Rob in First Toil. It was to be an intimate affair, so first Mr. Dagyvr had to finish burying his business and vacate.
With nothing to do but ponder the exact nature of his next strike, the gravefolk wandered over to the hole and sat on its edge, dangling his crystal toes. Peako sat with crossed legs deeper inside, watching the flat wet patch for any sign of life. Dlak watched it as well, though he was more focused on holding his breath, for he was stuffed under the lip of the hole, just behind Yugo’s dangling tibiae.
Three drops passed where the most exciting thing to happen was Dlak’s claws slipping in the mud and nearly exposing him. The florent would extinguish soon, and except for the luminous blues and greens of shellfish lips the cavern would be completely black. It was already part of Dlak’s plan to use that cover of darkness to make his escape, but a complication arose, bulging brightly from the center of the hole.
Peako got on his knees and held out his hands tentatively, as if coaxing a hatchling from its shell. There were no bubbles, to Dlak’s relief, as he half-expected some kind of demon to emerge from the ritual. The tip of the material poked through, and from the tiny exposed piece they all saw what was plain: this was not the same thing that went in.
Gone was the orange glow, replaced by a green one of similar pattern. The light no longer made their skin, among those who still had it, crawl. Indeed there was something comfortingly ordinary about it, like it was nothing more than a stone stumbled across with a single band of interesting color. Now it was a thing a child would keep and lose interest in after a few days.
It responded not to Peako’s touch, his hands were still a few bubbles away, but his will. Both chunks, still showing the cleave of Yugo’s blade, emerged fully and hung in the air much the same way Cardinal Second did behind them.
“This is it,” Peako mumbled. “Finally. The thing that cleaves. The edge that splits concepts. The end of the world, via the end of its every last pebble. With this sword I remove myself from this accursed bathroom. I become something other than another’s waste.” The others couldn’t hear him, but they certainly wouldn’t have called the two rough chunks a sword. It took an extra twenty drips to get to that point.
Every technique the smith had ever learned was utterly useless now. Alloys didn’t matter. Temperatures were irrelevant. Hilt decoration was laughable. Peako put his right hand under them and tightened his grip around an imaginary hilt. His left cupped under it, for the pommel. The material, formerly Bombast’s and now Porce’s, flowed like syrup down into the mold of his hands.
What was left above went straight and flat in the blink of an eye, honed to the sharpest edge in the history of Porce. It could cut strands of light as if splitting hairs. It could cut poison from blood and air out of bubbles without popping them, capabilities that shined brightly green all along the blade of a plainly shaped straight sword. The shallow tides of mossy light bounced back and forth across its simple design.
Peako didn’t even have time to give it a test swing before the roaring of the falls cut out. Not all sound was affected, as all three of them suddenly heard the ringing tone Yugo hadn’t realized he was humming. The gravefolk stopped when he heard something else: footsteps. Stood with his blade ready a moment later, he was greeted by two folk stranger than he’d ever seen.
There was a man and a woman walking up to their hole, dressed rather finely, though that was just a guess based on their meticulous primping and grooming. The style of the clothes couldn’t be placed anywhere, by region or history. Both wore burgundy, everything but their hands and heads covered. The breasts of their fully buttoned coats were heavily adorned with an assortment of ornaments, though they were likely functional, as the woman was twisting one of her buttons in a way that coincided with the falls’ silencing.
Her blonde hair was done up in a bun, and her spectacles were so far down her nose that it looked like they were attempting suicide. Her age was difficult to place, though she couldn’t be young judging by the lifetimes of experience in the wrinkles about her eyes. The man looked much younger, but that might have been thanks to his emaciated frame and hollow cheeks. His most notable feature was a transparent bag full of clear liquid hanging over his heart like a medal. Attached to it was a tiny tube traveling into the coat, down his waist, and into his pants. They did not appear alarmed by anything they saw, including the crazed amethyst skeleton. Instead their attention, once they reached the edge of the hole, was on Peako. Both of them clapped politely.
“Congratulations Mr. Dagyvr,” the woman said with a thick accent they didn’t recognize. Her words sounded both stretched and stiff, like a pile of warped metal bars collapsing. “A true achievement. To arrive here you must’ve used your mental acumen in a way few other Porcians have.” The man nodded.
“What’s all this?” Yugo barked. “One set of uninvited guests was plenty. How are all you folk getting here? Is there some public transportation I wasn’t aware of?” Dlak, still tucked under the lip, hadn’t been able to lay eyes on them yet, but he was already grateful that they pulled Yugo’s legs away. He finally had room to breathe.
