Dream I: Falling Blind
I'm a coward too.
You don't need to hide, my friend,
For I am just like you.
-Skrillex, "Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites"
Once upon a time there was a little sick mouse who lived in a little plastic world.
His bedroom made the boy seem microscopic. It was the largest room in an already-large house. The walls were plastic-coated. The ceiling was plastic-coated. The cranberry carpets had been long ago ripped out and replaced by tiles as white as teeth. In the corner of the room bobbed a few mylar Get Well balloons, hovering above the deflated resting husks of their predecessors.
A plethora of toys. Trucks and toy instruments and blocks and dolls. All of them plastic. All hand-washable. Even his stuffed animals were soft vinyl, every one. They creaked when he hugged them.
At the opposite end of the room, a bookshelf grand enough to monopolize one whole wall. Even the books, all their pages, were printed on thin vinyl sheets (it made turning them difficult in the hot summertime). Sometimes he'd look over at them and wonder how much Mommy had paid to specially order them all.
Mommy loved him so much.
For many years now, his only sensation of warm, living contact came from Mommy. Though, her fur was beginning to thin out now. And the plum-colored circles below her eyes had been deepening steadily over the years.
From each sunrise to the next, the entirety of the boy's experience was confined to this one room. That was why Mommy had gone to such lengths to fill it with things to make him happy. He’d read every one of his plastic books cover to cover. He watched television too; he loved movies. (No video games though, Mommy was suspicious of them.) So the little white mouse with the coral-pink eyes had an active inner life, even as the passage of time gnawed his body thinner and weaker.
He had to stay in his room. He had to. Nowadays, even going downstairs was too big of a risk.
It hadn't always been like this though. When he was very little, he remembered sunlight warming his skin, grass tickling his ankles, and how the sidewalk felt beneath his sneakers. He remembered kindergarten. Classes with other children. He even remembered being allowed to play in the yard and get his clothes dirty.
But then Mommy had begun to notice symptoms. The boy himself felt nothing wrong. Yet the more Mommy described them, the more he began to notice too. Fatigue. Hiccups. Trouble sleeping. Itches out of nowhere. Soon Mommy was consulting with doctors all the time. Drowsiness. Headaches. Decrease in appetite. Mommy began to buy expensive medicines and other treatments. Scars. Nausea. Burns.
The little mouseboy was confused, not knowing what was wrong with him. Sometimes he didn't feel sick at all. But Mommy knew best of course. So he swallowed the oval golden pills and the long orange pills and the clear pills with the tiny white dots inside. Certain waiting rooms became so familiar he'd finish off all their magazines. Every day it seemed, a new drive to a new doctor.
Daddy wasn't sure about this. There were fights between him and Mommy. Much as he wanted to see his sweet son regain health, the treatments were costing a lot of money, and they didn't seem to be working.
Mommy soon decided that the house was part of the problem. While Daddy was at work, Mommy would flit from room to room like a spirit of sanitation, cleaning everything top to bottom, day in and day out. The boy got used to the vacuum cleaner's constant drone. The ‘skritch skritch’ of the whisk broom and pan. The air in the house took on the scent of cleansers. Faintly at first. Then thicker. Then sometimes Daddy would have a coughing fit when he came home.
Daddy and Mommy fought more often.
One time, when Mommy was asleep, Daddy took his son to see a new doctor. This doctor looked the little mouse up and down just like all the others had, then talked to Daddy for quite a long while. Daddy had the strangest look on his face throughout the long car ride home. The boy never forgot it; an expression like heartbreak, fury and triumph all mixed together.
When they got home, Mommy was awake. The boy was sent up to his room.
Downstairs, hurricanes destroyed the world.
It was the loudest, longest fight the boy had ever heard. He balled himself into a corner with his tail wrapped tight around him. Sobbing to the point of pain. He had caused this, he knew it. Mommy and Daddy's voices were terrible roars. He couldn't understand their words, but he could hear the hatred in them clear as day.
A few days afterwards, Mommy came into the boy's room alongside a nice man with glasses and a tape recorder. Mommy asked her son to tell this nice man all about Daddy. They had rehearsed this. Two nights ago, Mommy had helped him memorize a story. Like lines in a play. So, while trying to keep still in his seat and not fidget, the boy told the man with glasses about how Daddy taken out his penis, then put in his mouth like playing a flute. The boy made sure to enunciate every word, since Mommy had explained that this was very important (although she wouldn't tell him why). The afternoon seemed to last forever, with the hum of the man's recorder seeming to grow louder and louder by the minute. The boy had been forced to make up lies on the spot to keep the story from falling apart, and that made him deeply uncomfortable. When all was finally said and the man turned off his tape recorder, Mommy kissed the boy between his ears and said he'd done a very good job.
Weeks later, Mommy came to him crying and said that Daddy had decided to run away and never come back. Daddy had told Mommy that he hated her, and hated the boy, and was going far, far away from them forever. That was what Mommy said.
The boy felt his heart crumple like a sheet of paper. Mommy left him alone, and he cried until his eyes stung with dry fire.
Changes happened. The boy's sickness worsened and Mommy soon had new pills for him to swallow. She took him out of school. He said goodbyes to his friends and in time forgot their faces. The boundaries of his world grew smaller and smaller as his condition progressed. One day he realized that he and Mommy hadn't gone outside in a very long time. One day he realized that Mommy hadn't let him out of his room in a very long time.
His days were now a half-dreamt permanent rerun. He'd wake up, kick off his rubber sheets and nylon pajamas, then take his Methotrexate and Mevocor (his M&Ms). Then he'd wait for Mommy to bring him breakfast in bed. There weren't many foods his weak tummy could tolerate anymore (he'd vomited on himself more times than he could remember, and his mouth always tasted like acid nowadays), so breakfast was usually oatmeal, applesauce, and Saltines. Then it was time for his mineral bath. Mommy would bring in the stand-up tub and scrub his sores. He had quite a few, so his legs often ached from fatigue by the time she was done. The sores showed through his fur like ripe red apples fallen in snow. His pajamas were often stuck to him in the morning from the discharge. After his bath he was free to amuse himself. He'd flip through the channels on his television, looking for movies about heroism and adventure. If he found none, he'd instead look for excitement in his books; some of them he knew almost word for word. He'd play with his toys on the floor, using the lines between the tiles as roads. If a toenail or fingernail fell off, he'd put it in the jar. He was also trusted to apply his ear and eye drops by himself if he felt the need. Throughout the afternoon he listened to the sounds of Mommy's furious cleaning downstairs and waited for lunch to come. Chicken or beef stock. Bread rolls. Some hard candies if he was good. Then it was time for the medications to control his Huntington's Syndrome, Tay-Sachs, Naegleria infection, Kartagener's syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Morgellons disease, and Fructose Malabsorption Disorder. He had to make sure he was lying down after taking these particular pills, as he often passed out once the active ingredients took effect. Or he'd get the shakes. Or the shivers. Or the aches. The aches were the worst: blinding, lightning-strike pains all up and down his nerves. Like someone had sprinkled fiberglass crystals throughout his insides. These side effects made him cry, but Mommy said they were necessary. Without his pills, he would certainly die within a day. He knew that was true. Every morning that he opened his eyes was a miracle, Mommy said, and he believed her. So on until bedtime (if he was able to), he would continue to read or watch or play. He didn't see much of Mommy throughout the day, except when she came in to clean his room. But even then, she was so focused on scrubbing and dusting every corner and crease she rarely talked to him. Mommy had been beautiful once. Now her hair was stringy and loose. She shed on him when they hugged. With the passing years she spoke less and less. Her eyes always seemed focused on something not quite there in the room with them. She was not cruel to him, but she was not kind either. She was growing more distant each day. Keeping him alive was a higher priority than loving him, she admitted once. But still, she always tucked him in at night. She helped him take his Cisplatin, Vincristine, Ribavirin and Taxol. Then a little poke in the arm and an IV of Propofol would help him sleep.
An infinity of identical days passed. So many, the boy began to lose track of not just months, but seasons.
Sometimes doctors would come to the house (often having to hold their hand or a sleeve over their muzzle to keep out the miasma of chemical flowers and sickness). More often though, Mommy would drive away for a while and come back with a new treatment idea or a change in medications. One time, after a big plump lady doctor had examined him much longer than the other ones usually did, the boy heard the woman yelling at Mommy. He'd overheard the words 'Munchausen Syndrome Byproxy'. Then Mommy got mad and screamed for the doctor to never come back. When the boy had asked about those words, Mommy stiffened up and asked him where he'd heard them. He'd eavesdropped, he confessed.
Mommy was not angry. She said she'd tried to hide it from him, but Munchausen's was a terrible, terminal disease. His condition had worsened and become this new untreatable illness. He didn't have much time left.
The young mouse had always known he was slowly dying, but now, for the first time, he began to truly feel the weight of this eventuality.
He would die soon. Not exist. His essence would depart his body, leaving an empty, withered thing behind, like his deflated balloons. Where would he go? Would he go anywhere at all? Some of his books said Heaven, some said Hell. Others said that death was eternal nothingness. Eternal. Nothingness. The boy shivered, and it was no longer just tremors from his medicines.
His bedroom had seemed like such a welcome, warm safe haven before. Now it seemed cavernous and cold. No matter its amenities of escapism, it couldn't keep him safe from the end that was sneaking up on him, closer and closer. At night the boy would clutch onto mommy and cry in her fur and beg her not to let him sleep. It could get him in his sleep. He might drift off one night and never wake up again. He felt like he was attached to his life by a single thin string, and he could always hear the scrape of its fibers fraying. The nighttime drugs usually kept dreams away, but sometimes they crept through. Peeling their way past the drugs' effects to play tricks on his helpless sleeping mind. He would wake up panting, soaked in sweat, screaming in a voice so slight it wasn't even a whisper.
Soon, all his other symptoms faded into the background, leaving only one that dominated.
He had panic attacks. He would feel a sudden need to start uncontrollably screaming. He'd pull at his tail till the skin came off in scales. He clawed his blankets to ribbons. Mommy's face when she came in to check on him grew stony and contemptuous.
And one night, she put something special in his bedtime IV.
She kissed him goodbye and exited the room.
Holding his vinyl animals tight in the dark, the little mouse struggled to keep sleep from claiming him. Every sound in the night’s black silence was the herald of something unseen and dangerous. Yet soon, inescapably, a vast, foggy hand of pharmaceutical might closed around him.
And then his eyelids closed too.
running oh god running running running faster I can't stop running help me the breath in his lungs burns burning fire inside internal combustion run faster you cannot stop it's behind you keep going I'm trying I'm running running running running it won't let me stop you can't ever stop or you know what will happen to little boys who stop running running running running
Toby was outside in unfamiliar territory. He was scrambling through unkempt grass as fast as his sticklike legs could carry him. His heart was racing even faster than his body. This was the primal terror of any prey animal. Something was behind him. Big, dumb and vicious. It meant to eat him. Maybe worse.
Here. Where was here? He couldn't stop to get his bearings. There was nobody to ask. There was only the grass and dead leaves under his feet. Sky and clouds above. But the sky looked... wrong. Overcast. The clouds were somehow boiling. A daytime without sunlight. No time to focus on what was wrong though, something was behind him.
He could hear it. Footsteps. Slow and plodding, but so loud they shook the ground and sent vibrations like electric current up his bones. Whatever it was, it was larger than him. Larger than an elephant, larger than a dinosaur, larger than a battleship. So large that he could run until his lungs popped like paper bags and it would still catch up even though it was merely strolling.
He risked a glance behind him. What he saw baked his circuits black.
It had legs like an oil refinery. Impossibly tall and covered all over with RUST. That was all he knew for sure. The beast was rust. Red oxidized decay on legs, coming after him. He had seen old, ruined metal on TV. He could imagine teeth made from the same material. What would such teeth feel like on his weak flesh, chewing through him?
He couldn't run faster, yet he did.
Up ahead. Green. There were trees. If he could reach them, maybe he could go unnoticed. There was no cover in this open, grassy area. He was a target in a shooting gallery. Toby tried to blank his mind and think only of the small forest and getting himself into it.
Blank your mind. Don't think about the footsteps. Don't ask yourself if they're getting louder and closer. Don't picture yourself disappearing under those immense rusted feet. Don't think about your corpse vanishing into a thin stain of blood in less than an instant, the monster never even realizing you were there. Don't think. Run.
The trees were in sight. They were actually close. Then Toby was hugging himself to one like it was Mommy. His legs throbbed hot when he stopped to catch his breath. His mouth tasted like copper. He thought he might be on the verge of vomiting blood, and after a bit of dry-heaving a few claret drops really did stain the fallen leaves beside him.
Toby crouched down at the base of his tree's trunk and tried to make himself as small as possible. He shoved himself tightly into the space between the roots. The bark dug into his cheek. Even with his dim memories of what 'outside' used to be like, he was certain this bark felt wrong. Just like the sky was wrong. Just like the leaves were wrong. Everything felt and looked and smelled different from his memories. His heart would not stop hammering.
Smell. He inhaled. He blinked. For the first time in longer than he could remember, there was not a single whiff of anything artificial. No chemical air fresheners, no cleansing agents, no medicinal creams. Just air. Yes, and also the smells of this not-quite-right forest. Decomposing wood and leaves and moistness and his own ill-smelling sweat. Still, overall it was almost pleasant in comparison.
He didn't have time to think about this. The rust-thing was close enough to see him now if it wanted to. Toby was as motionless as a mannequin. Several yards away, the monster began entering the forest. Through the trees and foliage, Toby could only see an outline. It was bigger, and longer, than his imagination had dared picture. Those oxidized mammoth legs pounded the ground and never seemed to stop. It was like waiting for a train to pass. The air changed and now the only odor possible was rust. Toby bit his lips shut to keep from sneezing. The beast moved like an unconcerned crocodile. Passive in intention, yet still massively dangerous. With every step of its endless supply of legs, trees snapped with bonebreak cracks. Their branches exploded into splinters. Their roots were unearthed and exposed to the sky.
Toby knew, he knew, that this was the end of his story.
As he watched the impossible monster walking by just a stone's throw away, his staring eyes burned from his inability to close them. He was deathly silent, yet constantly screaming. Sweat drenched him. He was beyond thought. He became a scream.
It took its sweet time in passing. But finally, after what had felt like hours, a lashing latticework tail signaled the end of the rust-beast's visit. Like a sweeping broom finishing up the last of a mess, a few more trees that had survived the initial massacre fell to the tail's blind swats.
Toby sat still in the same position for a long time after the sounds of the creature had faded into silence. Eyes wide; his heart the only part of him moving.
He wasn't sure how he was still sane. Or how he hadn't passed out. One moment he'd been in bed. The next, he was here. And in mid-stride! This was not like any nightmare he'd ever been in before. There were no foggy curtains around his vision. He could see every detail around him as clear as real life. He could hear clearly, smell clearly, even taste clearly his saliva and the flavor of the air itself.
After a minor eternity of immobility, he took a moment to dig the fragments of bark out of the indentations they'd made in his skin. Toby tried to stand up. His weak limbs nearly failed him. He realized he was barefoot here, wearing nothing but his thin blue pajamas.
Then he noticed something else. No more sores. The little raw, itchy volcanoes that had been erupting all over his skin just a moment ago as he lay in bed were all gone now. Even his fur seemed a little fuller. He reached up to touch his ears and eyes: none of the glue that had always accumulated in the wrinkles there.
He didn't have any time to enjoy this miraculous healing. Just because the rust-thing was gone didn't mean another one couldn't be following it. Suddenly the enormity of his predicament was pressing on him. He was lost. On his own. Wherever he was, it was far from home. He was alone in some bizarre, bent forest, with unspeakable creatures, and he had no idea where to go from here.
The cry was pathetic, even to his own ears. He had no energy to shout.
Shaking, he dared to step away from the tree and look at the devastation the rust-thing had left behind. He stepped over strange mushrooms and rocks made of colors he'd never seen before in nature. He hefted himself up over a fallen branch and his eyes widened. The path of ruin was a quarter-mile wide. Trees were sheared off or toppled. Roots pointed upwards like arms reaching for aid. The ground was churned to smears of black mud. Toby could see for miles down this newly-created road. The raw power the beast had exerted was unthinkable. And it hadn't even been trying! 'What would it look like,' Toby's mind sadistically asked, 'if it ever threw a tantrum?'
That set him off. His lucidity burst like a bubble and he was off running again. His legs screeched in agony but he couldn't hear them. He needed shelter. He needed safety. He launched himself over branches, vaulted over rocks. His rational mind mumbled in the background that he was moving far faster than was possible for an invalid like himself. He was running at the speed his mind said he had to.
He tripped and collapsed, skidding into a pile of crunching purple leaves. Toby lifted himself up on wobbly arms and tried to stand again. His knee felt skinned.
All of a sudden he started crying. Silent, painful sobs. Completely uncontrollable. He was lost, he was alone, he was terrified. This was more than he could bear. He wanted his Mommy. He wanted his bed and his toys. He wanted to be somewhere warm and safe. The topsoil was clammy underneath his clasping paws. He wanted a shower.
He cried until his fear made him get up again. A sniveling little pink-eyed mouse would make a great meal for whatever else lurked in this forest. Nose dripping, he hauled himself to his feet. He wiped the wetness on his sleeve. "I want to go home," he weakly whispered.
He picked a direction and started walking. Quickly.
This place made no sense. In any other forest he'd seen on TV, the trees were mostly the same species. But these were all different. Like guests standing petrified at a Halloween costume party. Some looked like normal wood. Some looked like white paper, or moss, or crumbling chocolate. One looked like parmesan cheese. One looked like old chewed gum. Another was like an ancient, flaking barber pole.
The leaves were making fun of the laws of nature too. Sometimes he'd step on leafy green spring foliage, other times they'd crunch like it was autumn. Sometimes they didn't look like leaves at all. One time he'd looked down and they'd all been shaped like the suits on playing cards. He blinked hard. The impossibility made his eyes hurt.
If there was any consistency, it was the sky. Ugly, iron-grey clouds passed by overhead, bulging as if they couldn't wait to start pissing out rain. Toby could almost hear them chuckling to themselves like mean old men. Again, he felt unnerved by the lack of daylight. He could see, yet the light didn't seem to be coming from any specific direction.
Somewhere ahead of him he heard water. Good. He was thirsty anyway, and he knew you could follow a river and it would lead you out of a forest if you were lost.
Instead of a river, he found a small lake. Just shallow enough to wade across. Near the edge, a thin waterfall seemed to be pouring in from out of nowhere. Just a single column of water falling out of the sky. 'Someone left the shower on,' he thought. The longer Toby looked at it, the more sure he was that the water was actually flowing upwards. He stopped looking at it.
He knelt on the shore. He stared at the water before daring to drink. It might be poisonous, or full of parasites, or some other monster might lunge out of it and bite his head right off his shoulders. But he was thirsty, and he figured he was probably doomed anyway. He cupped his trembling paws into the water and flinched at how cold it was. He brought a mouthful to his lips and drank. It was surprisingly good. A pure, cold taste without the bitter flavor of whatever pill he'd normally be swallowing with it.
In a panic, Toby started patting himself all over, hoping he had a pocket. Of course he didn't; these were pajamas. No pockets meant no pills. They were all back home, where he wasn't. What time was it? He looked up at the sky. Late afternoon? Maybe? That meant he'd missed his morning M&Ms. Probably his lunch dose too. His pills were the only things keeping him alive. He could miss his bath and ointments; they were just to make the side effects more bearable. But without his medicine, he knew he'd be dead before the moon was up.
Frozen in the pushup position, his fear kept him paralyzed a few minutes more until his ears perked up at the sound of more footsteps.
He was hidden behind a tree before he was consciously aware of it.
Toby kept his ears open. These steps were much lighter than the rust-beast's. 'That's a good thing,' he thought. But maybe it wasn't. A small predator could kill him just as easily as a big one.
The footsteps sounded bipedal. Running. Were there two sets of them? He heard growls like the low end of a bass guitar. Then he was sure of it: two sets of steps. One lurching, one delicate. Someone was being chased. A sudden feminine gasp. A woman was being chased!
With great caution, Toby peeked around the tree. He kept his head as low as possible with his ears flattened back. From across the lake he could see flashes of movement among the trees. Something black, something red. Two figures running forth and back.
Then the woods grew quiet. And into the open emerged a wolfmonster.
Toby's muscles locked up. His eyes bulged so wide he was sure the beast would see their reflection from across the water. It was a wolfmonster. That was all it could be called. It stood on tall, thin legs and had long, thin arms. Its fur was black as mold and shaggy like an untrimmed hedge. On either side of its elongated head it had distorted oval eyes the color of egg yolk. And its mouth, naturally, was full of pitted teeth and saliva and a red leather tongue.
It sniffed the air and Toby felt himself turn to stone. It moved all wrong. Like it was nothing but a pelt and skeleton. No, Toby thought, actually the wolfmonster moved like a stick-puppet being operated by someone just below.
From the edge of the forest, Toby saw something red. It moved slowly, thoughtfully. A red cloak. Slender legs. A literal Little Red Riding Hood. When the figure lifted their head, Toby could see dazzling green skin with fishlike streaks of blue. No fur. Perhaps a salamander. A newt? Whatever species she was, her alert onyx eyes were fixed on the wolf.
She stepped towards the monster. Toby shouted in his mind, 'No, no! Go back!'
The red-hooded woman took noiseless, casual strides across the beach. Her thin feet left shallow holes in the sand. Toby realized she was dressed in the red robes of a church cardinal. The wolfmonster was still turned away.
But then that coarse black head swiveled around like a hinge and looked directly at her.
The two figures on the beach made no sound nor movement.
Neither did Toby. He watched as the amphibian woman approached the creature. It stayed still, bobbing slowly back and forth in time with each steaming breath. Toby saw no fear on the woman's face. But then again, non-mammals were hard to read.
She came close enough to touch the wolf, and then did. Her slender arms raised up and her hands perched on its shoulders. Her cloak fell away; it dissolved before it hit the sand.
Their eyes saw only one another. Toby didn't understand why the beast didn't attack.
And then, with no change in her expression, the amphibian woman's mouth opened. Meaning that it OPENED. The blue-scaled jaw dropped and kept on dropping. The corners of her lips extended and traveled down her neck into her chest, until her entire torso became a gaping suitcase. Tiny fishlike teeth ringed the pulsing pink hole. A blue-veined tongue fell out and hit the sand with a whomp.
Unthinking fear tore Toby's mind to shreds as the amphibian woman leaned in close and simply devoured the wolfmonster whole. Her delicate arms showed surprising strength as she effortlessly forced bulging handfuls of fur and muscle into her mouth. The wolf spasmed but didn't struggle. And the woman's expression didn't change, even though her meal pressed against the roof of her mouth so hard it made her eyes prolapse from their sockets. White, creamy tears fell from them.
Toby slammed his eyes shut. If he watched this any longer, the sight alone would kill him.
The sounds nearly did. Neither diner nor dinner said a word, but the echoes of the act carried perfectly over the water. Grotesquely painful swallows. Teeth shredding into fur. Bones snapping as they were compacted down into a place they were never meant to fit.
Toby fought to keep from shuddering, and failed. The green being across the lake would see the movement and come for him next. A sorbet to cleanse the palate. An after-dinner mint.
Instead, he heard the woman finish her treat with a few gastric grunts. Then a wet splash on sand. Maybe spitting something up? Then nothing. Not even footsteps walking away.
Toby kept quiet. The amphibian woman was probably watching him. Waiting for him to move. Then she'd leap silently across the lake in one bound and force him down her throat too, right into the digesting remains of the wolfmonster. Toby's mind delighted in torturing him by suggesting what the combination of stomach acid and matted black fur might smell like.
The forest was quiet for a long time. Only the rustle and whisper of leaves.
When Toby found the courage to open one eye, another was staring back into it.
A hand closed over his mouth and killed off his scream.
The next few days were misery of a kind Toby had never imagined before.
Four kinds, actually: Hunger, Dread, Insomnia and Loneliness.
The bare dirt floor of his cave made his squeaky rubber sheets at home feel like cloud nine. He had only his arm for a pillow. Sleep was something he yearned for so desperately he felt like he'd kill himself for it. Sleep was something he feared so much it turned his mind black with paralyzing, primal horror.
To say the first night was the worst would be a lie, because all the nights were the worst. Toby had never known suffering like this. Even the times when his sickness' symptoms would make him twitch and writhe and scream and beg for it to end, at least they eventually did end. At least Mommy would give him an IV full of knockout juice and he'd sail away on to the next morning. This nightmare-now was endless. Every hour took a month. Every night took a year. His cave was not cold, but he shivered constantly nonetheless.
When you are terminal and have missed your pills, you start to wonder if every sneeze might be your last. Every ache, twitch and spasm might be the beginning of your death throes. Toby laid on his side and listened to his heart. The spaces between each beat seemed to stretch longer and longer. How long until they stopped? How long until this world's germs invaded him from every pore and orifice and wrought havoc on his defenseless immune system?
When the Mushroom Woman had clamped her miry hand across his mouth, the smell of topsoil filled his nostrils. All he could see was her moonlike eye staring back into his. She had only one left. Her fur was gone too, so her species was impossible to pinpoint. A cat of some sort? A raccoon? Dried mud stained her skin a brackish brown. And anywhere that wasn't stained, the mushrooms grew. They'd conquered half her face already, making the skin sag down like a bloodhound's jowls. Her arms were polka-dotted with grey-capped passengers. She hunched over due to the fungal metropolis growing out of her spine. It seemed impossible she could stand with all that weight, much less move as nimbly as she did.
Toby's mind went into panic mode. His weak struggles embarrassed him. His chest heaved in and out with rapid breath. This was it. This was his end.
But the Mushroom Woman leaned in close and said, "HUSH."
Toby did. Maybe if this new monster was willing to speak to him, that meant it wouldn't eat him.
Her voice was soggy. The skin of her mouth drooped and swung as she spoke. "I shouldn't be helping you," she said in a threatening whisper. "I should leave you out here to die. But you look too scrawny to be a threat to me so I'm taking a chance. You don't know how much that means." Her lone eye radiated hatred. "If you scream when I take my hand away, I'll kill you. Do it myself," she promised. "Self-preservation. Simple as that. You make noise, it brings in beasts."
Toby nodded. He'd seen enough evidence of that.
Slowly the gnarled hand withdrew. A tiny toadstool flaked off and brushed Toby's lips as it fell. He slapped at his mouth in disgust (but tried to not make any sound as he did).
The Mushroom Woman stared at him. "Why are you here?"
"I don't-!" Toby stopped and switched to a whisper. "...I don't know. I was in bed just a moment ago. I don't know where I am. Please don't hurt me. Please."
Her wary contempt turned briefly into pity. Her eye scrolled up and down the thin frame sheathed in dirty pajamas. She hmmphed, as if she'd seen this before. "You're in a very special hell now, mouse."
"How do I get home!?" he begged.
She chuckled mirthlessly. When she shook, spores fell from her shoulders like snowfall. "There's only one way. Believe me, I've tried it all. I've kept myself alive in this nightmare longer than you can imagine. There's only one way, and you can't get there."
Toby felt a tiny bit insulted. He tried to call upon the bravery of his movie heroes. "M-maybe I can. What is it?"
She grinned. "I can show you, but you'll never see it for yourself. I've never made it past these woods in all my centuries of trying. I've stopped trying. I live where it's safe. This world's not killing me, no it's not!" She stood up straighter while reaching down to wrap her fingers around Toby's head. She pulled him to his feet like lifting a bowling ball. Then he winced as she twisted his neck towards the horizon. "See that tower?" she rasped.
Toby couldn't see anything but clouds at first. But then he squinted and thought he could see a thin mountain peak in the farthest distance.
"This place here is the Blackdamp. The farthest I've gotten is the village of Stoma, just at the edge of the trees. But I've heard people talk. Many people talk. There's whole cities out there, and places where people can't hope to live, and worse. Beyond it all is Anasarca."
The word made echoing ripples inside Toby's mind. It felt sacred. The Mushroom Woman's fingers were digging unpleasantly into his scalp, but he didn't dare complain. "Wh-what's there?"
"The wizard Aldridge," she said with a grunt of contempt. Her lips curled into a sour-grapes sneer. "They say he runs this world like a God. High above all. People talk about traveling to meet him, to ask him to grant them wishes. But no one ever seems to come back. Maybe they went home. More likely, their body's lying in some wasteland with the bones picked clean. You won't see me trying again. These hellforsaken mushrooms are bad enough." With that she started violently scratching herself. Toby had to duck out of the way as more spores and fungal shreds cascaded down. He definitely didn't want what she had.
Toby began backing away, but the Mushroom Woman swiveled around like a railswitch and her stare drilled him to the spot. "Don't be stupid, boy! I told you all that just so's I won't be the only one tortured with knowing I can never see my home again! Try it and die! Or be smart and be safe and do what I say." She pointed behind him. "There's hill country in that direction. And caves in the hills. Get your tiny self there and hunker down. Make your home there. Dig in. It's the only way you'll survive!" Her voice started rising in ferocity. "It's the only way you'll survive!! I've seen more death than you can dream of! But they won't get me! They Won't Get Me!!"
She took a menacing step towards him, and that was all it took. Toby bolted like he'd been fired from a crossbow.
"RUN, BOY, RUN!!!" the Mushroom Woman screeched at him.
Toby didn't have to be told. His paws thudded on leaves again, towards the caves she'd spoken of. He didn't have time to wonder if she'd lied.
"YOU'LL NEVER SEE HOME AGAIN!!!"
Those words echoed through the woods like a hunter's shot.
That was the last he heard of her. He wondered sometimes, later on, if her shouting had indeed drawn beasts. He wondered if a giant bird hadn't swooped down and dragged her screaming into the sky. Or maybe she had made it safely back to whatever home she'd made for herself. It seemed like she'd had enough practice.
After running for only a few minutes, up ahead he did see hills, and here and there he did see caves. Even though she'd nearly scared him to the point of arrhythmia, Toby's opinion of the Mushroom Woman grew more favorable when he saw proof she'd been telling the truth.
And as much as he suffered in the following days, curled up and waiting to die in one of those very same caves, he never blamed the Mushroom Woman. His suffering in here was infinitely preferable to whatever suffering he'd face out there.
Toby now understood what real fear was. He'd read scary movies and scary books before. He'd woken up from nightmares. There was even the fear of lying in a hospital bed and worrying if the pain would ever go away. But now he'd made acquaintance with a new kind of fear. Dread seemed the most fitting name for it.
It was unthinking. Irrational. And it never ended. It never ended. That was the worst part. Toby remembered, back in his old life, the jolt of fear he'd feel when a movie monster would rush at the camera and shriek. That lightning bolt of terror. But afterwards it ended. No matter how much it rattled you, in the next moment you could comfort yourself that it was all over and it wasn't real. That jolting moment never ended for Toby now. He felt that fear every minute of every day. And it was so exhausting it was painful.
In the daytime it was somewhat bearable. At least he could see. He made a sentry nest for himself behind a large rock near the cave's entrance. Close enough to see out but not be seen. He kept watch. The dry clay floor of the cave dyed his fur and pajamas a rusty brown. He sat and sat and sat and sat until his leg muscles felt ready to explode from his skin like snapped violin strings. His other muscles hated him just as much. His tail hurt. His eyes burned. His neck complained. His stomach clenched like a fist. Every part of him ached. This is what sitting for hours in petrified alertness will do to you. Every moment spent tensed for an attack you know will come the very second you stop expecting it.
On top of this was the everpresent countdown clock of wondering how long he had until the remaining medicine in his body ran out. Would the withdrawal symptoms kill him if the lack of new medicine didn't? Would he seize up and choke to death on his saliva? Would he die in brain-scrambling pain, his systems overloading as he stared up at the cave ceiling and felt his body eat itself?
At night when the darkness came, he'd drag himself as far deep into the cave as he could stand. Just far enough to where a few rays of moonlight could still reach. He didn't dare spend nighttime back in the cave's deepest part, where it was so black his fingers disappeared in front of his face. That would just be giving his fear more ammunition. As it was, getting to sleep was already like fighting a war. One army was called Dread, the other Exhaustion, and his body was their battlefield. Exhaustion would whisper to him sweetly that nothing in the world would feel better than letting his muscles relax and his eyelids droop closed. But the instant they did, Dread would set off firecrackers in his head, bellowing at him that now was the time when the unseen enemies all around him would pounce. Toby's eyes would dart around the cave. In every shadow lurked a killer. Every rock was just about to turn and reveal the yellow eyes of a monster that would reach out its long arms and cram him face-first down its rotting throat.
Every time he managed to fall asleep, he'd be shocked awake again soon enough. It was torture. A constant hailstorm of falling adrenaline needles. Every sound and every twitch of his body woke him. By the time daytime came, he had no idea how much sleep he'd actually gotten. Maybe a few hours? Not even that? To his body it felt like mere minutes. Every sunrise left him feeling more in need of sleep than ever. Waking each morning felt like peeling himself off a concrete road where someone had plastered him flat with a fusillade of hammer blows.
Sometimes Toby simply sagged to the floor of the cave and cried uncontrollably. What else could he do?
He missed Mommy. He could imagine her pacing around the house, calling policemen to come, sobbing every minute that he was gone. He missed her fur, her scent, her voice. Even just the background hum of her vacuum cleaner. He had been so fully dependent on her for so long, being without her now was a two-headed agony: the pain of missing her coupled with the terror of having no idea how to survive without her. What did he know of survival, other than what he'd seen in fiction? And how much of that knowledge could be trusted?
If there was one lucky light in his circumstance, it was that the cave had a little spring deep in the back. At nighttime he didn't dare go back there, but during the day he'd risk a drink. It was one of his very few comforts. Like the lake, the spring water was delicious, clear and cold.
For food though, there was nothing. He'd explored the cave to the limits of his courage and found only mushrooms. He was not about to eat any of those. Outside, far down the hill, he could see what might have been a bush full of small crimson berries. But leaving the cave meant making himself as exposed and edible as any low-hanging fruit. (The berries were probably poisonous anyway.)
When one day he'd finally built up the nerve to explore the cave more fully, it didn't yield many useful results. Several yards back, the single tunnel forked into two. Both paths were entirely engulfed in darkness. Toby turned back at that point. There was no way he was going to risk getting lost in here. Absolutely not. But the part of the cave he'd claimed seemed safe enough. A few bugs here and there, but nothing that looked too horrifying. Just beetles. The only out-of-the-ordinary thing he'd found was the fossilized door.
It looked like carved wood, but was clearly the same rock as the cave itself. He imagined a normal door from a normal house being transported here and getting turned to stone upon arrival. It was open slightly, but nothing would ever open it any further. (Toby didn't even try; he knew this was no exit). From out of the gap, a large pile of wooden hands had spilled onto the floor. They were many years old, judging by the dust. This discovery had sent Toby fleeing in panic at first, though hours later he'd come creeping back, as this was the only interesting thing he'd found to explore so far in his tiny new world. The door itself hadn't moved. The dust was still there. The hands hadn't moved either. They were just carved mannequin parts made of dark, whorled wood. Toby thought maybe he could burn some of them to make a fire. But that would require something to make a spark with, and he didn't have that. This discovery was curious, and nothing more.
So, with nothing else to do, during the day he would sit by himself and dwell on his inevitable bloody end in this horrible place. Or he would cry. Or he would wish for Mommy. Or he would sit behind his rock at the cave's entrance and look outside.
What he saw there convinced him firmly that he was no longer anywhere near home. This was not his planet. Maybe not even his dimension. His cave was slightly up the hill so he could see a ways down into the forest. And the longer he looked, the more his dread solidified.
The daytime sky was the only true constant. It was always that same uniform drabness. An upside-down ocean of dirty snow. Yet the trees beneath seemed to move. And not directly as if they were alive. Indirectly. Anything he didn't strictly focus on was liable to have subtly shifted place the next time he looked back. The berry bush stayed still for the most part. But each new day the trees closest to it weren't the same ones from the day before. The distance from the cave to the forest could vary by several meters every hour. Rocks appeared and disappeared. Things of this sort happened enough times to make him consider that just maybe he wasn't hallucinating.
Sometimes he saw animals. Usually they moved too fast to get an idea of what they'd been. But sometimes he'd see parts of them. Beaks. Spines. Wings. One time, he saw a silver fin like a shark's cutting through the brush, but the animal it was attached to had moved like a puma.
Toby thought for sure he was losing his mind one twilight when he looked up at the moon and saw a flock of winged staplers fighting to the death with a swarm of staple removers. They moved through the air like swooping pterodactyls. The sounds of clashing metal and unnatural shrieks lasted for hours. They'd tear each other to pieces, and the pieces would come tumbling down and crash into the ground below. By the sound of one of the impacts, some poor animal had been crushed beneath and lived for a few more agonizing minutes afterwards. Toby tried to convince himself the next day that he'd dreamed this. But he didn't succeed. If the rust-beast was real, and the carnivorous salamander, and the Mushroom Woman... then anything could be real here.
Oddly enough, that particular fact was the only thing that germinated a sparkling of hope in his heart. Because, if all those horrors could be real here, then maybe Anasarca was too. Maybe the Mushroom Woman had been telling the truth about the wizard, just like she'd told the truth about the caves.
Sometimes this thought made Toby quiver from wanting. Maybe he could leave this cave and go on a quest. He could apply everything he'd learned from the heroes in his books. He could scavenge around for materials to build into a weapon. Armor too. Just because the Mushroom Woman was too afraid to make it past the woods didn't mean he couldn't.
But then another part of his brain would smack him in disgust. 'You shake with fear every time you think about leaving your room. You're afraid of breaking your bones when you step out of the tub. You can't even explore this cave. You'd get two steps into those woods and come running back with peepee dripping down your legs at the first sign of danger. You are a perfect coward, Toby deLeon, and that is all you are.'
As harsh as this voice was, Toby knew it was right. He didn't think he was a coward though. Not really. He just wasn't cut out for adventure that was all. He'd been sick all his life. Weak and shrimpy. He'd never had any experience being bold. He'd practically grown up in a hospital bed. All he knew of the world was what he'd seen other people doing, or read about. He was pathetically unprepared and unarmed.
And that of course contributed to his dread. It wasn't just the fear of monsters finding him. It was the reality that he had no hope of fighting back. If one of those shark-puma things came wandering in here one day, it could eat him as easily as he ate his bowls of oatmeal. It could eat him alive. It could take its time. Toby could flail and kick all he wanted, and at most he'd mildly annoy the creature as it took leisurely bites of the soft morsels inside his ribcage.
His only defense was to stay put and stay hidden. So he did.
And even though each moment seemed to stretch on endlessly like chewing gum pulled slowly through one's teeth to arm's length, Toby started losing track of time. The days slid in and out of each other. He could no longer remember with any certainty how long he'd been here. Five days? No, four. Surely not a week? The part of his brain responsible for keeping track of this stuff had seemingly fallen out and ran away. He experienced days and nights, but couldn't add them together to keep a reliable timeline.
So as time passed, a new enemy gradually became Toby's ally. Boredom appeared, and it fed itself by nibbling away at the corners and edges of Toby's fear. The suffering of Dread slowly swapped places with the suffering of Tedium.
A living thing can only feel pants-ruining panic for so long before their brain chemicals grow bloated on it and stop responding. Instead of spending his days curled up in a little pill of shivering fur for hours on end, Toby started looking for things to do.
He found there were some places in the cave where the soil was so sandy he could draw in it with his finger.
He tried to see how many of the wooden hands he could stack on top of one another.
He'd sit with his back to the chilly stone, close his eyes, and quietly sing to himself every song that he knew.
And one day, those berry bushes down the hill started to look damn near irresistible.
"Come on, they're red. They're probably poison."
"I'm starving. What does it even matter? Besides, I can just try one. Or part of one. One bite. Then sit for a while and see if I throw up."
"The second you poke a toe out there, some big ugly thing with teeth is gonna chew you up like a garbage disposal."
"But... that could happen in my sleep anyway. And maybe I can run fast enough to grab some berries and get back real quick."
"You? Run? You're twigskinny anyway. And you've had nothing but water for a week now."
"It has not been a week."
"It's probably been two weeks! You're going loop-de-loo in here. Soon enough you're gonna be writing your name on the wall in cursive with your own poop."
"...I will not." (Toby felt a bit unsettled to realized he hadn't pooped at all since he'd gotten here. Or peed. Not even once. That couldn't be healthy.)
Those berries really didn't look all that far away. Less than a city block? He'd used to walk seven blocks to school when he was way littler. He could do this. Right?
Toby stood up. His legs groaned like a worn-out rocking chair.
His stomach chewed at itself. His tail flicked nervously. Toby held his ears open for maximum radar. He didn't seem to hear anything moving, or breathing.
Before he had time to convince himself for the forty-ninth time that this would be his doom, he was dashing off down the hill.
Yes, he was actually running! Sprinting! Toby was perplexed by this but wasn't stupid enough to pause to contemplate it. All his senses were focused on getting to the bush and back ASAP. Even so, his mind couldn't help but ask him how in the hell it was possible for him to have been starving for however many days it had been, and he hadn't had a single pill in all that time, yet here he was running just as quickly as that first day he'd arrived.
Why question it if it meant he'd get back to the cave faster?
Toby's head boomeranged back and forth, scanning every inch of the forest for signs of hostile life. Some purple birds scattered out of the way when he came too near, but they didn't seem interested in him. He nearly leapt four feet when he spotted a centipede on the path ahead. It was big as a wrench.
The bush wasn't far. The berries looked ripe and plump. His mouth was gushing just thinking about them. At that point he no longer cared if they were so chock full of poison they'd turn him to stone on the spot. His hunger had shoved it's way onto the throne of his emotions.
Toby skidded to a stop in front of the bush and then his hands were cramming berries into his mouth without conscious thought. He winced deeply. Ooooh, they were sour! But good! Like cranberries mixed with orange soda. They fizzed on his tongue and he knew that meant they were probably releasing toxic acid and in just a moment his skeletonized jaw would fall off and go plop in the dirt, but who cared?
