Tourney at the Hanging Gardens (part two)

Respawn Chat Log

There was a place inside the hanging gardens of Babylon where ghosts gathered. It was sealed off from its endless colorful sky, lit only by the pale white energy of a crystal formation at its center, standing more than fifty feet tall. It had tree-like branches, more than thick enough to support the weight of living creatures, but only the ethereal dead were present.

The ghost of Flippers sat on one such branch, kicking his feet, just waiting. Nothing in the game stayed dead forever. The crystal tomb was much more like a waiting room or a penalty box. Really it was an admirable extra step from the game’s developers. A lot of other multiplayer games just cut to another active player’s camera when the countdown to respawn started.

But the gardeners, as their occasionally fawning community called the overworked programmers, had gone beyond the call of duty and designed an entire space just for the downtime between lives. They’d even supplied some lore to further contextualize it, written on the walls of the chamber in glowing text:

Fear not traveler. You are not lost. This crystal is not the final light. You have fallen, but you have done so within the range of this rock’s great power. The crystal tree has grown with every death it has witnessed, over countless centuries, and it can stand to watch them idly no longer.

Your spirit has been reclaimed from your fallen body, and it will be returned, once the tree ensures you are not followed by the relentless black-cloaked specters of Death. All of us who have passed and returned before wish you the best of luck. Life is a precious gift, and holding onto it desperately is merely a compliment to the forces that gifted it. Rise swiftly and retake what is yours.

The ghosts were not represented as the characters being played in that match, but instead as vaguely humanoid blobs of pale energy, coming in four colors to indicate the role they served on their team: green for medics, purple for assassins, orange for brawlers, and white for rangers. So right now Flippers was just a lonely purple splotch. He didn’t do too well when left alone with his thoughts, which is why it was a great relief when a splash of white appeared like a silent firework.

The tournament was underway. This was only their second match in the second annual Hangers-On Open. The first had gone smoothly enough, but that was just to separate out the weakest players in a field where anyone who could hold a mouse, or blow on it hard enough to make it move, could join.

Now they had to be careful. It was double-elimination, so they would only be afforded one loss before they were out, before the shot at the grand prize was gone. If they did lose they would be shuffled into the losers’ bracket and face an even more aggressively uphill battle. Two of them being in respawn at the same time was not a good sign.

Standard procedure, in the event that a quarter of the team was lost, was to retreat, especially if they had the chest. A good amount of time could be burned, and thus points accrued, if they fled with skill until they were back in full force.

Now half the Beaucoup Bucks were ghosted. They’d only settled on a team name four days ago, and they were already on the ropes. Plusplus hadn’t even had time to design them a logo yet, but when his drawing tablet was up and running again it was going to be a stag with a ton of hundred dollar bills skewered on its antlers.

All of their initial matches were scheduled by the organization, and all during hours that tended to be daytime for North America. That meant Granslam’s granite business was open, and the company computers it employed were busy storing invoices and sending E-mails. The Bucks didn’t have their business class internet, and they weren’t even in the same building.

Each was stuck at home using headset microphones, but the living couldn’t communicate with the dead. The respawn area had a text chat channel just for ghosts, so Flippers attacked his keyboard.

Flippers: Hey, over by the lore. Want to sit with me and keep me company? Lol

Handzy: We’re getting hammered out there. I wasn’t expecting them to run centaur mummy. We wasted a ban on rune scarred.

Flippers: The other guys can hold it together. We planned for this. We still have the chest right?

Handzy: I had it before I got ganked. I don’t know if Plus managed to snag it. If not we’re screwed. You know how when you turn a screw too deep it bends the wood around it? That’s us.

Flippers: maybe

Handzy: How are you so calm right now? Didn’t you say you needed the money more than I do?

Flippers: Yeah. My parents kicked me out too. I’m playing at a friend’s right now, crashing there until I can get a place.

Handzy: What did they kick you for!? Thanks for even being here man; I’d have given up.

Flippers: I’d rather not say. And no you wouldn’t. You’re Handzy. You’d choke anybody who even suggested you give up on anything… even if it’s like your spot in a cafeteria line or something lol.

Handzy: That’s if somebody ELSE tells me I can’t do something. Trust me, I’m great at giving up. Holmes is the one pushing me on, plus you guys. God, what’s taking so long?

Flippers: It’s centaur mummy. He must be running the desecrate perk. Every time he shoots the spot where we died it extends our respawn time. If he’s camping our graves one of the guys will have to dislodge him. You didn’t die right next to me did you? Never mind. I’m up.

Flippers’s ghost vanished. Handzy’s followed soon after, but the crystal tomb wasn’t empty for long. Plusplus stopped by, his phantom anxiously circling the tree. The team was more than doomed without a medic. Luckily the enemy brawler wasn’t able to plant himself atop the death site. His stay was less than twenty seconds.

Two minutes later Flippers returned, angry enough to talk to himself in the text chat. Messages faded out of it quickly and weren’t recorded, so there was no risk of anyone seeing it. At least seeing the words on the screen meant he could control something, make an impact somewhere. It was still better than the real world, than the actual silence of sitting alone, far from his family.

Flippers: Yeah just go ahead and focus me enemy medic. It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do. Better prove you can dunk on the shittiest assassin in the history of the gardens. Guess I should just hang myself with all the potted ferns around here.

Flippers: Oh hey Jenny. Yup I’m here again. Bet you wish you never invited me to be on your team huh? Bet you wish I’d just grow skin over my mouth and never speak again. Listen, I know I’m a complete failure in every way and I reek of desperation…

Flippers: But you wouldn’t want to maybe go out sometime would you? I’ve kind of had a crush on you since like sixth grade. I know I’ve never said anything about it, but actually I have. Just not to you. I’ve told every device I’ve owned since then. Written your name in my phone a few times. I was stupidly excited when I actually got to put your real number next to it.