“We can go anywhere we please in this world,” the man said, his voice raspy. Speaking seemed to be a great effort, yet his posture was perfect. He looked around the cavern ceiling, taking a deep breath. “This is one of my favorites.”
“Favorite?” Peako snapped, anger flaring uncharacteristically. “It’s a shit hole!”
“Technically yes,” the woman agreed. “If it wasn’t we couldn’t be here to witness your success. Tell me, what do you plan to do now?”
“You should really care more about your trespass!” Yugo interrupted. Not one to be ignored, he swung his crescent, not with lethal intent, but with the aim to claim three or four of her fingertips as a toll for rudeness. The visiting man was the one who responded, pinching a tiny brass nozzle atop his fluid bag. A bubble rose within and then shot out of it, swallowing up the gravefolk.
It didn’t pop, instead fading from existence. Yugo was left mid-strike, impossibly balanced even for a bonepicker. The man’s action had left him completely frozen and, in a way, unconscious. Now they could speak with Peako unobstructed. Unsettled by the way the sounds of the attack were sliced, Dlak finally rolled into the bottom of the hole, popping up to see what had actually happened.
“You’re not planning on being a problem as well, are you?” the man asked, tapping the bag. Dlak took one look at the stalled Yugo and threw up his hands.
“Mah nyt da-loc.” He sat down on the edge of the hole, brought a brush out of his pocket, and started combing the mud and grit out of his arm fur.
“He says he’s not even here,” Peako translated, unsure if the visitors knew Pawtymouth. “This sword… I wouldn’t call it my life’s work, as my life is finally about to start. I’ll be free of the grimy chains encircling my every grain.” He waved the blade about in an experimental fashion. Even when swung slowly it left a trail of sparkling distortion. He tested its sharpness by dragging it across his forearm, shaving off all the hair. How exactly he would split himself from the Gross Truth he didn’t know, so he aimed the tip at his heart and waited to see if he felt anything.
“Before you do anything drastic,” the woman said, “I’d like to introduce us.” Peako shrugged without moving the blade. “I am Bathroom Breaker Petroly Haynietzki, and my associate is Bathroom Breaker 112.”
“Strange names, and stranger titles. I’m intrigued by the idea of a bathroom breaker, whatever that might be.”
“We thought you would be,” 112 noted. “We’re a collection of irrelevant persons abusing a natural phenomenon called alone time to travel between places and times, artificially extending our lives and opening up many possibilities… but few consequences.”
“Have you ever, when isolated, felt like nothing was actually happening?” Haynietzki asked. “Like you were walking across an elaborately decorated set for a play that hadn’t started yet?”
“That is alone time. It is enhanced in the metaphysical privacy of water closets, latrines, and other places of relief. When you feel separate enough from your world, you can become unglued and find your way to any place of relief in existence.”
“Hold a moment,” Peako said with knitted brow. He twisted the sword a little, as if it was already deep in his chest and he was trying to quickly end a great agony. “You can only travel to other bathrooms?”
“To do otherwise would strain alone time to the breaking point,” 112 informed. “If you’re outside one, you may not be alone at all. Anyone could see you breaking the rules of the universe, and the universe can’t have such information spread. We are tolerated precisely because we do not get involved in affairs outside the stalls and showers of reality.”
“That puts a crimp in his ideas,” Peako said, gesturing toward a frozen Yugo. “His lot doesn’t even believe the Gross Truth. They think the world was made for them. Even imagining what it would be like to be that foolish makes my head feel like a cave with no air in it.”
“He would never qualify for our organization,” Haynietzki said with a nod. “He’s too determined to make some kind of difference. You on the other hand, your difference is already made. You’re holding it. Would it be correct to say that, though you are now free to live, you have nothing to live for?”
“I’m not quite free yet,” Peako argued. “I need to figure out how to use this to clean my spirit. I will not be waste any longer.” The breakers looked at each other. “What?”
“Have you considered that its purpose is already served?” 112 asked. “In our experience, things, though often painful, get worked out in the bathroom. We know a few things about times that aren’t this very second, and we can tell you that the crafting of that sword has set a lot in motion.”
“Perhaps what you sensed all your life was not the perfect weapon, but our visit immediately afterward,” Haynietzki simplified. “Our organization is your freedom. Come with us and you can leave Porce behind today and never visit it again if you don’t want to.”
“But you said there’s nowhere for us to go other than bathrooms,” Peako reminded.
“Yes, but I’m afraid there really isn’t much left aside from bathrooms. Not in this time anyway. Each one is different, and I think you would find some of the others less… grimy. If we’re wrong you can always return here or take your own life.”
“You’d let me return, even with this information? It could rewrite our history.”
