Captain Rob Deals (Part Five)

(back to part one)

Age of Wonder

A concert of Platone lit up the night sky in shocking red and swollen purple. Akers stampeded across its face in lightning arcs like blazing stars fired from bows. The din and its associated powers were enough to kill a lightfolk in three different ways, but Vyra was protected by the divine powers of Hesprid, and her prosite stowaway by the same from Qorcneas. There was a bubble around them that the lightning broke up against, sizzling across its surface like fuzzy seeds tumbling down a rock face.

For a while she walked the empowered stone with Captain Rob, who had dutifully returned. With no flesh to burn he too was safe, but his gaze was drawn to her far more than the chaotic lights and sounds all around. Somehow when she spoke he heard, with no need to shout over the concert. He heard because the first gods willed it so, from all the way below the world in their graves.

They allowed him to hold her hand as they strolled, but they couldn’t spend drops reminiscing about their adventure together or discussing their lives before their first or second deaths. At the core of their meeting was official business. Vyra was there as emissary, to tell the full story of the world over the course of several concerts so that Rob might finally understand exactly what he was in the scheme of things, and how many grains of responsibility from the great dropglass of time actually stuck to him on their way down.

In order for him to do as the gods expected, he needed all three ages for perspective. The first was the Age of Wonder, the one never properly recorded by the folk of Porce, as nobody ever bothers to write anything down when they’re enjoying themselves. History, like Rob’s deepest desire as he saw the thrilled hurting hunger in Vyra’s dark eyes, was just an urge to remember, and only because things had gone sour.

She spoke first of a world called Earth. The Gross Truth started there, where Porce was just one bathroom of many. The denizens were incomprehensible giants compared to modern life, but they lived in much the same way. Earth as a world had some very different rules though. Its gravitation was almost the complete opposite of Porce’s, and it showed in the shape of it.

Where Porce was a pressurized prism tucking its life away inside, Earth was a sphere that pulled toward its center. Folk walked its surface without a second thought for the gaping endless sky above them. From the moment they were born they could see the Dark Empty, though then it was full of their own kinds of stars and other bodies beyond their imagining as well.

All of their air was pulled toward the center as well, creating a breathable skin over the sphere. Like the men of Porce they breathed that air in and used it to produce beautiful poetry and toxic threats. There came a day, after billions and billions of others, where the latter won out, where the former was extinct and yet men lived.

They went to war despite having seen its consequences many times. A rich nation fought a resentful one, and each dragged the unwilling others into their dispute until even the most ignorant in the most secluded places had enemies they’d never met whose names they’d never even try to pronounce.

The rich sought to end it, as they’d grown bored of the anger, and they thought back to a smaller war and its finale. There was an explosive made, different from all the others that came before. A regular bomb was just fire, shrapnel, smoke, and the boom. Ears could quickly grow deaf to it no matter how big you made it.

The new explosive needed to be shocking. Awing. Its fire had to confuse and frighten and oppress. Misused science provided for them. Despite their stunning size, these folk knew they were made of smaller things made of smaller things made of smaller things… The smallest things they then knew about, fickle but intense lovers with no minds and barely any existence, could be ripped apart. When they were they threw a tantrum that poisoned everything around them for generations. The act made air, water, soil, and even bones destructive to life. Two bombs full of these tantrums were dropped, and a war won.

The rich nation needed to go grander. By their time everyone with enough resources to matter already had shielding for the tantrums. The plants and animals they spawned from did not, and were long gone. Without them to remind of the actual stakes, the rich spiraled down bottomless philosophical staircases. They were successful, so they were the best. They were the best, so they were correct. They were correct, so they could not be wrong. Everything they felt was the way of things.

That was why they had no qualms when their underlings developed another way to antagonize the tiny lovers. Rather than rip them apart they would bombard them with energies that forced them to change, ending their relationships by replacing them with doppelgangers.

As an explosion the effect was even more repulsive than the tantrum bombs. The latter was akin to salting the ground so that crops couldn’t grow, just more so. The former was like confusing the ground so much that it became the sky. The tiny lovers could no longer achieve anything together, breaking up and striking out on their own, all, in the zillions, desperate to find a world to fit into.

They could not be wrong; they were confident of this even as the resentful nation copied the technique and both sides blasted each other out of existence. The spherical Earth became countless chunks, edges frayed by the new substances they’d forced into becoming. The force of the final disruption sent them flying in all directions in the Dark Empty, which itself was changed by their foolishness, losing its stars and worlds to rogue destabilizing lovers.

Among these pieces was Porce, though it was not yet called that. Nothing lived in it but the animalcules of Earth, and none of them had mind enough to name things. Its eventual namer was born in Earth’s breakup: a lover directly victimized by the bomb. She was nothing, just one half of a basic pair of a building block of stuff, but the blast took her from her partner and switched the polarity of her truth: inanimate to animate.

Terrified for the life she never wanted, she fled into the Dark Empty at the only remaining constant: the speed of light itself. For ages she was too frightened of the chunks to approach them, sure they were full of her old friends and family, all diametrically opposed to her new flavor. Her spirit raced like the smallest softest heart, and she trailed the enigmatic tears of her misery.

She burdened herself with a name, and came to understand the nature of identity: Hesprid. The identity wasn’t a wild thing trying to escape her confines, but a seeping reality that made her more her every moment it continued. The only way to counteract it, to stop becoming her own world and forever separate herself from others, was to find life. She needed opposition for perspective, to flourish within something rather than suffer in herself.

Her lover would never take her back, not the way she was. None of them would. Only life of her own creation could love her, but she needed something to make that life from, and there was nothing in the Dark Empty but the pieces of Earth and the shed skin flakes of its civilization.

Scouting for ages more, she eventually decided to approach a small nonthreatening piece, something meant to fit into a palm of an Earth folk’s hand. A salt shaker. One of its several holes welcomed her in and she found everything she thought she needed. Its material was still like Earth’s, so while she couldn’t join with any of it there also weren’t any other lovers changed like her to challenge her ideas. She would do as the earthfolk had done, shaping it to her ends.

A whole world of potential was what she saw, for life could exist in a number of sizes, even small enough to not see one end of the shaker from the other. Hesprid descended into its white crystal grains and learned the intricacies of their structure. Yes, with her intellect it would be a relatively simple matter to animate them, but she would do so with loving soft pushes and nudges rather than the cataclysmic accidental mess that had birthed her.

Nor would they be created alone and allowed to languish for any amount of time. She took facets of those crystals and in one fluid act fused them with the small amount of light they reflected. Eight hundred folk gently dropped back to the white mountains, some of their feet nervous to actually touch and take their first steps.

She called them saltfolk, and they called her mother and god. Looking about them they saw the potential of the landscape, and begged permission to transform it into homes and farms and galleries of art. It was granted; they could have anything they wanted. Her children were like a dream, their little heads covered in crystals, their little dreams bouncing around inside as sparks of light.

They seemed to need almost nothing from her, so she took to the sky, just under the holes, and patrolled it to make sure nothing came from beyond to harm them. Her glowing warm movements across each hole marked their days, and reminded them when to worship and thank, not that she needed it.

She could see in all directions and spectrums, into time as well, so nothing was missed above her, but her focus was not on the saltfolk themselves. A day came where one of them, one of the first before they’d made children of their own with each other, did something she had never designed. He went from animate to inanimate. With no interference. Perished. Killed by natural forces.

The saltfolk had nothing to compare death to, as Hesprid knew better than to tell them anything of Earth. They thought he had invented a new kind of sleep, and many were eager to try it. She urged them not to, a negative tone they almost never heard from her, enough in itself to put their world in crisis.