Instead, all that happened was that Toby gobbled up so many berries he became very, very satisfied.
Then a sound made his head pop up so quick his neck clicked.
Was that a voice?
It came again: "Hey!"
Toby blinked. He was suddenly aware of how hard his heart was thundering in his chest, treating his ribcage like a timpani.
"Hey, come here!"
The voice sounded surprisingly friendly. Was that even possible?
Maybe. The Mushroom Woman certainly couldn't have been called 'friendly', but at least she'd been helpful. And she'd mentioned there were other people in this place, not just beasts.
It spoke again: "I can help! Will you come closer so I can see you?"
Toby's brain twirled. One half was setting off alarm bells, another half was sick and tired of feeling so alone and helpless. If there was even the possibility of finding someone who could offer assistance...
Toby stepped towards the voice. It was coming from just beyond the bush in front of him.
"I can help!" it said.
Toby cautiously lifted one foot past the branches, then felt it come down in a patch of something irresistibly slippery. He got a faceful of foliage and continued falling into a completely unseen tunnel in the earth.
Pitch blackness stole his vision. Toby was wailing like a siren as gravity spun him around and around. He was a pinball with fur. The walls were soft soil, but every impact shook his bones. And the slime was everywhere. Despite his disorientation, Toby still registered it, viscous and vile, clinging to every part of him.
Then came a short drop through the air, and he landed on something that felt at first like a wet mattress.
For a few moments, all Toby could do was feel his body convulsing with each terrified breath. He realized he hadn't stopped screaming. His eyes were shut tight and his arms were clenched in front of his face. His inner ears sloshed, insisting he was still spinning. He tried to will the dizziness down.
The voice of his worrywart sung gaily; 'I told you so! I told you so!'
He couldn't deny that it had. Despite his fear he found time to feel ashamed of himself. 'I should have stayed in the cave! I should have stayed in the cave! I should have stayed in the cave!' One single trip from its safety had been enough to kill him. Like the complete weakling idiot he was, he'd ignored common sense and gotten himself trapped. Tears leaked through his tightly-closed eyelids. He punched himself in the head for his stupidity. How many days had he spent trying to keep himself alive, only to fail within an instant of leaving his safe space?
'You stupid mouse! Stupid! You're so stupid! This isn't FAIR! I only wanted some food! I was hungry! I'm going to die because I was hungry! I've probably fallen in some giant monster's mouth and any second the jaws are going to close and...'
Another part of his mind said, 'It might actually be helpful for you to open your eyes and have a look around. Maybe you're not actually dead yet.'
'Okay.' He breathed in. 'Okay, I think I can do that.' He breathed out. He really didn't want to open his eyes. If he looked, then he'd know what was waiting for him in this clammy lair. If he didn't look, then maybe he could just die in blissful ignorance.
He compromised and opened one eye. What he saw was about 50% unexpected.
Instead of a mouth, he was somewhere nearly as bad: a web. But like no spiderweb he'd ever seen on any nature show. It was horizontal, for starters, and densely-woven. Like a trampoline that someone had poured several gallons of mucilage onto. When he tried to sit up a little, he immediately slipped back down again with a goosh. He tried again. Same result. It was like trying to stand up on an ice rink in waxed socks. All he could do was continue lying on his back. Suddenly, he understood. This spider's design was not to snare its prey with stickiness, but to make its web escape-proof through extreme slickness.
Toby had to admit, it was a clever trick. This stuff was more frictionless than Teflon. He was in very bad trouble here.
But at least he could see. The web was stretched across the diameter of a roundish burrow about as large as a geodesic dome. Toby couldn't see all the way to the other side, but he could at least make out his immediate surroundings thanks to the thousands of little luminescent rocks embedded in the soil. Each one's glow was faint, but together they produced an effect like a gathering of fireflies.
It actually reminded Toby quite a bit of how his room looked at bedtime. His nightlight's candle-like glow, assisted by all the little LEDs on his various machines. The effect was pretty enough to be calming. And that was extremely helpful.
Toby could feel his panic churning around his stomach, eager to rise up again. (Just like those berries. They didn't seem poisonous, but Toby knew he'd thrown up from fear before. Some nightmares required a change in pillows.) To get out of this, Toby knew his rational mind would have to keep his fear at bay. He also knew he was not very good at that.
'Okay, think,' Toby told himself. Observe. That's what detectives did. They used their senses and sense to assess the situation and make their escape. Toby took some more deep breaths, then closed his eyes and listened. He hadn't heard any sounds of creeping beasties in here so far. And there was nothing but silence now. There was a tiny, thin, beautiful chance that maybe this burrow was abandoned.
If so, then all Toby had to worry about was escaping from an escape-proof web. Toby liked nature shows and watched them often enough to have a good grasp of how natural selection worked. Either you were good at what you did or you died. This meant that every animal's natural defenses and offenses were constantly tested to produce maximum efficiency. Whatever had made this web had probably taken a few million years to perfect its technique.
Toby felt the web beneath him, cringing at its texture. It probably wasn't snot, but his mind refused to believe that. It felt like the kind of drippy, gummy, clear-yellow ooze that wouldn't stop pouring from his nose when his nasal symptoms got bad. At least the web-goop didn't smell. Toby could detect a little bit of a salty ocean odor, but that was it. Still, he was keenly aware that he was covered in the excretions of an unknown species. His lack of pills had somehow miraculously not killed him yet, but there could very well be diseases swimming around in this stuff that would do the job right quick. Escaping from here might mean simply prolonging his death until he crawled outside and croaked from boils and spasms.
'I can not think about that,' Toby told himself firmly. He knew he was not a brave furson, but having a survival instinct going off on full red alert was a decent substitute. Trying to get out of here was better than just staying put and getting lunched. "Half a chance is always better than none." That's what Desmond Belltower had said in one of his detective novels. Toby thought that was good advice. Even if he escaped from here only to die slowly and horribly from toxins, at least he'd die knowing he tried.
'What can I try then?'
Sitting up had proven futile. And his probing around the webbing let him know that there was definitely no hope of him falling through. He could fit his hand through a gap, but that was about it. And despite how gooey this stuff was, it didn't stretch.
Maybe if he couldn't get enough traction to crawl, he could roll?
Worth a try. Toby calmed his breath again, made himself log-shaped, and swung his body weight to one side. He spun like a greased axle. All he accomplished was getting his muzzle mere millimeters from the webbing. He flinched back in revulsion. He did not want this stuff up his nose. He did NOT want this stuff in his MOUTH!
Oh god, that was a horrible thought. If nothing else worked... If nothing else worked, he might be forced to try... chewing himself free.
He threw up a tiny bit in his mouth. He could taste berries and bile. He swallowed it back down and quickly rolled again to get his face away from the webbing.
Wait... Had he actually moved a few inches?
He looked back and forth. It was hard to tell. The web was as big and empty as a gymnasium floor, so gauging precise distances was difficult. The only way to be certain would be to roll again. He winced. He couldn't even cover his muzzle with his hand because it was completely drenched in gookum.
Part of him couldn't bear it. It wasn't fair. All he wanted was to go home. He'd put up with so much already, and now he had to choose between getting his face covered in spider slime or doing nothing and getting eaten. This was not fair. This was supposed to be lunchtime. Mommy was supposed to bring him soup on a tray. And he could eat in bed and hold his stuffed animals and have a ginger ale while he watched her clean the room.
Toby let himself wade around in a kiddie pool of self pity for a few moments, but he knew he was just delaying the inevitable. He tucked his nose into the collar of his pajamas and tried to roll again.
This time he did two full rotations and wound up on his back again. He was sure he'd moved a little! Not far, but anything was better than nothing. He looked all around trying to be sure he wasn't headed in the wrong direction. But it turned out he was. The shortest path to the edge of the web meant he'd have to roll three more times just to get himself back to where he'd been.
Toby never swore, but in that moment he allowed himself to remember some movies where other people did.
It was slow going. He had to be incredibly careful with how he shifted his weight. He had to keep himself perfectly straight, then curl into a banana shape to prevent himself from just sliding back to his starting point. And a few times he did, making him nearly cry in frustration. The whole time, he kept his muzzle tucked in and his eyes shut tight. He could feel the goop mushing against his face. It was moist and cold. Again and again he thanked his luck that it didn't smell.
The edge of the web was definitely getting closer, but it was still so far away. Toby was sweating from the effort, which only made him slipperier. He wanted so badly to just dig in his little claws and pull himself to the finish line. But that was impossible. The web was too slick and-
Oh, you stupid mouse.
All this time he'd been torturing himself by rolling (probably looking like a mentally deranged caterpillar), when a better solution had already presented itself. If he could get one hand through the web, he could get the other through too! He didn't have to grab onto anything. Since the web didn't stretch, he could just stick one arm after the other in each successive gap between strands. He could pull himself along, like going up a rope ladder. And best of all, he could probably do it on his back!
His embarrassment at not figuring this out sooner was swept away by the potential of the idea. He did one last roll to get his face away from the hateful squishy kaka. Then, lying still as a surfboard, he stuck his hand through a gap up to his wrist. Then he did the same on the other side, slightly further up. He imagined the web as a gigantic bolt of cloth. He would attempt to scale it, horizontally, using the spaces between threads.
He gulped. He hoped this would work. He really didn't want to have to go back to rolling. He pushed against the web using his forearm.
And he slid forward a little.
Toby's heart fluttered like a hummingbird. SUCCESS! He tried it again with the other arm, reaching back behind his armpit for a good spot. He pushed. He slid. YES!!! He'd found friction out of frictionlessness! Toby was still too damn scared of being eaten to smile, but he was definitely happier than he'd been a second ago.
Hand over hand, he moved like a bizarre self-propelling toboggan over the syrupy web. He was making much better progress compared to rolling. And he could breathe freely without his shirt covering his snout. He was again surprised that the air down here was so not-terrible. No stench or staleness. Maybe the hole he'd fallen through wasn't nearly as long as his panicked brain had assumed.
He paused to crane his neck back and check how far he'd come. He was almost giddy with the results. He'd halved the distance to the edge of the web already. He kept on going. The little mouse did not allow himself to consider that maybe the fall off the side would break his neck. Or that the owner of the web might be slumbering below. He might land on something warm and living (or several somethings) and be torn to red shreds before he could even start screaming.
'Don't think about that. Half a chance is better than none, right? Staying put is certain death. Therefore uncertain death is mathematically preferable. Right?'
How many more little pushes till he reached the edge? Thirty? A few dozen? Toby didn't let himself fixate on counting them, much as he wanted to. He tried to think of something else. What day of the week was it? That was a puzzler. It'd been a Thursday when he'd last fallen asleep in his own bed. Then the first night in the cave. Then the night where he dreamed about drowning in a bucket of antiseptic floor cleaner. Then the night with the flying staplers outside. Had there been another night in between those two?
Toby was making excellent progress by distracting himself from his task. But then he felt the web start to vibrate. He froze in panic.
He could feel something moving towards him, far faster than he could possibly hope to outpace. He tried anyway. He did not dare scream.
The arachnopus had been watching with amusement as the little treat struggled in its web. He let it get far enough to feel hope. Then it was time to end that hope. It flopslid over and began the cocooning.
Toby was twirled around like a corncob. He screamed the entire time.
He hadn't seen the thing for very long, but that one good glance was enough to turn his brain pure blank white with terror. The beast was octopus-shaped, the size of a washing machine. It came gliding down the web with effortless speed, covering twice the distance Toby had traveled in a second and a half. All eight tentacles and the full surface of its body were covered in the bristly, dense hairs of a tarantula. A cluster of bulbous, bobbing eyes gaped wetly at Toby, their W-shaped pupils twitching in eight directions at once. Then it picked him up and introduced him to the sight of its mollusk-like beak, encircled with a ring of venom-tipped mandibles.
It spun him and vomited sludge all over his body. The monster was making cotton candy, and Toby was the spool. When it finished, it had made a nice little compact cocoon. A freshly-wrapped meal.
This wasn't Toby's worst nightmare come true: it was worse. Because no matter how hard his mind tried, it could not wake up. There was no alarm clock to save him this time. He was trapped tight in clammy blackness. The same slimy material as the web. And he was being carried. The thing was taking him back home to be devoured.
Thankfully it didn't have far to go. Soon enough, Toby felt himself become weightless as he sailed through the air and crashed down on something soft, wet, dry and hard.
Oh no. No. No no no. He knew what this was. He'd been thrown onto a pile of discarded cocoons. And from the crunch he'd heard and the knobby shapes he felt beneath him, each one contained a skeleton sucked dry.
Toby screamed until the edges of his mouth bled. Until his voice turned into a strangled, withered gurgle.
And then he realized he was running out of air.
Each breath was more difficult than the last. He was going to suffocate before the monster started eating him. Was that good or bad?
His survival instinct was kicking him in the ribs with a steel toed boot. Suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do.
Oh, it wasn't FAIR!
Toby opened his trembling jaws and prepared to chew himself an air hole.
He shook with sobs of misery as he bit down. The taste and texture were every bit as awful as he'd imagined. Like sinews and boiled cauliflower and glue and wet wads of toilet paper. And worst of all was the knowledge that he had no choice. It was either do this or die. And his instincts weren't even allowing him the cowardice to simply choose death. Toby gnawed and gnawed through the foul stuff, spitting out chunks of it that slid wetly down his neck.
His lungs were burning, and a sense of dizzy disorientation had started creeping into his brain. But finally he broke through. He succeeded in making just enough of a space to suck a mouthful of air through. It was delicious.
The problem was, the hole was scarcely bigger than a straw. It wasn't enough. He kept chewing. He put maximum effort into ignoring the flavor. If he threw up now he'd suffocate for sure. All he needed was for the hole to be just a little bit bigger. Just big enough to poke his nose through.
There. Finally. Toby had never been more grateful for oxygen. He didn't even mind the stench of the arachnopus' inner lair: a fragrance of sewage, seaweed and leftover sushi. It was breathable. That was all that mattered.
Toby lay quietly for a few moments, just trying to keep himself sane. He felt like someone had been grinding his nerves with a cheese grater. How much fear could a furson experience until they died from it? Every single one of Toby's bodily processes felt shaky, ready to crack. And worst of all, there was no hope now. He hadn't been able to escape the web and there was absolutely no way to escape this cocoon. He was doomed to lie here helpless until the monster felt like ending his suffering. Would it poison him first? A spurt of venom to paralyze his muscles and turn his flesh to soup? Or would it just open that hideous mouth wide and shove him right in? What would it feel like to be digested alive?
Toby was crying again. Who cared if the creature heard him? Maybe it'd kill him quickly to shut him up.
"Hey there, don't be sad," said a pleasant voice.
That voice! Toby was so startled he actually managed to spin himself around, cocoon included, to face the direction it had come from. "WHO ARE YOU? WHY DID YOU LURE ME DOWN HERE?" (He'd tried to sound intimidating but it came out like a panicked plea.)
The response was a giggle. A giggle so light and airy it was like tossing armfuls of popcorn into the air. "Jeepers, fella! That wasn't my voice you heard. I fell for the same trick!"
"Oh," Toby said. And now that he could hear her more clearly, it was obvious. This voice sounded like a little girl's. The voice in the woods that had trapped him had been... difficult to describe. Genderless and persuasive. Telepathy, maybe?
"I think that's how it attracts its prey." the girlvoice continued. "Though I'm not sure whether it knew what it was saying or was just being like a parrot. It's hard to tell what things around here can actually talk."
"Wait, here? You know where we are?" Toby squeaked. Any new information was potentially helpful. At this point, Toby was desperate for even the illusion of hope. "Tell me, please!"
That same giggle. "Impatience is impolite, silly! Introductions first! What's your name?"
"Tohhh-beeee," she sounded out. "That's a nice name." Then in a blink, her tone turned suddenly dead serious. "Toby... do you remember your last name?"
He was surprised she'd show so much concern over that. "Um, yeah. Toby deLeon."
A tiny gasp. "Wowee! You must really be new! I figgered so from the fact you still knew your name. But to still have your last name too? It's only been a few days for you, hasn't it? If I were you, I'd write that down right away!"
Oh great, a new thing to worry about. "What do you mean? Is something going to steal my memories!?"
"Steal's not the right word," the voice said. "But y'know how you start forgetting your dreams after you first wake up from 'em?"
"Here the same thing happens in reverse. Phobiopolis is made out of nightmares y'see, so the longer you're here, the more your old life fades away..." She sounded quite melancholy about that, but then happiness returned to her voice. "Oh, but you've still got a chance! I'm so glad we met and I could warn you in time! Find a journal quick and jot down everything you want to keep!"
"I have to get out of here first before I can do that," he whined. Then something else struck him. "You called this place Phobiopolis? And it's all just a nightmare? But that can't... I've been in a cave for days. I'm sure I would have woken up by now."
He could hear the squish-squish of the girl shaking her head. "You goof! You're not in a nightmare, this place is made of nightmares! Like bad dream clay. At least, that's everyone's best guess. This is where all the world's bad dreams end up. Like when your fur gets caught in the shower drain."
"Not really," she gently contradicted. "After all, stars 'n planets are formed by little chunks of stardust, dancing and smashing in space till they get bigger. Why couldn't the same be true for dreams?"
That almost made sense. Almost. "Hey, did you ever actually tell me your name?"
She squeaked with adorable embarrassment. "Whoopsy! Hee hee! Sorry, Toby! You may have the honor of addressing me as Piffle." He could practically hear her curtsy at the end of it.
'What kind of a name is Piffle?' is what he automatically thought. But that would be rude, so instead he said, "That's a nice name too."
"Thanks! I made it myself. After I forgot my old one, I mean. But I kinda feel like maybe I didn't like my old one anyway? So it all works out. My full new name is actually Shimmer-Thistle Whisper-Kimmy Vivilandria Lavender Dorabelle Loribelle Trixi Fizzy Piffle McPerricone."
Toby bit back a guffaw. "That's the girliest name I've ever heard!" he blurted. Though he tried to make it sound like a compliment instead of an insult. "That name sounds like how cake frosting tastes!"
"Oooh, I've never thought about it like that before! You're absolutely right!" Piffle whooped with laughter, then pouted. "Oh fiddlesticks. Now that makes me think of cupcakes, and now I want cupcakes. So obviously we have to escape because I need to go eat cupcakes."
This girl must have been magic because Toby realized he was actually smiling. Trapped in an octoweb with zero hope of escape, and he was smiling. "So, um, do you have any ideas on how to escape, Piffle?"
"No, not really," she said, sounding unconcerned. "But we'll be fine, I'm sure of it."
"How can you be? That thing out there's stronger and faster than us. I'm webbed up so tight I can't move. I can't even see! ...Wait, can you see anything?"
"Nope! Blind as a bedpost!"
Toby grumbled. "I'm out of ideas then. I don't think I could stand chewing myself loose."
"Same here. It tastes ickaroonie. I'm guessing you made a breathing-hole too? This webbing definitely doesn't taste like cupcakes."
Something else occurred to Toby. "I just realized... maybe we should've been keeping our voices down all this time. We're over here discussing escape plans and we have no idea if it can hear us. You said you don't know if this thing can speak English. We don't know if it can understand it either."
From directly above came a casual bass voice. "Oh, I understand."
Toby's blood ran cold.
"I just don't care."
The next thing Toby heard was Piffle's shriek of pain as the arachnopus bit into her and started eating her alive.
Toby thrashed at his webbing in sheer blind feral delirium.
The next thing he knew he was falling again.
He hit solid ground with a painful splat. For a moment, all his senses were whipping around crazily. His body felt disconnected. But Toby picked himself up and tried to will his perceptions to make sense.
Wait. Standing. He'd stood up.
He dared to open his eyes.
For a second he thought he was blind, but then realized his vision was still blocked by webbing. He could feel the slime oozing around his ears. He could feel it all over actually, but it was loose now. How had he gotten free of it?
That poor girl... He was still shaking from hearing the sound of her screams. The sound of her bones cracking open. He tried to push it away. He'd have no hope of escaping wherever he was if he let in the full horror of knowing someone else had just died mere feet away from him. He had to concentrate on the moment or he would end up sharing her fate.
He reached up to pull the thick, slippery webbing away from his eyes. A chunk of gunk the size of a car tire had been draped over his head. When he tossed it aside, the daylight made him blink.
No. No, this did not make ANY sense! How could he be outside!? One moment the girl in the web had been screaming bloody murder and he could hear the octopus-monster's beak tearing chunks out of her. Then he was screaming too. Then... there was a blank. But then he was falling and now here he was. But that made no sense! How could he have fallen underground, then fallen again and wound up aboveground!?
The impossibility of it made him feel a bit panicky, but he tried to remind himself not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He was free of the octopus-monster's web. That was the most important thing. Worrying about the 'how' was a minor concern next to just taking a moment to realize he was miraculously not digesting in a slimy gut right now.
'Maybe I somehow fought back hard enough to get free?' he wondered. 'But then, why don't I remember it?'
He looked down at his feet. He was standing in a pile of shredded octosilk as big as a haystack. He turned in a circle to survey his surroundings. The arachnopus, or any sign of its lair, were nowhere to be seen. He was standing in a clearing in the woods. Same patternless trees, same dingy, overcast sky. The day had only seemed bright in comparison.
He looked behind him and saw, way off in the distance, the hills his cave had been a part of. Even more impossibilities. How could he have gotten so far away from them? The hole he'd fallen into couldn't have been... what did the distance seem like? Two miles away, maybe?
"You out there, Toby?" came a muffled shout.
She was alive!? Impossibilities upon impossibilities! Toby dropped to his knees in the awful, slimy mess of webbing and started swirling his hands around, trying to find anything living. She'd be injured, certainly. She'd need a hospital. There sure as heck wasn't one nearby. Although she said she knew this place. Maybe she'd know where to get help? 'Maybe she'd know how to get home?' he dared wonder.
Adrenaline was keeping Toby from thinking too hard about the fact that his fingers kept brushing up against chunks of bone. 'Those are just rocks,' he lied to himself. He tried to keep his mind on finding Piffle. 'Did I... actually save her?' he dared to think. No, that wasn't likely. Hard as it was to admit, her being alive was probably an accident of whatever he'd done to save himself.
"Down here!" came her voice again. She sounded characteristically unconcerned about being trapped and injured under a pile of slimesilk.
Finally, Toby's fingers felt fur. "There you are!" he said. He started heaving heaps of web out of the way.
"Oh thank you, Toby!" Piffle said joyfully. "This stuff's awful slickery."
Toby brushed sweat off his forehead, but only got his hair covered in mucous. "You're welcome. There's not much more and aaaaAAAaaaAAAAAAAAAAIIIGHHH!!!!"
That was the noise Toby made as he jumped up in the air, then managed to crab-walk straight backwards out of the webbing-pile and crash into a bush. Gibbering insensibly, all he could do was point at Piffle with his trembling hand.
"Yikes! What is it, Toby!?" she said as she got to her feet.
Toby clamped his eyes shut to make the horrible image stop. But the tone of her voice got past his fear. She didn't know! She had no idea! Toby hesitantly forced one eye open, then shut it quickly out of instinctive revulsion.
He heard her take a step forward. "What's wrong?"
"No! Stop! Don't come any closer, please!" he shouted. He made himself look again, somewhat more prepared this time. "You... something's happened to you." The webbing! "Being in the octopus' web must have transformed you somehow. You've changed into a... a bug monster!"
Piffle stopped dead in her tracks with an expression of dull surprise on her petite muzzle.
Then she started giggling again in an 'Aren't I silly?' kind of way.
Slightly more than half of Piffle was the normal features of a golden hamster. The very definition of 'pleasantly plump'. Her fur resembled a vanilla sundae with hot caramel melted on top. Her face was perfectly normal and cute in every regard. Except for her eyes. And her twitching, arm-length antennae. But mostly her eyes. Two bulging cranberry-red disco balls jutted out of her sockets, surrounded by little dark, coarse hairs. And while her limbs looked normal too, her pear-shaped torso was encased in an iridescent green exoskeleton, jointed with ridges like a washboard. More stiff black hairs poked out all over. On her back grew a pair of glassy, vein-covered wings.
Her chuckling stopped and real concern entered her voice. "Don't be scared, Toby. I'm sorry I didn't tell you b'fore, but I just didn't think of it. I'm used to me being like this. I forgot that you wouldn't be."
Toby's tail and hands were trembling. "Used to it?"
Piffle started twirling around, flinging the blobs of goo off her. "Yep! I've been a fly for so long I'm not even sure anymore when it happened. But stuff like that just kinda happens here! You hang around long enough and, ka-zam! You're something else! One time I was a couch for three months."
"A... couch..." Toby's brain was bouncing back and forth, trying to reconcile the horror movie monster his eyes were seeing with the bubbly, harmless girl his ears were hearing. When she'd turned all the way around, Toby noticed, right on the bottom of her exoskeleton, there was a poofy round hamster tail. Like it'd been stuck on with tape.
"Yeah, that was the pits," Piffle continued. "Dull and double-dull. Though being sat on felt kinda nice." She started rubbing her eyes clean with her paws. "I hope me being a bit buggy won't stop us from being friends, Toby."
A pang of guilt hit him. Yes, he could barely stand to look at her. But... She had been nicer to him than anyone else here so far. And even the Mushroom Woman, ugly as she was, had at least been helpful. If this really was a land of nightmares, he had to admit that not all of it was out to kill him.
'Or is it? Remember that nice-sounding voice that lured you into a trap before?'
Piffle came cautiously closer to Toby and held out her paw to help him to his feet.
Toby's own hand twitched. One look at that bottle-green insect 'skin' on her torso made him flinch. His horror returned like a bright flare. He couldn't do it. As much as he hated being impolite, he could not bring himself to touch her.
Piffle retreated a step. She held her paws behind her back. "I understand."
Toby leveraged himself up using the bush. He tried to look her in the eyes but couldn't. For starters, what part of them should he look at? For another, they were Fly Eyes Coming Out Of A Rodent Face!! He shuddered just imagining what they'd feel like. How much would they weigh? How could she see out of them?
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I just..."
Piffle cut him off. "Nahhh. Nothing to get in a tizzy about. You're new. I shoulda warned you, simple as that. It takes a long time to get used to this place without everything scaring the pants off ya all the time."
With that, Piffle had a sudden revelation. "I don't have any clothes on!" Her cheeks flushed pink, she shot up into the air, then dive-bombed behind a bush.
Once she was out of sight, Toby's brain told him, slowly and carefully, 'Now is the time for you to start running.'
Normally that would have been very good advice. But... Even though he didn't trust Piffle completely yet, and even though she was a hideous monster hybrid, well... He wanted to trust her. She'd shown him enough that he thought he ought to at least give her the benefit of the doubt. Even if he could hardly bring himself to look at her, he could still be polite to her. He'd just keep an arm's-length between them until he was more certain whether she was trustworthy or not.
He was also reminded of his time in the cave, the aching loneliness that chewed at his mind for days on end. He wanted someone to trust. But more than that, he needed it. If he was going to find his way home, his chances were far better if he had help.
A few moments later, a rustle of leaves heralded Piffle springing back into sight. "Ta-daa!!" She was now dressed in an old-timey sailor suit, like the kids in black and white cartoons would wear. Bright white blouse with little embroidered anchors on the lapels. Plain blue unpleated skirt, small enough to reveal she was wearing bloomers beneath. "Ya like?"
Actually, the outfit was so ridiculously cute it helped blunt the stomach-churning feeling of seeing her insect bits. It covered up nearly all of her scaly torso. Though there were still those eyes, and those constantly swiveling antennae.
"I thought flies didn't have antennae," Toby blurted.
She giggled. "Hmph! I put on a nice new outfit and that's all you can see?"
He blushed. "It's pretty," he could say honestly.
"Oh thank you, Toby!" she squealed. He saw her start to dash over for a hug, but stopped herself. That was reassuring. She was respecting that he didn't want to be touched just yet.
'Just yet?' his mind asked him. 'As in, you'd possibly consider it in the future?'
'Well... yeah. Maybe. She's acting very kind. I suppose I could get used to her enough to have her bug parts not bother me.'
Although it also occurred to him that flies were notorious for spreading disease.
'Maybe hamsterflies are different,' he countered.
Piffle patted out some of the wrinkles on her skirt. "I know it'll take some time before you're used to my looks. That's okay," she said.
Toby nodded. "Thank you. And... It's more than just that. I think I might also be in shock a bit, because that thing back there that tried to eat us... That was the worst moment of my entire life. I've never been so scared. And that's really saying something. I don't know how I'm not just curled up in a ball screaming my lungs out. I don't even know how I can think at all right now. So, yes, you look kind of..." he tried to be tactful, "...abnormal. But also, I'm not sure I could deal with anyone touching me right now."
She nodded understandingly.
"But..." His voice was very quiet. He looked down at his paws. "I've been alone since I got here, and you seem nice. I do want to trust you."
Starshine exploded from her smile. Piffle doubled her efforts to refrain from hugging him and instead hugged herself while bouncing up and down a bit. "I'm ultra-deluxe glad to hear that, Toby!"
The mouseboy smiled too.
Piffle clapped her paws together. "Allright then, what now? We're free of the web, and I did say I wanted some cupcakes. Would you like to join me?"
"YES," came out of his mouth without any conscious choice. His hunger had simply made a lunge for his control panel and overridden all else. "Um, I mean, if that's okay."
"Sure!" she chirped. "There should be a road nearby that'll take us right to Stoma. It's just a dot on the map, but we can catch a bite to eat there. And you probably want a shower to get all that goop off you."
He hadn't even thought to hope for that. Right now, a long hot shower sounded even better than a meal. "How will we find the road?"
She gave him a wide smirk, then wordlessly took to the air. Her thin wings caught the wind and propelled her into the sky with a buzz. He was actually pushed back a bit by the force of her takeoff.
Once she was about sixty feet off the ground, she spun around and pointed westward. "There it is!" she called down.
Toby looked where she was pointing and could indeed see a line where the trees looked thin.
Suddenly Piffle plummeted, and for a heartbeat Toby was absolutely sure she was about to crash into him. Or pounce on him and eat him!
Instead she landed so gracefully she didn't even make a sound. Except for her chuckling. "Jeepers, you do scare easy! I'll try not to tease you. If I can help it," she winked.
Toby unclenched his hands from on top of his head and stood back up. He needed a moment to slow his breathing. "Yes. Please don't."
She let him recuperate a bit more. "Ready to go to town now?"
Toby stretched his back and closed his eyes for a second to concentrate on calm. He took a moment to inventory the good things about his current situation. 1: Nothing had made him violently sick yet. 2: He'd survived the octopus monster. 3: His experience with it hadn't driven him irrevocably insane. 4: He'd been standing out in the open for a few minutes now and nothing had attacked him. 5: He'd gained a potential friend. 6: The possibility of cleanliness and food existed. "I think I'm ready."
"That's dandy!" She took off in the direction of the road. "Sorry if I'm slow; flying's easier than walking."
"That's allright. I hardly ever get any exercise. You'll probably have to stop every now and then to let me catch up."
She glanced back. "You moved pretty quick when you got your first peep at me," she kidded.
Toby was wary about leaving the harmless-looking clearing to enter the regular forest, but Piffle seemed unconcerned. He watched where she stepped and avoid anything she avoided. He wondered how long she'd been living here.
They passed more of those trees with the leaves shaped like playing card suits. The sight didn't bother him now; he'd seen so much worse that such minor ridiculousness hardly registered anymore. And he only flinched a little when a beetle shaped like a telephone receiver passed them.
Even though he still felt rattled, like he could slip into another panic attack with barely any provocation, the clean forest air was helpful. A wood smell, a waxy smell, a cucumber smell. Nothing unpleasant. The temperature felt warm as May. Toby trailed closely behind Piffle, blushing a little at how often her skirt would flip up.
After walking through perhaps a hundred feet of normal forest, they came to a place where the grass turned darker and looked somewhat pointier. There was a wide oblong patch of it to cross before they reached the road. Piffle tilted her head at it, then grinned in realization.
Toby peered over her shoulder. "What is it?"
"Step on it and see," she said slyly.
He shook his head. "I don't think I can deal with any surprises right now."
Her whiskers rose up as she smiled. "Well, you're gonna have to sometime! This is Phobiopolis, Sweet Cheeks! Imagine a jack-in-the-box handle turning all the time, and Jack always pops up when you least expect him. If you can learn the difference between what's really dangerous and what's just 'Oooga booga boo!' then you can get along okay here. I'd be happy to teach you."
He gulped. Part of him thought he was in far too fragile a state right now, and part of him realized that she had a point. The sooner he started accepting that he was going to be in a constant state of freaked-out until he escaped from this place, the easier it would be on him.
"Lesson one: take a step." She held out her hands like a maître d' towards the strange grass.
Toby tried to convince himself that he wasn't about to walk onto some huge hidden creature's tongue and Piffle would laugh maniacally as it slurped him up. He put his bare paw out and brought it down.
It produced a G note.
He tilted his head. He put his other foot down. D flat.
He smiled. "What is this stuff?"
Piffle walked out onto it and a tiny melody accompanied her. "Pianograss! Isn't it fun? It's not too common. But it's your first lesson: just because this place is built of nightmares, doesn't mean everything's all scary all the time. Sometimes bad dreams are bad, and sometimes there's parts of them that aren't bad at all."
Toby momentarily forgot all about fear as he walked around on the cool, soft, tickly greenery. It played him a sweet little suite. It sounded like one of those tinkly upright pianos you might see in a saloon. "Sounds like ragtime."
Piffle concurred. "There's other varieties that sound different. The real tall stuff sounds like a big black grand piano, and there's even a greeny-yellow kind that sounds a bit like a harp."
"Neat." Toby couldn't resist taking the longest route possible through the pianograss. It was having a surprisingly positive effect on his mood. By the time they reached the edge of the patch, Toby wasn't exactly relaxed, but he was at his lowest point of tension since he'd arrived.
From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to the road Piffle had spotted. Though it was less of a road and more like a dirt path, and the dirt was blue-ish to boot. Toby looked down at it before putting his bare feet on it. "This stuff's not dangerous, is it? Or musical?" he asked, half joking.
Piffle laughed cutely. "Not that I know of. But we can find out!" She started down the dirt road and automatically held her hand out to accept his.
He still couldn't bring himself to take it, though he considered the idea for a little longer this time. Maybe he could get used to her 'unusual features' quicker if he learned more about them. He matched Piffle's pace behind her. "So... um, your eyes. What's it like to see through those?"
She was pleased he'd taken an interest. "Oh golly, they were a real headache at first! Literally! I'd have to cover them up with my paws or I'd get dizzy and fall down!" She did a pirouette on the spot to illustrate. "It was hard on my noodle, going from two perspectives to two thousand."
Toby's eyebrows went up. "That many?"
"Posilutely! Eventually I realized I could just concentrate on a few of them at once and it was almost like having my old vision back. So now, instead of looking around, I just change my concentration to whatever part of my eyes're already pointed at what I wanna see. I can even see behind me a bit. And my antennys help too!" She wiggled them at him. "Hard to describe what that's like. I can touch stuff with 'em, but I also kind of just 'know' where things are. Like, I could cover my eyes and walk all the way into town and not bump into anything."
"That sounds useful," Toby had to admit.
"Uh-huh. So, Toby, what's your goal?" Piffle said out of the blue.
"Now that you're in Phobiopolis. What're you gonna do after we get the cuppycakes?"
He looked towards the horizon. Beyond the clouds he could faintly make out that everpresent peak.
"I want to go home," he said. This time, it didn't sound like a whine, but the statement of an attainable goal.
Piffle noticeably drooped. "Oh," she said. That one syllable clearly conveyed she didn't think it was possible, but she didn't want to break his heart by saying so.
Toby tried not to feel disheartened. "I was told there's a wizard out there in those mountains who could help me."
Piffle looked back with a perfect 'Oh gosh!' expression. "You mean Aldridge?"
"Yes!" So she'd heard of him. That was a good sign. It meant that the Mushroom Woman hadn't just been making things up.
Piffle nibbled her thumb in thought. "Some folks talk about him like he's real. Some act like he's just a fairy tale. Though Anasarca's real at least," she said, pointing with an antenna towards the mountain in the distance. "I- I don't think I could fly you the whole way there, but I'd certainly help you along."
"You'd-" The words caught in Toby's throat. "I'm kind of stunned you'd even offer! I wasn't expecting you to be my taxi."
She turned back and gave him one of the most purely genuine smiles he'd ever seen. "I like helping."
"Th-thank you," Toby said softly, a little awed by her selflessness. "But don't you have anything better to do than... well... be my tour guide?"
That giggle again. "Nah! Mostly I just buzz around looking for fun stuff. Or people to help. I'm more than happy to be your welcome wagon." She blushed a tiny bit. "Though I wish I could show you how much I like helping by giving you a hug..."
He paled a bit (which is not easy for an albino). "I... I still don't think I'm ready yet. I'm sorry."
She grinned to let him know she wasn't offended. "It's okay. I figger I'll wear you down soon enough. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm very cuddle-oriented!"
He laughed. "I did notice. But, to be honest, your bug parts make me feel... creeped-out. I'll do my best to get used to them though. I owe you that. It's just, it'll be difficult. I've been terrified for days since I got here, and I'm still tense even now. All I did for years before I ended up here was lie in bed and read and watch TV. I was sick."
A soft gasp. "I'm sorry to hear that! Whatja have, if you don't mind me asking?"
He sighed. "It'd take an hour to list everything."
"We've got time. I can walk slower and listen." She brightened. "And remember what I said about writing things down you don't want to forget? You can tell me about your life and I'll be your memory box"
Toby smiled gratefully. "Okay. I guess I'll start with my chronic conditions."
And so, as the mouseboy and hamstergirl walked together down the blue road to Stoma, Toby told Piffle as much as he could about his life. While he did, he slowly came to realize just how much of his previous existence had centered around sickness. Around coughing and pain and medicinal side effects and swallowing pills and the scent of disinfectant. It had felt normal a few days ago while he was still living it. But telling it to someone else now, he began to wonder how he'd survived it all for so many years.
Piffle listened quietly, nodded at times, and did her best to remember.
"...Methotrexate is this little yellow pill with a line down the middle, so it looks like a flathead screw. I take one every morning along with my Mevocor. It helps with my nausea. I usually feel pretty pukey after I first wake up."
Piffle nodded, trying to keep up. "And what does the mevv-o-core do?"
"Oh, that one helps build my strength up. Sometimes I feel too weak to get out of bed." He paused. "Though, it's weird... I've actually been feeling okay since I've been here. Better than I have in a long time."
"Doesn't surprise me a bit," she said, and gave her new friend's paw a gentle squeeze. "You're not 'you' anymore, Toby. You're your dream-self."
That thought set off sparks. "That makes sense! It's the only thing that would explain it! If this place is made of dreams, then I must be one too. And yeah, usually if I ever manage to dream, I'm not thinking of my symptoms."
She nodded like a bobblehead. "Prezactly! You're smart, Toby."
He shrugged. "I dunno. Mostly I've just been wondering how the heck I'm not dead already. It's been a week since I've had any of my pills. If this were my regular body, I'd be lying back in those caves now, past my expiration date. The fact that I wasn't dying was driving me crazy. But this makes perfect sense. Although..." He got very quiet and his steps slowed.
Piffle adjusted her pace and looked into his eyes. "Toby?"
He was staring without seeing. "That means my real body is somewhere else. You said I'm not dreaming, so this must mean I'm either in a coma or... Or I'm already dead."
Piffle fidgeted, not saying yes or no.
A sudden feeling of low terror spread throughout Toby's core, like cold glue poured down his back. He pictured his body lying in a hospital bed. An IV in his arm, a respirator in his nose, a catheter running from his crotch to a little bag. Or worse, it might not be a bed. He might be in a box right now.
They might be shoveling dirt on him right now.
A moment ago he'd been as close to relaxation as this nightmare realm would allow. Now his panic was back and gaining power by the second. His fingers trembled.
The tiny noise of her voice startled him so much he took off running. His brain was allowing nothing but the overwhelming instinct to run. Escape. NOW.
He could hear the hamstergirl's footsteps behind him and his imagination perverted them into the approach of some deadly beast hellbent on reaping his life. If he had one. If this wasn't Hell. If he wasn't already lying under a headstone carved with his name, his mother kneeling and weeping over him.
Toby screamed. Again and again. Thin, unselfconscious yips of uncontrollable horror.
His eyes weren't seeing anything but color and shape. The feeling in his brain drove him, compelled him, to keep running. Towards the horizon. Never stop. Not even if he wore his feet down to the bone and shredded flaps of flesh trailed behind him like streamers. If he paused for even an instant, it would get him. There was no time to think about what it was. It was there, behind him, gaining on him. He had to run forever just to keep alive.
Toby was in such an advanced state of frenzy that Piffle was forced to fly at top speed just to keep pace with him. When she dropped down and tackled him, he thrashed like a demon and bellowed unintelligible nonsense howls so loud they made her ears ring.
Then suddenly, it was over. Toby was gulping air and squirming and his heart felt like it was punching his ribs hard enough to crack them.
He shrieked a bit when he saw Piffle's face, but his sanity returned enough to remind him, 'Friend! Look, see? Friend! Relax!'
"What just happened!?" he whimpered.
Piffle tried to make comforting gestures in lieu of touching him. "Shhh, Toby. It's okay. Everything's okay. Look, see this nasty customer?" Between her fingers she held a tiny green squirming thing.
He was so disoriented he could barely focus his eyes. "Wh-what...?"
"It's a runbug. It's actually a tree seed, but it's got tiny little legs like a bug. See?"
Toby's breath was starting to return to normal. "What does that have to do with... with what just happened?"
She smiled. "Everything. These pesky li'l pests hop onto people and bite them. Gives 'em the willies. That's how it travels. It can hop a bit, but can go a lot farther if it can get someone else to run 'til they drop."
Toby stared at it, amazed and insulted that such a little thing had messed up his head so badly. "What an awful creature."
Piffle nodded, then tossed the runbug in her mouth and chewed it up. "Tasty though. This little meanie's not gonna get to pollinate any time soon, nosiree. We don't need any more of him."
