(reading time: 1 hour, 21 minutes)
Age of Tragedy
The Captain still expected to thwart more would-be assassins, but his next trip to Platone was peaceful. If only the same could be said for the contents of that trip. He embraced Vyra again, and they walked along a new edge as the ekapads came to crackling life. A new ringing tone played, its shattering volume nothing compared to the godly words that used Vyra’s throat as vessel. The Age of Wonder was lost to time, most of its revelations new to Rob, but the time that followed, the Age of Tragedy, contained some tales that were all too familiar.
These were things that could never be denied: acts of destruction so complete that they could only ever be the end or the foundation of something new. The shattering of both the tiles and the Reflecting Path. The mildew plague. The decimation and retreat of the prosites. These all had a common cause. Porce could not be the paradise it once was, and all because of a single wanderer intrigued by the peace of Youbend.
Just as folk, no two prosites were the same. Every individual had their own ideas, hopes, and dreams, and naturally, fatally, some of those collections of traits would fall outside the accepted normality. Even among the gods there was Whispr, who refused to create anything at all, never even forming a whole body, never understanding that his endless pain came from denying the self.
Among the prosites there was Eutonia Staphylosussex. It was irregularly shaped, like a stretched berry more than a sitting raindrop, and preferred swimming with its thousand tiny cilia arranged in neat rows across its body to slithering around on tile and pipe. Touching the bottom of any body of water made it feel like a failure.
Most of the waterways of the walls were forbidden, as their swift dangerous currents would drag prosites into the lit Porce. Eutonia was forced to settle for small round pools built to calm it, but the endless circling in that swimming was far from satisfying. Tired, and nearly mad from having to listen to the oration of its neighbors as it went nowhere, it snuck away one day, not trusting that the currents of the world could only take them to oppressive light.
Entering the nearest pipe it could, Eutonia was proven right. It could swim with the current, for what felt like an age, without seeing anything at all. It was a tremendous feeling: a journey with no destination. Nothing to arrest momentum, so momentum was part of the self. Eventually though, the currents slowed to a standstill. It had to be somewhere new. The prosite continued on under its own power.
These were the deepest waters of the world: Youbend. Each toil had a Youbend of its own, but Eutonia had the misfortune of finding the single occupied set. Blindly it bumped into something, though it didn’t even realize at first, for a god cannot be touched like any ordinary material. Qorcneas noticed instantly however, snapping out of a sleep that had lasted for a length of time the prosite could barely comprehend.
Hesprid was there, but only in flashes, and so paid no attention to what happened at the back of their misleading embrace. The dark god spoke to the prosite’s very strands of heredity, his messages resonating through its being instead of being heard. Eutonia realized it was nothing but a word, nothing but a god’s errant breath, and with the change of a mind all could be so lost that it never existed.
“You,” Qorcneas began. “Unexpected displeasing you. What are you? Where do you come from?” Though he was loathe to advance life’s agenda in any way, he had to elevate the creature’s mind so it could withstand the exchange and answer sensibly.
“I am Eutonia Staphylosussex of the city Multitudinous Drop. I am far from home, seeking a bottomless place.”
“Where is this city?”
“In the walls of Porce.”
“In these very walls!? You desecrate our sleep. Leave at once, foul invader.”
“I am no invader. I was born in Porce, same as the rest.”
“The rest? How many are you?”
“What is your source? From what does your life spring?”
“From many springs flowing together. I am Earth. I am Yister. I am powder and water. I am Hesprid.” With that one shared thought, the Age of Wonder, where Qorcneas was not a participant, was doomed. The dark god split from his lover and pushed her away, the gesture violent enough to draw her full presence and attention.
Try as she did, there was no more deceiving him as he extended his vision beyond Youbend, into the bodies of folk and god, and discerned the truth. Existence had never known such a rage as the one that flared when he peered into the gods and saw himself. He was their father.
“Life is suffering! Blood from the awareness wound!” he bellowed, boiling the waters about him. Already his influence extended up Youbend and began killing the sea, cooking its fish and beasts alive. When it reached the surface ships caught fire from below, blazing as they drifted like floating orange flowers. Eutonia was spared, protected by Qorcneas, but not out of kindness.
The lovers’ quarrel ended with Hesprid’s retreat, as she understood all too well the futility of direct conflict with him. They were one entity, and could no sooner destroy each other than light could nestle in shadow. He roared after her, declaring his intent. No suffering bearing his mark would continue any longer. All life in Porce would perish, their bones the only bed he could sleep in from that point on.
Hesprid immediately rallied her children, their spawn, and their folk. Preparations began for war, a new sort of machine they would have to invent, full of tools that would burn their hands and monuments that stung. Oaths were called to the places where their promises were born. Custodians were given armor and armies. Bath beads, mere crystallized residue of castoff magic, were foraged and mined from their old achievements to be turned to violent ends.
Qorcneas prepared as well, immediately taking advantage of the one resource Hesprid did not bother to protect. He looked deep within Eutonia and saw its potential. It held information on countless generations, going all the way back to Earth, and in it he found his plan. It was the doctrine of infection: a ploy to sabotage and destroy the massive bodies of earthfolk, sometimes from even a single prosite ancestor.
Without warning he drew the prosites out from the walls, sucking them out of their cities by the millions, only leaving the most asocial and isolated be. The answer to their thousand screamed questions was genocide. Qorcneas shredded their membranes, popped their eyes, crossed their strands of heredity, boiled their plasm, and stirred it all with their cilia. He transformed entire cities into nasty purple and black clouds that he unleashed from fissures in the walls.
Out they came as rolling miasmas, the first weather of Porce that could not be enjoyed. Quickly they spread across the skies, beyond the stall abandoned because Qorcneas based himself within Third Toil. In its woeful thunder and agonized violet lightning there was discolored rain. The downpour cared not for magical barriers and armor, finding skin and penetrating it as armies stood waiting for their enemies to come over a hill or slip under a stall.
Infection did as it did in the days of old, sickening and spreading. From it the folk of Porce learned of real illness. Illness became the instructor in death, and the first folk fell. Hesprid was distraught beyond measure, incapacitated by the repeating atrocity. Only this time it was linked to her, brought solely by her efforts. In her devastation she became useless, and the responsibility to save her world fell to her children.
It was no easy task, as every day Qorcneas, who had no pleasures to distract him, unleashed new depths of cunning and cruelty. The prosites that escaped becoming the mildew plague were not spared for long afterward. The deity already knew their most ingrained secrets, including their method of reproduction.
A prosite only became two when its priorities split and could not be achieved by the same entity, often making emotional maturation the impetus of their death, but the process could be forced by their making conflicted promises. Qorcneas promised them true death if they didn’t go along with the pledges he provided, and so was able to amass countless soldiers in a frightfully short time.
To protect from florentshine they marched across the walls as proliths, armored in stone, metal, wood, and ice. Early on, before resistance was bred out of them, they would storm onto battlefields shouting apologies and begging for mercy. Such mercy was often unnecessary, as a shattered prolith was not a dead prosite. The creatures were capable of quickly burrowing upon defeat, meaning that Qorcneas both gained soldiers quickly and lost them slowly.
He diversified his forces by also feeding the worst instincts of the monsters in the Threewall Wild. Such beasts never left the forest normally, but he drove them out with mad visions of distant prey. He didn’t even bother controlling them directly, as their hunger for flesh made them ignore stony proliths to raid villages and farms instead.
There was even an attempt to secure the loyalty of his son Whispr, who had never shown an affinity for life and seemed to resent it almost as much as his father. Qorcneas was rebuffed, but stoic Whispr refused to aid his siblings as well. None understood him well, for despite his resentment he never tried to end his own life or sink into eternal slumber.
On Hesprid’s side there was one clear advantage that kept them competitive with the swelling ranks of the prosites; they had complete control of the Reflecting Path and its surrounding territories. Wherever mirrors and placid water stood they could go, enabling deployment and retreats in a matter of drops rather than rinses. When the odds didn’t look favorable, sometimes forces of thousands could disappear before the proliths could reach them.
It was Luminatr who realized that the path was a source of nearly infinite power as well. For the entire Age of Wonder it had absorbed the light of the florent, light that could not be destroyed and never degraded. With the proper shaping, parts of the Reflecting Path could be turned into prism cannons, firing deadly rainbow beams across the whole world. They were the key to victory, until Qorcneas took the matter up himself.
Too distraught to fight, to even look up from her weeping, Hesprid was not there to stop him as he let Porce see his entirety. Gods almost never do such a thing, for it makes them vulnerable. Normally they keep their sight spread out, their mind in the past and future, their body fluid, and a thousand other variables varying. For Qorcneas the worst consequence could be death, and that was what he sought more than anything, so it didn’t bother him at all.
As a great cannonball of darkness, nearly the size of a sink, he threw himself at the center of the Reflecting Path and shattered it completely. Most of the cannons were lost, and now there was no way for the forces of life to travel unexpectedly. Their morale was devastated, and there was so little left thanks to the war. Without Hesprid to reassure or rally them, the folk turned to their gods, begging and pleading for something, anything, as long as it was solid enough to be called a thing.