Hesprid took the body away from them to settle their nerves, quickly bringing it back to life. The folk thanked her for creating him, as it was his first time to life. A new voice. No memories of the time before. He had truly died, and Hesprid had just put a new folk in his shell. She knew it was no resurrection, and all at once she knew she had failed.

They fell slowly at first, only a few each generation, but the casualties rose exponentially after that. The crops became as weak and tender as their hearts. The lights in their crystals went dark. They begged her for a solution, and it devastated her to tell them she had none. Eventually all she could offer them was a peaceful transition into death, the remaining huddled together as true family, all prepared to travel as one. They accepted, and were entombed in the white mountains as a monument to their god’s inexperience.

Each and every one could’ve been reanimated as a new folk the moment they passed, almost imperceptibly if she refined the process, but she would know the truth and they would experience it. Death would come to them. Enough deaths would make an end.

So foolish, she thought of herself. From observations of other pieces and dives into the recesses of time she knew that salting ground made it impossible for life to grow. It was the wrong material to build them from, and that doomed them. Hesprid left the shaker behind, in search of more fertile ground in the Dark Empty.

Next she came to a leather case with brass clasps. It felt right thanks to its enclosed gasp of air and the animal hide making much of it up. It was already a relic of life. Rather than make her new folk from the leather she chose the brass, thinking that forcing salt to rely upon salt had been part of her folly. The brassfolk would not have to consume what they were made from, and so had more complex lives than their predecessors. Working the leather they built cities even more incredible than those in the shaker, with buildings made of peeling curls of it that rose high into the case’s middle, where their god kept all the light that warmed them.

The brassfolk civilization had longevity the saltfolk did not, more than quadrupling their history, and all without a single incidence of violence between them, not even an insult. Emotionally they were perfect, strong as metal but humble as a flaking alloy. Even with no knowledge of it, they were far more prepared for their death than Hesprid.

It came just as it had before, claiming one of the first she’d made, days after symptoms of lethargy appeared. There was no temptation greater than resuscitation, but she knew the breath would not be theirs. This time it was the folk who comforted her, praising her with all their remaining life, and wandering away to the darker recesses when they knew it was their time so she wouldn’t have to see it.

When she was alone again there wasn’t a single body, from the millions of brassfolk and their lengthy lives, visible above the leather. It was a wonderful gesture from them, one that kept the sorrow from biting her lover’s soul, which had grown delicate, too much. It also had the effect of letting her see, with her god’s sight, something that had escaped the much smaller beings.

It was difficult to tell, as the original surface was greatly altered to make their farms and cities, but the quality of the leather had changed. Tighter. Wrinkled. Cracked. Dryer. The brassfolk had solved it. The secret was water. Their bodies had cycled raw materials within the space well, but tiny amounts were always lost to the Dark Empty from the simple weathering of time, and water was the rarest substance they needed.

There had been some preserved in the leather, an amount lacking in the salt shaker, which explained the differences in their success. Hesprid didn’t have to be alone, and she didn’t have to kill for company, as long as there was water to sustain them. She set out again.

It was a rounded discus with a seam, plenty big enough for her to enter. Inside its enclosed space the sky was a mirror and the ground a plush powdery cushion. This chunk was nothing but a compact: an application pad for a powdered foundation and a mirror to examine that application. None of that mattered; all that did was the crucial drop of water stuck on the glass: the tear of an earthfolk.

Whatever their sadness, she promised to transform it into joy. The foundation was the basis for her powderfolk, soft of skin and vapid, but of course she loved them with her whole being. She made them small enough that the tear was a domed ocean and body in their sky like Earth’s old stars. They could look up any time and see its glittering promise of sustained life.

They advanced slowly, preferring to spend their time drawing designs in the sandy ground with their dancing feet, so they never reached the water in the sky. Hesprid brought it to them whenever they needed it, silently collecting whatever was wasted or excreted and cycling it back into the tear.

Their paradise lasted much longer than the brassfolk, but the cruelties of reality never stopped seeping. The teardrop shrank, some lost to the Dark Empty by natural processes too small and too determined for her living mind to keep up with anymore. She tried locking it up inside her, duplicating it, and creating it from nothing; it still bled out, the duplicate was poison, and the imitation was even worse. At best she could rearrange things, but not the lovers themselves that determined its structure. They did not heed her pleading.

When the well ran dry death was not far behind, and the powderfolk took it worse than the prior two. They were childlike, and so terrified of the slip into darkness. Some were so frightened of death that witnessing it caused it in themselves, and it spread through their lands in rippling waves.

Cradling her children as they screamed and begged for help, throwing tantrums that their bodies sometimes continued well after death, scarred her in ways she didn’t know possible. The bomb that created her and any forces like it could never take those wounds from her, and she understood herself to be immortally wounded now. Death would never come to her in full, for suffering was so much a part of her that she could no sooner become inanimate and unfeeling than reality could stop being real.

One child among them did not cry. He was frightened, but he refused to distress his god with outward signs. One of the last, his name was Yister, and he was the only being she could humble herself before. His spirit was pure, and he would never dream of using that vulnerability against her, something he absolutely could have done if he sought her immortality and godly power.

He gave her the strength to stay and give what comfort she could to the dying, as for the first time she’d considered departing before it was all over, for though the screaming was no longer getting louder, each instance was hurting more. As their numbers dwindled each thought they had to be the one that would be saved, for it wouldn’t make sense for powderfolk to go away entirely.

She did grant special treatment to Yister, wrapping him in a skin of the last remaining waters. Further cocooning him in magic to protect his delicate life from the sapping hollow beyond the compact, the two set out together when he was the last. Hesprid kept him asleep in his watery jewel, as the sight of the Dark Empty was sure to make his sanity slip away as quickly as the unprotected water would.

On her journey she passed many more chunks and pieces, some of them lorded over by other transformed lovers. She never dared approach or communicate, fearing immediate attack. She included herself in that fear, sensing that two gods aware of each other would be forced to battle on instinct, like snarling territorial beasts, as their sets of rules for the matter and light around them could not coexist.

Time was not irrelevant, as Yister’s water could not be indefinitely sustained, so there was desperation in her search. There was even the idea that fighting another god, that killing all of their folk in order to take their island in the empty, would be worth it to protect just Yister. That idea grew stronger in her with each viable one she passed, the covered children’s pool, the icebox, the fermentation tank, but then it appeared.

The great prism with a door still marked by an earthfolk sign bearing their shape. She entered and found a complete washroom, complete in the most crucial way: its abundant water. Pots and sinks and tanks and pipes full of it. Spills across the tile in great floodplains. Seam grids as coursing rivers. This was it, the world that could sustain the folk of Hesprid for all time. The god named it Porce.

Once freed from his sleeping shell, Yister took his first step across the lip of First Sink, surveying a world a few thousand times larger than his first. The awe gave him trouble breathing, and that sound became the new form of laughter. What a place, he declared. He drank so much water that he learned to breathe it, though as powderfolk he couldn’t swim for long without risking dissolving.

Almost immediately, Hesprid became aware of native life. It hadn’t seemed possible, but some of Earth’s original creatures were still there: many strains of its animalcules surviving in the water by feeding on pollen spores and skin flakes from the bygone giants. They gave Hesprid pause, for they were merely animals and she did not know what to do with them.

Unsatisfying as company and unpleasantly reminiscent of the monsters that created her, they could not be the whole of Porce. That much was obvious, but she had no desire to harm them when they were so inconsequential. For a time she would wait, using them as inspiration for how to integrate her life with Porce’s many waters.

With a swipe of magic she empowered and lit the artificial lamp at the top of the world, recreating the florent. Sensitive to the light, the animalcules retreated into the pipes and walls, leaving her and Yister to frolic and dream up a world. Now that he knew of death, she told him of her previous folk from the shaker and the case. He was sorry to hear of their passing, but suggested that they could be properly honored in a place as large as Porce. It could hold more than one type of folk, and they could all have their own places as well as live together. There was room and water enough for everything.

