Dream I: Waking Up
Heard about a place today
Where nothing ever hurts again
-David Bowie, "Underground"
...Alone among millions...
That thought had been floating through his consciousness for hours now. Days? Like a lyric from a stuck song. Like a quiet car driving repeatedly past his window at night.
Alone among millions.
His eyes were open. Beyond that, he didn't know much else. But his eyes were open. Therefore, he had eyes.
It was a start.
His body... Maybe he had one, maybe he didn't. Maybe he was a pair of plastic eyes set into a stuffed toy adrift on the ocean. It was possible. Anything was.
He did not feel pain. Although there was, sometimes, the ghost of pain. It slid throughout his being, penetrating from the surface to deep down inside. But it was only... background noise. Nothing real enough to concern him.
The sun was above, enormous and unrelenting. It wrung sweat from his pores like a fist squeezes a sponge. Trickles of salty water wound their way through the fur of the body he was not sure he owned.
Therefore, the sun existed too.
Time certainly didn't.
There was no linear progression. It was all just... soup. A blurred 'now' without beginning or end. He did nothing. Nothing was done to him. He did not even blink. Nothing existed to distinguish one moment from the next.
That was fine.
He felt hot.
Maybe that meant he had a body to feel temperature with. Or not. Maybe he felt lumps from whatever he was lying on. Rumpled fabric, a belt buckle. Or maybe these were dreams of feeling. Mirages. Phantom limb sensations.
Having no body meant he didn't know his species, or age. He only nebulously knew he was a 'he' from familiarity. A default setting. Everything else was gone.
He did not sleep. There was no reason to. Instead, he drifted. Floated like a leaf on the waterline between slumber and sentience. It seemed like there was maybe even something keeping him away from sleep. He couldn't be sure. But something had to be holding him up, keeping him from sinking below.
He didn't care why. Sleep or wake, it was all equally purposeless.
And that was fine.
Or maybe it wasn't. Sometimes he felt like he was sick. Like he needed someone to come and take care of him. He didn't understand why that 'someone' never showed up.
Sometimes he was confused. Or dimly uneasy. Though most of the time he couldn't build up the effort for concern of any kind.
There was no reason to be concerned. Something inside told him so.
None of these thoughts so much as resembled coherency. They were intuitions without attached words or images. Slippery little fish that stumbled by mistake into his half-awake awareness. They were gone again before they could be fully examined.
That was fine too. Understanding took effort.
It was easier to keep on lying there. Motionless. Thoughtless. Selfless.
There was no reason to think. Or for his lungs to draw in air. Or for his eyelids to close. Or for his heart to keep beating. No reason at all.
There was a smell though. Something deeply wrong, but far from unnatural. It pervaded him. It was in the air. All around. But he turned his senses away until it no longer registered.
The sun overhead shone down into his eyes. Discs of pink, green, and blue danced in his vision around the great white dot. Pretty.
He felt... empty.
A set of unworn clothes. A costume with no one to make it dance. An inside-out sock on the laundry room floor. A candy wrapper in the trash.
Nothing left inside. That was fine.
Was that fine?
With nothing to think about, and nothing to think with, he could keep on doing nothing like this forever. Just lie here and doze on the edge of dreaming. The dimmest, barest awareness of sensation. Like lying on a towel at the beach, listening to the waves roll in. Except there were no waves.
He was on an ocean though.
He didn't know why or how he knew that, yet where no other memory stood on his bare shelves, that small tidbit of knowledge remained.
Something inside warned him from poking too closely at it.
It was all he knew, yet he did not want to know more.
All it would take to see his surroundings... Just a simple turn of the head. Gravity would do half the work. Then he'd know where he was, and that might lead to other clues.
Yet he knew he must not. There was something all wrong here.
Why else, in this slow-baking heat, would he feel cold sometimes? Like a wind was passing through his nonexistent bones. A memory of his bones, from another time.
He had to have been something before he was this
The question was asked by the furthest edges of his rudimentary consciousness. It was less a thought than an impulse. Basic programming trying to return to functioning. The other 90% of his awareness was devoted to staring into the sun and watching the colors change as he went blind.
Yet the question was like a microorganism swimming along, fighting to emerge and evolve. Logic dictated that he hadn't just sprung into existence like this. He had not been born here in the hot sun on the ocean.
Something had come before. But there were no clues as to what it had been. (Or if clues existed, something inside him would not allow them to be found.)
If anything spurred this proto-thought on, it was the one thing that had not been scoured from his identity: ache. Not just the physical soreness that sometimes traveled down his phantom body like light passing over a subway train. But an inner pain.
That... that actually seemed to spark something.
He was missing.
Was he missing? Or was...?
There was a large black circle in the middle of his vision now. The sunlight blazed hotter around its scalding edges. An eclipse of his sight.
Was he missing something?
Had something been taken from him?
This was regrettably as far as the question could go. It had reached the end of the line. No matter how much farther it searched, there was no more information to draw speculation from.
The proto-thought gradually faded away, back into the static it had come from.
He felt hot.
He was lying on something that bulged beneath his legs and shoulders.
He was empty. A potato chip bag, upended, and shaken till all the crumbs were gone. Cleaned out.
Blind now, he continued to feel the sun's rays on the exposed surface of his corneas. He could even smell them cooking.
No more eyes. No more body.
There was nothing in all the world to prove he existed at all.
That was fine.
So while his foggy mind wandered around inside the empty cage of his skull, the proto-thought kept returning, and dying, and returning again. Cyclic. Struggling to be born, then dissipating before it could reach its goal. Forgotten every time.
Who am I?
Dead end. No conclusions.
What was I before I was here?
Echoes for answers, nothing more.
Why am I crying all the time if I have no eyes and no one to miss?
Reply uncertain. Please try again.
There were... He could almost grasp it. Every time a memory of color, touch, or sound came close, it would dart away as soon as he approached. Squirrels scurrying up the tree whenever he crouched to pet them. The memories would seem so close at first. If he could only anchor them to something, he was sure he...
Wasted effort. Chasing soap bubbles. Trying to catch the patterns in a kaleidoscope before they became something else.
Names. That's what he lacked. He needed words to express the concepts swimming around in his dormant brain, but something had taken them all away. So now his thoughts were like loose balloons. He had no strings to tie them down. All he could do was watch them float.
But somewhere below, on some basement level, a part of him still remembered that he had lost something precious. Something worth more to him than even his own life. A loss so profound it had caused his collapse into this half-awake, inert shadow. His heart had been scooped out. Taken away. There was no reason to go on without it...
His tears boiled in the overbearing sunlight until they burned two thin streaks into his parched and cracking skin. Two little lines, traveling down between his temples and his cheeks. Like someone had drawn them on in pink crayon.
He was aware of none of this. He was an inverted iceberg. A small, struggling chunk of dim activity beneath, a heavy bulk of white static above. Weighing it down. Suffocating it.
He had felt hot for so long that he no longer felt it. The constant heat became imperceptible through acclimation. As his lips and extremities dried up and shriveled, he lost the ability to perceive temperature entirely. Just as he no longer touched, or smelled, or saw. His senses went dark one by one, like a janitor shutting down the lights as he prepares to leave for home. Soon there was nothing left but the little swimming fishies going round and round inside his desiccated brain. Colorful.
Memory had receded. Time had receded. Sensation had receded.
Eventually, even his feeble attempts to unravel his situation receded. The cycle of the emerging question 'who am I?' (being born, seeking answers, finding none, and dying), was repeated again and again with diminishing progress. The fishbowl was steadily shrinking.
Until the thought could no longer move at all. Until there was nothing left but a space so cramped, nothing could be done but stare forever at the plain blank wall of the box it was sealed within.
Now, he was truly gone.
A blank sheet. A pure innerspace. Clean and tidy. Not a speck of dust.
He remained alive and awake, but only at the most minimal standards of those definitions.
There were no insects to decompose his body. No bacteria to break him down.
And so he continued to lie there, thinking and dreaming nothing. Perfectly unaware of his resting place. Unaware of his own flesh, even as it lay splayed across the unmoving limbs and torsos of the corpses surrounding him.
There were many.
A landfill of bodies. A desert of bodies. An ocean of bodies.
Men and women. Children. Babies. Every species. Some of them with their eyes and mouths fallen open. Some of them curled around one another in knots. Some of them buried fathoms deep. All of them dressed in whatever clothes they had been wearing at their time of their departure. None showed signs of cause, however. There were no bullet wounds, no cuts, no bloated stomachs. Not a single drop of blood anywhere to be seen. It was all very clean. Very clean. The corpses never decomposed, the pile simply grew. A sea whose tide only rose.
Somewhere in the midst of this infinite graveless graveyard lay a little white mouse who did not know he was alive. He reclined on his back atop the corpses of a policeman, a housewife, a toddler, and a homeless soldier. He was unaware of them. They might as well have been his new family for all the time they had already spent together. And the time they would be spending yet to come.
The sun poured down its light like a waterfall into his eyes. Eyes that could no longer see.
He was the only living thing for hundreds of miles in any direction. Hundreds of miles.
"Huh? Caught somethin'?"
"No, dad! Look! Right down there! I think that one's alive!!"
A patient but disbelieving smirk. He remembered all the times he'd wanted to believe the same thing when he'd been young. "I don't think so, squirt."
"Dad, will you just LOOK!?" The smaller, more eager voice pointed vigorously over the side of the boat. "Right down there! The skinny one with the blue shorts!"
The deeper voice sighed and figured he might as well humor the little megaphone. If nothing else, he'd been sitting on his ass so long it had started to go numb. He really didn't need to do much more than steer. The kid could handle the arm all by himself, and was more than willing to do so.
The father pulled the brake, heaved himself up, then stumbled for a moment as feeling came prickling back into his thighs. His son was at the prow of the boat, bent ninety degrees over the rail. He reached out to yank the lad's tail.
"Hey, c'mon. You present me a lever, I gotta pull it to see what it does. In this case, it makes a 'daaaaaad' noise."
The kid snickered. "I'm serious though. He's right down there. We almost ran over him."
The father yawned. He braced a hand on the rail and peered over the side.
At least the kid's description was apt. There was definitely a skinny one below, with blue shorts and a vest. But the scrawny mouse sure as hell wasn't jitterbugging any more than the rest of the deaddies. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"
"Look at his hand, Dad. Fingers?"
"Okay, so they're missing. And?"
The kid gesticulated all over the place. "And none of the others got anything chopped off, do they!?"
The father put his paw on the back of the boy's neck and bade him take a closer look. "Son, those weren't chopped off. See? No blood. He's not an amputee, he was born that way."
The kid pursed his lips, still unconvinced. "Okay, but look at his mouth. And his eyes. They're all dried out from the sun. None of the others are like that."
The father was about to dismiss that as well, but then stopped himself. The kid had a point. The other corpses had always looked like soft and floppy store mannequins. They stank a bit like someone who needed a shower, but they never decomposed. And they didn't dry out in the sun either. "You may be onto something."
A boundless grin of triumph. "I told you so!! You didn't believe me! But I was right! I was right!!" He jumped up and down on the deck.
The father chuckled at the display of sheer exuberance. "Don't celebrate your victories till after the whistle blows. You wanna haul him up and take a closer inspection?"
Instant response: "Of COURSE!"
A laugh. "Allright then, you're the crane master. Get to it."
The boy saluted and leapt for the controls. He handled the levers like he'd been born behind them. The father tried to remember if he'd ever been so graceful with the arm back in his day.
In no time flat, the kid had swung the claw around and scooped their enigma up onto the deck, sweet as you please. Both males knelt somberly over their discovery.
The kid reached down to pry the mouse's eyelids open wider.
"Must you?" the father asked, cringing.
"Well, look at 'em. They're all... blasted out. I think he's blind."
"Or..." The father was starting to take his son's hunch seriously. "...like he laid there staring into the sun until he went blind. This doesn't look like a birth defect or an old injury." He rubbed his chin. "Holy shrimp bucket, squirt, I think you were right all along."
More intense grinning at being vindicated. "So now the big question is, how're we gonna wake him up?"
A shrug. "Might as well try the simplest solution first." He stood back up, winced at the twinge in his knees, and walked over to the catch-pole.
The kid wrung his hands together in gruesome glee at getting to see some blood 'n guts.
The father walked back to their mystery guest. He raised the pole above the mouse's throat, pointy side down. "I really hope you don't feel this, whoever you are."
The son stepped back to avoid backspatter.
The father brought down the pole in a killing blow.
The pain was already gone, but it resonated like a doppler effect. He was definitely aware he'd had a big, heavy metal hook shoved right through his neckmeat. Arms flailed reflexively to ward off any more attacks, then he twisted himself onto all fours, coughing. His head pulsed like a drum. He could barely get his lungs to inflate. Waves of 'red alert' were coming from his heart as it struggled to sync a beat.
There was a jackhammer pounding beside his head. THOOM THOOM THOOM. Or maybe it was just the small feet of a young boy jumping up and down in celebration.
"It worked! It worked! I actually rescued someone! This is WAY better than what Reggie found last week!"
A swirl of nausea sucker-punched the mouse and he toppled sideways to land with a bang on his shoulder. A flaking hand reached out for him. He saw it in his peripheral vision and swung at it reflexively, meager claws extended. He flipped himself sideways to land on his butt, then started pinwheeling his legs to scoot away as fast as possible.
"Hey! Hey, calm down! I was just trying to help!" said a man's voice.
He couldn't yet make sense of anything he was seeing. All the images were funhouse mirror shapes. Drunken colors. "WHO ARE YOU!? WHERE AM I!?"
The boy ran over and skidded down beside the mouse. "You're fine! Just look at me. You're on a boat! We rescued you! You're totally okay."
The mouse clapped his hands to the side of his head, trying to stop the ringing. He shut his eyes tight. He bit his tongue to give himself something to focus on. 'Okay, okay. You're having a panic attack. Calm down. Panic doesn't help anything. Get yourself clear and maybe you can figure this out.' He pulled in a long, slow breath, then let it go.
"Hey, are you-"
"Just give me a second," the mouse interrupted.
The father came over. "Move back, kiddo. Let him breathe." He skootched the boy away, looking somberly down at their salvage. "He's been through something bad."
The kid hugged himself to his father's arm. "I want him to be okay, Dad."
"Me too. First, we give him some time."
The voices sounded kind. Concerned. Not evil and hungry and out to get him. That was good. He made himself focus on that. 'You're not in danger. You're okay. So, heart, you can stop freaking out. Lungs, you can breathe just fine. Brain, you can turn that effing siren off now, I get the point.'
He drew in another deep, cleansing breath. It didn't smell so great, but that wasn't anything to go pukey over. He held the air inside of him, just feeling his lungs inflate for a moment, then exhaled, nice and slow.
He opened his eyes, much calmer now.
In a very short time, he became significantly less calm. He clamped his hands over his muzzle to avoid offending his guests by screaming at their appearance.
They were indeed a father and son, but different species. Though it was hard to tell at first what species. The kid was a feline: that was deducible enough from his swishing tail and triangle ears. The dad was... a sea lion? No, a seal. Streamlined shape, flipper tail, and the webbing on the paws clinched it. Seal.
The reason it was difficult to tell at first, was that they were both entirely devoid of fur. Instead they were bare, tanned skin from head to toe. Not to imply they were naked. The father wore a tank top and jeans, while the boy was in shorts and a tentlike T-shirt with a cartoon gorilla in sunglasses on it. But their faces, tails, and limbs were completely barren. No more than a few scraggly tufts of random, bristly hair here and there.
And the skin itself was... wrong. Diseased. Literal cracks pervaded it like a dry lake bed. Dandruff enough to fill a few snowglobes. This pair was in dire need of moisturizing lotion.
As if that wasn't bad enough, when the mouse's gaze resolved the rest of the scene, he realized there was a six-foot stack of bodies at the back of the boat.
He screamed really, really loud.
The father and son looked at each other with twin expressions of aggravation.
The kid rolled his eyes. "Whoopty-doodoo, pop. You get to do The Tourist Lecture again."
"My faaaavorite thing in the whole wide world," he said with miles of sarcasm.
Despite the electric current of raw terror pulsing all the way down his nervous system, the mouse managed to cut off his latest scream before it could emerge. Something was familiar about this. He knew he'd never been on a boat full of death with two guys who looked like beef jerky before, but still, he had been in a situation like this at some point. Often enough for it to be familiar, actually. He had no idea how he knew, but his 'muscle memory' said so. And it was telling him that the correct reaction now was to be polite and push down his disgust long enough to wait for an explanation. 'Then, I guess, if they really do plan to murder me, I can jump over the edge and swim like crazy.'
The father felt intense relief when he saw rationality return to the mouse's albino eyes. It was always worse when newcomers kept yowling and he'd have to wait out their panic before he could get a word in edgewise. "You okay now? I'm sure we don't look too much like movie stars, but there's nothing to worry about. We're not contagious, is what I mean."
"It is if you live here a while," the kid corrected.
The father lightly whacked him with his tail.
The mouse tried to speak, needed to cough again first, then fiddled with his larynx until he thought it'd cooperate. "I'm sorry. I got scared. I'm kind of phobic about disease. Skin conditions included." He blinked. The words had come out of his mouth, and they were true, yet he had no idea why they were true. He couldn't remember ever being scared of sickness before. It was just something his gut knew as instinctively as his... species?
An icy finger of dread stabbed into his spine. 'I have no idea what I am,' he realized.
The father and son were puzzled to see their guest suddenly look down and frantically examine himself all over.
"We didn't go through your pockets yet, I promise," the kid said.
The mouse hadn't even considered that. He was so busy checking his feet, tail, paws, and ears that his clothing had utterly escaped his notice. He patted around his vest and shorts. 'At least the colors are nice.' He really liked the yellow stripes. 'Looks like a mailman's uniform.' Was that his job? No, he was too young for a job. At least he felt like it. He looked down again. Yes, definitely a kid's body. Okay. 'So I know I'm small and that I'm a mouse, and that- Holy crap, I can see all my ribs! Euchh! I really need to eat something!'
That was when he got his first good look at his right hand. So far he'd been seeing it without fully registering it, but now he stared in shocked disbelief. Most of his fingers were missing. Only a chunk of each proximal knuckle remained. He wiggled his stumps. There was no pain or scars, and at least he still had his thumb. But he had no doubt this had happened recently. If he'd been born like this, it would have felt natural. It definitely didn't.
And what the hell was that slit on his palm? Was it glowing!? What in the...
The father took a step forward, holding his palms up to show no ill intent. "Hey, kid, what's wrong? Anything we can help with?"
The mouse stared down at the boat's floorboards for a moment, seeing nothing. His mind was racing. He managed to gesture that he was fine, though of course that was a big fat lie. "You've never met me before, have you?" he asked absently, already knowing the answer.
The seal father shook his head. "Nope. My son fished you out a couple minutes ago."
"I saved you!" the kid added cheerfully.
The mouse looked up. "...From what?"
"Well, you were just lyin' there like this-" He made a dead-eyed zombie face. "But I rekkanized you weren't a stiff and told pops."
The mouse took another deep breath, barely hearing what was said. He tried to think of his own name and brought back nothing but a blank smudge. Poking at it even pushed him away, like a magnet repelling. 'Dammit, I'm not completely gone, am I? I feel normal. I'm not, like, babbling gibberish with the mind of a toddler. I can still speak and think. I know the words 'mouse' and 'vest' and 'shorts'. I know I'm hungry, and I know I'd like some soup and a sandwich. So okay, that means...' What did it mean? He tried to think logically about this. 'I've got amnesia, obviously. But it's not total. I'm not incapacitated. I've got basic knowledge, but not any personal knowledge. Okay. Okay. That's really horrifying, but it could be worse. I've got a place to start from, at least.'
One thing was for sure, he wasn't about to try and force his memories to come back. He knew from past experience (even if he didn't know which experience) that memories hated being chased. The harder you tried to grab a slippery one, the farther away they'd squirm. 'What I need to do for now is stop trying. Maybe it'll be temporary. Maybe I'll be talking about something else later and it'll all come back to me in a snap.' It had worked before. He had no concrete examples, but he knew he remembered the feeling of an elusive answer jumping suddenly to mind out of nowhere.
'That's something else in my favor. I might not be able to remember any specifics, but I still know what certain memories used to feel like. Maybe that'll help me track them down.' He managed a smile. He was in a bad situation but he was handling it okay.
And it also seemed that, whoever he was, he was fairly smart. He blushed a bit in modesty.
He realized the other two furs were staring at him, wondering what the strange parade of facial expressions he'd just displayed were all about.
"Sorry about that. I just figured out that I don't have any idea who I am. Amnesia. But I'm not gonna let myself get too worried about it. It might work itself out after a while." Plus, there were other things to figure out first. Like, 'where am I?' Just 'on a boat' wasn't good enough.
The father was honestly amazed at how quickly this mouse had gotten himself under control. In about thirty seconds, their passenger had gone from a thrashing, feral animal to someone wounded but sensible. "I'm sorry to hear that, kiddo. We'll help you out if we can."
The mouse nodded. "Thank you. Since I don't know mine, what are your names?"
The cat kid immediately interrupted and zoomed to the mouse's side with his paw held out. "I'm Skeeto! They call me that 'cuz I buzz around bein' a nuisance. I rescued you! This is my dad, Tak. He's great!"
The father smiled warmly at that.
Skeeto patted the deck. "This is our boat, the-"
"The Jenny May?" the mouse guessed on impulse.
Skeeto tilted his head. "Nope. It's called the Summer Vacation."
Interesting name. The mouse had no flippin' idea why that other one had come to mind so quickly. Maybe it just sounded like a good ship name. Or maybe, he hoped, he'd heard it somewhere before. "Why's it called that?" he asked Skeeto.
Tak answered. "What else you gonna name a hollowed-out, upside-down school bus?"
The mouse burst out laughing at the concept. Though looking around, it had been right in front of him the whole time.
The boat was roomy, banged up, scratchbuilt, and very yellow. The deck was made of worn timber but the sides were a familiar diamond plate metal he remembered from trips to school. ('So I've been to school. One more thing about me. Good.') At the front of the boat rose a dinged-up crane arm. It looked like the dragon's head on a Viking ship. At the stern was a canopy made from the bus' roof. Below were a few green vinyl seats and a cooler.
...And that pile of dead bodies. He'd forgotten about those for the moment.
'Nah. Those have gotta be mannequins or crash test dummies or something. These people are too nice to be maniacs.'
Okay, so he was on a bus-boat. His rescuers must have fished him out of the ocean. He had no idea why his clothes weren't wet. Maybe he'd been lying on a rock? He looked up at the sky. No seagulls. Everything was a dull, overcast white. He sniffed the air. Ugh! It stank like B.O.! He thought the ocean was supposed to smell salty and clean.
He started to stand. Skeeto popped up like toast to offer assistance, but the mouse rebuffed him. "Thanks. No. I think I'm fine." His body did feel better now. He was creaky and stiff, and he hurt a lot from inactivity he didn't remember, but for the most pa"AAAAAAAAAAIIIGGHH!!!!"
Tak had just been coming back from the cooler with a glass of lemonade. He was really glad he hadn't given it to the mouse beforehand, otherwise it would have spilled all over the place (and this stuff was in short supply). He also wished he'd thought to give the kid a warning about the ocean.
The mouse flailed and tripped backwards, landing flat on the deck, still screaming. What he'd seen had been beyond horrific. Unimaginably awful.
An infinite vista of death, all the way out to the horizon and beyond.
Skeeto was at his side, holding the other boy's shoulders down gently and looking heartbroken with concern. "It's okay! Don't freak out! It's normal! I know it looks like Halloween, but it's normal!"
"CORPSES!!! IT'S ALL CORPSES!!!" the mouse shrieked.
"Well, yeah," Skeeto said.
The mouse shut his eyes tight. Oh god, that horrible sight persisted. An afterimage he couldn't force away. Endless bodies, all piled on top of each other by the billions. Impossible numbers of bodies. Men, women, children. There were even babies. Some of them had their eyes open, staring at the sky unblinking. Their limbs were all twisted around like someone had carelessly unloaded them from the back of a dumptruck, or a garbage truck, throwing them anyplace convenient. It was a mass grave wide enough to contain an entire genocide. A dozen genocides. A thousand.
Tak knelt down beside the mouse and touched the cold glass to his forehead. "There. Nice and cool, okay? Relax. I'm sorry I didn't prepare you for that. Are you listening? No one killed them, allright? They just appear here. Like rain. No one knows why. But they're not normal dead bodies. They're just... there. They were probably never alive. They're like, replicas of bodies. Counterfeits."
The moisture on the mouse's forehead actually was pretty soothing. He tried to recall that feeling from before: being in a scary situation but waiting calmly for an explanation. "It's always like this? It's normal?"
"Always has been, so long as anyone can remember," Tak reassured in a lullaby voice. "It's nothing to get upset over. Looks bad, yeah, but we all get used to it in time."
The mouse did his best not to hyperventilate. He tried to take Tak's explanation at face value. And oddly, it wasn't difficult. Somehow there was a part of him that was saying, 'Okay, sure. That makes sense.' But of course it didn't. Nowhere on Earth could-
'I'm not on Earth,' he realized.
He felt it before it consciously came to him, and when it did, it hit him so strongly it was undeniable. He was somewhere fucking else. The name ran away when he tried to say it, but some subconscious part of him already knew where he was. He had traveled to a land where it was totally the norm to have buttloads of dead folks just laying around all over. He had no memory of how he'd come to be here or when, but he recognized the emotional state of irritated disgust. Of encountering repulsive stuff like this so many times, over and over and over, he was more sick of it than frightened.
Horrible as the sight of all those dead people had been, it had given him another clue to his identity. A huge one. He had to admit some gratitude for that.
He realized he had his hands sandwiched over his muzzle again and was cutting off his own air. Sucking in a breath, he sat up.
"Careful!" Tak fumbled to keep the lemonade glass from sailing over the edge. A few drops spilled anyway and it made him grimace. "Here, pal. Better drink this before you send it overboard."
The cool glass was slipped into his hands. He sniffed it first, just to be sure. It smelled... odd. But odd in a foodsy way, not poison. He sipped at the pink straw. His eyebrows went up. Definitely lemonade, but with something spicy in it. He tried another mouthful. Garlic? And jalapenos? Jeez, that was weird! But he kept drinking it anyway. It was bizarrely refreshing.
Skeeto watched the mouse drink and squirmed in obvious distress.
Tak rolled his eyes. "Yes, I know that was yours. You can have mine."
The kid lit up. "Cool! Thanks! We'll share it then."
He skritched behind his son's ear. "You're a good kitten, you know that?"
The mouse saw this bit of familial affection and felt an inexplicable bolt of sadness. He didn't know why, but he envied what he saw. Ached for it. Maybe that was another clue. He tried to focus on that small, sweet gesture to keep his mind away from death.