Toby tried to stand up, but his legs were a bit too shaky. Piffle got up first and helped him. He took her hand without hesitation. (She noticed and grinned.) "I thought it was me," Toby said. "When I realized I might be dead, I thought it was my panic spiking up again."
"It waits for you to feel afraid, then cranks that up till the dial breaks off. Let that be lesson two, Toby: whenever you start to get that feeling again, quickly pat yourself down all over. The one good thing about runbugs is you can squish 'em pretty easy."
"I'll remember that. And thank you, Piffle. Thank you so much." He rubbed the sides of his head. "It was horrible."
She patted his paw. "First time one of them got me, I ended up two towns past Stoma before I collapsed. Totally bushed. I had a doozy of a time finding my way home again."
Toby stood up straight and brushed the blue dirt from the back of his pajamas. They'd gone from powder blue to lint-grey already. "But it wasn't all the bug... I was right, wasn't I? That my real body's somewhere else?"
Piffle did not enjoy being the bearer of bad news, but she nodded solemnly regardless. "No one's really sure. Like, not a hunnerd percent. And no one ever remembers exactly how they got here. But everyone I've talked to is sure enough that, even though sometimes you see this place in dreams, you only end up a resident here if you're in a deep sleep. Of one kind or another."
Toby needed a moment to deal with this confirmation of something he'd already been feeling faintly in his bones. A disconnection. A separation. He'd already been through so much, yet the fact that he was still able to process thoughts at all made him suspicious. Same as the fact that he hadn't already died from disease or withdrawal. He knew he was a mouse who'd never faced real fear or hardship in his life. Now here was a crushing ton of it all at once. Maybe the slippery nature of time and the very unreality of this place were helping him keep sane, because on some level he couldn't believe in it. He knew if he'd been lost in the real woods in his real body for just as long, he'd be catatonic by now.
"What does this mean for me?" he asked softly. "Let's... let's just assume for now I'm not already dead. I can't do anything if I'm dead, so it's not worth thinking about. Coma then. Does this mean there's a deadline? I have to get back home and wake up before a certain time or else it's permanent?"
Piffle wrung her hands. Her voice was a tiny squeak. "As far as I know, no one's ever escaped from Phobiopolis before."
Toby became as silent as a statue.
"...Oh, but that doesn't mean you won't!" she was quick to reassure. "I haven't traveled very far, certainly not Anasarca. And even if people did go home, how the heck would I know? I'm sure there's a way, Toby! Keep your chin up!"
He nodded almost imperceptibly. An odd calm had come over him. He could still feel fear churning around in his gut like a snake that refused to digest, but more than that, he felt the weight of knowing that this situation was real. It could not be ignored or run away from. If he didn't do something to save himself, he might be here forever.
He tried to focus on the practical. He started walking again. "We should keep going then. How much further is this place, Stoma?"
Piffle didn't even have to fly up and check. "I've been down this road a few times. We're close now."
He nodded in acknowledgment. "We should get cleaned up, get a good meal, and find a place to sleep. I know time's important now, but I haven't gotten any decent rest in a week. My mind's enough of a wreck. Sleep'll help me think clearer. Tomorrow we can focus on trying to find supplies and transportation. Then we head for Anasarca."
She saluted. "Aye-aye!"
He glanced back to her. "You can come with me for as long or as little as you want, Piffle. I really, deeply appreciate you helping me. But I don't want you to feel like you're obligated."
A giggle. "Maybe I'm tagging along because it sounds fun? Maybe I wanna see Anasarca too?"
"Allright then." He smiled and listened to his feet crunching along the soft azure soil. "I don't know exactly how we're gonna get supplies though. I don't have any money."
"You just let me take care of that! We'll be fine. I'd explain all about paying for stuff here, but it's kinda complicated without having a willwell to demonstrate with."
"It's fun to say, isn't it? Willwell, willwell, wullywullywoo!"
"I suppose," he said distantly.
Toby was not in the mood for lightheartedness, Piffle noted. She let him walk silently ahead of her on the path. Then saw his shoulders lurch in a sob. She hustled to catch up. She didn't think he was ready for a hug yet, but thought a pat on the arm would be comforting.
Toby didn't shrink away. A warm touch did help. "It's nothing," he said with tears in his eyes.
"I'm no P.I., but if it was nothing, you wouldn't be crying."
A brief half-grin. "It's just... I realized what it is I'm going back to. Best case scenario, I wake up in my old bed again, back in my old, sick body... and I die in a few months anyway. Just before I left, I found out I have Munchausen Syndrome Byproxy. Mom said it's terminal. My choices are either to be stuck forever in a realm of nightmares, or go back to a life that's almost over."
"Oh Toby..." Piffle gasped. "I don't know what to say! I mean, you're right that neither of those sounds like a happy ending. But, if it'll make you feel better, I'll be a good friend for as long as you're stuck here."
He sniffed as a hard sob rippled through him. "Thank you."
She reached down and took hold of his hand again.
For the rest of the journey, they stuck to small talk. Piffle asked how things had changed in the land of the living since her departure from it. Toby was glad for the subject switch. He rattled off all the technological advances that came to mind, and ended up being stunned at just how many she'd never heard of. He'd mention one innovation, then have to explain three or four others to help Piffle grasp the concept. She was slack-jawed with wonder the whole time. Toby began to realize that she'd been stuck in Phobiopolis for a very, very long time.
On the other hand, Toby showed the same expression of amazed disbelief just as often. Sometimes when he tried to ease Piffle into an idea, she'd laugh and say she knew perfectly well what that was, since Phobiopolans had their own version. Toby was dumbstruck that a world like this could have its own technology. Some of it sounded indistinguishable from magic.
Soon enough they turned a corner on the path and the village of Stoma came into view. Toby was immediately reminded of pictures he'd seen of old trading post towns from pioneer days.
Stoma was a rather miserable-looking place surrounded by tall pines. The town's name was painted in tar across a stretched animal skin held up by poles. Toby saw houses, small shops, plus a few pillbug-shaped storage barns. The buildings sagged as if huddled close in fear. Colors were dulled and depressing. Brown, grey, more brown, more grey. All the houses were up on stilts. Toby had sometimes seen similar construction at the beach. This area didn't seem like it was at risk of flooding though, but there might be other reasons for the elevation. Stampedes of flesh-eating slugs, maybe?
Toby noticed a long, long pole at the town's edge and startled when he saw what was chained to the top of it. A birdcage contained a huge, moving eyeball. There were more of them too. The poles were spaced around the town, one every thirty feet. The eyes all slowly rotated as he and Piffle approached. 'It has to be their security system.'
As they drew closer, Toby asked, "Those eyes... they watch out for monsters coming from the woods, don't they?"
"Yup. Good deduction."
"They're, um... not going to think you're one, are they?"
Piffle laughed a bit more than he expected at that. "You'll see," she replied.
And a moment later he did. As they approached an open-air market, Toby realized that Piffle fit right in here.
At least half the people he saw seemed mutated somehow. Here was a man with ears where his eyes should have been. Here was another fella with fish fins instead of arms. Someone whose skin had been replaced by silver pebbles. Someone with an enormously long nose and two spindly arms extending from the nostrils, the tiny hands sorting produce into a shopping basket. The only thing keeping them from being terrifying was that they all looked so bored and downtrodden.
Toby tried not to stare. Though he couldn't keep from wondering what had caused such grim deformities. Was it just being in this place? Piffle had implied something like that. He began to wonder what kind of an effect Phobiopolis might have on him after a while. He vowed to keep his normal shape for as long as possible.
No one seemed to care much about Toby and Piffle, which was good, because he didn't think he could manage a normal conversation with any of these misshappen citzens. Stoma's people went about their business with a minimum of talk. They were dressed in simple clothing from no definite time period, but all in sullen colors and most with alterations to accommodate unusual features.
The strangest thing of all though was that there were so few adults. Toby and Piffle were eye-level with most of the town.
"Why are there so many children?" he whispered.
"It's just something that happens when you come here," the hamsterfly said. "Everyone starts out little. The best guess going around is that kids are more susceptible to nightmares. Kids feel types of fear that grownups forget. And whatever Phobiopolis is made of, it wants us to feel that type of fear. So it makes us small. Anyone you see here who's an adult, it means they've actually been here long enough to grow up again."
That was a chilling thought. Toby suddenly remembered the Mushroom Woman, who looked so old and withered. He felt a pang of deep sympathy for her.
"Not always though," Piffle added. "In Phobiopolis, you only get older if you actually want to. So however someone looks, that only means that they're at least that age."
The pair passed without notice along Stoma's main street. Soon they were close enough to the market to see the wares on display, and finally some color made itself apparent. Toby saw plenty of normal-looking fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, sweets and meats. There were odder wares too. Dice that seemed to be walnuts. Tangerines that struggled. Someone was selling a huge amount of what looked and smelled like dryer lint. Another furson had jars and jars of fingernails. Another was selling edible Halloween masks.
"What's safe to eat here?" Toby asked, cringing away from a plate of hairy carrots.
"Oh, we're not gonna eat raw stuff. Though we can scoot back here later if anything catches your fancy. I just wanted a quick peek. See what's new since the last time I dropped in, y'know? For now, I thought we'd sit down in a restaurant and relax and have something hot served to us."
Toby's eyes lit up. "That sounds wonderful! I wouldn't have thought that'd be available. This place looks kinda medieval."
She chuckled. "Ancient stuff and modern stuff clash all the time in Phobiopolis. Sometimes you're not even sure if you're indoors or out. Which reminds me, didn't you say you wanted a shower first?"
Piffle steered them away from the market towards Stoma's main street. Somewhere in the west, the sky had turned orange from sunset. Shadows clung like ivy. Toby noticed how most of the townspeople kept their heads down and walked in stiff silence from Point A to B. 'They could have named this place Cold Shoulder,' he thought. He supposed that living so close to a forest full of arachnopuses and wolfmonsters and big red rustbeasts would leave anyone on edge after a while.
Every house in town leaned. Nothing was more than two stories. Everywhere Toby looked, he saw drab-colored buildings on wooden legs. Some of them were incomplete: missing roofs and walls. He saw a woman walk right up the stairs of her house, through the missing front wall, and sit down in an armchair.
He also noticed that, aside from the name-skin where they'd entered, none of the signs around town had any writing. Just pictographs. Toby wondered if these people were too rural to be literate, or if people from all over the world passed through, so a single language would be insufficient. 'Maybe a bit of both.'
What Piffle had said about Phobiopolis attracting anachronisms turned out to be perfectly true as well. Despite the town itself looking like a peasant village from a fantasy story, there were out-of-place objects everywhere. A payphone. A lawnmower. Someone was sitting on the corner looking down at their laptop. Toby's mind boggled a bit, trying to figure out how a realm like this could have internet. Then again, if this was a land made of dreams, then anything imaginable was to be considered possible.
As if to prove that hypothesis, Toby walked by a bush made of arms. A few of the hands grasped weakly at him as he passed. He tried not to squeal as he jumped away. He wondered if the creepy thing had a purpose or if it had just grown there like that.
"There's the showers, Toby," Piffle pointed out.
"What? Where?" He was dragged out of his thoughts and looked to where she was pointing. He blanched. He'd expected they'd have to find a hotel or something first. But no, right there on the street-corner was a cluster of showerheads raining down warm water. "Um... We can't... People will see us!"
Piffle was already slipping her blouse over her head. "Don't have a fit! Everyone'll look away. It's what's polite." She shucked her skirt and bloomers (Toby blushed and turned 180 degrees) and hung them in a convenient basket. "Almost nobody showers the normal way here. That's because you're helpless and blind in an enclosed space. A perfect time for bad stuff to leap out and pounce ya. Much safer to just do your rub-a-dub-dubbin' in the open air." She stepped under the spray and cooed in pleasure at its warmth.
Toby stood there in the street, fidgeting in hesitation.
"You can leave your pajamas on!" Piffle called out. "No one'll think that's weird!"
That was a definite relief. Toby walked towards the showers, keeping his head turned away from Piffle's direction to preserve her modesty. Though she wasn't showing any shame. She was humming happily to herself as she squeezed liquid soap from buds on a vine that entwined the shower's pipe.
Toby put a paw out. The water seemed okay. He wasn't happy about walking around in wet pajamas afterwards, but the alternative was not even worth considering. Plus, the pajamas needed a wash too.
He stepped under the water. Immediately, a huge fraction of his tension dissolved.
This was bliss. Toby didn't even think about getting clean for the first few minutes. He simply luxuriated in finally feeling something overwhelmingly pleasant. The water was exactly the right temperature and the spray had a nice massaging pressure to it.
Eventually he felt around for the plant-thingies he'd seen Piffle use. He found a bud and squoze. It felt uncomfortably like a huge zit emptying into his palm, but the effluvium certainly smelled like normal soap. And Piffle was rubbing it all over herself without a care. So, when in Rome...
The soap tingled nicely when he applied it to his fur. Toby sighed in much-needed relief and started losing himself in invigorating cleanliness.
Piffle had long since gotten re-dressed and was sitting on a nearby bench when Toby finished up. He'd scrubbed every nook and cranny of himself. Just being clean did wonders for his mood. "Wow, that was fantastic! Sorry if I kept you waiting."
Piffle kicked her feet back and forth. "Everything's copacetic, Toby. You looked like you were really enjoying yourself. I didn't mind waiting."
Toby's cheeks reddened. "You were watching me?"
Giggling. "A bit. Just to check if you were done yet. I didn't see anything naughty."
"...Allright then." He walked over to sit down beside her on the bench.
As he did, he realized he was already dry. "What?" He patted himself up and down. His pajamas felt like he'd just put on a new pair.
His confusion amused Piffle. "You stopped thinking about being wet, so now you aren't. Convenient, huh?"
"Very!" He leaned back against the wrought iron and stretched. Looking around, he noticed that the street was nearly deserted now. The sun was going down, and there were probably very good reasons to stay inside at night in a place like this. "What else can you tell me about Stoma? Why would anyone build a town right next to a forest full of dangerous creatures?"
"Well, for starters, the people here aren't helpless. Remember the eye-cages? Look up past 'em." She pointed high in the sky and Toby craned his neck.
"Whoa..." Floating high above the town was a slowly-rotating ball of jammed-together gun barrels. From how clearly Toby could make out details, he guessed its distance masked how huge it truly was. He had no idea how they got it to stay up there, but it certainly did look like it could blast just about anything into dust.
"Plus, the forest itself's a big reason. Lots of wild plants grow here that can be harvested for foodstuffs." She grinned. "I like that word, 'foodstuffs'. Oh, and also there's the hills nearby where they mine stuff. The road brings in travelers and the river brings boats."
She pointed behind them. "There's a little valley right behind us."
Toby cocked his ears and could hear a faint flowing. "Oh yeah. I guess that explains the houses all up on stilts."
Piffle's antennae swiveled around; something she did when she was thinking, like twiddling her thumbs. "Maybe? I've always wondered that myself. The river'd have to flow uphill to flood anything here. Though that's not 'zactly impossible."
Toby nodded. "It's weird to think that people actually live here. Like, actually have a somewhat normal life in a place like this. When I first got here, I was so scared out of my skin I thought hiding in my cave was the only possible way to survive. I thought I'd get ripped to shreds if I so much as ran and grabbed some berries to eat."
"You'd be surprised," Piffle said. "I think you can get used to anywhere if you live there long enough. Think about the explorers down at the South Pole. Or tribes who wander the desert. There's places on Earth way worse than here. And no matter how scary a place may be, if there's food 'n water 'n somewhere to sleep, eventually someone'll put down roots."
"That's true," Toby conceded. "Maybe it's hard for me to imagine it because I barely ever get to explore beyond my bedroom. I'm not the trailblazer type. Remember earlier when I was talking about my old life? Even remembering all my symptoms, it still scares me less than feeling how helpless I am here. I know I'd be going back to day after day laying around sick in my bed, and yet... at least I know how to do that. At least it's familiar."
Piffle reached over to feel the sleeve of his pajamas. The fuzzy fabric was quite comforting. "Normal's nice, but I like novelty a lot more. Maybe it's 'cause I got wings? I like to use 'em and fly as far as I can. Brave the wild wilderness and all that jazz. Maybe I can be a good influence on you? Teach you how to enjoy traveling far and wide and sighting the seven sees?"
Toby chuckled a little. Then his stomach rumbled. "How about we go travel to that diner over there?"
"Just what I was thinking!"
The diner was possibly the most normal-looking building in town, which was a bit strange to say considering it was shaped like a rocketship. It at least looked like something that could have existed on Earth at some point.
It was almost obnoxiously lively in comparison to the shops around it, making them look like saggy paper bags in comparison. The main part of the building was a gleaming white concrete spaceship with crimson on its fins and nosecone. A line of porthole-shaped windows dotted the side. Up on top was a cockpit bubble that looked like you could climb up inside it. Pots of bright flowers encircled the red brick foundation. Floating above the restaurant was its sizzling orange neon name: "OUTERSPACE EATS."
Toby was genuinely smiling as he ran up to look in the windows. More red and white inside, joined by endless chrome details. There was a wide counter shaped like Saturn's rings, with asteroid-patterned barstools all around. The booths were puffy candy-apple leather and looked glorious to sit on.
Piffle peered too. "This definitely wasn't here the last time I came to town!" she said. "It looks brand new!"
Toby hopped up the front steps and opened the door. A tinkly bell overhead signaled their presence. Toby shivered pleasantly at how the chilly checkerboard tile felt under his bare feet.
When the door shut behind them, Toby suddenly felt troubled by what Piffle had said. 'This place looks brand new.' It did. The floor was spotless. The seats and tabletops sparkled. It was all like a model in a museum.
There was also no one else around. No customers. No one behind the cash register. No sounds coming from the kitchen.
He sniffed. No scent of food being cooked. Toby's brow furrowed. "Um, either this place was just built today and we're the very first customers, or I think we might be trespassing."
Piffle looked uneasy too. "Dunno. The door was open though."
Toby noticed something else. No menus. Nothing on the tables, and the lite-up letterboard above the counter was completely blank.
The little ball of dread in Toby's stomach blossomed into a full-fledged tingling stormcloud.
His voice trembled a little as he turned to Piffle and whispered, "This is a trap, isn't it? "
She nodded. She looked worried too, but more than that, she looked deeply apologetic.
He shook his head. He looked into her eyes and kept his voice low. "You don't have to feel sorry. I wanted to come in here. It's my fault. Let's just quietly leave and maybe whatever's in here won't get us."
He turned around.
Someone had already blocked the door with a scarecrow.
Toby jumped back. It wasn't really a scarecrow, but what else to call it? It was a tall male mannequin wearing a tuxedo. Its head was the size of a ping pong ball, and just as featureless. Broomstick-thin arms and legs. Limp white gloves with empty fingers hung out of its sleeves.
Toby and Piffle stared at it for a moment. Toby could feel his knees quivering in anticipation for the thing to suddenly come alive. And when it did, it still surprised him so bad he toppled backwards onto the tile and konked his head on a stool.
"Good day! Good day!" it shouted at them. "Welcome to our fine establishment! Thank you for choosing us for your eatering needs!" Its voice was a late-night infomercial with the volume turned to max, played through a bad phone connection. Its arms gesticulated crazily, fingerless gloves flapping all around.
Toby clutched Piffle's leg. "Tell me this is normal here!!"
She shook her head. "I've never seen anything like it before!"
The waiter/scarecrow/broomstick thing came closer to them, arms raised, gliding like it was on rollerskates. "My existence is to provide you with the finest dining experience you have ever dreamed of! Come this way please! You are valued customers, deserving of a valued environment! This way to the choice exclusive premium table area!"
Toby shrieked as the waiterthing swooped in and snatched him up by the back of his shirt. It set the mouse on his feet and pressed its open palms to his and Piffle's backs. "Right this way! Right this way!"
Its hands were bulldozers. Toby and Piffle most definitely did not want to follow this artificial bigmouth, but they had no choice. Where he pushed, they went. It was like the floor beneath them had turned into an air hockey table.
Despite their struggles, the waiterthing easily maneuvered them past the booths into the kitchen. The stainless steel had obviously never seen a moment's use. The stovetops were spotless. There weren't even any ingredients to be seen.
The waiterthing's buzzy voice never shut up. "Special perks for special customers! One day aware! Our super deluxe specialty evening food intake extravaganza awaits you! Your business is appreciated!"
Toby had thought for a moment that the kitchen itself was their destination; that they were going to be chopped up and made into a blue plate special. But the waiterthing scooted them straight past, towards a dimly-lit hallway ending in a plain beige door. The door opened itself at the waiterthing's approach, revealing a staircase descending into blackness.
Piffle's antennae raised up in dismay. "Oh no..."
"What? What is it!?" Toby yelped.
"Now I know why the houses are all up on stilts," she said with a gulp. "It's to prevent basements."
She looked at him as if this should have been obvious. "We're in the land of nightmares, Toby! What's the worst place you could be in a nightmare?"
Toby suddenly lost the power of rational thought.
As the waiter easily pushed him past the doorway onto the first step of the crumbling, swaying wooden stairs, Toby flailed and screamed like a madman. He flexed his meager claws and did everything his instincts could come up with to stop himself moving forward and downward. He shredded the waiterthing's tuxedo sleeve to ribbons. He gouged ruts in the railing. He kicked at the stairs till his toes sparkled with pain. Even tumbling down and breaking a few limbs at the bottom was a preferential outcome.
"TOBY! TRY TO CALM DOWN!"
The hamstergirl's shrill voice cut through his delirium like a hatchet. He looked to her: his pupils had dilated enormously.
She tried to appear only mildly concerned, even as the broomstick-man continued to kidnap them. She had to raise her voice a bit to be heard clearly over its ongoing prattle. "I've been in a lot of spots like this before. Screaming doesn't help. That's lesson three. The best thing to do is to just keep mum and look around. We don't know where it's taking us, or whether it'll even be all that bad when we get there."
"But you just said basements are bad!" Toby sputtered.
She nodded. "I know, I know. They almost always are. But we don't know what kind of bad, so let's not lose our heads yet. Maybe it's telling the truth and we really are being taken somewhere to have a meal."
"I doubt that..."
They reached the bottom of the staircase and both of them cringed at the feel of the grimy, bone-cold cement floor.
"Maybe it's just malfunctioning and it's gonna take us to a table and serve us engine parts dipped in gravy, and all we gotta do is smile and pretend to eat it and then it'll let us go," Piffle postulated.
That sounded like an overly-optimistic best case scenario, but then again, the hamsterfly did know this realm better than he did. Toby pulled in deep breaths and tried to keep himself balanced.
The environment did not help. This place looked like a typical basement, but magnified by the lens of a small child's fears. The architecture was stretched and the angles were sharp as knives. Everything was cloaked in deep shadows. There were mounds of old boxes, spilled paint cans, and the stench of moldy, waterlogged books. The only light came from the hallway at the top of the stairs. When the door closed and blackness snatched away his sight, Toby couldn't hold back a high-pitched wail.
"Don't worry, I can still see!" Piffle called out. "Antennys, remember?"
The waiterthing continued to ramble on about customer service and extraordinary dining opportunities, but its voice was starting to splinter into bursts of static. Something down here was distorting its signals. Nevertheless, it turned sharply and started pushing Toby and Piffle in a new direction.
Toby skidded his heels, kicked at the ground, and even lifted both feet up in the air. Nothing slowed him. "Can you 'see' where we're going?" he shouted to Piffle.
She actually managed a tiny giggle. "You don't have to yell so loud; I'm still right beside you."
"Sorry," he said quieter. "I'm not feeling very normal right now."
"Oh, I understand. First that nasty octopus and now this. And you're probly still hungry too! Poor Toby!"
He hadn't even realized until now that, yes, he was still hungry.
Piffle's antennae were circling. "I don't see anything too terrible just yet," she reported. "Although if I'm right, this place is WAAAY bigger than just the glimpse we got! It feels like it goes on for miles down here!"
Drops of water could be heard all around them, and if the echoes could be trusted, wherever they were was cavernous. Toby could feel the dampness in the air like a wet glove covering his face. It stank too. The perfume of rot and mildew made him lightheaded. His bare feet kept stepping in patches of sticky moisture or scratchy sand.
'DON'T THINK ABOUT GERMS OR YOU'LL GO INSANE,' he firmly warned himself. It was probably good advice. He hadn't gotten sick so far. Maybe germs didn't even exist down here? 'Wishful thinking,' he admonished himself. 'If this is all a big nightmare, there's probably big horrible supergerms and I just haven't run into any yet.' His imagination conjured up the lovely image of a thousand-pound bacterium wriggling towards him on its squirming flagella, then forcing its way down his throat till he was stretched tight as a blimp. 'I told you to stop thinking about that!!' he screamed at his brain.
By now the waiterthing's voice had been replaced entirely by static, except for occasional bursts of faux-cheerful syllables. This thankfully meant Piffle didn't have to raise her voice to be understood anymore. "My eyes are starting to adjust, Toby," she informed him. "So there's gotta be light here somewhere."
Toby stared ahead and blinked a lot. He couldn't tell if he was starting to see emerging shapes or if his eyes were just making patterns out of nothing.
But Piffle was right, and eventually the pair of them could discern that they were being guided through someplace far different than the relatively-normal basement area they'd been in before. It was still too dim for details, but they could make out endless, endless arches all around them. The light seemed to come from a thin fog that drifted along the ceiling.
This place reminded Toby of an underground parking garage. One in particular that he remembered from when he was much younger and Mommy would take him to see a respiratory specialist downtown. Toby hated it. The claustrophobia-inducing ceiling, the ceaseless concrete. Most of all, the way every sound was magnified so loud that faraway tire squeals sounded like the rippling howls of ghosts.
This place was like that, but mixed with what he'd expect from an old sewer, or the catacombs beneath a church. When he could see a little clearer, he realized that the arches were aligned in a hexagonal pattern, exactly duplicated over and over like a house of mirrors. But Toby didn't think this was an illusion. All his senses were telling him that wherever they were, it extended for miles beyond the edges of his perception.
Their footsteps sounded like the rhythmic chopping of a woodcutter's axe.
Toby had a bad realization. "What if this place doesn't end? What if this waiterthing just keeps on pushing us forever?" His mind's eye saw it walking on and on, sputtering static, holding two clattering skeletons dressed in the tatters of a sailor suit and pajamas.
Piffle tried to look on the bright side. "Well then at least we can spend time getting to know each other better. And if it gets too boring, we can fall asleep and just enjoy the ride!"
He gaped at her. He didn't know whether her optimism was admirable or if it would eventually drive him crazy. He winced at stepping on something that felt a lot like a cobweb, then tried frantically to brush it off his toes.
"LAAAA!!!" Piffle suddenly burst out with an opera note. She giggled at how long and loudly it echoed. "La-fa-da-la-na-na-na-laaaaa! Gee whiz! The acoustics down here are the bee's knees! We could probably be a mile apart and still hold a conversation!"
In the dim foglight, Toby could see that Piffle's smile had returned, full-force and undented. He didn't know if her lack of fear came from experience or insanity, but it did help a little. It was harder to be terrified nearby someone who so defiantly wasn't. He tried to sing a note too, but all that came out was a gasping croak. "I think I'm too on edge to sing."
"Nice try at least," she praised. She reached across the waiterthing's torso to pat her mousefriend on the shoulder. "And I know you're scared. I'm just trying to help with that. Let me know if I start driving you batty."
"You're not. And thank you." He tried to smile. "Although maybe if I lose my mind I'll be less scared," he weakly joked.
She giggled. "There, see? Just talking or trying to smile usually helps chase spookiness away. The more you think about the awful things that could happen, that's just helping your fear drive you cuckoo. Don't give it any help! The more you get your mind off it, the more likely you'll be able to put your mind onto working out what you oughtter do when you find out what's going on."
Toby was quiet for a moment, then a trace of a genuine smile appeared. "That sounds like really good advice, Piffle. Lesson four, I'm guessing?"
She beamed. "You bet! I'm happy to be helpful, Toby! And always keep in mind: all the terrible stuff your brains upchuck when you're worrying? That's almost never what ends up really happening. So if you dwell on it anyway, it's like studying the wrong subject before a test."
Toby made a 'That's a good point' sound. "I'll try to keep that in mind."
"Bzzzzzzzzzzp nff kssssssssstttt!" said the waiterthing.
Toby realized that, for a second there, he hadn't been concentrating on his surroundings at all. And, as often happened in dreams, he now found himself in a completely new place with absolutely no idea of how or when he'd gotten there.
And Piffle was right. His worries hadn't even come close to imagining this.
It was a workhouse designed by someone who'd never heard of gravity. Every surface was a floor. Out of every floor rose the black, rusting, scorching shape of some nightmarish machinery. Every machine had dozens of gears spinning within it. Every set of gears was being kept in motion by the slow, plodding push of haggard child. Every child's clothes were ragged and caked with soot. Every child's face was slack and devoid of expression. Every child's eye stared straight ahead, unseeing. Every child's head was adorned with a large, upside-down teacup. A literal teacup, with a blinking radio antenna coming out of it.
And there was water, water everywhere. Walls and ceiling too. Salty and shin deep. If the gargantuan room had suddenly rotated 180 degrees, it would still look exactly the same. As soon as Toby's eyes became aware of the water, the roar of its constant sloshing filled his ears and drove out everything else. The machines roared too, but beneath the din of the water their sound was mostly a bass rumble that vibrated up through his feet and made his stomach unsettled.
The waiterthing made some kind of announcing proclamation, but it was lost among the noise of the factory. Toby stared in petrified silence at these hellish surroundings. At the black smoke and flames the machines churned out. At the way the dull, crumbling metal gears intersected at impossible angles. At the blank-faced children working themselves to skeletons, turning the wheels around and around forever.
And then the real horror hit: Toby realized that he and Piffle, very soon, would be given their own spot pushing a gear.
He didn't scream. He couldn't. He was beyond that. He simply went rigid as an icicle as the waiterthing trundled him on and on.
The water splashed up to Toby's chest at times. All around in every direction hung banners, colors faded, bearing slogans like "MISERY LOVES COMPANY" and "SUFFERING IS DIVINE". The amount of machines and children powering the machines never seemed to end. And there were no guards forcing them to keep on. Was it those teacups? Mind control helmets; they had to be. Did the children ever sleep? Did they ever eat? If one of them died at the wheel, were they simply trampled by the others until they were worn down to a smooth stain beneath the water?
Then Toby realized he was ascending. He snapped his eyes away from the machines and machinelike children to see that he and Piffle were being led up a rickety metal staircase that wobbled worryingly with their steps. The waiterthing was steering them towards a tin-sided foreman's office. When they reached the top of the staircase, the waiterthing knocked on the door by banging it's tiny head against the metal.
Toby looked down and saw a welcome mat. Somehow, it was that particular detail that made him vomit in his mouth a little.
The door swung open and gobbled them up. The factory's sounds stopped dead. Silence. Despite the fact the little shack's windows were just holes cut in metal.
Inside, the foreman's nook was almost cozy. There was a fireplace and some fat armchairs decorated in doilies. Bookshelves and a big desk.
The waiterthing's voice crackled back to life. "It is your supreme pleasure to be introduced to the impresario of this operation, our grand benefactor, Doctor Dacryphilia!"
What Toby had assumed to be a life-sized statue in the corner rotated around to face them, and Toby's whole body juddered.
He could not take much more of this. Every time he thought his fear had peaked, it smashed through its own ceiling to reach new heights.
The Doctor looked like a man in a Mardi Gras costume. A tuxedo just like the waiterthing, but with a head as grotesquely huge as the waiter's was tiny. His hands, too, were elephantine. Fat rectangular slabs with fingers big around as tissue boxes. And his head... It had to be a giant wooden mask, it just had to be. The face was dominated by an ivory-colored possum snout jutting out like a cliff. A showman's smile stretched across the whole ridiculous length of it, showing off more spiky little teeth than Toby could count. On top was a stovepipe hat big enough to run sewage through. And his eyes were huge and cartoonish, painted on, with big pie-shaped pupils. The paint was cracking and big wooden tears dripped constantly out, hitting the floor with a sound like falling popsicle sticks.
The waiterthing shoved Toby and Piffle forward, and suddenly their hands were being viciously shaken by the Doctor. Both of them yelped in pain. The Doctor's grip was crushing and left behind scores of splinters.
"That's the spirit!!" the Doctor exclaimed heartily at hearing their shrieks.
Toby felt a fresh wave of revulsion at seeing the Doctor's face move. It wasn't a mask. Oh god, it was his real face. It moved and blinked, creaking and littering paint flakes everywhere.
The Doctor addressed his servant. "Kudos on finding another pair of strong, hardy volunteers for our enterprise, Number 32!"
"My existence is to provide you with the finest dining experience you have ever dreamed of!" it said as it saluted.
"Be off now, lad. Back to the diner. There'll always be more poor unfortunates who need us to provide them with guidance."
The waiterthing turned and let itself out of the office, leaving Toby and Piffle alone with their new owner. Now they were held in place by nothing more than their own fear.
Doctor Dacryphilia clapped his hands together with a crunch. "My, my, my! Aren't you adorable! But you'll look so much better with tears running down your cheeks! What are your names? You first, little boy!"
Toby's mouth opened and trembled a little bit. "T-t-t-" came out, but that was all.
"Tut tut!" said the Doctor. "Oh well, it's not like you'll be needing it anymore! And you, young filly?"
Piffle shook her head to clear away the shock of this place. Then she stamped her foot and looked the Doctor right in the eye. "My name is Shimmer-Thistle Whisper-Kimmy Vivilandria Lavender Dorabelle Loribelle Trixi Fizzy Piffle McPerricone. And I happen to like that name and I think I'll be keeping it, thankyouverymuch." Her tone was polite but resolute. It was always worth first trying to talk one's way out of a situation like this.
Doctor Dacryphilia's mouth turned over in a clown's frown. "Oh, that simply will not do. You have far too strong a sense of self-identity. But rejoice! Soon you'll be wiped clean! Soon you'll understand that the only true joy in life comes from mindless, backbreaking monotony!" He giggled obscenely.
Toby looked over to Piffle and saw her expression was set in a firm little pout. She seemed to be handling this better than him, so he'd let her do the talking while he tried not to splash terror-puke all down his pajamas.
"That doesn't sound like fun," Piffle stated.
"It doesn't! Not at all!" he agreed with insane cheer. He rushed over to a large blackboard on the wall and started pointing things out as he spoke (though this was meaningless, as the chalk was long since smeared to illegibility). "You little lost bunnies have no idea what you're missing! You lack purpose! But that's where I come in! I'm the purpose-merchant! And I sell my wares for free!!" He did a little pirouette. Toby noticed that he'd once had a tail, but it had been chopped off at the root and left to scab horribly over.
The Doctor continued. "You see, right now your life is directionless. You go from place to place always seeking happiness or comfort. But you're not going to find it! The only true happiness is misery! That's why I so selflessly let all my dear darlings toil forever in my factory."
"What do you make?" Piffle asked.
"NOTHING!!" he boomed, and was so overjoyed by the idea he hugged himself. Wooden tears flew all over the office, clattering like spilled peanuts. "That's the point! It's pointlessness perfected! Impossibly hard work, for eternity, all for no reason and no benefit! That's the magic secret! Because once you've been pushing gears here for a week or so and your mind breaks into a thousand tiny little china pieces, only then can you know true peace! Salvation! Transcendence! It's only when you drill past the lowest depths of ultimate suffering do you reach pure euphoria!"
He pranced around the office, toppling papers and books all over the floor. "Oh you'll have so much fun never having fun again! Every day you'll wake up and be fed a deliciously-undelicious bowl of 100% wallpaper paste. Then it's off to the factory floor! And you'll push, push, push all day long! No talking, no thinking, no smiling. Your bones will ache like they're full of fire and your muscles will slowly digest themselves. Then, when you've reached the limits of physical exhaustion, we scrape you up and send you to bed to sleep for a luxurious one-hundred-and-twenty minutes per night! Doesn't that sound wonderful!?"
Piffle was trembling a bit but tried not to show it. "The idea is certainly intriguing, Mister Dacra-whateveryournameis."
He grinned so hard she could hear his timber crack. "Doctor," he enunciated, "Da-cra-FEEL-i-a."
"Yes, thank you." She curtseyed. "And it's a very generous offer. But I promised my friend Toby I'd help him get home, and I just couldn't live with myself if I ever broke a promise. Do you understand?"
Toby was awed by her calmness. That she could keep herself sane enough to speak to this monstrosity. His own throat felt like sandpaper. Maybe she could actually get them out of this.
The Doctor's grin persisted. He put a mammoth paw on Piffle's shoulder. "My dear sweet thing, that is a beautifully noble sentiment," he said softly. "But don't you see? You've already honored your obligation. You've already fulfilled your promise."
He leaned in close, till his dead, wooden eyes filled her vision. "This is home."
Then she and Toby both screamed in surprise as something heavy and cold clamped down on their ankles. They looked down to realize that their feet had been caught in cast iron shackles, held just far apart enough that they were forced to keep standing or fall over. They were both jerked suddenly sideways.
A door on the far side of the office opened up, revealing a twisted track that led deeper into the factory, down to where new and different machines waited to change them into something else. They were caught on a conveyor, like cars in a haunted house.
"Bye bye now!" sang the Doctor as he waved a hanky at them. "You'll thank me someday! Well, actually you won't because your brains will be far too damaged for language soon enough. But the sentiment rings true nonetheless! Au revoir! Have a nice day!!"
The shackles carried Toby and Piffle out the door and it slammed behind them. Inside the office, they heard Doctor Dacryphilia screaming with laughter, or sobbing, or both.
Piffle stared ahead. Both she and Toby were struck speechless for a while. Not that it mattered. The cacophony of the factory and the water would have drowned out anything they could have said anyway.
The hamsterfly turned to Toby and he could see tears (real tears, not wooden) shining in her eyes. Her expression said more than words possibly could: 'I'm so sorry.'
Toby was shaking like a leaf, nearly insensible from fright, but he still managed to meet his friend's eyes and give her a nod that said, 'I forgive you. This isn't your fault.'
She nodded back in gratitude, then reached out to take hold of his hand. He accepted her paw in his, and squeezed.
The conveyor belt twisted and turned like a corkscrew smashed to unrecognition. They were ferried farther and farther into the factory, and the sheer size of it was almost enough to drive all thoughts of escape out of their heads. It wasn't just one room. There were rooms upon rooms. Literally. This place extended in all directions. Gravity was towards anyplace where one could stand and work on a machine. 'Upside down' was a laughably meaningless idea here.
There were other machines. Machines that were operated by pulleys, levers or buttons. Everywhere, children moved in robotic repetition. Looking closely, one could see the tracks their endless tears had eroded through the dirt on their cheeks.
Then up ahead was the place where Toby and Piffle's new lives would begin. Toby could see other children on the conveyor belt. They struggled their hearts out, but each one in turn was positioned in front of a bellows, and a cloud of thick pink smoke was blown into their faces. Their struggles ceased, one by one. Then they were moved on to where a little thin knife sliced around their head in a circle, and their scalp and skull were neatly lifted away to reveal pink brains. A bright shiny teacup was lowered down, then screwed into place. The light on its antenna lit up, then the child walked off the conveyor to a line of long cafeteria tables, where the first of their many meals of paste was waiting.
Piffle was ahead of Toby. He would have to watch her being put through the process before it happened to him. Somehow, that made it infinitely worse.
His every breath shook his lungs. He hadn't even noticed until now the repulsive aroma of rust and smoke and standing water. He held Piffle's paw tighter. Tears were already wetting his own cheeks.
'It'll be okay, Toby,' Piffle mouthed to him.
And that just made him cry harder. Here at this moment when all hope was lost, her first priority was reassuring him.
Closer and closer they were pulled towards the bellows. The conveyor machine growled as it ratcheted them ahead, inch by inch. It pulled Piffle away from Toby to place her in front of the nozzle. Their hands were pulled apart.
She reached out to him. And she smiled.
Then Toby flinched as the machines coughed a blast of brainwashing gas right into her face. He saw her expression contort. First into a sneeze, then into horror, then resistance, then struggle, then nothing. When the conveyor belt pulled her onwards, her face was as blank as a sheet of new paper.
Piffle had been erased. Made into one of the hopeless millions.
That made something in Toby shift. Suddenly he felt the stirrings of a new feeling within him, stronger than his fear.
He didn't have a name for it, but it wanted into his driver's seat, and he let it.
Without conscious thought, he was suddenly fighting against his shackles with a fury that should have been impossible. He planted one foot, then pulled hard on the other. The pain was like plunging his ankle into a bonfire, but the sensation was somehow faraway enough to deal with. He was disassociated from it. It didn't matter. He tried the other foot. Warm trickles of blood ran down his fur. Good. A sign of progress.
Then he was in front of the dingy brass nozzle. In mere seconds it would squirt out a chemical cloud that would steal his will away. He would not allow it. He used one hand to force his mouth shut and the other to plug his nostrils so tight he felt the inner membranes tear.
The pink gas shot out, enveloping him in its noxious color. It stung his eyes like nothing else he'd ever experienced. It was like being blasted at point-blank range with a faceful of disinfectant. Toby did not allow his awareness to concentrate on the gas. Instead, every neuron in his brain was routed towards forcing more willpower into his legs.
The smoke stopped. The conveyor tugged him forwards, towards the machine with the knife and the teacup.
With a hot splash of red, Toby yanked one of his feet free.
That at least gave him enough room to dodge as the scalpel began trying in vain to slice off the top of his head. He could hear it whizzing around, whining like a mosquito. Purely on reflex, he shot his hand out, grabbed its neck, and bent it. The knife came loose and clattered to the ground. The other machine tried to plop a teacup down on him, but since his skull was still intact, it merely fell off and shattered.
The sound of porcelain breaking must have triggered some alarm, because Toby suddenly heard the splashing of water around him intensify. Rhythmically. Long legs running through the water towards him.