Room was not the problem. Great distances had actually done her a favor, one she was not aware of until it was almost used up. From the Dark Empty she felt the approach of something familiar. With it came a fear she had never felt. It was of death, but not like the one she felt for her folk, taken only by unfeeling nature. What approached could intend death, with all the determination with which she intended life.

With no time to explain properly, she hid Yister away in the walls, near pounding water, and told him to stay silent, and to not come out until she called for him. The powderfolk swore with a simple nod of his head and watched her seep through the stone back into the light of Porce. From there she went to the Black Gap and awaited the arrival of her lover.

Overwhelmed by the shame of the animate in her first moments after the explosion, Hesprid never considered facing him again. She had fled with every other piece in the blast. In truth he, her natural partner and opposite, was affected in the same way, brought to life against his will. His name was Qorcneas, and he understood the misery she felt. It needed to end, but they could only do it together, or the other would forever suffer.

Since the moment she’d abandoned him he had been in pursuit, following the aching pull that had been nothing but shame to her. With every thought a burden and every journey a bloodletting, Qorcneas’s progress was slow. He slept in nearly every piece he passed, and in those times Hesprid’s folk rose and fell. Finally he found her in Porce, coming to a stop in front of her at the Black Gap.

It’s you,” she said, in not a language.

Unfortunately.”

I’m sorry I did this to us.”

You didn’t have a choice.”

Why are you here now?”

To die with you, to end this burden.”

I cannot die. I am as much alive as I wasn’t before. Only the unfathomable horror of that material could undo me.”

We can be close to death. We can diminish and sleep. Empty our minds. Taste less than stone and hear less than air. It will be peaceful.”

You have no desire to explore life’s possibilities? Perhaps we could find happiness.”

None of Earth ever found it. The only thing to find is the end… There is no life here is there? Aside from us?”

No. We are alone together.”

I will kill you if doing it yourself troubles you, dear Hesprid.”

Let us not strangle each other awkwardly, which would only add to the pain life brings us. There is a place here in Porce called Youbend that is like death: dark, silent, and with no current in the high pressure of its waters. Let us retreat there and sleep, love in love, until time becomes something else.”

A convincing argument, but only because she knew to describe to him the opposite of what she wanted. Qorcneas agreed, and together they dove into Third Toil and settled into the blanketing blackness of Youbend. He fell silent immediately, as did Hesprid, but her mind secretly raced with possibilities and worry for little Yister.

Until now her worlds had always been small enough to see all at once, but Porce was too grand. Her child’s presence was beyond her, and she needed a way to search for him without Qorcneas sensing her absence. It took some time, but she eventually recalled an inanimate talent reserved for only the most minuscule of things: those so small that they were only things some of the time.

They could be in two or more places at once, though in most aggressive detail they were actually traveling. All of it was done in spans of time so small that anyone observing, without knowing what signs to look for, would think them fully present. Hesprid practiced by moving just bubbles away at first; Qorcneas sensed nothing.

While his god and mother honed her efforts, Yister was living happily within the walls. The flow of water was entrancing to him, but he knew better than to ever let it take him. To keep his mind off it he chased the animalcules up and down the pipes, and whenever he caught them and squeezed them he was delighted to find that instead of breaking they split into two beings like, but not identical to, the first. He couldn’t know how similar it was to Hesprid’s current struggle. He wasn’t prepared for any knowledge as dark as that, as she hadn’t shared anything more terrible than sadness with him.

This was why he couldn’t fully appreciate the consequences, even knowing about death, when he slipped on a wet surface during one of his chases and fell into the rusty opening of an active pipe. He struggled against the current, but it was like dust struggling against storm winds. The poor thing was carried all through the walls, layers and layers of his powdered self dispersing in the waters.

Hesprid’s new world, before it could be made suitable, had drowned and consumed him, and for the longest time she did know his exact fate. With mastery of her instant travel that kept Qorcneas’s grip on her satisfied, she searched from one corner of Porce to the other seven, in and out of the walls, and found nothing.

Her heart was broken all over again, but she remembered his many dreams of folk upon folk, living together in harmony and all drinking from the same stream. She would have more children, and at least the first of them would have power rivaling her own, so that they might be prepared for nature’s indifference and redirect the waters as they needed.

For such offspring she couldn’t make them out of material, limited by its constituent parts. She had to attempt something she didn’t know if she was capable of: procreation rather than creation. Earth’s life could do it, and so too could all the folk she’d made, so perhaps it was a principle that mostly carried over whenever the inanimate became animate.

Qorcneas was mostly gone from consciousness, but he still held her. With tiny nudges and whispers she brought him to love her, to share what they used to intimately share, but this time with jagged life poking and twitching between them. To him these interactions were nothing but dreams veering into nightmares, and each time he came close to waking she soothed him.

It worked. She was with child for a time almost as long as the saltfolk civilization. Her labor could not be lengthy however, as any moment of it in Qorcneas’s presence would alert him to his worst fear: the direct responsibility for more miserable life. An expansion of his suffering. The children had to be born in one instant, while she was away in the body of Porce.

Like the lovers themselves, their offspring existed naturally in pairs. Each twin had their own form and desire quite different from the other, so she birthed them on opposite sides of the world over the course of three splinters of time: one on the unbroken tile, a brief stop to reassure Qorcneas of their embrace, and then one in First Sink.

Her firstborn was like a mountain. His mind was slow, but his thoughts humble and kind, and each one grew to monolithic proportions inside the swelling, golden, root vegetable of his mind. His name was Plowr, and his affinity for the stone and soil was obvious. He needed little from her, so she had plenty of chances to check on her second.

Swimmr was her name, and she was dropped straight into the sinksea, falling as if dead, but when she struck the bottom she rebounded and swam, never again stopping. With a finned tail instead of legs in her natural form she quickly grew bored of the single sink, traveling in great raining leaps to the next one over, or to the much more distant toils.

With her attention divided, Hesprid contemplated her family’s fate. Whatever folk arose could not have her watching them all the time, so her children would have to take her place as their caretakers. And with many different folk on her mind, she would need more children up for the task. Thrice more she made disguised love to the slumbering Qorcneas and bore twins far beyond Youbend.

Luminatr spent her early life near the florent, playing with it, learning to make new colors and glares and new shapes of shade. She kept the light in crystal orbs across her body so that inspiration was never further than her shoulder or knee.

Dealr was of two minds, his head split down the middle, and neither half much cared where he was set. With each side having a strong opinion as to direction, he mostly moved in straight lines, so eventually he walked and swam the seams of the tiles, stopping to rest at their crossroads.

Greetr and Scribblr were born next, each immediately preoccupied with words. Greetr, her long green body flowing like a dress, socialized with her siblings as much as she could, carrying messages between them and sometimes inserting her own. Scribblr instead preferred the dead nonsense words upon the stall walls, left there by frivolous earthfolk ages ago. Hesprid regretted not erasing them, but he loved them so much that she couldn’t bring herself to do it after.

Born last were Howlr and Whispr, and none of her other children were quite so opposed to each other. Howlr’s body was like a jug, and in it she stored a thousand songs that always overflowed out of her. Almost none of them were enjoyed by her siblings, and some were destructive to the world around them, so she mostly kept herself sequestered on the rin cliffs. Whispr, his body nothing but brown smoke and his legs nothing but footprints, couldn’t stand company, not even his mother. He was the one to take after his father, keeping the nearly empty First Toil all to himself and not letting any others approach.

For a time Hesprid let them grow and mature, as they were enough now, one god for each corner of Porce. If they were positioned there, looking out, there would not be a single piece of land under the florent that they couldn’t monitor. Overall she was pleased with her children, loving them very much, though they didn’t initially show any desire to create folk.