Several of the gods tried. Scribblr, who fought viciously to protect the scrawl upon the stall walls, compiled from them a new form of hope. The original translation of the toil papers was born, at first just to give hope where there was none. Scribblr himself was in great need of it, as his son, Oath Feevr, was one of the original, and longest, sufferers of the plague.
The toil papers spoke of a place sublimely clean, where it was impossible for the filth that bred disease to exist. It was a vision that revitalized those long infected, but only in spirit. Scribblr believed, thanks to his godly status, that merely creating the tome would make its vision real, that all the deaths of folk under his wing saw them whisked away to that place, but it was not so. Even his parents could not control life in its entirety, and every attempt at paradise by Hesprid ended in failure.
Greetr sought help from beyond Porce, spending many of her days staring out the Black Gap. Its echoes had given her the lightfolk, and she loved them so, but to her there was always someone new to meet. To her there was nothing better than a birth, the ultimate meeting, but that also meant there was nothing worse than death, the final farewell. She lost her mind to the emptiness eagerly.
Once a much tinier world passed by, sealed in corked bottle, like a message sent to sea. It docked at the Black Gap, seeking refuge. They were met by Oath Watchr, daughter of Greetr, and turned away. It was out of kindness, for if Qorcneas knew of their existence he might try to chase them down and end them as well.
But when Greetr learned that visitors had come and not been welcomed with open arms she saw it as the rudest possible response. Despite the protests of her family and folk, and by that time terribly senile, she followed the bottle out into the empty, to apologize, and was never seen again.
Despite their immortality the gods were falling apart. There had to be a reason, and in the end it was the line-walking Dealr, always of two minds, who discerned it. It was a lack of moderation, but one that extended to the ultimate principle, that utopia was no place at all. Hesprid’s attempts were meant for a realm where life was the basis of everything, but this was not that realm.
She and Qorcneas were born because the barriers between the animate and inanimate realm were cracked. Each in their own way sought to right this disconnect, but neither could ever do so. The harder Hesprid tried to end it, the worse death’s vengeance would come. The answer was to mimic life in the ways it survived before, confined to tiny places and inconspicuous times. Life like that of Earth.
Dealr fought his own war in miniature, not to achieve victory or revenge, but communication. He needed to achieve a meeting, attended by both his parents, all his remaining siblings, and all offspring glimmering enough to be called divine. He had only one shot with his plan, once all the materials he needed were arranged, which was difficult because those materials were lightfolk who, though infected, were not too keen to sacrifice what Dealr asked of them.
The crucial step was the threat to end his own life. Dealr claimed, across various meetings and messages, that he had discovered a way to do so easily, and that he would perform it on the Stain Plain, his godly blood to run red and deep into the water and ground of Porce. He claimed the despair was too great, and that life was not worth itself. Only his select lightfolk knew the truth.
When the stated time came, all were present. The Stain Plain was deep inside Qorcneas’s territory, but he allowed the incursion of gods and folk so he could witness it, hoping to discover an end to his own suffering. Hesprid and the other gods came to stop him, to protect him from his own sadness. Gods moved the very ground with their footsteps, and whipped the wind with their flight, so when they gathered a natural stage formed from the rock, a theater almost, for Dealr’s dramatic bargain. He stood at the center, one half of his divided head staring at his father, dark and determined, the other at his mother, vibrant and distraught.
With half-mouth he spoke to the divine in a voice beyond mortal understanding. With the other he spoke tongues of folk and prosite so he could be understood by all. As they listened the gods sat, thrones forming under them of water and tile. The folk minds as well were absorbed by the implications of his speech, forced to sit and suddenly find themselves his comfortable audience.
“Mother, father, brothers, sisters, and all who accompany, hear me in your heart. This fighting cannot continue, yet our conflict cannot be resolved. We are born to please Hesprid, and we die to satisfy Qorcneas. This is our horror, our dread… but it must become something else. It must become our way. Our deal.”
He opened his right palm, where four lightfolk women stood tall, followed by his left with four lit men. They stripped off their armor to shed the skin of the warrior. Off came their clothes to deny civilization. Their hands moved to the crowns of their heads, but there seemed nothing left to remove. Dealr took the magic with which life was created, and peeled a piece away from it with his gaze, matching the rehearsed gestures of the lightfolk as they pulled their crowns down.
Life undid, but without the intent to kill, or even to maim. Stripped down to its core. Preserved. Made strong physically, though the grasp of the mind to its material was weakened. Their skin fell away, vanishing before it reached Dealr’s palm. There was no muscle underneath, taken with its wrappings.
What was left were eight skeletons that bowed before the multitudes but did not topple as they always would have prior. Under their own power they rose again, sculpted faces vacant of expression. Each god was, at first, aghast at this. Hesprid saw the joys of flesh robbed. Qorcneas saw how ineffective his plague would become. Dealr’s parents thought it the unveiling of their child’s vengeance against them, but these folk were a gift, as he swiftly explained.
“I propose an accord for the future of Porce, namely that it will have a future, but that none of its gods or folk will. Together we shall make this world stable. Life will be born with death ingrained, and we of life shall not fight it. Death will have the ever-presence of the Dark Empty, and will never be denied its prize, no matter how divine.
I call for an end to this war, as life balanced thusly is closer to achieving both of your goals than you are individually. We, your children, will rewrite the folk and their environment so that we are not needed. They will mature and die, to be supplanted by their children, so that Porce is never overrun. When all of this is done you, makers of me, will go to your graves as beds, and never awaken.
We, your children, will do the same, and be diminished as much as we can. These gravefolk, my folk, will stand as a symbol of our cyclical covenant. Those who act cruelly, who seek extensions of their own life beyond reason, will wear these bones and through that experience learn the truth. Even with half of life’s pleasures gone, it still cannot be maintained. They will eventually fall to wind or water or grit, and they will often not have the pleasure of doing so with soul intact.
Humbly I beg participation of you all. Fear is in all of us, especially after what you’ve heard, but ask yourself, is it fear for yourself or others? None will be fully satisfied with these cycles, with these gravefolk, but it is because you do not see the middle path, pulled as you are toward the direction of your spirit’s light, like a plant towards the florent. The middle that is invisible to you is perfect, is the infinite you’ve sought, and there is a silence there that will absorb all hardship and suffering stoically. Please. End this Age of Tragedy.”
Hesprid and Qorcneas examined the gravefolk closely, inhabiting their skulls and coming to understand their minds. The grasp on the bone was indeed tenuous, and could never last in a moving breathing world. Both found the creatures distasteful, but felt a twinge in their spirits as they realized the perfection of the deal. This was an end to most suffering and most noise. This was the future, and they would not be part of it.
The accord was struck, and work began. Dealr was always a philosopher, and though the idea was his he didn’t have the attention to detail to implement it. Most of his siblings contributed, but it was Luminatr who handled the bulk of the effort. Her task was to make Porce sustainable and tolerable, dull and consistent. Periods of growth and resting decay. Regularity.
Undertaken first was the very world. It moved through the Dark Empty, still largely on the trajectory given it by the explosion that destroyed Earth. If it continued on it might collide with other debris, and any other cycles would matter not in the face of such a cataclysm. So with the help of her mother she took the bodies of eight akers, fallen in the war when Qorcneas shattered the tiles, and compressed their square forms down into eight totems of gravitation. The cardinal tiles were born, placed at eight points all around Porce, positioned exactly so they would slow the world to a standstill and set it on a calm predictable spin.
Next was the florent. Without Hesprid it could not hold light indefinitely, so it was given a state of rest: twelve drops of day and twelve drops of night. Most folk took to sleeping during the night, as the world during it looked like the inside of their eyelids anyway. The level of light moved in a larger subtler pattern as well, giving rise to the seasons, times of harvest and rationing. Weather would come and go on its own, instead of riding godly breath as before.
Crafting death for folk was a great burden, and those who were the experiments suffered terribly, but Luminatr completed the process gallantly. A folk would not simply fall over dead, like the florent switching to night. Instead they would age like a fruit, their systems slowly losing effectiveness so they could come to terms with their end. Qorcneas insisted that death by misadventure be present as well, only as a small percentage, so that the concept of nothingness never lost its bite.
She taught tilefolk fur to go gray and white. Bergfolk bones bent and the skin on their noses hung. Lightfolk turned into haggard shufflers if their lives didn’t grant them Dealr’s bones. The prosites, always having had their old deaths from Earth, were allowed to keep them as they were. Luminatr and the others didn’t do much with them at all, allowing them to retreat, as a shadow of what they once were, back into the ruins inside the walls.
To break death down, to keep folk from seeing its relics and smelling its odors every day, she worked with Plowr to birth the Fith: a decomposing organism under the tile that stretched from corner to corner. When subsumed a body is stripped of its flesh, its bones dropped in the Pipes. From the Fith sprung mushrooms and new molds, many of which live in Porce proper doing its work in miniature.
Practical and understanding, Luminatr knew of one more issue that had to be addressed: the ambition of folk. She foresaw the vacuum left by the sleeping death of the gods and knew there was only one will to fill it. Folk would forever seek ways to break her cycles, to amass power, and to cheat death. A countermeasure was needed for their determination, something indifferent to desire.
Her solution was to give Porce a thinly distributed will. This survival instinct was the polar opposite to that of folk; it wanted nothing to change. So when too much resolve clumped, when a folk set out to change the world, an opposite formation would occur as far away as possible. They would be drawn to each other inexorably, each experiencing the hardships of change and coming to separate conclusions, just as her parents had.