...Though now that the thought had reoccurred, it was all he could think about. Dammit.
Oddly, a purely logistical question popped into his mind. "If this is a boat, and bodies are solid, then how are we sailing over them?"
"Anti-flesh electromagnets," Tak said, as if that should have been elementary.
"Oh, sure," said the mouse.
Skeeto flung himself into explanation mode. "Yeah! We just scoot over top like a breeze! And the crane over there's what we scoop 'em up with. The good ones we pile over there in the back and take 'em home for the clothes and wallets and..." He trailed off, realizing their guest might be revolted by the idea.
He was. The mouse stuck his tongue out. "You guys scavenge corpses!?"
Tak shrugged. "We live right next to an abundant natural resource, so... You make do with what life gives you."
"Vomit city," the mouse assessed.
"Vomitrocious," Skeeto agreed. "I only got here a coupla years ago and I had nightmares for weeks. But Mom 'n Dad helped! And the other kids did too. So I'm over it now." He smiled proudly. Then he leaned in for a conspiratorial whisper. "So don't feel bad. One time I even wet the bed, but it was only once and it never happened again so that's okay."
The mouse nodded, indicating he'd keep the secret. "Where did you come from before?" he asked.
The kitten looked somber for a moment. "Well... y'know. When I fell asleep." Then his eyes opened wide with a horrible revelation. "Dad! He doesn't know! I mean, where he is!"
The mouse put up a hand to stop the forthcoming explanation. "I can guess," he said simply. "Either I'm dreaming or I'm dead, aren't I?"
Tak kneaded the edge of his tanktop. "Could be either," he admitted. "You're taking this awfully well."
"I went through this before. I don't remember when, but I must have. I even almost know the name of this place."
"Phobiopolis," Skeeto supplied. "Our village is called Scarlatina. It's nice."
The first name felt incredibly familiar, though the second one not at all. 'If I keep up this pace, I'll know who I am by dinnertime,' he thought, trying to find a silver lining.
"So you got amnesia'd after you showed up here, huh? Fascinating." Skeeto stroked his chin thoughtfully.
The mouse chuckled at the kid's studious face.
"We gotta call you something."
He shrugged. "One thing I definitely don't know is my name. I keep trying and it's blocked. In my mind it looks like an eraser mark."
Skeeto studied the other boy closely. "Your eyes are pink. How 'bout Coral?"
"That's not really a name, son," Tak said.
"Is 'Skeeto'?" the boy counterargued, crossing his arms.
Tak made a 'not bad' face. "Point."
The mouse let the word roll back and forth in his mind. It did not spark any recognition, so it definitely wasn't his original. But it had a nice sound regardless. "I like it."
Skeeto thrust his paw out for a shake. "Then pleased to meet you, Coral!"
The mouse hesitated a moment before taking it. He could see the skin flaking all over those fingers.
"Oh right, the Dry. We tried tellin' you about it before. It happens after a while 'cuz there's no water out here. Or maybe it's something in the air? Who knows! Anyways, it doesn't hurt. And you'll catch it eventually anyways."
The mouse did not like the sound of that. But... there were worse fates. He shook Skeeto's paw. "I guess we'll see. And I'm pleased to meet you too." As it turned out, the worst part of the handshake was expecting his own fingers to participate, then remembering they'd gone AWOL. He looked over to the father. "You too, Tak. Thanks for the lemonade. I've never had that kind before."
"It's plant juice," he said. "Made from one of the few things that'll grow here. And not very often, so it's a special treat. That's why I was so worried about you spilling it." He reached down for a handshake as well. "You ready to stand up again?"
Coral shook his head. "Probably not. But it isn't like I can spend the rest of my life sitting on my butt on a boat, right? And at least I'm prepared this time." Bracing himself for the view, he held onto Tak's webbed hand as the seal pulled him up. Coral looked out past the edge of the ship to the surrounding ocean.
He wobbled over to the edge and held tight to the railing. He wanted neither to fall in or puke. The sight of all those corpses was absolutely stomach-churning. But if he tried, he could make himself think of them as mere inanimate objects. 'They're piles of clothes, that's all.' He knew he couldn't keep up that lie very long, but hopefully his stomach would be ready for reality by then.
He looked around to the back of the boat. "You guys really do harvest them? Like fishing?"
"Absolutely," Tak said.
A really rancid thought came to mind. "You eat them too, don't you?"
Skeeto grinned with a young boy's boundless love of grossness. "AbsoLUTEly! Steaks and chops and ribs and hamburgers!" He licked his lips and rubbed his tummy.
Coral put a hand over his mouth.
Tak tried not to laugh. "Son, if he yakks all over the deck, you're on cleanup."
For the next few hours, Coral sat on the cooler and relaxed in the shade. It felt good to be out of the sun. All the while, Skeeto explained in endless detail about the fine art of body scavenging. Tak mostly lounged in his seat and occasionally flicked the steering rig to and fro. But the kitten was a ricocheting bullet. Back and forth, stem to stern, checking the ocean in all directions and working the crane whenever he spotted something interesting.
The main thing, he said, was to look for bodies without a mark. Villagers from Scarlatina had been sailing these 'waters' for generations. To ensure that fellow fishermen could tell a searched body from a fresh one, they always stamped a blue ink circle on the cheek. Aside from that, it was simply a matter of keeping an eye out for the good ones. Coral hesitated, but couldn't stop himself from asking what exactly constituted a 'good one'. Skeeto listed off a few dozen indicators that the deceased might be carrying valuable possessions. Jewelry was obvious. Ditto personal electronics, paperback books, and wallets. The villagers had all the clothing they could ever possibly need, but certain fabrics were useful for crafting. Leather goods were highly sought after. Likewise denim, corduroy, silk, and certain other types that could be unraveled for thread. But the biggest scores were always backpacks and purses. Any kind of bag that might have unusual items inside. Whenever someone found one of those, it was like landing a trophy marlin.
Coral sat listening in fascination. It made his brain wobble to hear something as gruesome as corpse-robbing described with such banality. 'I suppose a furson can get used to anything,' he thought. He made it clear he wasn't comfortable enough to help out yet, but Skeeto didn't mind. He was full of youthful industriousness, happy and proud to do everything by himself. Coral sat and watched in mixed revulsion/admiration for how skillfully the little cat could flop a corpse up on the deck, search every inch of it for treasure, then stamp it, lift it, and cast it back in. Catch and release. Coral asked about the pile of bodies they were keeping. Skeeto said those were ones with solid muscle tone that'd make for good eatin'. Coral thought he'd very likely be sticking to fruits and vegetables at dinner.
It seemed a foregone conclusion from their attitudes, but Coral still made sure to ask whether they were inviting him home for the night. Tak was surprised. Obviously the mouse was welcome. In fact, Tak was willing to let him stay on for the next few days until he regained his memory, or decided to find someone else in town to settle with. Coral was touched, and a little stunned. Tak's generosity was so immediate. No hesitation. Just, 'of course we'll help'. It almost made the mouse cry. He shook the seal's hand and thanked him again and again. He even leaned in for a hug, and did not cringe too much at the dandruff.
Tak remembered the mouse's germophobia and realized how much of an effort the hug had taken. He patted him on the head (noting how long it had been since he'd last felt living fur), and said that his house was now Coral's too.
"Maybe Skeeto will even end up with a new brother?"
The mouse was speechless. He looked across the deck at the busy kitten running back and forth between port and starboard. Coral realized something else about himself then. He'd never had a brother before. Or any kind of sibling. He wasn't even sure he'd had a father. When he searched into that feeling, the results were muddy. But one thing he did know, the idea of being gifted a brand new family felt wonderful. This time he hugged Tak without hesitation.
The Summer Vacation sailed on and on across the afterlife's strangest sea. Coral eventually got tired of sitting and pitched in with the work. Folding clothes and sorting through wallets wasn't too distasteful. And he found he could still grasp things allright with his mutilated hand by pinching bits between thumb and palm. He'd need further practice, but he was relieved to find he wasn't crippled completely. Actually, the hardest part turned out to be looking at the faces on all the ID cards and realizing that this furson was now just a pile of meat on the deck.
Tak reassured him about that. While no one in Scarlatina knew for certain, their best guess was that, as he'd said, these dead bodies had never actually been living. Phobiopolis seemed to create them. It was often speculated that whenever someone died on Earth, Phobiopolis would take a 'snapshot', and here they would appear. Coral felt a little better about that. The idea felt plausible. The longer he'd observed the bodies, the less real they seemed. Like big floppy theater props. The fact that they didn't stink of decomposition was a big factor. He thought that maybe, if he stayed here a while, he'd eventually get to a point where the sight of them would just be like looking at a deli window.
Skeeto began screaming bloody murder and Coral rushed to help him. But they were screams of excitement, not pain. Skeeto reeled in a plump, rich-looking female panda whose hands were wrapped around a pink leather purse. Plus she had earrings, a brooch, and a gold wedding band. Skeeto snatched up the purse and poured the contents out on the deck like he was dumping out Halloween candy. He gaped in elation at the plethora of cosmetics. A haul like this would have the village ladies banging on his door with cash in hand. And if he held onto the jewelry, he could trade it with that peddler who came 'round once a month with his cart. Skeeto whooped at his good fortune and ran circles around the boat, finally crashing into his father and asking him at a hundred words per second if he could sell it all himself or did it have to go into the family account. Tak smiled. "Hey, you've done all the work today. It's yours." Skeeto practically crawled up his shoulders showing his affection. Then he fired himself like a torpedo across the deck and pummeled Coral in a pile-driver of a hug. Coral found he was laughing just as hard.
They continued to scavenge a few hours more, but no prize they scored was as big as the ritzy panda. Skeeto found a guy whose fanny pack still had some trail mix in it and he offered to share. Coral turned a bit green at the idea. "More for me," the kitten said and chowed down. Skeeto also showed some interest when he came upon a woman's passport, but grunted in disappointment when it was from a country he already had. Local kids traded them like game cards, he explained.
Together they found several nice pairs of shoes, some hair accessories, several watches, a hearing aid, a cane, two novels, dozens of wallets, dozens of pens, dozens of phones, and piles upon piles of utterly useless money. Coral was surprised that Skeeto chucked most of the expensive-looking electronics overboard. "Just junk," the cat said. They'd sometimes save the very best ones for trading with outsiders, but most were useless. No signals out here to make them work after all, and no salvageable parts inside. Game systems were a different story though. They definitely kept those. And obviously, batteries were worth quintuple their weight in gold.
Coral was starting to think that Scarlatina was stuck in the dark ages. "No, we've got electricity," Skeeto said. There was more than enough wind along the coastline to power generators. And some of the houses' engines still worked. Coral was puzzled by that remark, but Skeeto said he'd see for himself when they got home.
Tak took the sunset's overture as his cue to head to port. He grinned in a 'Wait'll you get a load of this' way and told Coral to brace himself. The mouse leapt for one of the vinyl seats and held on. Good thing too, as the Summer Vacation, which had been crawling along at a pace no faster than brisk walking, suddenly took off like a hydroplane racer.
The electromagnet thrummed beneath their feet, sending a vibration through the deck that numbed Coral's toes right through his sandals. Tak steered them home by dead reckoning, smiling unconcernedly the whole time. He told Coral that, since the boat was hovering over the surface, there was almost no friction to slow them down. He could go even faster than this if he really had to. Coral assured him he didn't need a demonstration. He also asked if it was safe for Skeeto to be climbing up on the crane arm to lean out and let the wind blow his lips back. Tak acknowledged the danger, but said that even if the kitten fell, he'd die too quickly to feel any pain. Coral was absolutely horrified by the callousness of that until Tak reminded him of earlier, the whole 'hook through the throat' routine. Coral calmed down again as he remembered this place's rule of impermanent death. That was one more thing to add to his list of clues. If he still feared death in a place like this, he hadn't been around for long.
At their thunderous pace, Coral soon spotted a megalithic orange tidal wave on the horizon. It was a sheer cliff of ruddy rock, a hundred feet high or more. It stretched out in both directions, far past the limits of his vision. As the boat drew closer, Coral could make out structures built all up and down the cliff's face. When they were finally close enough for details, Tak slowed their craft to a nice, easy crawl to give Coral plenty of time to take it all in.
It was a sight that should have been straight out of a horror film, yet it wasn't. A vertical city made of cars and clothes and bone. Dozens upon dozens of wrecked camper vans, panel trucks, buses, trailers, and other large conveyances were all stacked up like building blocks. And people were living in them! While most of the city's visible activity was happening below on the beach, Coral could see all sorts of things going on up above. Kids sat in doorways with their legs dangling down. Women leaned out of windows to hold conversations with the next 'apartment' over. Ladders were everywhere. People were shinnying up and down them like flies on a wall. There were elevators too, kept in constant motion by pulleys made from buckled-together belts. At the base of the city were innumerable tents and other portable structures. Skins of clothing and twine stretched across structures of metal and bone. Femurs were the most common, but there were plenty of fibulas, tibias, humeruses, ribs, even skulls. The bustling villagers were all as bald as naked mole rats, but also dressed in whatever they felt suited them best. Vivid personal expression was the norm here. Coral specifically noted a lot of decorated piercings, with strings, feathers or ribbons running through them. This seemed to indicate status, or maybe profession. Until now it hadn't clicked, but both Tak and Skeeto had them too.
Despite his lack of concrete memories, Coral felt sure that this was one of the most colorful places he'd ever seen. It was like a redneck Shangri-La mixed with La Dia De Los Muertos. Absolutely amazing.
When he turned to ask about some of the things he was seeing, Tak and Skeeto were busy loading the day's loot into mesh nets and laundry bags (though Skeeto secreted the purse deep inside his backpack, and swore Coral to secrecy about it). Coral avoided touching the actual bodies, but he did help with packing in the clothing and other items.
They passed a harbor. Most of the other boats had also started life as something land-based. Lots more buses, a tanker truck, even an airplane fuselage. Coral read the names as they passed by. Beulah. Silver Sunshine. Studfinder. Kathy's Revenge. Wowgler's Hop. That last one made him giggle. Soon he and Skeeto were saying it repeatedly and snickering themselves insensible.
Tak pulled into the dock as smooth as butter. Several muscley fellows jumped on to unload cargo. Tak talked business with a fat guy in a fancy hat while Coral and Skeeto waited patiently. The fat hat guy paid in measured strips of velvet, then they both performed a secret tradesman's handshake. Tak slung some clothes and meat over his shoulder and called the boys to follow him.
Then it was off through the scurry of the city. The sights and smells were dizzying. Tak held Coral's paw to prevent him getting lost, which he knew might be easy. They passed through an open-air market where everyone was shouting and walking barefoot through the sand. Food carts zoomed to and fro with people weaving out of the way. Most of what was being sold was clothes and jewelry, but Coral saw all sorts of other stuff that had been harvested from pockets. Plus things that definitely hadn't been. Strange vegetables were on display. Potted plants and pets. Squiggly things that meeped and howled. Art, too. Sculptures and paintings, gorgeous and shocking. Coral wondered if the merchants had to pack everything in whenever it started raining, but immediately felt foolish about that idea. The speckled, shingled skin of all the residents testified to the unlikeliness of any shift in the weather. Coral wondered if everyone in town was constantly thirsty, or if they just stopped caring after a while.
They hadn't traveled far before Tak directed them to an elevator. Coral was hesitant. The open platforms traveled slowly up and down the side of the cliff like a vertical ski lift. Coral asked if they were safe. Tak said they were called paternosters, and gestured to a man and woman getting on the same platform nearby, with all five of their children accompanying. That looked sturdy enough.
Still, the ride was rickety and heart-stopping. Coral couldn't bear to look down as they ascended. He instead looked at the derelict vehicles they passed, all converted into homes. Brittle ivy twined around door handles and side view mirrors. Many of the vans were painted with murals. And the cliff itself was colorful, its rock as orange as a carrot smoothie. Even craning his neck, Coral couldn't see the edge where it turned into darkening sky.
The elevator was similar to an escalator, in that it never actually stopped moving. Everyone had to hop off quickly when their tier came close. Tak held onto Coral's vest just in case. Alongside the vehicles were narrow walkways made of bare boards sticking out like straws. Skeeto raced across them fearlessly. Coral chose his steps with care, worrying about stumbling, falling, and splinters.
Finally they reached a brown-striped RV that Skeeto proudly introduced before bounding inside. Coral was a bit concerned about how much sleeping space he'd have, but this worry vanished as he realized that each vehicle was only the entrance. The RV hid a hollowed-out cave carved into the cliff. He gawked as he stepped through. It wasn't the most spacious apartment, but it was immediately cozy. Like a bunny burrow in a storybook. Soft rugs covered the floor, repurposed from sweaters and winter coats. Bookshelves, photos, scattered toys. Light from salt lamps provided a calming glow.
"HOME, MOM!!!" Skeeto blared.
Into the livingroom emerged a slender fennec. Furless as anyone else, but her ears were unmistakable. Her paws were dirty like she'd just been gardening or working with clay. She wiped them on her shirt. "So, what've my two fearless necronauts brought home to me this evening?"
Skeeto rammed into her in a hug, then pointed out Coral. "I caught a mouse!" he declared with pride.
Coral waved shyly. "Hi, ma'am."
"One of your school friends, or-" She stopped. "No. He's still got his fur... Wait! Did you actually-!?"
Tak nodded and patted Skeeto's head. "Eagle-eyes here spotted him laying right out in the open with the other deaddies, or so we thought. He doesn't know who he is or how he got here, so I was thinking we could put him up for a few nights till he's back on his feet."
The fennec looked at Coral with such intense concern it almost stung. She opened her arms. "Come here, sweetheart. Come here."
The mouse crossed the room in mild disbelief. Something about this felt nigh-impossible. Skeeto stepped aside to let him take his place for a hug.
Coral tucked his face against the fennec's muddy blouse and felt warm arms surround him.
"That must have been terrifying for you," she said.
"And you're so thin! Barely more than skin and bone. We'll have to get some food in you, won't we? And what's these lines around your eyes?" She tried to rub them away but the pink marks seemed to be burned in.
"Don't overwhelm him, mom," Skeeto kidded.
She patted between Coral's ears. "Sorry. Instincts. I'm Kat, by the way."
Coral glanced at Tak.
"Yup. Spelled the same, but reversed," he confirmed. "We named each other for the ceremony."
Coral wasn't sure what ceremony he meant, but context implied a marriage of some sort.
"You really don't know your own name?" Kat asked. She checked the boy's vest in search of a tag. "I see a double KB here, but that might be a brand."
"Skeeto's been calling me Coral," he shrugged. "I'm fine with that for now."
She smiled and brushed his face. "Because of your eyes, I bet. They're very beautiful."
There was something about that small touch, her fingers soft against his cheek. An overwhelming wave of emotion crashed into the small mouse. He suddenly grabbed hold of the gentle fennec and began to cry intensely. He tucked his head down and pressed close to her. Chest-wracking sobs came from within him, all perfectly silent.
"I... I'm sorry! Did I say something wrong?" she asked.
He shook his head, trying to convey that he didn't know why he was feeling this way. But it wasn't a bad feeling, not at all. This was a heartquake caused by regaining something he had no idea he'd ever lost. Something so precious it seemed impossible he could ever attain it again. This was grief for having never truly known this moment before, and joy at finally being here now.
A simple, caring touch. To be held while he cried.
Was there any better feeling in all the world?
Dinner that night was delicious. Coral didn't ask a single question about where or who it had come from. He ate everything that was put in front of him heartily and with gratitude. He literally couldn't remember the last time he'd had a meal this good.
Skeeto talked the whole time, often with his mouth full. Quick to answer any question his new friend could ask, and just as quick to supply bonus information. Kat and Tak filled in whatever they could as well. The more Coral learned, the more he kept track of what felt familiar, what didn't, and what emotions sparked within him. Even if his name and history were still out of reach, he was discovering a lot about what kind of furson he was at his core.
After everyone was nicely full and the dishes were cleaned up, Skeeto showed Coral a game system and they took turns annihilating enemy seafoods till moonbeams crept down through their windows. Kat suggested that maybe the boys should get to bed eventually. 'Eventually' was mom code for 'ASAP'. She let them have one more cookie each, then lights out. Skeeto offered to share his toothbrush with Coral. Coral paled and just used his finger. Skeeto realized there was a lot of teasing potential with this new mouse.
Skeeto offered to share his bedroom as well, not wanting Coral to have to sleep alone on the couch. This, Coral was fine with. They pulled Skeeto's camping bed out from his closet: a squashy beanbag pouch that felt like sliding into a big soft mouth. Tak and Kat came in to say goodnight, and both pledged in the days ahead to help Coral regain his memory. But that was for tomorrow. For now, all they could do was wish him sweet dreams. That was plenty.
The small bedroom went dark. Skeeto wanted to whisper more about kids at school and favorite foods, but eventually, after four yawns in a row from Coral, he got the hint.
"How can you be tired? You slept all morning until we found you," he kidded.
Coral laughed, then thanked Skeeto again for saving him. He rolled over into the comforting squashiness of his bed.
He felt... whole. Like without even knowing what to search for, he had found it.
As sleep tugged insistently at his eyelids, he found himself thinking that, even if he never recovered the story of his past, maybe that wouldn't be so bad.
From then on, life was pretty darn terrific.
Coral fit right in at the Nacker household like a book on a shelf. Skeeto was in a constant state of excitement at having a new friend to share all his favorite toys, jokes, and secrets with. And whenever the mouse wasn't helping out Tak on the boat, he was helping out Kat with her pottery. Adobe, she called it. It was messy, but Coral soon found himself enjoying the squishy feel between his fingers. Kat liked having a helper who was "quiet as a mouse". She taught him how to shape pots on the wheel. They'd decorate them together, then she'd rev up the RV's engine to power the firing kiln. Some days he'd accompany her to the market and help sell them.
One of the first things they all did together was enrolling Coral in school. The morning after his arrival, they all dressed nicely and headed to the fanciest dwelling in the village: the entrance was a semi trailer transformed into Greek columns. This was where Scarlatina's two oldest residents lived, a married pair who taught classes together. They introduced themselves as Carms and Cincurro (rather than Mr. and Mrs.. Coral began noticing a pattern of people going by their first names rather than family names). The two teachers were covered in so many rings and ribbons they looked like punk pinatas. One was lean, the other plump, and both were pretty wrinkly. Still, their eyes were blazingly alert. Coral felt like he was being scanned with lasers as they inspected him.
Carms and Cincurro inspected every inch of the amnesiac albino mouse. They asked a lot of questions which Coral couldn't provide answers to. They were puzzled by his eye-lines and missing fingers and especially by the illuminated slit in his palm. They'd never seen anything like it before. Mr. Carms poked inside with a sterilized instrument and said there was some kind of mass in there. But no amount of probing could get it out, and Coral was wincing in pain the entire time. Mrs. Cincurro soothed him by petting his ears.
Coral asked if everyone in Scarlatina had woken up in the body sea. It wasn't unheard of, he was told, but most new residents came in via the cliffs. The village was isolated from the rest of Phobiopolis geographically, and hardly anyone else knew it existed. This meant Scarlatins had to be largely self-reliant. Though it also meant they rarely had to deal with nightmare constructs wandering in. "This is likely the safest, most relaxing place in all the land," he was told. He was glad to hear it.
In the end, the two teachers could come to no conclusions about Coral's identity. Though he seemed like a nice young lad and they could see no reason not to let him stay. Coral hadn't realized he'd been taking a citizenship test, but was happy he'd passed.
He started school that same day. As Skeeto explained, most of the people in town who looked like kids weren't really kids, Phobiopolis just made 'em that way. All the kid-kids had to go to school. It took place in a cave (natch) whose front entrance was a car carrier. Kids scampered all over it like a playground until the bell rang. Coral asked Skeeto, if the town was so isolated, where had all the vehicles come from? The kitten shrugged. They were just sorta there when the first settlers arrived, all piled up in a junky heap.
Class structure was interesting. Everyone started out in a big, colorful room together where the teachers took roll call, then played exercise games. After, the kids split up by gender into separate rooms: boys with Carms, girls with Cincurro. Coral was pretty sure he'd never been in a school like this before. He was also glad that neither teacher called on him much that first day, giving him time to observe on his own how everything worked. He was having enough pressure just being the focus of everyone's attention. New kids always got scrutinized. Especially when they still had fur. All day he kept feeling paws sneaking up to touch it. Coral realized pretty quickly he had not used to be a furson well-versed in social skills. The other kids asked him endless questions and he tried to reply as politely and succinctly as he could. At least no one was actively bullying him. The only animosity came from a boy named Palo. On either side of the gender divide, there was one boy and one girl who went to the opposite classroom when the students split up, since it fit their learning style better. These two were fawned over by both groups. Palo was the girls' darling and Viv was the boys' mascot. Now all the girls were 'ooooh'ing at the new kid, and Palo was a bit steamed to be usurped. Coral tried to convey he hadn't meant to topple any status quos.
Compared to dealing with his classmates' constant perusal, schoolwork was pretty easy. All the expected subjects came up: math, science, spelling, music, art. Mr. Carms didn't care if the boys fidgeted, drew, chewed gum or even listened to headphones during his class, so long as they got their work done. He also made games and competitions out of a lot of things. Coral didn't handle the pressure well, tending to be correct more often than he was quick. (He began to wonder if he'd do better on the girls' side. But thought Palo would really hate him then.) Everyone ran around in the gym for a while before lunch to build up an appetite. Coral had been worried about the food, but Skeeto guided him through what everything was. Coral had a hot dog and wondered if it had originally come from Tak and Skeeto's boat. At recess, Coral wanted to just sit and people-watch, but everyone else preferred to watch him. They were all feeling him out, trying to decide where he fit in the hierarchy. Skeeto gained some status just for discovering him.
Afterwards, everyone of both genders rejoined in the bigger classroom for the second half of the day. Coral whispered to Skeeto, asking what the homework load would be like. Skeeto replied that C&C almost never assigned any. "Carms says it's barbarism." Definitely a relief. There was a bit more classwork, then the teachers put on an impromptu lesson about Scarlatina's history and culture. Coral could tell it was for his benefit, but was glad they hadn't explicitly said so. When the bell rang, they asked Coral to stay behind. He wasn't in trouble, they said. They only wanted to know what his first day had been like and what he hoped to learn more about over the school year. It was like a customer satisfaction survey. The mouse had no idea how long he'd be staying, but he found himself not minding the idea of spending a few semesters with two such involved and attentive teachers. And when they let him go for the day, Skeeto was waiting right outside, practically bouncing in anticipation of introducing Coral to his favorite sport.