Fortunately, the conveyor thought that Toby was now finished with his induction, so it let his other ankle free. He wouldn't have to repeat his feat of wrenching it loose. He didn't dare look down. He didn't need to see what he'd done to know how torn up his foot was. He could feel the brass trumpet notes of pain it was sending through him, and of course the hot, wet blood.
Despite that, he started running.
He doubled back along the conveyor track. He didn't allow himself to breathe again until he was well past the bellows. Then he took his hands away and gulped down so much air it made his vision twinkle. His lungs had been starving for it, and gobbled it gratefully.
Toby did not think for a heartbeat about the enormous impossibility of escape. He did not think at all. The expression on his face was unreadable, but his eyes were open painfully wide and his ears were spread out like radar dishes. He existed for only two things now: alertness and speed. He ignored all the signals his legs were sending about how much pain they were in and how they couldn't possibly be expected to keep running this fast. 'Shut up and work,' his nerves told them.
He could see his pursuers now. More waiterthings. Dozens of them. They'd come out of nowhere, all waving their arms frantically and stomping through the water in a beeline towards him. Not a single one of the laboring children so much as looked up at the sight.
At least, not at first. Then a few did. And a few more.
Toby sure as hell didn't notice. His attention was devoted to the narrow conveyor belt and the approaching waiterthings. He knew if one of those monsters touched him, it could scoot him right back towards the pink smoke dispenser. So he couldn't let one touch him. Not even once.
Up ahead, one was climbing up onto the track.
Toby jumped, sailing over it with a foot of clearance.
He hit the metal and it didn't even slow his stride. He simply could not afford to stumble, so he didn't.
This was a type of fear Toby had never felt before. This was fear refined to immaculate purity. This was fear that didn't have time for worry or quaking or pissing his pants. This was 100% survival instinct. This was blot-out-the-rest-of-the-universe-and-stay-alive-type fear.
Toby did not allow himself to think about the fact that he was currently running loop-de-loops, and should have long since fallen off into the water. The lack of gravity in this place worked in his favor. 'Down' was the metal track below him, 'up' wasn't even worth considering.
Then ahead was Doctor Dacryphilia's office. Toby was momentarily startled he'd come so far so fast, but he didn't let thinking slow him down. Since he knew that barging through the office would mean getting caught, he'd have to go around somehow.
When he reached the tin door, Toby jumped up and sank his meager claws into the aluminum roof. He scrambled up the side of the wall with a series of ear-ringing bangs. His kicking feet shook the whole shack.
From inside, the Doctor roared, "SOMEONE'S BEING UNGRATEFUL!!!"
Toby did not let the deafening voice rattle him. It couldn't. He was already at the zenith of his fear. He literally could not feel more scared.
Not even when he reached the edge of the roof and saw that he'd have to jump about ten feet straight down and land past the office steps. Landing directly on them would shatter his ankles. Landing in the water might too, but it was still a better chance.
Toby thought about none of this. He simply jumped.
For a few seconds that felt much longer, he flew. The air lashed at his cheeks, blowing the tears sideways away from his eyes.
Then he landed in the water and rolled. He felt pain splinter and shriek all across his body. From his legs where he'd landed, to his palms where he'd braced himself, to his nose where his face had been driven into the concrete beneath the water.
He came up sputtering. The toxic, salty, metallic taste of the water in his mouth barely registered. As he stood, he happened to see behind him.
Four hundred waiterthings were chasing him. Or more. Their arms were outstretched; gloves waving like tree leaves.
Toby continued to run. It was harder now that he was sloshing through water, but he continued to run.
The waiterthings were getting closer. He could hear their idiot bleating. "Sir, come back! Sir! You've made a mistake! The dining area is not that way! Sir! Sir!"
They were made to exist down here. They probably moved through this water every day. Toby had never needed to run through water in his entire life.
But if they caught him, he would stay here forever.
Toby kept running.
He ran even as he remembered he had no idea how he'd even gotten to this place. One moment he'd been in the basement catacombs, then he'd been here. He couldn't remember a door or a portal or a vortex or anything. His attention had been elsewhere, and then it had happened.
What if that was the only way in or out?
He'd have to make it happen again. How!? How could he make himself stop thinking about escaping?
Piffle. That was how.
His eyes stared ahead at the seemingly-infinite factory floor he was running towards, but all he could see was her face. Those ruby-red eyes that had once disgusted him. Now they reminded him of unique jewels. Her sailor suit. Her helpfulness. Her selflessness. And more than anything else, that smile of hers. That bucktoothed doorway to an endless realm of optimism. She had been instructive when he'd been confused, calm when he'd been voiceless with terror, joyful when he'd been-
AND YOU LEFT HER BEHIND.
That single thought was seared across his mind like the words had been branded directly onto his eyeballs. Toby skidded, lost all coordination, and very nearly fell flat on his face. But he recovered enough to keep on running. It was much easier now without the water.
Past the thousands of mirrored arches, away from the thundering factory and back into dark silence, the full weight of Toby's realization fell upon him like a spiked hammer. He had left her behind.
And... and he couldn't go back for her.
His legs would not stop running. He couldn't even bring himself to order them to. He couldn't even bear to look back.
He had left her behind. Correction: he was leaving her behind.
Fresh tears came. Toby stared on ahead through the growing darkness, realizing what a monster he was. How much longer would it have taken to grab her? He would have only needed to take three, maybe four steps towards her, and then turn to run. But no. She wouldn't have come with him anyway. She'd already been given one of those reprogramming teacups. She would have resisted, actively held him back. Then the waiterthings would have caught them both and it would have all been for nothing.
Toby did not know where the waiterthings had gone. He dimly realized that the only running footsteps he could hear now were his own.
But maybe his touch would have snapped her out of it. Maybe he could have knocked the teacup away. Maybe she could have grabbed him and spread her wings and flown them both away to safety.
There were endless maybes and only one fact: He hadn't even tried.
Toby sobbed and felt shame consume him. But he didn't stop running.
He ran until the last traces of light had faded completely away and he was shrouded in total darkness. He ran until nothing existed but the sound of his footfalls and the sound of his breath.
Pain abruptly smashed him in the ribs.
He was too winded to shout, so he only made a thin wheeze as he laid on the concrete and agony danced all over his body. He couldn't even see his own nose. But his hand was lying on something wooden.
For an instant, he was over 100% certain it was the hand of Doctor Dacryphilia, about to lift him up and give him a great big hug.
But no, as he felt around, he realized it was the bottom step of a staircase. That was what had tripped him.
The staircase! The basement!
His body was finally registering all the strain and stress he'd just put it through. He groped his way to the railing and used it to pull himself to his feet. He felt as feeble as if he were made of ash. Everything hurt. He moved as slow as a centenarian.
The conveyor, the factory, and the dark tunnels had all zipped past in a blur. But now, just hauling himself up a simple staircase felt like a week's journey. The effort to pull himself up each step was excruciating. The decaying wooden rail came off in thin little chunks wherever he grasped it, filling him with the worry that it might snap and send him tumbling down to the bottom where he'd have to start all over again. Assuming he didn't sprain an ankle when he landed.
By the time he got to the top of the stairs, he had been reduced to crawling on all fours. But finally his hand bonked into something flat and vertical, and he welcomed the pain. It meant, finally, an exit. He hoisted himself up to standing again and felt around for the doorknob.
He expected light when he opened the door, but none came. Though the darkness seemed a little less complete once he was through. He remembered the sun had been setting when he and Piffle had approached the diner. He had no idea how much time had passed since. It might be midnight now.
Bits of plaster made skittering sounds as his paws sent them tumbling along the floor. He felt his way along the hallway. It seemed much shorter than he remembered it. And he knew he'd turned left after the kitchen, but the only way he could go now was right.
Finally, up ahead there was a bit of moonlight. He limped towards it.
This wasn't a kitchen.
And this wasn't the diner. He was in someone's livingroom. When he walked towards the windows, he looked around him and saw a long-abandoned place. The floor was thick with dust and what little furniture remained had been toppled over or smashed.
Hands shaking, Toby walked towards where he assumed the front door would be and felt around for the knob. A cold flutter of night wind rushed through the crack when he turned it. He walked out.
This was not Stoma. He had no idea where this was.
He was standing on the front steps of a large brown-brick townhouse. In front of him was a cobblestone road, along which many more identical residences sat in sleepy silence. Gas lamps lit the street. And everywhere there were craters. Wherever Toby was, it had been through a war. There wasn't a building in sight that was fully intact. Rubble filled every front yard. Not a single window he saw was intact. He stepped away from the house he'd emerged in and looked up to see that its entire second floor had been blown away.
He treaded carefully past the piles of bricks on the sidewalk, dizzy with confusion. The hazy yellow gaslight didn't help. He had no idea where this was. He could be a million miles away. It dawned on him that once he'd made it back to the catacombs, he'd picked a direction without thinking and ran. How could he have possibly thought he could find his way back to where he'd come from?
Maybe the catacombs were some kind of subterranean nexus world. Toby had seen enough science fiction to understand the concept. It could be like a joining place; a hub to an unimaginable amount of destinations. There could be thousands of basement staircases down there, leading to a thousand different locations.
Even if he went back in search of Piffle, the likelihood of finding the factory again was microscopic.
He turned around in a circle. The light from the gas lamps blurred the world into a greasy smear.
"Where am I?" he found himself saying.
From across the street, a bundle of rags moved. Toby hadn't even noticed it before. Someone was sitting on the stoop of the house across from him. They were wearing a mound of old, ratty coats.
Two almond eyes shone out. Two little glimmers, like teeth.
The furson spoke softly, but Toby could hear their words as clearly as if they'd been whispered directly into his ear:
Chocolate and waste
Your eyes smell so good
Might I ask for a taste?"
Toby took off running, just as fast as before, without a single thought as to where.
Toby ran on and on until the cobblestones ran out. Until the road turned to hastily-laid tar. Until all the bombed-out buildings were behind him. Until he passed a sign reading,
You Are Now Leaving The Township Of QUINSY
Come Again Soon!
If he'd been thinking at all, he might have wondered if he'd slipped through time and wound up back on Earth, but in another century.
Even if he'd considered that idea, proof soon presented itself that he hadn't escaped from Phobiopolis after all. Past the place where the remaining road fizzled out into a dirt path, there was another forest. The woods surrounding Stoma had been leafy and green, suggesting springtime. But here the trees were dark and bare. Mid-to-late Autumn? Either the seasons had changed, or the trees had all been strangled to death by the hundreds of turquoise vines that wound around their trunks here. The veinlike lines of blue were everywhere, entwining themselves with all plantlife, pulsing slowly to the time of a heartbeat.
Toby didn't even notice. The nice thing about running was that you could get lost in it. Just drown your thoughts in the sensation of bare soles hitting the ground. The fabric of pajamas rustling against your skin. The dampness on your pantlegs. The chill of the midnight air. Your inhales, your exhales.
Toby was as blank as he could be. until finally his body turned against him in mutiny. He stumbled and nearly fell. His footclaws clutched the soil to keep him standing.
He was motionless in the road for a minute or so. Lit only by the near-full moon overhead, the little white mouse looked like a half-erased smudge on a black page. The wind made the tree branches murmur, but the loudest sound in the forest was Toby's sobbing.
He had never, not in all his life, hated anyone more than he hated himself in that moment.
When he'd stopped running, all the soreness from his tired body rushed back in. And so did his memory.
He couldn't see the forest. All he could see was Piffle's last expression before the machine had blown that pink smoke into her eyes and evaporated her.
He'd left her to a fate arguably worse than death. He'd left her there. He hadn't even tried to save her. His only thought had been himself.
He'd saved his own life. He'd saved nothing.
Worst of all, worse than anything else, was the certain knowledge that, if she were here now, she would forgive him. Even for as short a time as he'd known her, he knew that was her nature. He could imagine her sweet smile telling him the words, 'Of course you ran, you were so scared. Don't feel bad. I don't blame you. Don't worry about me.'
Eyes blind with tears, the small mouse somehow stumbled across the road without falling. He sat with his back against the bark of a tree. He held his head in his hands. He felt everything and nothing all at once. He had never dreamed that shame could feel like this. As if he had no right or reason to exist.
He had seen sadness in stories. He had felt it for himself, and sometimes for others too. But this was a new species of sadness he'd never imagined before. Much deeper, like it was coring out his heart and spilling the scrapings all over the floor.
All those books he'd read and shows he watched about heroes... The hero who saves the day and rescues the girl. That was what happened. What was supposed to happen. This wasn't even about 'boy and girl': Piffle had been literally his only friend in this horrible, rotten land. This was about basic, blood-simple loyalty.
And the first time he'd laid eyes on her, he'd flinched back in disgust.
When she was in trouble, he ran.
'I never gave her that hug she wanted.'
That did it. That was all he could take. Toby's crying became completely uncontrollable and he clutched his knees to his chest to bury his face between them. His tears added even more moisture to his soggy pants. His nose was filled with the wet scent of that horrible factory. The place he'd left her. Toby rocked back and forth. Not a single thought was given to the fact that he was sitting here all alone, out in the open, completely helpless in a forest that probably contained just as many monsters as the one before. And it was the dead of night, too. This was exactly the situation he'd curled up shivering in his cave to keep himself safe from. Now here he was. If something with teeth came along and ate him, he wouldn't care. He knew he deserved it.
Eventually though, just like his body had shut down from exhaustion, so did his emotions. Toby cried until his eyes burned. Until his throat was worn raw. He cried until he was as hollow inside as an empty tin can.
He sat with his head on his knees on the side of the road for a very long time, until he dimly realized that his feet had gone numb.
Ears and fingertips, too. He started moving around to get some heat in them, not out of a conscious desire to stay alive (because he didn't care if he did), but because his body simply switched to autopilot. He rubbed his feet until he could feel a little bit of touch coming back to them. Then he looked around at where he was.
A tangle of cross-hatching. Dark black angry lines all around him, with pulsing turquoise nerves. Not a building or landmark in sight. Just the dirt road beside him. He'd have to find someplace to sleep for the night. Though one thing he was sure of, he couldn't walk anywhere. He doubted his run-down legs would even let him stand.
So, on hands and knees, he crawled farther along, looking for perhaps a bush he could shelter under. Maybe a hollow tree.
What he didn't expect to find was a nightlight.
The ground was glowing. Below some patchy grass at the side of the path, there was a soft but unmistakable gleam emanating from under the soil.
A memory sparked: the luminous stones in the spider's chamber. This one must be a bigg'un.
Toby thought it would help him see better. So he started to dig. He even apologized to the grass as he pulled it up.
Soon enough, after he'd gotten his hands dirty up to the wrists and made a pile of considerable size, he realized that whatever he was digging towards was a lot brighter and a lot farther down than he realized. Though he kept on shoveling up handfuls of the nearly-frozen dirt. His fingers were beginning to turn blue, but at least the physical activity kept his mind from dwelling on how much of a useless coward he was.
Toby suddenly shook.
No, wait. The ground had.
He stopped digging.
He felt it again. Something was moving below him. The light from his hole shone brighter.
Toby began to back up a bit.
Soon the murmur in the earth was a rumble. Tree branches above scraped and crackled. Toby felt a growing vibration running through him, strong enough to make his flesh jiggle.
Then the ground exploded.
Dirt clods flew in every direction as something radiant emerged from underneath. Toby instinctively scrambled backwards and threw his arm up in front of his face to shield his eyes. Whatever had come out, it was bright enough to shame the moon. Bright as a second sun.
And it was screaming: a deep, gurgling, demonic roar, directed skyward. The bellow shook the trees and punched Toby's eardrums. This was the exultant howl of something that had been trapped in the cold darkness for an unimaginable length of time and was finally free, in defiance of whatever had put it there.
Toby wondered if he had just unleashed something that had been buried for a reason. (It didn't surprise him. He had certainly proven how good he was at making everything worse.)
The thing's glow faded, and when Toby's blinking eyes began to adjust, they made out an equine shape silhouetted against the moon.
But as it became clearer, Toby realized this was not a living thing. These were the bones of something long dead. The horse's skull looked all around at the trees and the moon. It stamped its hooves against the grass. The skeleton was charred completely black, like it had crawled out of a furnace after someone had tried to incinerate it. Soot flakes fell as it shook the remnants of its tail. Toby could see each one of its blunt, blackened teeth.
The light hadn't come from a stone, but from within this hellish thing. Deep inside its body, some kind of inner illumination seeped through. It was every color of a Christmas display. Gem green, fierce orange, cold blue, severe red. Deep in the sockets of its eyes were two white pinpricks, where the brightest light of all inside its brainpan showed through.
Toby stared at it. He trembled a bit, but his face displayed no emotion. He had released this creature. There was not a doubt in his mind that it existed to kill, but he'd used up all his fear long ago. If this thing meant to devour him, he would let it. What right did he have to live anyway?
The thing spotted him.
Toby realized that, miraculously, he did still have a tiny bit of fear left in him.
The dead horse shook more dirt from its glowing bones and approached the small boy who had exhumed it.
Its mouth opened. Toby stared at those teeth. They were so flat and square. They would shatter his arms and legs like pretzel sticks when it started to eat him.
But it didn't start eating him. Instead, in a disused but clear voice, it spoke, "Thank you, Sire."
Toby had cringed himself into a tiny ball, but now he peeked past his sleeve. The horsemonster was standing there quietly, looking down at him. Awaiting a response.
Toby opened his mouth but his larynx was painfully tender. "Y-you're wel-come?" he rasped.
The skeletal beast tucked one foreleg beneath itself and bowed. "I owe you my freedom," it said in a rich Basso Cantante.
Toby sat up a little straighter. That voice was like if someone had stolen the sounds of a hundred different radio announcers and distilled them into a quintessential concentrate. "What are you?" he dared to ask.
"I am a parasomnic construct," it said with a bit of pride. "I was born of nightmares. Spawned from the very substance of this land. I exist to frighten. And I used to do so quite well. Extraordinarily well." It paused. "...Too well."
"What do you mean?" Toby reflected that if it hadn't been for his utter emotional exhaustion, he would have been fleeing and flailing in hysterics by now. The horsemonster was clearly not bragging by calling itself a nightmare elemental. At any other moment in Toby's life, the mere sight of it would have scared the blood in his veins to ice.
The parasomnic construct turned its face away a little. Shame crept into its voice. "I was a monster. Too good of a monster. Like other constructs, I spent my time habitually terrorizing and incinerating any souls I could get close enough to. There were others like me. We would hunt in packs. We would find dreamers and tear them limb from limb. The blood was delicious. I cannot say I was happy, because I had and have no soul to feel with. But I was well-satisfied. I was performing my function to the best of my abilities."
It raised its head slightly higher. "I was a perfect nightmare."
Then its head lowered, and it pawed at the ground with its hoof. "Eventually, they put a stop to me. I have always been a skeleton, but once upon a time I was lightning-white. Gorgeous and terrible. Some of the souls whom I had previously terrorized fell upon me. They chained me and lit me with some unknown magic fire that burned me from the inside out. I had never felt before, but in that moment I felt pain. I struggled. I killed many of them, only for them to return and continue holding me down. I burned to ash that night. Then they buried the ash in this very ground and I found myself unable to regenerate."
Toby wondered how long this beast had been waiting to tell someone its tale. Despite the fact that it was admitting to actions of wanton evil, Toby felt less afraid of it now. 'It seems remorseful,' he thought.
"In the dirt, I realized that anger is the easiest, earliest emotion. For many years, my existence was no more than hatred. I hated those that had imprisoned me. I could not dream, yet I dreamed of my revenge. Every iota of my being yearned for blood. For the ripping of limbs. For the gushing of hearts."
Toby reconsidered. 'Maybe not.'
"Yet I could not have what I wanted. Over time, I came to realize that there was nothing I could do to accomplish my freedom. So my ashes waited in the soil. My rage slowly died, as it was useless to me. And, since there was nothing else to do, I listened.
"I do not know for how long I have been underground, only that I have heard so many conversations pass down this road that it changed me in ways profound. I found myself capable of empathy. I still do not exactly 'feel', but I became aware that the souls I had preyed upon in my heyday did not enjoy being preyed upon. There was no thought to 'good' or 'wrong' in those times, I simply did what I was meant to do. I had no more thought for the feelings of my victims than the feelings of numbers that are fiddled about with to solve sums.
"Over many years, I realized that I was grateful to those who had imprisoned me. My stillness had allowed me time to learn. I understood living things now, and I understood myself."
It leaned in close to Toby and he felt its warm breath on his hair. "You have given me what I have desired for longer than I can describe. I have listened and waited, and wished for someone to release me so I could live in this world again and become something new. I would like to begin my reemergence by offering myself to you as a servant."
Toby blinked. His immediate reaction was to decline. "No! I mean... I mean, I'm glad you want to be better. That's very brave of you. But I don't deserve any thanks. I... I did something horrible tonight."
"Worse than the things I've done?" it asked.
That gave Toby pause.
Here he was hating himself for abandoning Piffle, yet standing in front of him was a being that had just admitted to reveling in years of murder and torture. Toby was willing to trust in its good intentions for now. Maybe, he dared to think, in time he could forgive himself too.
If he thought there was the slightest, most remote possibility of rescuing Piffle, then that would have been his first suggestion. But that was a futile hope. He knew nothing about this place and he knew he was not the hero he saw in stories. He was a weakling, a bungler and a crybaby. The best he could hope to do was tell someone else what had happened to Piffle in the hopes they'd know how to save her. And then leave this world forever before he made anyone else's life worse.
The mouse didn't say anything for quite a while, so the parasomnic construct snorted gently in his direction. "Sire?"
Toby blinked and looked back into the glimmering embers inside the horse-thing's sockets. If he could get used to Piffle's eyes, he supposed he could get used to these ones as well.
"Please reconsider," it gently pled. "I know that I want to be something other than what I was born as, but I know only what I've overheard. I have no practice being anything but a monster. I require instruction," it explained. "If you allow me, perhaps I can put my nature to good use. Is there anyone you know of that deserves a torturous death?" it asked with a hint of glee.
"No, no!" Toby said, waving his hands. "Nothing like that. Actually, I was just thinking about... a friend. Someone I failed. I know I can't help her, but I'm trying to find someone who can. You said you've overheard a lot?"
"Have you heard about a wizard named Aldridge?"
"Oh yes, many times."
Toby sat up a little straighter. "Good! I need to find him so he can send me home. And while I'm there, I'll tell him about my friend. If anyone can help her, he can. Take me to him, please."
Even without facial features, the horse-thing perfectly conveyed chagrin. "Well... that is to say... I've heard many legends. I know he lives on a mountain, but it is two very different things to see a mountain in the distance and to know how to get there. There is a reason so few reach Anasarca. Even straight paths in this land are not always straight paths. Do you follow?"
Toby snarled a little. "Then... do you know where we can find someone who's been there? Or who could guide us there? Like, an adventurer? Someone fearless?"
Its ears perked up at that word. (Actually, it didn't have ears on its bare skull. But its glow took on the vague outline of a living horse, giving it the aura of where things like ears and a tail would be.) "I have heard many passers-by say that the most fearless furson in all of Phobiopolis resides in a place called Phlogiston."
"Allright. Do you know where that is?"
"Not precisely," it admitted. "But it is considerably closer than Anasarca, and I have gleaned the general direction and distance. I believe I can make an educated guess."
"Okay then. I'd like to try," Toby requested.
"Absolutely, sire!" The horse-thing trotted in place cheerfully. "After spending what I assume to be several centuries motionless, nothing appeals to me more than starting out on a long journey as soon as possible! We can begin right this second if you desire!"
Toby actually smiled a little. After all the heartbreak and horror and self-hated he'd been through tonight, the last thing he'd expected to find at the end of all of it was a bit of hope.
He pushed against the ground and tried to leverage himself into a standing position, but failed immediately. His legs were too weak and his toes were numb again.
"Allow me, sire," the horse-thing said.
Toby barely kept himself from yelping as it suddenly leaned in close and scooped him right up onto its skull. It raised its head and sent him sliding along its bumpy spine.
Toby ended up splayed across the horse-thing's withers. He clenched himself in place to stop from falling, yet simultaneously tried to keep any part of himself from directly touching the brittle, ashy bones. Talking to this thing, he could handle. Touching it was another matter.
"You are probably uncomfortable up there. Let me make you a proper saddle."
The horse-thing grunted and dug its hooves into the soil, concentrating. Toby freaked out a bit more. Especially when he felt flesh bubbling into existence just beneath him. Coarse fur and gristle bloomed out of the horse-thing's bones to produce a cushion he could sit on.
The texture was a lot like the curly end of an especially-fatty bacon strip. But it still beat bare, lumpy vertebrae. "Yes, actually. Thank you."
The mouse's gratitude noticeably delighted it. "You are most welcome, Sire!"
Toby felt weird about being called that. "Actually, my name is..."
He panicked for a moment. What the heck was his name!?
Oh no! That forgetting-thing that Piffle had warned him about was starting already! But relief flooded through him as he remembered the many times Piffle had called after him. Even in her absence she was still helpful. "My name is Toby de Leon." Thinking back, much of his past life flowed back into him, recalled from when he'd explained it all to Piffle.
"A wonderful name," the horse-thing complimented.
'I can't just keep thinking of it as 'the horse-thing' forever,' Toby thought to himself. "Do you have a name too?"
"Not originally, no," it said. "Although I've heard many names spoken by the people who've passed along this road, and if I had to choose one for myself..." it trailed off. "I've thought about this for a very long time; give me a moment to make sure I'm absolutely certain."
"Allright," Toby said.
After a moment or so, the horse's skull bobbed up and down in a resolved nod. "The name I should like to be known as is George Charles Atkinson."
Toby was more than a little surprised by that. He would have expected something more intimidating. Like Nightripper or Bloodsteed. Something more appropriate for a beast that looked like something Satan might ride on. Although he supposed it made sense in a way. A civilized name was fitting for someone wanting to lead a new civilized life. "Allright. Pleased to meet you, George."
"Pleased to meet you as well, Sire Toby."
Toby was about to ask him to stop calling him that, but figured if George enjoyed saying it, he might as well let him.
"Shall we be off?" George asked.
"How long do you think it'll take?"
"If I can still accomplish my old top speed, then from what I can deduce by my eavesdroppings, we might make it there by morning if I gallop all night long!" He sounded as if nothing could possibly please him more.
"That's good." Toby nodded, then suddenly felt a wraith of drowsiness settle upon him. "Do you need me for anything else though? Because I just now realized how completely wrecked I am. I think I might fall asleep right here against your neck."
"Then let me make it easier for you," George offered.
Toby watched as more charcoal-colored flesh bubbled up from the cracks in the construct's bones. It formed along George's shoulders into a rough rectangle with a raised edge that Toby could use as a pillow. A meat divan. The mouse hesitantly ran a paw over it. The hair was stringy and greasy, and the flesh itself felt like boiled eggplant. But Toby realized his eyelids were barely keeping themselves open at this point. His tiredness, after taking a break, had now decided to pound him with all its might. With a wince, he laid himself down on George's makeshift mattress.
"Is it to your liking?"
Toby didn't want to say that it actually felt pretty nauseating, and it smelled like a well-used dishcloth, so he simply mumbled something approximately yes-like.
"Then may I begin?"
Another mumble. Toby's eyes were already closed.
They opened again pretty quickly though when George started running. In an instant, Toby went from stationary to feeling as if he were strapped to the hood of a car barreling down the freeway. Even that was inadequate to describe it. George's speed made his own panicked run through the factory feel like slow-motion in comparison. This was inconceivable velocity. Sparks flew from the road wherever George's hooves struck a rock or refuse. Toby hung onto the horse's neck for dear life.
Though he realized a moment later that he didn't have to. The undead flesh had some kind of magic to it that was holding Toby perfectly in place, yet without feeling sticky. Toby didn't question it. He didn't have the brainpower to. His body was fiercely insisting that even though he was lying down on the back of a demonic skeletal monsterhorse, the most important fact was that he was lying down, and therefore sleep had damn well better be imminent.
Toby watched the black-and-turquoise trees fly past in a moonlit blur. The drum of the wind in his ears reminded him of the sound of beach waves.
If you had told him at any point in his life that he'd one day be so weary he'd fall asleep riding on top of a literal nightmare, Toby would have called you completely insane.
Yet he was already snoring.
Toby faded into awareness with his eyes still closed. He was on a boat. A little rowboat bobbing gently across a lake. He faintly acknowledged that he was curled up in a tight ball with his fur all fluffed up. The morning was a chiller.
He wasn't awake yet, but his thoughts were aware enough to know this wasn't home. He was still in the dreamplace. And that turned his thoughts towards Piffle. His sleeping eyes saw her standing in another boat, paws folded neatly over her skirt, looking back at him as she drifted away. Her boat had no oars. Its untethered line trailed ripples through the water.
Her expression was one of calm acceptance. And that made Toby's heart hurt so much worse.
If he could have even imagined her being angry at him for abandoning her, that would have been better. At least then he could get all defensive and make excuses. Which would be cowardly of course, but at least it would allow him to preserve a bit of fake dignity. Instead, he was forced to face the fact that he had left someone who deserved it the least in a hellhole beyond his imagining. He wasn't just a coward. He was the world's grand champion of cowards.
And as if to reinforce it, he let out a small "YAAAAH!!" when he opened his eyes and realized where he was. Only instinct kept him from falling off onto the dirt road. This was NOT a boat!
George Charles Atkinson did not take offense. "You're awake, sire. Good, good. We're very near Phlogiston now. I thought it best to slow down, since I'd foreseen you might be frightened of me upon waking and I wanted to minimize the chance you might be startled out of the saddle."
Toby's sleepy ears caught about half of that."Th-thank you..." He took a moment to shove his fear down. Yes, he was on a luminous zombie pony from somewhere beyond Hades. That was all explained last night. And like Piffle (small twinge of pain), George had shown himself to be nothing but kind and gentle despite his appearance.
There was a note of boyish joy in George's voice. "I'd thought perhaps I would be rusty, what with being out of practice for so long. Not so! I daresay I was in top form last night! Outrunning sound itself! I hadn't been able to do that for a quite a while, even before my internment. Perhaps the sheer zeal of freedom gave wind to my hooves?"
Toby mumbled a gummy-mouthed sound of congratulations. Then he looked past the necrotic tissue he'd spent the night snuggling against to take a gander at the landscape.
It was like a different planet entirely this time. The sandy ground was literally grey. Maybe ash. Huge dappled stalagmites littered the area with scrubby little bushes in between. A dull, ugly desert that seemed to eat and digest color itself.
Beyond this moon-like plain, he could see more forests and hills in the far distance. So at least he didn't get the impression that if he got lost here he'd crawl for days before dying of thirst. He certainly didn't have to worry about baking to death; the sky was still as overcast as ever. It nearly matched the color of the soil.
Toby thought he saw rats, or lizards, scurrying around. But after he'd wiped the sleep dirt away, he could see they were actually items of clothing. Sweaters running on their sleeves. Underwear pushing itself along, earthworm-like. He saw a sock get too close to a baseball cap and be devoured. No one had to tell him that these garment-gremlins were definitely to be avoided.
Looking up over George's spectral ears, he could see a little ghost town up ahead. Though not the old west type. Instead, the dwellings looked like little square pastries. Mass-produced ranch-style tract housing in white, pink, and brown. A chunk of suburbia out in the wasteland.
Toby had a sudden horrible realization, remembering a history show he'd once watched. "Um... do you know what radioactivity is and if we're in any danger of it out here?"
George looked back over his shoulder. "Sire, it is without pride I can say that I am familiar with virtually all ways in which souls can suffer. And you are perceptive if you've guessed that Phlogiston is someone's dream of a model village used for atomic bomb testing. Although Phlogiston is not its original name: I recall it as Epitaxis. Many times I chased its villagers off into the wastes in the night..." he trailed off wistfully, then remembered his disapproval of such activities. "And while it may have been contaminated with radiation at one point, that is no longer the reason why it remains abandoned, according to what I've heard."
"Then why is it?"
"Something called the Tinder Fingers, sire. Not an entity I'm familiar with, but it sounds quite ornery. I have gathered that the fearless furson we seek lives here in defiance of it."
Toby didn't have to know what the heck a Tinder Fingers was to want to avoid it. His stomach rumbled. He hoped there was some way to accomplish breakfast here in Phlogiston.
"If you're hungry, you are more than welcome to take a chunk of my backfat to nibble on," George offered.
Toby fought back nausea. "No! No thanks! Oh no no thanks! Nope!" He shook his head and tried to stop imagining the taste and texture. He was suddenly quite eager to stop sitting on the stuff. Although that gave him a thought. "Can you grow this flesh all over your body?"
"I could, certainly."
"Then why don't you?"
George snorted. "Why do you ask? I think I am far handsomer as bones."
"Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to insult you. I just thought, um... that you'd be warmer, that's all."
A whinny-chuckle. "My marrow is incandescence elemental. I am quite sufficiently warm at all times, sire."
"Okay," Toby said.
"My apologies if I was short-tempered with you just now, sire. Your curiosity is perfectly normal. It's just that... since I cannot take pride in my past deeds, all that's left to me is pride in my appearance."
Toby nodded. "I can understand that. And you do look really good for a nightmare. You'd look excellent in a Halloween movie."
George trotted happily and whinnied. "Thank you, Sire! I'm aware I may never be 'beautiful', and that my form will always strike fear, but at least I can be good at what I am."
The horse and rider chatted a bit more as they neared their destination. At the edge of town, a poorly-painted aluminum sign announced,
BAWARE OF TINDER FINGRS
And the edge of town was literally the edge of town. There was a perfectly distinct line where the grey ashy plains ended and the astroturf began. Though it was no longer bright green. Nature had mostly reclaimed it. The plastic was cracked, peeled and melted. Real grass grew up from the cracks.
Toby began to get the immediate sense that this Tinder Fingers fellow enjoyed arson. A vast majority of the quaint little duplexes all around him were partially reduced to blackened timber. He wondered why there was anything left standing at all. But as George led him down endless identical streets, he began to perceive that these houses might be self-repairing. White paint and new tile seemed to be slowly swallowing the damaged areas on some of them. Like slow-growing mold. Toby didn't see a single furson out in the streets, but he did see some signs of life. Garbage, quite a lot of it, blew around in the breeze. Someone had graffitied "ZINC" on several properties.
Towards the center of town, the arson seemed to be winning. There were lots more charred, gaping foundations in the ground here. Hardly anything was left standing.
Except for the place Toby was suddenly sure they were heading towards.
Someone had dropped a pirate ship out of the sky.
There was no other way to imagine how it had gotten here. Toby could perfectly picture a portal opening up in the clouds and dropping this massive three-masted frigate right down onto Main Street park. The front of its hull even showed clear damage from the impact.
Even more bizarrely, the ship showed clear signs of habitation. Its sails were shredded and the masts were in disarray, but someone had gone to the trouble of boarding up all the holes in its hull. Someone had created a sloppy-but-serviceable doorway into the starboard side. There were even decorations. Lawn flamingos and assorted garden statues, all strewn around the perimeter in a satire of a well-kept lawn. A plank extended from the bridge with a bound lawn gnome 'walking' it.
One might have thought that a humongous wooden ship would have been swiftly claimed by whatever had set everything else in town to blazing. But instead it was kept safe by the pouring thundercloud above. A single fat, slate-colored cloud hovered above the ship as if it had been nailed in place, sending down a constant torrent of water. Toby got the impression that the cloud had been here as long as the ship, or nearly as long. There was certainly no chance of any wood burning with that much rainwater pelting down on it all the time.
"As you may have already gathered, this is the place," George said. He stopped a few feet away from the ring of rain to let Toby off.
Having never climbed down from a horse before, Toby found it rather difficult. George had to eventually swing his neck around so Toby could use his skull for a step. When the mouse was on solid ground finally, he needed a few moments to deal with the relief. He'd been absolutely certain he was about to fall backwards and crack his skull open like an egg.
He also realized that, despite his unearthly bed, he felt pretty well-rested overall. He remembered the total fatigue that had pummeled the energy out of him last night. Today, he felt fine. Or relatively so.
Toby stared into the curtain of water. He was not looking forward to this. "You, uh, couldn't grow me an umbrella out of your flesh-stuff, could you?" he joked.
"There's an idea! Let's see!" George immediately clenched his nonexistent muscles and made a horrible-sounding groan.
Toby waved his arms. "No! No! Stop! I was just kidding!!" he shouted. "I'm sorry. You don't have to do that. You already ran all night just to take me here. I'm really grateful. You don't have to do anything else for me."
George made a 'suit yourself' snort and withdrew all his flesh. He did a bit of a wiggle at feeling his bare bones again, clearly preferring them that way. "I appreciate your concern, Sire, but please understand that this is not an imposition for me. This is my choice. For the unknown length of time before my defeat, I existed to cause pain and terror. I still feel those urges within myself, as it is hard to deny one's true nature." The spectral horse looked down solemnly at his new master. "I am serving you because I need to. My life is imbalanced. I have spent the majority of it as a cause of suffering. To free myself of guilt, I must become the opposite and thus balance the scale."
Toby was struck silent for a moment, and felt a renewed scrape of pain in his heart over what he'd done to Piffle. He blushed in shame.
But he reminded himself that he and George were a bit different. One was a sick, skinny mouse with no spine or sense of direction in this place. The other was a literal living nightmare with full knowledge of its surroundings and probably loads of arcane powers. It was easy to be noble when you were strong.
Toby repeated to himself his decision to continue with his plan to get home and pass the responsibility for Piffle onto someone more suitable.
He looked down at his feet. "Allright then. So you're saying you want to stick with me?"
"For as long as you need me to," came the unhesitating reply.
"Thank you," Toby muttered. For a moment there, he suddenly wanted very much to yell at George to just go away and find someone else. He was undeserving of the honor of being served. And so much selflessness only highlighted his own weakness. It was more politeness than anything else that made Toby hold his tongue. "So. I'm going to go in there and ask whoever it is if they can help. I don't think you can fit in through that little doorway. Should I, um, tie you up out here somewhere?"
George suppressed a snicker. "I can assure you, I am fully capable of remaining in place without need of restraint."
Toby winced so hard it hurt. "Sorry! Sorry again! I was thinking of nonev horses in movies. I'm sorry..."
George's skull always looked like it was smiling, but now looked like it was smiling a little bit more. "Apology accepted, sire."
Eager to escape more embarrassment, Toby looked back through the rain at the door. "Um. I'm gonna go now." He looked around for something to use to keep himself dry and spotted a convenient empty pizza box. He scurried over and knocked the crumbs out of it. He held it over his head and faced the ship. "See you in a little while, George. I'll scream if I need help. I hate leaving you out here." ('Mostly because I'll be completely defenseless without you,' he thought but didn't say.) "Won't you be bored?"
A chuckle. "I have seen nothing but dirt for the last few centuries, Sire Toby. You can be certain that there is no place you could leave me, for no length of time, that would leave me feeling bored. Just feeling air on my flanks is exhilarating."
Toby smiled a bit. "Okay, good. See you in a bit." Clutching the pizza box tight, he walked into the waterfall.
He'd knocked and the door had swung open at his touch. He'd called out, 'Hello?' but received no answer.
Toby stood on the stoop, feeling the rain soak through his cardboard protection until he couldn't take it anymore. He was already chilly and the rain was freezing his bare feet and fingers.
He ducked into the dark wooden doorway. "Hello? Is anyone home? I don't mean to be trespassing! I just want to ask a favor!"
He looked around. The carpenter responsible for this ship's livability had installed a short hallway into the interior. Coats hung on hooks. There was a lightbulb above, but Toby couldn't see a switch.
He padded further into the houseboat. "Hello...?" There were shadows in abundance here. Slivers of daylight snuck through tiny gaps in the ship's hull.
Toby thought at first he'd walked into a shop instead of somebody's residence. The room was crammed to the ceiling with shelves. Junk of every kind crammed into every available cranny. Books, knickknacks, jewelry, toys, DVDs, electronics, tchotchkes and doodads. Like a thrift store that had come unstuck in time. Toby saw things that wouldn't look out of place in his own home, as well as antiques that appeared to predate his great-grandparents.
All of it was glazed with dust. The interior of the ship was surprisingly dry, but far from clean. He cringed all over and wrapped his arms tight around himself, trying not to touch anything. He pulled his pajama collar over his mouth so he wouldn't breathe in anything to make him sneeze. Not only did he not want an allergy attack, but he had the distinct feeling that if he knocked anything off these shelves, the owner of this house would very literally kill him.
A moment later, he was certain. A taped-up sign proclaimed:
Fair Warning To Thieves
None Have Ever Succeeded
And You're Nothing Special
Toby took tiny steps through the labyrinth of shelves, in search of anything living. Thankfully he could see the whole outline of the hull by looking up at the high ceiling. 'This must've been a cargo ship,' he reasoned. 'Still is, kinda.'
He stumbled a few times over empty beverage cans or fallen trinkets, but eventually made his way past the zoo of detritus to an area that looked more like a livingroom. There were plump, dirty couches and a rug so stained there was no guessing its original color. Mounds of food wrappers, trays, containers and soiled utensils. A big television/stereo/video game system, jury-rigged to a jungle of wires that led somewhere outside. And then there was the throne.
An actual freakin' throne. As in, probably looted from some lost kingdom's castle. It was positioned at the bow of the ship so it was the highest point in the room (perfect for looking down and watching the TV). There was a light on above it and an occupant in its seat.
"H-hello?" Toby squeaked.
The occupant was some kind of canine, maybe. Male. Teenager-sized. His jeans were shredded at the knees from heavy use. Toby had no idea why he'd even noticed that little detail first when the most obvious thing about this furson was that they had ridiculously gigantic silver wrenches for arms. The kind with the screw-shaped bit you can turn to move the jaws up and down. The wrenches looked like they were bolted to this furson's shoulders, then they'd been sloppily cut in half and welded back together with a hinge to make an elbow. Though they only turned in-and-out, not back-and-forth.
The owner of these primitive prostheses was splayed out on the throne sideways: head using the armrest as a pillow, brushy tail dangling over the side, feet up on the cushion. They had their face stuck in a muscle car magazine. From the way one paw was bopping up and down, Toby guessed he must have been listening to headphones.