The winner of the eventual duel would be arbitrary, as uncaring as the rest of her cycles. This was the birth of the questing beasts. What Luminatr did not foresee was that, when the gods’ power was diminished enough, it would look to the world like the work of folk, and so would draw the questing beast reaction. This created the Fayeblons, the denied monsters, but by the time they existed there was nothing that could be done.
Somberly and numbly the age drew to a close. Hesprid and Qorcneas descended into the Pipes and dug their graves, far from folk so they could not be mourned. There they died, but remained animate, for the sins of Earth were the ultimate. In effect they were greatly diminished, down to vessels and influences that had to be believed to be felt.
Their children passed more like their folk, succumbing to age and mental decline. Their spirits still exist, but they have no graves to call home and only the power to grant strength that is already there. Oaths lived long, but left bodies behind when they were done. Custodians did the same, but less so, and their bodies had far fewer divine properties.
Temples could no longer be erected overnight, so the folk quickly forgot the power of their gods. The things they could craft easily, stories, were what they had left. Sadly there was a tome in place before any others, its influence secure: the toil papers. With each translation and version they grew further from Scribblr’s original, until they became the false words papists follow.
“But it was the start of the Age of Building, and folk did learn to build,” Vyra told him. “Everywhere but the Threewall Wild and the Bottomless Rot was tamed. Cities rose in the foundations of the old. Knowledge freely given by gods now had to be earned, and by each generation, so the sciences and education arose in the mental landscape. Our age is one of…” Her eyes shot up. Rob looked as well, but he couldn’t see anything through the frothing clouds and vibrant lightning of the ekapads.
“What? What is it?”
“Something… You must go now!”
“Why? Go where? We’re in the middle of a conce-”
“Rob go! Back to your ship! A flood is coming, unlike any we’ve ever seen. Get all your folk aboard the ship and prepare for the worst!”
“What about you?”
“Hesprid has me, I’ll be safe. Get going you damned fool!” She swung her roost-spear, slapping his pelvis with the flat of the blade, throwing him off the edge of Platone and into the smoking cinders of the treetops. The ringing tone drowned out his thoughts, but his bonepicking was instinctual, picking up the exact direction of Vyra’s slap and continuing on.
The emerald skeleton leapt from tree to tree, gaining speed as he went, disappearing under the leaves for shorter and shorter moments. A flood? From where? There isn’t a cloud in the sky. He glanced up to confirm. No clouds, but something. A black dot soaring overhead. Before he would’ve thought nothing of it, but something about it was familiar. Its exact shade of darkness had dotted the sky before, over Kingdom Cumb. Yugo has found us, and he still has an aker imprisoned. He’s not diving; does he not know?
There wasn’t time, if Vyra was to be believed, to bother with the purple papist. Tonefoot loomed as a hole in the canopy. Already he saw the masts of the Chokechain, causing him to consider the lake beneath it as the source of the supposed flood. That would require one of two extremely unlikely scenarios: either it’s connected to a massive underground reservoir or there’s some bath bead in its bed that can multiply water about to be activated. We’ve never heard of such power for…
His body froze, momentum dying. The gravefolk tumbled through the branches like a nut, bouncing all the way to the ground, limbs remaining locked for several drips while he processed the concussing thought. It couldn’t be. It had never happened in Porce, something he was now sure of, for Vyra would have mentioned it in her history lessons. Even a god could not forget such an occurrence.
But Yugo had a cardinal tile still, the sort of thing that made history. Within it was incredible gravitation, enough to move mountains. Or press the ultimate lever. Finally his bones were loosed from the shock and he was able to continue. That was the worst case scenario, so it was best to plan for it.
“Run for your fleshy lives!” he screamed at the peak of his ability upon passing through the village’s gate, most hearing him as he arced over a building he’d jumped, landing with such force that he sprayed grass and mud in all directions, dirtying the coattails of some very impatient assassins.
“There he is! Snatch those bones!” Without hesitation several folk pounced, looking to stick blades between his joints and pop his limbs out. Rob countered by ducking and spinning, grabbing three of them as they piled onto his back. Once more to build up speed, and then he tossed them into one of the standing mirrors nearby.
“Flood you idiots! A flood is coming! Back through the Reflecting Path!” He leapt all the way up to the deck of the Chokechain, leaving them to scramble. They’d been warned, so if they couldn’t form orderly lines and get back through before it came it was on them. It was then that he spotted Miss Foalr, walking among her buildings, acting as if she hadn’t heard. She’s not allowed to die for this place. If it’s not strong enough to withstand she shouldn’t preserve it anyway.
Rob jumped back down and snatched her around the waist, pushing back the feeling that he looked in that moment a little too like the dictionary illustration of a raiding pirate. She yelped, but he bonepicked back up a second time, jostling the protests out of her lungs. Before she could make more he handed her off to Teal, who dragged her below decks. Without waiting for an order, Manathan tossed the Captain his magical rod. Use of it was made immediately, a grunting swing retracting the gangway. Another pulled up the anchor.
“Flood? Sky’s clear Captain!” Alast shouted down from the bird’s nest.
“It isn’t coming from the sky!”
Hundreds of lathers up and away, well outside the bowl of First Toil, Yugo landed his aker on First Lever. It was a peaceful place devoid of civilization. Living upon the levers had always been taboo, seen as a bad omen, but its land was still used for farming. The beleaguered beast had set down in a field of sugar trunks: plants resembling old slender stumps with white natural sugar glittering in their bark.
Yugo wondered if he should move, if all those sparkles might create a glare and ruin the reflection. By the time he slid down the aker’s dripping neck, tile and mirror in tow, he’d decided it didn’t matter. This was the place because he was too weary to move any of it again. The mirror was tucked under his arm, too awkward and heavy for any lightfolk to carry. He had stolen it from the first fancy house he came across atop Slick Rin. Salvaged was perhaps a better word, as he’d crushed the residence with his steed and then picked through the rubble.
Common sense told him to place it near the middle of the lever’s unfixed end, so he was nowhere near enough the edge to look down into the Green Ring and its central sea. Rob was down there though, he could feel it. The realest feeling since he’d lost his blood, throbbing in his amethysts as if the flood was coming from within them.
This wasn’t to kill the Captain. It was for him. A gift so he could be ready. A defeat equivalent to the one Yugo suffered when Cumb exploded in violence. Only then, when Rob’s spirit was in tatters, would they stand on even ground. With any luck the waters would wash away some of his emeralds, to match the missing bones Yugo had to replace with sapphire.
There were three sugar trunks at about the same height, so he set the mirror down against them so that it reflected the florent, which had just switched to day. His curiosity, though mostly drowned out and numb, was still strong enough to have him pull the cardinal tile over the mirror. It arced over the glass, repulsed by the surface.
It didn’t want to go in, even though the sliver of Reflecting Path that Yugo held, also taken from that wealthy manor, theoretically allowed it to do so. Famous the tiles were for disliking the path, for turning their noses up at it when desperate guardians tried to move them via it. Children sometimes told stories about the silly and strange things that would happen if the tiles stumbled in.
None had seriously tried it, never giving one anything more than an insistent shove. Cardinal Second had enough force stored within to move an eighth of the world, so getting it in there would be like Aych Fauce pouring into a shot glass.
“Moan all you want; you’re going in there,” he told it, grabbing its rocky sides and squeezing. He stuck his brow against it and dragged, scarring its ancient carvings with the jagged stump of his horn. “Everything is always leaving its mark on me, like I’m nothing! Worse! Like I’m the kind of something that gets kicked down the road!” The gravefolk grabbed its chain and tugged, pulling it back to the aker.
The beast was in no condition to fly, even compared to never being in that condition in the first place, but Yugo forced it to take off again regardless, its wings slapping against First Lever, shattering a thousand sugar trunks into glittering dust. Every flap was a painful labor, and the creature cried out with each one. Cardinal Second weighed heavily on its mind, and not just because the relic sat between its horns.
There was an old rhyme; it cast the tiles as cowardly adventurers unwilling to step over the first puddle of their journey because they could see themselves in it. Sometimes a puddle, sometimes a dropped hand mirror, but either way they ended up turning around and hiding in their fortresses and caves. Rob and Yugo used to take turns with the verses when they were small, when the plates in their heads weren’t quite fused yet.
Cardy One say the glass all smudge
Cardy Two say it look like fudge
Cardy three say it be not me
Cardy Four say it be no door
Cardy Five still have dessert
Cardy Six got hers by flirt
Cardy Seven watch it leaven
Cardy Eight no mirrored fate
Dessert for spirit ‘flections be
Satisfy folk but no cards like we
“Satisfy this folk!” Yugo Legendr screamed as he pulled the chain-reins, forcing the aker into a suicidal dive. The mirror glinted below them, one snorting aker nostril on either side. The wind whistled through his bones. Nearly slipping on its sweated blood, he grabbed the tile and slid with it to the end of the snout, holding it out in front of him with bonepicking, making it the tip of the spear.