Swiff, it turned out, involved discs, hoops, and a lot of running. Coral didn't end up being too terrible at it. He discovered he was pretty fast on his feet and had decent aim. The game took place high atop the cliff. The elevator ride was nerve-wracking, but the view was magnificent. Up here were a few small houses, but most of the area was a vast grassy prairie. Kids were kicking balls and running and dancing and riding bikes and even hang-gliding. Coral was wowed. Skeeto rounded up some other kids from class for a game. Coral got to meet Skeeto's friends, Sail and Denny, plus Viv, who proudly wore the label of tomboy.
It turned out he liked playing swiff, and he liked that he wasn't laughed at too much for not knowing what he was doing at first. Although the longer he spent playing in the open air, the more a concern began to rise in him. He asked Skeeto, "Don't you have to check in at home first?" Skeeto gave him a blank look, like that was an unknown concept. Coral shrugged it off, but inside he was dumbstruck. This level of freedom seemed almost... blasphemous. He thought the creeping feeling inside him was akin to being watched. It wasn't until later when he realized that wasn't quite right: it was the lack of being watched. He expected it. Almost needed it. This particular reveal gave him a lot to think about. Maybe he had been a prisoner at one time. It'd be one possible explanation for why he felt the need to ask permission for every decision.
Over the next few days he spent quite a lot of time indoors. He wanted to comfort his nervousness until he was ready to confront it. He got to know Tak and Kat quite well. He paid close attention in school. Of course, Skeeto was unknowingly helping him get over his problem via constant badgering to come outside and have fun. If he'd been left to choose, Coral probably would have just sat by himself, methodically reading every book in the house. But, despite a little groan of resistance every time Skeeto dragged him out into the light, he always ended up enjoying himself once he was there.
Though, he did find plenty of time for reading. Sometimes he even stayed up past his bedtime, sneaking out to the livingroom for moonlight to illuminate the pages. Carms and Cincurro were surprised when they'd first put a flash card in front of the mouse and he'd read the phrases off it with only minor difficulty. This indicated he'd likely been a proficient reader in his old life, and had been in Phobiopolis long enough to overcome the realm's automatic-onset dyslexia. The mere thought of illiteracy horrified Coral so much he doubled his reading efforts.
On the weekends, he'd join Tak and Skeeto out on the Summer Vacation. Acclimating to the ocean of bodies took less time than expected. He guessed it had a lot to do with Scarlatina itself. Any remaining disgust was outweighed by the town's sheer welcoming warmth. Soon he was rooting through pockets and stripping off pants with as little care as unloading groceries. And with two lookouts now, Skeeto no longer had to dart back and forth across the deck. They could both take a side and scan the 'waters'. The most irritating part was reeling in a good prospect and realizing it already had a blue mark. Tak reassured Coral it happened to everyone. The mouse persevered in developing a good eye, and felt proud the first time he spotted a leather coat: good for making chairs and other furniture. Coral liked feeling that he was helping to give back to a family that had showed him so much generosity. Same for when he helped Kat with her pots.
The caring fennec hovered over him rather a lot in regards to his fingerless hand. She'd ask again and again, "Do you need any help with that? Are you sure?" Knowing she cared so much was nice, but it did get a little irritating telling her 'no' so many times. He preferred to practice muddling through on his own, discovering just how much his abbreviated stubs could still do. And his left hand was already gaining dexterity in compensation. Coral challenged himself by checking a beginner's origami book out of the school library. It took a week, but he got all the way through (even that damned pagoda!).
Nevertheless, one day Kat brought home a gift for him, something she'd had custom-made. He opened the beautifully-wrapped box to find a sturdy glove with prosthetic fingers. Coral was awestruck by her thoughtfulness. He slipped it on and for a moment, it felt like he had a normal hand again. Unfortunately, that was the extent of its usefulness. The new fingertips had no feeling in them, so they were hard to control. He couldn't catch a swiff disc even when Skeeto threw it from four feet away. Plus, it made his hand even more noticeable. Kids pointed at it during class. Still, Coral did his best to practice with it as hard as he could whenever Kat was watching. She saw how much he struggled though. She noticed the many times he'd get frustrated with some delicate task, snarl and pull the glove off, then make do with his stumps. And so, when Coral came home from visiting Sail's house one day, Kat said the glove had gone missing. She'd been cleaning, she said. It must have gotten thrown away by accident. They never said a word about it more, but Coral showed his gratitude for her understanding in any unspoken way he could.
Another day, Coral finally deduced the meaning of the decorated piercings nearly everyone wore. He'd spotted strings, yarn, and feathers, but the most popular choice was ribbons. Tak and Kat both had them, threaded through their rings every day. Skeeto had a green one that he wore around his wrist whenever he remembered to. No one scolded him if he forgot, Coral noticed. This suggested they weren't 100% mandatory. Good news, as he'd begun to wonder what everyone else thought of him for not having any. He also observed that the piercings themselves weren't the important part; merely a convenient way to display the decorations. Placement was likewise arbitrary. Coral saw people wearing trimmings on all parts of their bodies. A lot of girls at school wore them on the back of their heads, dangling down like a ponytail. Some boys had short ones over one eyebrow, or lengthwise along their upper arms. And there were so many variations in color, personal style made a better explanation than any kind of social status. The only thing consistent about the decorations was that everyone had them. Eventually it dawned on Coral that all his classmates had a single ribbon, while their parents had more. Yet some of the people in the market also had just one. That thought led to the true solution. The ribbons had nothing to do with rank or age: they indicated how long someone had lived in Scarlatina. Eureka! When Coral asked about his hypothesis at the dinner table that night, Kat and Tak told him he'd gotten it exactly right (and that it was tradition to let newcomers puzzle it out for themselves). Each ribbon indicated one decade spent in the community. Coral thought about the incredible number of ribbons his teachers wore and his mind was blown. Tak said they'd be happy to take him to get his own if he wanted one. That took him by surprise.
He lay in bed that night and deliberated it. Until then, he hadn't been completely sure how long he'd be staying in Scarlatina. He'd always assumed that, once his memory returned, he'd say his goodbyes and go. But the longer he stayed, the more cozily this cliffside village hugged him. This was as close to paradise as he ever could have wanted. He had a home here, a real one. Even if he did recover his past someday, what could he have possibly left behind that could ever make him want to leave?
The next day, after school, the Nacker family took him to a shop full of colors and incense. After careful consideration, Coral picked his own ribbon: simple yellow, to match the stripes on his vest. He flinched when the piercings went into his arm, but when the Decoration Man threaded the ribbon through and held the mirror up to show him, the small mouse felt an incredible surge of happiness pour through him. He belonged now. This community had accepted him, and he had accepted them.
And yes, his fur fell out. He'd gotten used to the idea by then. Though for a while it seemed like he might escape this fate. He was fully-furred for almost a week. Then one morning he looked in the mirror and saw a bit more pink than white. Two days later he was as bald as an orange. His response was, "Oh well." For all he'd gained so far, it was a worthwhile tradeoff. Curiously, he never seemed to gain his weight back either, no matter how much Kat fed him. She'd shovel treats into him by the bushel, and still he looked like a scarecrow.
One afternoon when the wind was just right, Skeeto came to Coral in especially high spirits. He had a surprise. From his closet he pulled what looked like a giant umbrella. They carried it together to the top of the cliff. Skeeto unfurled the cardinal-red diamond of fabric, shouting, "It's a hang-glider! I got it for my birthday present last year!" The kitten handwaved Coral's expression of dread, saying he'd love it once he tried it. As they dragged it over to where some other cubs were setting up theirs, Coral weighed his worries. There really wasn't anything to fear, right? At worst he could fall and die. He'd be fine afterwards. 'Except you'd also probably break Skeeto's birthday present.' He definitely didn't want to do that. He said he'd watch while Skeeto tried it first. Skeeto said that was the plan anyway. "It's always scary the first time!" Coral was glad to hear him acknowledge that.
Skeeto strapped in, checked the wind, then went darting towards the cliff edge. Coral's few remaining hairs stood on end as the kitten dropped out of sight. But then he reappeared, soaring across the village below, whooping in joy and streaking towards the sun. Coral just gawked as he watched his brother dance on nothing. Plenty of other kids were swooping around on giant kites too. Coral felt a rumbling fear in his stomach, but also a shiver of jealousy.
Unfortunately, Diver was nearby. Diver was another boy in class. A puma with just enough remaining fur on his tail to make him the envy of everyone else. "King shit of turd mountain," as Skeeto once said. He was more arrogant than aggressive, but he was the closest thing to a bully Coral had dealt with so far. Diver was flanked by a posse of admirers as he carried his own glider to the edge. "What's up, Pinkeye? Too afraid of heights to try it yourself?"
It startled Coral more than anything else, as his attention had been wholly skyward. His little jump amused the other kids. Their laughter made his cheeks burn. "I'm just waiting my turn, that's all."
"Surrrre!" Diver said. "You can watch me if you want, since I know watching's all you're gonna do today."
An insane idea struck Coral. He had no idea where it had come from, but he knew he had to act on it right now or never. "Hey, get it straight about me!" he piped up.
Diver was surprised by the sudden change in the mouse's tone.
"I'm afraid of germs, not heights," Coral said. Then he ran straight towards the cliff. He turned back just long enough for a casual smile before traipsing over the edge.
He immediately regretted it. The wind pummeled his body and popped his ears. But watching the puma's eyes bug out had been worth it. Now all he had to worry about was death. He twisted around, weightless, and realized he had another problem. He was falling straight towards the market. If he splattered into someone's stall, he'd wreck all their merchandise and they'd be royally pissed. So, in the space of a few seconds, he taught himself how to swim through air, aiming for empty ground. Just before impact he screamed, "EXCUSE ME!!!"
Blackness for a moment. Then someone was pulling him to his feet. A crowd had gathered, looking concerned. Thankfully his corpse pulled itself back to life, rather than leaving a bloody mess behind. And he hadn't hit anything! Success! Coral nodded thanks to the furson who'd helped him, then told the onlookers, "I slipped." He darted for the elevators before anyone could could start asking questions.
When he neared the top of the cliff again, he wasn't sure what the reception would be, though it should have been obvious. Skeeto barreled into him with laughter and back-pats for doing something so nuts. Other kids tossed in compliments as well. Base jumping into solid ground was the sort of thing everybody knew they could survive, but very few were bold enough to try. Even Diver, to his credit, walked up and shook Coral's hand. "Not bad." Coral smiled broadly and acknowledged his sportsmanship. Then another kid asked the puma if he was going to live up to his name and follow the mouse's example. Diver froze for an instant, then regained his composure and said that if two kids in a row fell off, the grownups would know it was on purpose and he'd get in trouble. But he'd totally do it next time, he promised, totally.
Skeeto offered the hang-glider to Coral and gave him some pointers. When the mouse took off, it was without hesitation.
Glorious. He was born for this. Coral's heart thudded in his chest, much more from exhilaration than terror. He loved how responsive the little glider was. And fast! Tak had known his son well enough to prioritize speed when he'd picked it out. Coral surfed the air currents, feeling like he was held aloft by pure will alone. He had no idea where this surge of confidence had come from, and hardly cared. All his weeks of detective work into his old life had led nowhere. Clues aplenty, but nothing solid. Coral had gained only a silhouette of his old personality. All he knew was that he had once had been messed-up, fearful, and lonely. And yet, there must have been something else within him to generate the sheer chutzpah of that cliff jump.
When he came in for a landing and actually managed to stay on his feet, Skeeto was exploding with congratulations. And a new thought came to the mouse. Maybe his confidence hadn't come from his old life at all. Maybe it had come from Coral.
Though, there was something else making him lean further and further towards letting his old self remain forgotten. It was the dreams. He hadn't told his family about them. He didn't want anyone to worry. But more nights than not, he'd wake up in the dark, petrified with fear or clenched tight sobbing. He had dreamed about some horrible slimy spider eating him alive. He'd dreamed about burning to death, then being trapped in a car as it drove over a waterfall. In his waking life he knew death was impermanent, but his dream-self didn't. His dream-self felt such crushingly-intense terror, it was like being electrocuted from the inside out. This fear was 100% uncontrollable. The only recourse was to run from it and wake up. And there were other dreams too. Vague ones that disappeared as soon as his eyes opened, leaving him with mists of people and places that made him feel other emotions just as intense as the fear. All painful. One morning he'd woken up muttering someone's name, but forgot it the instant he was aware he was doing so. Another time he'd been certain he knew what the slit in his palm was for. But that faded too. No matter how hard he tried, he could not take anything from his dreams. They were locked behind the gate of his subconscious.
And Coral grew to resent them. If the frightening, sorrowful images would not come to him fully, then he wished they'd just give up and go away. All they did was cause him suffering. Whatever his old life had been, he was sure by now it was something miserable and ugly. He didn't want it back. He wanted to just bag it up and throw it out with the trash. Or watch it burn in Kat's kiln. He wanted to just be here, now, in Scarlatina. Not the bleak, foggy outback his dreams kept dragging him to.
Eventually he built up the courage to ask his new parents for medicine to help him sleep without dreaming. They had a long talk. Finally, they agreed. A teaspoon at night helped him coast to morning on pleasant nothingness.
One day he checked the calendar and realized he'd arrived in Scarlatina one month ago. Tak and Kat took him to an anniversary dinner at a nice restaurant. It was right at the top of the cliff, overlooking the sunset. Coral and Skeeto shared a big cake and went home stuffed.
His grades at school were exemplary. He was getting along better with his classmates, and his 'newness' was wearing off. They were starting to treat him like just another kid. He was getting pretty good at swiff, too. One night he and Skeeto camped out atop the cliff along with Denny and Sail, unsupervised all night long. A girl in class, Oasis, seemed like she might have had a crush on him, and he was working up the courage to ask the little squirrel directly. At home he could hold a pottery brush as steady as Kat, and she was teaching him how to cook. On the boat, his body-spotting skills were getting nearly as good as Skeeto's. One time he'd found a backpack. Tak helped him sell its contents, and in the market he bought a sack of candy and a velcro swiff mitt. Tak and Kat bought him his very own bed. And one night, when he forgot to take his medicine, he remembered his dreams in the morning. They were perfectly normal now.
Today was Tuesday. School had just ended. Coral had aced a spelling test, banged his elbow in gym, eaten ravioli at lunch, and Oasis had passed a secret note to him during class. All in all, a decent balance. He and Skeeto wove through the market on their way home, when out of nowhere the kitten started fidgeting in excitement like he'd been dipped in itching powder. Coral asked what it was about and Skeeto simply grabbed his hand and yanked him along. "We only get to see him once a month!" the kitten yelled. "He only looks like a monster, but he’s really cool! Though pretty tough on his prices, so watch out!" Ever since finding the purse, Skeeto had been counting the days. Last time the peddler had been in town there'd been a remote-controlled spy eye copter in his cart. If it was still there, Skeeto was determined to have it. "Just think about how much that could help on the boat! And we could spy on the girls' class too!!"
Skeeto led Coral to where a monstrosity of a man was selling items from a trapezoidal cart. Both were swamped by Scarlatin citizens. They all waved items they wanted appraised for trade. Coral thought the merchant looked like a cross between a caiman, a coat rack, and a centipede. Nightmarish, but it was hard to be completely afraid of a guy in such a goofy shirt.
Skeeto squirmed his way past the crowd and started rifling through the cart for his treasure. The merchant turned to look, and was startled when he laid eyes on Coral.
"Oho, if this isn't a pleasant surprise! I didn't expect to meet you here, or ever again for that matter. You're looking quite different these days, Toby, though I recognized your smell."
The mouse froze, shattered, clenched, and stared. All things ceased to exist. A bomb had just gone off in his head at the sound of his own true name.
Dream IV: Lost Alone
The world is a vampire.
-Smashing Pumpkins, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
The people who'd gathered around the cart now had something else to gawk at. The newcomer mouse seemed to have contracted late-stage rabies in the space of a heartbeat. He was on his hands and knees, breathing so hard, the exhales were shrieks. His eyes were blank with horror. He stared through the sand as the visions swirled in his head.
Skeeto dropped the spy eye and rushed to his brother's side. He shook Coral's shoulders. "Stop it! What's wrong!? Snap out of it!!"
Mindless groans poured from the mouse's mouth. He began drooling. A nutcracker had split his skull, letting his brains slosh out like runny eggs. He was seeing things. Impossibly horrific things. Worse than all his dreams.
Skeeto shook harder. "Please, Coral!! You're scaring me!"
The mouse could not hear him. Engine roars and death rattles filled his ears. Sounds of tearing metal, falling glass, dripping water, and screams.
The crowd began to back away, fearing this was something contagious. Skeeto stuck by Coral's side. L'roon leaned in closer.
From a pushup position, the mouse suddenly launched himself straight up to clutch handfuls of the merchant's shirt. His eyes were high beam headlights. "SAY THAT NAME AGAIN!!! SAY IT!!!"
L'roon was so startled he spilled sunflower seeds all over his shirt. "T-toby?"
"AGAIN! THE FULL NAME!!" he screeched.
"...Toby deLeon, if I am correctly remembering."
The mouse's head lolled bonelessly, his glassy eyes stared off into space. Behind them his mind buzzed like an overclocked computer. Image. Sound. Pain. Taste. Words. Voices. And the memories weren't just replaying themselves, he was reliving them. Half the intensity, but triple the speed. The visions were running backwards, each one touching off the others like a series of fuses. Each effect led to its cause. The mountain, the nightmare, the maze, the swamp, the desert, the shack, the forest. On and on and on. The memories were brutally intrusive, feeling like a demon was ripping up the floorboards of his mind and leaving the empty nail holes to bleed.
Yet as much as it hurt, he needed more. Nothing was worse than finally understanding the true scope of how much he was missing.
He pulled his face towards the reptilian snout again. "I was traveling with people! I need to know them again!! Who were they!? NAMES!!"
L'roon could only guess what kind of hurricane was blowing inside the rodent's mind, but he did not waste time placing a price on the information. "I remember George best. George Charles Atkinson: a bonecuddy loyal to you. And then there was Junella Brox and Zinc. Piffle also, but please don't press me to recall her full title. She had with her a doll named Doll-"
"HER NAME'S NOT DOLL!!!" Toby shrieked, rending his vocal chords. The words had leapt from the deepest primal part of him where bullets ricocheted and fires raged.
L'roon's head jerked back at the sheer force of the outburst. But he understood quickly that he had not been its target.
Toby slumped against the merchant's chest. His left hand dragged down L'roon's shirt till it snagged on a button and hung there limply. His frenzy had drained him dry.
Her name was not Doll.
It had never been Doll.
And even though he lacked the true word for what she was, he had the memory back. The things she had done in that bare room with the silver door. All his friends, one by one. That black tongue of hers with the emerald tip. He didn't know if her venom had taken his memories away, or if the trauma of her betrayal was so immense, his mind had simply fled into blankness. He didn't think he'd ever know. But he could see her now. That square hole with the wiggling fringe around the edge. A pure monster. A nightmare beyond anything Phobiopolis could dream up.
The images were not all there yet. Merely impressions, feelings, instants. But clarity would come with time. The memories wanted back in. Furious that they had been abandoned.
As Toby's eyes refocused, he saw a kitten perched across from him with a green ribbon on his wrist. The memories of the past month rippled for a moment, nearly overwhelmed and devoured by the rest, but managed to remain. He finally realized, when he'd jumped up to beg names from the merchant, he'd knocked Skeeto to the dirt.
Toby shoved his brainquake to the side and ran to his brother. "Skeeto!! I'm so sorry! I didn't even realize what I was doing! Are you okay?"
The kitten looked shocked, even fearful, but also eager to forgive. "Coral... your nose is bleeding."
He touched his fingers to his upper lip. They came back red.
"What happened to you?" Skeeto whimpered.
The mouse wiped his nose on the back of his hand, then helped the cat to his feet. "...It came back."
For a moment, the kitten's pale face showed confusion. Then, anguish. The thing he'd feared most had come true. His brother had remembered, and that meant his brother was going to go away.
Still, he tried to force a smile onto his face. He hugged Coral tight. "That's good," he said, muffled by the mouse's vest.
Toby rested his paw on the back of his brother's head. "No. Not really," he said hollowly. "But it happened, and I can't put it back in the box now."
The kitten hugged him tighter and began to cry.
Toby looked past his shoulder and felt a fathomless cavern of ice inside him. Scarlatina. He had built a life here. He didn't want it to end either.
L'roon was shrewd enough to have put it all together. "Something erased you, boy, didn't it?"
Toby looked past Skeeto's shoulder at him. He nodded.
"The doll was not what she seemed?"
Another nod, cold hatred in his eyes.
L'roon put a hand to his forehead. "I wish I could say I sensed it when I met her, but I'd be lying. I am assuming more questions will soon be directed at me?"
A third nod. Vigorously.
The crowd began to lose interest. The freakshow was over. It had become something uncomfortably sad. So they shied away, turning back to whatever commodities they'd been planning to buy or sell from the peddler.
"I can see you're busy. Mister..." Toby drew a blank.
"L'roon. And yes, commerce calls. But wait for me. I'll finish up here and fill in whatever I can. If my negligence caused you to suffer somehow, I owe you that at least."
"L'roon", Toby repeated, and the name brought back details of the cart, the amulet, and the blue soap desert. "Thank you."
"I can offer a bit of solace for free," the construct added. "I've seen conditions like yours before, and names are always the hardest part. We rarely forget anything completely. Our minds just sort of... de-emphasize. The train moves to new tracks, but the old ones remain. Even if they may, for a time, be inaccessible."
Toby closed his eyes and felt them burn. He was grateful for those words. He had a fraction of himself back, sketches of events, but there was still a massive dark whirlpool where the rest should have been. He'd need to backtrack. Let each memory lead to the ones that had come before it. Like Theseus tracing string in the Labyrinth.
Toby felt the warmth in his arms of a small, sobbing kitten.
He saw in his mind the face that was not a face. The thing that had called itself Doll.
He could not remember her true name, but he damned her thieving heart for stealing away the people he loved. 'Twice, actually,' he realized. First his traveling family, in the room with the silver door. And now, here in the middle of the marketplace, he felt his ties to his new family sever. He had been fooling himself to think that nothing in his memories could take him away from Scarlatina.
He touched his forehead to Skeeto's. "Hey," he said softly. "I'm just gonna go sit by the docks for a while. Get my head straight. It's kinda messed up right now. You go on and buy that thing you wanted from L'roon, okay? Don't worry about me. I'm fine," he lied.
Skeeto broke away from the hug and roughly wiped his eyes on his t-shirt sleeve. He sniffed. "'Kay. But..." He looked down at the sand. He mumbled something.
Coral leaned in closer. "What was that?"
"You're someone different now, aren't you? You're who you used to be."
Toby smiled lopsidedly. "Yeah. But we can still be brothers." He did not add, 'until I go', because they both already knew.
Skeeto took a deep breath, trying to be brave. He turned away from Coral and squirmed his way back through the mob of people who'd crowded the cart again.
Toby took a step back, watching the kitten go. His heart felt like someone had blasted a hole through it. The pain was acute, almost cold. He felt another flare of hate towards the faceless liar who'd done this to him, then turned in the opposite direction and ran. Hard. He pushed through the crowd, not listening to their protests. He kicked a cart out of his way. He shoved in between a young couple. He could barely see two steps in front of him.
He ran until he was out where the boats slept at night. Tied to the piers, all in a row, electromagnets powered down. Toby ran to the farthest end of the docks and skidded to a stop, not caring about splinters. He sat down hard enough to hurt. He unleashed a scream of pain. He didn't care if anyone turned to stare at him. He certainly didn't look back.
He put his head in his hands and looked out across the sea of death.
'I could have just stayed out there,' he thought. 'If Tak and Skeeto hadn't found me, I wouldn't be feeling this now.'
True but pointless. Tears came and his eyes unfocused. As he slid himself over to lean against a piling, the dreams of a frightened little mouse in blue came back. A mouse who'd been friends with a brassy skunk, a loving hamsterfly, an easygoing canine, a steadfast nightmare. And a traitor. More faces came as his memories rewound. A haunted wizard with a dozen bodies. A house with its own indomitable soul. An unspeakable evil in space. A lethal but strangely loyal porcupine. A rusty, gentle behemoth. A charismatic madman of a mayor. A screwy-eyed terrorist muskrat. Two minks who painted with cloth. A fox with a ruined face and a gorilla with none. A thug in a hoodie with blood on his chin. A deaf rabbit who killed with sound. A gregarious feathered inventor and his goggle-eyed son. An innkeeper split down the middle. A little green lizard running across the night. An arson-fueled grin atop a wheel. A mind-stealing horrorshow who cried wooden tears. A spider that was an octopus. A harbinger covered in mushrooms.
And furthest of all back, only a dim grey smudge, he saw a demented old woman who never stopped cleaning. A woman who had kept him chained to his bed for centuries, in a prison made of pills.
He supposed he had to thank the unholy vault of sadism between the mountain and the maze. It had taunted him with memories of his life before death. Now he remembered those images more clearly than the real ones. He might have lost them entirely if not for that.
The mouse let the world melt away down the drain, till all he saw and heard were the movies inside his head. He walked his whole, long, hard journey backwards. He knew there were details he might never get back, but the heart of each memory was there. Maybe not every leaf on every tree. But he remembered how each moment felt. How it had changed him. He watched himself age backwards into something selfish, helpless, and scared. A cowering little rodent who could only run and hide. He couldn't believe he'd ever really been that. A nasty inner voice asked him if he was really any different now.
After a while, he felt the dock wobble from footsteps. Someone sat beside him.
Skeeto carried the toy he'd bought from L'roon. Plus two dishes of ice cream from the market. They were expensive, but also important.
He nudged one towards his brother.
Still staring out to the horizon, Toby's left hand crept over to touch the spoon, then reached further to take his brother's hand in his. A smile came to his face.
Skeeto squeezed the paw. "I know you said you wanted to be alone, so I'll be quiet." And though it was hard, he managed to.
The pair sat and ate their ice cream in silence, until the bowls were empty and the sun went down.
L'roon was surprised Toby took so long to get back to him. The mouse found the merchant lounging at an open-air cafe with assorted meat snacks in three of his hands. Toby and Skeeto sat in deck chairs on either side of the reclining nightmare. L'roon asked Toby how much had come back. By now, a lot. Easily more than half. But any more names would be useful.
Soon L'roon filled in many more places and people. It felt like crossing them off a list. Rhinolith, Coryza, Marasmus, Hypovolemia, Ectopia Cordis. Dysphoria. Anasarca. Luxy Bleeder, Aldridge, Gilla-Gilla, Xenoiko, Rippingbean & Woofingbutter, Dorster, Alonzo, Red. Scaphis Tarrare. All these names bloomed in Toby's mind like flowers of light, illuminating his memories and sharpening details. He began to recall people's body language, vocal tics, scent. It was like restoring a painting by brushing off patches of black soot.