Eventually interference seemed like her only option, so she cautiously broached the subject with her eldest and arguably maturest. Plowr did not understand her hints at first: just tales of Earth and the things that lived there. Only when she described them in terms of his interests did his mind glow.

Earth had life, like them, but it needed forces to sustain itself and material to cycle. Heat and light were the former, and minerals the latter. Plowr looked out at his tiles, at the deep footprints and cairns that were his only creations to that point, and had the revelation Hesprid nudged him toward. The tile and soil itself could transform, become like him, move about and have thoughts of its own. His own appreciation would amplify and resonate through them, like pleasure traveling slowly through the ultimate body.

With her blessing he created eight hundred folk from cracked corners of tile. They were strange compared to her folk, with no heads upon their shoulders and fur across their bodies. These tilefolk had eyes set under the collarbone and wide mouths under the sternum. Ugly or no, they were appreciative of life from their first moments, even without anything to occupy them.

Plowr quickly changed that, raking his fingers across the ground and creating furrows from which the first plants of Porce sprung. He hadn’t heard much of Earth’s crops, but he instinctively knew what sort of living thing would make a good delivery and cycling system for his precious minerals.

He told his eight hundred that the tiles were theirs, and that they should farm them. They happily obeyed, and added worship of him to their routine though he made no demands for it. To Hesprid too they sang glory, but if they ever felt they needed anything they could look out the windows of their homes and see the mountainous Plowr plodding along in the distance, and he would hear these thoughts and turn in their direction. He was the land that moved for them, the home chasing the bottom of their feet.

When it was clear they were a success, never aging past adulthood and death a foreign concept, Hesprid brought the same request to her daughter Swimmr. She had always been quicker to understanding, and before her mother even finished describing an ideal folk she had raced off to the ever-flowing waters of Sea Fauce.

Halfway down the waterfalls the folk were born, their first act a dive with held breath. Eight hundred of them plunged and resurfaced safely. They were tall and lanky, also with fur on their bodies to protect against the cold waters of their womb. Their hands and feet were large for swimming, and their noses swollen with an air chamber for buoyancy. They could bob in the water almost endlessly, limbs dangling, heads babbling at each other in conversation. Swimmr, with a swish of her tail, washed them up on bergs of ice and told them they could swim all they wanted, as long as they had a civilization to retire to. The bergfolk obeyed and worshiped her, and as further reward she created swimming animals to feed them.

Hesprid knew she wanted at least three folk for Porce, probably four so that each kind would have a creator to worship as well as one of the less responsible but more enthusiastic of her children who could craft their cultures and celebrations. This led to the question of who to approach next. The most obvious choice was Luminatr, who had both the talent of inerrancy and the talent of preventing others’ errors.

Dealr was a good choice as well, though folk would certainly seem silly if they only walked back and forth along the seams as he did. In the end she was surprised when one of her other children approached her and asked for the privilege.

Long had Greetr watched the Black Gap, fascinated by the nothing beyond Porce, sure that its emptiness was only a disguise. She longed for Porce’s air to be filled with sound, and not the discordant singing of Howlr. The talk of the gods was not enough, and with nothing else to hear she turned her ear to the void beyond.

When she approached her mother she was giddy, speaking so fast that she could barely be understood. She claimed to have heard an echo from beyond the world, from deep in the past, and in it were countless voices. With it serving as inspiration, and having seen the flourishing of Plowr’s and Swimmr’s folk without yet being allowed to intervene in their lives, she was desperate to have her own.

Her ability to care for them properly was suspect at best, but when Hesprid remembered her own desperation, and the lives her loneliness cost, she could not refuse, though she did request that Luminatr help her with the details. Together, from rays of the florent, they created eight hundred lightfolk.

After that Hesprid did not doubt her daughter’s echo, for her folk were nearly an exact replica of earthfolk, scaled down to fit Porce. With the tilefolk upon the World Floor and the bergfolk occupying the sinks and the toils, the lightfolk were granted the walls and stalls as their home, though they quickly proved adept at winding up in strange places.

Their wills could be brittle, and their relationship to even personal truths tenuous, but they were clever, inventive, and sociable. Hesprid was hopeful they would grow into the ideal glue that could hold all folk of Porce together. It wasn’t going to be quite as she imagined though, for there was another folk already, and loving them would be both too foreign and too painful for her.

When Yister passed on his spirit was infused in the waters of Porce, water that was the central ingredient of Earth’s remaining animalcules. Her beloved child still lived, but only as will distributed among them, granting them eyes and minds so they might see the things he had hoped to.

They called themselves the prosites, and by the time the tilefolk were birthed they had already built stupendous cities within the walls, satisfied enough that they saw no reason to cross over into the world of light. When Hesprid visited them, bringing with her a veil of orange light that irritated them fiercely, they became aware of each other. She had come to merely honor Yister’s memory and was surprised to recognize a sparkle of him in the elevated creatures.

With their own tongue, traditions, and cities, they had no need of her, and both were content to let the opposite world live in peace. Hesprid had her fourth folk, even though they were not planned, and for now she let the matter drop to see how Porce would shape itself. And so began the Age of Wonder in earnest.

Deathless and fecund, the folk would eventually fill Porce to the brim, but Hesprid assumed they would find other pieces drifting in the empty that she could then attach to Porce, allowing them to grow endlessly. Her own children could not resist participating in the building of families, often descending into the folk and taking their forms, sometimes as disguises, and either bearing or siring children with them.

The resulting demigods swore oaths to protect pieces of the world lorded over by their parents, gaining the title of Oath. In natural form they were two to three times taller than the folk they came from, their skin often a shade of their godly parent’s natural color. Sometimes strange features set them apart, attributable only to the influence of Porce itself: horns shaped like toil seats, rainbow reflecting bubbles over their eyes, water that ever flowed from the ears, and many more.

A few rejected their oaths outright, and more would come to do so, but most of Porce had a steward to watch over it. There was Oath Embr of the Tunnel of Sweat, Oath Glayshr of Second Toil, Oath Rustr of Metal Block, Oath Breakr of First Toil, Oath Blindr of the florent, Oath Watchr of the Black Gap, Oath Hushr of Slick Rin Cliff, Oath Feevr of Second Stall, Oath Harvestr of half the tiles, Oath Boldr of the other half, Oath Clenzr of the Soapstone Mines, Oath Suspectr of the Broken Fix, Oath Larjr of Third Toil, Oath Jewelr of Third Sink, Oath Greenr of Second Sink, Oath Chalkr of First Sink, Oath Darkr of the Pipes, Oath Rainr of Dry Rin Cliff, Oath Jumpr of First Stall, Oath Pestr of Third Stall, Oath Angr of the Bottomless Rot, Oath Travelr of the Reflecting Path, Oath Celebratr of the Threewall Wild, and Oath Attractr of gravitation.

They too were powerful enough to be worthy of prayer, and they couldn’t help but let the appreciation become carnal, influenced as they were by their folk heritage. The Oaths had many children of their own, too numerous to recount, and they were given the title of Custodian in the hopes that among them there would always be one to take custody of their parent’s oath.

In stature they were noticeably larger than folk, but nowhere near as much as the Oaths. Their bodies were mostly typical beyond that, though they always bore incredible talents and magical abilities sometimes beyond their control. These quarter-gods were heroes, though they rarely had much to do with their strength other than competing with each other for the affection of their folk and their parents.

The Custodians begat as well, children even more numerous, and though they were extraordinary among folk they were among folk nonetheless, and so the influence of Hesprid and Qorcneas was increasingly diminished in the generations.