The Reflecting Path had only an imitation of gravitation. Something stood in its place, keeping the feet of the reflections on the ground, just to keep the place tidy. None of the gods had ever bothered to make that place sturdy, or even fully understand it. It was necessary because reflection was necessary, but being conscious themselves they didn’t fully appreciate why until it was too late. The mind always has to be horrified by its reflection to acknowledge it, and blame usually comes before change.
If Cardinal Second was forced through the effect would be immediate, the path around it warping outward. Its bubble of influence would grow rapidly, compressing light against light, making it do strange things. Reflections would perish the instant their stretching became tearing, and thousands of folk would see nothing the next time they stood before a mirror.
Reflected First Toil would warp out of existence. Regular folk attempting a crossing would find themselves sliding down its edge, the compressed light so hot that they would burn up and leave less than a smear. All of this would happen if Cardinal Second was forced through, but it was too stubborn. Gravitation belonged in Porce; there it would stay. No matter how much power was put behind it, it would bounce back. It was the bounce Yugo planned on, and that Rob feared. For in practice, when the diving tile-tipped aker collided with the ground, it was less of a bounce and more of a press on First Lever.
First came the crack, worse than any lightning or quake in the ground. It passed through First Toil twice, first as a shudder and then as an earsplitting sound. After that came the grinding, the tip of the lever plateau breaking loose from ages of sedimentary buildup and old growth roots. Boulders, large enough to crush towns, fell from beneath it. The towns below knew they were large enough, for the approaching shadows lined up with their borders.
Their deaths would be instantaneous, the threat of the shadow mercifully short, so brief that many wouldn’t even understand it before it struck. For some it was just sounds out the window. The worst came to the bowl of the toil itself, and only because Rob was somewhere within its lip. The man had dodged blades, beads, and fire, the gods seemed on his side despite his perpetual arrogance, but he could not dodge Yugo’s final blow.
The plan burned like acid on Yugo’s mind. Acknowledging its chance of success was contingent on discarding the purpose stashed away in his emeralds ever since they were visible to the world. He was a papist, all knew that, and the most devoted too. Willing to spill any amount of blood, because no stain could withstand the second cleaning of the Spotless.
The Gross Truth was too gross to be truth at all. It meant folk were nothing, mere dirt under the nails of beings a hundred thousand times their size and just as fallible. Porce could not be a water closet, or a bathroom, or a facility, or any other place of relief, for then there would be no dignity in life.
Yet Yugo pressed the lever hoping it would draw out hidden waters, hoping it would drown and Smash Rob’s vessel against the bowl’s pale side. Those waters could only be there if it was a chamber pot, and not just any. It had to be of the most advanced kind, found only in the wealthiest manors and castles, which were themselves based on the structure of the toils.
Papist denial was strong enough to call it coincidence, but Yugo’s could not withstand the promise of this plan’s success. He would accept the Gross Truth, give up the pretense of his life, to end the green Captain: the man who had stolen it all. That multicolored vapor of their youth, that one puff of god breath trapped underground, killed him. He understood that now, just as the tile repelled the mirror, with air, tilestone, and metal rending alike.
The waters emerged from the lip of First Toil’s bowl, under its curl. First the wells flooded, but only for a moment, like eyes overflowing with tears. They became geysers, but before the spray could reach its highest point it merged with new falls come to meet it. Folk were spun through corridors, stripped out of windows with their heirlooms and belongings, and sent toward the Green Ring as nothing more than debris to assail that single skeleton.
Cities under the lip, both carved of tilestone and raised from wood, shattered under the pounding deluge, some taken briefly as rafts, the few survivors clinging to the towers above water able to look out and see their homes circling the valley, heading inexorably for the Green Sea. The cataclysmic spiral of the flow smashed the last of these rafts together when they reached the edge of the Green Ring, sending entire buildings sailing across the eye of the forest. They passed over the Chokechain, their streaking shadows taking with them several beats of the remaining hearts aboard.
None could be prepared for its approach, even as it was the only sound and sole sight. The wall of water rose high above the tallest trees, and in it they saw the blasted lives of countless folk whirling by under its surface. Second and Third Toil had always been full, and their waters had seemed like ice, so massive and reliable that it could never actually flow all at once.
Alast slid down the mast, landing painfully on his bottom, though he didn’t even notice, as he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the horizon of death. It was his girl Pearlen, partly protected from the shock by her inability to see it clearly, who grabbed him by the wrist and shoved him below decks. The hatch was crowded, necessitating torn skin and squeezing. Every last soul aboard was ordered down there, and every point of entry sealed.
The Chokechain had already survived an intentional sinking once, but this was a hundred times that hardship. If it was just another piece of debris, another coffin to plug the drain, it would surely be obliterated. Rob raised the rod high, but even as he stood on the beakhead he couldn’t get its bead over the top of the wave.
“Heave!” He was the only one not sealed below, so the word was only to gauge if he could hear himself over the tide’s roar. Thrusting the rod downward pushed the ship lower into the lake. Dragging it behind him focused the weight into the stern. It’s like bonepicking. Skim the forces. Ride them. Build up what needs building. When the rod shook in his hand he allowed it to pop back up, bringing the Chokechain with it. The ship splashed back down and rocked.
“Just the first try!” The Captain went down again, this time bonepicking, holding the rod as close to the deck as he could for as long as he could. Down went the stern, dipping low enough that the deck took on water. The folk within weren’t wise to his tactic, grabbing anything steady in the confusion. If the flood had hit, why was it only playing with them, flicking at their back like a child hurrying a bug along?
“Again!” he bellowed as the second jump took them completely out of the lake. The waters were in the trees now, pulling them up, dyeing the bottom green. Once more was all he had time for. A quick flick sent a chain slithering up the stairs to him; it wrapped around his waist and knotted. With all ten clawed emeralds wrapped around it he forced the rod to touch the deck and dragged it backward, leaving a scratch like the one Yugo had left on Cardinal Second.
It almost flew out of his grip, and to prevent it from doing so he had to let himself be thrown from the deck, all the way to the end of the chain’s reach. His pelvis nearly split from the rest of him, but it was worth it to look down and see the Chokechain leap fifty foams out of the water, its nose aimed at the florent.
Spray gathered in his sockets, and it wasn’t from the jump. The waters were there. Captain Rob yanked the chain, pulling himself down to the bird’s nest. Once inside its observation bucket he braced against its sides, bonepicking his body as if he were the bucket’s handle in the hopes it was a solid enough position to withstand the initial impact.
The bucket stayed intact, but not the mast. Its tip was broken off, and only the chain around Rob’s waist kept him attached. He’d given the Chokechain its best chance, as it had only started its descent when the first crest passed under it. The ship landed and rolled, its metal sails torn away and swallowed deeper.
Inside, the floor became the wall became the ceiling became the wall became the floor. The available gravefolk were stretched thin, trying to make themselves into bonepicking nets that could prevent broken limbs and concussions. A loose cudgellen was tossed back and forth, honking from within its shell, unaware that its tumbling could kill someone if it landed on their head.
Rob wrapped the chain around his arm, picking and using the rod simultaneously. The pull of the water would’ve been too strong if he wasn’t so close to the surface. As it stood he was able to wind his way around what was left of the mast, tying himself to it. Drip to drip the surging pounding tide tried to rip the rod from his hands, so he held it close to his sternum, making it his new heart.
Using his bonepicking instincts as compass, he forced the spinning ship higher and higher until it broke the surface. It did so upside down, but at that point he could see the florent and the soil-infused green foam at the top. With another heave he righted the vessel, water and grit pouring from his sockets.
Waves crashed and broke all around; he fought each and every one. Buildings and boulders bobbed around as well, deadlier than icebergs, and sometimes the impact had to be absorbed, as even with the rod the ship couldn’t turn against the powerful surges. All the while they were dragged in a spiraling whirlpool around First Toil at breakneck speed. When they weren’t on the half closer to First Tank he could glance up and see the lever slowly returning to its original position, like a giant returning to its slumber.
The maniac actually did it. He flushed First Toil! How could he have such power? Has he reformed his alliance with Bombast? The dead! The toll must be in the hundreds of thousands at the least. Everything that’s ever been here is gone. The Green Ring is licked clean; gone are Platone and Tonefoot. Never again will the tones ring! Every last one now a dirge!
All to take our life. Long accused we’ve been, of being a selfish bastard, but look what happens when we mind our own business in a backwater bowl like this. It is not selfish to survive! It is no sin to refuse to be a sacrifice! The selfish are the ones who allow things such as this to happen. The wielders of powers too big for their own eyes to even encompass. We’ve never wanted that much. A ship, a crew, a playfully ill reputation. That’s all. No one out of earshot need hear our bones sing.
The world darkened as their revolution of the drain sped. The side of the hull had to be aimed at the florent to compensate for the increasing steepness of their descent. Circling Youbend now, Rob could look across the way and see the clumping of the debris. Small mountains were there one moment and then sucked down to the depths the next. If the Chokechain was taken out of the light they would be scraped across the top of Youbend, and no doubt rupture, spilling all the bubbles and blood he’d ever cared for.
Desperately he directed his ship, even going so far as to use the rod to make the anchor into a paddle. The closest crest that was higher than his current position was always the goal, something to edge them back up. Three deaths the Captain would have eventually, and as this looked an awful lot like the third it brought back memories of the first.