And he finally knew what that lighted scar was for. What slept inside his arm.
Toby asked and asked. He ran out of questions long after L'roon ran out of answers. The peddler had lived a long time, but tended to only circulate among the same few towns in the badlands. Most of what he knew of other places came from eavesdropping. He traveled to Coryza and Ectopia Cordis just once a year. In cities that large, he wasn't familiar with everyone. Still, Toby thanked him sincerely for the bits of information he was able to provide.
By now Skeeto was playing with L'roon's leftover toothpicks, swordfighting one hand against the other. Toby didn't want to keep pestering all night. He asked if he could accompany L'roon when he left. The merchant replied that the only payment he would require was conversation. Toby was glad to hear that, but asked, wincing, if they'd have to go right away. L'roon reassured him with a grin. The wily construct always stayed overnight in any town, to sample gossip, cuisine, and whatever citizenry he could coax to share a room with him. He'd be leaving in the morning or late afternoon, depending on his sluggishness, so the mouse would have plenty of time to say his goodbyes. Skeeto squeezed Toby's paw when he heard that.
Toby noogied the kitten and told him it was time to get home. They said goodnight to L'roon, and raced each other across the marketplace to the elevators.
That night they had their dinner late. Tak and Kat had been sitting at the table waiting. They badgered the boys about why they were getting home after dark, until they saw that something had changed in Coral's eyes. He began to tell his story. His parents listened until the food on everyone's plates went cold.
At the very least, Toby's story became clearer to him through its telling. Many lost details leapt to mind as he relayed them. Kat and Tak had tried to guess what kind of furson their Coral might once have been, and Toby's story both surprised them, and didn't. In less than a month, their mouse had lived through more than some Phobiopolans endured in a lifetime, which went a long way towards explaining their adopted son's behavior. They'd seen him flinch at loud sounds or fast movements, and stare off into space with a crestfallen look in his eyes. They noticed how much time alone he spent. And they'd known about his bad dreams from the start. This surprised Toby, but they told him they knew the signs of a kit crawling to breakfast with tiredness and fear still showing in his eyes.
They all knew he would be leaving tomorrow. Yet they put off saying it for as long as possible. Tak and Kat got up from the table and came around to hug the brave little mouse. Skeeto piled on too. Kat said they should have a special treat tonight. She and Tak went to the kitchen to fix it. And out of sight, they cried. Grieving for the new life together they had barely begun to plan.
In the meantime, Toby showed Skeeto his hammer. The kitten's eyes lit up with fireworks when he saw the gleaming steel emerge gracefully from his brother's palm. Toby nearly spoiled the moment by dropping the big heavy thing, but managed to catch it with his thumb. His fingerstubs slotted into the tonguerubber grip, but they couldn't hold on as well as they used to. He guessed swinging it was out. He was stuck with his palm-strike technique. Hadn't he given it a cool name?
Kat returned with a huge conglomeration of every dessert they had in the house. Cookies and chunks of cake were crammed into a huge bowl of banana pudding. Skeeto licked his lips. Both boys dived right in. And at the end of the meal, Tak solemnly held out a large green bottle. With a flourish, he poured some out for each of them. The mouse was about to say he didn't drink, but then realized what it actually was. Plain, clear water. In a place like Scarlatina, it made perfect sense it would be treated with such reverence. Toby took a sip and couldn't believe how good it tasted. He wondered if his fur would grow back after he left.
It was getting very late indeed. Everyone said their goodnights. Toby would definitely need his rest for tomorrow. Many hugs were shared. Kat and Tak assured Toby that he would always be welcome in their home. He let them know he couldn't promise to return, as he knew what he'd soon be facing. But, if he survived, he vowed to see them again. And bring friends.
Toby snuggled in. Kat turned out the lights.
Now he was wrapped up tight in his own little bed, across the room from Skeeto's. A bed which would likely be sold tomorrow.
The room was dark but the mouse's thoughts were aflame. He'd held back some of what he knew, to spare his adoptive family from worry. That left plenty remaining for himself though. When he left tomorrow, he knew what he had to do. He'd be heading into battle against a sorceress of infinite cruelty. Trying to rescue his friends with no idea where they were, or if their minds even still existed to be rescued. And how much more power might Scaphis have gained in the month he'd spent here!? Added to however long he'd been lost to amnesia!
The longer Toby thought about it, the more suicidal the scenario became. He didn't know if this was depression setting in, or practicality.
He remembered his bookshelves, the ones that had stood guard across from his bed so long ago. The stories themselves were just blurs now. Flashes of the emotions felt while reading them. But he knew he'd loved them. Maybe a little too much. They'd shaped his outlook more than real life had. He remembered, along the road trip, Junella knocking down all his assumptions about heroism, cowardice, and morality.
He had to face facts. His own sense of loss demanded he do something. But he had no idea what. Not even the faintest sketch of a plan. Nothing more than, 'I have to.'
'Do you really?' a voice asked.
'Do you really?' it asked again.
Because he did actually have a choice. He just hadn't allowed himself to see it yet.
He could stay.
Ignore his memory and stay here. Safe in the loving arms of the first real, true family he'd ever had. Maybe tomorrow he could fake amnesia. Say the memories were all gone again. Just shrug and eat his cereal like normal.
The idea was agonizingly seductive. It crept tighter and tighter around him as he wriggled further down into his blankets.
'I could stay.'
It meant abandoning his friends. Letting go of the atrocities Doll had done to them and the pain she had put in his soul. He'd be deciding that his comfort meant more than all that. More than honor, more than loyalty, more than his own trauma.
This would be an act of monumental cowardice. But a part of him knew damn well he was capable of it if he tried.
He could. He really could.
Maybe his friends were gone forever anyway. He'd seen what had happened to them. Their faces had been peeled off like china masks, their bodies reduced to hollowed-out toys. He'd only gotten a tiny whiff of Scaphis' mind-stealing mist, but that had blanked him completely. The others had gotten a full dose. Maybe they were unrecoverable.
Or maybe they'd already escaped? 'Remember when you ran away from that crazy cult leader in the stovepipe hat? The one who put the teacup on Piffle's head and trapped her? You ran away and left her there, and you tore yourself to pieces over it. But look what happened! She escaped on her own! Because she was a hell of a lot stronger than you gave her credit for. All of them are. What are the odds this is something they can't handle, but you can?'
He could hear the voice sneer. 'Mighty Toby. With his hammer he can't even hold anymore.'
The words made him wince. Yet he welcomed them, because they were making such a strong case for the easy decision.
It wasn't difficult to believe. Maybe his friends were already free and had defeated Scaphis weeks ago. Maybe they were looking for him.
'L'roon already told you that's not the case,' a less-persuasive voice rumbled.
Oh, right. He'd forgotten about that. When he told L'roon what had lurked beneath Doll's disguise, the merchant connected it to strange stories he'd been hearing for weeks about living waves of plastic searching through the forests. Hunting for people. Ensnaring and paralyzing them. Some said this plague had engulfed whole towns.
Toby saw this mental image in bone-chilling detail. 'She's still out there. She hasn't been defeated. And you remember what Aldridge and his wife said.' That last conversation had been slathered in heavy layers of his nihilism, but it was also the most recent memory before he'd been blanked. A surprising amount of detail had remained, including the description of Scaphis Tarrare as a power-mad psychotic who wanted to punish the world.
'She'll never stop. Never, ever, ever.'
Toby shut his eyes tight and grit his teeth together. 'THAT DOESN'T MEAN I CAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT!!!'
'Who else?' another voice replied.
'Somebody... more powerful than me. Someone stronger. I don't know any magic. I don't have a special sword or a golden shield or an enchanted horse.'
'Sure you do.'
'That was only a maybe!' he screamed.
A week before his arrival in Scarlatina, another boy named Reggie had been out fishing and found something interesting. A sphere of blackened bone, compacted to the size of a medicine ball. He'd taken the faintly-glowing orb home to his parents and they'd instantly told him to get rid of it. Three days later when the strange merchant came around like he did every month, the boy sold it to him. And L'roon sold it to somebody else. Toby was appalled at this. "You're both nightmares! Don't you have any... any kind of professional courtesy!?" L'roon defended that it had not been a simple decision. He'd tried everything he could to revive the hibernating bonecuddy, but his skills weren't up to the task. George remained an uncrackable nut. And so, following his capitalistic code of ethics, L'roon had done the only thing that made sense in his position.
Thankfully, the place L'roon was headed tomorrow was the place where he'd sold George. This was Toby's only lead and it was a thin one. It had been a month, after all. George might have already changed hands to a dozen different buyers. Maybe Toby was setting himself up for a wild goose chase.
'And why should I even bother?' another part of him whined in a tantrum voice. 'Would they do the same for me? How many times did Junella and Zinc refer to me as 'the client'? They got me up the mountain; that was their only obligation to me. They wouldn't come after me if I was missing. Especially not if it meant facing Scaph-'
That last voice was strong and clear.
'You know he would. Piffle too. And shame on you, for even spending one second thinking that they wouldn't. You were more than just a taxi fare to them. You shared moments that bind people forever.'
This new voice had drowned out all the others. It shone like a nightlight at the front of Toby's mind. And it wasn't just a voice, he realized. It was himself. His truest self.
'You know damn well you're not staying here. Yes, it'd be nice. Yes, it will be hard to make Skeeto, Tak and Kat cry when you leave. But you'll do it. Because you have an obligation to your friends. No matter what Scaphis throws at you, and no matter if you fail, you are still going to try your hardest. It's non-negotiable. You couldn't even stay if you wanted to. If you did, what you'd become would be someone Kat and Tak wouldn't want as a son. Someone Skeeto would be ashamed to call brother.'
These words hurt too. Yet in a way that felt like healing. The other voices were silky on the outside with rot and stagnation beneath. This one was as firm as a callus, but strong.
'You already knew it was over,' it told him. 'You've known it for days now.'
Toby rolled over in bed. 'No...'
'Of course you have. The signs are practically nailed to your forehead. At school, the work's too easy. Ridiculously easy. You're getting A's by barely trying. Almost as if, golly jeepers, maybe you already know all this stuff already!? And you've started spending less time with Skeeto and more with adults. You love him, of course, but you'd rather have a good, long conversation with Kat or Tak, or Cincurro and Carms. Skeeto only wants to talk about little kid stuff. And you-'
Toby felt the end of that sentence coming. He tried to stop it, but it was like standing in the path of a bullet train.
Finally, he finished it on his own. In the dark, Toby whispered, "I'm not a little kid anymore."
He felt the strong, warm voice give him a pat on the head.
'There. Was that so hard?'
'Yes!!' he snapped back in irritation.
'Okay. Fair enough. But it's better to admit it, right? You couldn't stay here no matter how much you want to. Because the moment won't stay the same. You shouldn't be doing grade-school math and reading below your level. You shouldn't be hanging around kids who can't fathom the kind of things you've seen. You've been through Dysphoria, for crying out loud! Did you forget that!? Hardly anyone in this entire world has ever reached the mountain, but YOU HAVE!'
The last two words were a poke in the chest.
'Do you really want to stay and ruin things? It's gonna get weird eventually. Face it. Imagine Kat and Tak taking care of you as if you're still little. As if you still need them to. As if you haven't gotten through Phobiopolis end-to-end already.'
'I wasn't by myself then,' he countered.
'True. But you recognized when you were weak and you asked for help. Your friends carried you until you could walk beside them. And just when you were finally getting somewhere, it all went wrong. By sheer dumb luck, you ended up here: the perfect place for rest and recuperation. Be glad for that. But it's finished, Toby. You're as healed as you're gonna get. It's time to leave the hospital bed.'
The voice paused, then added, 'You want to know what this has been, Toby? Here in Scarlatina? It's the name of the boat that rescued you.'
Toby was crying softly. He didn't know where all of this was coming from, but he knew every word was real, no matter how hard they were to swallow.
'Grieve for your lost family. You should've had this kind of love when you were growing up, but you didn't. You've crawled through an ocean of garbage, and that's not fair, but it's already happened. It's unchangeable. All you have are the days ahead. Time is going to push you forward no matter how hard you push back. Maybe you could try running with it for a change, instead of against it.'
Toby clutched the blankets tight in his left hand. The stumps on his right tried, but couldn't match the grip. He whispered to no one, "I can't even hold my hammer..."
'You'll think of something.'
'I don't want to.'
Gently but firmly, 'You will because you have to.'
Toby sighed. 'I know, and I will. But at least let me cry like a baby for a while before the morning comes, allright? At least give me that. This is hard.'
The voice didn't have anything more to say.
He smiled lopsidedly. He felt the tears run down his face to his pillow. Behind him, Skeeto was snoring already.
Toby stared at the reflected moonlight on the bedroom wall until his eyes grew so heavy he could no longer keep them open. His cheeks were soaked by the time he fell asleep, but that was okay. It was okay to let yourself hurt, and to not want to return to what had caused it.
The dream that night was sitting on the beach in the sand. A real beach, with salty air flicking drops of ocean spray onto his fur. He saw himself building a sandcastle... No, it was a sand tombstone. As he stood over a much smaller, much more fragile Toby, he saw his own fingers write the word 'Doll' on it. Then he crossed it out and wrote 'Scaphis' instead.
Then he smashed it into a thousand pieces, crying his heart out without making a sound.
But no matter how hard he tried to destroy the little headstone, it always returned. And sometimes when he looked over his own trembling shoulder to read the name, it had changed to Coral.
The next day there were more tears and more hugs. Kat made a big breakfast and fussed over Toby. Skeeto wouldn't leave his side. Tak kept suggesting things the mouse could take with him that might be helpful along the way.
Toby went to school one last time to let Cincurro and Carms know he wouldn't be finishing the semester. He snuck in at recess when the classrooms were empty. He didn't think he could deal with saying so many goodbyes to all his classmates face to face. It was hard enough seeing the sorrow he caused his wonderful teachers, though they'd suspected by now that he was far beyond his schoolwork. At the edge of the recess cave, he stood hidden behind a corner and watched everyone play, etching them into his memory. In the end, he couldn't stop himself from stealing a marker to write on the wall: 'You were awesome friends and I'll miss every one of you. Oasis, Denny, Sail, Taska. Even Palo and Diver,' and a wink.
Now he was standing in the middle of the marketplace. Skeeto was quiet. Kat had packed a lunch bag full of treats. Tak offered Toby one more fast boat ride around the beach, but was politely declined. Toby didn't want to keep L'roon waiting. "He can come with us?" Tak wheedled. Toby hugged him.
The merchant was waiting outside the town's only hotel. He stank a bit of devious fun, but seemed alert as ever. He asked if the mouse was ready to go.
Toby nodded. "Yes. I mean, almost."
Scarlatina scuttled and murmured around them, unaware of the moment taking place in their midst. Unaware that their newest citizen was now departing, possibly for good. People bedecked in ribbons walked past with shopping bags and produce, not noticing the little mouse who stood between a merchant and a family.
L'roon was not entirely heartless. He let Toby take as much time as he needed. (Plus it gave him a moment to go hunt down another breakfast.)
Toby walked back to Tak and Kat. They knelt to put their arms around him.
"Gonna miss you," the fennec whispered as she petted his ears.
Toby nuzzled her cheek. "Me too. We were just starting to settle in and really know each other. I'm so sorry for doing this to you."
Tak gave him a shoulder-pat. "You don't have to apologize. You had a life before this. It's okay to go back to it. We understand."
"You have no idea how much I want to stay."
Kat brushed a paw across her eyes. "Sure we do. And you can always come back for a visit. We'll never stop being happy to see you."
"I'm looking forward to it already," Toby said.
One last big hug, then he turned to Skeeto.
The kitten in the big floppy t-shirt was doing his best not to cry, but failing. He jumped at Toby and squeezed tight, like he was trying to get all the air out of a balloon.
Coral smiled and squeezed him back just as tight.
In his ear he heard a tiny, whispered, "Don't go."
He pulled away to look in his eyes. "I have to," he said softly.
Skeeto sniffed. "I just got used to having a brother. Now I'm losing him and it sucks. I had so much cool stuff I never got around to showing you."
Toby smiled bittersweetly. "Save it for next time," he said.
Skeeto nodded. "I'm gonna miss you a lot. Like, five hundred a lots."
Both of them giggled. "Think of it this way," Toby said. "If a monster kidnapped Tak and Kat, and you had a chance to get them back, but you knew it meant giving up everything...?"
Skeeto sighed. "Yeah, yeah. 'Course I would. I understand."
"It still sucks though, right?"
One last hug, as brothers.
Then they both stood up and brushed the sand from their knees. Skeeto touched the ribbon pierced to Toby's arm. "Remember us," he said.
Toby put his hand on Skeeto's green wristband. "Of course I will."
One last, last hug.
And then Toby turned to where L'roon was just finishing up a grilled foot. The merchant swallowed it, toenails and all, then reached out one of his long, spindly arms to the mouse.
Toby looked to him, then back at his family, and began to walk away.
The sounds of the market dimmed away to nothing. All he could hear were his footsteps. He kept his head down, not wanting anyone else to see his heartache.
L'roon observed how hard the mouse's shoulders were shaking. "Leaving is not a pain I know much of," he said quietly, not very used to comfort. "I haven't formed many attachments, so I float from place to place. It seems difficult for others though."
Toby nodded. "Yeah."
L'roon made sure his cart was hitched up right. Following the cliff would take them back to Phobiopolis proper.
Toby followed after, watching the trinkets and artifacts jangle as the wheels rolled over bumps in the sand.
When he'd gotten a few yards away, he heard Skeeto cry out, "I hope you find your fingers someday!!" Toby allowed himself to look back, and saw the little cat jumping up and down and waving as hard as he could.
He turned away, to the dry and empty path ahead.
Then an insane idea seized him.
It was impossible. He hadn't been very good at it before, and he'd never tried it with what he had in mind. Still... A strange, determined grin came to his face. "Could you hold on a minute, L'roon?"
The merchant's gut rumbled. "Not a problem. I need one anyway to belch away my indigestion. I may have eaten my own weight last night."
"Cool! Back in a sec!" Toby turned and dashed away at top speed. His smile was delirious. He concentrated solely on running, because if he thought about what he was about to do for even a heartbeat it wouldn't work. That was the thing about dumbfounding.
Tak and Kat each had a paw on Skeeto's shoulders as he wiped his eyes. Then the little kitten blinked and saw his brother zooming straight towards him like a rocket.
Toby skidded up a massive dust cloud when he stopped. Skeeto sneezed. "What-!?"
"A gift!" Toby shouted. "Have fun selling all this!" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a massive handful of something that hadn't existed until just a second ago. Grabbing Skeeto's paws, he dumped them in, spilling them all over. Batteries. The most sought-after resource in Scarlatina. As much as they'd scavenged for an entire month, all out of thin air.
Before Skeeto's eyes could even start bulging, Toby shouted, "Bye!!" and ran off again, giggling like a nut.
The cliff loomed ahead and above, seemingly endless. An aloof, sunset-orange barrier between Phobiopolis' badlands and the ocean of the dead. Scarlatina was a tiny speck of habitation nestled in between. The settlers had started with a pile of car parts and a beach wide enough to build on. Then, together, they had carved out a village. Proof that determined souls could squeeze out a life anywhere. Scarlatina was a blade of grass growing up from a sidewalk crack.
L'roon had offered to let him ride atop the cart, but Toby preferred to walk. The rhythm of his steps was hypnotic: something to distract him from all he was leaving. After that last moment of joy with Skeeto, he forced himself not to look back again. Even now that he was a mile or so past the edge of town, his muscles still wanted to pick him up and send him scampering back as fast as he could.
It was hard work keeping his feet moving and his face a stone. Inside, Toby felt like a rattling broken toy in a high wind. A plush mouse with ripped seams and spilled stuffing. He was leaving love to return to pain. He didn't think he'd ever felt so small.
Though he wasn't really alone. L'roon would be with him all the way to Lalochezia. And the merchant was plenty tough enough to protect them both until Toby could handle his hammer again. That wasn't what he was really worried about though. L'roon was charming, companionable, and could even be kind. Yet Toby knew the merchant's only permanent loyalty was to himself. He would help Toby so long as it cost him nothing. And at some point, they would inevitably part ways.
'But by then I'll have George back, right?' He tried to reassure himself, but he knew the answer was only 'maybe'. It felt like being on a trapeze, thrown from one furson's arms to be caught in another's. He dreaded the moment when he'd be sailing across the void all by himself, even if it only lasted moments.
Because in truth, despite the warm voice's pep talk last night, he knew that mere endurance didn't make him anything special. It didn't make him a hero. Or a fighter. Or a rescuer. Certainly not a strategist. His mind was still a blank regarding what to do when he reached Scaphis. He knew one thing at least: if he rushed at her with weapons drawn like a charging knight in a fairy tale, he would die. Horrifically. She would shred him. Life had taught him that Good doesn't automatically win over Evil just by virtue of being Good. In reality, no one was a protagonist with an author watching over them, and dumbing down the baddies so the good guys could come out on top. In reality, evil often had the advantage. People like that screwy-eyed muskrat, who got away with their cruel games until people like Luxy made them stop.
'People like us, you mean,' his inner voice corrected him. 'What's-His-Name never would have spent a day in court if it wasn't for Zinc and George and Junella and Piffle... and you.'
Toby looked down at the pebble-strewn ground and clenched his fists. It was true, but he almost didn't want to feel cheered-up just yet. That last moment with Skeeto had been perfect and magical. But it seemed to have used up his last few drops of happy. If he was sliding down into a monumental funk of pessimism now, he thought he might as well just let it happen and get it over with.
'Or, heck, I dunno, maybe you could use this time for planning? Just a thought.'
Despite his pouting, he smirked briefly at how sarcastic his inner voice could get.
And it had a point. There was no reason he couldn't feel powerless and terrified while also using his brains. Because he'd realized already, his only hope was out-thinking her. Scaphis had aptly demonstrated her power. He'd been traveling with a deadly bodyguard, a tough-as-nails brawler, a demigod of optimism, and the world's smartest nightmare. Scaphis had ended them in seconds. A mere touch was all it took. So Toby knew that, whatever plan he came up with, if she ran into him first, it was instant game over. L'roon had described the tidal waves of plastic flesh that had been coursing across the badlands, gobbling up dozens of panicked Phobiopolans in blitzkrieg attacks. A town called Papilloma was a confirmed casualty. Half its inhabitants had been absorbed into the invading mass, the rest sent fleeing with only the clothes on their backs. Scaphis was quick, she was strong, she was devastatingly powerful. Against all that, the simplest idea seemed to be, find wherever she'd taken his friends, then sneak in and get the fuck out. As much as Toby hated Scaphis, he'd gladly avoid confronting her if that was at all possible. His top priority was his friends.
A poisonous little feeling fluttered in his gut whenever he thought about them. Specifically, the possibility that they were someplace beyond saving. And as much as that possibility wanted to rise up inside and overwhelm him, Toby wouldn't let it. He forced himself to ignore plausibility. He was certain they could be rescued. He was certain because he had to be. The fact that their predicament was unknown didn't matter, because saving them was the only thought that could keep him moving forward. Even with all the pain he'd suffered, his heart was not yet cold enough for revenge alone to motivate him.
'Though... what if I do have to fight her? What if she doesn't give me a choice?'
The question seemed daunting. Until it was answered with a single hyphenated name: Gilla-Gilla.
The porcupine had fought with angled blades, but most of his violence was carried out automatically. The napalm-spraying nozzles were hidden below the soil until an enemy approached. Then, surprise!
Toby thought that if a furson happened to be a small, skinny, terrified mouse, ambush was a pretty good combat strategy.
'How though? I need specifics.'
None came to mind.
"You're much less talkative than yesterday."
The voice startled Toby. He'd completely forgotten he was walking beside a question-mark-shaped many-legged behemoth. L'roon peered down at him from behind his yellow sunglasses.
"I..." Toby really didn't know what to say.
L'roon retrieved some peanuts from his pocket and munched them. "It would be no terrible loss to spend the rest of the trip in silence. After all, I always have. But I had hoped not to this time."
Toby kicked a rock away. "I'm sorry. I just... It's weighing on me what I have to do. I'm trying to plan for it, but I keep getting stuck on how insurmountable everything is. Plus... I guess I'm still kind of a wreck from leaving my family." He touched the ribbon on his arm. He traced his fingers around the piercings that held it to his skin. He felt as if, instead of taking something from Scarlatina, the ribbon meant he'd left a part of himself behind.
The day before, L'roon hadn't asked much about that. He knew when a living souls' experience was beyond his capacity to empathize with, and so he practiced discretion. It was enough to infer that the mouse had been lost, then found, and his own arrival in town had torn Toby away again. "If it brings any solace, I apologize again for interrupting your happiness."
"Don't," Toby said. "For one, you couldn't have known. For two, I'm glad I remembered the truth, no matter what it costs me. I had friends. I had people I cared about, and they cared about me. If I stayed, then they'd be left to rot in whatever hell Scaphis has made for them. My happiness doesn't outweigh that."
A momentary silence. L'roon listened to the squeak of his cart's wheels, the jangle of trinkets dangling from the sides, and his own many footsteps. Toby had his hands in his pockets, his posture stiff as a fencepost. Finally L'roon said, "You are much more selfless than I am."
Toby looked up briefly. "Thank you."
"I do not share your values, nor would I choose to. But I can admire them in someone else."
"That's kind of you to say."
L'roon laughed; a short 'ha' that reminded Toby of Gilla-Gilla. "I have rarely been called 'kind' by anyone." He smirked. "More commonly things like, 'you cheap thieving bastard'."
Toby couldn't help a tiny snicker.
That was better. L'roon acknowledged that his overall motivation was to derive as much enjoyable conversation from this mouse as he could. But in keeping with his love of mutually-beneficial transactions, if he could lift his fellow traveler's spirits in the process, that would be the best of outcomes.
Toby did feel his internal fog thin a bit, but now he couldn't remember what train of thought he'd been on. And he also couldn't think of anything more to discuss with L'roon. "Um..." He searched around for topics. An obvious one was their destination. "Where exactly is Lalochezia, and what's it like there?"
The construct pointed. "It lies about four days' walk to our east. Three, if we skip Dysania. I am fairly confident you would prefer to never again lay eyes upon it."
"If you mean that laundry soap desert, absolutely!" He reflexively spat on the ground to get the memory out of his mouth.
A chuckle. "The market town is much nicer. Noisier though."
"The market town?" He blinked. "I thought I'd heard 'Lalochezia' before! That's where my friends went after I got lost in the tub."