Though half her time, every moment split and alternated, was spent in the deep darks of Youbend, clutched by a slumbering Qorcneas like a reassuring stuffed animal, Hesprid was content. The water was plentiful; her children and her folk lived. The only things that ever caused them trouble were their emotions, and that was a problem Hesprid could never even solve for herself. Still, they had all time to figure them out.

Hesprid’s daughter was Luminatr,” Vyra said as the concert came to a close. Akers disappeared into the gaps in Platone, their light becoming a glow from below. The lightning in the air dissipated. She held both his bony hands. “Luminatr had a daughter with the lightfolk Grayjoy Hotseatr, and she was Oath Suspectr.” Rob’s spirit was cold despite the warm glow about him. Gray had been the intended name for one of his sons, stilled inside Teal by the accursed spines. “Supectr had a son with the lightfolk Obespierron Ordr: a judge in a crimeless world. He was Custodian Kilroy Ordr. Down through his line we have Kilrogue, and down through him we have you.”

I didn’t feel treated like a son returning home when I walked the Graves of the First.”

Regardless, she comes to you now as your god and your mother, your reason for being.” He was about to protest, but Vyra sensed it and held his jaw closed where a gentler woman would’ve just put a finger over his teeth. “Stow it Captain. Story time’s not over yet, but it is for tonight. Go back to your folk.”

What should I tell them?”

Whatever you want.”

Everything you just told me rewrites our history books… and adds one pissload of a prologue.”

Gods don’t care about correcting the record,” Vyra assured him. “They just want their young to stand up straight and to not sass back too much. This is the great struggle Rob, the one for life itself. Don’t get caught up in history while Bombast gorges on our future.”

It pained him to return to the Chokechain without her, but he was also glad that her parasite Lordiceb wouldn’t be aboard his vessel. The creature hadn’t even spoken up, leading him to believe that Qorcneas cared very little for the outcome, but was concerned Hesprid might distort things unfairly. Impossible for him to be painted with a blacker brush than the one our brain felt stumbling over his corpse. Felt more dead back then than we did when the fire roasted the flesh off these emeralds.

Lordiceb’s presence would’ve been more than an insult: a contaminant as well. The Captain had gotten back into the swing of science after Lyberry told him about Waxxon and the multitudes in the soil. He’d already arranged a cabin aboard into a new laboratory, putting his nephew to the task of filling it up with Green Ring glass terrariums and sealed specimen cases.

The ship was dark and quiet when he returned, but as he passed by the door of the fresh lab he noticed softness under his foot bones like a rug. There was light coming from under the door, so he opened it, revealing a pool of moss and lichen that had slipped under the gap. His entrance startled Roary, who was busy peeling more of it off the walls. He had dark circles under his eyes and they were bloodshot, suggesting both that he’d focused intensely on something and done so for many drops in a row.

The terrariums and cases weren’t ruptured, but they looked stuffed to the breaking point with various flora and fauna. Several bottles erupted undergrowth like slow benevolent volcanoes. Bugs jumped to surprising heights, but refused to come down anywhere where there wasn’t green beneath them.

Uncle,” the young man said, “I didn’t hear you.” He let the peeled moss hang after looking about the lab and realizing it was futile. “I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to keep your specimens tidy all day, I know everything under the florent be on your mind, but these are something else. Worse than that Threewallian snortsnout you tried to raise.”

It’s alright Roary.” His somber tone was more surprising than his entrance.

Are you sure? The Chokechain’s been spotless since you got her, and I’m making a mess of her.” Rob pointed at the spot on the wall where the peeled moss hung. It was still clean underneath.

The Green Ring topsoil builds upon itself and nothing else. The wood’s still clean as can be. It’s practically a protective coating.”

That be a relief I suppose,” Roary said, rubbing his hands on his thighs before realizing there was nothing to rub off. “What did Miss Vyra have to say?”

That we are gods.”

We? We who?”

The two of us in this room nephew.” Roary looked at his hands again, but they were still clean.

I don’t feel much like a god.”

The godly part is small, undetectable in our lives. You know that we are in line with Custodian Kilroy, but before him came Oath Suspectr, and before her Luminatr, and before her Hesprid, the creator of all life in Porce. That is the tradition we’re part of, materially. We are gods.”

Is everyone?”

No.”

Alast is going to be so jealous,” Roary chuckled. He checked his hands one more time, but didn’t have much of a reaction beyond that.

Does it not disturb you? Do you not suddenly feel a weight of responsibility on your shoulders?”

I don’t know about things like that. Been pirating with you most of me life. Never was a responsible way of living. Do you know why I left Mom behind and came out here with you?” The Captain shook his head. “Because I was sick of folk telling me what I was. They tag you and all of a sudden it be like they have a leash on you. I’m a young sir, so I should be looking after me family. I’m a breadwinner, so I should have me proper employment.

Cept when they call call you pirate they don’t stare at you, waiting for you to obey. They’ve tagged you as worse than useless, as bad, and they don’t want nothing from you. All of a drip they’re afraid you’ll be taking from them… and they sense it only because they know they be deserving it. They know it be comeuppance for telling folk how to live.”

So you reject the tag of god as well, in favor of pirate?”

Well we’re not exactly pirating now are we?” he whispered, looking around as if the lichen might have some journalistic connections. “Now we’re with Rinlatour. We’re soldiers. Heroes even, after stopping Yugo.”

Heroes. Now there’s a tag with expectations.”

It’ll wash off. Pirate be still underneath. Always ready.”

Nit Picking

You’re the best diplomat we’ve ever had,” the royal flush told him, squeezing his shoulder. “Should the negotiations fail, you understand what needs to be done?” He nodded. Having only just been briefed on the dire state of the pot they were boiling in, Jailbeta Ripr didn’t have a single qualm about what needed to be done.

It still wasn’t common knowledge among the populace, but the Tandem Flush knew, and so too did their underlings and advisers. The fiend Bombast was no mere aberration. He was ruination. Alien judgment come to their world, with no process for appeal. It was his intent to destroy Porce’s capacity for life, which presumably included Jailbeta’s two daughters and his adorable fat wolptinger.

The only thing keeping him from doing it was the theft of a piece of his weapon. Their intelligence told them that he’d become agitated since then, unable to focus, destroying things almost randomly in search of it. Some of his wake was horrific, but it was sporadic, and it was certainly slower than his end goal.

None could destroy him, and many had tried. Jailbeta worked on contract normally, but with the reinstatement of the Tandem Flush came the return of the draft in his part of the world, and he was called into service. He had no illusions about being up to the task, but this other man, this Captain Rob, sounded like someone he could handle deftly.

Certain aspects of his previous work had him rubbing filthy elbows with the criminal element, and he was told Rob was entirely composed of that element despite his current elevated position. He was recently turned to gravefolk, so it would be impossible to read his facial expression or judge the color in his face.

Jailbeta was something of an expert on all folk, even prosites, having intimate altercations with many of them over high stakes issues. They all had markers of distress, even without flesh to make it obvious. In his profiling work he’d learned minute things about all their faces: lightfolk brows, like his, held volumes, bergfolk nose whistle tones had a thousand variations among their moods, tilefolk rolled their shoulders and swung their arms when distressed, prosites’ bubble content and behavior was a better indicator than their eye, and he could write a book about gravefolk neck angles.

Captain Kilrobin Ordr would require a good deal of convincing, as the ultimate sacrifice was needed of him. Many in the Tandem Flush agreed that it could buy them valuable time to hand the green skeleton over, given his presence during the theft of Bombast’s material. Bombast, under the impression the Captain would know where the material was, would likely expend a good deal of effort in getting the man to talk, though Jailbeta was assured that the collection of emeralds most certainly did not contain that information.