Flippers: I told notes in school that I never passed. I told the bark of a tree in my backyard. I told the sand at the beach right where the waves would wash it away. And now I tell the hanging gardens of Babylon.

Flippers: Maybe there’s something in this game that will absorb it and tell you for me. They put in just about everything else.

Flippers: I’ll really tell you if we win. With our shares of the money we can really do things, be who we want to be. You’ll know that this isn’t just because you’re beautiful. It’s because you’re a powerhouse. Even when you’re worn out I can see how much your personality burns inside you. There’s just so much of it. You’re so much person.

Flippers: Most of the time I just feel like a shell of one. You could show me how to be better, or at least more.

(Handzy has entered the crystal tomb)

Handzy: Shit gobblers! Shit fuck piss shit FUCK. FUCK PISS. Flippers! FUCK PISS, you hear me!?

Flippers: I read you loud and clear ranger. Did poison damage get you again?

Handzy: YES. FUCK. They have the chest now and we’re behind 15 and counting. We need to pull a new tactic out of our collective ass. Think. What’s their weakness? They’re running centaur, sand rake samurai, bandage dresser, and glassblower. Centaur’s on desecrate and glassblower’s got refract. They’re trying to keep us locked in respawn as long as possible.

Flippers: Wait… if they’re doing that they probably sacrificed late game potential on glassblower. He won’t be going for the masterpiece finish. He’ll try and push under rain-shatter instead. No masterpiece finish, no heal bombs.

Handzy: Which means their medic can’t switch roles at the end! They’ll be out of bandages and take extra raw damage. Soon as I get back I’ll watch for it. You dodge the rain-shatter in your shadow form. Got it?

Flippers: You bet partner.

A few seconds later both of them exited once more. They shared the plan with Plusplus and Granslam and went to work. The Beaucoup Bucks weren’t going down yet, at least not until everyone had a chance to see the awesome logo they were going to have.

The next time an orange ghost appeared it belonged to the enemy team. As did the next green and the next white.

Tugmoat: Wow. They turned that around quickly.

Celebritywasp: They figured out the rain-shatter thing. It would’ve worked way better with rune scarred. I told you.

ScrapeApe: He did tell you.

Tugmoat: Oh so this is my fault now!? Look at the centaur stats. Weight was pulled on that end. We just didn’t spring the trap fast enough. Their ranger should’ve been in here for like half the game.

ScrapeApe: We could still be fine since Gutter is still out there. If he has the chest we can pull it out by like 2 points as long as he doesn’t show up in the next few seconds.

(Gutterball has entered the crystal tomb)

Tugmoat: Godamit. Loser’s bracket here we come.

Gutterball: Sorry guys.

Celebritywasp: It’s not your fault Gut. It’s not like we have a chance of winning this whole thing anyway. Microdose Berserk are playing. Anybody who goes up against them is gonna be slapped down hard.

Tugmoat: Would’ve been nice to try. Second prize is 25K!

The Fall and Ascent of Ys

(excerpt from HGOB tie-in novel Ys to Babylon)

It was actually two murders that put Wellish Quimper right where he was that night, in a knee-flooded poor district of lower Ys, in Brittany, in the kingdom under the god Marimorgan. The first slaying was before his time, nearly one hundred years prior. Ninety-seven, all of the ninety-seven-year-olds in the city would point out.

There were quite a few of them, as it wasn’t hard to live that long in such a wealthy place, and with access to two lives you could combine at will, swapping years from one to the other. Inspector Quimper didn’t feel he had all that many years left in either of his bodies, so he filled them with drink instead, even while on the job.

Drowning his sorrows was nothing compared to what Marimorgan did to them every day; he drowned his creations instead. It wasn’t intentional, but Quimper didn’t think intent mattered much when a being was that powerful. Everything they felt had consequences for the world below, so even their emotions were their responsibility.

Marimorgan was a god of the sea who used to spend his time fishing from the clouds, catching the sea monsters that threatened the people. Everyone was happy for him when one day he caught a mermaid and took her up into the sky with him. They fell in love, and he gifted her wing-like fins and flight so they could always be together.

The flying mermaid blessed the towns by flying over them, and it wasn’t long before the gods’ wedded bliss was reflected in the civilizations below. The city of Ys grew under their joy, and at that time it was unrivaled on the Earth. The tallest buildings in the world held between them the tallest dike, which kept the sea from inundating the ‘low city of Brittany’.

Gates in the dikes, both magical and scientifically advanced, could be opened to let only the bounties of the ocean through. Fish of all sizes would pour in when they were opened, contained in bubbles of water so they could stay alive and fresh. Yet not an annoying drop made it through: no puddles to step in, no salt corrosion on the walls, and no damp in the air.

But the flying mermaid was a mortal creature, like those doomed fish in their bubbles, like Quimper and his nearly-emptied glass under a full-to-bursting moon. She aged, and she perished, falling gray into the sea. The life of Marimorgan is as slow as can be, so even her long life passed in a blink of his watery eye and blindsided him.

Never since the formation of the planet had such deep sadness existed. He mourned her day and night, season after season, and he never stopped weeping. His tears fell as rain, sometimes as drops large enough to kill a cow on impact. He also refused to move from the spot where she fell, keeping Ys under his inundations for two generations now. The dikes allowed them to drain some of his tears into the ocean, but never fast enough.

As a result the city was constantly flooded, sometimes just a finger deep and sometimes well over a man’s head. The endless change in the water level forced them to reconstruct everything. Wealthier neighborhoods were placed on pedestals or stilts of stone while the less fortunate simply had to freshen up their swimming ability.