"Exactly so," L'roon replied, then smiled wistfully. "It is always my destination after Scarlatina. Such good trade! In one place I acquire novelties and necessities from the outside world, then in the other I am repaid in scavenged treasures and sought-after handcrafts. It is a perfect cycle. And I am lucky to have a monopoly on this route. If more of my colleagues knew about the city-by-the-sea, I wouldn't be able to charge so richly." His grin exposed all of his teeth.
Toby gave him a sideways look. "So, basically, you're taking advantage of everyone."
L'roon made a 'tsk-tsk' noise. "Not at all! Both sides are delighted when I come around. To the Scarlatins, I bring building materials, rare foods, all manner of liquids, etcetera. Then the market-goers hound me about, where do I find such fine claywork? Such a bounty of non-imaginite jewelry?" He spread his hands in a gesture of wholesomeness. "Now ask yourself: would I be such a fool as to spoil all that good will by making my prices too steep?" He shook his head. "Just enough so everyone feels it's fair."
Toby smiled wryly. "You're smart enough not to kill the golden goose."
"On the nose!" he cackled. "My favorite legend! Because its lesson is so wise. I keep my personal goose well-fed, but also well-hidden."
The peddler seemed to have it all under control. Toby thought that maybe L'roon was someone he could learn from. After all, if he really was serious about going up against Scaphis, the first step was admitting his limitations. He was a mouse without much natural guile, and L'roon was oozing with it. Maybe they could brainstorm.
The mouse hesitated to ask though, for fear of derisive laughter. Finally he just spat it out. "I'm... thinking of trying to save all my friends, not just George. I know Scaphis has them, and right now I don't have any ideas how to get them back." He winced, then added, "...Do you?"
A laugh, but not a cruel one. More at the unexpectedness of the question. "It is not something I spend my evenings thinking about. I steer away from conflict, not towards it."
"I know, but..." Toby wrung his tail between his paws. "You're smarter than me. I'll admit that. You're clever. And you know more about Phobiopolis. You can think strategically. Me, I've never even played chess."
L'roon guffawed at all the flattery. "Even so, I cannot draw a battle plan for you. All my cleverness resides in the realm of nonviolence. I've fought a few times, yes, but I prefer to run and plot unseen revenge for later."
"That's actually perfect," Toby said.
L'roon raised an eyebrow.
"I mean, look at me! I'm skinny as a popsicle stick. My fighting hand's crippled. I'm not gonna take her on in a full frontal assault. If I'm going to have any chance at winning, I'll have to do it through sheer sneakiness and pre-planning."
"Intelligent," L'roon acknowledged. "You hold no illusions about who and what you are. So then..." He finished off his current mouthful of pocket-peanuts, licked his teeth clean, then steepled two sets of fingertips and put on his 'let's get down to brass tacks' expression. "I can only be of help to the extent that I have information to work with. What do we know about the situation?"
"Not much," Toby admitted. "...By the way, can I have some peanuts too? Maybe eating will make me less nervous."
"They are on the house." L'roon poured him a double handful from a sack.
Toby noshed them fastidiously. Giving his hands and mouth something to do seemed to free up his brain-cogs. "The main thing is finding Scaphis. My friends will be wherever she is. I know Aldridge said she used to love throwing people in Dysphoria, but I have to hope she hasn't done that with them." He shook his head. "No: she made them into puppets just before she threw me off the mountain. She wants to keep them around to humiliate them and gloat over how she won. Plus, she knows we got through Dysphoria once. If I were her, I wouldn't throw them in, just from the worry they'd manage to crawl back out looking for revenge. Especially Junella!"
L'roon made a 'not bad' face. For someone who disparaged their lack of strategic thinking, the mouse was doing fine so far. "The first step may already be over," he said encouragingly. "All of the places her flesh has been seen radiate out from the mountain. She may never have left."
Toby was dumbstruck by the idea. Its plausibility multiplied the more he thought about it. "That makes sense! She hated Aldridge and his wife. She waited freakin' decades to get to them. Why wouldn't she take over their place and make it hers?" Another connection struck like a lightning bolt. He snapped his fingers. "Just like Luxy did to her with Ectopia!! That'd give her even more of a reason!"
And suddenly, Toby understood what she was doing. L'roon hadn't told him a ton, but it was enough to connect the dots. He spun around, trying to locate Anasarca beyond the cliffs. There! Faint but visible. "Holy hell..." His guess was confirmed with one look. The mountain's normal grey was corrupted with barely-perceptible streaks of beige.
Toby didn't notice when he spilled his peanuts all over his feet. "...She's growing herself! Like before when she spread herself across the walls, but bigger! She's had time to spread all the way down the mountain like a fungus. She's reaching out chunks of herself into the rest of the world, snatching up anyone she can find. She-"
Oh, it was so obvious.
His voice dropped to a stunned hush. "She's entombing them in plastic. Just like her curse. She's gonna make everyone suffer the way she suffered."
Toby knew it was insane to feel so certain about a wild extrapolation like that, but the idea pulsed in his skull like a neon sign. It fit. It fit everything he knew about her. Toby could never be as vicious, but he'd read plenty of stories with cruel-hearted villains. Enough to put himself in her shoes. "She was petty enough to torture my friends and make us watch. She was patient enough to wait for a chance to get back at the man who cursed her. I'll bet she spent all that time thinking, 'Ohhhhh boy, when I get out of this doll body, I'm gonna make 'em pay!' And she may not be out, but she's doing it anyway. That must have been a helluva spell Aldridge trapped her with! So, if she can't have her old body back, then she'll make everyone else in the world know what it feels like."
L'roon listened to all this with mounting respect for the boy. He'd come to the same conclusion weeks ago, but it had taken him much longer. "Your reasoning is sound, dear friend. If I were her, I would put all my effort into reversing my condition and getting back to a normal life. Ah, but a petty heart holds no reason. I have seen it in my own customers. Sometimes no matter what you offer, all they want is to give you a hard time, even if it ends up worse for them."
Toby heard maybe half of this. He had stunned himself by his realization, and now the fear was creeping back in again. Because, even if he succeeded in rescuing his friends, what then? Did he really think Scaphis was going to say, 'You tricked me, Toby! Oh well, fair's fair. Just run along now, you clever mouse.' Hell no! She'd chase him to the edge of the world and back. Her rage would blot out the sun. She'd never relent. No place in all of Phobiopolis would be safe. And she'd eradicate anyone who tried to shelter him.
The image came to mind: a wall of pinkish plastic surging over the cliff and engulfing all of Scarlatina. Everyone frozen in molten PVC. Skeeto. Tak and Kat. All his friends. All held prisoner in the constricting flesh of a sociopath.
Toby could not stop himself from looking back at the town. But he was too far away by now. All he could see was the sheer cliff face and the sea of bodies.
He reached up to hold his face in his hands. The enormity of his task kept growing bigger and bigger. Just when he thought he'd faced the full breadth of it, he saw further and realized he hadn't even come close. The weight was like being a ring-toss pole, and someone was throwing anchors. "I'm screwed..."
It was under his breath, but L'roon heard anyway. "Not necessarily. What happened to outwitting her?"
Toby's hands circled around in a gesture of futility. "I'd have to be thinking eighty bazillion steps ahead to even get close! And even then, she'll turn all her focus on me afterwards. I'd be hunted forever. It's beyond my imagination to even guess what someone that cruel would do to me if she caught me. And the more I think about it, the more the problems multiply. Even if she's still on Anasarca, that means I'd have to get myself there. That means another trip through Phlegmasia. AND Dysphoria. Gee, that'll be fun! Maybe I can just duct tape myself to George and have him run me through real fast. And that's still assuming I don't run into Logd-"
He had almost said the name.
The name of the Allfilth.
How had Toby possibly forgotten him!? The centerpiece of all this world's misery! The entity whose mere existence had driven him into suicidal numbness! How had the knowledge of such an abomination slipped Toby's mind!?
Well... actually it hadn't. Toby remembered his encounter with the floating space corpse just fine. He remembered its slit mouth and its soulless eyes. He remembered the bites its microbes had taken from him.
Looking down at himself now, he was amazed he'd regrown any of his former flesh. He was still pretty scrawny, yeah. But after Dysphoria, he hadn't even tried changing back from his pelt-draped-over-a-skeleton look. He'd assumed it was permanent. Eternally.
And yet it wasn't. Maybe Scarlatina had healed more than he realized.
After witnessing the Allfilth, he'd become something else. The knowledge of an unconquerable evil sleeping at the heart of the world had driven him mad. He had given up entirely. He had seen no point existing in a world where the Allfilth did too. This hopelessness had nearly sent him into the irreversible embrace of the oblivion door. And yet now... Now here he was, in full awareness of the same facts. And it wasn't destroying him. If anything, he was pissed off about it. Angered at the unfairness that Phobiopolis was tethered to that shit-covered monster and would never escape its noxious dreams. It disgusted him and saddened him, but it wasn't making him want to end it all.
'Maybe something came with me from Dysphoria. Maybe those big germs' bites were venomous. Like, they injected me with depression somehow?'
Or maybe it was far simpler. Maybe he'd been through a trauma so horrific, there was no other cure but time.
Maybe Scaphis had done him a favor. There was no way she'd chosen on purpose to send him to a friendly little seaside town, so it had to have been pure chance. Or maybe the same gravitational pull that sucked in bodies for the body sea. It spotted him and thought, 'ehh, close enough'. George too. And if Scarlatina wasn't just luck, then fate was alive and knew kindness. There was probably nothing in all of Phobiopolis that could have cured him from the Allfilth's toxicity better than a long, blank nap, and the healing love of family.
Toby looked up and noticed L'roon was glancing back at him inquisitively.
"I didn't want to interrupt your thought process," the merchant said. "From your myriad facial expressions, it seemed important."
"It was. And thank you," he said breathlessly. All the effort had been mental, but he felt exhausted anyway. He decided to be careful in what he revealed. If L'roon didn't know about the Allfilth, it'd be cruel as hell to tell him. "Something bad happened to me in Dysphoria."
L'roon nodded. "From what I have gathered, that is what it is for."
A bitter chuckle. "Yeah. But this was..." He shook his head. "The details don't matter. It hurt me. It... changed me. And I just now realized that I might actually be over it. Kinda couldn't believe it for a second."
L'roon had centuries of practice discerning when someone was withholding information, and the mouse was frankly terrible at hiding his inner feelings. Still, there was no reason to inquire further. He sensed this was not information that would bring him anything profitable.
Toby said nothing more for quite a while. He kept his head down, staring at the sand, licking salt off his lips.
"Did you still want to deliberate extraction plans?" L'roon asked.
"Wha? Oh. Sure, sure. I just..." He pinched his ear to force himself to focus. His mind had turned into TV static for a moment there. "Allright. What do we have so far? We're pretty sure Scaphis is on Anasarca. We're pretty sure we know why. We're entirely sure she'll roadkill me to the moon and back if she ever gets her hands on me. What else?"
L'roon shrugged with all five arms. "You are apparently in a better frame of mind than your previous meeting with her. That's something."
"Yes it is." He nodded thanks to the construct for pointing that out. Though, now that he thought back to his last moments in her presence, he'd actually been in the perfect frame of mind. He'd had all the fear and misery beaten right out of him. He'd been limp as a ragdoll and just as indifferent. If he'd screamed in rage and rushed at her, Scaphis would have torn him apart. Instead, his passiveness frustrated her. And she wasn't too pleased with what he'd left in her hand. He still couldn't believe he'd pooped on her.
"Let's look at any advantages I have." Toby began counting on his fingers. "She hasn't captured me yet. That's one. She probably doesn't even know I'm still alive."
L'roon could not help but interrupt. "Technically-"
"I know, I know! No one here is. I meant, like, as opposed to lost forever floating in space."
He nodded. "Mm. Yes."
Toby counted a third finger. "I'm relatively sane right now. And..." There had to be something else. "...I'm small," he realized. "Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe I can be like a bug, creeping under the door and up through the walls."
L'roon gestured in agreement. "In addition, if she's as hot-tempered as you say she is, she also may be easily distracted."
Toby nodded emphatically at that. He remembered how even Junella, a master of rage, had gotten herself boxed in by the convorines. "I know it won't be as simple as just ringing her doorbell and running off with my friends. But maybe I can be patient and wait for something else to distract her. Take advantage of that. I mean, look where patience got Scaphis."
"It is wise to observe your enemies' success, then steal their ideas."
Toby glanced at his stumpy hand. "Plus, I have a hammer. That's one thing she doesn't have."
L'roon grinned. "Always look on the bright side of life."
They shared a small chuckle, but Toby kept staring at his hand. "Though really, what good is my hammer gonna do against her? By now it's definitely a body part. One whack and I'm paralyzed." He recalled where they were going. "Would they have prosthetic hands in Lalochezia?"
An 'of course' shrug. "Scrounge around long enough in the market town and there isn't much you won't find."
"Good to hear." Just because Kat's well-meaning glove hadn't worked didn't mean something else wouldn't. If he didn't use it much, it might not have time to count as a part of him and he could strike at Scaphis without worry. Though this was assuming he'd ever be close enough to strike. Which his entire plan was to avoid happening. 'Maybe I can skip the robot hand idea.'
Though the idea of a barrier was still worth considering. If she couldn't touch him, she couldn't freeze him. Was there anything he could put on himself that would keep her away but still allow him to move? A suit of armor was right out. "Maybe some kind of plastic-melting chemical...?" he mused. Not a bad idea, but it'd have to go in the 'Plan B' pile. What might it do to Junella?
That was something else to keep in mind. Scaphis and Junella were both plastic. Could he remember if anything had been particularly effective or ineffective against his skunk companion? Didn't she say something once about not conducting electricity?
"You're being quiet again."
Toby jumped. "GAH! Sorry! I keep getting lost in my thoughts."
L'roon pretended to be offended. "I am not going to be very helpful in coming up with ideas if you don't share yours with me!"
"Right. Again, I apologize-"
"You do that frequently," the construct teased.
Toby returned a deadpan grin. "Sorry."
"Okay, so I was thinking about a way to keep Scaphis from freezing me if I end up in her freeze range. I thought, maybe some kind of acid that eats plastic."
"Would that also harm your friend of vinyl?"
"Just what I was worried about! So I wouldn't want to douse my whole body in it. Maybe a spray? Like some kinda hose on my back or a-" He suddenly stopped in his tracks.
L'roon heard him and stopped too. He looked back. The mouse had become a snow sculpture. "Toby?"
The mouse's mouth was slightly open. His expression was not one of pain, but intense, disbelieving astonishment. "...I've got an idea," he breathed.
L'roon waited to hear it. He fished the last of the peanuts from his pocket and discarded a bit of lint.
Toby walked forward unconsciously. His whole mind was focused on the idea. Testing it. Tweaking it. Rolling it around and looking for holes. Flabbergasted that something so perfect had occurred to him. And without any effort! It seemed his subconscious had been hard at work problem-solving while his conscious self fretted and fidgeted.
The mouse put a paw on one of L'roon's wrists. "You sell potions, right?"
L'roon snickered. "And more. I make them too."
Toby lit up. "Even better!"
"You have some specific effect in mind?"
The mouse nodded. "Extremely specific." He began to lay out exactly what he wanted. Not caring whether the idea was plausible or even possible, just getting it out there. Even if L'roon knocked it down, it might be a springboard to something better.
As Toby went on, the peddler's expression changed from offense, to incredulity, to bemusement, to genuine curiosity. His multi-pupiled eyes stared down at the mouse. "It's never been done before. No one's ever had a reason to do anything like that before."
Toby fixed him with an insistent stare. "Yes, but can you?"
L'roon put a hand to his chest. "Me? Of course."
"Excellent!" he said with a grin.
L'roon stared off into the middle distance for a moment, internally riffling through his centuries-long index of potioncraft. The more he thought about the idea, the more possible it sounded. "It might even be simple," he mused. "Take Bottle A, smash it into Bottle B, and there you have it. But one never knows. Experimental chemistry is like blindfolded snake-handling. You may be bitten no matter how much you think you have prepared."
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Toby said, thinking some flattery might help. "Will there be ingredients in Lalochezia?"
L'roon made a gesture of 'obviously'. "My usual supplier will have everything I could dream of needing, and he lets me borrow his workspace. But..." The construct's tone turned grave.
Toby felt a small stormcloud pass over him. "But what?"
The merchant's long, slender head turned to look Toby squarely in the eye. "You want me to cook up this fabulous new thing for you." He enunciated every syllable of his next question. "How Are You Planning To Pay For It?"
Toby hadn't thought of that. And felt foolish, considering he already knew the merchant's nature. "Um..."
The construct snorted, grinning sharkishly. "Ideas seem so very shiny in their moment of conception, don't they? But how many of them are lost to time because no one could finance them!" He giggled.
Toby hated to admit, that was probably very true.
L'roon giggled and patted his tummy. "Right now I am helping you because it benefits me as well. Conversation, after all, is something I cannot supply myself with. Beyond that, I give only for free that which costs me nothing. A potion though..." He clucked his tongue. "They do not grow on bushes. They require base materials and experimentation. They are dangerous to work with. If I am to take such risks for you, what am I to gain, hmm?" His tone was mocking, but also encouraging. The project intrigued him enough, he eagerly hoped Toby would come up with a way to make it worthwhile.
Toby looked up at the clouds, thinking furiously. He'd been in this same spot before, trying to figure out how to secure Zinc and Junella's services. Though this time he didn't have a George to bargain with. Although...
He cast a disapproving glare at L'roon. "You did sell my friend. A fellow nightmare, too! Aren't you at least a little bit ashamed? I think maybe you owe me."
L'roon grinned obscenely. "Nice try, dear friend."
"He was never really yours to sell!" Toby tried again. "He pledged himself to me! I still technically own him. You were... You were selling stolen property!"
L'roon loudly guffawed. "You are forgetting the law of salvage! 'Anything I can take from the sea belongs to me!'" He waved three arms towards the ocean of bodies.
Toby snorted like a bull. A dead fellow was sprawled across his path and he kicked its arm out of the way.
The peddler's expression softened. He patted the frustrated mouse on the shoulder. "There, there. I will concede that perhaps I should have tried to locate you first before selling your friend as a decorative lightbulb. But-" He held up a finger. "-that only means I will be lenient with my pricing. A discount. You still have to provide primary disbursement."
Toby supposed he couldn't really expect more than that. He returned to frantic thought. There had to be something he could sell...
L'roon eyed the mouse appraisingly. "Might I offer a suggestion?"
Toby looked up and noticed the covetous gleam in the merchant's eyes. His thoughts flew to his hammer and he closed his left hand protectively around where it hid.
L'roon chortled. "No, no, dear friend! You may keep that. I know it is attached to you. And, since I now know a sheath-pill of my own is just a visit to Coryza away, I've lost all desire for yours."
Whew! That was a relief.
The peddler cackled gleefully. "Imagine the efficiency! I could buy a dozen or more! Pockets everywhere! I'd be a god among smugglers!!"
Toby took a sideways step to avoid falling saliva.
L'roon sighed and tucked away his dreams of conquests new. He composed himself again. His smile and tone were silky smooth. "No, small mouse, I was thinking of something more... savory."
The naked hunger on the merchant's face was as blatant as could be. Toby winced. "You want my eyeballs again?"
The nightmare skidded to a stop and whipped his head towards Toby, teeth flashing. "No! I want ALL of you!!"
Toby backed up so quick you'd have thought there was a bungee cord pulling him. He tripped on a corpse's leg and thudded onto the body pile at the shoreline.
L'roon roared in laughter. He wiped a tear from his eye. "HAAWWWW!!! Please forgive me! I couldn't resist!"
Snarling a little, Toby rolled over and tried to get to his feet. The dead folks were lumpy and slippery. "You scared me. Hilarious. But you weren't kidding, were you?"
L'roon got quiet. He smiled with respect. "Perceptive of you. And I notice you're not running away from the idea. Commendable."
"I'm not particularly happy about it." Toby brushed sand from his legs and approached the nightmare. He stood firm, though with a wince. "If Piffle was fine with being dinner, I guess I can stand it too. And..." He shrugged. "What else do I have to offer besides myself?"
"Your clothes," L'roon noted matter-of-factly.
Toby reflexively covered himself. "Even if you wanted them, no! Maybe I'm weird, but I'd rather be killed than naked!"
L'roon laughed so hard he shook. "You living souls have such interesting hang-ups!"
Toby's cheeks burned. "Allright, allright." He exaggeratedly bared his throat. "Well? Here you go."
The joking demeanor left the construct's smile. "Are you envisioning me butchering you? Tsk. Rest thy worries. What I have in mind is much less messy, and may be either more or less distasteful to you, depending."
He was already dreading it. "Depending on what?"
There was no reason to tease the mouse anymore. "Before I do, I feel compelled to make sure that you understand fully the unusual nature of the transaction. You will be paying up front for a potion, the use of which is contingent upon factors you currently lack."
A shrug. "I know. But the chance alone is worth it. If it does what I'm hoping, then yeah. That's worth just about anything. Even being snacked on."
L'roon gave the mouse an admiring smile. All business was risk, and choosing those risks was a skill. This was the choice he would have made in the same position. "I acknowledge," he said respectfully. "And you can bet your pelt on it: my potions exceed expectations always." He cracked two sets of knuckles.
"I believe you," Toby nodded. "So... out with it. Just what the heck are you planning to do to me?"
L'roon enjoyed drawing it out. "You've developed an impatient streak since last we met!"
Toby sighed. "I'm keyed-up, I guess. I'm terrified of what I'm heading into with Scaphis, and I'm depressed and my heart hurts and it's exhausting. So if this is where things start getting horrible again, I'd rather just dive in and get it over with."
L'roon tapped his lips. "Prescient choice of words, boy."
Toby looked at that long, tooth-studded mouth. "You're gonna swallow me whole?" he squeaked. The thought split him down the middle. On the one hand: not getting chewed to bits. On the other: burning alive in stomach acid. "Please tell me you're gonna knock me out first!"
"Nothing so brutal," the construct reassured. He pointed out his insectlike abdomen. "I have many inner chambers that contain no digestive enzymes. Should've been obvious. A smuggler like me? I have often been transportation for sensitive goods and fursons seeking asylum."
"Allright. Doesn't sound too terrible." Toby nibbled his finger nervously. "But if you're not going to digest me, what do you get out of it?"
"Your blood," L'roon said frankly. "If I leave you alive inside me, you can supply enough nourishment to last the entire journey. I admit, I'd been hoping we could spend the time talking. But it has been ages since I've felt a living soul's blood filling me up. If anything could outweigh civilized conversation, it's sating the primal desires, eh?"
"Ick," said Toby.
L'roon shrugged. "'Ick' is subjective. Were you, or were you not, partaking in Scarlatin cuisine over the course of the past month?" He indicated the sea of corpses.
Toby narrowed his eyes. "Touché."
The peddler giggled. "So. Are we in agreement then? One potion in exchange for one journey's worth of scarlet? I'll wake you up and disgorge you unharmed once we reach the market town."
Toby was already starting to take off his shoes. "Fine. Though... can I, like, have a painkiller before I go in? Or a sleeping pill?" He laughed weakly. "Maybe a flashlight and something to read?"
L'roon smiled pleasantly. "You won't need anything like that. I've done this many times. My guests have said they felt quite lightheaded during, but they described the ride as comfortable." He reached out his five arms to effortlessly lift the mouse up off the ground. "You may even find it relaxing."
Toby watched as the construct's crocodilian mouth spread open like a castle drawbridge. The teeth were yellowed and the flesh was a pale violet. A wave of hot breath hit Toby's nose and he choked a little.
"Excuse me," L'roon said. He rustled around in his pockets for a candy tin, then popped about seven mints in his mouth. "Better?"
"Now it smells like candy canes, roast beef, and spit," Toby said honestly.
"Ah well. I did my best." L'roon saw no reason to prolong the conversation further, so he jammed the mouse straight down his throat.
It got very dark very quickly. Toby closed his eyes and covered his muzzle to keep out smells and hold in screams. He was not going to let himself be a wuss about this. Not a single part of his body could stand the sensations engulfing it, but he knew he'd been in worse. And he trusted L'roon's word. The merchant had shown himself to be amoral, but not dishonest. 'If he says I'm not in any real danger, I won't be. It'll be just like... getting put in storage.'
His skin sure was crawling though. Toby was upside down in complete darkness. L'roon's esophagus tugged at him like dozens of wet, squishy hands. He felt the breeze on his legs vanish as the construct closed his mouth, trapping the mouse's feet inside. A yard-long tongue pressed against Toby's soles, sending him on his way.
It was a short journey, but it felt much longer. Covered in mucus, Toby was shoved through a tight ring of muscle into a space the size of a duffel bag. He wriggled into a sitting position. He wrapped his arms around his knees. "This is incredibly gross!!!" he allowed himself to shriek.
"You did agree to it!" came a muffled reply.
"I'm surprised you can still hear me!" Toby called back.
"Not for long, unfortunately. If you don't try to fight it, your oxygen will run out soon. ...If you do try to fight it, it'll run out sooner."
Toby felt around a bit. There were thousands of tiny, finger-shaped nodules covering the construct's innerspace, like anemone tentacles. "No problem! The less of this I have to stay conscious for, the better!"
L'roon's chuckle reverberated his abdomen. "Do you have a preference for where I will make the injection?"
Toby was about to yelp, 'What injection!?' Then he reasoned that, of course, L'roon would have to get his blood out somehow. 'I've had about a bazillion blood tests by now,' he shrugged. "My arm?"
"Left or right?"
"Doesn't matter!" As soon as he'd said it, Toby felt a garter snake slither along his right bicep. He flinched away from it, but there was no escape in here. It was one of those finger-things from the walls. It slithered into his armpit and a tiny beak-like stinger began probing for a vein. 'Just like a nurse would.' Except not. Because when the puncture came, it sunk in much deeper than a needle, headed straight for a plump, juicy artery. Toby involuntarily howled.
"I hope it didn't hurt too much," L'roon said, sounding genuine.
Toby fought the urge to rip the snakelike tube from his arm. It felt like a leech with a corkscrew nose. "Not a bit!" he sarcasmed, trying to keep his voice from cracking.
"You are brave, small sir," L'roon complimented.
Hearing that actually made him feel better. "Thank you."
"And may I say, I believe you will provide fine nourishment. Your blood has... character."
Toby didn't know how L'roon was 'tasting' him, but was glad he liked it. 'I really would have to sell my clothes if he spat me back out and said I was too bitter!'
He settled in and tried to get comfortable (if that was even possible). The wound in his arm throbbed. The holding compartment's membrane stuck to him all over. It smelled like wet dog in here. Holding his glowing palm-slit up to his face, he could barely see two inches in front of him.