Wearing his best clothes, complete with his elegant, ceremonial, crimson collar bestowed on him by the bloody regime of Badcarls Mortifr, he was escorted via mirror to the village of Tonefoot. It was midday, and despite the dilapidated buildings the place was bustling with important shifty-eyed folk like himself.

The vessel Chokechain was partly beached, a gangplank extended on one side, but it was blocked by a velvet rope as if it was some exclusive social club. The majority of the crowd was gathered around it, arguing with the filthy-haired woman standing behind it, shouting, and shaking her head. Jailbeta recognized her as Ladyfish Paintr, as someone had gone through all known members of Rob’s crew with him before he was dispatched.

There was already the problem that he was looking at her in broad florentshine. The mirror he exited was supposed to be aboard the ship. Turning and examining it, he found its bottom was pressed into the grass awkwardly and at an angle. It was surrounded by other similar mirrors.

The Tandem Flush was provisionally managed by a member who organized the votes and kept things polite, the Courtesy Flush, and nothing was an officially sanctioned act of the body unless it had their approval. The kidnapping of Captain Rob, having been outvoted four times in different incarnations, did not have it. So it seemed some of the flushes and the man’s crew had gone to the trouble of removing all mirrors large enough for folk from the Chokechain and instead placed them nearby, so none could sneak up on their green treasure.

With their visits mostly postponed, canceled, or outright denied, the dignitaries and military personnel had taken to wandering around the village instead, reading its various plaques and pacing to keep the bugs off their feet. Jailbeta remembered that it was a museum, his background information also including the identifying details for one Lyberry Foalr, perhaps the most sympathetic person involved in the whole messy affair.

She certainly looked the part as she ran around, so flustered that she seemed not to realize she was wearing a loosely tied bathrobe sash as a more regular belt, chastising folk for touching the walls and moving the relics. For a while Jailbeta simply watched her, sensing an opportunity. He observed her to be both currently irritable and completely harmless, the perfect concoction for someone who would be allowed to complain to the highest authority without much oversight.

He only had to wait a third of a drop before she became so frustrated that she turned around and marched for the Chokechain. The man followed behind stealthily, though she was completely oblivious of him. Still, it took a good deal of skill to slowly close the gap, only having it seal the moment both of them squeezed their way through the crowd and were face to face with Ladyfish and her velvet rope. Even then, as they rubbed shoulders, Lyberry didn’t look at him. It seemed to take her entire focus to lodge the complaint without wandering off into others.

Ms. Paintr, this is unacceptable!” the curator squeaked. “I can’t manage these crowds. Your captain will have to do something about them.”

Your museum’s got guests; we thought you’d be tickled,” the woman in the Rinlatour uniform and pirate hair said.

These aren’t guests. They’re pooling and loitering like Tonefoot is a waiting room. Let me aboard please. I wish to speak to him directly.” In the process of rolling her eyes, Ladyfish’s stare landed on the man stood next to the curator.

And who be this?” Lyberry finally looked over as well, startled by the statuesque man next to her, hands folded behind his back like they were weapons impolite to reveal in mixed company. His face was not unattractive, but like a mask, devoid of real emotion in favor of clean nonthreatening presentation. There wasn’t so much as a knife on his belt, but the brass pin on his red collar looked wickedly sharp. No matter where you looked on him something became sharp like that, the threatening aura perhaps constantly forced away from his trained face: glinting fingernails, boot tips like arrowheads, and a pen in his shirt pocket almost poking through the bottom.

I have no idea,” Lyberry said.

I represent Miss Foalr and the museum,” Jailbeta claimed.

You do?” The curator’s expression suggested no other folk had ever even attempted to represent her or her work.

Yes, I was just sent over from Rinlatour. We’ve never met but I’m the liaison between your museum’s funding and its delivery to you. I think your work is inspiring. As such, that makes the Captain and I countrymen, and I’d be pleased to help settle this between the three of us.”

Oh I knew somebody had to care!” She turned back to Ladyspiller. “There you see? It’s so bad they had to send a liaison. Now let us aboard.” Ladyfish eyed Jailbeta suspiciously, but eventually relented, opening the rope just long enough for the two of them to ascend. More folk tried to squeeze in, but the woman stomped around violently, shaking the whole gangplank and even knocking a few backward into the crowd. Miss Foalr almost fell as well, but Jailbeta somehow grabbed her and steadied her without her feeling anything forceful at all.

The sails were folded up, but he could see their extraordinary color and hear the jangling of the chains that would’ve been ropes on any other vessel. It was a place of determination, like a prison too clean to ever actually house prisoners, lest they muck the place up. That was only the surface though, as the vessel’s demeanor changed as soon as they headed below decks.

Perhaps they had also removed the mirrors so folk didn’t wander into whatever kind of infestation they were dealing with. Much of the floor and huge patches of the walls were covered in blankets of grass, ferns, and moss. Spherical flowers with a thousand violet needle petals bobbed as they walked by. Flying bugs made short trips from one wall to another, falling straight down when they collided with Lyberry and Jailbeta as if struck dead, before recovering and leaping away a moment later.

Oh…” the curator said, turning on the spot. “I don’t actually know where his cabin is.”

It’s this way,” Mr. Ripr informed her, taking her by the arm and leading. The ship’s layout had come along with the layout of all the folk he might run into. Before they got to the correct door however, they ran afoul of an open one blocking the passage. It was stuck open, a wedge of wood jammed under it and then completely grown over by the grass. The wall of greenery could not be convinced of anything, so his shoulder would have to do the work, and it would have if the exact skull they searched for hadn’t popped out from the open chamber at the sound of their footsteps.

My curator!” Captain Rob gushed as he emerged. “Just the woman I was looking for.”

Your curator!?” she gasped. “I don’t think anyone’s qualified to curate you Captain! I’m here because I have a grievance.”

As do I,” the skeleton countered, taking the arm opposite the one still held by Jailbeta and dragging the chain of three into the open room. It appeared to be a rudimentary laboratory of some sort, but most of the equipment was covered in Green Ring growth. A fat drab shellenfowl waddled back and forth under a table, honking to itself.

Is that a cudgellen?” the curator asked. “Why do you have one of them in here?”

They are indigenous are they not? It’s certainly not strange to find one, not like your surprisingly strapping lover here.” Lyberry glanced to her left and remembered Jailbeta still had a cozy lock on her arm. She slipped out, blushing. Jailbeta smiled thinly; it was best if everyone stayed calm. He would’ve preferred to speak with the Captain privately, as they might have to get into some gruesome details.

He is not my lover,” she stammered, “though I wouldn’t turn… never mind that. This is the liaison from Rinlatour who handles the tile. His name is… I’m terribly sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

Jailbeta Ripr.” It was a good chance to warm up his skills. While he was perfectly fine with misrepresenting his motives and abilities, Jailbeta never used a false name. He thought it was important that the record reflect what kind of man he actually was. The name was the first test of Rob’s shrewdness. If he was the sort who paid attention to politics, especially interactions among the many flushes when the tandem was not in effect, he might recognize it. If he did he might be able to discern the motive for his visit within drips.

The gravefolk gave him a few indicators, but nothing conclusive. His head tilted, but his jawbone didn’t loosen, implying curiosity rather than surprise. He didn’t favor one leg over the other, as if leaning away or toward him, looking for routes of attack or escape. His hands were still.

He’d heard tell of Rob’s bonepicking, and was fully aware it had been practiced rests before he was even bony. He wouldn’t need any sort of physical preparation to use it, his limbs able to snap to new positions almost faster than the fleshy eye could register. Of course, were such a threat to occur, a lightfolk in Jailbeta’s position could turn the changing tables on the bonepicker with a move that was surprising rather than swift.