"HELLO?" he tried again, trying to be louder in a way that wouldn't startle this stranger. Toby had no idea how they might react.
"I hear you fine, chief." came a voice from behind the magazine.
"Oh. Um..." Toby wrung his hands together, more aware than ever that he was standing, uninvited, in someone else's home. Knowing the kind of creatures that prowled around Phobiopolis, he had an educated guess that people living here might be a little protective of their personal spaces.
The furson on the throne didn't speak another word. Their paw went right on bobbing like a metronome.
"I..." Toby started. His throat was starting to close up from nerves. He coughed to clear it. "I was t-told that I could find the most fearless furson in Phobiopolis at this address. Is that you?"
The magazine did not so much as rustle. "Nope," said the voice.
Toby was confused.
"That would be her."
Toby suddenly felt sharp metal touching the back of his neck.
Toby was rooted to the spot. A quivering statue. Whoever was behind him had ambushed him in perfect silence. And from the way they were digging that sword tip in, they meant business.
"You've got a foot and a half of steel pointed at you. What are you doing in my house?"
Toby was as much chilled as confused by the voice. It was sung. Like someone had just played a few seconds from an old record album, but without any accompanying music. The voice was the throaty, no-nonsense twang of a female country singer in a smoke-filled bar.
"You better speak," it said, and this time it was completely different. The voice was the same, but now it was a pop-star's croon.
Toby's tongue finally unlocked. "I came here because I was told you were fearless and an adventurer and maybe could take me to Anasarca because that's where I need to go and if I'm wrong I'm really sorry and I'll leave immediately you don't have to hurt me!"
The blade at his neck never wavered; steady as if it were held on a tripod. Its owner said nothing.
But the furson in the chair gave a teakettle hiss of a laugh. "You want what? I mean, my ears heard it but I'm havin' trouble believing it. You just waltz into our pad and expect us to drop everything and be your babysitter up the mountain?"
Toby felt himself start to cry, and pinched his thigh as hard as he could to make it stop. He got the feeling these were people not to show weakness in front of.
The magazine came down, and Toby gasped.
He was glad the furson was several feet away because seeing the details would have caused him to panic. This dog's (or coyote or dingo or something) head had been sheared cleanly in half, right at the bridge of the nose. The whole top part of the skull was gone.
In its place was basically a bottlecap. The canine's eyes and ears had been plucked from their natural places and welded back in. They floated approximately where they'd sit on a normal skull, now affixed by thin metal struts. The rest of the head was empty enough to rest a soda can on.
He tossed his magazine aside and hopped down off the throne. His wrench arms 'thunk'ed loudly against the wooden floor. There was a lazy little grin on his muzzle as he walked towards Toby. He maintained eye contact the whole time. Toby realized he even had tiny little metal eyelids. They looked like they were snipped out of tin.
The canine stopped a few feet in front of Toby and put his 'hands' on his hips. "Damn, you're funny," he said.
Up close he wasn't that much older or taller than Toby. But the mouse remembered what Piffle had said about deceptive ages.
The grin widened to show teeth. "Now, don't lemme give the wrong impression. We ain't gonna kill you. That is, assuming you don't make us need to." His accent reminded Toby of old Fifties motorcycle movies. "But y'see, we gotta be careful. We don't know you. Right now, you look like possibly the most pathetic thing I've ever seen in my life. But then I get to thinkin', 'How in the hell is a skinny kid in his damn jammies still alive this far into Phobiopolis? How'd he get past Tinder?' Maybe what I'm seeing isn't what I'm really seeing, y'dig?"
A small jab at the back of Toby's neck told him the sword-holder was in agreement.
"I promise you, I'm exactly what I look like," Toby said. He tried not to look away from those science-lab eyes. He could hear the tiny 'clink' whenever they blinked. He could even see the way the dog's ears had been crudely taxidermied into place with stitches made of wire. 'Doesn't that hurt!?' he wondered.
The frankencanine stared hard at him for a moment.
Then he abruptly burst into a barking laugh and clapped Toby on the shoulder with one of his wrench-hands. "HA! Yeah, you're probably on the level. I'm just screwin' with your head."
Toby visibly sagged as a huge amount of tension lifted. He was deeply relieved, but he also reached up to rub his shoulder. The teeth of that wrench had left little dents in his skin. "Ow..."
The canine tossed a nod past Toby's shoulder. "Let's stop playin' with the poor dink and let him siddown."
"If you say so," the singing-voice trilled.
Toby also started rubbing his neck as soon as the sword left its place there.
The canine jumped onto one of the couches with a FLUMPH and a cloud of snack crumb dust. "I'm Zinc. Just Zinc. You might've seen my handwriting on your way into town. Behind you is the highly-esteemed Miss Junella Brox: the scariest goddamn thing on this whole little planet of ours."
Toby turned around slowly, already bracing himself to come face-to-face with some tentacle-mouthed terror. Maybe a giant bat. Maybe a living suit of armor covered in spikes. Maybe something that'd drive him mad on the spot.
His eyebrows went up.
Well. She didn't actually look all that terrifying.
She was clearly a skunk, but stripelessly black all over. No older than Zinc, and fairly normal in appearance at first glance. But from the way Toby could see the light gleaming off her body, he realized she wasn't covered in fur, but grooves.
Head to toe, she was plastic. No, vinyl! Suddenly it made sense. She was a living record album! Without needing to be told, Toby put two and two together: this girl spoke by singing.
She was also completely naked except for a thick white aviator's scarf she wore around her neck. Though her nudity hardly mattered, as she was as smoothly featureless as a plastic doll all over. Even her toes looked like a single piece. Toby blushed and looked away from her musteline body up to her eyes. They were probably the most normal pair he'd seen in Phobiopolis so far, apart from being a blazing orange color with surprisingly tiny pupils.
Her muzzle seemed sculpted permanently in a tight little scowl. Not anger, just a lack of amusement. Toby got the feeling Junella did not smile much.
She looked him up and down briefly. She held up her sword: a cutlass. Perfect for a pirate. (Toby wondered if it had come with the ship). Junella turned it at him in such a way as to let him know that she in no way trusted him yet, and she could still use this whenever she felt she needed to.
He gulped and nodded.
She nodded back in acknowledgment. "Keep your hands in sight and you'll be fine." This time it was the basso warning of a nightclub ingenue.
Toby was stunned twice by what she'd just done with her hands. Her sword hand had tucked the blade into the scabbard at her hip. Except she wasn't wearing a scabbard. Or pants. Somehow, she'd stored her sword in her actual hip, and the flesh had closed around the metal like it belonged there.
But it was with her other hand that she spoke. Her mouth never opened, but slightly changed expression in time with the words. Instead, her voice had come from from where she traced a claw along a specific place on her chest. Toby saw that all her claws were metal. Literally needle-sharp. 'She plays herself to speak,' he marveled. He wondered if every sentence she would ever say was somewhere imprinted on her body, or if she could scratch the same area and the song would change.
Toby realized this was his first time meeting someone in Phobiopolis who he found more fascinating than frightening.
She strolled across the floor to her throne, lightly kicking Zinc's magazine aside. Her hips bounced rhythmically. Like most skunks, she was quite curvy in the posterior region, though far from fat. From her movements and figure, Toby guessed Junella was extremely limber. She radiated combat experience. Plus, her tail ended in a garden of jagged broken record shards. Getting smacked with them would probably eviscerate a person on the spot and leave their legs still standing.
Zinc had by now dug a bag of corn chips out of the couch cushions and was pouring them into his mouth. He chewed loudly. He thumped the seat beside him to indicate Toby should come sit down. With a wincing smile, Toby indicated he'd rather sit on the other couch, a little farther away from those wrenches.
"Suitcher'self," Zinc mumbled, finishing off the last crumbs in the bag.
Toby took in Zinc's details as well. The patchwork teen's species was unguessable. Canine for sure, but any possible mix of varieties. His fur was patterned in rust, sand and mud. In addition to his black jeans, he had on a blue t-shirt and a leather motorcycle jacket the color of dark chocolate. It was thin and deeply creased: signs of heavy use and little maintenance. Zinc was also barefoot, and looked like he had drill-holes in the sides of his soles. Toby didn't want to know what those were for.
"T'be honest," Zinc started, after licking his lips, "I think I speak for Junella and myself when I say we're really not all that bothered by you coming here and asking us to be guides. I mean, it's what we do. Because what else are we gonna do? But two things you hafta understand, amigo mio. One: Anasarca is the holy grail of destinations. It's as far away and hard to get to as anything you could imagine. And two: we don't do jack shit without payment."
Junella on her throne nodded agreement. She was keeping a close eye on the conversation below, but also filing her nails on a whetstone.
Toby's heart sank. "Oh. I... understand." He realized suddenly how monumentally selfish it was to have come here expecting these people to help him simply because he asked them to. As if they didn't have lives and priorities of their own. "I didn't bring any money though. I don't even know what money is in Phobiopolis. I've been here maybe a week. All I want is to get home."
Zinc was nodding. "...And you heard the legends about how Daddy Aldridge is the only way to do that," he finished.
Toby thought for a moment that Zinc was about to call that idea horseshit. But Toby was surprised.
"The legends are probably right. At least, far as we know. Aldridge is real. I even seen him once, flying overhead like a comet. But he don't socialize. You want to see him, you gotta go to his pad. And anyone who ever tries either ends up crawling home crying how they didn't make it, or no one ever hears from 'em again. Now, maybe this means they get wizarded into a crisp, but nothing I've ever heard of Aldridge suggests he's the type. He seems to be a genuine source for pure good in the world. He flies around fixing stuff. In the old days, and I mean centuries ago, he'd actually fight alongside us against some of the worst nasties. If the stories are true, Phobiopolis used to be WAY less safe than it is now."
Toby found that hard to imagine.
Zinc put on a shit-eating grin. "Can you tell that Juney usually lets me do the talking?"
Toby chuckled a tiny bit, but was still too nervous to say anything else.
Zinc steepled his fingertips (well, wrenchtips). "Anyway. You, pal, wanna get home. This is understandable. You've figured out that Aldridge is your only hope. This is smart. You've somehow deduced that someone like us is your ticket to Aldridge. This... is a problem."
Toby leaned forward. "Why?"
"Because we've never actually done it. Get all the way there I mean. We want to, don't get me wrong! Are you even kidding? It's the literal mountaintop. How can you call yourselves number one if you've never won the big prize? But dig this; you can't just walk there. There are places between here and there that exist to get you lost. As in, foreverlost. If you're going to make a try for Anasarca, that takes supplies and gear and, if you're not stupid, weapons. Thankfully, both of us have that partly covered just by being ourselves." He clanked his wrenches together, then pointed to Toby. "You on the other hand, look as easy to pop as a jelly donut."
Toby fidgeted a little in his seat (and could feel crumbs underneath him), but certainly didn't deny the observation.
Zinc nodded to Junella. "We've never been to Anasarca because we've never had a need to, understand? We don't care about asking The Wiz if we can please go home. This, right here, is our home as far as we're concerned."
"Are you...?" Toby made a kissy motion with his fingers.
Zinc laughed so hard he tore a hole in the couch. "Jeeziss! Naw!"
"He's more like my familiar than anything," Junella added.
Zinc agreed with a chortle. "Our relationship is professional. We supplement each other. She's finesse; I'm blunt force. She has thumbs; I don't. At most you could call us friends. Otherwise, we're mutually not each other's type."
Junella's muzzle curled up in the tiniest of smiles. She scratched a dozen places on her body to speak a full paragraph, patchworked from a dozen singing styles: "I'll let him kiss me on the cheek when he's good, but otherwise I keep him around like a pet. He's so tough it's stupid, but he's lazy. He hangs around me so I can find him good trouble to get into."
Through all this mixed praise, Zinc was grinning his ass off and wagging his tail. "Every word true."
'What an interesting relationship these two have,' Toby thought.
"Back to you," Zinc said, indicating Toby, and belched. "The fact is, Anasarca would be a major notch in our belt. But we know how impossible it is to get there. So we need a reason that makes it worthwhile. And, no offense, I am just being practical when I say this... sending you home isn't good enough."
Toby nodded sadly. Zinc's reasoning was perfectly sensible. He accepted it. He would not beg.
Zinc noticed the mouse kid's quiet despondence. He clinked his wrench-jaws together, similar to snapping. "Ey! Ey, what's-your-name! Aren't you gonna try any harder than that!?"
"Toby. And what do you mean?"
"Well you must not want to get back to home sweet home very badly if you'd give up that easy! I've seen this before: people like you either cry and plead and we kick 'em out, or they do like you do and just hang their heads like, 'Oh well'."
Toby felt a small bit of anger. "So what am I supposed to do?"
Zinc threw his arms up. "Think of somethin'!! I already told you, we wanna go where you're trying to get to. Dragging you along wouldn't be that hard. C'mon! There's gotta be something you can offer us in payment! Just looking at you, I know you couldn't fill a willwell, but don't you have anything to trade?"
Toby was about to start crying. "I don't! All I have is just these pajamas I'm wearing! I don't even have pockets! I'm barely holding onto my own name and I don't know how much of my memory I've forgotten already! I'm completely alone here and-"
'No you're not,' his brain reminded him.
And then Toby went completely silent. A look of sheer awe came over his face.
Because, hot damn, he actually did have something that might appeal a lot to these two.
"I've got an undead nightmare horse!!" he blurted out.
"You WHAT!?" Junella squawked.
That got their attention. The skunk and mutt leaned forward in their seats, eyes wide.
"He's just outside!" Toby said. "He's... I mean..." He paused and had a thought. "Actually, I should probably go ask him if he's okay with this."
"Sounds, uh, sensible," Zinc agreed, still not sure he'd heard the mouse right the first time
Toby stood up. "I'll go talk to him and be right back. Do you guys maybe have an umbrella I could borrow for a moment? My pizza box got soaked."
Junella tossed Zinc a nod, approving the request.
The canine hopped up off the couch, darting behind some shelves. Rooting sounds could be heard. He returned with a translucent pink parasol clamped in his wrench-jaws. "Sorry. First one I spotted."
Toby accepted the girly thing. It had ruffles. "So long as it works," he shrugged. He was about to open it up to check for holes, but then remembered the superstition. Instead, he tucked it under his arm and headed back towards the maze of shelves.
The mouseboy was smiling a bit now. The more he thought about it, the more perfectly this plan fit together. Assuming George would be okay with it (and that seemed likely), these two would make much better companions for him. Toby's ears perked to hear Junella and Zinc's footsteps following eagerly behind him, glad to have their attention. He navigated through their stacks of stuff with much more confidence this time.
He reached the front entranceway and looked out into the rain. George was still there, standing in the same place, looking like a regal silhouette.
Toby was just about to unfurl his pink brolly when a powerful hand flew out of nowhere to clutch his neck. He slammed into the doorframe forcefully enough to send flakes of wood flying.
Through the pain, he looked in utter confusion and terror into Junella's eyes. They were fixed on his, ablaze with anger. Her mouth curled up in a snarl. Hot breath puffed from her nostrils like the Big Bad Wolf.
Toby realized that her irises were actually pumpkin-orange record labels, with spindle holes for pupils.
It took no effort on her part to keep the intimidated rodent pinned to the wall with one hand while she raked the other down her back-grooves. "WHAT THE FUCK KINDA HUSTLE YOU TRYNA PULL ON ME!?" she rumbled like a rap MC.
Every last one of Toby's muscles flinched. "I don't... know what... you're... GLAKK!" he gurgled out.
Zinc stepped in to play good cop, but he did not look amused either. "If I may translate for my compadré," he pointed through the downpour at George, "that thing's a nightmare construct, and we're no rubes. You think we haven't run into those before? You think we don't know what that goddam thing'll do to us? Buddy, I don't know how you got it here, or what crazy plan you had, but we're not that easy."
Toby understood now. These two thought he was a thief or an assassin who'd planned to have George attack them! "No! I promise! He's tame!"
Junella and Zinc both gave him pure looks of, 'Do you seriously expect us to believe that!?'.
"I swear, I swear!!" Toby pleaded.
Junella's glare drilled through him for a moment longer, then she brusquely released him.
The mouse sucked in a deep breath and massaged his throat. "I'm sorry I (cough) gave you the wrong Idea! I'm being sin- (cough cough) sincere, really!"
With a single needle-tipped finger, Junella reached down and brought his chin up. Their eyes met. Then she pointed towards the rain. "Prove it. Show me," she sang.
Toby nodded and swallowed. "Of course." He tried an ingratiating smile. "You're, um, really strong."
The compliment did not change her wrathful expression. "Ya goddamn right." She kept her eyes locked on his, hand hovering close to her cutlass, as the mouse knelt to retrieve his umbrella.
Toby opened it with a plastic-sounding 'fwoomph'. It was shaped like a half-dome and looked candylike but effective. Clutching it with both hands, he trotted into the falling water. The mud squished up through his bare toes.
Zinc and Junella watched him approach the nightmare. They were both outright befuddled by this turn of events. They'd encountered Toby's type plenty of times in the past. Someone pops up in Phobiopolis, scared out of their wits, and the first thing they want is to go home. So they come straight to J&Z's pirate ship, or to one of the other 'tour guides' scattered around. No one ever got what they wanted, of course. This place was a one-way trip. Zinc had been truthful: neither he nor Junella held any illusions about what they'd find on Anasarca. Aldridge might not even live there anymore. All they hoped to gain was the bragging rights of saying they had set foot on the summit and returned to tell the tale.
Junella saw the horse's head turn towards the mouseshrimp. It was keeping outside the rain boundary, even with food so near. It seemed to not like water, so maybe that was common among constructs? As soon as the kid stepped into the open though, she expected the pile of horse bones to rip him to shreds.
But then the impossible happened. Both skunk and canine went slack-jawed as the mouse walked right up to the horse and started chatting. No crushing with hooves, no shredding with teeth. This was not how things worked. Yes, Phobiopolis was a mercurial, untrustable place. But certain things were constant. One of them being the behavior of nightmare constructs.
"A shapechanger?" Zinc guessed.
Junella conceded the possibility. "A very good one if they are."
Zinc scratched his head. "What in the hell is the scam here?" he said breathlessly.
They'd known each other long enough that further collaborative speculating was unnecessary. They each knew the other would be having the same thoughts and reaching the same conclusion: "???" So they waited patiently for the mousekid to return. They watched every movement between the soul and the construct. They both flinched a little when the horse stamped its hooves a bit, but it seemed to be more a gesture of accordance than a prelude to murder.
Soon enough, the little albino was trotting back towards them with a big goofy smirk on his face.
Toby reached the doorway and closed up his umbrella, giving it a little shake. "He says he's perfectly okay with it! In fact, he likes the idea!"
Junella held up her hand: 'Give me a moment to process this.'
"It talks!?" Zinc spat in disbelief.
Toby looked a little offended. "He talks, yes."
Junella gave him a withering look. "Kid, you're confusin' the devil outta me," she moaned.
He nodded in understanding. "I get it now. You're used to how constructs normally act. But he's different! See, he got captured and burned up with some magic stuff a long, long time ago and then they buried him. He's been underground ever since. I found him last night by accident and dug him up. Also by accident."
"That coulda ended badly," Zinc deadpanned severely.
"I realize that," Toby admitted. "But he told me he'd spent all that time in the dirt thinking and reflecting and... and he doesn't want to be like he was anymore. He pledged to help me. He said he needs me to help teach him how to not be evil anymore. But I don't really feel comfortable having a servant, and it seems like you guys'd know better than me what to do with someone like him, so..." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I thought that, if you take me to Anasarca and I go home, then you can have him. You can go on adventures together, I guess. I asked him and he said that sounds like a great idea. He can't wait to meet you both."
Junella and Zinc stared silently at Toby for a moment. Then they turned and looked at one another.
They shared a moment of wordless communication: a mixture of annoyed disbelief and overjoyed hope.
"If what you say is true," Zinc started slowly, then clanked his hands together for emphasis, "and I mean IF, then you absolutely, positively, fuckalutely have yourself a deal. The half of me that thinks you might not be entirely full of shit is jumpin' up and down doin' backflips at all the possibilities of us actually owning a controllable construct. We've got a lotta souvenirs, but nobody's got one of those."
Toby wrinkled his nose. "Like I said, he's... well he's not exactly a furson, but he's not a possession either."
Zinc nodded. "Sorry. But when we've encountered these things before, they act like machines. There's no soul in 'em. So forgive us for being, eh, 'cautious consumers'."
"I'm willing to believe you, for the moment," Junella added. She looked at Zinc and cocked her head towards the charred horse. "I can take it down if I have to," she sang with confidence. To Toby, she pointed with her finger, indicating he'd better get his umbrella back up and lead the way.
Fwoomph, it went. "Won't you two get wet?" he asked.
Junella gave him a look. "We choose not to."
Toby set out again, feeling little droplets making tiny drum sounds on the pink plastic canopy. He looked back and saw Junella and Zinc following, and the rain seemed to part around them like a curtain. 'I guess that's not surprising,' he thought. 'It is their house after all.'
George's nonexistent ears were tilted forward and his nonexistent face held an expression of pleased anticipation. Toby left the rain and, wanting to prove George's gentleness, walked over to give the blackened ribs a friendly pat. "See?"
Both of them were suitably startled. He was touching it!?
Toby smiled at their dumbfounded looks. He announced majestically, "Mr. Zinc and Miss Junella, I present Sir George Charles Atkinson!"
George bowed. "A pleasure to meet you. I look forward to getting to know you both."
Zinc's wrenches were dragging on the ground and his mouth was agape like an overturned jug.
Junella, by contrast, was tense. She still wasn't sure this wasn't some kind of elaborate trap. Her stare drilled into the horse-thing's eye sockets. One reason she hadn't just spilled Toby's guts onto her welcome mat a moment ago was that her gaze tended to bring out the truth in people. So either the mouse was supernaturally good at not giving away bullshit, or he was actually on the level. Still, nothing got within attack range of her without passing a few tests first.
George looked down at Junella, seeing suspicion incarnate in front of him. He'd resigned himself to such reactions. His appearance would forevermore bring them out, and that was his cross to bear. He waited motionlessly to give the strangely-smooth skunk plenty of time to get used to him.
Toby was a little worried now. Zinc looked like his brain had fallen out and he hadn't put it back in yet, but Junella looked coiled to strike. She stood in a fighter's stance, one foot braced behind her, perfectly silent. Her eyes were welded to George's. The sheer will in those eyes was enough to make his knees weak.
Then there was a flash, like a lightning bolt. Junella's cutlass had swung from her side to a few scant millimeters away from George's temple.
George had neither blinked nor flinched, but continued to regard her patiently.
Junella held her weapon steady for a few seconds more. Her sword arm did not tremble in the slightest. Then abruptly, she withdrew the blade, took a step forward, and lightly slapped George across the face.
He startled a bit, backing away and looking at her in confusion. "Goodness, what was that for?"
Junella scratched herself with both hands, needing snippets again to make herself clear: "If this is an act, I wanted to make you break character and attack me."
He nodded. "Ah, I see. A reasonable worry. I take no offense."
Her eyebrows went up. She was a bit flustered at his non-aggressive response and tried to cover it up by pulling her scarf closer around her face. She set off in a circle around George, beginning to lightly poke, probe and jiggle him.
"Oh!" said George. "You're giving me tickles, Madam!"
Zinc had finally regained his senses a bit. "I think she's making sure you ain't a hologram. Or two goons in a suit."
"Fair enough," he replied, stifling a giggle as she reached into his ribs and felt around inside them.
Junella finished her inspection by patting all along the construct's dry, rough skull. She even dared to touch his teeth. Finally she stepped back and gave an open-handed shrug. If there was any deception going on, she couldn't find it.
"Do I pass inspection?" George asked expectantly.
"I can't see why not," she finally sang.
Zinc was fully used to trusting his companion's judgment by now. He clanked his wrenches together with a great big grin. "Hot dog!! We got ourselves a steed the devil himself wouldn't mess with! ...I mean, assuming you don't mind havin' riders?" he asked George.
The nightmare thrust his chest out proudly. "Let me make it clear from now on, that any requests to use me for transportation are not an imposition, but an absolute pleasure!"
Toby nodded. "He took me here all the way from Stoma, or Quinsy, or wherever I was last night."
Either of those locations was far enough away to be significantly impressive. Zinc made a low whistle.
"Let's go back inside then," Junella sang as she sheathed her sword. "I think we have business to discuss."
George looked to the small, crumpled doorway. "Will I fit?" he asked worriedly.
Zinc dared to gently pat George reassuringly on the ribs. "Not to worry. The Jennie-Mae's a lot more structurally sound than she looks. Just try not to knock over too much of our crap."
"You have my word!" George pledged.
Toby was somewhat lightheaded at how well everything had worked out. His idea could have backfired in any number of horrible ways, but instead, it had gone swimmingly. The deal was struck and agreeable to everyone. It took a few moments to grasp the reality that, purely on luck, he had just managed to buy a ticket home.
Junella held up a paw to will the rainwater aside like Moses. The three males lined up at the gap.
All four of their backs were turned.
And that was the moment Tinder Fingers had been waiting for.
Toby's ears pricked up at the far-off sound of something moving at great speed over dirt and concrete. But he had no time to react. Seeing through George's ribs, he watched as a flash of round darkness rumbled towards them as fast as a drag racer.
Whatever it was, it reached out a silver arm to Zinc. With a single touch, it turned his body into a bonfire.
The canine's scream of agony split the sky.
Junella's face screwed up in a snarl of infinite exasperation. She cast a heartbeat's glance at the retreating foe before tending to her friend. With a single fluid motion, she swiveled on the spot and roundhouse-kicked him into the rain. His screaming stopped as the water cooled him and turned to steam.
All this happened in slightly more than three seconds. Toby was rooted to the spot, toeclaws sunk into the astroturf, petrified with fear and confusion. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the smoldering body of the wrench-armed canine. Was Zinc dead? Had he just watched someone die mere minutes after meeting them!?
Toby's stare was broken by a high-pitched, utterly artificial giggle. The mouse's head snapped around. The thing was rolling back towards them.
He got only a glimpse before Junella swung her sword and it detoured away again, but it was enough. This was undoubtedly the Tinder Fingers he'd been warned to "baware" of.
It was like a giant ball of burnt, wadded-up steel wool, perched on a single fat motorcycle tire. Its arms brought to mind stretched-out snot. Grey, spindly, every part of them overly-long. Hands wide as kites ended in bulbous fingertips. Its eyes were pupilless and square, recalling headlights or sunglasses. And then there was its grin. Fat, rubbery, cartoon-red lips stretched almost entirely around its circumference, splitting to reveal steel teeth.
It laughed again. The sound was devoid of anything living or sane.
"FUCK YOU!!!" Junella swore at it. Then she punched her own forehead in irritation, mumbling to herself with her other hand. "It was waiting. I'm so stupid. It was waiting to catch us with our backs turned. Fuckin' rotten rolling bastard!"
The speeding nightmare zigged and zagged among Phlogiston's charred foundations, always keeping within sight. It was taunting her to come play. Its tire sent up plumes of ash behind it. Those awful rubber lips bobbled and bulged whenever it hit a bump. It kept looking back at Junella and waving. Buildings were set alight wherever those fingertips brushed by.
Toby looked back and forth between the monster and the skunk, but he couldn't force his feet to move.
Then George spoke, and for the first time Toby heard some of the fury that must have characterized him in his earlier days. "It seems blind to my presence, Sire and Madam," he said in a low, controlled growl. "I am correct that it is a fellow nightmare?"
"No shit," sang Junella.
The spectral equine had turned to face their attacker, focusing his pinprick eyes on it as it sped back and forth. "Good. Then it does not fear me, as parasomnic constructs never attack one another. With your permission, may I attack my fellow construct with haste and viciousness?"
Junella looked a little dumbstruck. "You're asking my permission!?"
"'Tis only good manners."
"Then yeah! Go-"
The words were barely spoken before all of Toby's fur fluttered with the force of George's takeoff. The black bones accelerated like a bullet from a gun, aimed squarely at the silver monstrosity that had dared attack his new friends.
As George had said, Tinder Fingers didn't seem to be able to perceive him. Toby watched in awe as George ran straight at the horrible thing, it's headlamp eyes never looking in the direction of the hell that was rushing towards it.
George headbutted Tinder Fingers so hard the impact caused a visible shockwave. The wheeled demon was sent crashing through house after house. Six in total. Aluminum siding and window glass sprayed through the air like confetti.
Dazed, Tinder Fingers found himself at the bottom of a dry swimming pool with a skull-shaped dent in its metal flesh. It was as confused as far as its limited mind had the capacity for confusion. Nothing like this had ever happened before!
George was not about to end the fight until he was absolutely sure this scoundrel posed no further threat. He ducked his head to gallop through the neat round holes in each house he'd sent his foe crashing through. His expression was stern, but he allowed himself an inward giggle at the mess he'd caused. This felt good. Mannequins and faux-furniture lay in tumbled piles, covered in sawdust, shards and splinters. George knew there'd always be a part of him that needed to cause chaos, but it also felt good to be aware and in control of it. Before, he was merely a tool. Now, he was a craftsman.
Tinder Fingers looked up just in time to see an onrushing hoof drive one of its eyes halfway through its skull.
It squealed in pain, unable to comprehend what was going on. This was another nightmare! Nightmares did not take notice of other nightmares! Not unless they were members of the same kind hunting in packs, or predators seeking smaller prey when there was nothing else to eat. Regardless, they absolutely never protected souls! Tinder was simpleminded but did not lack self-preservation. Slick as a lathered frog, it leveraged itself up on its sinewy arms and dribbled itself like a basketball up over George's head. It bounced off a roof and headed far away fast.
Meanwhile, Toby was still impersonating a lawn statue.
Junella shoved him roughly down in the dirt by his shoulders. "DOWN," she commanded. "As of a few seconds ago, you're our client. First rule: the client is not allowed to die, no matter how dumb the client acts."
Toby's cheeks turned red.
The skunk's eyes scanned the distance where she could see debris from smashed houses flying here and there. Those two were certainly tearing up the town. She narrowed her eyes as she realized Tinder Fingers was doubling back. Of course he was. That round bastard had a hard-on for revenge against them, so of course he would try for a second shot at immolating her.
The vinyl skunk gave a split-second's glance down to the mouse whose cheek she was shoving into the ground. Her expression showed that maybe she was aware that she might, perhaps, have been slightly rude. "Thanks for him, by the way. I can tell he's gonna be useful."
"You're welcome," Toby grunted, trying not to get dirt in his mouth.
Junella stood up and planted her feet. Both hands were on her cutlass' hilt. Her enemy was coming back around again. She calmed her mind and focused on its approach.
Tinder Fingers was driving at top speed. At first away from the berserk nightmare chasing him, but then back towards its nemeses. It was not about to let George get back in range to hit him again. It was already leaking motor oil from a dozen different wounds. But if it could just put the fire to that damned stubborn skunk, it would be worth it.
Toby watched from the ground as that fat black tire headed straight for his face.
George was gaining on Tinder, smoke billowing from his nostrils. His every hoofbeat drove ruts in the concrete. He was not about to let his target go.
Tinder outstretched his arms, wiggling his fingers. The skunk was just up ahead.
Junella gauged the speed of the onrushing nightmare. If she could time this just right, she could lop off both the bastard's hands in one swing.
Tinder Fingers saw her sword. Then it decided on a change of plans.
George piled on the speed but Tinder was faster still.
Junella felt the tension in her arms like a set of metal springs about to snap.
And at the last second, Tinder Fingers hopped straight up, sailing over Junella and reaching out a finger towards the pale little thing she was shielding.
The tip of its finger was reflected in Toby's pink eyes. Then nothing else in the world existed but his screams of pain as the fire ate him inside out.
The next thing Toby knew, he was gasping for air and reflexively trying not to breathe in water.
"There there, you unlucky duck," a voice said as it held him down.
Far in the distance, Toby could hear a rhythmic boom of thunder.
Toby's brain was scrambled from pain and shock. His heartbeat was like a firm fist knocking on a door. The pain itself was mostly gone, but it left behind an echo that kept him near-paralyzed. He tried to move and instantly regretted it. He squeaked pitifully. His skin felt like it had been stripped off and replaced with chili peppers. The heavy rainfall surrounding him dulled the pain, but not entirely.
"Calm down. You're fine."
Toby opened his eyes to a horrorshow of flesh and metal.
"Cut the dramatics," Zinc said, squeezing the mouse's muzzle shut. "I went through the same thing and you don't see me makin' like a baby, do you?" Beyond the canine's voice was that same loud, dull pounding. THOOM... THOOM... THOOM...
Toby forced his mind to settle down. He was looking at two eyeballs on sticks and a pair of stitched-on ears, but he reminded himself of whom they belonged to. The canine seemed relatively unharmed, which was strange. Toby had seen him burned alive just moments ago. Yet now, even his clothes were unblackened.
Zinc reached gently underneath the soaked and charbroiled rodent to help him sit up. "That a boy. Must've been quite a shock."
Toby's vision swirled a bit before he could focus. And then what he saw simply could not be true. He'd expected to see himself looking like a Cajun-style pork roast. Instead, there was his normal sky-blue pajamas and normal white fur. "How...? How am I still alive?"
Zinc seemed startled by that question. His head cocked to the side. "You seriously don't know?"
Toby brushed the water and hair out of his eyes, then shook his head.
Zinc grinned strangely. "Well then. Let's just say Junella's pretty fast on her feet. Same as me, she chucked you in the water before you got too crispy."
"Okay, okay... It all happened so-" He couldn't take the pounding anymore. "What Is That Sound!?"
"Oh, you'll like it. " Zinc jumped to his feet and easily pulled Toby to a standing position with his wrenches. He patted the mouse on the back. Gently this time. He'd seen more than enough proof that their new client was an A-1 creampuff.
Zinc led Toby out of the rain and pointed to a spot a few streets away. The thumping noise rose in volume.
What Toby saw first was Junella jumping up and down, cheering wordlessly. Then he noticed George was methodically leaping into the air and coming back down onto something with the full force of his front hooves. He'd been at it so long he'd created a crater at least four feet deep.
Zinc's grin was enormous. "Boy, it's sure a good thing nightmares can't die, huh? Of course, ol' Tinder's probably regretting that right about now."
Toby 'eep'ed as he realized what was at the center of the crater. While Toby was uncomfortable to see anyone get pummeled so mercilessly, he could fully understand how the horse was feeling. He had a hunch George was probably the very incarnation of 'fiercely loyal'.
The throbbing ache in Toby's skin was starting to subside. He was still drenched, but decided to stay that way a while, unlike when he'd left the showers yesterday. The shivery cool was soothing. "Remind me to thank Junella for putting me out."
"I'll thank her for both of us," Zinc pledged.
Toby watched George drill Tinder Fingers ever deeper into the concrete. "Is he really gonna survive that?" he asked.
"Sure, sure. You said yourself that your horsie friend got burned alive and buried. Nightmares ain't alive, ergo, they can't die. But he's gonna have one hell of a headache tonight. Probly leave us alone for a good while afterwards if he's got any sense."
"Why do you live here then, if he's always after you?" Toby asked, guessing correctly that this feud had been going on for a very long time.
"Our boat ended up here. We liked the place, we decided to stay. This pissed him off. But he can't get rid of us and we can't get rid of him, so it's a stalemate. Plus, he's like a filter. Anyone who can't get past him to get to us is not someone we want as a client. You're lucky as hell you came in with protection."
"I guess that makes sense," Toby replied.
Zinc looked fondly for a while longer upon Tinder Fingers getting his ass demolished, then turned towards the boat. "Come back inside, champ. Let's get you dried off. Want some breakfast?"
Toby's mind went blank except for that last wonderful word. "Absolutely!"
Toby's pajamas were dry again (and surprisingly clean) by the time Zinc led him to the kitchen nook of their houseboat. It was a small low-ceilinged wooden room with a table, a few chairs, a sink full of grody dishes and a very sticky floor. Open and unorganized boxes with their contents spilling out filled several shelves. Toby saw everything from cereal to spaghetti to dog kibble. Everywhere he stepped, something crunched under his feet.
Zinc nudged open the refrigerator with his elbow and peered inside.
Toby looked at the canine's immense metal arms and felt pity. How much of a hassle would everyday living be with those things getting in the way all the time? "There must be a lot of things you can't do with those," he said sympathetically.
Zinc smirked. He reached deep in the fridge, pulled out a hard boiled egg, peeled it, and deposited the shell on the counter. "Oh, sure," he said as he stuffed it in his muzzle.
The mouse's eyebrows went up. "Wow!!" He was so stunned by the display of dexterity, he fumbled the orange Zinc then tossed at him. It bounced off his tummy and went rolling under the table.
Zinc barked a laugh watching the mouse chase after it. "Sorry, pal! Gotta keep your wits aboutcha."
The orange was covered in fur and grime by the time Toby fished it out. In any other circumstance, the mere sight would have sent his germophobe alarm to Code Red. But when one has not eaten anything but a few berries in over a week... 'I'm not gonna eat the peel anyway,' Toby thought to himself as he walked over to wash it thoroughly in the sink.
Zinc finished off his egg and went back for seconds. He watched his new client frantically scrub the orange, then tear off a chunk of peel and sink his teeth into the juicy flesh. From the look on his face, he might've just attained enlightenment. "Good?"
"Mmmmmmfrrrrhhhhrr!" Toby agreed enthusiastically. He did not mind Zinc's chuckles as he ravaged the little round citrus miracle. Never had anything tasted so good! The sticky sweet juice ran down his chinfur. Toby devoured the whole thing in less than a minute, seeds included.
Afterwards, he let out a deep sigh of contentment and sagged against the kitchen counter.
"Want anything else?" Zinc offered.
Toby was about to shout agreement, but then reconsidered. "Maybe not. I've got, um, kind of a delicate stomach."
Zinc made a 'Really?' expression.
"Uh-huh. A normal meal for me is broth and crackers. I'd better just wait and see if I can hold this down."
"Awright. You can see I'm not much for cleaning. That goes double for cleanin' up puke."
Toby nodded. Then his curiosity and Zinc's friendliness pushed him to ask a question he might not have otherwise had the boldness to ask. "Um... Is it okay if I ask how you got your, um, prosthetics?"
Zinc clanked them together heartily. "No need for shyness! I got these bad puppies a bunch of years ago from a mad scientist friend of mine. I don't remember exactly how I ended up in Phobiopolis, but I do know I used to be hot shit back on Earth. Then I wind up here and I'm suddenly getting my pants beat off on a regular timetable. So I was on the lookout for some defensive capabilities, dig?
"Anyways, I run into this crazy old weasel with a Frankenstein lab and everything. He says he's been researching Phobiopolis for years and he's got this idea about how things are always changing around whenever we're not looking. You've noticed that, right?"
"The solution he comes up with, is to always be looking. So he asks me if I wanna volunteer for a procedure. He says he'll make it worth my while. And I'm thinking, 'Might as well. Strap me in, Doc!' He pumps me full of some of the sweetest anesthetic I've ever had the pleasure of making acquaintance with, and the next thing I know, I'm waking up from the worst buzzcut imaginable."
"Where'd he put your brain?" Toby asked.
"Threw it out," Zinc said with a shrug. "I didn't need it, any more than you need to breathe."
Toby became keenly aware of the air in his lungs.
"This place exists on dream-logic. You're alive so long as you can think. Nothing else necessary. Anyway, the Doc figured that having my eyes propped open all the time would prevent anything from changing while I blinked. And it does work. Makes it hard to sleep tho'. So I fashioned myself some pretty little tin eyelids, then added eyebrows from some roadkill I found. Looks nicer that way. To compensate me for the permanent loss of my hairdo, he gave me these wicked mamas." He held up his wrenches and swiveled the jaws up and down with a whirr. "I didn't spend long experimentin' with 'em for me to realize they needed some elbows. Other than that, they're the ginchiest. I haven't found anything yet that I can't crush if I apply enough pressure. Junella uses me to bust down doors and put the hurt on people who get in our way. Plus, when someone runs away on us, I'm quite skilled at the art of restraint," he bragged, making a clank for emphasis.
"Is Junella... like she is... because of the same doctor?"
Zinc laughed. "Nah! I'll let her tell that one. As for me, I stayed with the Doc for a while and helped out with some experiments. Eventually he just got tired of me and his mind wandered off to other things he wanted to try. One day I realized he'd basically forgotten me and I left."
"Sorry to hear that."
Zinc waved the concern away. "I've had worse split-ups. Juney and I met in Coryza a few years ago. She was there looking for bodyguard work, I was winning meals arm-wrestling. There's no dramatic story to it. We just saw each other, thought we looked interesting, started talking, and bingo. Partnership. We fit together smooth as silk. We hardly ever fight, and if we do, eh, we both know we're living under the same roof with one of the few fursons capable of pulverizin' the other. Encourages civility, y'know?"
Toby smiled. Behind the obvious boast about their toughness, he could hear a warmth in Zinc's tone. He and Junella genuinely cared for one another. "I'm glad that you two are such good friends. I... had a friend, a little while ago."
From the mouse's solemn tone, Zinc did not have to ask how that had ended. "Is this a situation Juney and I could be of service with?" he asked quietly.
"No. Well... Indirectly, yes."
Zinc raised an eyebrow at that. He was about to inquire further, when the sound of a collapsing shelf made his teeth grit.
"Oh, I am SO sorry, Madam!!" George called out from the front of the boat.
Zinc was already headed for the door. "We'd better stop Junella from killing him."
Toby followed. "I thought you said nightmares couldn't be killed?"
"Just not permanently!"
Thankfully, George had only knocked over one shelf full of Zinc and Junella's belongings. The skunk was ankle-deep in doodads, silently checking for breakages. Her expression indicated she wished she had her hands free to swear. George was like a shamed puppy with his tail between his legs, apologizing over and over. And while Junella was less furious than Zinc had expected to find her, she did say that maybe they ought to continue things outside.