Then a wave of sleepiness smacked him right across the forehead. "Wowww, that came on quick!" Toby could feel the tube in his arm gulping down blood at a rapacious pace. His cheeks and fingertips were already getting numb. "L'roon? Hey, I'm just gonna... try to get cozy and take a nap in here, allright?"
"I told you it wouldn't take long!"
He tried to keep his mind on what he was gaining by going through with this. "Sorry it turned out this way. I actually did want to talk with you during the trip."
"We may have time later," the construct said calmingly. "For now, enjoy rest. I will enjoy you."
Toby couldn't feel his feet anymore. His face felt watery. Sparkles flashed in the darkness.
He rolled over onto his side, careful not to disturb the organic needle. 'This place would be a lot more bearable if it wasn't so moist.'
It was getting harder to think. Toby felt like an empty styrofoam cup. Who knew he had this much blood in him in the first place? He felt kind of hungry. The colors were so pretty, and yet he had his eyes closed... Was he breathing? There was...
In the lightless cubbyhole within the nightmare's abdomen, Toby began a repeating cycle of death and rebirth. Over and over and over. The probe in his arm never stopped drinking. Toby would drain, die, reform, then be drained again. He was an ever-full chalice. L’roon would have sworn he could taste the mouse's dreams.
It was a lot like being locked in a sensory deprivation chamber. Toby could see nothing but the shifting lights behind his eyelids. He could hear nothing but the slow slosh of the merchant's guts. L'roon had no heartbeat. Toby found this somehow fitting, during one of his brief moments of lucidity. He kept falling asleep as he slowly died, then waking up to a few more moments of awareness. Then, back into blankness again.
But, as anyone knows who has had something brilliant come to them just before or after bedtime, this was perfect mental terrain for ideas. The halfway-zone between wake and sleep connected Toby to his subconscious, allowing concepts to emerge that his rational censor might have immediately vetoed otherwise.
His mind's eye saw his friends and yearned for them. He saw their faces. Their smiles. To reach them again meant getting past Scaphis. And once his mind fixed on her, it began to burn with unfulfilled outrage. The name felt branded on the inside of his eyelids, letters flickering with heat and ash: SCAPHIS TARRARE.
In the dark damp dreamness, Toby mined his imagination for revenge. His perpetually-asphyxiating mind was a cloudy soup where any batshit thing could float in for consideration. No judgment was made until the idea was fully formed and in front of him. Like an audition. He let himself leap into each successive scenario, replaying it again and again, trying to find one that wouldn't inevitably come to a literal dead end.
The first and most primitive scenarios were of simply storming her fortress, hammer in hand, and beating the everloving snot out of her. Except the reverse was more probable. He saw her as a snarling dragon, with himself in knight's armor, piercing her heart with a lance. Except in real life he wasn't strong enough to hold one. He imagined calling in Phobiopolis' army and having them storm the mountain with all sortsa artillery. Except Phobiopolis didn't have an army. He imagined flying over Anasarca and bombing the hell out of it. Total annihilation. Except his friends would be inside when that happened. And where was he going to get a plane?
Toby traveled to Anasarca hundreds upon hundreds of times. Ninety percent of these scenarios ended in horrific failure. But a golden few showed promise.
Some even sounded quite nice.
As the finger-tube drank from his arm, Toby phased back and forth between reality and mirage. He saw faces. He imagined conversations. Tearful, joyous reunions. Battle planning. Coordinated retaliation. Then the repeated disappointment of waking up back in a stomach again.
His goal was such a long way off. Why couldn't it just get here sooner?
'Time travel would be nice...' Toby thought as his brain succumbed to darkness yet again.
And then he was sliding backwards through a cramped, sweltering tunnel, emerging into blinding light while screaming.
Toby flailed blindly in the dirt. Threads of hot mucus embraced him like arachnopus silk. Air flooded into him, blasting open his lungs. His eyes felt like charcoal. He had no idea where he was and his brain registered nothing but panic.
"It's a boy!" L'roon announced.
The construct's booming laughter shook the air. He wiped his gummy mouth off with a napkin and bent to do the same for Toby. Unsurprisingly, the mouse fought back like he was being bushwhacked. "Calmness and relaxation, small sir! You are out now! We are almost at the market! Open your eyes and see!"
"I can't!" the mouse shrieked. "Too bright!"
Toby felt claws scraping at the sides of his head and whooped in terror. Then, when something touched the bridge of his muzzle, he realized L'roon had slipped a pair of sunglasses on him.
Toby reluctantly peeked past his eyelids. The light still scratched his corneas like phoenix talons, but it was slightly more bearable now. "Th-thank you."
L'roon patted him on the head. "I'm pleased to see the experience didn't drive you insane. Isolation can do things to a soul, you know. Rise and shine, Toby! We are here!"
Spindly arms were yanking him to his feet with great enthusiasm. Toby noticed L'roon had never sounded so chipper. "I'm guessing you liked my blood?"
"IMMENSELY!!" L'roon roared. "Taking nourishment from trade is fine, but I'd forgotten the primitive satisfaction of BLOOD! Mmmmm! The salty, coppery, livingness of your red wine, my dear friend! Scrumptious!!"
Toby was lowered back to the ground. He began plucking strings of gut-grease off his clothes and fur. Fur! Toby squeaked in surprise as he looked down at his fuzzy white legs. "Hey! It grew back!" He'd been bald as a bug when they'd left Scarlatina.
"You look better in snow than sunset," L'roon complimented. "Also, there will be showers available just inside the market limits."
"Best news all day." Toby gave up trying to de-gunk himself. He was practically cocooned anyway. The thought of nice warm water and frothy soap made him smile. "I think I'm actually feeling okay now. I mean, aside from being sticky all over and kinda blind. I did a lot of thinking in there. I might have even nailed down some solid ideas on what to do next after we find George."
"Better and better!" L'roon said heartily. He whapped Toby across the chest. "See!? See my skill at arranging deals where both parties benefit?"
Toby gave him a sidelong look. "I've got stomach-slime all over me. I'm not delighted. But... yes, I admit, the time alone with my thoughts helped." He checked his internal workings. The tightness of his anxiety still hadn't left, even though his sleep had been surprisingly restful. He now felt a pulsing need to busy himself. Doubt and fear still bubbled below in the cauldron of his gut. Action would keep him from sinking back into despair.
L'roon handed Toby back his shoes. "Are you sturdy enough to walk yet? Do you need a moment?"
Toby tried taking a step. His legs felt stiff, as he hadn't used them in... "How long was I in you?"
"Three days, as mentioned before. Though actually a little less. I felt very energized."
Toby grimaced. That meant three more days in which George could have been sold to someone else. Three more days of Scaphis gaining power. A tentacle of despair rose up and he mentally kicked it back down. "Let's just head in and get started."
"But of course." L'roon reached out to push some branches aside.
Toby had been disgorged in the midst of a foreboding clump of foliage. To a completely color blind individual, this forest might have looked fairly normal. Anyone else would get seasick. The leaves and bushes and tree trunks were all grotesquely wrong colors. Ugly oranges, yellows, and purples. Lots of black. The colors made Toby think of a Halloween party seen through a drunkard's eyes.
Though just ahead was a solid wall of aurora borealis.
Though his eyes were tender after so long in the dark, he'd also been standing a quarter mile from an unfathomable lightshow. An inverted waterfall, shimmering, climbing all the way up to the sky. The colors were soothing pinks, blues, violets, and greens. Exactly as beautiful as the forest was hideous. It was mind-boggling that the two areas could exist side-by-side.
Toby felt puny in comparison to this heavenly light. It curved, cutting through the forest in an area roughly city-sized. The bars of light shifted in and out like piano keys in slow motion. The rippling colors chased each other with no hurry. His mouth hung open, unable to put words to the awe he was feeling.
"Ingenious, isn't it?" L'roon said fondly. "I don't know if our eyes are seeing the same thing, but I find it quite pretty myself."
"Yes..." Toby whispered. "It's incredible." And very welcome, too. After having lived through so much ugliness, such a dazzling display was like a shower for his soul.
"A fortunate accident, really. An imperfect refraction. You'll soon see its true purpose once we get closer." L'roon led the way, using his arms and sheer bulk to bulldoze the plants. "By the way, keep your senses keen. Now that you are outside of me, other less-friendly constructs might notice you."
Toby hadn't thought about that. He did a quick check of his surroundings. Nothing seemed to be moving, though the trees were so thick it was difficult to tell.
He flashed back to his days in the cave. So paralyzed with fear of beasts that it was nearly a week before he dared to make a run for food. Now here he was in a strange place and the thought of local monstrosities hadn't even crossed his mind. He scolded himself for not paying attention.
But then he reconsidered. 'Maybe I've had enough Phobiopolis experience to not need to care so much.'
He flexed his stumpy fingers. If something did try to pounce out of the leaves at him, it'd get a forehead full of jackhammer.
Squeezing through some frightful puce bushes, Toby snapped to alertness when he saw someone approaching. Then he was abruptly reminded of Aldridge's front yard.
L'roon smiled at himself and tidied his outfit. "Now do you see?"
Toby walked towards the other white mouse. "I see me." He was still bone-skinny, but at least his fur had grown back in properly. No patchy places. The clothes from K&K still looked sharp on him. And suddenly he remembered that he already knew their names. 'Kay and Kaye! That's right!' He felt a little burst of happy energy inside him at the return of another memory tidbit.
"Phobiopolis did not create this," L'roon said as he approached the borealis border. "The market has been here for a long, long time, but their defenses used to be much cruder. This is an elegant solution. They have no more problems repelling nightmares now. Can you guess why that would be?"
Toby was about to shrug, when he saw the answer in his own eyes. "...Because constructs ignore other constructs! They see themselves, get confused, and walk away!"
L'roon nodded. "Well done."
Toby was about to walk towards his reflection, but memories of lost fingertips made him recoil and shudder. He decided to wait for L'roon to go in first. "If it's such a good idea, why don't all the cities do it?"
The peddler shrugged. "It is new. Lalochezia's shopkeepers were inspired by stories of the blue sky atop Ectopia Cordis. Plus, once a system is already in place, people are reluctant to risk a change. Take Coryza, for example."
"Allright. So then-"
L'roon put a hand on his shoulder, then gestured for him to not move quickly.
Toby turned his head. A few meters back, standing on stilts, was a nightmare that looked like a pineapple split down the middle. Its whole armored torso was a giant eyeless mouth, held up by four antelope legs. Its lips and teeth were enormous. It froze when Toby spotted it: a predator hoping its prey's vision is based on movement.
"Let's go inside," L'roon whispered.
"Fantastic idea," Toby whispered back.
The merchant grabbed a few handfuls of Toby's vest and escorted him through the illusion.
...Into a refugee camp.
Toby was stunned by the abrupt change in temperature, humidity, and overall atmosphere. But he was equally unsettled by the enormous amount of huddled people surrounding him. Mostly children, like anywhere in Phobiopolis. Everyone looked weary and barely awake. Many held small bags or backpacks close to them. A few had lean-tos for shade. Many were lying down and staring at the sky like they couldn't find the energy for anything else. It was as if part of Scarlatina's ocean had washed up here.
"Quickly," L'roon barked. Still clutching Toby's vest, he hurried the mouse along through the crowd. The construct's massive abdomen bumped several people out of the way, but he did not pause to apologize.
"Hey!" Toby said. "That's rude!"
"They will be ruder if we let them," L'roon snapped.
All around, heads began turning in the direction of the mouse and merchant. Hungry eyes looked upon them, ringed with sleepless bags. The ragged people began to crawl across the purple dirt towards the newcomers, moving in slow motion. Their faces were lined with misery like the weathered planks of sunken ships.
A raccoon who looked somewhere between eleven and eighty held his hands out to L'roon. "Please..."
"I have no free samples!!" the construct hissed as he rushed past. He kept his head glued forward, never looking back. He didn't even check to see if his cart was running over anyone.
Toby was horrified at L'roon's callousness, but on some level he had to admit, the refugees were scaring him too. The way they stared at him. Like he was their only hope of salvation. Like they might rip the clothes right off his body if they got close enough. "Who are they!?"
"They fled from Papilloma when Scaphis destroyed it. I can't believe so many of them are still here! Inexcusable laziness!" L'roon held tight to the mouse as he plowed through the needy masses. His lips were pulled back in a hateful scowl. Many hands reached out to his cart, trying to slow the wheels, but L'roon pulled harder.
Finally the duo passed some kind of invisible line that the refugees seemed afraid to cross. They relented, still staring at the backs of the construct and mouse. Now with hatred and disappointment.
Toby looked over his shoulder. He had never seen such intense desperation in all his life. He was about to ask L'roon more questions, when the construct let go of his vest, then turned around to inspect his cart.
"I knew it! I should have seen it coming! Those insects stole everything that wasn't nailed down! All of it, vanished!" He turned and shook five fists at the refugees. "PARASITES!!!"
Someone in the crowd leapt up and flashed double middle fingers back.
L'roon snorted in cold laughter. "See!? That one shows initiative! Why can't you all be more like him!?"
Toby tugged at the merchant's arms. "Jesus Christ, L'roon! Aren't you overreacting!? They're suffering, it's obvious. You lost a few knick-knacks! So what!? You've still got plenty!"
L'roon turned and narrowed his eyes at Toby, who remembered just how much larger than him the construct was. "I do not like being stolen from under any circumstances."
"That's understandable, but..." Toby took a step back. "You could have a bit of empathy."
"Empathy, I have. But only to a point. These people were here last time. They've had a month to move on. Instead they lie here, without food, without possessions, without will, hoping that someone will swoop in to mother them. They take no responsibility for their own lives!"
Toby's timid posture changed. He glared back into L'roon's silver eyes. He replied, quietly but firmly, "I was like that a while ago. It takes time to grow out of."
The merchant's long neck pulled back. He considered Toby's words. Then he looked back at the crowd. "I do not believe there is ever a time when your own tribulations justify the theft of others' property."
Toby couldn't stop himself. "Isn't that exactly how you got started?"
L'roon opened his mouth. Closed it. Waited a moment for his temper to pass. Then he calmed, and a begrudging respect entered his smile. He patted Toby's shoulder. "This is why I would have liked to have shared conversation all through our journey. You challenge me."
Toby chuckled in nervous relief, glad that L'roon hadn't bitten his head off. "Sorry if I was a bit of a smartass there, but I thought you were being kinda, well..."
"Uncharitable," L'roon acknowledged. "And, yes. But charity is not my nature. Someone else will eventually come forth to aid these sad people, or they will rise and help themselves. I will remain neutral. They can have my 'knick-knacks'. It was partly my own fault for leaving them unsecured."
Toby figured that was as much conciliation as he was likely to get. "Allright."
"Would you like for me to show you the showers?"
"Yes!" Toby immediately agreed, forgetting all else.
Although, as he followed L'roon away, he couldn't help but look back again at the flood of refugees. Their dusty clothes. The way their gazes drilled into blank space as if their souls had run out of fuel. Toby realized now how horrible their fate was. They'd taken sanctuary in this market town, but of course, everything here was for sale. And they looked like they'd all run from Papilloma with whatever they'd been able to grab on the way out. Now they had nothing. They couldn't starve, but they couldn't do anything else either. Purgatory.
"Scaphis did this to them, didn't she? She took their home, and..." Toby's voice faltered.
L'roon replied, "Papilloma was a small settlement just beside the wall of Phlegmasia, in the place where nightmares do not tread. Though they did not know the name of their destroyer, I have heard it called by others The Plastic Storm. If we extrapolate correctly about its origin, we can assume she has every soul inside the maze engulfed as well."
Toby felt a weight on his heart, imagining so many people caught, entwined, turned into statues. If Scaphis had done this, it was because he'd let her out. He had freed her from the mirror-forest, then brought her within reach of Aldridge's power. Toby knew Scaphis had tricked him as Doll. She'd fooled everyone. So he knew, rationally, he did not need to feel guilt or responsibility for what she had done now that she was unleashed.
He felt it anyway.
Toby lost himself in the sensations of the shower. They were public and open. Rows of pipes grew out of the ground like giraffe necks. The cool water was so nice that Toby was able to ignore the multitudes of naked Phobiopolans all around him. Nothing else mattered. For this slim moment, as he lathered up himself and his outfit, he was completely at peace.
He emerged refreshed, and gave Lalochezia an assessment.
In many ways other than the showers, it reminded him of Stoma. The dirt here was the same dark, mulberry color. The buildings were short, but not nearly as ramshackle. Tall trees soared up, encircling the town. Palms. He wondered if they had something to do with the aurora outside. The air here was dry and pleasantly warm. The sky was blue and bright. Toby wondered how much of that was illusion as well.
Countless pushcarts zoomed like racecars. The streets were laid out like a miniature suburbia, and the buildings served a dual purpose. Colorful storefronts drew customers in, while the owners lived modestly in back. A literal market town. Most of the houseshops were tiny, but he did see a few restaurants, grocery stores, and wholesalers that took up bigger plots.
Most surprisingly, the place wasn't nearly as crowded as he expected it to be. The town certainly looked festive enough at first glance, almost like a state fair. But the longer Toby looked, the more he saw the word 'closed'. Boarded-over doors and windows. Rolled-up awnings. 'For Sale' signs plagued front lawns like weeds.
There were enough customers milling around to create a bustle, but Toby had a feeling the streets would've normally been packed. A lot of people seemed to just be browsing. Window shopping. Only a few were carrying shopping bags. It reminded him of when he was little and his mother had taken him to a mall that was on the verge of closing. It was so empty he could have rolled a bowling ball from one end to the other and not tripped anyone. Lalochezia was not nearly that bad, but it was on the road there.
Toby sought out L'roon. Thankfully easy to spot, ordering drinks at a nearby bar.
The merchant sipped at something the color of Arizona. When Toby walked up, he placed a paper umbrella behind the mouse's ear. "Finished?"
Toby was about to swat the frilly decoration away, but then thought 'what the heck' and let it stay. He nodded. "That was definitely nice. Oh, and you can have these back." He handed over the sunglasses.
"Thank you. I was about to charge you for them."
Toby didn't know if he was kidding. "Ha ha. Ready to go?"
L'roon nodded, then drained the rest of his drink in a gulp. "Absolutely. The quicker we start, the more time I have for potioncraft. Assuming the deal is still on?"
"Correct," Toby said without hesitation. In a way, getting the potion before getting George was like affirming a foregone conclusion. He had to find George, because otherwise the potion would be pointless, and the potion couldn't be pointless because he was going to use it on George. Cause and effect didn't work that way, but the idea helped to psych him up regardless.
L'roon set his glass down, tossed a nod to the barman, and left without tipping. Toby followed the merchant as he sauntered down the middle of the street, waving at people and letting them know he was back in town. A few rushed over to buy from him, and the construct belatedly remembered to slap a sign on his cart: NOT OPEN YET. There were disappointed reactions, but L'roon was quick to assure everyone he'd be eager to deal tomorrow.
Toby passed boutiques, cafes, junk shops, and greasy spoons. Some of the wares looked resale, others handmade. Others were too new and modern to have been anything but imaginite-created. Lalochezia had a definite 'anything goes' vibe. A citywide garage sale. Some people were ushering in customers while others did yardwork. Toby spotted willwells in a few places and felt relieved. He had nothing to trade with if he saw something interesting, but he thought he could spare a bit of willpower.
Besides the shops and shoppers, Toby noticed something else: the streets were conspicuously clean. No litter anywhere. 'Wait, there's a pile of diapers just lying by the side of-' Toby flinched when a pushcart passed too close to the pile and they all scampered off on tiny legs. 'Diaperats!' Toby remembered them from the mirror-forest. 'Huh. Maybe they eat up the garbage, same as the pigs around Ectopia.' He kept his eye out for more of them. A little girl dropped her taco wrapper and a diaperat lunged out from behind a hedge to cram it in its mouth. 'Hey, I was right!'
A fellow mouse walked by. A pleasantly-pudgy female with warm grey fur. She tipped Toby a playful wink. Thrice, actually. He did a double-take when he realized she had two extra faces at the ends of her feet. He smiled back at her. 'I really must be getting used to Phobiopolis,' he thought.
Toby followed behind L'roon until the construct stopped at a purple-painted shop so pungent Toby could smell it from thirty paces. The name was Jazeizal's Intricacies and the odor was a haze of vinegar, dried flowers, and entrails. Toby was not keen on entering without a gasmask. "You sold George here?"
L'roon turned around, looking puzzled. "No, I... Oh! You thought I was leading you to your horse! My apologies, small sir. I had assumed you'd find him on your own."
Toby gnashed his teeth, steaming. "How am I supposed to find anything in a place I've never been to!?"
A patient roll of the eyes, then L'roon pointed across the street to an automated map kiosk.
The construct spoke reasonably. "This is my ingredients supplier. If you want me to brew you a potion, is it not for the best I begin right away?"
Toby felt his stomach clench at the thought of tackling Lalochezia alone. But the construct had a point. There was no good reason for L'roon to waste time babysitting. 'And dammit, I shouldn't need my hand held anymore.' He gave himself a mental cheek-slap and ordered his worries to silence. "Okay. Where should I start looking? And should I just come back here whenever I find him?"
"To answer in order, your destination is the shop of a junk trader named Madame Tif Tif. Old but crafty. That woman's got a convincing tongue as sharp as my own. Watch your pockets around her, lest you spend more than you intend. And yes: I will be either here, or at the bar & grill across the street."
Toby nodded, writing it all down in his memory. "Got it. How long do you think the potion will take?"
A full-body shrug. "I might be busy all night; I might finish in fifteen minutes."
More uncertainties. Toby didn't like it, but there was nothing to be done about it. He shook hands with L'roon. "I'll see you later then. Good luck."
A nod from the merchant. "To you as well."
They parted ways for the afternoon, and Toby walked over to the map machine to begin puzzling out how it worked.
He had not found George, but he did find lunch.
The thought of wandering around this chaotic, run down place all by himself made Toby uptight at first, but with a map it wouldn't be too hard, right? The machine required only a few seconds' focus at its mini-willwell before dispensing one. It unfolded to immense size, listing every vendor in town. Toby located Tif Tif, then scanned the map's quadrants until he found her in G16. Of course she was halfway across town. He growled a little. Best to get started. He fought the map back to a folded state and headed out.
He passed a lot of weird shit. Not quite as much as in Ectopia Cordis, but more than enough to make him stop and stare a few times. Even with the streets so empty and so many shops closed, there were still plenty of dubious wares on display. Bushel baskets of fake-looking jewelry. Scuzzy cheap toys. Incomprehensible electronics. Toby saw an eyeball tree from which fresh, leafy eyefruits were being harvested. He saw several parked, gently hovering carpets on leashes. He saw a washtub full of transparent ghost brains suspended in purple liquid. He saw a dunk tank game where people lined up to throw bricks at a puma's head (who seemed tickled pink by this). He saw stacks of cubes that customers were dipping their faces into, just like the memories from Coryza's museum. Toby was tempted to go over and sample some himself, until he saw one girl jerk her head away like she'd just seen her own funeral inside.
Everywhere, street kids ran around pestering people. They'd hard-sell shoppers on whatever junk they'd scavenged, while their pals pickpocketed the living hell out of the poor saps. When no one was around to scam, they'd retire to the side of the road and play a few rounds of don't-stab-your-fingers. Toby kept his distance and tried to look as broke as he actually was.
There were street performers as well. A block away from where people tossed crumbs of imaginite into a violinist's case, two other musicians dueled on electric guitars. One got so into the music, they began bludgeoning the other with their instrument. Then Toby passed a contortionist, a card shark, and two guys with a banjo and a piano playing a jaunty, wistful tune with the most suicidally depressing lyrics Toby had ever heard. The mouse actually covered his ears as he darted away.
But the furson who left the most impression was a bedraggled ocelot who was loudly hum-grunting an intense, haunting melody as if no one around was watching. Toby couldn't help but stare. Just when the feline seemed to be reaching a crescendo, he burst into lyrics:
"I beg the ghosts of space and time,
Prevent me from my greatest crime!
Stop me from revealing I'm-"
And then he vanished.
People stood around in uncomfortable silence for a moment, then a few tossed money into his empty hat and scurried away.
Not twenty feet from this unsettling scene, Toby passed a hot dog cart where wriggling, screeching nightmares were being fed into a grinder and turned into sausage meat.
He passed a barker trumpeting the virtues of a machine that looked for all the world like a bear fucking a lawnmower.
He passed a twenty-foot-tall convorine sculpture made from rusty auto parts.
He passed two scantily-clad women who began slinking up behind him. One said in a sultry voice, "Fuck me for ten-thou? Kill me for twenty?" Toby cringed down to his tailtip. "No thanks!" he squeaked. As he skedaddled, he heard them moan teasingly in disappointment. "Awwww..."
Almost immediately, a shady character sidled up and put a lightning-fast arm around Toby's shoulder. "Hey there, pal!! Wouldn't you like to buy a Ne'er-Do-Well!?"
"Exc-cuse me!?" Toby stammered, flinching away. "What's that?"
The stoat held a thingamabob in front of Toby's nose. "Let's say some shopkeep's fucked you over. Slip this on their willwell and it'll look like it's taking in will but it won't be!" He laughed and slapped his knee. "Now is that perfect payback or what!?"
Toby pried the fellow's arm off. "I wouldn't have any use for one, sorry."
A shrug. "Your loss, buddy-boy!" he cried out, with a pat on the back that sent the mouse stumbling.
A few minutes later, Toby found the 'KICK ME' sign. He rolled his eyes.
A few minutes after that, he found the spot where Madame Tif Tif's boutique was supposed to be. It wasn't. Instead it was a used clothing store. Toby asked inside, but the gum-chewing clerk had never heard the name he was searching for. Toby went back out and started circling the block. He consulted the map five more times, his frustration increasing exponentially.
He realized he was getting too worked up to think clearly. He picked the most normal-looking restaurant nearby and headed in for a bite.
Poubelle & After's had no walls, just a checkered tile floor and an open kitchen. The sign floated above the diner in slow rotation, showing a logo with the two smiling cartoon faces of its proprietors. Customers ate while watching the duo whip up meals. Dinner and a show.
Poubelle was a perpetually-smiling squirrel with a bit of a pot belly. Her fur was a consistent indigo from top to bottom, even her eyes (Even her teeth!). After was a sandy bat in a button-down vest with tall ears and a humongous noseleaf. His eyes were fixed on his work with total focus as he ran in circles between the grill and burners.
Toby seated himself in a cozy little wrought iron chair. Poubelle scooted over within seconds, chipper as a spring afternoon. "What'll it be, sugarpie?" She pressed a menu into his paws.
"Um..." She hadn't given him much time. He scanned the listed items, and while all the pictures looked good, a lot of the names were so heavy with local slang he couldn't decipher them. Clown Pudding for instance, or Babaguuscooties.