“It wouldn’t matter, because all of Porce is a bathroom. It is not of consequence under normal circumstances. That’s why we can go anywhere in it; it’s wonderfully spacious.”
“Echo!” 112 rasped, his voice barely powerful enough to return. It brought a childish smile to his wan face.
“Normal circumstances…” Peako pondered aloud. “Bombast is abnormal, correct? He’s why you’re here now.”
“Yes,” Haynietzki confirmed. “His mission is to destroy everything capable of sustaining life, and he’s been ruthlessly effective for ages. If he succeeds he will incidentally destroy all bathrooms, and thus our organization. We are trying to stop him.”
“This could do it,” Peako noted, swinging the sword. When it went low it split the puddle it was born from in half, and while the halves touched they clearly had ripples and swirls of their own.
“In a number of ways,” 122 agreed, “but we’re limited in how we can use such a resource, lest we become of consequence and lose our alone time. Someone in Porce has to use it, and we’ve already got a plan in place to convince him to benefit us.”
“So if I come with you I can’t take this with me?”
“No,” Haynietzki said. “It’s too important. In fact, in order to leave with us, you must demonstrate that the object no longer matters to you. You can choose the form of the gesture, since there’s no way for you to harm the material. We already know that one will deliver it where it needs to go.” She pointed at Dlak, whose coat was nearly clean. “Though in our research we never caught his name.”
“Ha! Thradah nyt mah stan; sah-clae thradah nyt mah stan!” Dlak hooted, slapping his knee. It certainly was something to celebrate whenever folk of obvious power couldn’t identify him.
Peako was too busy making up his mind to respond. It didn’t take him long however. The man threw down the sword, planting it in the mud. After that he undid the button on his pants and proceeded to urinate on the pommel. His disrespect flowed all the way down, mixing into only one half of the divided puddle. The breakers watched without so much as a blink. When he was finished he pulled himself out of the hole, kicking a bit of dirt back in like a haund might to bury its own waste.
“Can we leave now?” he asked.
“There is an initial oath,” 112 told him. “You must swear, as long as you bear the title of bathroom breaker, to serve the Master Bath.”
“Who are they?”
“Nobody knows,” he said with a shrug. “They’re always behind the door marked occupied. Very private person. We’re pretty sure they have IBS.” He rephrased when he saw that Peako didn’t understand. “A weak stomach. Strong everything else though. They’ve never led us astray in our quest to waste time.”
“Very well. I swear the oath. I will be a bathroom breaker; now get me out of this shit hole.” The breakers gestured for the legendary craftsfolk to follow them, but Dlak didn’t see anywhere he could follow them to. All they did was walk off into the undisturbed grass of the resting aker. The tilefolk stood a moment later, squinting. Somehow they were gone, their exit less disruptive than a cough. That left him alone with the most powerful weapon in the history of the world.
Dlak wasn’t sure how much of their nonsense he believed. All that talk of other bathrooms and times made it sound like there were other worlds out there in the Dark Empty, and that just didn’t seem very likely. Who would be foolish enough to create more life after seeing what a mess it could be?
Never the squeamish one, Dlak hopped down into the hole and pulled out the sword. He felt its hilt adjust, conforming to the shape of his hand like a piece of cloth. Not a fan of blades, he pictured what that strange ore would look like as a head hammer. Sensing its master’s desire, as any of Porce who held it were its master, the sword transformed into his picture. The false head’s eyes gleamed green, and it even smirked at him. Disturbed, the tilefolk barked at it until it went back to being a boring lightfolk sword.
“Mah nyt-hund andyr tyyk,” he informed Sweet-talker, who was staring at him from beside the hole. He would never cheat on her with some ridiculous thing that was only a hammer some of the time. The tilefolk dipped the sword in the puddle free of yellow infusion to clean it. After pulling himself out he examined it more closely, pacing around the hole and considering his position.
Mr. Dagyvr, scoundrel that he was, had left without paying Dlak what he was owed, even after more than a hundred verbal and gesture-based confirmations. If the sword was what the breakers claimed though, it was worth far more than his foregone fee. That in itself was a terrible problem for the man.
Such a thing would undoubtedly be used to make history, and history was relentlessly recorded by folk Dlak liked to call pyk hon-nyt: indiscriminate spies. These historians would take his name and plaster it all over everything if he dared to use the blade or even sell it. He was the supplier for whatever purpose it would be turned to.
In his pacing he drifted away from the hole, in the direction the trio had left. Whatever phenomenon took them was not still hanging around invisibly, for Dlak was able to walk past their final footprints. In the process he stepped on something and bent down to pick it up: a crystal of glass a little smaller than his palm. In one of its faces he saw his reflection smiling back at him.