They plead with Marimorgan to feel better, or to at least move his gigantic godly bottom to other parts, but he refused. He took note of their sorrows only once, and gave them one blessing to cope, one that reminded him of his dearly departed beloved. Every person who lived within the city’s walls gained the ability to, at will, transform into a fish of some kind.

The blessing did not come with instructions, and it was unclear who got to be a shark and who had to be a clown fish, but all of them could then navigate the submerged portions of the city with ease. Foundations were hollowed out and filled with smaller passages and chambers: a second smaller city built into the first.

If you didn’t need to transport goods, fish form was the fastest way to travel, allowing you to take nearly straight paths from one point to another through the tunnels and under the walkways that were now technically bridges.

Control of the dikes meant partial control of the water levels, which in turn meant whoever manipulated them could affect the speed and ability of anyone to move throughout the city. It was the greatest power in the land, so naturally it belonged to the king. In Wellish Quimper’s time that was King Gradlon, who would be succeeded by his daughter Dahut, now barely more than an adolescent, and less than one in intellect and dignity.

All of that power was stored in a set of keys, which hopefully never left the belt of the king. Quimper was technically in the man’s employ, though he saw himself as more of a public servant. Normally the public didn’t need that much serving, as disputes tended to be settled discreetly, under the surface, in fish form, sometimes by predation that some argued did not count as cannibalism.

Almost everyone who went missing went missing as a fish, and if a fish went missing it was no great loss. Such was nature. The only reason Quimper had been assigned to this latest death was the victim’s claim, repeated much just prior to his demise, that he had come into contact with something that ruined his ability to transform.

He told friends and neighbors that he was shifting in and out of fish form randomly and had no control over it. There were holes in his story, but only because he couldn’t get through a full sentence without transforming, and failed to account for the missing syllables once he had a proper human mouth again.

When the corpse was found it couldn’t be mistaken for an ordinary animal’s or another person’s. He had been killed by the bite of a small shark mid-transformation, and was thus frozen in that state until he rotted away. Quimper had viewed the body: scaly skin, webbed fingers, gills upon the neck, and lidless flat eyes like glass, frozen in his final moment of disbelieving terror.

As far as he was concerned, unusual factors aside, there was no way to solve the murder. Hundreds of citizens took the forms of sharks and dogfish. A cast of the wound could be taken and compared to their jaws, but such a tactic was pointless. Sharks lost their teeth constantly, changing their smiles every week. There were more shark teeth littering the gutters than there had been smoking papers before Marimorgan’s sorrow monsoons.

Still, he had to make a show of investigating to keep himself employed, so Quimper was drinking like a fish, even though he wasn’t one at the moment, at the stall nearest the scene where the body was found. Officially he was staking out the location, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.

The moon was full, and the people were celebrating the end of the season despite the high water levels. Music echoed from different stages in every neighborhood. People danced in and out of alleys, occasionally disappearing under the water to reemerge as a spinning fish for the finale of their routine.

All of this disturbed the water around Quimper’s legs as they dangled off the stool, keeping a chill active in his joints that were just old enough to hate that sort of thing. He adjusted his knees under the bar, crossed them, but the top one struck something that broke loose and fell into the water.

With one hand he reached and felt the underside of the wood. A few more things fell, but most held firm. Quimper grabbed one and wrenched it loose to take a look: a shark tooth. He freed several more and piled them on the bar, which caused the keeper of the establishment to take notice.

By merman’s beard,” the man grumbled. “I keep telling him not to do that.”

Who?” the investigator asked, showing the insignia on his ring that marked him as an authority.

Cybilla. He’s a regular, just another one of those people with a nervous habit, in this case sticking all of his loose teeth into my bar. I’m putting the replacement wood on his tab.” He raised his voice. “Aren’t I you disrespectful bastard?” They both looked down to the end, where another man, thinner than his raggedy coat cut short to keep it away from the water, was downing his second glass.

If I could pay in shark teeth I’d be living up there,” the man shouted back at them, pointing to the tower far above, the lighthouse and keep of King Gradlon. A device of spinning glass plates dyed different colors had been installed for the celebration, which now shot out rays of magenta, blue, and green. “Instead I’m stuck drinking your swill. Almost as good as drinking one of the tide pools outside the whorehouse.”

He’s just upset ‘cause you took his usual seat,” the barkeep whispered to Quimper.

Did I?” The investigator turned to the man at the end. “Since you come here so much you wouldn’t mind telling me if you saw anything unusual exactly ten days ago, would you?” The man stared, so Quimper flashed his ring again. The man’s eyes widened, and widened, and widened until they were those of a dogfish.

He flopped backward off the stool with a spine gone cartilaginous, his body reduced to a forearm in length by the time he slapped against the water. A tan fin cut through the dancers’ waves as he fled.

Damn,” Quimper said through gritted teeth as they started disappearing into his gums, “I accidentally solved it.” He quickly became the second man to not pay for his drinks that night as he entered the familiar form of a silver sided mackerel and plunged into the disturbed waters of lower Ys.

Tan. He was after a tan dogfish. That was easy enough to remember, but not easy enough to find in the chaos. There were bubble trails everywhere as those celebrating moved in and out of their fishy forms. Bare feet and ankles danced all around him too, and he just barely made it between a pair before they would’ve crossed and crushed him.

A catch would’ve been a good start to a new season, or in his case a good excuse to not catch anyone for the rest of it. Still, something else had to be propelling him, as he felt even faster than usual. There was something in the water, but he couldn’t put his fin on it. A sort of anticipation.

After Quimper made it out of the dancers he spotted a flick of his target’s tail as it disappeared into a stone slot underneath one of the buildings. It was a fish entrance, but to what he had no idea. It could’ve been a trap, but he trusted his instincts. A fellow who ran even at the sight of his ring, without waiting to hear the topic of conversation, surely wasn’t the brightest, not the sort to set up ambush nets.