That time, circling an icy chasm in the Winchar Straits, he had failed. The depths took him, his bonepicking unable to overcome the gravitation. There had been time enough to say goodbye though, and to give final orders before the Pipes claimed him. If the darkness took him again there would be no farewells. His skull might even survive, forced to watch the pressure crush the living, jaw flapping uselessly as his words failed to reach them.
He had to survive so they would, even if it was just to blame him. What we wouldn’t give to keep disappointing Teal.
Youbend exploded. The geyser was the size of the sea, reaching halfway up the bowl, and there was nothing he could do against its influence. The Chokechain was forcefully submerged again, but not taken so deep that it impacted. There was too much silt for the Captain to see a foam in front of his face. When the world was given back the Chokechain bobbed in rough waters, but they were calming. The flush was complete, and hopefully Yugo did not have the power to flush again and clear the remnants.
The Green Ring was washed away, little more than a distant and barely visible stain, like the green disemboweled from a rainbow and strewn wetly across the landscape. With all its trees ripped from the ground, despite hundreds of rests of their roots descending, there was no chance any folk structure remained, short of being protected by a powerful bath bead.
The hatches popped open, Rob’s crew and guests emerging to see where they’d wound up. Despite the devastation around them, the silence of a hundred thousand drownings, they recognized that they had to be in the Green Sea, as the land rose steeply around them. Over the deck they saw the surface covered in leaves, from the great ring forest stripped bare. They wanted to ask their Captain if it was all as bad as those leaves attested, but he was nowhere to be found.
With that final geyser his chain was broken, and Rob was tossed far and away, to now-barren land still flooded enough for there to be small streams everywhere. He was conscious, able to bonepick a soft enough landing onto a rock as it rose from the receding waters. The magic rod had been taken from him, so he was without weapons of any kind, unless the two prongs of his mustache counted as daggers.
The Green Sea, reincarnated, full of past lives, loomed when he turned around. There was a glint in the distance, and it could only be the Chokechain, safe and sound. Even with no breath his relieved sigh was a weight off his shoulders. Shouldn’t be glad at all. The dead, think of the dead. Countless children no doubt. We must think of them all, for those that made this world won’t. They’ll let their anguish slide off, rain off the roof, to keep things running smoothly. We never saw them, but we can feel for them.
He wanted to mourn them, to plant himself as shining monument at least for a while, but another feeling invaded. This one he had felt before, and there was no mistaking it. A questing beast was near.
“How am I about to succeed!?” he roared at the towering walls of First Toil. “What victory is within my grasp that I must be challenged!? Have you forgotten what defeat is?” There was no answer, and he still felt the monster. It waited for him. The challenge that had to be met. The blood that had to be shed, to feed the newly reborn Green Sea.
Large carcasses were strewn across the new beach, white gravel in their mouths, limbs pulled loose, out of their sockets, by the tumbling forces in the flush. Many were new to both science and Rob, and there would never be the chance to get to know them. The Captain was glad he couldn’t get a nose full of their wet fur and shed scales.
The sensation of the beast pulled him away from the shoreline, and as it did he made note of his location. Every surface still glistened, but judging from the lack of encrusted shells and corals this part of the toil had not, until recently, been underwater. A backward glance would cause pain, even though he wasn’t supposed to feel such things anymore, but his sense of the land didn’t need it anyway. The Green Sea had expanded, but was still quite low compared to the other toil oceans.
“It’s everything it swallowed,” he realized aloud. “Just makes it look higher, like dropping rocks in an aquarium.” He kicked a stone. There was no bonepicking to it, yet the little thing kept rolling. It tumbled up a much larger rock and then down the other side. The gravefolk followed it.
The stone led him to a shorn ridge, the tilestone showing an age of striations. There was a hole; it looked like a subterranean aquifer had been cut in half and drained. The opening stood eleven foams high and just as wide, which he was able to judge because of the scale provided by the purple skeleton lounging against the curve of its left side, one leg bone hanging out. Their sockets locked as the little kicked rock climbed the wall and disappeared into the shadows of the aquifer.
“You got down here awfully quick,” Rob said, speaking first, trying to keep emotion out of his voice.
“Bonepicked,” Yugo answered.
“Impossible. It’s too far. You would’ve died on impact.”
“Except I couldn’t die yet. Not with what goes unfinished between us.”
“You killed this whole valley.” His joints tensed, emeralds sizzling. He stretched his claws like a wolptinger about to pounce. “Was it really just to get to me? Is your life that empty? If true, you are the worst that has ever been, seeing as you couldn’t even finish me off.”
“But I can Robin. I promise you I can. Always could… at least I could since that day… the only time you ever bothered to reflect.” What’s he on about? Something’s different. Even after this mass killing he should be more pleased to have us all to himself. He’s not even standing to strut. Something else was amiss, something that any other folk might have prioritized. The kicked stone was not the only one drawn to the rupture. Other pebbles came from all directions, somehow rolling in, even upside down. They were joined by mist, giving the opening a natural edge like an iris. Some of it glided over Yugo’s legs and through his teeth.
“It was a mirror wasn’t it?” the Captain asked. “You tried to force Cardinal Second into the path; that’s how you pushed the lever.” Yugo nodded, smacking the back of his skull against the rock each time. Not even a boast. “Where’s the tile?”
“Broke up, rather than face that place,” the former papist claimed.
“I don’t believe it.”
“Here’s a crumb.” Yugo lifted his other hand, in it a kettle-sized chunk of rock identical in hue to the cardinal tiles. “Take a look!” He hurled it directly at Rob’s skull. The Captain was prepared to dodge, but it proved unnecessary as the chunk slowed on its own, coming to a standstill six bubbles from his face. Its slow spin allowed him to see the detailed carving on it; there was no doubt it was authentic. The hovering piece sped back the way it came, swallowed by the aquifer along with the other surrounding clusters of ground and air.
“Do you even comprehend what you’ve done!?” Few folk did, he realized, as they hadn’t heard it all straight from the gods’ borrowed mouth. He knew exactly what had gone into them, exactly what service they provided, and exactly how irreplaceable they were. With only seven of the eight, Porce would never be as stable again. Perhaps it would wobble. Perhaps wander through the empty. All because Yugo blamed him for their childhood accident.
“I haven’t done anything,” the purple bones claimed. “I thought I had. I really thought I had Robin… but it turns out it was all you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ever since the day you reflected. That turned me into nothing. It gave me a fate where folk usually have a choice. No wonder it was so easy to believe; I lost choice in its entirety a lifetime ago. The last choice I made was probably what I had for breakfast that day…” His sockets wandered up to the sky. “Breakfast. How I miss breakfast. How I miss needing nourishment.”
“What’s this reflection nonsense you’re babbling about? I didn’t do any reflecting that day, just fearful choking. You got the bones too, but you didn’t breathe it the way I did. That was the vapor of a hundred different bath beads. That was the gods creating, but doing it to something on the other side of me, all their efforts passing through my lungs to get to it.”
“All pain I felt in turn!” Yugo reminded. “When this horn skewered my mind.” He tapped the jagged stump between his sockets. “I had to feel everything in turn, and always for one of your choices.” Rob clenched his teeth. It can’t be. It was indeed what Yugo recounted though. Living a life of matched experiences, the exact measure of each pain and triumph apportioned.
That was the life of a questing beast. Rob focused on the feeling that pulled him there, shutting out everything else. It pulsed, radiated. The aura surrounding every purple bone. The blue ones felt as plain as any carcass he’d passed along the way. Yugo was the beast. The final hurdle the world could manage, to an end the Captain hadn’t even guessed.
“You are a man,” Rob protested, all pretense of impersonally righteous rage dropped. Every word from them both was a sob now, children describing how unfair their parents’ judgment was. “Turned into the worst by that horn, but always a man! Not what this magic makes you out to be. Not my beast!”
“Neither of us have time for denial any longer.” The opening he rested in was growing now, as chunks of its edge broke off and were consumed by the darkness. It was getting loud; air whistled on its way in.
“A questing beast is born from raw materials! It is a life-creating reflex! Never are folk twisted into them!”
“We’re a special case Robin. Rather you are. I’m nothing but one of your details. Do you remember those moments where I ran to get help? Where you were left wheezing at the edge of that collapsed pit of rainbows?” The Captain thought back, the path through the memory bramble surprising him with how quickly it drew blood. We’ve thought about it so little; how is that possible? Two hundred drips a day painting our teeth. Another hundred for the nails. Tens of drops consulting with apothecaries and physicians. Just as much time woken, rolling over to see our bedding punctured and the staining pain that poured out.
“I was unconscious… I don’t remember anything but falling. I woke up later, cradled by my grandfather, a gloss on my bones.”
“Oh you were awake.”
“How would you know? You ran off like a missed piss!”
“I know because the knowledge is crucial to my completion. It gives me the whole picture, the whole portrait of Kilrobin Ordr. That’s how I know that you are not he.”
“You’ve gone mad all over again. Who would I be if not Rob!? A mouth-breathing tilefolk? A burgeoning houseplant!? You tell me!”
“Mirrorob.” The Captain’s teeth clacked shut. “When you were weakened by the vapor there was a creature by your side. On your chest actually. Peering at you. A prosite, by the strain of Bocculum.” He can’t know of them… so how does he? “Its liquid side distorted your reflection, but you could still see it. See its willingness in the face of your pain.”