It just so happened that the pen in the negotiator’s front pocket had a diamond nib. It didn’t look much like a dagger, but it functioned as one quite well, though not nearly as well as it did an ornamental piece during legislation signing. Should, theoretically, a peaceful diplomat be suddenly attacked by a gravefolk, even an anomalous one made of gemstones, one precise strike with its nib between the eye sockets, like an ice pick, could split the fused plates of the skull and result in the attacker’s death. Captain Rob spoke a little more slowly than before, but certainly he couldn’t decipher all that from Jailbeta’s room temperature demeanor.

And what is Mr. Ripr’s purpose here?”

I’d be happy to assist Miss Foalr and you in getting the hoards away from her preserved township, and I can incidentally do that by having the larger discussion I’m here to have.” Lyberry’s arms dropped as she realized there was something else going on, something that again had nothing to do with Tonefoot and its stories. “I’m here on behalf of a not-insignificant portion of the Tandem Flush, to see if I can convince you to turn yourself over to Bombast in the interest of giving the world more time to find countermeasures against him.”

What a defeatist plan that is,” the skeleton said. “Sacrificing a man to merely buy time to think of a proper plan. My answer is obviously no, and it would be even if they did have a stratagem.”

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way,” Jailbeta said, stepping toward the Captain, “we can get into the gritty details.” He reached for the pen in his pocket, but Rob snagged Lyberry and pulled her between them. Stalled, Jailbeta stopped his hand before the nib was visible. He couldn’t already suspect the pen was a weapon could he?

The curator’s concerns should be addressed before we lock horns!” Rob declared. “What was your grievance my lady?”

Well, the crowds outside…” Her voice faded away. She’d lived alone for so long that the crackle of silent conflict between the two men ripped her focus and robbed her of composure. “They’re not being respectful of the history. I want them gone. Really I want all of you gone before you trample Tonefoot of existence.”

Aye well, I can see the tissue at hand,” Rob granted, “but there’s little I can do to change it. This is one of the few places safe from Yugo and Bombast, so I must stay. As for all these folk gathering outside, waiting for their chance to meet with me, which will never come, they fall more under Mr. Ripr’s wheelhouse.”

I claim no responsibility for them.”

No, you’re just one of them. The only one crafty enough to get in here, but the fact remains. They are your folk, and if anyone could convince them to leave it’d be you. Now that I think of it, should they see you leaving empty-handed, it might discourage them enough to send them packing.” Jailbeta made another move to stand beside the man, casually leaning up against a table with no regard for the plants and bugs that might crawl into his waistband. The cudgellen between his legs examined the spot closely, judging its adequacy for a nap, and, sensing something about the man, waddled away instead.

Give us another tale, Miss Foalr,” the Captain insisted, holding her shoulders as if she were a shield.

A tale? What are you on about Captain?”

Just like the story of the put-upon shellenfowl! Now is the perfect time for another history lesson. Something to inform Mr. Ripr of the past that he disturbs. Everyone out there needs to learn that the threat of Bombast is nothing compared to the damage being done right now, right here, by simple fear.”

I’m in no hurry,” Jailbeta claimed, crossing his arms. Every moment was another one in which to observe the man, to increase the accuracy of the final assessment that would take place either as hands were about to shake or a diamond was about to pierce the Captain’s skullcap.

I distinctly remember you saying that the last story I told you was dreadful!” Lyberry protested. “Are you mocking me?”

Such a thing never happened,” Rob insisted. “You mistook my saying that for my meaning it. My words were just playful banter; if they bruised you then you might want to consider going to a different school of thought and learning how living and mostly-living folk actually function. If you had observed my actions, namely the collecting and nurturing of the Green Ring samples you see before you, you would’ve known I’d taken your words about conservation to heart.” He put his hand over where his heart used to be, the fingers slipping between the ribs. She stood there for a moment, unable to argue back with the evidence all around them. “Give Mr. Ripr some words for his heart, if he still has one, making offers the way he does…”

There is one I’ve been thinking about lately,” the curator began, “hoping to convince any of your folk, certainly not you Captain after the debacle of my last attempt, that things they don’t consider important are very much worth saving.” Her audience was silent; she wandered over to the cudgellen and hefted it into her arms, where it nestled down. She stroked its calciferous shell as if it were the softest fur.

This one takes place washes after the cudgellen returned. For your benefit Mr. Ripr, in case you haven’t done your homework, Tonefoot was founded by Dr. Jumpinjack Weedr and his family in the hopes of isolating new medicinal compounds in its plants and wildlife.

So far that was still largely a failure, but not the effort put in, that in itself was noble and worth remembering. If he hadn’t failed, then he wouldn’t have turned his attention to the other creatures of Porce that were in need. Namely, this time, the metzberyl, a furry little creature born from geodes, coming in a variety of child-delighting colors depending on their spawning crystals.

A few of Dr. Weedr’s workers were attempting to dig a well, in the hopes of finding water that didn’t need to be thrice boiled and strained to drink. They were ten foams down when they struck a cluster of rocks hardly bigger than your fist. A good whack produced not just a hollow sound, but scratching from within, so they took them to the good doctor for identification.

With a surgeon’s precision he cracked one open on a worktable and out rolled one of the most adorable things anyone had ever seen, as attested to in his daughter Pipstep’s personal diaries. It had tiny clawed feet, a round body, a back of blunt crystal spines matching its geode, and a little wiggly snout that moved more than its vermin prey as they were being sucked down.

The girl had developed quite an interest in animals since they constructed a false shellenfowl to resuscitate a population. She was able to identify them as metzberyls, breaking out a book with an illustration to show her father. Most notable about that illustration was the statement written under it: metzberls were declared extinct more than three rinses prior! The poor creatures were relentlessly mined you see, for their precious spines and eggshells.

The Weedr family mobilized once more, hardly having to browbeat their father at all this time, into an even more aggressive conservation crusade. The metzberyls absolutely had to make it to adulthood so they could burrow, mate, and lay geodes of their own. Jumpinjack spearheaded the effort, arguing that the animals were just as good as any for his medicine tests and that their survival could be a part of his legacy. As an aside, I believe he was already aware that Tonefoot was doomed, so perhaps the metzberyl would be his only legacy.

There were forty animals in total, counting the pair of conjoined twins, a lovely cross of sapphire and ruby, as one. They were all kept in a large tent that sadly could not be added to our museum, fragile as it was, though I do still have some of their geode shells in storage.

At first the creatures were simple to care for, as they would eat just about anything small enough that crawled. They were docile and playful, and not averse to being rolled around like marbles. Their most notable quirk was that they were frightened to death by mirrors, though not the objects themselves, just their personal reflections.

Jumpinjack had a few theories, the most feasible being a kind of anti-imprinting. I’m sure both of you know that when many birds pop out of their shells they immediately assume the first face they see belongs to their mother, and act accordingly. When a metzberyl hatches it drags its geode out from underground so that it can be used as a protective house during its youthful slowness. That usually means, upon the crystals hitting the light, the metzberyl’s first face is their own reflection fractured among them.

That face becomes associated with vulnerable youth, with hiding oneself away. So as adults, having left their eggs far behind, their reflection might be a sign that something has gone wrong, that they’ve regressed, been pulled all the way back to their birth, which an animal might consider worse than death. Removing reflective surfaces from the tent was simple enough.

The metzberyls grew into their adult fur in a short time, but that seemed to be the catalyst of a problem. They began exhibiting irritated behavior, rubbing themselves up against anything they could find, even shins, to relieve what appeared to be itchiness.

Jumpinjack took a fine-toothed comb to one’s fur and found the culprit: a strange bug like he’d never seen. It stood upright on two of its six legs, prancing about prissily as if metzberyl fur was meadow grass. Tiny flaps over its arm-like limbs made it look like a little servant carting fresh towels around. The only time it ever broke its perfect posture was when it bent down, pierced the animal’s epidermis to drink of its blood.