The mackerel pursued through the slot and into the foundation. They must’ve been beneath a restaurant, for he now glided over shallow pits with scummy rope netting over top of them. Inside crabs and giant prawns crawled all over each other. They were being farmed so the eatery could always have a fresh supply.

A claw shot up through a hole and nearly got him in the eye, always a danger when there was no eyelid to blink defensively, but Quimper twisted onto his side and avoided it without losing any speed. Others got the same idea, reaching for him, creating a thorny garden of snapping pincers.

Bravery was never his strong suit, but if the coward dogfish, fleeing with his tail fin between his legs, could do it then so could he. He hugged the ceiling on his side to avoid all but those with the longest reach, and in so doing spotted the murderer past them. He looked trapped up against the establishment’s back bricks, but then a heavenly light appeared from above.

Heavenly to a fish, but really just the lamplight from the jovial atmosphere of the kitchen. Someone in human form had lifted a hinged hatch on the floor; their arm reached down into the waters to open a net and take one of the crabs.

The dogfish seized the opportunity, leaping up through the opening. This clearly surprised the arm, which flailed and nearly slapped Quimper. The investigator avoided it by leaping up and out as well, already mid-transformation since he was confident the perpetrator was doing the same. Halfway between fish and man, but still mostly the size of the former, Quimper scurried up the poor cook’s arm on squat webbed limbs like a salamander before springing off of her shoulder and landing on the two feet he was born with.

He was immediately grabbed by the other trespasser in the kitchen, and they wrestled back and forth, knocking steaming pots and pans from their places over the fires. The investigator growled that he was under arrest, but the man slipped out of his shirt and jumped out an open window with no regard for his own safety.

Quimper stuck his head out and swore. Instead of falling to his death he had landed in a sluice that took waste water, animal guts, and inedible vegetable stalks toward the disposal holes in the outer wall. The sluice was only as wide and deep as one of the pots they’d just overturned, so he returned to a dogfish between leap and landing.

Rather than watch him slide away around a corner, Quimper leapt in after him, immediately put off by the taste of the water on his fishy lips. Where did this fool think he was escaping to? All sluices eventually dumped right next to the wall, where pressure sucked out the refuse and it fell a great distance into the sea.

The sea was a bad place for an Ys citizen in their scaly form. All the creatures met out there were wild, aquatic from moment one of their birth, and they knew only the doctrine of eat or be eaten. Every mouth you came across that was larger than your own was a death sentence, and that was only if you successfully spotted all the transparent jellyfish tentacles drifting by in front of you, loaded with paralyzing poisons. He could of course turn back into a man, but that made for a long swim around the walls, and some of the denizens of the deep were large enough to take notice of the ungainly splashing of the fatted folk of civilization.

The sluice ended even quicker than Quimper would have guessed. Both fish were dumped with the garbage into a murky reservoir of salty and rotten odors. Decomposing fruit and vegetable buoys put a maze between them; the mackerel barged through them with his head rather than navigating around.

The current was strong. It was likely less than a minute before they would be sucked out and dumped into the ocean. Quimper considered going back to human, which would make him too large to be evacuated, but then he would lose the fish form’s watery awareness, and with it any trace of a dogfish that might’ve been gliding right underneath his kicking feet.

After pushing through an apple core the two fish collided. The mackerel tried to muscle the dogfish into changing his path, but the dogfish was bigger, stronger. He pushed back, right into the suction. They saw the hole, endlessly swallowing, and felt its tug. Both turned and swam against the current, but it was too late. The force had them.

Inches from the opening in the stone, Quimper was about to turn human and block it with his back so the dogfish couldn’t escape through it, but he was preempted. It was the water itself that made an unexpected maneuver. Suction was instantly reversed into an outpour. The investigator was stunned as he rode the new direction.

That shouldn’t have been possible. The water level would have to rise over the disposal opening, and do so in an instant of flooding. The only way that could’ve happened was if… the city gates had been opened completely. Then the invading ocean, unable to flood the city fast enough, would ride along the outer perimeter, crest over every man-made structure in Ys.

King Gradlon had the keys. Only he could bring the gates down. But why? He’d be destroying his own kingdom, his own people. The water level overtook the sluice. It was now under them. Quimper tried to resist the wave with his tail fin, but he couldn’t even bend it in the direction he wanted.

The water forced him higher and higher, and he was horrified to see it swallowing neighborhoods below him. The bottom was torn open, turned into rubble and silt and panicked bodies disappearing in bursts of bubbles only for panicked fish to dart out of them and get caught up just like he was.

Then the torrent got to the taller buildings. The stilts providing the framework for the fish thoroughfares snapped like twigs. They’d eaten through the integrity of their own city, turned it into a termite mound, and now it was all falling down on itself. Quimper couldn’t bare to watch the buildings settle on his friends and family, so he angled himself upward, with the surging direction of the waves.

Even in this chaos, the dogfish murderer was still trying to get somewhere. The mackerel spotted him, riding with the forces as much as he could, heading for the royal tower. He might even make it to the top if the gates were fully down. Why would he go there? It didn’t seem likely a skittish pup like that would have friends in high places, but then again he never thought the king would slaughter everyone with the turn of a key either.

Quimper found some energy in fury, forced it into his fins. He powered forward and up, gaining on the tan tail of the dogfish. Together they circled the tower as the waters rose around it. There was a sky bridge near its peak that led to a station for launching transportation balloons and baskets, but it was about to become a regular old bridge barely rising out of the murk.

That was where the dogfish was headed. Even if the ocean was unleashed, that bridge was built high enough to remain above the water. The royal family was probably up there, their celebration interrupted by the cataclysm under their feet.