She could tell at a glance he was an out-of-towner. "Look over yonder. See that big mound my partner's chippin' away at?"
Toby couldn't help but be stunned at the sight of the single largest slab of imaginite he'd ever laid eyes on.
"That's where we make our ingredients. But the food itself's fresh and homemade. Substitutions are a breeze, donchaworry."
Toby smiled at the idea. "Sounds like the best of both worlds between a thoughtstaurant and a regular 'raunt."
She beamed. "Just the idea!"
He looked over the menu again. "I have absolutely no idea what I want and everything looks good. Any recommendations?"
"Hmm. You look like you could use a full tank. Ever had a monte cristo?" She pointed to a photo of a dauntingly huge sandwich.
Toby was mildly terrified by the fried behemoth, but his salivating mouth decided for him. "Not until today."
Poubelle was delighted at his choice and signed him up for the sandwich, plus a tall glass of mare's milk and a mug of tomato basil soup. She took back the menu and zipped away.
While Toby waited, it was fun watching her and After work. They tended to swap cooking and serving duties every few minutes, tag-team style. One would pick up what the other had been doing as if they shared a single mind. After dashed out of the kitchen to welcome new customers while Poubelle zoomed in to stir pots. Toby remembered the theme of duos at Rippingbean & Woofingbutter's. These two would fit right in at the food court.
When his soup and sandwich arrived, the scent reached off the plate to kiss him on the nose. He thanked Poubelle and dived in. Glorious! He couldn't remember eating anything so rich. The sandwich hit his stomach like a perfect cannonball.
As Toby sipped his soup, he felt himself relax more and more. He spent some time just taking in the passing parade.
Directly across the street was a tentpole market selling fresh vegetables alongside crates of outerspace laser pistols. Beside it, a triceratops sat on a milk crate reading a newspaper. As if the sight of a dinosaur wasn't unusual enough, the trike was showing only minor discomfort as several other furs carved up his back like a chop shop, lifting out steaks that went right to the grill. Other cuts of him hung around the awning of the cart. People were lined up with plates out. The triceratops ignored them, concentrating on his paper, looking no more pained than someone getting a haircut.
Aside from the sellers, there were customers to gawk at too. Not everyone was a weirdo, but there were certainly plenty if you took time to look. A man in a leisure suit with a skinless skull. A girl who looked like she'd tried to reproduce amoeba-style and stopped halfway. A couple so monumentally overweight they rode side-by-side in motorized bathtubs. And a fellow pushing along a wheelbarrow full of snarling caged terrorbunnies.
Over here was a woman whose species seemed to be pickup truck: a grille for a muzzle with four literal headlamps for eyes. Over there was a furson who was as two-tone as an old silent movie, complete with static.
Toby watched them all walk by, and a feeling began creeping up on him of just how alone he really was. Walking around Lalochezia hadn't given him as much a sense of its scale as the sheer number of people milling about. And this was on an off-day! Toby sipped his milk, feeling small. He envisioned a birds-eye view of the city, seeing a microscopic dot somewhere in the middle labeled 'You Are Here'. He hadn't been so completely on his own since those first few nights in the cave.
'I'm in a mess, aren't I? I can't even find George with a map. How am I ever gonna handle Scaphis?'
He chuckled, but then his expression turned to sorrow.
He thought back to the hollow, needy eyes of the refugees from Papilloma.
'She pulled their faces off. I watched her torture all my friends and then she stole their faces.'
There was no warning. Toby shoved away his soup bowl by reflex and suddenly his face was buried in his folded arms. His jaw shuddered. His lips pulled back and his eyes clenched shut. His lungs tightened. His fists balled. The tears were unstoppable.
For a moment he didn't even know why. His sobs were quiet, but wrenched from him so violently that his ribs ached. His shoulders hunched and his nose leaked. Within seconds he was completely blind from crying. The tablecloth was nothing but a bleary cloud.
He had been shoving this feeling away. Burying it under plans and worries, keeping his mind busy with problems, rushing off into the fray without giving his heart time to catch up. He had lost so much in so short a time and his grief was tired of waiting to be heard. It was forcing him to listen, here and now. It didn't matter that he was surrounded by dozens of people. He had passed his breaking point without realizing it.
'She killed them. My friends. Piffle and Zinc and Junella and George. She killed all of them. Heartlessly. She wanted me to watch. She tortured them. She hid her real self all that time. Every word she wrote was a lie. And then she got rid of us without any hesitation. She pulled their faces off!! And I watched and I did NOTHING!!'
His chest felt like a giant fist was collapsing it. His eyes leaked on the tabletop, stinging. At his core there was a painful weight that just kept growing heavier. His own internal black hole.
His mind retraced every detail he remembered from those horrible last minutes in the silver door room. Every moment of his friends squirming, crying, calling out in fear. And Doll's soundless, sadistic taunting. She'd done everything so slow. To savor it. To prolong their pain. Her long black tongue with the green stinger at the tip. She erased them with it. Carved away everything that made them who they were, violated every part of them, robbed them of their very identity. And she'd enjoyed it. The more pain the better. It was fun.
'How could I have ever thought I'd stand a chance against cruelty like that? We loved her. We cared about her and kept her safe the whole time we thought she was Doll. And THIS is what she did to us. My friends... The best people I ever knew. They were so strong and caring. They supported me when I was nothing but a scared little wimp. They helped me and encouraged me. Like brothers and sisters. I'll never see them again. I'm running away from that fact because it hurts too much. I'm doing what characters in fairy tales do and rushing off to be a hero, but I'm not a hero and I never was. They're GONE. And I'm too weak to face it. She took their faces off. Scooped them out like jack-o-lanterns. She made toys out of them. And I'm crazy to think I'll ever have any chance of getting close to them ever again. Crazy! I'm out of my stupid, worthless mind! I ought to be mourning them and instead I'm lying to myself that I can change a goddamn thing. Turn back time. I sat there and I watched. I did nothing to stop them dying. And I hate myself for that and the guilt will kill me if I let myself feel it, so I'm building this elaborate bullshit in my head that I can save them.'
He stared down at the table but his eyes saw nothing. He felt like heavy stones were driving him down into the cold dirt to be buried. 'I can't do this. No one could. Aldridge didn't even try, he knew better. She tore him up like old garbage. Then she did the same to everyone I loved. How could... How could anyone have that much hate inside? To turn on the people who'd stood by you and carried you and tried so hard to heal you!?'
This was Logdorbhok all over again. Faced with the true enormity of what Scaphis was, and what she had taken from him, Toby was finally cracking. His dam had burst. And while he knew these thoughts were possibly irrational and definitely pessimistic, he also felt like he needed to air them. He'd tried to hold back these floodwaters, and that was a mistake. He had grieved for the loss of his new family in Scarlatina, but had not allowed himself to grieve for his old one.
'I loved you. Every one of you. Back before I died, the only furson I ever really had on my side was my dad. And he was thrown away like garbage too. Everyone I love either turns out to be my enemy or vanishes for good. Is this what love is? Betrayal and loss unending? Just one heartbreak over and over? How can people stand it? And here I am in a world where I can't even commit suicide. The pain won't let me escape no matter what I do.'
His breath shuddered. He felt tiny and weak. A broken eggshell. Something delicate that had been stomped flat again and again until barely any trace remained.
'I can't take it. I can't go on. I don't want to. I don't want to live in a world where everyone leaves. Where we're all dreams for some rotten curled-up dead demon to play with. It never ends and there's no way out. Everything good dies. It all gets taken away...'
He saw their faces smiling at him from the past, unreachable.
'Junella... You tried so hard to make me strong. You kicked my ass and chewed me out. I looked up to you. Zinc, too. I was amazed by him. Always facing everything with a smile like it was no big deal. Piffle was the sweetest, most loving, adventurous, exciting, hopeful friend anyone could ever have. And no one in the world has ever been more loyal and devoted as George. I never deserved them. What was I to them but an anchor? Something to drag along behind them. And even when I started pulling myself up, Dysphoria slammed me right back down again. Just when I thought-'
Toby lifted his head.
Poubelle recoiled at the state his face was in. "Oh, hon!! You are feelin' diggy, aren't you!?"
He had no idea what she meant. His reddened eyes could barely focus. She was just a blue wavy place in the air. He sniffed away his runny nose and asked, "What?"
"Diggy? Y'know?" She mimed standing in a hole and digging herself deeper and deeper.
"Right. Yeah." He laughed miserably at how appropriate the gesture fit his feeling.
A warm blue paw gently rubbed his shoulder. "What's gotcha like this? You look like a wrung sponge. I hope it's not 'cuz of the food!"
Another laugh, then a loud sniff as he wiped his tears away on his napkin. "No, the food was wonderful. Don't worry about that. And don't worry about me either, I just... My emotions caught up to me, that's all."
Toby had felt himself drowning a moment ago. His despair had been overwhelming. As deep and wide as the ocean. It seemed impossible anything else could exist. But now, just a simple bit of comfort from a total stranger had brought him up for air.
Poubelle was looking at him with a sad, gentle smile that reminded him of Piffle. "Whatever it was, I hope you feel better soon. Would some nice dessert help?"
"Yes, th-that sounds perfect." Toby's throat felt raw and tight. "And another milk, please?"
A hearty grin. "You got it!" She noticed After passing nearby and flagged him down.
The bat swept through the crowd of diners with the ease of a skier. Noticing Toby, he cocked his head in sympathy. "He doin' allright, Pooby?"
"I think he'll be there soon, Dessert. Speaking of, y'wanna maybe go fetch him something soothing on the house? Milk too!"
He tapped her a swift salute. "On it."
Toby couldn't believe he'd heard that right. "For free? You don't have to, honestly!"
She snorted in rebuke and patted his paw. "People should leave my restaurant happy. Don't get yerself unscrewed over it."
And, although the restaurant was moderately full, Poubelle stayed by Toby's side, softly massaging his shoulder, until After returned with a dish of orange sherbert.
Toby was touched. "Thank you so much. This is amazingly generous of you both. You don't even know me."
After chuckled. "Well, now we do. Any customer's a friend, so of course we want our friends to feel allright. I might've missed whatever's making you feel like this, but I hope you get past it soon."
Toby nodded slowly. "Maybe I will. Thank you." He turned to Poubelle. "Thank you both. You've done more than you realize."
The pair smiled to him, and then each other. One more hearty shoulder pat from the squirrel. "Good to hear. I'll be up at the register when you're done, dumplin'."
After gave Toby a snappy nod. "Still a lot more friends in here to keep happy." He winked.
Toby watched them return to work, awed by their simple, unasked kindness. The sherbert seemed to melt his heartbreak as it melted on his tongue.
He sighed deeply. His chest muscles and cheeks hurt from crying so hard. The corners of his eyes were raw. He could still feel sticky tears matting down his fur. But the worst was over. As emotions sometimes do, his grief had blown in with all the fury of a thunderstorm, then dissipated just as fast. Even though he felt achy, drained, and self-conscious now, he didn't regret what had happened. Getting it out felt better than trying to ignore it. And he didn't really think it was a lie to believe his friends could be recovered. 'After all, I'm still here. I got myself back. I'm sure they've got the will to as well.' The road ahead would be rough terrain, but not impassable. And maybe he needed this feeling of being sore and soaked from crying. It would be something to remember in the days ahead to keep him motivated. He needed to feel the full extent of what Scaphis had taken from him, to remind him of how important it was to get it back. His plans were no longer a distraction from his pain. They were serious. From this moment on, he wasn't running away from grief anymore, he was running towards his reunion.
For the first time, Toby fully understood what he had committed himself to. And he was allright with that.
Little spoonfuls of sherbert swirled around his mouth and drizzled down his strained throat. The coldness made him shiver pleasantly.
He tried to remember all the painful things he'd been saying to himself a moment ago. Some of it was B.S. Just wallowing in as much negativity as possible. But some of it was true. In particular, how much he loved and missed his friends. Not for the selfish reason of needing them to guide his way, but because they had made his life worthwhile. Of course everything felt hollow without them.
But not hopeless. That had been his self-pity talking. Even with the Allfilth lurking beneath his feet right now, there was ample evidence Phobiopolis was not completely doomed to suffering and ugliness. His friends were Exhibit A.
That had been something he'd thought of right at the end, just before Poubelle intervened. It was something he recognized only now in hindsight. 'I was making progress, wasn't I? Not just cowering and squeaking at everything like when I first showed up. I was helpful plenty of times. I knocked in a heckuva lot of heads with my hammer. And after I accepted the truth about Mom in Dysania, I was feeling more confident than ever.' He sighed. 'Then we went into Dysphoria and it all went backwards.'
That had been over a month ago. By now he'd had time to distance himself from the situation, to look at it dispassionately. And the pattern was painfully obvious. 'All my life, I was that struggling little baby in the bathtub with Mommy scrubbing me too hard. She was like this giant hand that could descend upon me at any time and hurt me. I got so used to living like that, I couldn't even see it anymore. Then once I was finally away from her, and with real friends who cared enough to not lie to me, the truth broke through all my stubbornness.' He remembered kneeling in the desert, pounding away at the soap with all his strength and rage. 'I found my confidence. Because that big looming hand was finally gone from my life. I wasn't a helpless little kid. She wasn't there to keep me under her thumb anymore. And right as I accepted that, what happens next? I end up in a place that did everything it could to put me right back there! Every dirty trick to mess with my mind and make me feel powerless and miserable. But I beat it. I still can't believe I did. After all those copies of my bedroom, I just kept on going until it broke the pattern. And that must've pissed it off. I saw through it. So it stopped playing games. It shoved me up face-to-face with the real thing. That's why none of the others saw it. Because it wanted to teach me a special lesson. 'You're a tiny helpless baby and I'm a big evil hand that can pick you up and torture you whenever I want.' The exact opposite of what I'd just got done freeing myself from. No wonder I broke down! No wonder I was so numb and depressed! And I lied to all my friends that I was fine. And I jumped at the chance to see the magic door that could end it all. I was so full of shit about that! Lying to myself and everyone else. I knew in an instant I wanted to walk through. It was only the thought of my hammer that stopped me.'
That made him pause.
He took a moment to reflect on that, wondering why. He looked down at the slit in his palm, and opened it just enough to let a flash of silver peek through.
Why had that stopped him? Why, when even the pleas of his friends (and a punch in the face from Zinc) hadn't? Why had it seemed so alarming that the loss of his fingers meant he couldn't hold his hammer anymore?
He shrugged. 'I guess... because it's a symbol? Picking it up was one of the first times I took control of my life. I wasn't hiding behind anyone else at that moment. I saw it, picked it up, and swung it. Then later I stood up to what Junella and Zinc wanted for me and I kept it. I defended myself with it in Ectopia. I cracked that biteranodon's skull like an egg. I killed craploads of nightmares with it in Gilla-Gilla's yard.' He ran his left paw along his right arm, feeling the steel weight inside. 'This is my strength. Not just because it's a hammer, but because it's mine.'
And that was a perfectly good explanation. Except it wasn't good enough and his brain knew it. There was something else here. He felt a tension creeping up inside of him, but a good one. He was close to something important, some revelation that would snap a whole lot of things into focus. He could feel the edges of it struggling to squirm out from beneath his subconscious.
Toby tried to clear his mind. Free up the runway. 'Okay. Think about something else. Think about... This sherbert is really nice. Creamy and melty. When was the last time I had this stuff? I'm still amazed Poubelle just let me have it for free. I guess not everyone who owns a business is like L'roon, needing to account for every tiny thing. Being nice in the moment can lead to bigger profits later on. In fact, if I ever get the chance, I am definitely gonna recommend her and After to Mr. Rippingbean and Mr. Woofingbutter. They really would fit in perfectly at that place. Maybe they'd have to make their menu a little more hoity-toity, or maybe they could...' He snapped his fingers. 'Yeah! The garage down at ground level! That'd be a great place to grab some food and watch all the cool cars get worked on!' Thinking about that made him remember the mice and reindeer who had thanked him for stopping Gyre 2. The trio's gratitude had filled him with a warm, happy confidence, and the memory did so again. Toby looked across the restaurant to see Poubelle boppin' to the radio as she pressed hamburgers, while After piled on the charm with the customers.
Toby noticed all the smiles in the diner. He looked around to the rest of the market and saw plenty there too. Surprising, considering that this place was seeing hard times. The fear of the Plastic Storm that had taken down Papilloma (and who knows how many other small settlements) was probably keeping plenty of people from coming here to shop. But some came nonetheless. And plenty of them looked like they weren't letting the bad news bother them.
Toby trembled. He was right on the edge of it.
'Aldridge talked about this. I'm not entirely sure when, since I was so frickin' mopey in his living room, but he said something about how Logdorbhok wasn't the whole story...' His eyes widened. 'That's right!! Phobiopolis used to be part of some star-being who got killed. And then a chunk of it flew off and Ol' Shitface poisoned it. But that star-being was all about knowledge and goodness and saving people after they died so they could be happy. That's why- THAT'S WHY!!!' Toby nearly leapt out of his seat.
It was such a small detail but it made an incalculable difference. After Dysphoria, Toby had been infected with the Allfilth, and naturally thought everything was repulsive and worthless and pointless and doomed. But it wasn't. Because the rottenness was only half the equation. Buried underneath was the original core of Phobiopolis: the star-being. A being of love and learning. This world was originally something good, but was tarnished by evil. Like a beautiful painting that someone had spilled outhouse water all over. But the painting still remained somewhere underneath. 'It doesn't matter that the star-being's dead! Because Logdorbhok is too and he's still dreaming. And so is the star-being!!'
Toby's head shot up and he looked all around in every direction. Looking at all the people living their lives and going about their business. None of them knew. None of them had any idea what was going on just beneath their feet. Lots of them probably thought this world was just a steamy sack of dog poop. And there was ample evidence everywhere. The nightmare constructs, the shifting landscape, places like Amaurosis Fugax and Marasmus and Dysphoria. But none of them realized that they themselves were proof things weren't all bad. If Logdorbhok had been reigning supreme all this time, there wouldn't be a single spot in all of Phobiopolis that was habitable or enjoyable. There'd be nothing but coast-to-coast suffering. Instead, there were places where people came together to stand side-by-side and fight back the darkness. They'd found stability enough to build whole cities on. Happiness was possible here. Love was possible. Those things couldn't have existed in a world ruled solely by the Allfilth. Toby knew from firsthand experience. Even without ever touching that abomination, he'd felt its hideous soul from a distance, sucking up everything decent and hopeful and churning it into despair. A black hole from which no optimism escaped. But another force opposed it. Something as positive as the Allfilth was negative. Something that, even if it didn't directly watch over its inhabitants, at least it gave them some small comfort to cling to. Scarlatina proved it. Given only a thin strip of beach and some old car parts, those furs had built as much of a paradise as Phobiopolis would allow.
'And really, every town I've been to is like that. They're all little sanctuaries carved out of desolation. They're all sidewalk dandelions. Scarlatina, and this place, and Coryza, and EC. Even Stoma and Gilla-Gilla's house. Papilloma too! I can't imagine living so close to those horrible maze noises, but they did somehow! Because they had each other to hold on to! And the star-being gave them that chance!'
Something else about Scarlatina suddenly popped into mind. Toby snapped his fingers. 'The caves!! They live in caves! Maybe that's why they're even more peaceful and happy than anywhere else! Even though people seem to treat each other pretty decent in all the cities I've been to, Scarlatina's even more welcoming and friendly. Because they live in the rocks! If the star-being is what all of Phobiopolis is physically made of, then maybe living nestled right in there close to it rubs off after a-'
"GEORGE!" he shouted.
Several heads turned and Toby slapped his paws over his mouth, casting apologetic looks around.
It made so much sense. Perfect sense. Toby remembered the other bonecuddy on Gilla-Gilla's porch: a mindless, murderous nightmare, in function as well as form. The contrast between it and his steadfast, helpful, gentle friend was enormous. So what was the difference? George had spent a century or so buried in the soil. Not only had he been restricted from acting on his instincts, he'd also been engulfed by the calming presence of the star-being!
Toby tried to remember exactly what he'd been told about parasomnic constructs. Best as he could figure, they were born out of the same material as Phobiopolis itself, animated by Logdorbhok's destructive will, then shaped by the fears of the living souls who dwelt here. The clay, the spirit, the form. Three different parents, all contributing to build the snarling, carnivorous horrors that prowled this world and preyed upon its residents. But what conclusions could he draw here? Again, he felt that tug of being on the cusp of something major.
'Okay. George is an ascended construct. Let's start there. They're rare as hell, but it can happen. I've met a few others by now. And the change doesn't always have to be by burial. L'roon might not be the most altruistic guy in the world, but he's got a conscience. He basically developed it all on his own. From decades of boredom. ...Just like Red! Both of them for different reasons! They exceeded their instincts. Their programming. One got too smart for the old tricks to satisfy, and one got too big for anything else to pose a challenge.' The word 'big' sparked another memory, and Toby realized he might have already met a fourth ascended. 'The praying mantis! The great big huge one in the wasteland with the red people-tears! That must've been a construct too. But it didn't attack us! So maybe it fell into a trance and stopped caring, like Red!'
He tried to think of any other constructs he'd seen that displayed un-construct-like behavior. 'Well, the octospider talked. He wasn't very nice though. But he also wasn't as brutal as, like, the hypenas or that ball of cat heads. And the convorines! They were vicious as hell towards us, but actually kinda-sorta showed some care for one another.' It seemed he was on the right track here. This was starting to fit together. If constructs were just specks of the star-being's flesh like everything else, then they had to retain some hidden measure of goodness way down deep inside them, even though Logdorbhok's will was controlling them. Toby imagined a clean white sponge soaking up dirty black ink. But it seemed like, with sufficient time, or intelligence, or immersion in the star-being itself, the ink could be wrung out. The sponge could get pretty close to clean again.
Toby was practically vibrating from excitement. He had no idea what the implications of his theory were, or if it was even in any way useful, but he was nevertheless astounded to have figured it out.
That is, until cynicism stepped in. The mouse's posture slumped and his excited expression turned flat. 'No, no, no. C'mon. Sure this big idea seems obvious now, but if it were true, wouldn't someone else have figured it out by now? How likely is it that I've dug up something no one else in the entire history of Phobiopolis has? Some newbie mouse drops in just a few months ago and riddles out the secret meaning of the entire world!? How arrogant can you get!'
The weight of probability did seem stacked against him. But another part of him had a counterargument. 'Maybe not. Just because it's unlikely doesn't mean it's impossible. The facts do seem to fit and...' A bit of energy surged in him again. 'A furson can only come to the right conclusion if they have all the evidence!! Before I got here, George was still underground! And L'roon had never told anyone what he is. And Piffle's the only one who got close enough to Red to realize he wasn't a monster!" The adrenaline was back! "Holy crap!! I'm not just spinning crazy theories because I think I know better, I actually do know better! Because I'm one of the first people to ever see all the pieces! How many people here have ever gone up the mountain? How many of them have ever met a friendly construct, or seen the Allfilth's ugly face, or had Aldridge teach them about the nature of the world? Most people here probably stay in one city their whole lives. So it's like there's kazillions of puzzle pieces spread out aaalllll across the world, and I'm one of the few people lucky enough to see enough of them to get an idea of what the puzzle's actually supposed to be!'
It still seemed too good to be true though. The naysayer voice tried again to burst his bubble. 'Your theory only works if all the puzzle pieces fit. You're forgetting something. Constructs that can talk are ascended, right? Or close to it? What about Dr. Dacryphilia?'
Toby didn't even realize the importance of a forgotten name coming back to him on its own like that. He was too busy trying to figure out where the mad possum fit into all this. Because yeah, that guy was either a genuine construct or a furson so nightmare-like that it made next to no difference. If he was just a guy in a big wooden mask, then that would explain everything. But that was too easy. Dacryphilia had felt like a nightmare. He had his whole evil domain and an army of waiterthings and that horrible machine with the teacups and-
Toby slammed his palms down on the table hard enough to make the dishes rattle. His lips were pulled back in an impossible grin. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
Because Dacryphilia fit the pattern too.
What had he tried to do to him and Piffle? Mind control them into a nightmarish drudgery that would transcend pain into bliss. He was trying to make them happy by making them eternally, inescapably unhappy. In his own sick way, he was trying to be helpful.
Toby held his hand to his chest to manually slow his breathing. 'Holy hot fuck, it fits... All of it...' There existed a sliding scale of construct redemption, with the arachnopus and the convorines at the bottom, then Dr. Dacryphilia who was trying to be good but failing, then the mantis who was totally non-involved, then L'roon who could be kind up to a point, then Red who was basically a big sweet gigantic puppy...
Then George. Who was a better furson than most real people Toby had ever met.
The tears came again, this time as Toby realized just how much he missed his beloved dark protector. His friend. They were so close now, yet still separated. 'But he's here. And somebody here knows where this Tif Tif lady is. Wherever she is, he is. Or at least she knows where he went. And I'll find him if I have to walk all the way to the Blackdamp and back.'
Toby sprang to his feet, bursting with energy and determination.
...Then sat right back down again. Because he suddenly realized he wasn't done realizing.
Breathing carefully, lest his fluttering heart burst through his ribcage and go flying off, Toby looked back down again at his right arm. With a small blare of bright energy, he eased his hammer out to look at it. Keeping it safely held in his left, he was able to wrap his thumb and stumps around the hilt. The spotless metal gleamed.
He had started this train of thought by asking about his hammer and what it truly meant to him. Now, with the rest of the puzzle in place, his mind was just about to reveal the truth.
Toby tried once again to blank himself and let the last piece slide in easy. He went back over his other conclusions.
'One: The fundamental nature of this world is good.'
He looked out across the restaurant, seeing the smiles of people making the best they could out of a world that gave them so little. They did it by helping one another. And something buried deep below held back the darkness enough to allow them that chance.
'Two: Constructs are brainwashed.'
He couldn't quite bring himself to call them victims, as most of them weren't really much more than puppets. Robots. Most of them simply did as they were programmed, and their operator was the god of all cruelty. Removed from the Allfilth's influence, they could be rebooted with something else. Anything else. Madness. Boredom. Greed. Zen. Loyalty. Because they were born from Phobiopolis' soil. Which was malleable. Unstable. Some of it so much so that people could direct their will at chunks of it and turn it into whatever they wanted. Food or weapons or clothing. But not everything in this world came from imaginite. Some of it was dreamed up directly by the Allfilth.
Or by the star-being.
Toby felt a chill crawl up and down his arms, raising goosebumps.
What had Dorster said about his hammer? That it was genuine nightmare steel. Stronger than imaginite. Because it had been spontaneously created by Phobiopolis itself.
It was true to say that anything made of imaginite was made of the star-being's body. But the hammer had come from its dreams as well.