After she'd said this, Toby was surprised to see her take hold of George's collarbone and lead him further into the Jenny-Mae instead of back towards the door. To the left of the throne were stairs that led up to, presumably, bedrooms. There was also an enormous ornamental rug hanging on the far wall depicting the rise and fall of some primitive civilization. Junella tugged on the bottom and it rolled up like a window shade. Toby blinked as artificial light poured in.
It was a doorway outside, but not to the outside that had been outside a moment ago. There was no rain, or Tinder Fingers, or Phlogiston. It was even the wrong time of day! Toby found himself in a large, sandy junkyard. Beyond the pockmarked aluminum fence he could see cacti, mountains and endless telephone poles. It was nighttime here. Five or so moons hung in the sky and the yard was further lit by several looming street lamps.
Zinc could see the 'Where ARE we!?' written on the mouse's face, and answered before he was asked. He explained that some parts of Phobiopolis were less stable than others. They blended into one another the way one part of a dream will become something else. This secret backyard was located in a barren little town called Scrofula. It was a good place to store some of their larger treasures, as the soulsucking serpent-ghosts that prowled the main avenues never bothered with inanimate objects.
Toby looked rather worried at the mention of soulsucking serpent-ghosts. Zinc grinned and reassured him that they only attacked what they could see, and the junkyard's fence was plenty tall.
Toby did not completely relax, but figured Zinc and Junella were good enough at keeping themselves alive that their word was trustworthy. He looked around at the duo's hoard of treasure.
They really did like souvenirs. The shelves inside were only a fraction of their toys. Out here, there were things that would make a mechanic or a historian weep. Cars of every era were stacked up like layer cakes. There was an entire hill of boat hulls. A hedge maze's worth of arcade cabinets. Washers and dryers and other assorted appliances. Totem poles. Buses. Taxidermied beasts beyond description. Statues and other examples of art and archaeology. Rusting, terrifyingly-pointy farm machinery. Even a few airplanes. Plus the skull of some kind of rat-beast that was so enormous it could have easily been converted into a bungalow.
In the center of the yard was a large, round clearing. It was clearly a workspace, as it was ringed with tool cabinets, desks, gas tanks, generators and assorted heavy equipment. Aisles spidered out in all directions, granting access to the various stockpiles of stuff.
Junella walked over to a desk that had a stack of curly-edged maps splayed out upon it. ('I guess there's no rain or wind here,' Toby thought.) She whistled for everyone to gather around. George looked over her shoulder and gave his full attention.
"There's no reason not to leave today, so let's get to it," she sang. As with all her longer speeches, she had to select small chunks of songs to stitch together sentences from. "These maps are about as accurate as you can hope for. I think Zinc will agree with my route, but I want us all thinkin' synchronized. We'll probably be traveling for about four days. Though "days" don't really mean anything; most of the places we'll pass through are perpetual night."
Toby had a worrisome thought. "Do the people who live there suffer from vitamin D deficiencies?"
Junella gave him a look, then blinked as she realized the question had never even occurred to her. She shook her head: unimportant. She rustled around in the pile of maps until she found one that showed the whole of Phobiopolis. Toby was surprised to see that either the map was a flattened-out representation, or the world itself was flat. It looked like a long, wide, board game. The forest he'd first arrived in was near one end, Anasarca the other. Toby wondered if everyone who ended up here started roughly in the same spot. He also noticed, to his discomfort, how many places on the map were blank and titled only with question marks.
Junella held down the edges with four pebbles and pointed out their location. "Right now we're here," she said in the voice of a 70s love song, her finger on Scrofula. "It makes more sense to start from home," she added as a country ballad, indicating the place where Epitaxis was crossed out and Phlogiston written in. She ran her paw along the map, showing the difference in length from each location to Anasarca so Toby and George could see the difference. From Phlogiston it was noticeably shorter, but the overall distance was still so immense it only amounted to a fraction of travel time saved.
She pointed a grooved finger at Toby. "There's two ways to go; the safe way or the fast way," she rockabilly'd.
Toby grinned bashfully. "I think, even though we've only just met, you can guess which one I'd prefer."
The skunk nodded in a, 'I figured as much, but you're the client so it was polite to offer' kind of a way. "Safety it is." She looked up towards her boat and spaced out for a moment, mentally taking inventory. "If I remember right, there's a lot of things we're runnin' low on. So our first stop's here for basic supplies." She pointed to a relatively-nearby place called Dengue.
"Good. Haven't seen Trachea in a while. Been meaning to sell him some shit," Zinc said to himself.
"Then we take the long way to Coryza," Junella went on. Toby noticed that she didn't say place names often since most of Phobiopolis' locations weren't found in any lyrics. She had to edit together vowel and consonant sounds to speak them. The path she'd indicated took them on a winding route through Thrombosis and Strangury. Toby noticed there was a far shorter path through a place called Teratoma, and deduced it must have been a particularly bad neck of the woods for Junella to skip it. The skunk circled Coryza with her finger. "If we make good time, here's where we'll be sleeping tonight. And it'll probably be the last place we'll get a good night's sleep."
Toby fidgeted a little at that. He imagined the four of them camping in some unspeakable location, all around them night-beasties barely kept at bay.
Zinc on the other hand was grinning like an asshole. "Oh please, please, Juney! Say we're going to EC after that!" he squealed like an eager little boy.
Junella rolled her eyes. "Of course we are, dummy. Sander's not gonna have anywhere near all the gear we need."
Zinc made a little jump for joy. "Hot dog!!"
By way of explaining, Junella directed Toby's gaze to the spot on the map whose name had the largest font: ECTOPIA CORDIS. "The big city," she sang. "Our only big city. You can see it's a little bit out of our way, but worth it. We can find a place to crash there too, but don't expect a good rest if you get carsick," she warned cryptically. From Ectopia Cordis she drew a curving line through Hypovolemia, Lumbago, Fistula, Marasmus, Drapetomania and Borborygmus. "Luckily, this is all relatively undangerous territory. 'Relatively' being massively important to that sentence. But 'safe' goes out the window completely when we hit here." She stabbed at Phlegmasia. "This is where things start to go bad. This is the part where, if you can't handle it, you had damn well better tell me to turn around and go home." Her record-label eyes drilled into Toby, letting him know she was dead serious.
"What's so bad about it?" he meekly inquired, not really wanting to know.
Zinc answered for her. "There are places in this world," he said, "where you can get lost. I mean real gone, Daddy-o. Permanent-like. There are places that do bad things to your head. This is where it starts happening. Lotsa people end up staying forever in Phlegmasia, just reading the walls and ceiling till they turn into dust. But beyond that... Holy hell, does it get bad."
Junella's finger circled the largest area of the map. There were no landmarks, only a name: DYSPHORIA.
"Here is where the nightmares really start acting like nightmares," she croaked. "Places blend into other places. Things ain't solid anymore. You can get lost just by blinking. You go in here without a lot of planning first, you get forgotten. Or you lose your mind. Literally."
She reached across the map to give Zinc's shoulder a comradely squeeze. Her expression to Toby was as sincerely gentle as he'd seen it before. "We've been there. We went in, for certain items, and came back out. We've never been all the way through to the other side, but I think we can make it. Right now, this is your chance to decide whether you really want to go home that badly. Because you will be putting more trust in us than you can possibly realize."
The little albino took a deep breath. "I appreciate you being straight with me," he said. He took a moment to converse with himself, but he already knew the answer. For one, he did trust this pair. Their souvenirs alone proved how long they'd lived in this world. And parts of their maps looked handwritten. Plus, with George along he'd be doubly defended. He was unthinkably lucky to be in such good company.
He'd realized by now that his heart preferred the sickbed he knew to the overwhelming uncertainty of this place. Yet his own goal of getting home had become a secondary priority. More importantly, he had to tell Aldridge about Piffle. Even if he was stuck here forever, at least he could do one good thing with his life and help his friend.
Toby had been staring down at the sand and his toes for a few moments. He gathered every last scrap of bravery he possessed, raised his head to Junella, and said, "I want to go."
Zinc nodded in approval. He could tell it had taken a lot of nerve for the little runt to say that.
Junella merely went back to her businesslike demeanor. "Good. So if we do get through, all that's left is to get up the mountain. From everything I've heard, and it's not extensive, there won't be too much weirdness waiting for us. Just the ascent. Anasarca's stable; hence why the wizard set up shop there."
Toby nodded. "And when we get th-"
"If, not when," Junella hissed, wanting to emphasize that this was no sure thing.
The mouse gulped. "If. Okay. If we get there, then I'll ask Aldridge about going home, plus this other little thing, and-"
She cut him off again, this time reaching across the map to pinch his pajama collar between her fingers. "Other thing!?"
Toby squeaked. "It's nothing that'd put you in any danger, I promise! It's not even about you guys! It's just... It's kind of embarrassing," he whispered, hoping she wouldn't press further.
She did. "No secrets," she ground out in a heavy metal growl.
"Fine," Toby said with a sigh. "I... I had a friend. I left her in a... bad situation. I don't know how to rescue her and I'm too much of a wuss to succeed anyway. I thought if anyone could get her out, Aldridge could."
Junella let his collar go. She looked almost offended. "You didn't think of asking us?"
Toby was surprised she'd offer. But then again, a rescue mission was probably the sort of thing she and Zinc did all the time. Still, giving her any details meant having to retell the tale. And the shame of it hurt enough that he'd prefer not to. "I thought that having you take me to the mountain was already asking a lot," he lied.
Junella sneered. The mouse was a terrible liar, but his face told the tale well enough. Whatever had happened, he was clearly disgusted with himself for it. Junella made a mental note of this. She wasn't about to cancel the trip over it, but she resolved to not let this pipsqueak into any kind of position where he could screw them over by getting too scared and running off. Just because he'd said a moment ago he was willing to go through Dysphoria, that didn't mean shit. A furson's words and actions could be worlds apart.
Since the skunk didn't say anything in reply, Toby hoped things were okay between them. "Allright then. After I have a talk with Aldridge, then he'll send me home, and you guys can go back to yours with George. I know we agreed to it before, but I just want to be certain."
"Crystal clear," Junella agreed.
"Same here," said Zinc. "After the stomping Georgie gave Tinder, I'm more than convinced he'll be good for us."
George had been so quiet the others had almost forgotten he wasn't a statue, but just then he lightly cleared his throat. "Excuse me, Sire Zinc. I do not mean to reach beyond my station, but I would generally prefer not to be called 'Georgie'. It feels undignified."
"No offense, Sir Stallion. I'll keep that in mind," Zinc replied.
George was about to object to that nickname as well, but figured it was probably futile.
Junella swept the pebbles off the map and started rustling around underneath for some blueprints. "Since George can't fit all of us on his back, and since our last vehicle got munched-"
Zinc tugged at his shirt, heartbroken. "Our dear departed Killcanoe!"
"-we'll need something new." The skunk pointed to George. "D'you mind pulling a sled?"
He seemed rather tickled by the idea. "I never have before! It sounds like it could be potentially quite enjoyable."
"Just what I wanted to hear." To Zinc she asked, "Where did we put the skates?"
He looked flustered. "Oh hell. Somewhere with the tractors and combines? I'll find 'em. And before you bring it up; yes, you were right about keeping the big stupid things."
She smiled smugly.
"Are you guys just gonna build a vehicle right here?" Toby asked.
"Amazing powers of perception, Clyde," Zinc replied. "Or did you wanna walk?"
Toby blushed quite clearly through his white fur. "No! I mean, I'm impressed! Is there anything I can do to help?"
Junella visibly flinched. "You don't seem like the manual labor type." The mouse seemed a bit chagrined by that, so she tried to soften the blow. "Besides, you're a client. Clients get to sit out the heavy duty work." She indicated a section of metal bleachers (partly disassembled for scrap) where he could sit and watch.
"Oh," said Toby. "I don't want to feel like I'll be a burden on you," he said softly.
Junella fake-smiled. "The two types of clients we hate the most are the tourists who wanna look at everything close-up, and the superhero-types who think they can do our jobs better than we can. Believe me; if you sit in the back and don't do or say a fuckin' thing the whole time, you will get on our favorites list."
Toby nodded. He wasn't sure if she was being truthful or just trying to shoo him off, but either way he got the message. "I'll just go sit over there then. Still, if you need me for anything, you can ask."
"I'll keep that in mind," Junella said, making it sound like, 'Buzz off and let me get to work.'
And so, tail between his legs, Toby walked off towards the bleachers. The metal was chilly on his bare paws. He sat and watched as Junella began to direct Zinc and George to start work on their trip's transportation. Toby wondered if he was simply going to be an obligation during their journey. A package to be delivered, nothing more.
'Isn't that better than trying to get to the mountain yourself?' a part of him asked.
Yes, he answered. Humiliation was preferable to being alone, lost, and easily-killable.
Less than two hours later, Toby was sitting on the cushy vinyl seats of a sleigh no one would have ever imagined Santa Claus driving. Junella and Zinc turned out to have amazing skill in engineering, and George was happy as a chickadee on a spring afternoon as he trotted about carrying the heaviest loads and parts with ease.
He also revealed a hidden talent for flame-breathing. This was a natural ability of his 'species' of construct, but it still impressed the socks off Zinc and Junella when the stallion reared his head back and blew a fountain of flame towards the sky. He was a little rusty, but after a bit of practice on a derelict train car, he got back the knack of exhaling a thin, hot blade of fire that was useful for bending and shaping metal.
The base of their conveyance was the welded-together blades of two impossibly-enormous ice skates. The tops of the boots would have been nearly level with the Jennie-Mae's main deck. The blades alone were the height of monster truck tires. Toby tried to picture Junella and Zinc somehow taking down a frost giant big enough to wear them. Zinc was able to push them along with only moderate effort as the magic blades glided frictionlessly over the sand. They didn't tip over either. When Junella and Zinc were at work violently removing the leather and insulation from the boot-parts, it was clear the skates were also enchanted to stay upright no matter what. Definitely a better choice than wheels.
For the carriage, Junella decided to make a steel sandwich out of the interior of a station wagon and the exterior of some old foreign military transport that looked like an abstract trash can. It was a strong combination. They asked George to head-butt it and the metal hardly warped. George walked diagonally for a few moments afterwards.
Since they already had all the horsepower they needed, Zinc deep-sixed the station wagon's engine (but kept the battery for such things as headlights and windshield wipers). The now-hollow area under the hood made a fine storage space once Zinc tacked some old carpet down.
After they'd got the armored hide hoisted up and welded on, it was time to add some offense to their defense. By the time they'd finished, their ride sported some wicked spikes, a harpoon turret on the roof, floodlights, and a deployable weapon in the back like an ankylosaurus tail. Altogether, it looked like a snarling silver hellspawn.
Tail wagging frenetically, Zinc bounced over to the bleachers to ask Toby's opinion of the finished project. The mouse was almost too impressed to speak, though finally he was able to find some suitable adjectives. Zinc was pleased as punch.
"Since you're the client, how 'bout you get first crack at naming our chariot?" he offered.
Toby was about to refuse, but then a somewhat decent idea came to mind. "...The Fearsleigher?"
The canine's smile lit up. "Yeah, man! That's so past crazy, it's radioactive!" And he jumped up to grab his airbrush.
A moment later, Toby was wondering whether he dared say anything about Zinc's spelling. Their new chariot now had 'FEERSLEYR' written above the back fender. With a few extra 'ZINC's thrown in nearby. The canine beamed with pride.
Soon enough, their newly-christened machine had all of its finishing touches finished. Toby was finally able to feel useful by helping Zinc and Junella pack. Then it was time to get George all strapped in. They'd had to make their own harness, though that turned out to be for the best. Since George had no skin, they could anchor the straps directly to his spine and ribcage. And no need for a bridle; Junella could simply shout. Or, if they encountered weather loud enough to drown out her voice, she had two buzzers rigged up on the left and right sides of the hood to indicate direction. Honking the horn would mean full stop.
Due to the massive skating blades, the chassis of their beast was so high up off the ground they'd had to install a small ladder on each side to reach the doors. They let Toby get in first and he wriggled himself into the back seat. Right away, he thought that this would not be a bad place to spend the next four days. His hosts had chosen some very comfy, roomy seats. They'd even rubbered over some of the exposed welds and rivets so he wouldn't bonk his kneecaps on bumpy roads.
Toby had been wondering how in blazes they were going to get the Fearsleigher out of the junkyard and through the Jennie-Mae. He kept his mouth shut about it though, figuring that Junella and Zinc couldn't possibly have overlooked that. And they hadn't. Once everyone and everything was on board, Zinc unlocked a section of the fence which swung out onto the street. He climbed up into the passenger seat and hollered for George to goose it. The spectral stallion was in the mood to show off and broke into a gallop like he was pulling nothing more than a few helium balloons. Thanks to a timed clockwork mechanism, the gate shut itself after they exited. And Junella's buzzers worked just fine to direct George around in a circle to the opposite end of the junkyard. There, Toby saw another doorway, like the one with the rug, but this one was so wide they could have flown a small plane through. Toby also saw about seven of the soulsucking serpent-ghosts Zinc had mentioned, all hissing and steaming and squirming, and he screamed appropriately. George just guffawed and stampeded through them with a sound like stepping on toothpaste.
They emerged pretty much out of thin air back in Phlogiston. There was no accompanying doorway here, and Toby saw Scrofula blink out of sight the instant they'd fully passed through. He also spotted a very-not-round-anymore Tinder Fingers, who took one look at George and scrambled away faster than Toby had ever seen anyone move with a limp.
Soon Phlogiston was behind them, the receding houses looking like lined-up pints of milk. George was whinnying joyfully. He shouted behind him that the sleigh's blades were so frictionless that even with the weight of all the armor and armaments, they were no more trouble to haul than carrying a single passenger. Junella was overflowing with smug pride at her design choice. She gave Zinc a satisfying backscratch for being good construction equipment. His wagging tail thumped on the dashboard.
As they rode, Zinc was happy to act as Toby's tour guide. He rolled down the windows and pointed at the animate clothing items scurrying around the desert. "Never put one of those on!" he warned. He then described, in stomach-churning detail, how they had little hooklike teeth on the inside that would devour alive anyone who wore them. Toby tried to hold down the remains of his orange.
Junella turned the radio to some light jazz. Toby was surprised there were actually broadcasting stations in Phobiopolis. Though it was also possible the radio worked simply by magic. Regardless, the music was quite effectively calming. He could focus on that instead of Zinc rambling on about all the various beasties that lived in the surrounding countryside, and all their preferred ways of gobbling up the hapless.
Despite having been looking out the window the whole time, Toby couldn't have pinpointed the spot where the ashy desert turned into a festering green swamp. It had just... happened somewhere along the way. He got the feeling this was going to be a recurring theme. He watched the ground bubble and steam. Huge green blisters inflated and popped, like the whole area was a simmering sauce on a hot stove. He watched the leaning trees slowly trudging to and fro on their roots, looking like tired men returning home from hard labor. He watched a swirling black cloud in the distance reveal itself as a swarm of thousands of swooping creatures, seemingly made of nothing more than batwings and teeth. He watched one dart into the toxic water below and come up with someone's decomposing, bony arm. The mouse quickly turned away to stare at the back of the front passenger seat. He was very glad to be inside their little traveling fortress rather than outside.
They passed other vehicles occasionally. Usually they were going so fast, Toby only caught glances of grilles and trunks, but all these other "cars" looked just as customized for defense as theirs. He saw one with a cow-catcher, another that was so covered in shards of picket fence it looked like a hedgehog. He saw a two-door subcompact with tank treads twice as big as the chassis.
The Fearsligher's speed decreased somewhat as the road got muddier and muckier. The swamp itself changed into a sprawling, distorted sewage treatment plant. Organic gave way to a melted sort of industrial. Rocks were now crude little scribbled buildings. Trees were pipes and pumps. The batwinged things now looked like ragged scraps of trash bags, still snatching stomach-churning prey out of the muck below. And the ground still bubbled, sending sprays of foul, fetid liquid fountaining up into the sky with every explosion. Everyone rolled up the windows to keep out the stench of rotting plants and dung. Toby grew increasingly worried that the road would keep on dwindling until it vanished entirely under the glop.
'What would it be like to drown in this lake of filth?' his brain asked him, and he fought back quease.
Then, right in the middle of nowhere, they came upon a little store.
Just when the road itself had narrowed to a single lane and George was up to his ankles in gunk, there by the side of the road was a flat, smooth concrete parking lot full of vehicles, next to a wood-paneled general store. The sign above was carved from the side of a felled tree: TRACHEA'S TRADING POST. The place looked modern-ish. Toby spotted vending machines, ice coolers and an air conditioner around the perimeter; the doors even opened automatically when customers walked in and out. But the general feel of things was slightly before his time. It reminded him of photos his mother had shown him of her childhood.
Toby thought at first that someone would have to be insane to build anything out here. But then he reconsidered. Wouldn't anyone traveling down this disgusting road be looking for an oasis? The parking lot was nearly full. And from the looks of the cheerfully-chewing citizens at the picnic tables near the edge of the lot, either there had to be some magic spell around the place keeping the smell out, or these people had no noses.
Junella called out for George to find a parking spot, and he was quite relieved to hear it. Not because he was getting tired, he told them, but because he could finally scrape the slime off his hooves.
Zinc curled himself around the seat. "How ya holdin' down that orange, chief?"
Toby smiled a little. "Just fine, actually."
"Good, good. You'll be livin' off snacks for the afternoon, and they'll probly hit your stomach harder. This place has a smorgasbord of road food. Everything neat 'n pre-packaged."
In his peripheral vision, Toby saw Junella open her door to get out. He immediately clamped a paw over his nose.
Zinc guffawed. He opened his door too and made a show of drawing in a deep breath.
Toby warily poked his head out too. The sky was still overcast, the ground was still a boiling green sludgepit, yet the air smelled... Well, not exactly okay. There was still a faint twinge of decay. Though it was massively less than the stench he'd breathed in before. With caution, he tiptoed down the ladder to the concrete. It felt oddly reassuring to have something solid under his feet.
The skunk and canine both grabbed sacks from under the hood-trunk and headed for the shop. Toby tagged behind, but made sure to give George a 'thank you' pat first.
The cars in the lot and the customers emerging from them were all as weird as Toby had come to expect by now, but the interior of Trachea's Trading Post was one of the most boringly normal places he'd seen so far. Boring, in this case, was incredibly welcome. Once he stepped through the doors that 'ding'ed and slid out of his way, Toby felt like maybe he could relax and not worry about being attacked by anything here.
Trachea's Trading Post was comfortably dim and smelled of wood. Framed photographs, strangely curled antlers, road signs and other memorabilia decorated the walls. The shelves came up to around shoulder height, making it look from the front of the store like the customers' heads were a horizontal Pacman game. The walls and shelves were stocked with gardening and hunting equipment, storage containers, auto parts, camping supplies. Lots of food. All canned and wrapped though; no fresh produce. Toby thought of the sludge outside and was not surprised. The only really creepy thing in here was the statue up at the front of the store. A brown bear in a trenchcoat and a broad black hat. It stood with tiny unblinking eyes, looking like someone had grabbed its muzzle and torn downwards. The fur and flesh were missing in a wide strip, showing dusty bone beneath.
Toby turned away and looked towards an endcap full of candy bars. He felt a naughty tingle at the base of his neck. He hadn't been allowed to eat candy for several years now. But at that moment he decided to be slightly bold. He let himself accept the fact that food did not work the same way here. He'd seen enough proof of it by now that it was silly to continue worrying. Having only eaten some berries and an orange since his arrival, he should have starved to death ten times over. Or at least looked like a malnourished raisin. Instead, he looked and felt considerably better than he had before he'd begun this long dream. Even without his pills! So, he felt relatively confident in concluding that a few sweets wouldn't kill him.
Though of course he was going to check the ingredients first. In a place like this, 'candy' might mean anything. Green beans and severed fingers dipped in caramel, perhaps?
When he got close enough to scan the names of the treats, he experienced a wholly unexpected kind of unease. The words. None of them made sense. It was like the vision-blurring side effect his pills had given him sometimes. The illustrations all showed normal things like chocolate, nuts, marshmallow, etcetera, but the harder he tried to read the brightly-colored words printed on the little plastic packages, the less sense they made.
And Now Tits!
Bathroom: The Candy
Tiny Mole Skulls
Break My Foot
Bumborated Mom Oils
And that was just the words he could make out! Others were strings of symbols, or letters cracked into pieces, or designs that actually swirled around and around the wrappers like snakes.
Everything was melting. The feeling was so overwhelmingly wrong, Toby jumped backwards and would have crashed into a display of postcards had Zinc not zipped in to catch him. The mouse winced as his elbows hit metal.
"Whoa, hoss!" Zinc hollered. He tried as gently as he could to steady his quaking client. "Fainting spell or what?"
The blurriness was starting to recede from the edges of his vision. Toby shook his head and gave Zinc a nod of thanks. This added some fresh befuddlement to the mouse's mind, as he noticed that the canine had a soda can tucked into the empty space between his ears. Toby tried to form a coherent sentence. "The candy... words... did... things," he pointed over his shoulders.
Zinc's homemade eyebrows popped up in a moment of realization. "Lemme guess: you haven't read too much since you got here?"
Toby tried to remember. "I've read street signs," he said. "None of them started blurring and moving like the candy just did."
The canine nodded and patted Toby's shoulders in an 'I know exactly what this is' kind of way. "It's been so long I almost forgot when it happened to me. This place is dreamstuff, right? And we can't read in dreams. It's, like, two different parts of the brain. I read that somewhere. So a few words at a time? Your brain can handle that. Too much writing at once? You freak out like you just did."
Toby felt a completely new type of terror plunge his heart into ice water. "I'M ILLITERATE NOW!?" he wailed, startling some other customers. His mind's eye saw his bookshelves at home, all his favorite stories, all useless now!
"No, no! Cool your damn jets!" Zinc said, wishing he could slap this panicking kid back to reality, but not able to for fear of decapitating him. "It's temporary! 'Cause remember, this isn't a dream but just works like one. You just have to get good at it again. It takes a while, yeah, and it's a pain in the ass, but you'll make it eventually."
Toby visibly slumped with relief. "Really?"
"Cross my heart. I'll grab a baby book for you to practice on in the car. Now, go over to that display again, pick up one bar of candy, and read the name."
The mouse nodded. He turned around and tried not to look directly at any of the packages. He reached for one, feeling like he was dipping into a bucket of worms. His fingers touched crinkly foil.
Coconutto, it said, and showed a cartoon squirrel drinking from a halved coconut with a paper umbrella in it. Toby blinked. When he looked again, the name did not change to anything awful like A Pile Of Toes. He put it back and selected another one. He'd remember it had been called Help! Ovals! before, and now it just said Steve's Delight, which was slightly unusual, but still firmly within the realms of candy-nomenclature plausibility.
Zinc chuckled to himself at the droop-mouthed look of wonder on his client's face. He started scooping handfuls of candy into his orange plastic basket.
"This one still says Bloodbacon," Toby said uneasily.
Zinc reached over and snatched it up with a 'yoink'. "Yep! Not sure what it's doin' in with the candy, but you shoulda guessed by now that not all the food's normal in the 'Opolis. We got our own style of cuisine, dig? Bloodbacon's one of my favorites. Ever had blood pudding? Nah, I'm guessin' not. But it's like that. With bacon! Meaty as all hell. A good snack for right after a fight."
That did not sound appealing, and Toby conveyed this with his expression.
"Suit yourself. Hey, I'm gonna go bother Trachea for a while." He thrust his basket into Toby's hands. "You practice not reading too much and see if you can find some kaka you can make yourself eat, okay? Good luck," he added as he headed abruptly down the aisle.
'Allright,' Toby thought.
He could do this. He wasn't a baby.
It was more difficult than he expected though. It was like his brain kept trying to push his eyes away from any words they encountered. The letters kept sliding around. He mostly went by the illustrations or photos on the packages. Checking the ingredients list on anything was futile. He might as well have been trying to read a pile of hair clippings. Toby had a sudden moment of extreme sympathy for dyslexics.
Eventually though, he picked out a few things that looked simple enough to not contain unpleasant surprises. He was even confident enough to move on to the salty snacks aisle and pick out a few things there too. Though he slipped a few times, read too much at once, and saw names like Banana Grammas, I Fear The Sun, and BLUK NEWNT.
Just as Toby was adding a muffin to the cart, he froze on the spot and had a disconcerting thought: The map. He'd been able to read Junella's map just an hour ago. Why? If what Zinc had said was true (and why would he lie?), then looking at the map should have triggered the dream-illiteracy long before looking at the candy. Was there a difference? All he could think of was that the map was large enough that he could focus on just one place name at a time. They weren't as clustered together as the candy bars. Still, it made him wonder if any of those strange territories' names hadn't actually been what he'd read them as. They were all so bizarre, he couldn't have known at the time. Though Junella and Zinc had named a few, and those names had matched the map.
Head swirling, Toby walked towards the front of the store, nearly tripping over a fat lady whose head was a snail shell. The mouse did not notice. Though he did get a jolt when he saw Zinc talking animatedly with that partly-skinned bear statue.
It wasn't a statue at all!
Its stare was so faraway and unblinking, the eyes might as well have been glass. If it moved, its motions were as slow as stone grinding on stone. Toby watched from a distance as Zinc pointed out all the weird stuff he'd poured out of his backpack onto the bear's countertop. It looked like a collection of trinkets, garbage, electronics, even some kind of mummified animal spine. There was no telling whether the bear was interested or not, or if he was even hearing Zinc at all.
"...at great personal risk to life and pelt," Zinc prattled on. "I estimate its value to be more than enough to pay off our bill today. You might even have to make change. But, just because I like you, I'm gonna sweeten the pot with this."
Toby couldn't fathom how Zinc was able to reach into the backpack and remove something so small so effortlessly. It was a chunk of night-blue stone on a delicate chain. He set it reverently on the counter.
Under the black brim of his tire-wide hat, the bear's eyes rolled slowly towards the item Zinc had presented.
"IT IS FAKE," he said.
Toby jerked back and accidentally toppled a few boxes of cereal. That voice was like a compressed thunderstorm! It was not particularly loud, but penetrating. It felt like a black hole that all other sounds vanished into.
Zinc's muzzle stretched out in a shit-eating grin. "Hey, pops! C'mon! I never said it was a REAL Zulamang Drop! If I had one of those, don't you think I'd be offering to buy the store off you? Naw, this, this is a very nice replica. It'd make a nice gift for a nice lady. Bit of costume jewelry, eh?"
"SELL IT SOMEWHERE ELSE," came the reply. "THE REST IS GOOD."
Zinc nodded as if he'd pretty much expected this result, but it had been worth a try anyway. As he slipped the necklace back into his bag, he noticed Toby and giggled at the fear in the mouse's coral eyes. "He's not gonna bite ya. This is Sander Trachea. Shopkeep. Fair guy. Doesn't like to waste his breath on small talk though."
Toby took a few tiny shuffling steps closer. "...hello?" he meekly squeaked.
The eyes in that immobile face swiveled towards him. Toby could not help but stare at the ragged edges of skin around where the man's nose and mouth had once been. Now there was nothing but sun-bleached bone and teeth. Toby could see Sander's neck, spine, and both the front and back of his ribcage. He looked as hollow inside as an old coat. He was standing just behind the counter, and Toby wondered how much of the man was left down there.
Sander spoke. "NEW?"
It took a moment for Toby's brain to force his eyes to stop staring. "I wasn't staring!! Sorry!! Yes! I just... I just wound up here a week or so ago."
Zinc stifled a laugh.
Trachea did not seem insulted. "IF YOU ARE NOT A THIEF, YOU HAVE NO REASON TO FEAR ME," he reassured.
"I'm not! I was gonna pay for these, honest!" the mouse said, putting the basket of snacks on the counter.
"Actually, I'm paying for them this time," Zinc let Toby know. "Lemme just grab Junebug and see if I've got enough to cover it all."
He zipped off then, leaving Toby alone in front of the hulking, scarecrow-like shop owner, whose eyes still bored into his.
Toby said nothing.
Trachea said nothing.
Toby said nothing.
Trachea said nothing.
"Does that hurt?" Toby finally asked, pointing with his finger along the edge of torn bear fur.
"NO. IT ITCHES SOMETIMES THOUGH, WHEN THE WEATHER IS HOT."
"Sorry to hear that."
Nothing in the bear's stony face moved per se, but for a moment he appeared amused that this tiny rodent felt both fear and concern in his presence.
Toby tapped his foot, waiting for Zinc to return. To squash the awkward silence, he asked, "Do you... have any tips for a recent arrival in Phobiopolis?"
Trachea thought for a moment before answering. "BE NEAR OTHERS YOU TRUST. THE WORST COMES WHEN YOU ARE ALONE."
Toby gulped at that. But it probably was sound advice. It had held true for his 'adventures' so far.
Junella appeared, pushing a shopping cart full of pointy items. Toby saw the tips of harpoons. A few bullets dropped out of the bottom of the cart and rolled down the aisle.
With just a glance, Trachea totaled up the value of all her items. He added it to the foodstuffs in the basket. "NOT ENOUGH."
"C'mon, man!" Zinc whined.
"I HAVE TO STAY IN BUSINESS AND I HAVE TO STAY ALIVE," he insisted.
Toby heard a faint metallic creak as Zinc rolled his eyes. He walked over to stand beside the counter. "Allright, but you know I don't like this."
"NO ONE DOES," Trachea acknowledged, as he silently rotated to face the canine.
Toby came up beside Junella. He meant to ask her what was about to happen, but she had the look of a shopper who'd not found half of the items on their list and just wanted to pay and get the hell out. Toby chose not to perturb her.
Zinc bobbed back and forth on his feet, looking antsy. "Let's go already, pops. Get it over with."
Trachea replied with a nod. Then his skeletal jaw opened wide, and his eyes glowed white.
Toby and Zinc both gasped at the same time. The mouse from horror, the canine because the breath was being literally snatched out of his lungs. Toby could see the space between them flutter as the bear drew in Zinc's inner wind. Trachea's mouth opened wider. The stolen air swirled inside him like a tornado. His mouth whined like a turbine engine.
Zinc's cheeks pulled in. His eyes rolled back. His shirt clung tight to his chest, and soon his ribs were visible through it. His flesh withered. He was being sucked dry like a cardboard juice box.
"STOP IT!!" Toby suddenly yelped. The mouse ran at Trachea and pounded him with his balled-up fists. He succeeded in creating a soft thumping sound, nothing more.
The bear stopped. He looked down towards the mouse.
Toby looked up and his eyes widened. He squeaked like a nonev and leapt back several feet, anticipating the swipe of a wide paw that'd swat away all his skin.
Zinc staggered a bit as he instinctively gulped down fistfuls of air. With each breath, he re-inflated slightly until he was back to looking like his usual self. He coughed a bit, then turned to Toby and snarled, "Not helpful!!"
Toby was stunned. He thought he'd just saved his friend's life...
Junella looked over at Toby with the cruelest little grin he'd ever seen. "You are so... damn... fragile."
Toby was feeling a rotten combination of humiliation and confusion. He stammered before he could force a defense out. "I th-th-thhh- I thought he was hurting Zinc! I already watched him get lit on fire earlier today! I just... panicked!"
Sighing, Zinc walked over (still a little wobbly) and patted Toby's shoulder. "Look, your compassion is touching my heart. Truly. But d'you really think I'd just stand there and let that happen if I didn't know what was coming? Do I look that stupid?"
That stung. Toby's cheeks burned. "I panicked," he said again.
Trachea decided to intercede. "I NEED BREATH TO SURVIVE. BUT I DESPISE STEALING. I OPENED MY STORE SO PEOPLE WOULD COME AND TRADE ME WHAT I NEED. IT DOES NO PERMANENT HARM."
Zinc nodded. "...What he said. It sucks-" he paused to appreciate the unintentional pun, "-but that's how it is. I come here every other weekend or so. Either me or Junella volunteers. We get groceries and he gets breath. We both get fed."
Toby looked down at the floor tiles. "I'm sorry. I've just never seen... that happen before."
"I guess I shoulda warned you," Zinc said with a growl of frustration.
In that growl, Toby heard plenty that was unspoken. Zinc had been trying to be a friend to this new client, and was now realizing he'd have to play babysitter instead. Toby was not without empathy. He could see Zinc and Junella's position. They were survivors. He was not. On their journey to Anasarca, there would be things they wouldn't bat an eyelash at that would send him into pants-wetting fits of screaming. Toby could understand how annoying that would soon become for both of them.
He glanced around and saw other customers looking at this little drama unfolding by the front counter. His cheeks burned hotter.
"I WILL CONSIDER YOUR BILL PAID," Trachea said, wanting to spare the frail mouse the sight of him feeding again. "GOOD JOURNEY TO YOU."
Junella didn't bother bagging anything. She just wheeled her cart past Toby and shot a look at Zinc that said, 'I knew he was gonna turn out to be like this.'
The canine nodded back to her, and Toby could see in his eyes that he was feeling foolish for trying to be chummy with their client. When Zinc spoke again, his tone was that of a professional guide, nothing more. "Bring the food. Keep it in the back seat with you. Take whatever you like."
As he watched the automatic doors slide open for Junella and Zinc to exit, Toby briefly wished he could just dream himself transformed into a wall decoration and stay here from now on. Motionless, wordless, and not an embarrassment to anyone.
George greeted them brightly when they exited the store, suggesting that maybe they could enjoy a nice outdoor lunch together at the picnic tables. Junella and Zinc didn't even acknowledge him as they walked past. Zinc pulled himself up into the car and slammed the door while Junella simply upended her cart into the hood. Then she slammed it shut too and snickered as the noise made Toby flinch. He did not look up at her. Toby also didn't make eye contact with George as he drifted past and poured himself up into the back seat. George was rather perplexed, wondering what in the world had just taken place inside.
Several hours passed in silence. Toby had dumped the snacks onto the backseat and tossed the basket out the window. Then he laid down with his feet among the food and closed his eyes. He kept them closed as Junella barked the order for George to get going. He kept them closed as the skate-car jolted to movement. He kept them closed for the better part of forty minutes until he started feeling carsick.
'Oh, that'd be wonderful. Can you imagine the looks they'd give you as they watched you wipe up your barf from the seats?'
Toby sat up, inadvertently knocking some candy bars onto the floor.
Junella glanced up at him in the rear view mirror. Their eyes met, and hers said, 'It's fine with me if you wanna stay like that the whole trip.'
Zinc was simply staring ahead at the highway.
He looked away from both of them out the window and was unsurprised to see the landscape had changed yet again. The swamp was gone. Now it was some kind of ruined village surrounded by a sickly forest. Everything here looked like a gnawed-on corpse. The houses were uninhabitable. Their walls appeared to have been chewed away by giant ants. Many structures had collapsed roofs; some weren't much more than foundations and tilted beams. The trees and other plants were a uniform grayish green, like they were all infected with something that was slowly draining their life away.
They passed a wide-open field and Toby saw a playground. Everything there, slides, swings and climbing castles, was made of skeletons. Bones bolted to bones.
This sight did not make Toby feel afraid, just weary and tired. He was tired of seeing horror.
He rolled down the window for some fresh air. The wind ruffled his fur and thankfully didn't stink much. He looked down at the road. Their skate-car's blades were carving thin grooves in the asphalt, like the grooves on Junella's arms. Toby looked up front and could see George through the windshield. He was running along at the same speed as before, but there was no joy in it.
Toby laid back against the creaking faux-leather seat and closed his eyes again.
'I want to go home. I'm tired. I make everyone around me miserable. At least if I was home I'd be alone. Things would be normal. I'd know what was going on. I could just take my pills, take my bath, go to bed. Each day would be like the last day. No more jumping in fright at every, single, absolutely, every, every, EVERY stupid little thing that happens to me...'
He cast a sideways glance at the candy bars and chips, all vibrating slightly from the car's movement.
He picked up the first chocolate thing he saw, unwrapped it and took a bite. It tasted incredible. It tasted so good it almost made him angry. He was so deep in his bad mood, he didn't want to be taken out of it. He wanted to find little green grubs in the chocolate, or for it to taste like wallpaper paste.
He ate the whole thing and afterwards barely remembered it. All he tasted was aftertaste. He crumpled the wrapper up methodically into the densest ball he possibly could.
He considered throwing it out the window, since littering couldn't possibly matter in this dismal place, but couldn't bring himself to. He stuffed the little foil and paper ball into his pocket.
Looking out the window, the scenery was different again. Now they were driving across a lake. There wasn't even a bridge: the road somehow existed right at the surface of the water. Waves splashed George's hooves as he ran onward.
In the water, Toby could see hundreds of buoys. All painted black. Or were they buoys? They looked like people. Hairless, midnight-painted people, wading up to their chests. They had no faces. Or their faces were too dark to see. Toby watched a bird fly down, land on one of their heads, peck at it, and fly away again.
He ate another candy bar.
The sullen silence within The Fearsleigher was eventually broken by thousands of fishes attacking the car.
Soon after the road had slipped beneath the surface of the water and then crumbled away entirely, a plague of leaping, chomping, eel-like sea creatures had descended upon them in numbers so great it blocked out the sunlight. It had happened with the suddenness of a lightswitch being flicked. One moment none, the next, uncountable numbers of them, all thudding and splatting and scraping against their vehicle from every possible angle. Junella had the windshield wipers on max, but it wasn't accomplishing much more than just smearing orange blood all over the glass.
Toby flattened himself as far back into the seat leather as physically possible, staring in revulsion at the dozens of snapping mouths all desperately trying to break through the windows and make a meal of him. They moved far too fast to get a clear look, but as far as he could tell, they were like slime-covered cancerous gym socks with a mouth at one end that was nothing but a ring of teeth. He remembered a nature program about lampreys, but these must have been the jumbo-sized prehistoric kind. Either that or they'd been hanging out in a nuclear reactor's runoff.
At least the armor was keeping them out. Toby had been stricken with heart-pumping paralysis when they'd first started their kamikaze bombardment, but relaxed little by little as he realized that all they were accomplishing was bursting themselves like water balloons.