Quimper looked at the bottom of the bridge each time they swam under it, seeing only the mosaic installed for the benefit of the people below, which depicted the flying mermaid scattering fish into the sea from a basket over her arm. He didn’t want to see the artwork; he wanted to see people diving off the side. He wanted to see them turning into fish and heading deeper to help those getting battered and broken by the disaster.

Not a single body, in one form or another, went over the side, not that he saw. He reasoned they were all inside already, hunkering down until the destruction of the greatest city on Earth was complete.

If they were locked away the dogfish’s struggle was pointless. They weren’t going to open the doors for the likes of him. Yet he swam like they would, and Quimper’s heart had already vowed to overtake. Time was short; they were close enough for attempts now.

The dogfish leapt out of the water, trying for the edge of the stone bridge. He initiated transformation but couldn’t reach the ledge, so he slapped against the side as a half-fish monstrosity, clawed at the crevices, and plunged back in. He had to return fully to dogfish in order to build up speed for another attempt.

With the water still rising he was sure to make it on the next jump, so Quimper changed course. He dove and turned, creating room to build up his own momentum. While he did he watched, trying to predict each of their lines of trajectory. They would intersect if he did it correctly, and, as he realized halfway along, it would be in midair.

Both fish breached. Both fish attained the necessary height to see what was happening on the bridge. Both fish developed splitting headaches when they collided with each other. With the sense knocked out of them, neither had the presence of mind to transform before they flopped and bounced onto the dry stone.

Quimper’s vision blurred, his fishy eyes never meant to see the world through anything but water. He felt something against his side before he felt his fins and gills. Something cold. Some metal. It wasn’t sharp, but it still seemed to cut, cutting him off from something internal.

He made every effort to return to human form so he could breathe once more, and none of them stuck. His mouth gasped, speechless. His heart refused to grow back the chambers it had lost. Whatever that thing was, its touch had trapped him as an asphyxiating mackerel.

All he could do was look at the object as the person holding it moved two steps over, to the dogfish. The murderer already had his knees back, and was the size of a small dog, but when the item was pressed against his side he reverted fully back to fish.

It looked like a large iron key, but it was in the shape of a scaled tail fin. It was attached to a ring of several other keys, all practically aglow with what had to be magical properties. Quimper recognized only one from the set, but it marked them all as the keys to the kingdom. The teeth of one was made of sapphire, shaped into the curl of a wave. It raised and lowered the gates of Ys.

That meant it should have been in the hands of the king, but these hands were far too dainty. Quimper saw a woman in a fabulous gown, reflecting like copper in the moonlight, bent over the dogfish. She grabbed him by the middle, stood, and tossed him. The investigator watched helplessly as his quarry landed inside a massive glass bowl balanced atop a servant woman’s head.

Inside it were dozens of other fish, including a few identical dogfish. That was it. He was back in his pack, and he never had to reveal himself again if he didn’t want to. The implications of that bowl were even worse, he realized as the servant marched, with immaculate balance, toward the open door of the tower.

Each fish in the bowl was likely trapped in the same fashion he was. Prisoners all, but why? One of the dainty hands wrapped around Quimper’s middle. He was brought to their owner’s face. She smirked at him with shining full lips, kissed the side of his gills, and placed him inside the bag hanging off her shoulder by a long strap.

The bag was leather, but filled with water, and there was a glass fish-eye porthole out the back that allowed him to see where they were going. The water sloshed, and the edge of the bridge grew distant. She was following the woman with the bowl, walking casually into the tower as if nothing was happening.

Quimper wasn’t alone in the bag, which he didn’t realize at first since the other occupant was pressed against the bottom. It was a flatfish, and Quimper had spent enough time in the animal kingdom to learn the difference between the sexes even if he couldn’t delineate them, so he knew it was a woman.

She looked up at him with her twisted face. After transformation a fish often had a gasp of air, their residual human breath, stored in their mouth. The flatfish used some of hers to produce a bubble of a very particular shape. Quimper watched it rise and wobble in front of him.

Fish couldn’t speak, but the people of Ys had developed a system for rudimentary communication based on bubble shape and behavior. Each one was a word. The flounder’s first word to him was trapped. He had to swim lower to get his mouth close enough to her eyes; then he bubbled out a response.

Why?

Prisoners. Pets. Quimper deduced that he was picked up solely because the woman was impressed with his ability to make it to the pinnacle of Ys in the middle of the cataclysmic flood. Apparently he deserved to survive, or his survival was at least deemed entertaining. He rolled another question around in his mouth until it was the right shape.

Flood?

Intentional. Plan. Sacrifice. This was followed by a bubble he didn’t recognize; it had the most complex shape he had ever seen. Its idiosyncrasies were the result of implications spanning not just civilizations, but worlds. He did not yet know its translation was ‘Babylon’.

King?

Complicit. Princess. Mastermind. God. Irrelevant. Unaware.

Wellish Quimper started piecing it together; he had nothing better to do in the dark leather bag like a wine skin of his own drowned sorrows. He already knew the princess was involved, because he recognized her face when she picked him up, kissed him, and stowed him away. She was their method of transport at that very moment.

Gradlon’s daughter Dahut had not only the key to the gates, but the heretofore unknown key to the human form. The investigator remembered the partially transformed state of the murder victim, and his claims prior to death that he was losing control of the ability. In retrospect the culprit had to be contact with this fish-tail key.

A key he was now touched by himself. There was no telling when, or if, he would be able to smack himself in the head with a flat palm and curse his own foolishness. The dogfish had been working on behalf of Princess Dahut. He never would’ve thought such a lowlife would work with the king, but it was the childish princess running things.

Whatever this plan was, it was hers. The crime he had been lazily investigating was part of a cover-up. The victims must have known some aspects of this night were coming, and had to be silenced so the ‘sacrifice’ could happen as planned.