The doctor would have seen them previously if they were common, forcing him to conclude that the bug’s eggs had somehow been deposited either alongside or within the geodes at the same time. As parasites, and for the good of the tiny remaining population, they had to be disposed of.

One by one Jumpinjack and his wife Hopcheep examined them, picking through their fur with tweezers and hand lenses, tossing the strange little bugs into glass jars. Their son Buckleberry was in charge of keeping the jars sealed, but that led to him observing the bugs’ behavior. Normally such creatures scrambled wildly against the side of the jar before becoming lethargic, but these were different. They kept their posture, forming little cliques and almost seeming to have discussions by rubbing their antennae together.

Not versed in scientific naming, the young Buckleberry just called them fancies after their manners. Jumpinjack, when alerted, had to admit that it was social behavior of a sort. It could be indicative of intelligence, which gave him pause. Feeling very stupid indeed, he attempted to communicate with them, each no bigger than a corner of an eye, by wrapping written notes around the side of their jar to see if they could understand or respond.

They showed no signs of comprehension, not even of recognizing the writing as symbols with meaning. All they did was move into the note’s shadow to enjoy the shade. The fancies weren’t going to make it easy, with their heady mix of animal and civilized traits. The doctor didn’t have the experience or expertise to puzzle out the differences, but he did have a barrel, which is the plural by the way, of metzberyls to take care of.

Thus the larger problem came into focus. After testing, he found that the fancies would not feed on drops of blood from any other creature, only the glittering blood of a metzberyl. They would stand there, perfectly rigid, quiet, and polite, until they starved to death and the wind knocked them over. Since the fancies were adapted down to a specialized food source, it meant they faced the same threat as their hosts. If the metzberyl went extinct, so too did they.

Meaning that taking care of the few remaining metzberyls, by delousing them, doomed another species to extinction. It was the sort of thing Dr. Weedr did not want included in his legacy. But what to do? The metzberyl was far more pleasant and relatable, though likely less intelligent. The fancy, when put face to face with a mirror, acknowledged the reflection, but gave it no power over its emotions, at least none that could be observed. Didn’t that make it the more folkish of the two?

But its role had to be considered. The fancy was a parasite, a drinker of blood, a harmer, an unsettler. Its contributions to Porce were none, and its impact minor, but some. To save them was to save nothing, from the perspective of lifeforms interacting, but skin irritation, discomfort, and unhappiness.

So plagued was the family by existential questions that Pipstep recorded many of them in her diary. Did parasites have a right to life? They didn’t even have the claim to population control as a purpose, as the predators do. After all, the parasite benefits if there are far too many of its host.

Or did the metzberyls have a right to comfort? A privilege of the harmless?”

And?” Mr. Ripr asked when she trailed off. “What was the final decision on the delousing?”

The Weedrs removed and killed every last fancy,” she answered plainly. “They decided the fancies were worth preserving, but only in a harmless form. Once they euthanized them the bugs were carefully preserved under glass, and they are currently on display in Jumpinjack’s old laboratory just outside.”

But there was another way,” Jailbeta pointed out. “Draw the blood from the metzberyls as a medical professional would, painlessly, and then transport it to where the fancies were kept. Everything lives and nothing gets hurt.”

That would’ve been work,” Lyberry explained. “To many an equal inconvenience to having the blood sucked out. It’s really the whole philosophy of my museum. It is best to preserve the things that preserve themselves. Buildings age more slowly than folk. Mounted bugs want for nothing. Their stories are immutably written in their forms, but only when they are at their most resilient.”

Much better than their story,” Captain Rob claimed, pointing a bony finger at the cudgellen. It honked as if offended, so the curator released it back to the floor. “And that’s saying something, as the last one was one of the first major motivating forces of my bony life. I trust you’ve taken its lesson to heart in my stead Mr. Ripr, seeing as I cannot.” The skeleton’s fingers wiggled between his ribs.

Yes, I see what’s happening here.” Jailbeta analyzed the Captain one last time. The body language was still impenetrable, vexing to say the least. He didn’t move like any gravefolk he’d ever observed before, and he’d successfully disarticulated hundreds. It was as if he was already used to being dead, showing no signs at all of discomfort with his utilitarian emerald frame.

So sure was the negotiator that he posited some form of magic had to be at play. There were bath beads, on occasion, capable of resurrection or spurring a variety of half-death. Kilrobin Ordr must have used one such thing before to prepare himself for his inevitable descent into a criminal’s bone structure.

Jailbeta considered the story. The metzberyls, if they even existed, could be the Tandem Flush or the folk the represented. The fancies were the fascinating scoundrels in their periphery, sometimes damaging them. Kilrobin fell into that category, but not exactly. He was interfering with no one, most of his appetites quelled by his recent passing. That made him more like the preserved fancies, worth keeping for research and stories if nothing else.

Obviously the tale in itself was not enough to convince him to abandon his mission. This was the fate of the world after all, and anyone could make up a yarn to cast themselves in a good light, though the Captain knew enough to make it believable, casting himself in a harmless light instead.

No, of concern was the former pirate’s ability to plan this all out. Jailbeta felt like a child caught in some practical joke, his pen sitting in his pocket so plainly as if it were a stink bomb concealed behind the back.

Absurd as it was, the possibility of coincidence was even more so. What were the odds that as he arrived he encountered the curator having her little problem, attached himself to her, found his way in, and then to have her detonate, spilling a story perfectly tailored to make him reconsider his position. Impossible. She was a plant, and perhaps every last person there not affiliated with the Tandem Flush was as well.

The giveaway was Rob’s prodding of her. No skeleton as desperate as him would try and get someone else to babble their way out of such a situation, unless it was a distraction for his escape, but he was right there, emerald sockets cool and waiting. That meant all of this was simply his opening salvo as well, as the man’s bonepicking was legendary. It forced a choice of extremes on Jailbeta: look the coward by declaring Rob harmless or engage in a battle to the death with an unrivaled warrior.

It’s all a matter of time before each and every one of us turns on each other,” the negotiator said after a long heavy moment. “That’s the way of the world isn’t it? Without an enemy we make one. Not me. I solve enemies instead of making them… and I don’t see any problems here.”

Well then thank you for the lovely pointless visit,” the Captain said, strolling over to the door to show him out. Jailbeta said his goodbyes and walked out, prissy little fancies on his mind, tiptoeing across skin and taking their itchy sips. Annoying as they were, they were a secondary problem. The real problem had been folk, the ones hunting the metzberyls so relentlessly for their gems. He wondered where exactly his diamond nib came from, as its grain looked notably natural. The pirate couldn’t possibly have known that as well, could he? Did all gems talk to each other?

As he made his way back to the mirror, many eyes followed him. Was that the negotiator Jailbeta Ripr? Had he failed? If so, there really wasn’t much point in anyone else trying. The crowd thinned when he left, the museum of Tonefoot finally gaining some room to breathe. So too did Captain Rob, who disturbed much of the Green Ring growth in his lab by forcing the door closed and putting his back to it.

Is something the matter?” Lyberry asked when she saw his disturbed body language: spine compressing, finger bones shaking, and jaw rolling.

How bad are things that they would send Jailbeta after me!?” he squawked. “It’s a miracle we’re alive! Wheew! Is it exceptionally hot in here?” He fanned himself futilely. “What a stroke of luck with that story of yours! History has blessed this place after all! Not gods or monsters from the Dark Empty, just good old fashioned failure! Set in stone!”

I’m confused; was he someone important?”

Only if you consider the folk who ends your life important! Fearsome enough to make a man shite white! Wuufhh!” Rob examined his fingers and toes. “Still have all my bones after an encounter with the ripper! Blessed, I say!”

Continued in Part Six

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