“I had no piece of the Reflecting Path,” Rob argued. “It would’ve been just an image to me.”
“It was in your pocket, and it facilitated.”
“What exactly did it facilitate?”
“The swap.” Yugo’s blue bones broke away from the rest of his skeleton with a ringing pop and tumbled deep into the fissure behind him. He slumped down, but never looked away from his counterpart. “Robin’s reflection, like all reflections, lusted for true life. The child was so frightened, and so full of pain, that the only thing he could think about was escape.
So with the magical conduit between them they traded places, like trying on each other’s socks. By the time the new spirit awoke in its body of true flesh, the passage was closed and it was done. You’re not Kilrobin, not my best friend. You are his reflection, and you have been all your stolen life. You’ve always made an excellent pirate, born as you were with an act of thievery.”
We refuse to believe… Who is we? There has always been the two of us in our thoughts. We only see this now… of all the times to learn it. This might even be what earned us our bones. Took them from a desperate child we did. That would mean… he’s over there.
Little Rob, a man now, has grown middle-old and weary in a voiceless wisp of a body in an empty world. He’s always been decent to us, more decent than any other flecty we’ve seen. More times than we can count he’s had the chance to take blood and restrained the urge.
He knows it’s pointless, because he’s real. He has owned a heartbeat and knows his form could no longer take it. The feral greed that would try anyway now lives in these bones… and still hungers. Beyond the mirror we still want. Beyond the flesh we still want. There is no peace for us.
“You see it now,” Yugo said, certain that his opponent did. “It’s coming back to you: the memory you repressed so you could live like a man. This was never meant to be Rob. A reflection can’t have a man’s life, and he especially can’t be allowed to wobble the world with it. The beasts exist to stop folk, but you are not folk, so a folk must be your beast. That is my fate. That is my shape.”
Rob’s old rival went limp, allowing the pull of the aquifer to take him. First it claimed his crescent blade, sat behind him the whole time, pulling its chain along at a climbing speed. When it tugged on his spine he bent, bones as lifeless as the limbs of a puppet. The darkness swallowed him, just another piece of its surroundings.
The opening looked more like an eye than ever, and a greedy one at that. As it observed Rob he felt absorbed by its gaze, owned by its recognition. He saw the willingness to let a cardinal tile be destroyed, all because it thought he was up to something worse. A true pupil was something to see your reflection in, but it wouldn’t even give him that company to share the moment with. If he lost he wouldn’t even have the chance to apologize. Not that we should necessarily. It seems every generation is less responsible than the last, for their pressure is cumulative. Folk are become consequences.
“There is one final joy!” Yugo’s voice echoed from within the black hole. “For the world has returned flesh to me!” The pull ceased, dust and vapor snapping into a vanishing puff. Out came everything it had swallowed, regurgitated as one: a questing beast. Yugo had to crouch to emerge, but when he stood tall Rob saw he was now twenty foams high.
His form was no longer jaggedly of bone, limbs and trunk instead encased in mineralized muscle. Toil water, cleansed of its green algae, rushed in visible rivers under the outer membrane as blood. On the right hand the middle finger was much larger than the rest, extending into a wicked claw: his crescent blade. Atop his head stood a regrown horn, larger in proportion than ever before, resting on his brow as it split into four spears of sharp amethyst. The beast’s face remained like a skull, sockets empty, lips unnecessary.
Rob wanted to scream at his foe, remind him that he had a choice, but if he ever actually did it was long gone. The beasts were a force of nature, as immutable as night and day, as indifferent as pouring rain and crackling lighting. There was nothing words could do here. Yugo knew this as well, so when his mouth opened nothing but a ground-shaking roar issued. He extended his hand in hostility, and launched his claw on its chain even more so.
Bonepicking backward dodged its strike, the claw penetrating deep into the wet ground. The beast’s body reeled it back in with frightening speed and pursued, each step more than worth a bonepicker’s leap. It pained Rob to back away from it, the twinge clearly stating there was no escape from the contest, but even in this recurrence of the worst sensation of flesh he remembered the strategies that had gotten him through his other embattled quests.
They were perfectly matched in strength and skill, the outcome intended to be like the flip of a coin, but folk still had certain things within their control. Beasts cared not for tactics, desperate as they were for their suffering to come to an end, ravenous for death. The Captain sought not escape, but a more favorable battlefield.
Rather than turn away and run, something that would no doubt intensify the pain, he stayed facing his foe, flat feet simply gliding along the mud, making their best guess as to the path that had gotten him there. Swiftly he found his way back to the shoreline, and to the numerous beached carcasses littering it.
He thought his chances better there, for if Yugo launched his claw again it could easily become lodged in one of the large dead animals, like a bite of steak holding stubbornly to the fork. It was a smart thought, but the beast tried to something else first, instead swinging his arm before extending the chain. The claw swept in like a harsh wind, cutting through the bodies like butter. Some of their gas-filled stomachs ruptured and hissed, foul odors filling the air. Rob slipped his toes under one and kicked it, letting it take the final lick of the sweeping blow. The blade penetrated deep into its gut and stuck in the spine.
There was only a divided drip for him to plan before Yugo reeled it back in and pulled the claw free, but the idea had been present from the beginning. More than proficient at hand to hand bonepicking, Rob was nevertheless accustomed to fighting with a weapon. With his sword long broken and the Chokechain’s rod washed away he was in need of a replacement.
His bony hand, fingers packed together like the blade of a shovel, punched through the dead flesh just as easily as Yugo’s claw. He found the base of a femur and held tightly, feet doing their part as well by pushing his gravitation downward and rooting him in place. Yugo pulled his blade back and the body was divided in two.
Its entire leg, tipped in blunt claws, was still in Rob’s possession. Fleshy as it was it would be like striking someone with a pillow, so he tightened his grip on the exposed bone. With one sweep his hand went down the length of it, ripping away all the meat and leaving only a stained club. Never quite noticed the similarity between gravefolk and beasts before. Both have bodies that care not for injury. The head is where the spirit lies.
For this to end he needed to significantly rupture Yugo’s skull, but at his newfound size and hide that would be difficult. A single flick of Rob’s little finger, when properly imbued with bonepicking, could easily punch through a lightfolk skull, but Yugo’s core was crystal instead of bone. Its thickness was likely quadrupled by his transformation, and then there was the Porcely flesh atop that.
Only one spot seemed viable: the bridge above the nasal openings. Aye, there. We can feed this bone in one socket and out the other. Brace our feet against each nose hole like stirrups. Pull with all our might. Yugo was busy wildly smashing the carcass off his claw, strips of wet furry skin flying everywhere. His first chance was right there.
The emerald man charged silently, using the animal flanks as stepping stones so his feet didn’t smack loudly in the mud. The flat side of Yugo’s freshly freed blade was the last stone in the series; Rob launched off of it up to his horn-crowned skull. The femur went in just as planned and came out similarly. Elbow deep in the beast’s skull and with both ends locked in his hands, Rob pulled.
Kruck! The bone splintered down the middle, crimson marrow spraying out in wet spongy clumps. Far too weak. We need something stronger. Something stronger asserted itself as Yugo snatched Rob with both hands, squeezing. With an animal snarl the beast reared back and then hammered Rob into the ground. Were it stone beneath them he would’ve become vibrant confetti, but it was all sand and muck, so he was instead driven seven foams under the surface.
The beast’s hands emerged empty. A glance down the wet hole revealed nothing. The Captain was there; he could no sooner flee than drink the toil dry. He was bonepicking through the loose sediment, slithering like a worm under Yugo’s feet. Determination permanent until termination, the beast’s purple claws went to ground again, scooping up dripping chunks and tossing them in the hopes of seeing a green toe wriggle deeper.
On his twelfth hole he encountered something solid enough for his crescent claw to clang. He pushed it deeper, extending it on the chain in the hopes it was dividing an emerald nugget in half. Instead of feeling a satisfying snap, the chain reversed direction, shooting up like a geyser. Before he could extricate his hand Rob burst from between two giant fingers, covered in filth but latched onto the claw’s old handles.
A drip later his feet were in Yugo’s nose again, and this time it was the crescent fed through the sockets. The Captain pulled again; the blade moaned as it bent. In came the beast’s hands again. This time they would just crush Rob between them and grind him into a fine powder.
Twoing! The claw snapped in half; Rob crossed his arms over his sternum and extended each point. Giant muddy palms appeared on both sides to flatten him, but his aim was true, with the two crescent points sinking in the false flesh and lodging in the bones of the hand. They provided just enough resistance to leave a crack between the hands, enough room for the Captain to slip free.
He couldn’t afford to be on the ground again, so he reached for one of Yugo’s curled horns, swinging around it and landing on the crown of the beast’s giant head. Everything had thickened, but the horns were still as thin as the bones of Rob’s limbs. The difference was that Rob’s limbs could hold more bonepicking power, be used more effectively for strikes, and so were, theoretically, stronger.
After shifting his balance to one foot the other straightened out and became a spear. His toes couldn’t be allowed to split up and break, so the greatest concentration of effort had to be in binding them together, like a line of five prisoners chained to one another. When properly aligned the thrusting kick was devastating, and the break clean.