At some point Princess Dahut flipped the bag around. They were already inside the tower. Rumbling and clanking sounds shook his pocket of water, telling him chains and gates and doors had all been closed and locked. He saw fish being dumped from the large bowl into a chamber beneath the floor. Quimper guessed it was a tank for keeping all the servants they wanted safely and compactly stored during the transition.

The last dogfish slipped out of his sight. Now, just like everything outside the tower, it was just one of the things he wasn’t allowed to see. Whatever happened, it disturbed the water inside the bag too much for the two fish to communicate with each other. All their bubbles ended up looking like dying breaths.

So they stuck close, fin to fin, in it together without a choice, while they guessed what every sensation meant. They correctly guessed the tower was moving, but not how. A magical geyser, born of a mechanism at the tower’s base crafted by the dark minds of the king’s advisers, and fueled by the pounding ocean and desperate deaths of thousands, launched them skyward.

They couldn’t guess that on their way they punched through a layer of thick clouds that Marimorgan was resting on. The god used its edge to dab at his watering eyes. He stopped to stare, but only because he thought the missile to the heavens might have been his dear flying mermaid come back to him.

Alas, it was just people, just those small things that liked to hurt each other, which was why he rarely found cause to help them. They undid everything given them eventually, as if they forgot how bad pain could be each time they encountered it. Not him. His pain was forever, so he quickly got back to it.

Wellish Quimper wouldn’t forget. His pain was a sticky one, that of humiliation. It was all over him, thickening and clouding the water. He had to be human again, if only to feel like he could move freely.

There was only one thing to be done with that freedom. Find his killer. His vengeance was the only belonging he could take with him from Ys, the paradise he had taken for granted and yet somehow survived. The dogfish was not just the killer of one to him, but the killer of a whole people.

One of his correct guesses was that, wherever they were going, the princess and the king would be protected. He would never even get close to them, certainly not as close as he was in that leather bag. But the dogfish was expendable. They would give him up in a heartbeat.

The trick was finding him. He would blend into the others, pretend he deserved a second chance. Quimper realized right there that he didn’t believe in second chances. It didn’t matter that the dogfish was going to reach the hanging gardens of Babylon. The corruption he brought with him would always bleed through, and the investigator would point it out to everyone. The dogfish would understand that the pain he had caused was permanent.

Character Bans

Pocket Protectors was not a very popular game these days. It was practically a fossil in terms of video games for the mobile phone, since it was almost four years old. Holmes Handerly still had a soft spot for it though.

It was a character collecting game, but all the characters were little rubbery toys. You played by fitting as many as you could into a shirt pocket displayed on the screen. Then if you matched with someone nearby the two pockets would fight, launching attacks at each other based on character synergy and positioning.

Eventually one pocket would take too much damage and all the characters would fall out the bottom, which was a loss. It took wins to earn tokens, which could be used to get characters out of a digital slot machine.

Holmes had found a fight, there of all places. Her phone beeped in the very specific way that indicated another player of Pocket Protectors was in range, and they could duel. She had time. Mangst Breadslaw wasn’t scheduled to speak for another twenty minutes or so. The real problem was getting to her phone.

She was seated in a folding chair for a person of normal proportions, but she was enclosed in a stuffy ‘fursuit’, as the community called it, which made her bottom almost twice as wide. Her neighbors, a flying squirrel and a floppy-eared bunny, were spilling out of their seats as well, compressing the video game journalist who was having trouble remembering how she got herself into that exact situation.

Her arms managed to wriggle out of their furry sleeves and into the body of the suit, allowing them to slither down to her jeans and fish her phone out of the tight crevice her pocket had been reduced to. It nearly slipped out of her hands, all the way down her suit leg and into her puffy lynx feet. There might be no recovering it from there without blowing her cover.

Only the bottom half of the suit looked like a lynx, as it had proven difficult to source one of the suits on short notice without purchasing one. Two of her Squeak’s associates eventually offered pieces of unfinished costumes that could be combined, so Holmes was prowling around in the paws of a lynx while looking through the beady eyes of a badger.

It had been good enough to gain her entry to Pinecon, which was all she needed. That, and perhaps some deodorant. The suit’s heat had crept up on her and now her proper clothes were drenched with sweat. There must have been some kind of ventilation procedure she had neglected to ask about. She could make a note about it for the next time, but she very much hoped there would not be a next time.

The gamer tag of her opponent was difficult to read through the smear her perspiration put on the screen, but she wiped it down on the suit’s interior and saw it: Nordicbagel. This Nordicbagel was an experienced Pocket Protectors player indeed, with a maxed out denim level of seventy-five. Holmes matched it of course.

She initiated the challenge, but there was no response. Whoever they were they must not have been looking at their phone. She twisted around in her seat, as much as the suit allowed, to look at the crowd. The player had to be someone close by, but here that meant more than two hundred people.

The convention was in a hotel, in a space the owners had probably always intended to be for company retreats and tech shows. Instead the auditorium and attached hallways were infested with colorful woodland critters of all stripes.

Grizzly bears strutted around with purses on their hips that their paws couldn’t possibly fit into. A few skunks worked security, looking authoritative in their black and white uniforms. Holmes wondered if they had pepper spray dispensers hidden in their tail fluff for added authenticity.

None of the carnivores were on the hunt, so all species interacted jovially. In fact, there was more hugging going on than Holmes had ever seen. Almost none of it looked obligatory as well. This wasn’t forced Thanksgiving family hugging where you would cringe when grabbed by a racist uncle or drunk aunt. It was enthusiastic. Their tails would’ve wagged if they could; she even swore she could see a few of them doing just that.

Nothing she saw suggested one of them was distracted by their phone inside their suit, but someone else did catch her eye, as well as the eye of everyone else there. The very scent of him seemed to disturb some of the more sensitive snouts around.