And then Zinc pulled the door handle.
Toby's eyes nearly popped straight out of his head. But before the mouse could let out a shriek, Zinc had cracked the door just enough to let a single one in, clamped his wrench-jaw down on its face, and had it fully subdued and the door closed again in an eyeblink.
As Toby watched in disbelief and disgust, Zinc pulled its head straight off, chucked it in the ashtray, then took a bite from the still-wriggling body.
He turned around in his seat to give Toby a slime-covered smile. "Sushi."
Toby felt his stomach roll over.
"Eyyy, you didn't scream this time! Good job!" the canine ribbed as he took another sloppy bite.
Toby blushed. "I almost did," he admitted.
The endless surround-sound splats of fish were not loud enough to prevent conversation. Zinc nibbled his lip. "Look, uh..." He tapped Toby's knee with a wrenchtip. "I'm sorry we gave you a hard time at the store. I realize you were only trying to help. It just... wasn't help we needed."
The mouse looked down at the seat. "You don't have to tell me that. I know already. I knew right after it happened. I felt like a dumb little kid." He raised his eyes to meet Zinc's. "I get that you guys are mighty heroes and I'm just nothing. I get that it's better if I don't help, since I don't know this place like you do and anything I try will likely screw things up."
From the front seat, Junella muttered, "Ain't that the truth..."
Zinc shot her a 'Cool it!' look, then turned back to Toby. "That's a harsh way of puttin' it, but yeah, pretty much the case. And I'm not unsympathetic neither. You've been here... less than two weeks?"
"You're in better shape than some people that new. Some folks, they just curl up and go catatonic. They break. You're at least still able to hold a conversation, and while you're gettin' dive-bombed on all sides by uglyfish, too!"
That made Toby smile. "Thank you for trying to make me feel better. I apologize for interfering with you and Mr. Trachea back at the store."
Zinc beamed. It was his natural inclination to want to put bumpy things back to smooth as soon as possible. "Settled and done." He took another bite of fish. "Yuh wanf summ?" he offered with his mouth full.
Toby was about to definitively decline, but then he stopped himself. Feeling like he must be absolutely out of his mind, he sat up straight and said, "Allright. Pull me off a little piece."
Zinc's grin did cartwheels. "Seriously? I asked just to tease ya! Maybe you ain't hopeless after all!" He ripped off a rubbery-looking scrap and handed it over.
Toby knew the texture would likely be the worst part, so he accepted the clammy morsel between two fingers, closed his eyes, and popped it in his mouth without thinking. He was expecting the worst flavor possible, and was primed to reflexively gag, but...
He chewed a few times and swallowed. "That... wasn't terrible," he assessed. "Kind of like a kippered herring dipped in rubber cement."
"Want more?" Zinc asked with a chuckle.
"Noooooooo," said Toby.
"It helps to have an undiscerning palate," he said as he slid back into his seat.
Junella was giving him a look.
Her look intensified. Her vinyl features pointed at the canine like an arrow. Her eyebrows went up, demanding an answer from him.
"One bite of fish does not a leopard's spots change," she lounged.
He rolled his eyes. "C'mon, Juney! I'm just tryin' to keep this from being one of those long, silent car trips where nobody says a damn word because everybody hates each other!"
"Oh, I see. Is that our most important priority on this trip? Chitchat?" she sarcasmed.
He snorted and savagely ripped off another chunk of fish, not minding that a few drips landed on her.
She did not take her orange eyes off of him. Her expression was smug on top, but coldly merciless beneath. "You can play nice with the wimp all you want, but what he says now doesn't change what he's gonna do the next time we need him to stay put and stay quiet. I recognize his type now. I'd prefer a catatonic one! Catatonic ones don't butt in with their good intentions!"
Toby was putting tiny holes in the leather from squeezing the seat in his claws. "I can hear everything you're saying about me, you know."
She turned around and smiled a poison smile at him. "I know." Then she went right back to looking at Zinc.
Toby leaned forward. "Hey! I already told Zinc I get it. I told him I'll try to-"
The fish abruptly stopped attacking.
Toby blinked, both in surprise and at the comparatively-blinding sunlight that suddenly poured in.
"THANK GOODNESS!!!" George roared in relief from in front of them. "I can swim just fine, and they weren't slowing me down, but that twice-bedamned SOUND of all them SMACKING INTO ME!!" He snorted and shook his head to flick away the fish-slime. Then glanced behind at his passengers. "My apologies for the outburst."
"None needed!" Zinc called out.
Toby tried to rejoin his train of thought. He tapped Junella's shoulder and tried to sound assertive. "Miss Brox, I understand that our relationship is just a business transaction and you don't have to like me, but I'd at least like a little respect."
She slowly turned to face him, moving like a coiling cobra, and her tickled-pink smile was ear-to-ear. "No," she said simply.
Toby deflated like a balloon. "Excuse m-me?"
"Respect is something you earn, pinkie. You haven't earned mine. At most I'll tolerate you. But there's no words that are gonna come outta your mouth that are gonna make me change my opinion of you. I've had clients like you before. I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt until I was sure. But in the store, I saw it. You're not just a wimp. You're a coward who thinks he knows what being a coward isn't. You're someone whose whole idea of bravery comes outta comic books. You're useless to real people."
Zinc put a wrench-hand over his face and sunk down in his seat. "Yowch..."
Toby's eyes did not leave hers. Purely because he was sure that if he looked down, he'd see all his guts spilling out from how deep Junella had cut him. His lip trembled. He wanted to punch his own face to force tears from coming out.
"What do you expect from me?" he said softly, his voice trembling. "I've never had a chance to be brave. I've barely ever even had a chance to be alive."
She looked puzzled at that.
The mouse's voice grew more firm. "For almost my whole life, I've been in a hospital bed. I've been on more pills than you can imagine. I've had more sores, more headaches, more fits of dry heaving, than you can possibly imagine. I've had..." He tried to name off some of the diseases he'd been diagnosed with, but all their names eluded him. "...A lot of health problems! Any syndrome you can name, I've probably at least come close to it."
Junella did seem to be softening slightly.
"I lived with just my mom for most of it; her taking care of me while I spent every day so sick I could hardly walk across the room I never left. Just watching TV or reading books. Eating bland food for dinner and having nightmares all night. Then, just before I died, or went into a coma, or whatever it was that landed me in this craphole place, I found out I've got yet another terminal disease, Munchausen Syndrome Byproxy, and-"
"WHAT'S FUNNY ABOUT THAT!?" Toby shrieked.
The skunk actually backed up a bit. She'd seen a flash of something deep and red in the mouse's eyes for a split-second. Her expression turned into a kind of queasy pity. "You seriously don't know?"
He fought to slow his breath down. "What are you talking about? Why did you laugh at me when I said I was dying!?"
For a moment she wanted to reach out and comfort this poor deluded dummy. Her hand began moving towards his cheek. But she thought better of it and stopped herself. It was best not to get too close to crazy. "That wasn't why I laughed. I'm sorry. If you don't know, you'll find out eventually, someday. But... Allright, I get your point. I get why you're you. But still, that doesn't make it any easier for me in my position, you savvy?"
Toby fell back in his seat, arms crossed. "At least I'm aware of it. At least I'm not going to waste time arguing with you about calling me a coward. Sure, I am. I can't guarantee I won't ever panic again and mess things up for us, but I'll at least try not to. Heck, I'll let you tie me up if you feel like you have to, like they used to do with sailors to keep them from running off and getting drowned by the sirens."
Junella flinched a bit at that. She wasn't sure if the kid was exaggerating or if he honestly thought she'd be that cruel.
It was Zinc's turn to smile smugly at her. "We do have some leftover rope!" he chirped.
She glared daggers at him. "Shuddup, you."
Junella went back to staring out the windshield at the seemingly-endless water that was now frosted with a foot-thick layer of fog.
Toby fidgeted in the silence for a while. "Are we..." He leaned forward. "I know we're not 'okay', but do we at least understand each other?" he asked Junella.
She didn't look back at him. "Sure."
Hoping to cut the tension a little, Zinc tossed the tail-end of his fishy snack out the window and reached around into the back. "That left an aftertaste like an autopsy table. Scoot me a peanut-butter bar, wouldja?"
Toby appreciated Zinc allowing him the chance to feel a tiny bit useful. As Zinc crunched into the candy, Toby asked, "Do you have that book you mentioned? So I could practice reading things without the words going all wormy?"
His eyelids clinked as he winced. "Shit. It slipped my mind." He slid back into his seat and rooted around in the glove compartment. "Ehh, this'll do." He passed a yellow pamphlet over his shoulder. "Here. Travel brochure. Should be simple enough."
Toby accepted it and felt his guts churn as all the text on it turned into squiggles. He blinked hard and tried to concentrate only on the drawing of the smiling, chainsaw-wielding wolf standing in front of several big blocks of ice. Okay, so it was advertising some kind of ice-carving festival. That gave him some context to work from. And in fact, when he focused in as hard as he could on the brochure's title, he was able to make out, "FREEZE YOURSELF NEW!" That didn't make a lick of sense, but it remained consistent enough for him to be semi-confident it was the real title.
Zinc watched Toby staring intently. "It's all about force of will. Nearly everything here is. In fact, once we get to Coryza, remind me to buy you a willwatch to practice on. Seriously, remind me: I know I'll forget."
Toby looked up from the pamphlet. It was already giving him a small headache. "I've heard of willwells," he said. "I'm assuming a willwatch is similar? What are they?"
"They're basically big and small versions of the same thing. Except one stores will and the other's just for practice. Willpower is how we pay for things here. Mostly. A lot of people barter for everyday goods. And of course there's spots like Trachea's. But in almost any business, there's a willwell. Willpower is literal power in Phobiopolis. Remember how I explained about the doors? How they're made with unstable kaka in 'em? There's this stuff, this ore, that most everything else is made out of. Yeah, you can do it the hard way and grow your own veggies or chop down trees or dig up metal. But you can also take a chunk of imaginite, think real fuckin' hard at it, and it'll become whatever you want it to."
"Cool!" Toby said.
"You had some of that candy yet? That's imaginite."
The mouse felt somewhat strange to have eaten something that used to be a chunk of minerals. But the taste was undeniably good.
"There's almost noplace here stable enough to put a big factory, so anything you find that looks manufactured is either part of someone's nightmare and it showed up here by itself, or someone made it outta imaginite."
Toby nodded. "Okay, so then, if the name's any indication, a willwell is a way to store willpower? So you can use it on imaginite?"
Zinc lit up. "Heyyy! Quick on the draw, champ! I'd give you a blue ribbon if I had one!"
Toby laughed shyly.
"You got it exactly right. It takes a lotta willpower to shape imaginite. You, by yourself, right now could probably make a candy bar out of a chunk of it in twenny minutes. It might come out a little kooky, but it'd be a candy bar. If you're a small business entrepreneur, like if you make violins or some fancy crap like that, you could probably knock out a real good one in about an hour. But this is too slow for mass production, you dig? Like, picture a restaurant. The chef can't be sittin' there all day staring at rocks while the orders come in."
Toby thought he had it. "...So the customers somehow put their will in a willwell and the restaurant uses that to make the food faster."
A vigorous nod. "The kid's on his way!" he praised. "You come into a shop, you get the stuff you want, then you stare at their willwell and try to get this little red line to move from one end to the other. It looks like a parking meter. And it's a lot harder than it looks. It depends on the furson though. Juney's aces at it, she'll show you later. The more you push the red line, the more willpower it's collecting. Then, I'm not a hunnert percent sure on this part, but some kinda hose comes out the back and they point it at some imaginite and it becomes new goods for new customers."
"That makes a lot of sense," Toby said. "I haven't really had time to think about it, but just now I realized that normal money wouldn't work here. Especially if you can just make more out of imaginite."
"Some places still use money. Well, actually, only EC does," Zinc corrected. "They don't have a problem with counterfeiting there. Luxy took care of that! Holy shit did he ever!"
Zinc chuckled in a 'That's too good of a secret to spill just yet,' kind of way.
"Allright then..." Another question came to Toby. "Where did willwells come from in the first place?"
"Simple. A while back some guy named Tony John Tony thought they'd be a good idea, then he ogled a block of imaginite for a while until one popped out."
It seemed so obvious he felt silly for asking. "And then he used that one to make making the next one easier, and so on and so on?"
"You got it!" Zinc said. "So, anymore questions while I'm in a teaching mood?"
Toby blinked. "I can't think of anything offhand. Thanks though, really. I think I want to try reading this pamphlet for a while. Now that I know it's just a matter of how hard I try, I'm feeling a bit hopeful."
"You'll get it," Zinc said with confidence. "The blurry-wordy effect's never permanent. Not unless you're lazy as hell or illiterate in the first place. You seem like the egghead type. You'll be tearin' through Tolstoy in no time flat."
The mouse was glad for the vote of confidence.
"Pitch me another of those peanut things before you get started?"
Toby did, and decided to try one himself.
Time passed, and Toby was not sure whether it was a help or a hindrance that the pamphlet had turned out to concern such bizarre subject matter. It made it hard to trust what he was reading.
It was like herding camels. Each word resisted his attempts at forcing it to act sensible. So he'd have to run through a list of potential words it might be, and when he hit on the right one, it kind of squirmed unwillingly into place until it clicked. Words like 'the', 'to' and 'a' were a piece of cake. But some proper nouns were near-impossible and had to be skipped. Toby thought it was unlikely that this place was owned by Mr. Wrghrblrrrrngdngfnmp.
From the first page, he'd gotten a clue as to the content, although the idea itself was unsettling. The pamphlet was advertising a type of spa or salon where people could go to completely change their appearance. They would be melted down and turned into a great big block of ice. Then people with chainsaws would carve the ice into a new look. When the chainsaw-artists were satisfied, the ice would turn back into a furson. There were great big assurances at the bottom of every page that the procedure was completely painless, but Toby knew there were plenty of things that felt weird as heck without being precisely "painful". He didn't think a chainsaw makeover would be pleasantly ticklish.
Though the more he thought back, he'd heard about lots of cringe-inducing things living people did regularly to themselves in the pursuit of beauty. Getting melted, frozen and chopped wasn't really any crazier than injecting botulism toxin into your eyebrows or wearing seven-inch high heels. And he remembered what Piffle had said about how Phobiopolis had a habit of changing people against their will. Some folks might go to this "chainspa" just to get back to normal.
Toby was nearing the end of the second page, where it described how customers could also take a chance and let the stylists choose a random form for them. The customer would get a brand new look, plus the thrill of not knowing what they would become until they looked in the mirror. From glancing at the illustrations on the other pages, they were just bragging about the hotel you'd stay in, the pool, the buffet, etc.. Though the last page had a picture of a dead shark with party balloons tied to it. Toby had no idea what that might indicate.
"MADAM BROX!!" George called out, startling Toby considerably.
The mouse looked out the window and the landscape had, unsurprisingly, become something else again. Now they weren't in the middle of a lake, but the middle of a river. It was straight and wide as a two-lane highway. On the sandy shore, billions of bugs all crawled around doing typical beach things: sunbathing, volleyball, eating ice cream cones. The sheer amount of movement was nauseating (it looked like the shifting words on the pamphlet). And these weren't just ordinary bugs. There were wine-colored boulder-sized pillbugs. He saw a spiny caterpillar the size of a log, and earwigs big as cats. There were crustaceans too. A whole delegation of crabs waved their claws in unison like hula dancers. Toby even saw lobsters scuttling along, sheathed in redundant medieval suits of armor. It made his brain hurt. There was just too much happening for his eyes to handle. He wanted to be out of here quickly.
Though not as quickly as they were about to be.
"What's up?" Junella shouted out the window to her equine engine.
George, still swimming along without a hint of fatigue, looked back over his shoulder, head swiveled a crackling 170 degrees. "I sense a waterfall up ahead!" he warned. "We are fast approaching it!"
Junella patted the side of the door. "Right on time," she gospeled happily.
That made Toby a wee bit nervous. He leaned forward. "We're, uh, going to get out of the water, right?"
He guessed her answer just from the dangerous tilt of her smile. "Nope!"
"Oh. It's just a little bump then?"
The mustelid's grin widened. She was very obviously taking pleasure in his fear. "Nope twice! Taller than any in the waking world, and we're going right over the edge!"
George twitched. He shouted back, "Sorry to eavesdrop, but did I hear you correctly, Madam!?"
"Loud and clear!" she showtuned. "Steady on! That's an order! Up and over! All the way down!!"
Toby could hear the roar of the falls now. He turned to Zinc. "She knows what she's doing right?"
"Always," he said unhesitatingly. "But that doesn't mean I gotta like this part!" He pulled on his seatbelt.
Toby didn't need it suggested he do the same. He was belted in quicker than you can say Jack Robinson. He looked up at the rear view mirror and saw Junella's crazed eyes reflected.
"Whassamatter? 'Fraid of falling?"
"Yes!! Of course!" The roar was getting louder now. The water was splashing higher and higher against the car windows. "Something's going to catch us right!?"
"Nope thrice!!" Junella sang. She tossed back her head and cackled like a Broadway witch.
"I fear we are nearing the point of no return!" George shouted. There was no need for him to swim anymore; the current had him in its grip and was pulling them all towards a white, foggy void where the entire world seemed to end. It looked like the empty page an illustrator forgot to fill.
Junella's giggles were pure insanity. "RAMMING SPEED!!!"
"I'm gonna barf, I just know it," Zinc commented.
And then they all went over.
Toby wasn't sure if he blacked out due to the g-forces or because he just really, really wanted to. One moment he was clawing the carseat to rags, candy bars tumbling weightlessly around him, Junella's shrieks of laughter barely audible over the deadly rumble of rushing water...
Then came a nice interlude of dark and quiet.
Toby's senses returned. He could hear voices and whistling wind. Though, oddly, no sound of water. He felt around for himself. Hands: check. Feet: check. Internal organs: check. Face: check.
He was fairly sure he was in shock. His limbs trembled with energy. There was no fear, but he could feel the pulsing, wriggling edges of its afterpresence. Like his brain had stomped it down into the cellar for a moment to give him time to collect himself.
He dared open his eyes.
"Hello, Nougatbomb," he addressed the candy bar that was filling his field of vision.
He looked around past the foil-covered caloric delight. The soil of this realm looked a lot like upholstery. And there were stalactites on the ceiling that resembled car seats.
The car was upside down. The car really had gone over the falls. And he had somehow survived. "I survived..." he marveled.
The outside voices became clear. Junella was explaining something to George. "...gone up on the bank, we would've been someplace else. The falls take us somewhere completely different. Here's where we want to be right now."
With a slight moan of soreness, Toby lifted himself up on all fours and crawled towards the nearest smashed-open window. Normally the glinting cubes of scattered safety glass would have worried him into staying put. But he was rather giddy at the moment, borderline delirious, and he scurried right on through. He stood up once he was outside and drew in a deep, victorious breath.
"I survived!!" he shouted joyfully. Junella and Zinc both jumped a little.
The mouse twirled around in a circle, taking in the wonders of this new place he found himself in. For starters, it had become nighttime in an instant. Unless their fall had lasted several hours, this was another trick of Phobiopolis' structureless structure. There was also no water at the bottom of the waterfall. Just a jet black cliff that extended so far up into the sky it melted into the stars and darkness. At the bottom was a great big cartoon bullseye: red and white rings as wide as a parking lot. The considerably-bent Fearsleigher had hit nearly dead center. Beyond this there was nothing but a lone dirt road leading away from the bullseye, flanked on either side by impenetrable lines of trees standing stiff and black and dead as a fence made of corpses.
But to Toby, it was the most beautiful place in the world! Because his brain was dumping happiness chemicals into itself to counteract the trauma of mortal fright! Wheeee!
"I survived!" he sang out again. He swiveled to meet his friends. "YOU survived! We all survived!!" he descended into giggles.
Then Junella started laughing too.
Which made Toby stop laughing, because he could tell in an instant she wasn't sharing his jubilation. Head still reeling a bit, he looked around to see her standing on a red ring, hands on her knees, scratching repeatedly at one spot so she could continue whooping derisively at him.
"You weren't kidding!" she finally said to Zinc, tears in her eyes. "He really is that clueless! I'd have never believed it!"
Toby did not like her tone. He tried to boldly stride over and tell her off, but his recovering brain was still a bit dizzy. Walking felt like trying to keep his balance on top of a bus that was going around a corner. "Stop that," he said, pointing a finger at her.
The skunk laughed harder. "I can't help it! You really have no idea!!"
"Stop laughing at me!!" Toby demanded, his whole face clenched in humiliation.
"Stop being hilarious then!" Junella shot back.
Concerned, George was about to step forward and act as peacemaker.
Zinc put a wrench in his path. "Let's not. This pot's been simmering for a while and it's gotta boil over sometime."
George was not fond of the idea, but snorted an assent. "If you think it is for the best, Sire Zinc."
The night wind swirled around Toby, fluttering his pajamas and sending shivers through his fur. He kept himself rigid as he stood up to Junella, but he could feel his nervous heart trying to sabotage him. He took another step towards the grinning skunk. "I don't like being laughed at," he said with a firmness that surprised himself.
"But you're so goddamn stupid you're funny!" Junella returned, braying a loud "HEE-HAW!" right in his face.
Toby snapped. "YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A BULLY!!" he yelled, his spittle splashing her nose.
She flinched and wiped it off. Then she got very quiet.
She tossed the end of her white scarf over her shoulder so she could focus entirely on this woeful scrap of rodent in front of her. She had to cobble it together syllable-by-syllable, but she spoke the word clearly enough: "MUN-CHAU-SEN'S!"
Toby flinched back.
"IT MEANS YOUR MOMMA WAS POISONING YOU, YOU DUMB SHIT!!"
Zinc shook his head. "Oh Christ, Juney..."
Toby's fingers curled. His tail whipped back and forth. He tilted his head like he was preparing a headbutt. "She was not!! Don't talk about my mother like that!!"
There wasn't an atom of mirth in her eyes now. "It's what the word means, stupe! It means she was making you sick on purpose to get sympathy, or because her head's a lighthouse with no bulb. I don't know, or care, which one. But lemme guess; she didn't tell you that word herself, right? You overheard someone else say it, and she told you it was some new bug you had?"
Toby stiffened. He sputtered. He could feel every little bit of dirt and gravel in the red-painted circle beneath his bare feet. "How do you know that!?" he hissed.
"Simple deduction. You're a world class fool. You've probably been her fool ever since you were born."
"IT'S NOT TRUE!!" he screeched, and the voice that came out of him was not one he recognized. "Why are you saying all this!? You're horrible! You're mean and horrible to people! Leave my mother alone!!" He stamped his feet on the white-painted ground.
"Tantrum time?" she asked, crossing her arms. "Why is this upsetting you so much if it's not true, huh?"
Toby grabbed the sides of his face like he was trying to keep his head from splitting apart. "It's NOT true! It's NOT! You're just saying that because you hate me because I'm not as crazy and fearless as you! I'm weak and you're disgusted by that, so you're just acting like a rotten bully!!"
Junella spat on the ground at his feet. "I'm telling you this for your own good. You can either listen or stay a fool forever."
His lips drew back across his teeth. "You don't care anything about me."
"You're goddamn right I don't! But out of the sheer goodness of my heart, I'm trying to help you wake the fuck up."
"I DON'T NEED YOUR HELP!!!" Toby exploded. He swiveled and stomped away towards the bleak road that led deep into night and darkness.
"Yeah, I thought so!" Junella called after him bitterly. "You welsher! Take your horse and go trotting off! We'll get all the way to the mountain someday, and it won't be with you! Get out of here!! Better now than after we spend even more money and time drivin' you around in a baby carriage!"
Toby stopped. He stood in the chill wind, breathing hard for a moment. Then he turned back to look at her.
She saw his teeth glint in the moonlight. His eyes were red but he wasn't crying yet.
"Take him," he said to Junella. "I made a promise. The deal's over. He's yours."
George was visibly uncomfortable. "Sire... are you planning to head off on your own, into the unknown? And at this time of night? Please, let me accompany you..."
Toby blinked hard, then looked up at his friend and servant. The horse's aura flickered in the wind. "No."
"Are you quite certa-"
"GO WITH THEM!" Toby roared. He drilled into Junella with his eyes and was glad to see her stunned. "I made a promise! I may be weak and stupid and useless, but at least I keep my promises! So let me just run off and get killed and you won't have me dragging you down anymore!"
Zinc looked back and forth between his partner and his client. "Look, let's just-"
"I don't want to hear it!" Toby yelled as he stamped off, away from all three of them.
"Let him," he heard Junella say.
After that, all he heard was the branches of the trees scraping against one another, the whistle of the wind, and his own footsteps crunching on cold dirt.
"You are exactly as dumb as she said you are," Toby told himself several minutes later as he pulled his pajamas closer to his freezing fur. It wasn't that the night was particularly frigid. It was his acute awareness of how fully alone he was. Alone and without any means of self-defense. The wind cut right through cloth and fur down to his bones.
Every step he took was a deafening boom. A signal, loud as a bullhorn, for all the night's creatures to come and feast on him. "A feast? Who am I kidding? I'm a mouthful." With every step, he felt the dirt road's rough soil and tiny pebbles dig like needles into his bare feet.
On either side of him, the soot-colored trees were so closely grown together he couldn't see past them into the forest beyond. But he could hear shufflings, growls, animal sounds. At least, he thought he could. It could have been his imagination magnifying every little creak of a twig.
He looked up. The moon was full as a bloated tick overhead. A bulbous wheel of white cheddar. The stars around it were... moving? No, they couldn't be. It had to be an optical illusion. The galaxies couldn't be drifting and swirling and bouncing off of each other in slow motion.
Then again, why couldn't they?
It was a good thing Toby was so mortified by his own childish outburst, and furious at Junella's ridiculous claims. It kept him moving. The ugly knot of churning frustration in his belly propelled him. Keeping a steady pace and keeping his mind occupied prevented fear from flooding in and obliterating his reason.
There were no words for the magnitude of how badly he'd just screwed himself over. "You had two guides. You had a devoted protector. You walked away from both. You're completely alone and completely unprotected."
He looked back and forth at the roadsides. He'd been seeing random garbage along the path occasionally. Maybe he'd spot something he could use as a weapon if it came to that. Something he could at least swing like a club.
He saw some old cans aged completely to rust. A bicycle wheel. A cotton shirt turned into a pancake of grey dirt. It did not entirely surprise him when he saw part of a dead man's leg.
He blinked hard for a moment. "Yes, that could be you. Just keep walking. Ignore it for now. Don't go into a panic."
More garbage. Old cereal boxes with the colors washed off from rainfall. A bulging black plastic bag with a bunch of dirty diapers surrounding it. Toby's lip curled at the sight, then he stumbled back a few steps in horror as the diapers sensed him and scuttled away on little rat feet. "Eeeuugh!!"
Toby walked on and kept his eyes on the ever-increasing piles of rubbish. This road was turning into a junkyard in stereo. Focusing on the bottles and torn-up shoes helped keep his mind away from picturing the svelte, powerful things with long claws that might be pacing back and forth outside his vision, watching him and deciding at their leisure when to strike.
Toby spotted a length of lumber. "Good enough," he said, and darted towards it. A few more rat-diapers squealed and ran from him. He picked the board up and wiped off the dirt and earthworms. It wasn't too wide to hold, and even had a few small nails poking through one end. "Allright!"
He fell back into his walking pace. Better not to stop for long. He swung his newfound weapon a few times. He liked the 'swoosh' it made through the air. He was fully aware it probably wouldn't stop a charging rhino or an alligator, but it was better than bare paws at least. "I'll swing for the eyes if I get a chance."
'No you won't. You'll freeze up and just stand there as whatever-it-is walks right up and starts taking bites out of your face.'
"Shut up! I'm not helpless! Or at least... I'm not like I was back in the cave. Look at me! It's midnight in a dark forest and I'm defenseless except for a piece of wood! But I'm not crying or calling out for my mommy-
'...who's been poisoning you slowly all these years.'
"SHUT UP!!!" he screamed, loud enough to scatter some birds into flight.
'Real smart. Tell every predator for miles around right where to come and get you. Dinner's served!'
Toby focused on his breath, trying to slow it down. He clutched the board tighter in his furless paws, not caring that he was probably riddling his flesh with splinters.
He kept walking. The endless trees and trash were starting to make him dizzy, like staring too long at an optical illusion. Then up ahead, just on the edge of his vision, he saw something square. Something hanging at eye-level. His breath and footsteps sounded loud as gunshots, but he risked running towards the thing. Hoping that it was a sign. Maybe it'd even say 'You Are Here' and have directions to not be here anymore.
But when he got closer, he slowed. The thing was a lot closer than he'd thought at first, because it was also a lot smaller. It was a framed oil painting of a plum in a dish. Hovering in midair. Yes, nailed there. Hanging like any picture on any wall anywhere, except nailed to nothing.
Sweating and quivering, Toby was tempted to smack it down with his two-by-four, just to stop its impossibility from driving him even crazier.
Instead, he detoured around it. He kept an eye on the plum picture, but when he looked at the other side, it seemed to have no back. It was invisible from the opposite angle. And as his head was trying to deal with that, he looked again at the front and it was gone. He waved his hand through where it had been. Nothing. It had vanished while he was looking straight at it. There was no evidence it had ever been anything but a hallucination.
Toby started walking faster.
He kept his head down, staring at the garbage. The garbage that behaved nicely and didn't spit in the face of physics. 'Just pretend that it didn't happen.'
Up ahead he saw a hammer. Half the rubber was worn off the grip, and it had rusted completely brown, but he ditched the board in a heartbeat for it.
"Ha!" He swung it around like a swordsman. He dented a nearby milk jug, then put a hole in a plastic beach bucket.
'Much better. You might last ten seconds instead of five with that.'
"Stop it. Maybe I can do this on my own. Or if not, maybe I'll find someone else to help me. My luck's been okay so far, right? I found George, then Zinc and... that jerk with the scarf. Maybe there's a town at the end of this road. I could go there for help. Maybe I could, I dunno, wash dishes in exchange for them helping get me closer to Anasarca."
He spotted some more diaperats and brandished his hammer at them menacingly. The disposable rodents retreated into the trash that was now piled several feet high against the tree trunks. Toby tried not to notice the increasing amounts of skeleton bits in amongst the other debris.
"Yeah, I'm not helpless," he continued to psych himself up. "I'm getting better. I don't need those two! Though..." He cringed. "I do wish George was here. I'd feel safer. And I could talk to him. Nightmare or not, he was-"
Tiny footsteps behind him.
Toby swung his hammer around in a circle, eyes wide and ears alert. His breath sped up. He didn't see anyone on the path behind him. The moon was so full and the path so flat he could see about a half-mile in either direction. No animals or attackers: just trash.
"Could have been leaves. Or more of those diaper things."
He kept walking, but now his whole back tingled, like someone was following mere steps behind him, breathing down his neck.
"I'm not afraid," he lied to himself, hoping he could make it true if he just repeated it enough. "I'm not afraid. I am not afraid."
Toby's tail shot straight out like a lightning bolt as he swiveled around, staring into the darkness for any-
There was a doll.
A tattered, run-over, plastic baby doll. Just sitting there in the exact center of the road. It was maybe a hundred feet back, but he was absolutely 100% sure it hadn't been there before.
Toby broke out into a run. There was no telling what kind of new nightmare this thing was, but he wasn't going to just stand there and find out.
It was following. Toby glanced over his shoulder. No, it was just sitting there again. But was it closer? He looked ahead again to avoid tripping on anything.
It WAS following him! And it was getting faster! He grunted and swung the hammer around blindly behind his back. "Leave me alone!" he wailed. His voice sounded pitifully feeble.
The sound of those tiny footsteps. Little plastic feet keeping pace with him. He sped up, they did too. The tree branches scratched and scraped in the wind, sounding like they were gossiping about how soon Toby would be overtaken.
He struck out with his hammer, trying to topple the piles of garbage into the damned doll's path. But he missed most of the time. And its footsteps were coming closer.
He swung himself around, spittle flying from his mouth. "LEAVE ME ALONE!!" he howled.
The doll was just sitting there.
He stopped. He stared at it. He felt his heart slamming back and forth in his chest. He gripped the hammer harder in his paw.
It was dirty. Its dress was torn and smeared with filth. Its face had been smashed in. Nothing but a jagged squarish hole in its hollow plastic head.
It was motionless.
Toby's mind sparked. "You can't move if I'm looking at you, can you?" he realized.
A thin smile came to his lips. "That means, all I have to do is walk backwards and keep an eye on you." He did, sliding on his left foot, then his right. He kept staring. The doll remained frozen to the spot.
"Bye bye," he said as he shuffled away.
'See?' he told himself. He didn't want to get too cocky and say there was nothing to be afraid of, but he at least felt a bit proud he'd found a solution so quickly to this first-of-undoubtedly-many monster encounters tonight.
He continued walking away, until he stepped in a diaperat. It squished and squeaked at the same time. Toby looked down for a second to kick it away. When he looked back, the doll had moved again.
The doll was holding its arms out, fingers intertwined.
A universally-recognizable sign of begging.
Toby felt his chest rise and fall with his breath. His gaze did not waver from the discarded toy in the road.
"What are you?" he called out in a neutral tone.
It did not answer. It was as silent as any other piece of trash around it.
"Can you speak?"
He waited. Only the sound of the wind replied.
Toby felt the sweat on his hand where he gripped the hammer. "Allright. I'm going to look away for a few seconds. If you chase after me again, I swear I will take this and beat you into the ground, and I'll probably be screaming like a wuss the entire time, but I'll keep on hitting you until I am beyond sure you'll never move again. Don't come any closer. Just... just make some kind of sign you can understand me."
The doll did not move.
The wind fluttered its soggy artificial curls a bit, but otherwise it did not move.
"I'm turning around now!" Toby warned. He thought for sure this was a terrible idea and the instant he opened his eyes again he'd see it behind him, grown to gigantic proportions, that hole in her face now full of gleaming teeth. But still he turned his head away and closed his eyes.
"One... Two... Three... Four... Fi-
"A-HA!" He opened his eyes and swung his hammer in a semicircle, as hard as he could. It hit nothing.
Instead, he saw the doll bent over in the road, its forefinger in the dirt. It had written: HELP
Toby was frozen solid for a moment. He blinked a bit. "I'm going to close my eyes again. Ten seconds this time."
He did. Counting off numbers in total blackness was not the easiest thing he'd ever done.
When he looked again, the doll had its back to him. He'd stopped it mid-letter. It seemed he could put it on pause with his gaze even when it wasn't looking back at him.
He deliberated with himself a while longer before taking a few cautious steps forward to read what it had written.
PleaSE IM cuRSEd I NEeD HEL
He closed his eyes for just a moment.
When he opened them, the doll was looking up at him with her faceless crater of a head, arms outstretched again, begging.
Toby stood there in the starlit road, listening to the whispering wind, seeing this dirt-caked mini-nightmare sitting in front of him. He wasn't in any position to take care of his own self. And here this hideous thing was asking for help.
He bit his bottom lip.
"I'm afraid of you," he said softly to the doll. "A lot. I'm tense and alone and I have a hammer. If you startle me, it won't even be a choice; I'll smack you away like hitting a home run. I'll panic and smash you to pieces."
It stared up at him, unmoving and unblinking.
Toby could feel droplets of sweat running down his ears. He swung his hammer a little bit just to punctuate his point. Then he turned his back to the thing and started walking away from it.
His ears were perked up. He heard a shuffle on gravel as it stood up.
It was following him again. But its steps were measured, careful. To test it, he sped up a little. It did not. He nodded.
"Good. Thank you. I don't know if I can help, but I guess I can try."
He looked back over his shoulder and heard the tiny 'fwump' of it falling on its bottom onto the road. It's arms were outstretched again, but this time palms open towards him: 'Pick me up?'
Toby gulped, feeling incredibly queasy. What would this dirty thing feel like to touch? What would it smell like? His guts quivered at the very thought.
He got an idea. He walked back to the doll, and then crouched down beside it. "Can you take hold of my shirt?"
As soon as he looked away, he felt a weight on his hem. "That answers that." He stood up. The plastic hand held on. He was now dragging the thing like a wallet on a chain.
He continued walking. He sniffed the air and didn't smell anything worse than wet plastic. Then a finger touched his leg.
"Eeeeeeek!!" He looked down at it. "Don't DO that!"
It seemed chagrined.
He felt sorry he'd snapped at it. He didn't want to be like Junella. "Allright, allright. Just don't touch me suddenly. Remember my hammer."
He kept on walking. It touched him again, and he fought back a heave. That tiny, pudgy plastic finger was... Wait, was it writing? He tried not to look down at it as it drew lines against his leg. Toby looked up at the moon.
"Oh. Um, you're welcome." He actually smiled a little. This thing was terrifying and disgusting, but a show of gratitude meant that maybe it wasn't gonna bite his neck and drink all his blood when he least expected it. "Do you have a name?"
"I can't just call you 'Doll'."
"Okay. Doll. Um... This is gonna get weird with you writing on my leg. I'm gonna have to get you a little notebook or something. Maybe a chalkboard."
Toby continued walking. He tried to keep his mind from making him paranoid about the pound or so of possessed plastic dangling from his pajamas. It seemed he'd made a truce with her, but his adrenaline was trying to force him to regret it. He tried to push that lurking emotion away and concentrate instead on the fact that someone had asked for his help and he had looked past his instinctive disgust to give it. Even if he'd screwed up everything else tonight, he'd done this one good thing for someone else.
Up ahead there was a congregation of about a dozen diaperats. They were all gnawing noisily on what looked like a sack of dog kibble. When Toby tried to pass, the biggest one ran at him, snarling.
He squealed and reflexively threw the hammer at it. He missed by a foot.
When the diaperat kept advancing, Toby acted without thinking. He swung Doll by her feet like a cricket bat and knocked the screaming vermin bastard a few hundred feet. At the sight of this, all the other ones scattered.
Toby grinned victoriously for a moment.
Then he realized what he'd just done. "OH!" He held up Doll to his face and stroked her hair. "I'm so sorry! I'm SO sorry! I just- It was coming at me and- I didn't hurt you, did I?" He held her at his side again so she could clip on and answer.
"...Okay, not what I was expecting," Toby said with a smile. "Glad to hear it though. I certainly wouldn't want to be used to bludgeon something."
He picked up his hammer and continued walking. Oddly, his overall mood had lightened. The fear seemed easier to ignore. His instant of pure compassion for Doll had changed something in him.
He wasn't afraid of her anymore. He knew, rationally, that she could still be planning to gobble him up at a second's notice. But he didn't think so. Now, being with her made him feel better. On the most basic level, he felt less alone. But there was also something about traveling with a companion even smaller and more helpless. It meant he had to be the stronger one. It gave his brain a reason beyond himself to carry on.
The road stretched on. It was identical in both directions. Toby would have been lost if not for the full moon in front of him, like a beacon lighting his way. Its light also illuminated plenty more garbage. Now there were chunks of busted furniture and appliances. He saw a plastic wheeled horsie with its colors faded from years of sun bleaching.
"Are there more like you?" he asked Doll. "Like, whole bunches of people turned into toys and thrown away out here?"
He nodded. That was good. He imagined dozens more dolls clipped to him on every part of his pajamas. He'd have to crawl every step from the weight. "What else can I do to help?"
Doll paused for a while, likely thinking of the most concise way to answer. F-O-R-N-O-W-J-U-S-T-T-A-K-E-M-E-F-R-O-M-H-E-R-E
"Allright, that's easy enough. And I'm not planning on hanging around this ugly place any longer than I have to."
Toby felt a squeeze. Doll had hugged him.
He smiled, rather touched by that. He reached down to pat her hair. It was sickeningly greasy. "We need to get you a bath."
"Glad we agree." He looked down at her and reflected that, with a bit of soap, a change of clothes and some repair work, Doll might actually pass for cute eventually. He guessed her species as feline, though all he had to go on was the shape of her ears. Like her paws, they were simple pinkish-beige plastic. Not much defining detail. There was a hole in her dress for a tail, but the tail itself was long gone. Her dress was currently an avocado green, though it was hard to tell with all the fading and dirt if it had started out that color. That, plus her once-blonde-now-copper hair, indicated she'd been out in the elements for quite some time.
He wondered what had happened to her face. The edges of the semirectangular hole in her head could have been melted or mangled. He imagined some destructive kid taking a blowtorch to her, or feeding her to his dog. Maybe he could plug a chunk of imaginite in there and fix it that way? Of course, he'd have to find some first.
Toby squinted and stared as far down the road as he could. It seemed endless. It could go on for hundreds of miles and he'd have no idea.
'Or it could be like that basement under the diner. I could walk forever and never get anywhere until I stopped thinking about where I was.'
Toby trudged on. "I actually wish a runbug would land on me now," he said. "I'd be scared insensible, but it'd give me a reason to run fast."
"Thanks anyway. I didn't expect you to," he replied.
As before in the cave, fear gave way to boredom. The hungry sounds in the woods really were just his imagination. Aside from the garbage-vermin, which he'd proven he could deal with, this road was as empty as a dry bucket. Toby walked for what felt like hours. One good thing he had to concede about Phobiopolis was that he would have been a writhing mess of gasps and aches by now if this had been the real world. Just as this dream-body didn't seem to require pills or food, it also didn't tire. Yes he was sore and miserable and wished he could just fall over and go to sleep, but that was all mental. Physically, so long as he didn't think too much about his legs, they just kept on pulling him forward endlessly.
"Wait a minute."
He stopped dead in his tracks.
"I remember that wheelbarrow."
He backed up a few steps. Yes, definitely. A green wheelbarrow with a yellow front wheel, covered in weeds, with a bunch of broken bricks inside it. The likelihood of there being two of those on this road was likely quite small. And hadn't he remembered seeing it on the other side of the road?
Toby looked up. The moon was still in front of him. But did it look different?
He turned around, squinting into the darkness. "I didn't get turned around somehow. No. I..."
Doll tugged his shirt. He remembered to look away from her to pay attention to her.