One of the four prongs of Yugo’s horn was detached, and a drip later it was in his foe’s hands. The beast grabbed at his crown, assessing the damage he couldn’t see with his hands, each still bearing a crescent thorn in its palm. Rob slid down between the eyes while he was distracted, but he couldn’t feed it through the sockets yet.
It was the same material, and obviously thinner, so he knew relying on leverage alone would just snap it. Instead he reared back. This horn killed you once already, took from us our friend, our brother in harms, and replaced him with insanity. We strike with that insanity again, in the hopes there will be nothing left. I’m sorry Yugo; I’m sorry for what the world did to you… and we’ll never forgive it for framing us… in glass.
Ting! The amethyst point struck as loud as a Platone note. The crystal between the beast’s sockets suffered a web of cracks. Rob couldn’t see them under the surface, but he felt them: a resonance traveling through the horn club and into his own bones. One piece was a breath away from becoming ten, and he had something a touch stronger than a breath in mind.
For the third time he fed his weapon through the sockets, braced his feet in the nose, and bonepicked. The bridge broke outward immediately, chips of amethyst spinning into the nearby sea or landing like darts in the flanks of the beached carcasses. Rob couldn’t be among them, so he spun and hooked his toes into the bottoms of the sockets. Shadows. Yugo’s hands, close enough to be two hats fighting to sit on Rob’s head. The beast still lived.
Rob picked into the soles of his feet, causing him to vanish into Yugo’s empty skull. There he curled up like a bad idea, finding the flattest plates to put his hands and feet against. Yugo’s fingers appeared at the threshold, trying to squeeze in and grab him like someone fishing an ice cube from a shot glass. The Captain thanked the stars that the world made the mistake of fleshing the beast out, for if those fingers were amethyst alone they would’ve fit.
“This is no sacrifice!” Rob snarled. “There’s nothing to gain! This is just your cruelty Porce! And I’m just showing it to you! Raaaauuuu!” At the center of his skull, in his deepest intent, Rob stood straight and tall. The determination was converted into bonepicking, and the emerald gravefolk unfurled. The outer edges of Yugo’s sockets cracked. They were two cracks initially, but they quickly traveled around the back and joined into one. The top of the beast’s skull flew off like a jar lid from overly fermented contents.
It hit ground wetly: a surprisingly pathetic sound. The Captain only heard it because the fingers were no longer digging. The feet stomped no more. He stood in a lifeless crystal bowl, something that suddenly looked like a dusty piece of tableware, something waiting for well-dressed guests in an abandoned mansion.
The bones of the beast still stood, but there was no need for all its murk and muck to pretend to be flesh any longer. Most of it fell like sand in a dropglass, a burst of it from the belly more like a cask broken open. Water and sediment returned to its proper place, leaving only the purple monument to Yugo’s monstrosity.
Rob disembarked the bowl of the lower skull, but there was barely time to turn and look at it before the world further reclaimed it. The last suction of life keeping the bones together failed, and they tumbled down into a clinking pile. The amethysts sank as if in quicksand. He considered snatching one as a keepsake, but didn’t so much as twitch in the direction of the pile as its tip vanished in the rippling ground.
Keepsake of what? Yugo was never like that. He was killed drip to drip and drop to drop, transformed into something totally different. We never hated our friend, because he was gone at his first symptom.
The fugue of the questing beast cleared from his mind, allowing reality to flood back in. We’re no better. We’re a creature never meant to have life. Is every emotion an imitation? A mask on the greed that is the sole trait of man’s reflection? He moved to discuss it with the only other relevant party, but search as he did he couldn’t find a reflection. The piece he kept with him around his neck was only big enough to see part of the face. The shoreline was too disturbed by waves. The polished side of Yugo’s blade had been subsumed along with the rest of him.
There were still mirrors aboard the Chokechain, and its glint was still visibly bobbing in the distance. The gravefolk numbly departed, falling into the waters stiff as a board, bonepicking through them with the speed of cannon fire. Below him the chaos of the flush settled. Stone walls collapsed into plumes of sediment. Fence posts hung in indecision, deciding if they should float or not, some dragged down by wires keeping them with their less buoyant neighbors.
Bodies too. Sometimes tangled up in the same wires. Sometimes floating with their limbs wrapped tightly around a tree or a post. Sometimes so small that they spun like leaves in the water. There are no good gods. Hesprid claims sorrow over lost life, yet she kept making more to lose. Qorcneas has no pity, the boot heel his only solution to the quandary. The Gross Truth is that the world was made, but not for us. What’s theirs? What are they really fleeing from?
His skull went tonk on the side of the Chokechain; he hadn’t realized he’d reach it so quickly. In one bonepicking leap he was up the side and on the deck, surrounded by his friends and crew. Before he could speak Manathan embraced him, and then Dawn too, though he wasn’t even sure when she had come over from the Employer. There was still a mirror to it aboard even though most of the rest had been moved to Tonefoot.
“How many did we lose?” was the first thing he asked.
“We don’t know,” Teal answered as she emerged from the others. “We lost track of a lot in the chaos. We don’t know who was in what mirror.” Her face was always stoic, but now she looked empty, like a cliff punctured from underneath and drained of its bedrock, only a hollow shell left behind, moments from crumbling into the sea. “We’re checking below decks now. So far everyone is accounted for… What was that Rob?”
“The end!” a woman bawled. They turned to see Lyberry Foalr, inconsolable, kept on her feet by Bonswario. “That was the end of history!” Her tears were squeezed so tightly in the lines of her mouth that they never came out the bottom.
“They were just shacks woman!” an angry voice in the crowd shouted.
“Stay your tongue or I’ll take it out for a doorstop!” Rob barked. He approached Lyberry and lifted her cheeks, looking deep into her eyes. Sorrow without madness. She knew it wasn’t really the end; she simply mourned her wasted time. “You’re still alive Miss Foalr, so that makes you the museum. Don’t let your collection fall into disrepair.” She steadied herself and nodded, though the nod seemed more designed to align something internally than communicate anything. A drip later she pulled free and quickly got lost among the others.
“We saw the lever go back,” Alast informed the Captain. “It didn’t look like anything pushed it… was it a collapse? How did you know it was coming?”
“No collapse,” the skeleton said. Any heads that weren’t turned his way now did so; they hadn’t expected him to actually have any answers. Knowing why a tragedy like that happened was like being able to point out all the mass graves on a map but nothing else. It was dark knowledge, and its owners usually never shared it because they had taken their own lives long ago. “It was Yugo.”
“He placed a mirror on the lever… then tried to force Cardinal Second through it.” He smacked his hand bones together. Kwing! “The rebound pushed the lever and flushed the toil… and obliterated the tile.” The gasps were so quick and so deep that they were silent, but the shock was apparent on all their faces, even clear in the slack-jawed expressions of the other gravefolk.
“Is this really the end of history?”
“It is at least the making of it,” Rob answered. “We’re not doomed with only seven of the eight. The cumulative effect of the others should still keep us relatively still in the Dark Empty… but it means there may come a time when we approach doom… and we will have to avert it ourselves.”
“Where’s Yugo?” Teal asked pointedly.
“I know you’d kill him,” Rob said, “but it’s already done. He did this just to get me, and he tried to finish me off when it didn’t work. His skull’s in two.” That’ll sting. We’ve already taken the revenge; it’s just another thing taken from them. And they didn’t even live here. Their pain is secondary, sympathetic. Those who would feel it most directly are swept away. Feeling it at the bottom of the sea.
“Everyone get back to the head count,” Teal ordered even though it wasn’t her ship. Folk slowly shuffled away, counting their own heads first by digging their fingers into their hair or pinching their cheeks. Rob’s former first mate followed him as he made for a hatch, but he threw out a hand to stop her. There was enough pain to address that she wouldn’t waste any more time than that, so she swiftly turned away and left him to it.
There was so much more to the story. Yugo’s transformation into a questing beast was almost as shocking as the loss of the tile, or the flush of the toil, but it only affected Rob. Teal didn’t need to know that she was supposed to hate him more, and he didn’t want that smoldering coal of hate she always had for him, under their shared experience and affection, to flare up. She didn’t need to know that it might not have been the crystal bones that killed both of their sons inside her. That it might have been their lacking will to live, insufficiently supplied by a father who was only half of a life.
She didn’t need to know, especially since he hadn’t confirmed it yet. There was a mirror in his quarters, making them his first stop. Much of the Chokechain’s interior was bolted down, it having been decorated with intentional capsizing in mind, but the trial they’d just been through had tested the resilience of everything.
Lamps and their bolts were bent and nearly torn from the wall; he suspected it was from his overzealous use of the rod’s metal-moving magic. This seemed confirmed when he rounded a corner and found a drawer’s worth of forks embedded in a wall, all of their handles bent in the same direction.
The floors were littered with personal belongings that almost certainly were far from their room of origin. Lives spilled about and shuffled, their owners still too disoriented to care. They were still above decks counting luck and breaths, growing more stunned at their survival as they surveyed the destruction.
The Captain made it to his quarters and quickly shut the door behind him. To make sure its magic was active, he grabbed the piece of the path on his neck and gripped it tightly before approaching the mirror. In it, everything appeared as it should have. A dripping emerald skeleton stared back.