Every creature big and small gave him a wide berth. They knew he wasn’t supposed to be there; he reeked of a toxic mind that didn’t belong in their den. None of them wanted to hear him speak, but there was only one stage, and they might lose their seats if they didn’t sit through his presentation.

Some left anyway. Others wriggled in their seats, which Holmes now recognized as the struggle to use electronics within their confines. Inside their bat and fox ears they were popping headphones onto their human ones, scrolling through libraries of music, shows, movies, and games just to find something to drown him out.

The nerve of him. Holmes was none too proud of her own efforts at assembling a suit; it was obvious she had only done the bare minimum. Yet she hadn’t really violated the spirit of the event. Nothing about her appearance suggested she disrespected the furries, or their space, or their time.

Mangst was different. As he approached the stage he was wearing a wolf suit. There were a few packs of wolves around, some quite fanciful, but Mangst’s coat made a statement. That statement was fascism.

There was a black mark on the suit’s upper lip like Adolf Hitler’s toothbrush mustache. The suit was black with a white belly. To him there were no gray areas, and he was always right. The edge of the belly was made up of swastika bars. A mark like an arm band was proudly displayed. This beast had all the trimmings of an S.S. officer even without wearing any clothing.

She knew he wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough anymore, so there was no way he had commissioned such a suit just for one speaking engagement. Perhaps the individual that had forced his participation bankrolled it, and had been too cowardly to wear it themselves. Not Mangst. He had no shame as long as he was faceless.

It would’ve been so simple, Holmes grumbled to herself. All she had to do was peel off her suit, run up to him, and rip the stupid dog smile off his face. A hundred people would snap his picture and he would be all over the internet in hours, identified in a few hours more.

But she wanted a career, not one successful stunt. Tearing off a furry’s head didn’t seem very respectful, and for all she knew it might count as a form of assault. No, there was a right way to do this. She could destroy him without ever touching him, and all she needed to do was aim her magnifying glass properly and precisely. The heat would melt him, inside a suit or not.

Most of the crowd was too agreeable to boo anyone, but they certainly didn’t applaud when he took to the stage and grabbed the microphone. The program said he was going to give a talk about censorship, but Holmes knew that was a lie before the first word came out from between his fangs.

Censorship was the government interfering in matters of opinion. Mangst liked to use a different definition:

Censorship -noun- The act of disagreeing with Mangst Breadslaw, or of pretending his opinion is not fact.

He was going to rant about his recent ‘silencing’ and the emptying of his bank account. They were in for at least twenty minutes of angry woe-is-me rhetoric, but he would have to tie it into the furry community somehow to justify his presence in front of them.

She didn’t really care how he was going to do it; everything that came out of his mouth would be pure codswallop anyway. Holmes kept her suit’s giant eyes aimed at the stage but bent her true head toward her lap. She sent another challenge request to Nordicbagel. Mangst beeped.

He was less than a sentence into his drivel when it happened, emanating from somewhere around his thigh, but he had lowered the microphone in that moment and it had picked it up. He apologized for the interruption and smacked his leg a few times to silence the device through the layers.

Hello Nordicbagel,” she whispered behind her badger teeth, clenched in determination. The wifi there was good, even through a donation bin worth of fabric, so she set to work searching his gamer tag on various game sites and forums. While she did so she was barely listening.

With cancel culture getting wildly out of control, reasonable people will seek the refuge of anonymity anywhere they can get it,” Mangst argued. His voice was grating to her, acidic, like a sour candy dropped onto the sclera of her eye. There wasn’t a chance he was more than twenty-two or twenty-three. Surely the only censorship he had actually experienced was his own family telling him to shut up and stop whining.

Furrydom, whether you like it or not, is going to see a huge influx of people like me. I think I’m something of a pioneer. It’s genius when you think about it. Here the mask is the whole point. Even body type can’t be gleaned through these exaggerated animal proportions. You offer safety in silliness.

Are you going to tell me I’m wrong for feeling safe here? Are you going to look in my puppy dog eyes and tell me I don’t belong here? I’ll anticipate your argument because I’ve heard it in other venues a hundred times before. Some of you think I’m taking advantage of your hospitality, that the community you want will fall apart if it doesn’t have strictly controlled borders.

That’s my whole point. Speech is supposed to be free. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an argument for anything else being fully free. I want you to kick me out, if it gets you to be honest. Tell me you hate me, so that I can tell you that I hate communists, that I hate people who rip sexy women out of video games because they’re so angry that they’re ugly, that I hate black people who think being black is only about rap music and gang violence.”

At least you’re consistent,” Holmes muttered as she scrolled through the evidence. There were several chat logs and ban records for Nordicbagel across several video games, not just Pocket Protectors. He had accounts for Military Clarion, Bumper Car Battle Royale, Be a Brutal God, and Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

That last one was Jenny’s game, but not a big surprise. It was extremely popular. Still, she would be none too pleased to know that particular worm was wriggling around in the earth she tilled.

Everywhere he went it was pretty much the same. He got himself into an argument after inserting himself into a conversation. A handful of instances later he got banned. It made sense he was still hanging around the hanging gardens though, as that game didn’t have permanent chat logs. You had to screen capture someone saying something offensive and then report them directly to the developers to get a ban to go through. Most people didn’t bother.

I’m sure some really ugly girls are good at video games, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be even better at making sandwiches. It’s all about giving your best effort where it belongs,” he had argued in Military Clarion, mostly to typed cheers from his teammates, which was to be expected from that game.

Jews control the metagame,” was what got him temporarily banned in Bumper Car Battle Royale.

Since there is no organized Nazi party anymore you have to assume anyone who says they’re a Nazi is joking.”

If we hadn’t nuked Japan their brains never would’ve been irradiated enough to come up with anime, so you’re welcome Japan.”