"Okay then." He'd been giving her a piggyback ride for the last mile or so and now crouched down to set her on the road. "Don't tell me you're like a living compass?" he hoped. He turned around so she could do whatever it was she intended to do. He heard her finger pushing dirt. 'Ah. I guess she needed to say something too complex for skin-writing.' Toby waited patiently for her to finish. He watched the tips of the tree branches sway like giant hands all reaching for food over the dinner table.
When the drawing sound stopped, Toby turned around to see what Doll had written.
'PeopLE GET loSt oN THIS RoaD. It'S A PuZZle.'
Toby 'hmmm'ed. "That's just great. I'm assuming you mean the road itself is a puzzle, not that you don't know why people get lost?"
He closed his eyes long enough for Doll to write, 'YeS'
Toby nodded, feeling a bit like Sherlock. "May I further assume by the fact that you didn't give me any clues to solving the puzzle that you don't know how to solve it?"
Toby pondered that. "You don't know how to solve the puzzle? Or, like, you do know how, but in your current condition you're stopped somehow? Like magic?" Just before closing his eyes, he realized that the question couldn't be answered with a yes or no. "Um, just write a one for the first thing I said, a two for the second."
He closed his eyes. When he opened them, Doll had drawn a very big 2.
"This is like a party game," Toby mumbled. "Allright Doll, can you give me any clues to solve this?" He turned around and swung his hammer at nothing as he waited. He'd defended against several more diaperats with it so far, also a couple of ghastly owl-faced Pekingese-looking things. And he remembered not to throw it anymore.
When he looked back, Doll had written, 'TuRN Back 2 Go foRwaRd. The MoON's LyiNG."
Toby stared at that for quite a long while. But the wheelbarrow he'd seen twice was just what he needed to pull it all together. "I think I know what you're saying. Come on, Doll." He scooped her up onto his shoulders again. The texture of her decaying dress felt a little nauseating against his neckfur, but he figured it probably felt way worse for her to be so dirty. If he was in her position, he'd prefer sitting on a comfy shoulder seat to dangling off someone's shirt hem.
Toby trotted in the opposite direction he'd been walking before. His muzzle tick-tocked back and forth. He was paying careful attention to the trash by the side of the road, which was a little difficult because it had been thinning out again.
When he saw a red paint can, his hypothesis was confirmed. He didn't know how it was possible, but this whole road was one long mirrorbox.
Maybe that explained the too-fat full moon and the moving stars. Or why the trees were so unnaturally bunched together. Toby kept his eyes peeled for anything recognizable along the path. If there was a place where the road ended, but seemed to continue, he had to find it. He realized that he might have figured this out a lot sooner if he'd been paying closer attention earlier when he first stormed off. (Of course, he'd been a bit distracted by boiling emotions and having just fallen off a waterfall.)
That baseball! He'd seen it a moment ago. "And on the other side! I was right!"
He turned around again, this time taking very slow, careful steps. Maybe this road was like a pitcher plant. Maybe it trapped people inside and fed on them as they starved. Maybe it was just intended as a cruel prank. Maybe there were lots of places in Nightmare-Land like this. It certainly was the kind of frustrating, pseudo-making-sense kind of thing he'd encountered in his own dreams. Maybe he'd walked down this road's full length a dozen times already.
Toby stopped and allowed himself a moment to gloat when he finally saw it: a single reddish rock half-buried in the dirt on the left side of the road. ...and also on the right side of the road. He'd found the place where the mirroring joined. Each side of the path was a palindrome of the other. He grinned, deliciously proud of himself for figuring it out.
'You're still not done yet,' his brain reminded him.
"Right. I still have to figure out a way through it. If this is the place it stops, then when I look ahead at the road in front of me, I'm actually looking at the road behind me. And who knows how, but when I step past this point, I'm actually inverting and going backwards." He tried it out. Taking a few steps forward, he kept an eye on the red rocks until they lined up exactly as before. Taking a few steps back, it happened again.
He put his hand on his chin and stroked it as if combing a goatee. "Allright. So. You figured this part out, Doll?"
She simply drew a 'Y' behind his ear.
"Did you get to this place, right here, specifically?"
"I haven't gone through the loop twice, right?"
Good. He didn't think so anyway. The garbage seemed to rise and fall like a bell curve. So here, where the road was mostly free of junk, he was back at one edge. But which edge? "I'm guessing that if I turned around now and ran all the way back, the bullseye would be gone and there'd just be another place like this?"
'Y!' She added an exclamation point to show she was proud he'd gotten that.
"So have I actually traveled any distance? Am I far away from the bullseye, or did I go all the way back to it?" He hoped it wasn't the latter. All that work for nothing!
He nodded, which nearly toppled her off, but he caught her in time. "Sorry!"
Toby stared into the distance that wasn't really a distance. This was a wall. A wall he was incapable of perceiving, but just on the other side was... Well, he didn't know. But it was more real than this place, so that's where he wanted to be.
The moon. He remembered Doll saying the moon was a liar. For it to have seemed to stay in the same place all this time, it would have had to be following him.
Toby got an idea. "I don't know if this is actually gonna work or if it'll just feel good doing it." He set Doll down, both as a visual reference point, and so she wouldn't fall off when he ran. He dashed back to where he'd seen the paint can. It was stuck pretty tight in the ground but he managed to dig it out. Beetles scurried everywhere when it came up. Toby "Bleagh!"ed and flicked them away from his fur.
He jiggled the can in his palm. A decent weight, though he crouched down in the road to pour more dirt into it to be sure. He momentarily wondered if there was another paint can somewhere down the road and if him dislodging this one would cause the same to happen to the other. He shook his head. Logic and dreams did not mix well.
Zinc had taught him that willpower was real power here. He hoped that would hold true now. He walked back to Doll and picked her up by her hand. "I'm gonna try something stupid," he said with a grin.
He backed up, then took a running start and whirled the paint can around in a hurricane circle.
Toby let it fly straight up at the moon.
His grin tripled in intensity as he saw the can strike the bulbous yellow orb and make a dent.
A moment later there was a groaning creak, and a house-sized section of reality became two-dimensional right before his eyes. The road he'd walked down just a second ago became a flat, painted wall that fell slowly backwards and finally collapsed onto the ground with an echoing slam and a cloud of dust.
Toby squeezed Doll's hand triumphantly as he stepped past the fake mirrored wall into reality.
It was still nighttime, but it felt like a much more natural nighttime. The moon was higher and had a warmer glow. The stars were still sluggishly moving around, so he guessed that was simply business as usual in Phobiopolis and he hadn't noticed before.
He was looking out onto another dirt road, but this one was much wider and had some curves to it. It led down into a rolling valley dotted with unusually-round trees and a few bushes that looked like cactus-flavored french fries. To his right, not far away, he could see a small cliff that jutted out above the valley. It was ringed with bushes and smoke was rising up from it. A campfire.
Was that the Fearsleigher!?
He literally jumped for joy on the spot. He tossed Doll up high, caught her and pulled her into a hug. He even kissed her awful-tasting hair. "We made it out! We did it! And I think that's my friends over there! Oh, WOW!! I cannot wait to go apologize. And even if Junella's wrong about my mom, I can certainly forgive her mistake. We'll just agree to forget all about it."
The eager mouse started running towards the column of grey smoke, then thought to look behind him. The wall he'd toppled had already repaired itself, and silently so. From the outside, that long moonlit road he'd traveled down was just an enormous canvas box. Miles in length. He could almost see the end of it from the way the hills sloped down, and there certainly was no enormous waterfall at the end.
He walked back and reached out a hand to touch the flimsy walls. Just canvas. Kept in place by a wooden frame and some diagonal bracing timbers every few feet. People had even graffitied on it.
It was nothing more than a huge stage prop. Toby could even see the bottom edges fluttering slightly in the breeze. He had no idea how it could have produced such a convincing illusion on the inside, but he knew he didn't care enough to investigate. He had more important things to do.
He gave Doll a squeeze. "Thank you." He set her back on his shoulders and giggled as he felt her stroke his hair.
"Come on, I have introductions to make."
Voices wafted down to him upon the night air, along with delicious smells and the crackling of a fire.
Toby approached the ring of bushes cautiously, holding Doll's hand tight. He didn't want to be spotted just yet. And it was probably a good idea to first confirm it actually was Zinc, Junella, and George. It was highly unlikely they'd been waylaid by Fearsleigher-stealing bandits, but not impossible. Or this could be just another illusion. He imagined walking towards them, paw outstretched for a shake, and all of them vanishing like TV static. It was certainly the kind of cruel mind game this land was capable of.
It did sound like their voices though. And they'd knocked all the dents out of the skate car so it looked junkyard-fresh again.
Toby stopped a few yards away. He held Doll in front of him and whispered. "I don't know how they're going to react when they see you. Probably the same as I did. So, just to hold off any panicking or attacking, I'll set you down here for now. Watch and listen. I'll introduce you, okay?
Doll's faceless face gave no answer, but when he set her softly in the grass and looked ahead, he felt her write 'O-K' on his ankle.
"Okay," he confirmed.
Toby crept stealthily towards the bushes. The campfire clicked and popped. Whatever they were eating smelled incredible. The kind of rich, meaty, char-coated food he'd been banned from for years. Toby had been five or younger the last time he'd eaten anything that was cooked outdoors. Dad bought a grill, but had fought about it with Mom when she'd said it would give Toby cancer.
He was close enough to see two brown triangle ears poking up beyond the foliage.
"Took you less time than I expected."
Toby flinched in surprise. "You heard me?" he squeaked.
"You end up dead out here if you don't get good at listening. Come out into the light," Junella sang in a measured tone. She sounded a lot calmer now. Possibly ready to smooth things over.
That was good. Very good. Toby had been worried she wouldn't want to see so much as a whisker from him ever again. He found a place where the branches weren't too thick and attempted to ungracefully wriggle his way through.
George was lying down on the opposite side of the campfire with his hooves tucked beneath him. His head popped up and his aura shone brighter when he saw white fur and pink eyes. "Sire Toby!! My heart leaps with relief to see you unscathed!"
"Hi, George!" Toby called out as he tried to get the branches to let go of his pajama leg. He looked around and saw Zinc and Junella sitting together on a fat hollow log, eating meat off paper plates. He said hi to both of them.
"Hey, bean!" Zinc replied, tipping his plastic fork at the mouse. "Bet you're in the mood to sit down with some chow."
Junella nodded in a, 'Let's all be polite to each other until we get this settled,' kind of way.
"I'm really glad to be out of there," Toby said as he walked closer. "And I'm just as glad to see all of you guys. Thanks for, y'know, being willing to speak to me again. I was being childish when I stomped off like that." He took in a deep sniff. "What are you guys cooking? It smells amazing!" He squinted past the flickering flame and saw something on a spit. It had an exoskeleton. It looked like maybe they'd caught one of those big bug people. Ugh. Well, he wouldn't be having any of that. The creature's head was beside it, impaled on a wooden pole set in the ground. It had big red eyes and...
Toby felt time stop. Reality melted.
His eyes were locked on the sight before him. His brain was short-circuiting from the overload of impossibility, disgust, sorrow, outrage, and disbelief.
Those bulging ruby-red eyes.
That little pink nose.
There was no one else it could possibly be.
"YOU'RE EATING PIFFLE!!!" he screamed.
At that, a second hamster head popped up beside the impaled one. "Hiya, Toby!"
Sounds fell out of the mouse's mouth that were nowhere near language. Eyes bulging, he backed away from a sight he could not hope to make sense of. Panic stiffened his joints and electrified his guts.
Zinc stood up. "Cool your jets, pal! Chill for a sec!"
Toby pointed and gibbered. "That's her corpse!! You're eating my friend! You killed and ate my friend!!"
Junella tried not to, but she couldn't hold back a bray of laughter.
Toby reflexively pointed his hammer at her, eyes reflecting orange in the firelight. His voice was an unearthly snarl, "DON'T YOU START THAT AGAIN!!"
The skunk stood up too, holding her hands out in surrender. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, okay! I'm not laughing to be cruel! I just can't believe it's possible!"
"What's not possible!?" Toby shrieked. He looked back and forth at the two murderers, their plates full of flesh, and the impaled head of his long-lost companion. "Nothing about any of this is possible!"
"THERE IS NO PERMANENT DEATH HERE!!!" Junella unleashed in a heavy metal screech. "She's fine! She flew in and offered herself up the second we said we were hungry! You've died yourself at least twice! I saw it! First at our place when Tinder torched you, then after we went over the falls. I saw your guts wallpapering the interior! Then you got up all gobsmacked to see we'd survived! It was so ridiculous, how could I not laugh?"
Toby felt his mind turn to mush. His hands and knees were trembling. He shook his head as if he could shoo her words away. For the second time today she was saying something completely impossible. But was it? He scanned back in his memory. He remembered the agony of fire shredding through his skin. Then waking up unsinged, even his clothes. He remembered blanking out as they tumbled down the cascading water. Then... No. No, it couldn't... He could feel his brain trying to keep himself from remembering. But did he? Did he remember his blood painting the floor and ceiling of the car? And then the scarlet droplets slowly crawling back towards him? Did he remember his hands pulling themselves over to reconnect to his wrists?
'Hey Toby,' his brain asked him, 'How did you escape being eaten by the octospider?'
He felt his blood turn to cold slime.
'You didn't, did you?'
Zinc and Junella watched all the worst emotions race each other across their client's face. And then the poor mouse simply crumpled and fell over onto the grass.
Zinc stepped forward in concern. "Did he faint?"
"No..." Toby rasped. "Just..." His arms trembled as they tried to lift him. The word 'overwhelmed' was clear as day across his face. "I couldn't take it."
And then Piffle was walking over to tenderly help him up. Alive, altogether, and smiling. Her soft, gentle paw held his as she guided him to his feet. She put her arms around his shoulders to comfort him.
He looked into her face and saw that sky-wide smile of hers.
If his consciousness had been an audience, there would have been a few jeerers in the back demanding to know how she was here and not a mindwiped drone in Dr. Dacryphilia's hellish factory. Others were bent backwards over their seats in grief at remembering, yet again, how he'd run away and left her there. But most of Toby's inner selves were simply cheering in explosive joy to see her happy and whole once more.
The mouse's poor heart had never spun through so many intense, conflicting emotions in so short a time. But he was glad they'd settled on one: an all-encompassing blanket of relief. Without an atom of reluctance, he hugged her. His eyes glistened with tears. At that moment, all worries, questions, and self-loathing vaporized. He simply thanked the universe for this chance to share with the kindhearted hamsterfly what he hadn't had the courage to give her before. He held her tighter. No hug was ever so sweet.
He rested his chin on her shoulder, feeling the fabric rustle. Feeling her ribby exoskeleton. Feeling the cotton-ball softness of her cheek. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I left you there. I'm so sorry. I wish I could have been stronger. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
Piffle's smile outshone the moon. "It's okay, Toby. Don't get your socks in a knot. I forgive you."
He sobbed hard enough to hurt. "I don't deserve it, but thank you. I had a feeling you would."
Even two such hardened mercenaries as Junella Brox and Zinc felt their hearts lighten a little at seeing the reunion. The canine sent a smile to his partner. "Guess she was telling the truth about knowing him," he whispered.
Even that small sound brought Toby back to reality. He felt like a drained battery. Like he'd just run a mile uphill. He saw his worn-out expression reflected dozens of times in Piffle's beautiful scarlet eyes.
She chuckled. "You look tired, Toby."
He laughed too, at the sheer understatement.
"I concur," George Atkinson said as he stepped closer. He nudged Toby affectionately with the bridge of his nose. "Allow me to provide a resting place for you." He laid down again, stoked the campfire with a breath, and presented his ribcage as a cushion.
Toby was more than happy to sit after spending so long on his feet. He plopped down with a grunt of satisfaction (not realizing just how sore his feet were until then) and settled in against his favorite nightmare's luminous bones. He reached up and patted George's neck. "Thank you," he said softly.
"It is my pleasure, Sire."
Piffle's sailor suit fluttered as she folded her wings behind her and sat beside Toby, taking his paw in hers. His happiness at seeing her again was mirrored in her own expression.
"Sorry to butt in, but... I think we need to talk," Junella interjected.
Toby looked to her solemnly. "I very much agree." He knew this part would be difficult, but he hated the thought of the two of them being enemies, nearly as much as he hated the immature outburst he'd pulled. Plus, talking would lead to explanations, and there was so much he needed explained to him right now.
The vinyl skunk sat back down on her log, elbows on knees, fingers steepled. The campfire reflected in shiny orange streaks across her ebon skin. She opened her mouth to begin, then glanced down and noticed the end of her scarf was in her plate of Piffle. "Shoot."
"Could we, um..." Toby pointed to their uneaten portions of the furson sitting next to him. "Could we explain that first? Real quickly? Get it out of the way so I don't throw up?"
Piffle giggled into her paws. "You really didn't know you can't die here?" she asked. "I'd been wondering why you got all quiet when that nasty arachnopus was eating you up!"
Toby felt his throat close up. "It really... ate...?"
"Really!" Piffle confirmed. "He nibbled us both like corn on the cob and turned us into doodoo! Then afterwards, you didn't say a word. I'm sorry for not explaining then, but I figgered you didn't wanna ruminate much on it."
He squeezed her paw to let her know it was okay. "Then explain now. Please."
"I think I should," Zinc spoke up. "I'm the one who oughtta be apologizing. Remember when Tinder baked us both? That legit happened. His touch can torch whole buildings normally, so we were like s'mores to him. I was mostly back when I saw you get lit up. You were nothin' but a sizzly skeleton. Normally, people here scream a lot till they get themselves resettled. You? Nothin'. You were a plank till your flesh redrew and your eyes opened."
Toby winced at the mental image.
"I should have said something then. Should've said, 'That's not normal.' But part of me couldn't believe you'd go so far into denial you'd skip it entirely! I told Juney 'bout it later in the store. Then later, after the waterfall, same damn thing! Right after we went over, your scream just suddenly stopped. I looked at the rear-view 'n saw you knocked out cold. I guess your brain just ran away from it. Then we crashed and went splat. Next thing I know you're bouncin' around yelling, 'I'm alive! I'm alive!' Weirdsville!"
Toby rubbed the fur on the back of his neck. "I..." He felt both acute embarrassment and a species of abject hollowness. Like the instant after a trap door opens, but right before the drop. "My worst fear. I spent so much time here trying not to die. I feared it so much, I was nothing but fear. And now I'm learning that... I failed at even that. I died three times. Maybe even more! I don't know! I guess I couldn't face it."
Piffle reached over to give him a backrub.
Seeing the pain on Toby's face made Junella shrivel inside. She saw his eyes red and ringed from stress. "You were right," she whispered, barely audible over the fire. "I was a bully to laugh at you."
He looked up at her. She was hiding her face behind a paw. "I almost don't blame you. I must have looked like a humongous dork."
"No excuse. I was a bully. I saw weakness in you and it pissed me off. I was picturing all the ways you'd get in my hair on this trip. It was like I was punishing you for what I knew you were gonna do down the line. I'm sorry. That ain't professional, and it ain't defensible."
He nodded. "Apology accepted."
She chewed her lip. "But I wasn't lying about Munchau-"
Toby held a hand up to stop her in her tracks. He shut his eyes tight. "I can't. No. Not now. I can't yet." His voice was firm as concrete.
Junella looked him over and decided to let it slide. She could tell the little runt was already doing his best to face a plethora of ugly facts. She could allow him time to come to terms with this particular one.
"We were supposed to be talking about Piffle anyway. And why you were eating her," Toby reminded them. It was rather obvious to everyone how much he wanted the subject changed.
Junella chuckled. "Okay, but lemme fill in some backstory first." She hooked a thumb at the Fearsleigher. "After we got that bad bitch back in shape, I told Zinc we were going straight home. You can thank him for the fact that we're here. I wanted to give up on you," she flatly admitted.
Zinc tossed Toby a 'You're welcome' grin.
"I wanted to go back home and let the world kick your ass for a while. Knock some balls into ya. Then maybe a few years later you'd crawl back, a little less of a pasty-faced wimp, and we could try heading up the mountain again." Her expression said she meant no offense; she was simply being honest about her feelings in the moment.
The mouse blushed. "I can't say I blame you."
"But," the skunk went on, "my partner saw you walking off the wrong way down the trap and said, 'Let's give him a chance. Let's camp here tonight and see if he gets out on his own.' And you actually did. I gotta say, I'm impressed. Credit where credit's due. I didn't expect you to get out at all. Or maybe you'd come crawling up here sometime next morning. Instead, I'd barely settled my ass down to dinner and here you are."
Toby leaned back against George with his hands behind his head. "I know I'm a scaredy-cat, but I like to think I'm not dumb. Once I realized it was all a big mirror, I just looked around till I found the edge. Then I chucked a big ol' paint can at the moon to knock the wall over." He smiled with a trace of smugness at his clever solution.
Junella and Zinc gawked at him like he'd just solved the unified field equation with a handful of rubber bands and a dead opossum.
"...What?" said the mouse innocently.
Junella was barely concealing her disbelief. "You swung a paint can... at the damn moon... and that's how you got out?"
He blinked. "Is that not how you're supposed to? I thought it was kinda nuts but it seemed obvious in hindsight."
The skunk and canine looked at each other and held a whole conversation with just their bulging eyes and dropped jaws. "Kid, we are gonna have to spend some serious time discussing just how fuckin' weird that is."
Toby shrugged. "It worked."
"...And I think I've got an idea why," Zinc mused. "But you asked about this little madm'wazelle here and how she came to be on our menu." He turned his charm towards Piffle and she tittered bashfully. "Like Junebug said, I put my foot down and told her we were stickin' around to give you a chance. She had a point about you needing to toughen up a skosh, but I don't think I'd sleep so well knowing I left a client to wander alone in the wilderness just because of a stupid fight." He timed the word 'stupid' so he was looking directly at his partner when he said it.
She accepted the rebuke coolly. "Our reputation would never recover if you'd told anyone we ditched you over something so petty."
"I wouldn't do that to you," Toby said sincerely. "It was as much my fault as yours."
Junella gave him a surprisingly warm smile. And did her cheeks turn a bit red from shame? "That was the other thing that convinced me. That integrity of yours. The last thing I expected was you living up to your half of the bargain. I thought you were gonna take off on your horse and leave us out in nature's asshole. But you didn't. I was too pissed at the time to admit it, but... no one with that kind of honor is as hopeless as I'd thought of you."
The fire muttered by itself for a few moments as Toby took in the fact that she'd actually complimented him. "...Thank you. I guess I don't usually think of myself as having much honor."
"I've been screwed over by people who I thought had it but didn't," she warbled almost wistfully. "You were a pleasant surprise."
Toby smiled, but Zinc cleared his throat. "I was telling a story," he reminded them both.
"Sorry. Keep going," Toby said.
George craned his neck to nibble another portion of roast hamsterfly.
Zinc tried to remember where he left off. "Allright. So you bugged off down the road leaving us standing there like a coupla maroons. I coaxed my dear skunkfemme to listen to reason, then we spent a while hammering the car back to normal, and then we picked out a spot where we thought you might spot us. We'd just set up shop when I heard this buzzin' sound coming in over the horizon. 'Air raid!', I thought. But no, this li'l slice of cutecake drops in Heaven and asks us if we've seen a certain white mouse named Toby. We said we were waitin' on him ourselves and to pull up a log. Then my stomach rumbles, and before I can even look in the supplies, this generous li'l peach offers herself up."
Toby looked at Piffle. "That still seems like an unnecessary extreme."
"I enjoy being useful," she told him with complete sincerity.
Zinc picked up his plate and took another bite of her savory abdomen. His tail wagged hard. "I can't get enough of this! It's like veal and lobster at the same time!"
Piffle beamed to see Zinc enjoying her so much. Her wings fluttered happily.
Toby grimaced. "I can understand wanting to be helpful, but wanting to be food?"
She shrugged. "Why not? I know I can't die. And Zinc was very gentlemanly about doing me in."
"Your head was on a stick!!" he bleated.
"We got... carried away," Junella admitted.
Toby wrung his tail in his paws. "I can't fathom how you can be so casual about this. Or, heck, maybe I can. Maybe things like this happen so often in Phobiopolis, you get desensitized."
"Pretty much," Zinc said with his mouth full. "You can only see your crimson ink 'n insides so often 'fore it starts getting boring."
"So... What does this mean? Nothing can hurt me, ever?" Toby asked all of them. "I'm guessing that's not quite right, since you two seem to take a lot of precautions against... something."
"The phrase, 'a fate worse than death' ain't just some pulp cliché here," Zinc said darkly.
Junella nodded. "Death can be a mercy at times."
"Remember what I said about how some places get you lost?" Zinc went on. "'Lost' has a lot of meanings. Trapped. Transformed. Stuck. Mindwiped. Death is nothin', comparatively. The rule is: when you die, even if your body turns to cinders, you'll pop back to normal in a few moments. Either you'll heal back, or just pop into a new you. Sometimes it's random, sometimes you can choose. Sometimes you'll leave a corpse, sometimes you won't. But whatever happens, you will still be wherever you died at." He emphasized each word with a thump of his wrenches. "Now, imagine you fall off a cliff? Or drown in the deep blue sea? Or you starve at the heart of a mile-wide maze?"
"There's plenty of shit to stay careful of out here. And let me make it clear," he looked Toby dead in the eye. "Death may be something you shrug off, but pain is still real."
Toby filed that lesson away in permanent ink and in triplicate. He tried to keep his brain from imagining worst case scenarios, but some got through anyway. Like, what if he landed in an inescapable pit of spikes? What if he died in a cave-in? Or fell into a volcano full of flesh-melting molten lava?
He kneaded his tail so hard he bruised it.
"Compared to all that, getting your head knocked off is easy as pie!" Piffle said.
Toby took a steadying breath. "I suppose it would be. But... how in the world did you get away from Dr. Dacryphilia?" he finally asked. He took both of her paws in his, caressing them gently. "I got away from there on pure fear and luck. I hated myself when I realized I'd left you in that horrible place! I thought I'd never see you again! I thought I had no other choice but to get to Anasarca and ask Aldridge to find you and help you."
Junella remembered something. "Waitaminnit! So SHE was that 'other thing' you let slip about back at the junkyard!?"
Toby nodded. "Can you see now why I didn't want to tell you?"
She punched the log. "I wish you had, dammit! We coulda gone to find her if it was so important to you! You honestly thought it was easier to tell The Wizard Of Fucking Oz than us!?"
George looked towards the skunk. "Shame can be an impenetrable wall," he interjected smoothly, and went back to being silent furniture. He now had a much better understanding of his master's emotional state the evening before.
Toby looked at George, then to Junella, and just nodded that the construct was correct.
Piffle leaned in to touch noses with Toby. "But it doesn't matter anymore," she said comfortingly. "I'm out and free, and I'm here right now!"
Toby acknowledged this, and the nose-nuzzle made him blush a little. "But how? That pink gas and those horrible teacup helmets! I pictured you slaving away in there, losing your mind from misery!"
The hamsterfly looked off into the distance, remembering. "It was all a blur at first. I was feelin' without any thinkin'. Like my 'self' just got turned off. But soon enough I was standing in the water, turning those gears, and I could feel tears pouring down my face and I didn't know why. I didn't even remember you. Or me. But time seemed to stretch out all funny. It felt like I was there for years and years. And I came to realize..." She nibbled her bottom lip bashfully. "Dr. Dacryphilia was right."
"What!?" Toby sputtered.
Piffle looked down at her skirt and rubbed her hands over each other. "I'm not saying he's a good guy. Gosh no! But... I was so miserable, and the work was so monotonous, eventually it all became a kind of bliss. Just like he'd said. I was so sad and so hopeless and bored and grummy, it's like I went all the way down until I ended up on the other side." She started to brush her antennae thoughtfully. "I felt so hopeless I didn't want to hope anymore. I realized that this would be my life for the rest of eternity. Every moment the same. Forever. Nothing would ever change and I'd never have to think, ever again. Never make a decision. Never be responsible. And that felt... nice."
Zinc 'hmm'ed. "Sounds like that nirvana thing the Buddhists yak about."
"Maybe?" Piffle said, not familiar with the concept. "Anyway, thinking about it got me all conflicted. But then I realized I was thinking. And then I realized I was me. And that brought back all my memories, including you and seeing you run away. Swell job there, Toby! I'm proud of you!" She suddenly squeezed him, making the mouse fidget cutely. "So then I thought of you all on your lonesome somewhere, not knowing how stuff works here, and I thought, 'Well that's it. I'm leavin' this joint!' And I did!"
Toby blinked. "But the brainwashing helmet?"
"It only made me a little fuzzed-up. I've been in worse spots. It was easy to escape once I had the will to."
Toby felt a lightbulb go off. "...Just like Zinc told me about willpower affecting reality!" He turned to the canine and skunk. "I'm guessing there's some things around here that can only hurt you so long as you believe they can?"
Junella made a kinda-sorta gesture. "Depends. There's places that set up illusions that're harmless, yeah. But anything moving is usually real enough to take a piece outta ya. Some nightmares are stronger than others. Sounds like this doctor's a mid-level creep. It's best to keep away from all of them, or if you can't, then fight back like you never learned the word mercy."
"It can also be hard sometimes to tell what's a nightmare and what's a soul," Zinc said. Then added, in case Toby was unfamiliar with the lingo, "Someone like you or me. A previous tenant of Earth. People can sometimes be a helluva lot more dangerous than a nightmare. Especially depending on their imagination."
Toby had dared to hope it might be as simple as telling the monsters, 'I don't believe in you'. Then, poof. Of course it couldn't be that easy.
Another question occurred. "Piffle, how'd you find me? That basement took me to a completely different city. How'd you know I'd be here?"
"I didn't!" she giggled. "But if you're ever really, really lost in Phobiopolis, just listen to your heart! I thought about you and picked a direction. That's how I normally get around anyway. It might take you the long way, but you'll always get there. You can think of it as the scenic route!"
"That's useful information," he said.
"Places in Phobiopolis have a tendency to be where you think they're going to be," she said, clearly from experience. "That reminds me, when did you get such a cool horsie?" She patted George's spine and he gave an appreciative whinny.
"Luck, basically. Just after I escaped from the basement, actually. I was exhausted and terrified and ashamed and a whole bunch of other awful feelings, so I ran out into the woods. I saw something glowing in the ground and dug it up. Turns out it was alive." Toby suddenly sat bolt upright as he remembered someone else he'd recently had a chance encounter with. "Oh geez! I forgot all about her!"
"Her who?" Junella inquired.
Toby hopped to his feet and headed towards the bushes. "She's... Um. I met her in the mirror-forest-place. We kinda just ran into each other. She said she needed my help. She's right over here."
The skunk frowned deeply. "Are you telling me you've had someone stashed in the bushes this entire time? Listening to us talk? What the fuck flavor of insane are you?"
Toby grimaced. "Look, it's easier to just introduce her and then explain. Could you all please close your eyes for a moment?"
"Please, Junella. I was scared at first too. At least look in the other direction for a moment."
"Allright. But if something jumps up and eats us, I'm gonna hold your head under in the digestive juices."
"Fair enough," Toby said. Then he pulled the bushes apart to make a path. "Doll? You can come out now!" He closed his eyes and listened for the sound of her footsteps.
A rustle in the grass as she stood. Then little plastic paws treading on soil. Branches creaked as she pulled her way through into the clearing. She sat down by the campfire so she wouldn't fall backwards when they opened their eyes.
Toby peeked and saw her sitting. "You can look now," he told the others.
The reaction was quite diverse.
"Oh my," said George.
"EEEEEEEEYAAAHHH!!!" Zinc and Junella screamed in stereo.
"She's so CUTE!" exploded Piffle.
Doll, of course, said nothing.
Junella sprung behind the log and had her cutlass out in a flash. She stared into Doll's gaping, gouged-out face and fought back nausea. "WHAT IN SEVEN KINDS OF HELL IS THAT SHIT!?"
Zinc had his wrenches open and crush-ready. He called out, "George! You wanna give me a construct check on that thing!? Preferably pronto?"
The demonic horse looked the tattered toy up and down with his otherworldly sight. "Hmmm. If you are asking if she is a nightmare like myself, then I see nothing of that nature within her. She does seem bound by powerful magicks though."
"She's cursed," Toby defended. "She told me so."
"How does she speak without a friggin' mouth?" Zinc asked.
"She writes it. But she can only move when she's not being looked at."
"Then I'm not gonna blink till that thing's a hundred miles from here," Junella decided. "I'll pin my eyelids open if I have to."
"You're just being mean!" said Piffle. She gleefully scooped Doll into her arms and started fussing with her hair. "Oh you poor thing! You need a good washing-up and your clothes need mending. But I'll fix you up till you're pretty as a rose, yes I will!" She nuzzled where Doll's nose would have approximately been.
Seeing that Piffle didn't immediately get eaten, Zinc's posture eased. Slightly. "I s'pose it's possible. People do get turned into other things all the time here. But just look at her! Jeez!" He shuddered so hard one of his ears popped loose.
One could practically see pink hearts filling the air around Piffle's head. Toby walked over to hold Doll's hand too. "How would we set her free?" he asked anyone who had an answer.
"Not sure," Piffle said. "All sortsa nutty stuff happens to me, and usually I just wait around till I get bored and want to change back."
Junella's brow furrowed. "Assuming there is someone in there, if she can't will herself back, then whatever she's got is extra-strength malicious."
"Not quite our area of expertise. We mostly keep ourselves and our clients away from voodoo like that, not get 'em out," Zinc added.
"I concur with Madam Brox's assessment," George said. "Your small friend either lacks sufficient willpower to unlock her normal self, or she is the victim of strong vexation. Might I examine her for a moment?" Since neither mouse nor hamster were resting upon him anymore, he stood up and stretched his legs.
Piffle held Doll at arms' length towards George.
The horse stretched his neck forward, inhaling deeply. He smelled only junkyard aromas, nothing unexpected. He scanned every visible inch of Doll's body, every fiber of her dress, and every strand of her hair. "I sense nothing indicative of the source of her curse. If I had not heard her moving under her own volition just a moment ago, I would think this was an ordinary child's plaything before me. The only meager clue I spy is an imprinted message on her posterior: 'Copyright MDLXII Psychopomp Toys'. Though I do not believe this to be reliable information, merely another aspect of her enforced appearance."
Toby's ears drooped.
George seemed hesitant to speak his next words. "...Though an idea occurs to me as to how I might free her."
Toby's ears perked up again.
A wince was present in every word George spoke. "How might I ask her permission to try something which may, for only a moment, be quite intensely painful to her?"
"Just ask. She can hear you fine, but you have to be looking away for her to answer. And she needs some way to write it," Toby replied.
George nodded. He indicated to Piffle to set Doll down before him, and scraped a patch of dirt to make it loose. "May I try my experiment, Madam Doll?" he asked. "Everyone, please avert your gazes!"
They all did (reluctantly, in Junella's case, though she figured nothing was stupid enough to try funny business while standing in front of a nightmare incarnate). They all heard the sound of dirt moving.
When the sound stopped, they all looked.
whatEvER it iS tRY it
George bowed. "Thank you, Madam. And let me apologize a thousandfold in advance for what I am about to do."
With that, George suddenly reared up on his hind legs. A teakettle-pitched scream erupted from his throat, directed skywards. Clouds exploded overhead. As George kicked at the air with his front legs, a bolt of lightning split the night and struck him dead center in the forehead. His entire form crackled with energy. All of it he harnessed, directing every jolt into his forehooves.
With a mighty bray, he stomped Doll into the ground with a BOOM that rattled the bones of everyone present.
Piffle held her paws to her mouth in horror. "Gadzooks! Is there anything left of her!?"
George stepped out of the foot-deep smoldering crater he'd just made. "If I succeeded, Madam Piffle, then we will know in just a moment."
Everyone leaned in to see. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing more than a dented, slightly-dirtier Doll lying at the bottom of the hole. Her plastic body unflattened itself to its normal shape with a slight wheezing sound.
"Drat," said George.
At first Toby had been as horrified as Piffle, but then it dawned on him what George's idea had been. "You tried to kill her so she'd reappear back in her original body."
"Precisely, Master Toby," George said. He was deeply concerned and displeased with the result of his experiment. "That blow should have killed anything that was capable of dying. Yet here she remains. This is sorcery I have no knowledge of." Ever-so-gently, he picked Doll up and set her beside the hole. "Again, I must apologize, Madam Doll. I hope the experience was not too traumatic."
George nodded to everyone else and they gave Doll time to write her response:
tHaNK yoU 4 tRYINg
George smiled. "You are very welcome."
Toby picked Doll up and brushed off what dirt he could. "Maybe you could work it out if you ask her some more questions later," he told George. "She can answer as long as you're not looking directly at her. She was riding piggyback most of the time I was walking through the mirror-forest, spelling out what she wanted to say on my shoulder with her finger."
"Awww, what a cute idea," said Piffle.
Junella tucked her sword away and cracked her knuckles, producing a sound like a Dixieland band falling out of a moving truck. She sighed dramatically. "Allright, allright. I can see it already. You're attached to that grody little thing and it's not gonna matter half a damn if I try to convince you to chuck her in the bushes while we still can, then run like hell away from her."
Toby chuckled at the note of resignation in her voice. "That sounds about right."
The skunk looked over at Zinc to see if they were on the same wavelength. He just shrugged. "Dammit. Fine. I guess there's space for her in the trunk. Hopefully we won't have to take her the whole way to the wizard before we find somethin' capable of making her normal again. The sooner she can stop creeping me out, the better."
"She can sit on my lap," Piffle insisted.
Junella's eyes bugged at this sudden, completely un-voted-upon decision for Piffle to join their party. "How many goddam passengers am I carrying!? Do I look like a taxi? Do I have checkers on my ass!?"
The hamsterfly just grinned, hearing no actual refusal in the skunk's voice.
Toby was a bit stunned though. "You're... coming with us? Why?"
She pouted in confusion. "Why? Ain't it obvious? I care about you, Toby."
He felt an uneasy tug at his heart. He didn't know how to react to such open, direct compassion. "I know. And I really appreciate that. But, I would have thought just catching up and seeing I was okay would be enough. It's not that I don't want you to come along, just..." He rubbed his neck. "I don't want to feel like I'm burdening you. You must have things to do in your own life."
She smiled, somewhat sadly, and kicked her foot back and forth. "Actually... when we got snagged by that arachnopus, I was in the middle of running away from home. I'll tell you about it later if you don't mind hearing me babble on 'bout all my silly problems. But, helping you on your journey... It'll take me to far-off, exotic places. And I won't have to do the dishes anymore. And... I'll be helping a friend."
Toby reached out for another hug. Her carapace was a bit poky, even through her dress, but he didn't say a word. Her fur was as soft as a pussy willow. "Thank you," he whispered simply.
Junella let them embrace for a moment longer, until the need to roll her eyes became overwhelming. She put out the fire with a few swift kicks. The hissing flame and cascade of soil caught the duo's attention. "A-hem. If you two wanna make out, do it in the car."
Both Toby and Piffle turned crimson.
"We had a rest, we had a meal, we're all together, so there's no reason we're not moving. Unless we wanna camp here for the night, if we leave ASAP I think we can make it to the inn before lockdown. A bed sounds better to me than a tent."
"I'm in full agreement, babes," Zinc said. He headed for the hood to get something to store the extra Pifflemeat in.
"We can talk more on the road," Toby said to Piffle.
"Okey-doke," she agreed, and tickled him with an antenna as she skipped towards the Fearsleigher.
Junella had produced some kind of compass-like device from seemingly nowhere and was consulting it while looking out across the stars.
Toby coughed to get her attention. He approached meekly, keeping his voice low so he wouldn't be overheard by the others. "Thanks again, for forgiving me. And for letting me add two extra people to the expedition."
The skunk shrugged, barely regarding him. "Ain't nothin'. Might make things more interesting. Piffle seems like she can get herself outta trouble, and Doll won't be talkin' my ear off."
She was playing at nonchalance, but Toby could hear a hint in her voice that this was her amends for her part in their fight earlier. "Thank you regardless. And I'll try my best to be a better passenger."
She gave him the briefest of grins. "Then stay in the backseat and let me drive, puffball," she teased. "And don't forget your hammer. Better'n bare hands."
Toby had nearly forgotten it. He hunted around for a while (he wished Junella hadn't extinguished the campfire), but eventually located it near where he'd been sitting.
He looked over to the Fearsleigher. Zinc was helping George put his harness on, who was already trotting in place in anticipation. Junella took a last look at her navigational instrument, then tucked it away in seemingly empty space. Piffle was having a difficult time climbing the ladder into the back seat while holding onto Doll, so Toby hustled over to steady her.
"Nice seats!" she said as she plopped down inside. "Anyone got a comb?"
Junella popped the glove compartment, rustled around for a second, and tossed an object at her. "It's just Zinc's fur brush. Neither me or him have hairdos to maintain."
Piffle was delighted nonetheless. "A thousand thanks, Madam Brox!" she said, dropping her voice down low like George. Happy as a pixie, she started combing Doll's hair. "Now let's get all these naughty tangles out! You're gonna shimmer and shine just like a magical princess!!"
Junella turned away and muttered under her breath, "This candy cane chick's gonna give me diabetes..." She wished she had a steering wheel to clench in her hands.
Zinc finished tacking up George and vaulted into the passenger seat, making the whole chassis wobble. "Let's scoot, brute!" he called out the window.
"Is everyone ready for departure?" George called back merrily.
"You know where we're going?" Junella made sure to ask.
"Certainly, Madam Brox! Even before my internment, Coryza was a popular port for travelers. I raided it many times, sending fleeing victims scurrying out into the wastelands! My hooves gouging- ...Erm, pardon my reminiscing."
She grunted. "I don't care if you trampled my granny. Let's GO!!"
"With extreme enjoyment!" George replied. He reared up and whinnied for dramatic effect before putting his hooves to the soil. In the blink of an eye, they were sailing over the hills like a shooting star, George's hoofbeats as loud and steady as a freight train's thrum.
END OF BOOK ONE