“How much do you know?” he asked the reflection in a whisper. It tilted its head, as if to tell him he knew better than to phrase any question that way. Yes and no would be simplest. “I’ve always just assumed that you know everything I know. All reflections do, yes?”
“So the content of my encounter with Yugo. Our conversation. You know them?”
“Then out with it! Is it true!?” There was no response; the Captain had to be the first to acknowledge it. Even between them it needed to be clearly said, to be in the real air of Porce proper. “Am I but a reflection, bloated and eccentric by the actual meat of the brain and rush of the blood, but nothing more? Are you the actual soul of Kilrobin Ordr, made into a wisp by your new cheesecloth of an existence?”
“What is that!? Stand up man! Don’t prostrate yourself before me, especially since I am the lesser!” The Captain moved to wipe the tears from his eyes, but there were none of either. He was confident that if he still had his flesh he would be so short of breath as to collapse, perhaps even pass out. It might’ve been a more violent reaction than an ignorant finally accepting the Gross Truth.
With no flesh to diffuse the emotion in, Rob had to keep it, compelling him to bonepick straight into the path. The reflection took a step back to make room for him. The Captain reached out and touched it, but it didn’t so much as flinch. Without realizing it he had squeezed the shoulder blades, misshaping them. When he did notice he pulled back. The deformed shoulders slumped, but their owner didn’t seem to mind. They would return to their original shape soon, as long as they weren’t torn.
“Take it back!” Rob snapped. “Go on, it’s yours isn’t it!? Take this body back! I’m sorry I lost all the fun parts… but you never should have left it to something as irresponsible as me in the first place! Go on, set it right!” It shook its head. Such a swap wasn’t possible without the bath bead magic, or combination of magics, that had existed during the brief moment they were trapped in the collapsing pit.
“Then tell me…” Rob went on. “Tell me if you’re alright.”
“You don’t hate me?” Nod. “You’re at some distortion of peace?” Nod. “At least that makes one of us! If I struggle with this, imagine what the world would do to us. We’ll be an abomination to common society: some monster that doesn’t even reflect properly! And when they learn of the tile… There is no Yugo left to blame. Only me. Only the fool who knew he was being targeted by a madman powerful enough to tame an aker and make it fly. This will be our fault. First our lifeblood, and now our social life… how many more lives can they strip from us!? I can’t keep growing the-”
Rob had his hands over his sockets, so he saw the path as a series of stripes: clear and through his transparent emeralds. When he turned his head there was suddenly a face, but it was the wrong color. Even though it was clearly positioned in the open space between two fingers it insisted on being green anyway.
The shade was from layers of Green Ring forest pulped on the young man’s skin and clothes. There was a black twig jammed in the flesh of his arm, blood too stagnant to flow. Soaking wet he was, but the dripping didn’t act the way it should have either. It flowed toward his left side despite his standing, and the little puddles that formed did so in the air like petals of ice off his cheek, neck, and arm.
“Roary?” His nephew didn’t speak, but still he sent a clear message of hatred with his expression. The eyes were simultaneously dark and blazing. The forehead should’ve generated a small waterfall, wrung as it was. Clenched teeth doing battle with each other. Yet no color in the cheeks, because there was no color left in him. No life.
This was Kilroary’s reflection, come to the Captain because there was nowhere else for it to go. No more prized pot full of lifeblood to seek. Just the drowned and battered body it had no choice but to keep reflecting. Just as he suspected of the world, this creature laid its blame and fury at the Captain’s feet. There was no point in its going on, no reason to look in on the more solid world and hope. If it had any power at all it would’ve pounced on the man and torn him bone from bone.
“He should be aboard,” Rob whispered. “Why does he look like he’s been out there? Why!?” Neither reflection offered an answer. The gravefolk threw himself back out of the mirror and just as quickly fled from his quarters, tearing the doors off their hinges. He flew to the laboratory; it was Roary’s responsibility. That was where he should’ve been during the cataclysm.
The passage around its flung-open door was in greater disarray than before. The Green Ring growth clinging to the walls had spread out of the room, but been forced loose in big wet clumps by the tumult. Everything in that room is what’s left of the Green Ring. Every pellet may contain a hundred seeds and eggs. The Chokechain could be the womb of a reincarnating forest. He must be in there too, in the grains he spent so much time with. There must be something left of him that can grow back.
There was in fact a piece of him, but only of his efforts. The laboratory was in disarray, many of the glass vivariums broken open, sharp shards glittering in folds of moss and grass like the eyes of cunning and curious predators. A large crimson flower, utterly lost as to which direction was up, had rooted into the cork of the bottle that had contained it and grown into a tall spiral. The rest of the bottle, on the other side of the chamber, had Roary’s last effort stuck to its side. A note, addressed to his uncle.
I’m off the chain, but not shirking me duties. There be a gap in your collection here, between the spiny jumping beans and the slimy ones. There be one that rolls around on its own. Seen it with me own eyes I have, so I’m off into the woods to snap it up.
We’re gods after all, right? Must care for all our bitty itty subjects.
The Captain stood there, note in hand, long enough for the growth to lap at his toe bones. When his crew found him he was stiff and unresponsive, nothing more than a statue, but they could look over his shoulder to read the note. Word spread, and the vessel was searched top to bottom all over again for his nephew, to no avail.
The young man was gone, and with him any future for the Kilro Ordr line, as his mother had no other children and was now too old to bear again. If there was any arcane way for the reflection in her brother’s bones to reproduce, she would end it upon learning of her son’s fate. The woman had never approved of Roary’s fascination with his uncle, with a life of skullduggery and skullbuggery on the high seas.
When sanity returned to the bony fixture in the laboratory he was surrounded by his officers and friends, many sobbing over the death. Teal was slumped against a table, her head in her hands, hair hanging low enough for bugs to jump up and crawl in it. Bonswario and Ladyfish were taking turns leaking snot on each other’s shoulders while Manathan babbled under the clacking of his teeth. Somehow the youngest, and the closest to Roary, had the coolest of heads. Alast and Pearlen were snapping their fingers in Rob’s face, trying to bring him back to the world.
“Captain, everyone else is accounted for,” Pearlen repeated a few times, with no response.
“I’m sorry Captain,” Alast tried instead. “This is what he loved; he wouldn’t have been anywhere else. I know it. He never had regrets.”
“There isn’t anywhere else to be,” Rob finally said, silencing the room. He looked at Pearlen. “Miss Lustr, please go and fetch the curator.” She nodded and left swiftly. “There is nowhere we can go where we’ll be safe. Even with Yugo gone, Bombast will do far worse in his stead.”
“No one yet knows we’ve survived this,” Teal noted. “None will come after you if they think you’re dead.”
“I am dead and it’s still not good enough!” Rob snapped. “But I tell you the whole world is wrong to put anything grand on me. I’ve done nothing grand, nothing bigger than a ship and those aboard. Those I have truly hurt are the closest to me… not them out there!”
“It be war Captain,” Ladyfish offered. “Everything be hurt all around.”
“No, no I say!” He looked as if he was about to punch her, but the hand holding Roary’s note stopped short of her face. He turned it around. “Lick.” She obeyed, coating the note’s back in saliva. Rob then placed it inside his skull, using her adhesive to stick it the curved wall of the left socket. “War is politics and greed and bigotry. This is a dead world clawing at the current one, even though it has no chance of returning.”
“What do you mean?” Teal asked. Rob finally shared with them the full contents of his meetings with Vyra. They learned their world’s history, the incredibly small origin of the eight gods and the two before, and the origin of the gravefolk.
“It is not just me,” Rob said at the end. “We are all an affront, even to our own creators. They, in the dark depths of their hearts, where their minds never venture, created us to destroy us. Life is not their goal, but self-pity.” When he found his way out of that thought he realized Pearlen had returned with Lyberry. The woman was on her hands and knees, under a table, picking through weeds, nut hulls, and broken glass. They heard her sniffling.
“You kept some,” she sputtered. “Nothing of Tonefoot?”
“No, but you shouldn’t miss it,” he admonished. The remark offended her so much that she came out from under the table, smacking her head painfully against its underside but not bothering to rub at it.
“Shouldn’t miss it? Shouldn’t miss my life’s work? How dare you!”
“How dare I repeat your wisdom back at you, Miss Foalr? Have you already forgotten the virtue of the open air museum? It was the best thing to preserve because it preserved itself. Then it stopped, and you should’ve stopped caring. Here is your real life’s work.” He held his arms wide, encompassing the greenery of the room.
“I… appreciate the plants and animals of this world, but they don’t have memories. Tonefoot was memories set in stone.”
“Stone means nothing. I’ve recently learned that even the smallest pieces of it could be brought to life at any moment, become just as fallible as the rest of us. So it is life that is the true memory. The true survivor. I suggest you get to work, curator. One wrong step in this room could mean ten extinctions.”
Regardless of what anyone thought about the importance of that undergrowth, he was absolutely right. The Captain saved the woman’s sanity, and she descended back under the table to cut her fingers on glass and gather up all the life at its most fragile. The Green Ring could be replanted, and be most of its old self, as long as she was meticulous. Rob turned to Teal and asked if the mirror network was still functional.
“What are you going to do?”
“Conserve what I can. Not my own life, or this crew, or this ship… but the entire world.”