Peako must have figured he no longer needed a piece of the Reflecting Path where he was going, and so dropped it before they departed to be rid of another piece of Porce. Dlak spit on his fuzzy wrist and polished it to a shine. This was the real treasure: extremely valuable but nothing to write to the historians about.
A name came to mind. Captain Rob. The perfect man to take his place. When he stole Cardinal Second it had been the pirate who took the blame and the fame. He could take the troublesome sword off Dlak’s hands, and he would be such a showfolk about it that none would ever question where he got it.
Thanks to Peako he already knew the man was in the Green Ring, and with a piece of the path he could perhaps find an expedited way there the same way Peako had gotten the two of them to Slick Rin Cliff so quickly. The tilefolk turned and went to retrieve Sweet-talker.
On his way he practically ran into the frozen Yugo. It was a unique opportunity, so he couldn’t quite stop himself from mockingly pulling on his wide lips and sticking out his tongue. The purple bones dyed and distorted his reflection amusingly, but so much had happened that he couldn’t even focus on the fun of it. Those breakers had said they couldn’t do anything of consequence without losing their abilities, but stalling a man in time itself didn’t count? The only way that would be true was if Yugo didn’t matter at all, if he was somehow less real than the average folk despite his endlessly swapping statuses of savior and warmonger.
The gravefolk’s weapon arm loosened and swung, sending the crescent back and forth like a pendulum; it nearly gave Dlak an excessive piercing on his wagging tongue. He scrambled backward, but it was luckily just the arm that had become unfixed. Still, the effect was wearing off, and soon the man would be back where he was, fury and all.
It was prudent to leave, the tilefolk decided, rushing back to his head hammer. He opened its jaw and stashed the piece of the path away, to sell at a later date. The last thing he wanted was to be seen with that vibrant green sword in his possession, so he tested the limits of its shape-shifting ability, urging it to condense itself and crawl in alongside the glass prism. It obeyed, and he was able to get the jaw to close, but it made Sweet-talker’s head far heavier.
With her mind weighed down by powerful ambitions, Dlak’s flight across the aker was an awkward waddle, but he was able to get back to the bare rock before the rest of Yugo was freed from the breaker spell. Yugo tried to finish his attack from earlier, but his arm was suddenly in the wrong position, so he tumbled head over heels into the hole, and Peako’s muddy urine.
He sat there, even more hollow-eyed than usual, in silence for some time. Where had those strange folk gone? What had they done? It was that force, he decided. There was a force always preventing him from getting the things he wanted and deserved. It had been there most of his life, always taunting him by putting things within reach. Then Captain Rob came along and snatched them away. Those evil partners were positioned perfectly at the highs and lows of his life to ambush him.
Before Rob had always shown up on his own. It was like they were still friends, and they missed each other. Everything in life came between them, yet they always reunited. It had to be friendship, even though it had been reforged in hatred and opposition. Something had finally changed after their many rests of rendezvouses, when the Captain showed up not to see his dear old rival, but to challenge Bombast.
“He didn’t come to see me,” Yugo whispered, finger bones trying to cup the dirty water of the puddle and failing repeatedly. “Like I wasn’t even there.” The disrespect wasn’t a fluke either, as the pirate hadn’t returned to apologize. He hadn’t returned at all. The duke had to hunt him down, and even when he had, when he tried to drop a flying island on him, he still slipped away into another one of his accursed mirrors. A mirror in the middle of the sea big enough to take his whole ship and all of his false friends who would never stick with him as long as his oldest companion! Their crystal bones resonated with the same note; could he not hear it?
The Green Ring. Platone. That was his location, but what did the information matter when he could dematerialize and reappear anywhere in the world seemingly at will? The blow would have to come indirectly and be such a smack upside the head that it disoriented him and gave enough time for Yugo to speak.
An idea popped into his gemstone skull, directly behind the jagged stump of his horn. It was a wholly new one, and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had such a thing growing in there. It was not an idea a truly devoted papist could ever have, as the entire thing hinged on the Gross Truth.
Rob was the truth. Their togetherness was the world. Nothing else could ever matter to him. His crystalline structure could not melt or be rearranged, only sustained or shattered. The Spotless was nothing; it was Yugo who built those armies.
Far above the Green Ring it sat, dead as any other outcropping by appearance. Yugo’s new idea told him differently. The gravefolk looked dead as well, but unrivaled powers were stored inside. With an empty head he had almost taken over the world; with an empty bowl he would be its greatest villain. Greater than Bombast. Unavoidable.
He needed a mirror, one large enough for the aker to see its own cracked and traumatized face.