Long painted nails are like high heels for the hands. They’re great because they are women telling the truth. No, they’re not going to try and do any work, because they’ve made their hands fragile and awkward. Girls in high heels don’t try to run and girls with long nails don’t try to game. It makes their worth and purpose plain.”

As if you’ve ever had a girlfriend,” Holmes growled in a tone that could put an actual badger to shame. Was the live version finished yet? She looked up. He was strutting across the stage, getting louder and louder. Some of the furries started to boo him while others cringed away from the conflict, putting their paws over their false ears.

It sounded like he was off script at that point, given that he was just talking about what perverts furries were and how he was only wearing the suit in jest. When the booing got too loud he even had the nerve to drop the microphone dramatically as if he’d just made some kind of stadium-silencing statement.

As expected, he was only there to mock them. Unless they had loved him. Then it would’ve been different, serious. He would’ve talked about the love of joining their den, how his fascist wolf suit was comfortable enough to sleep in. The sheep in wolf’s clothing tried to flip them all off as he left the stage, but his paws couldn’t handle such a precise maneuver, so he turned it into a Nazi salute instead.

Holmes gave up her seat to a vole waiting in the wings. Her badger head suffered a temporary slit throat, but only so she could vomit up her phone. One hand had to come off so the screen would register her taps. As she set up the camera she scurried after Mangst. He was awfully fast for someone with his tail between his legs.

Mangst!” He didn’t slow down, didn’t even turn his snout. She picked up the pace. He quickly led them off the main convention floor and into one of the hotel’s hallways. He was trying to lose her. If an employee caught them outside of their strictly enforced corral there could be trouble.

Even through the suit she could smell chlorine. They were near the pool, confirmed a moment later when a soaked woman wrapped in a towel wandered by them barefoot. She stopped and stared, unable to get past the animal suit part enough to recognize the fascism part.

Mangst! I’m a journalist! Don’t you like interviews? You sure like hearing yourself talk!” He wasn’t taking the bait. This was her only shot and it was shuffling away on slipper feet. Holmes threw off the badger head to lighten the load, but if she took the time to wriggle out of the legs he would be gone already.

Mangst! Now that your bid to break into the furry community has failed, where will your desperate hate-peddling take you next? The KKK? Anti-vaxxers? The diaper fetish forums?” That last one hooked him, but only enough to get a response. He still fled at full speed.

Maybe this is the end of Mangst!”

Are you saying you’re giving it up? Will you reveal your identity and apologize to the people you’ve hurt?

Not the end of the message! Tons of people love hearing it, just a couple tons less than hate it. It doesn’t have to be under the Breadslaw label you dumb bitch.” He took a corner and went down a short set of stairs. Holmes nearly lost her balance down it.

They didn’t love hearing it enough to keep you famous and fed! They’re all leaving you! What you’re left with is me, and I’m honestly asking you why you do this when it doesn’t even get you anything anymore.”

Because others always tell people like me that we’re not good enough, when I know that we’re the fucking best.” The fucking best attacked the glass door that let outside to the pool. It swung open. The fresh air was packed with people, likely spillover from a different event. Most of their chatter stopped, replaced by curious sips at their drinks as some kind of feral Hitler-beast pushed through them.

Holmes was catching up. The crowd was slowing him down too much, so he was going to have to ford the river. There was only time for one nervous glance at the pool’s rippling surface and back at his pursuer before he jumped as far in as he could.

It was the deep end, and thanks to his suit he immediately sank. Holmes made the same judgment, that she could not push through the people fast enough, and so plunged in right behind him. That was a mistake. Without her badger head on the water poured in and weighed her down. She leaned desperately to get one foot in the shallow end.

Even though she succeeded her head was still underwater. Her extended arm kept the phone dry and breathing, and at the moment its life was the only one that mattered to her. The chlorine burned her eyes, but she needed to see where she was going. The upholstered Nazi U-boat in front of her couldn’t doggy paddle, so he was walking across the bottom.

By the time she was halfway he was already on the other side. He clambered up a metal ladder and rolled onto the decorative tiles. Now it was his turn to vomit something up, furry neck opening to expel the water that had infiltrated his hide. As she grabbed the ladder Holmes realized she had made a fatal error when decapitating herself.

Far more water had made it into her fursuit, and she found it essentially impossible to pull herself up the ladder from the extra weight. Having only one arm free to do so made it burn like hell as she tried. Meanwhile Mangst was crawling across the ground, stumbling to his feet, and running away on squelching slippers, to another glass door leading back into the hotel.

As Holmes’s head reemerged and she gasped for air she heard him doing the same thing. He sputtered and coughed and gagged, but he never lifted the wolf head enough to reveal his face. This she would discover a few minutes later when she reviewed the footage and got nothing but his lower lip in frame.

Some kind guests grabbed her by the shoulders and helped her off the ladder, where she promptly collapsed and felt the water she’d swallowed splash against her insides. The only energy she had left was used to lift her head, to watch Mangst. Through a blurring skin of chlorine she saw him finally take off his head as he ducked into the building.

He was turned away, so he thought he was safe to catch his breath, but Holmes saw his reflection in the glass door as he pushed it in. It wasn’t a strong reflection, and her vision was blurred, and there was more than a handful of feet between them, but she saw enough to get a sense of his face’s character.

The blur wasn’t anyone she recognized. It wouldn’t be enough to publish, even if she spent through the nose to get a sketch artist to draw up what she saw. There was no doubt he would be in a car within five minutes, speeding away, perhaps never to do another live event again.

Are you okay? Can we help you with something?” a nice young woman asked, leaning over the partly drowned animal.

Yeah,” she answered. “Donate me to a wildlife sanctuary, because I’m done.”

continued in part three

One thought on “Tourney at the Hanging Gardens (part two)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s