Toby stared in shivering reverence as he realized he was holding a chunk of the star-being right there in his hand. Infused with its will.
And on the heels of that thought, another. The final piece.
Events had taught him that, for all intents and purposes, Phobiopolis now regarded this hammer as a part of Toby's body. Toby himself knew it. Which meant it was possible for his will and the star being's to merge.
He reached out trembling fingers to trace the curves of the hammer's striking head.
'Can you hear me in there?' he asked.
There was no response.
But maybe, in time...
Toby deLeon sat alone in the small cafe on the far side of Phobiopolis, aware of only two things in all the world: his hand and his hammer. This was more than a personal weapon. It was a talisman. A magic wand. This was a chunk of Phobiopolis' true soul. His arm wielded the will of the world itself.
And even better, Scaphis would never see it coming. Because if he'd almost missed the importance of Aldridge's words due to sheer gloominess, he knew damn well she'd only been thinking about vengeance. Plus, how likely was it that even if she'd heard, she'd understand? She probably saw the world like Toby had after Logdorbhok: a stinking, hopeless hellhole. She'd never grasp the significance of the star-being. She'd probably written the whole story off as mere trivia. But Toby understood. He had completed the path that she'd gotten stuck halfway through.
He had gone from the naivety of his former childhood, to the nihilism of Dysphoria, to the overwhelming hope of this moment right now.
A crazy smile was on his face. He wiped his tears off on his arm and stood up again. His meditation was finally over. Now he could leave and continue, armed not just with his hammer, but with understanding. Toby nodded to all the other diners who were casting sideways looks at him and wondering what the hell was going on in the overemotional little weirdo's head. Toby tidied up his table, tucked away his hammer, and headed towards the cash registers.
Poubelle noticed his approach. The mouse's stride looked like he was about to wade through an army. "Well look at you! My, what a difference! That must've been some sherbert, huh?"
He beamed at her. "It was exactly what I needed. You have no idea. Seriously, I'm this close to leaning across the counter and kissing you right now."
She blushed violet. "Be careful or you'll make After jealous. But if you insist..." She fluttered her eyelashes and turned her cheek towards him.
Without hesitation, Toby gave her a smooch.
She giggled like a toy piano. "Looks like kindness pays rewards!"
"It does," Toby said sincerely.
Her tail bounced to and fro. She wiggled like she was just about to float up to the moon. "With thanks like that, I almost feel bad about ringing you up," she said with a wink. "Still have to 'tho."
"No problem at all," Toby assured. He pointed to the willwell beside her. "Right here?"
"Yup. Just gimme a minnie to tally everything..." She punched the cost of the meal into the register, then the indicator jumped to a certain point on the willwell's dial.
Toby took a deep breath, remembering all the times he'd struggled to shove one of those little red lines. And yet, right now, with the way he was feeling, he didn't think he'd have too much of a problem.
He gave a good hard shove, and was amazed at what happened.
It took far less effort than he could have imagined. Nowhere close to Piffle's prowess, but certainly near Junella's. Maybe surpassing it. Toby could not believe how fast the red line swung around to zero and 'ding'ed. And, since the dial was circular, it could keep on going past if he wanted it to.
Poubelle smiled. "That's a pretty nice tip."
Toby hardly heard her. He was suddenly very interested in this new experiment. Pushing the little red line felt just like reaching out and nudging it with his finger. All around the clock in a big circle.
Poubelle gulped. "Really! Hon, you don't have to!"
"But I want to," Toby said absently, still staring with laser-like focus at the willwell dial. "Is it possible for me to break this thing?"
Clearly flustered, she watched the dial alongside him. A few patrons were starting to look too. "I d-don't think so."
"Then I'm going to try."
Toby didn't break the willwell, but he did pay for just about everyone's meal in the whole restaurant.
Afterwards, he was a shuddering wreck and had to sit down for a while, but he felt good. The kind of exhilaration brought on by exhausting accomplishment. After and Poubelle gave him many hugs and handshakes and were more than glad to help him on his quest. People moved around all the time they said, and the maps were rarely up to date. Madame Tif Tif had relocated a week ago to a spot two blocks down and three over; look for a yellow tent. Many more mutual thanks were expressed and the mouse left the eatery in a hail of good will.
Following the bat and squirrel's directions, he threaded through the city's narrower streets into an obviously-chintzier part of town. Lots were narrower, crammed in closer. More tents, fewer storefronts. Some sellers merely set up tables in their yards. The quality of the merchandise also started to look more like what he'd find in a flea market. Or a dumpster.
A smile as bright as Toby's was a strange sight in a place like this. People gave him suspicious looks as he walked by. He tried to temper his good mood. This was obviously the part of town people were shunted to when their business was slowing down and not expected to recover.
Toby wondered how a colleague of L'roon's had wound up in a place like this. Especially one whose craftiness he'd praised. 'Bad luck can hit anyone, I guess.'
The tent was exactly where the bat and squirrel had said, filling up most of a timeworn house's front lawn. Toby steeled himself before stepping inside. Mere seconds separated him from the discovery of whether he'd reunite with his friend or have to go on searching. Schrödinger's bonecuddy.
When Toby finally poked his head in, he got a great big faceful of unimpressed. This stuff looked like it belonged at the curb. Old furniture, racks of clothes, moldy statues, a car tire. Plus a humongous fur parka piled up in a chair. The light that filtered through the tent's threadbare fabric gave everything a jaundiced tint. A stiff breeze was enough to shake the walls.
'Am I in the right place?' Toby checked back outside to see if there was another yellow tent down the street. Nope. Tents-a-plenty, but only one banana-colored.
He shrugged and went back in. He scanned the piles of thrift shop refuse, hunting for anything that might be George. He saw a shimmer from under a tablecloth, but that could have been anything. He investigated further, the grass rustling under his sandals.
"There is customer?"
He swiveled towards the chair with the fur coat on it.
It came alive like a rusty animatronic. From deep within the billowy collar emerged a tiny, black-streaked face. "Yes? Something interest you?"
She was a cheetah, yet her accent was something Scandinavian. The russet coat dwarfed her. When she stretched and yawned and situated herself properly in her seat, Toby could see that her body was only about two or three years old. Her eyes were closer to two hundred though. She looked like she'd been walloped with a shrink ray.
"Madame Tif Tif?" he presumed.
She smiled, showing wrinkles beneath her fur. Her voice was very soft, her accent musical. "That is me."
Toby couldn't help but smile too. "I, um..." He wasn't sure how to bring up what he was looking for. 'Someone sold you my buddy's corpse. Can I buy it back from you?'
Tif Tif spread her arms, encompassing her shop. "I have many items from all around the world, you see. Anything you might like. I have a very old Icelandic book on thaumaturgy. I have fifteen-inch television set. Designer outfit, maybe? I have hat."
"No, actually, I..."
She hopped down from the chair, ensnaring his wrist in an iron grip. She started leading him around the tent. "So many things! You will like something here. You would appreciate fine clothing? Better outfit?" She held up a rumpled leather object that looked like a football. "How about a nice purse for girlfriend, mmm?"
"It is very affordable. Only one thousand. Genuine, I can promise. Some people sell fakes but never me, never me. They accuse me though! Backstabbers out to ruin whole my business!" She snorted angrily.
As soon as she stopped talking to breathe, Toby leapt in. "Actually, L'roon sent me!"
This made her get very quiet very quickly. She glared lava at Toby and pursed her lips.
He got the feeling he should not have said that.
Tif Tif let go of Toby's wrist, but kept on rooting him to the spot with her medusa stare. Daring him to elaborate.
Toby backed up a little, accidentally bumping into a card table upon which many heavy items were precariously balanced. "You see, um, it's about something he sold to you. He said that he did. About a month ago? I hope you remember it. I kinda don't know how to describe it. It's, like, horse bones? But glowing?"
"He stole this from you?"
'Technically, kinda,' he refrained from saying. "I'm just trying to track it down."
Her eyebrows nearly shot through the roof. "You WANT this!?"
"Yes, very much! I-"
The tiny cheetah barreled past, shoving him out of the way. Her coat dragged behind her like a bridal train. From the spot where Toby had seen a flicker before, she whipped back the tablecloth and rolled out a sphere of blackened calcium about half her height.
Toby's heart caught in his throat.
There was no mistaking it. Char flaked off as Tif Tif rolled the ball closer. From within and without, faint colors glowed and faded in a rhythm like a sleeper's snore. Even though the poor bonecuddy was compacted tighter than a wad of gum, it was definitely George.
The diminutive cheetah pushed it to within an inch of Toby's feet, then smacked it hard and held out her hands, like, 'Voila!'
Toby tried to keep the joy out of his voice. "That's exactly what I was looking for."
"GOOD!" Tif Tif exploded. It was louder than a toddler's larynx should have been able to produce. "L'roon, so fancy with his speakings, making the assurance that this will sell soooo easy! It will fly like it has bird's wings, he tells me! I will not trust him again!!"
Toby was a little stunned. Apparently L'roon's customers didn't always stay satisfied, despite his bragging.
Tif Tif punched the bony disco ball a few more times, as if it were the peddler's face. "Of course no one want it! Who wants trophy they have not killed themselves personal? He tells me, 'It will be decorative light! People will love it for living room!' But everyone customers are afraid from it! They think it will come back alive when they are asleep and it eats them!"
From the way she was pounding on it, Madame Tif Tif did not share this fear. She even threw in a few kicks.
Toby winced. "Actually... that used to be a friend of mine."
The cheetah's face popped up, disbelieving. "A friend?" She looked at the ball, then her shoe, horrified.
Toby held his hands out. "It's okay! If it's sat here a month with no one buying it, I can understand your reaction. Plus, I heard your selling-space got downgraded recently. I'm sorry to hear that."
Tif Tif looked away, pouting solemnly. She shuffled over to Toby and reached out to hold his hand in hers. "Thank you. It has been a rough time for me." She glared back down at the ball of bone. "I treat like bad luck charm, but really, I know, business has been not so good for while now. Customers are gone. Afraid."
He was itching to wake George back up, but knew he could put him on hold a few more seconds to gain info on what'd been happening in his absence. "When did it start? And do you know why?"
She gave him a look like he was an idiot for asking. "You haven't been hearing the talk!?"
He shook his head. "Nope. I've been... on vacation. For a while. Though I did hear about Papilloma."
She nodded and pointed at him. "Yes, yes! Other places too! Plastic Storm! Some people have seen and others are caught in it, all frozen stiff solid. They cannot move. It strikes quietly, when people sleep. Everyone, like I said, afraid from it. They don't come here from other town anymore. Less and less do. Now it is mostly us: sellers selling to each other. Soon this whole place? Gone dodo. Pfffft!" She shook her head sadly.
Another pang of guilt. "That's genuinely sad. How long ago was this?"
"A month maybe? A few week more? It is slow. It creeps. But it comes, people say, from the mountain." She pointed past the tent, up at the sky. "Cities closest were the first to fall. I don't know how much longer I can stay. But where will I go? Maybe I can fall asleep and dream and become statue along with my old junk..."
Toby didn't really know what to say. He wanted to reassure her by saying he was on a quest to stop the fearsome plague upon the land, but he didn't want to get her hopes up. "How much is it?" he asked, pointing at the boneball.
Tif Tif began drifting back towards her seat. "Take it."
Toby followed her. "Hey now, I can't just do that. I don't have anything to trade, but if you've got a willwell, I'll at least give you what you paid for it."
She looked unimpressed. "You have forty thousand grit?"
He flinched. That had been the same price as two nights at the inn back in Coryza. "...Sure," he told her semi-convincingly.
She rolled her eyes, but smiled to see he was willing. "Okay, hotshot boy." She turned to the small table beside her and lugged out a machine that at first he didn't recognize.
Toby didn't know what differentiated an old willwell from a new one, but Poubelle and After's certainly hadn't looked like this. Like a turn-of-the-century electroshock device. He honestly didn't know how much willpower he had left in him after his experiment back at the restaurant. But he stared at the dial and gave it a shot.
Tif Tif watched and her whiskers perked up. "You are very good at this."
Toby could hardly believe it. The red line didn't exactly fly around the dial, but once again, he was keeping it on a steady course with about as much effort as pushing a shopping cart. He didn't have anything to prove this time, so he took it slow and steady, not wanting to end up all wobbly like before.
When the machine finally dinged a few minutes later, Madame Tif Tif just gasped and stared.
Toby took a deep breath. "Whew! That got a lot harder near the end!"
Massive coat arms swallowed him. "You are wonderful! Many thanks to you, my sweet friend!" she cried out as she hugged the breath out of him.
He gasped, then grinned. "It's fine! I was happy to! You can let go now!"
She did, and gazed up at him with shining eyes. "This will do so much good for me! This is more than I have made in past week! I might able to down payment my old houseshop!"
"That's great! And I've got my friend back, so we both came out happy." In his mind, he chuckled. 'Ha! I can do it too, L'roon!'
"Yes, take your friend." She still seemed a bit unclear as to how the glowing black lump could have ever been a furson, but she was happy for her benefactor nonetheless. "I promise I was not aware. Good luck to you in waking he or she up. If not, enjoy paperweight. Or boat anchor."
Toby chuckled, then went back to George and started rolling him out of the tent. It was not as easy as pushing the willwell. George had weighed over two hundred pounds in his normal state. Condensed like this, it was like trying to move a small planet. "Good luck with your customers!" Toby called back as he grunted and struggled.
Madame Tif Tif bounced in her chair, just gawking in gleeful disbelief at her cash register.
The lawn sloped a bit and Toby was able to roll George out to the middle of the nearly-deserted street before his arms gave out. He sank to his knees, then leaned his back against the boneball, panting. "You need a diet, George."
He had only loosely planned for the possibility of success, as he hadn't wanted to psyche himself up too much in case of disappointment. Originally, the idea was to carry the horseball somewhere secluded and have a quiet reunion there. 'Carry' was not going to happen though. Despite knowing it was probably a bad idea, exuberance and practicality convinced Toby to try opening his Christmas present right there in the street.
He turned around, running his fingers over the beachball-sized lump of glowing char. The texture was immediately familiar. "You're safe now," he whispered. "I'm here. We're back together again, just like before."
Customers walking by cast strange looks upon him, but Toby didn't notice.
He breathed in and out, readying himself. He raised his right arm and planted his palm at the equator of the bonemass. "One hammerstrike ought to do it, right? Sorry if this gives you a headache."
He tensed the steel arrow inside his arm, then let it fly.
Toby was a bit stunned. The bones cracked a bit, and the road beneath kicked up dust, but George was still a sphere.
"Huh. Allright. Two tries."
Even harder this time. Toby really strained to pump as much force as possible into the strike. The dry ground beneath the bone cratered, but still, same result. Many more people were casting curious glances, wondering why this mouse was trying to crack the world's biggest black walnut.
Toby felt sweat in his fur. He did not allow himself to be discouraged. Scaphis had squeezed George really, really tight, that was all. It was taking more than normal effort to kill him back to normal. No problemo. Toby swore he could see George's glow flickering a little faster. The stallion's body was tied in a knot, but purple, green, and blue lights chased each other through the cracks in the calcium like a highway of fireflies.
"I'm not giving up on you, George."
He raised his arm again, pulling back on his hammer and surging it full of kinetic energy.
Toby's arm was like an oil derrick. The noise turned heads and the vibration made street debris clatter like jumping beans. Toby gritted his teeth and kept at it, pouring on more and more force as he noticed tiny cracks spiderwebbing through the densely-welded bone.
The bone crumbled suddenly and Toby faceplanted directly into the shattered chunks.
He didn't hurt himself, but he coughed a lot at all the horse dust he'd accidentally inhaled. He pushed up and looked around. He was surrounded by fragments of black, fossilized bone. Plus one hell of a pothole. When Toby raised his head, standing just in front of him were two black hooves and two tree-trunk forelegs. A shuddering laugh came to his throat and a grin burst across his face.
The obsidian skeleton stood motionless for several seconds, as if not knowing what to do with its reassembled body. The faint aura of its tail flickered, then its ears. The pinprick lights in its eye sockets flared and dimmed erratically.
It looked down at the sprawled mouse.
Their eyes met. One soul, one construct. Then Toby's pair turned from hope to horror at the realization that the other's were as cold and inanimate as an icepick.
Toby did not waste time screaming. He rolled out of the way with inches to spare when a mighty hoof raised up to trample him to death.
Another evasive roll saved him from the ensuing exhale of flame that barbecued the spot he'd been just a second before.
Unfortunately, he didn't dodge the kick that caught him square in the stomach and swept him ten feet away like a bag of trash.
After the flash of pain that let him know he'd survived somehow, Toby heard hoofbeats stumbling away in the opposite direction.
He got his legs underneath him and wrenched himself to his feet. The pain was faraway. Detached. The mouse's face was frozen in a mask of heartbreak. George had shown no recognition of him. None. He'd acted like any other nightmare. Like he'd been mindwiped. Rebooted to factory settings. "No..." For a moment, hopelessness ensnared him.
But in a flash it was gone and replaced with outrage. "NO. You're not gonna take him away from me too! Not after all this!!"
Sellers and customers screamed as a flame-belching bonecuddy appeared in their midst. They scattered in every direction, dropping their shopping as they fled. Their only advantage was that the beast was disoriented, wobbly. It seemed unsure of its new body. Plus, there were so many victims and so little time. The construct zeroed in on a man who'd gotten entangled in a map kiosk. The nightmare rushed towards him with bared teeth, ready to bite into his head like a ripe, juicy apple.
Toby ran towards the bonecuddy, flailing his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs.
George was distracted for just a second, giving another shopper time to bash him in the side of the snout with a fire extinguisher. Another citizen ripped the trapped man's coat free and scuttled away with him. George saw his food escape. Then it looked back at the squeaking rodent that had broken its concentration. Enraged, the nightmare lit its whole head aflame and zeroed in on the pest.
Toby managed to keep all his pee inside as a flaming freight train came screaming towards him. His heartbeat felt like a buzzing bee, but he kept his eyes open, planted his feet, and held his arm out in front of him. "GEORGE, STOP IT!!!"
The thing that was no longer George lowered its head and prepared to stomp this little white nuisance into street jelly.
Toby's legs trembled, but he held firm.
They clashed, and it was not a clear victory for either.
Toby fired off his hammer at the exact instant of impact, catching George on the jaw and snapping his head back so hard it unbalanced him completely. The massive bonecuddy slammed to the ground with his legs kicking empty air. However, the recoil of this action sent Toby's much smaller body flying. He crashed backwards through a shop's wooden sign and ended up on the roof with a shattered back.
The mouse was dead and the horse was struggling to get to his feet. A momentary pause in the action. It gave the rest of the market-goers just enough time to either run like rats or ready themselves for a fight. A handful of shopkeepers whipped out personal weaponry or looked around for improvised implements of destruction. Carefully, they began to circle the still-struggling bonecuddy with pistols, daggers, and painlaunchers. One particularly burly soul scooped up the fallen map kiosk and was wielding it like a bat.
Toby came awake seeing stars. He rolled over, and only instinct saved him from tumbling off the roof onto the yellowed lawn below. That got him back to alertness real quick. He was on top of a building somehow. He swiveled around and scuttled to the edge, hiding behind the remnants of the sign he'd decommissioned.
George was still squirming like an overturned beetle. A dozen Lalochezians were closing in, armed with all manner of weaponry. Though they all jumped back a step when George suddenly flung himself sideways, gouging his hooves into the dirt and leveraging himself back to standing. The citizens recoiled. He stared back at them with the bottomless contempt of a pure nightmare. He snorted, his flames pluming. Someone fired a shot that splintered a rib. George responded by whirling around and unleashing a hurricane of kicks.
The citizens had been so kind as to arrange themselves in a tidy circle. George whipped around 360° like he'd done with EC's copbots, taking out half of them in the space of seconds. One guy got his ribcage pounded inside out. Another unfortunate had her jawbone launched straight through the top of her skull. Toby covered his mouth in horror.
But others had dodged the bonecuddy's back legs, and were now ready for retaliation. George shrieked as someone jabbed the red-glowing tip of a painlauncher straight up his pelvis and activated it. A reflexive kick sent the man airborne, but it gave his comrades a window to get their own attacks in. George was shot in the face, stabbed in the backbone, and bludgeoned across the forehead with a map kiosk.
This angered him.
Roaring with enough force to split the heavens, he bucked his attackers away. Using his head as a wrecking ball, he knocked two of them aside, then planted hooves in their guts to make sure they stayed down. Another he sent sailing through the side of a housetent. The people who'd been cowering inside crawled out from under the collapsed fabric and skedaddled. A particularly hardy fella with arms like battleship cannons threw his strongest punch at the beast's face. The bonecuddy caught it between his teeth. And bit down.
All of this took only a matter of seconds. Toby was not spending them on panic. He was frozen motionless, but thinking fast as lightning. Looking all around the street, he considered his options. He had to get George under control and get the market-goers away from him. Multiple enemies; only one Toby. What did he have? A hammer. That was it. His bracers and pouch were still in the Fearsleigher, high and far away. Anything on the street below? A few scattered weapons. More tents, some shacks, a hot dog cart...
'And I have the high ground,' he suddenly realized.
He did not give himself time to think about the insanity of what he was about to try. Instead, he slid out of his vest, grabbed the sides, and backed up for a running start.
The bonecuddy spun in circles, eager for more victims. He'd plowed through the souls so easily it was a disappointment when he ran out of them. His mind was a muddled fog, but his instincts were a clear guiding voice. 'Cause fear. Cause pain. Never stop. You exist to rain down suffering upon the weak.'
A streak of white motion fell from the sky. The bonecuddy looked up to see a parachuting mouse, and then he saw nothing.
Toby was amazed he hadn't missed. He landed on George's back, too high on adrenaline to feel the astonishing pain in his crotch when balls hit bone. With the vest held out in front of him, he'd managed to net George's head. He quickly pulled the blue wool into a tight blindfold.
George bellowed in outrage and shot flames in a circle, scorching nothing but dirt. He kicked and bucked, but Toby held on tenaciously, his slim weight an asset.
The mouse tried to shrink his world to nothing but the strength in his arms, ignoring how the rest of his body was flopping around like a pennant in the wind. Ignoring how his chin kept smashing into George's forehead. Ignoring the impacts of horse vertebrae on mouse testicles. He had to keep the blindfold on. If he couldn't stop the other people from fighting George, maybe he could give them a chance to incapacitate him, then try to retrieve him from their capture later.
George was not at all happy with this situation. When thrashing alone would not dislodge the pest, there was one option left. Roaring again in fury, he reared up fully on his hind legs, then toppled backwards like a collapsing building.
Toby saw the sky and the land change places. A shadow fell upon him. Then George reverse-head-butted him into fucking smithereens.
The remaining spectators displayed appropriate cringing.
George bucked himself back to his feet, peeling his neck away from the stain of blood and fur. He showered himself in flame for a moment to burn away any remaining gore. His vanity, it seemed, was instinctive.
It was also a weakness, as it gave an arriving guardsman time to fire a harpoon into his belly. George grunted as the wooden projectile smashed through his ribs, then shrieked as three curved hooks sprang from its tip and caught in his calcium. The elephant who'd fired the spear locked his leg around the base of a nearby palm tree and started reeling in the struggling construct, shouting orders for assistance at people nearby.
George thrashed side to side, grinding his teeth, belching fire, and digging in his hooves. But the launcher's mechanism was heavy clockwork, designed especially to match most constructs' strength. Each click of the gears locked them from turning back, pulling George inexorably closer to his capture. He whinnied and kicked, flinching as impacts of bullets and blunt objects came from all sides. Bits of bone chipped off of him, sending up clouds of soot.
The elephant guardsman grinned as he drew in his catch. A minor disturbance, this one was, but soon he'd be lacquered in petrification potion and mounted as a fine trophy.
Wild bonecuddies are naturally crafty by nightmare standards, so George had not lost all intellect. When he realized that pulling wasn't doing any good, he switched tactics. The cable attached to the harpoon was strong metal, but the haft was wood. He planted his hooves like a sawhorse, then ducked his head into his ribs, chomped down, and blasted out flame.
The elephant staggered when he felt the line go slack. He and the other citizens' blood ran cold as the bonecuddy spat out a mouthful of charred splinters and began to advance on them, unhurried. They'd swear it was smiling.
The people's heads turned to see a hot dog cart launched like a missile straight at the bonecuddy's rump
Toby knelt in the street, coral eyes blazing, right arm outthrust and glowing.
The cart he'd pistoned towards George rattled along so violently it nearly collapsed before impact, but it managed to hold on just long enough to do its job. The metal cube smashed into George's ass, goosing him with the umbrella. George let out a very undignified scream. Wieners went everywhere.
Toby did not waste time relishing his victory. He was up and running again, this time towards the crowd. "KEEP AWAY!!" he yelled at them. "HE'S MINE!!"
Normally they would not have listened to a skinny, shirtless twerp like him. But the fact that he'd seemingly thrown a hot dog cart from across the street gave the little rodent some cred. The stunned crowd obeyed and backed up.
George had faceplanted in someone's lawn, kicking with all four legs to get the damned cart away from him. It was lodged under his pelvis, forcing him diagonally into the ground at a humiliating angle. To make things worse, several bullets ripped into him from outside his field of vision.
Toby did not remember if he'd ever fired a gun before, but there was no time to waste fretting about it. One of the market-goers had dropped their Glock after George kicked the intestines out of him, and Toby snatched it up as he ran towards the squirming construct. The recoil damn near ripped his wrist off. He'd been aiming for the legs and didn't know if any of his shots landed. At least they got George's attention.
Snorting black smoke, he rolled over with his eyelights locked dead on the annoying little grease stain of a mouse who would not leave him alone.
Toby skidded to a stop, recognizing that look as pure murder. He threw the gun and bonked George's forehead. Then he ran his little furless tail off.
George bellowed and chased.
Toby was not thinking of strategy or backup plans. He knew only his objectives: get out of range, then get through to George. He refused to believe his friend was lost forever. Scaphis hadn't even mindwiped him. He must've fallen so deeply asleep that the Allfilth's influence had regained control. As Toby ran, he called back over his shoulder, "George! Listen to me! I love you! Stop trying to kill people!!"
The stallion showed zero recognition. He was a mouse-seeking ICBM. But the flighty little vermin was high on panic and impossible to catch. It kept darting right and left, scooping up random items and lobbing them backwards with annoying accuracy. And yelling things at him! Words that didn't make any sense! Just stupid, bleating noise!
Up ahead was another tent. Toby gauged the distance between him and George by the sound of hoofbeats, and stopped for just an instant in front of the beige, patched fabric. Instinctive timing. He kicked against the ground, jumped up and grabbed the edge of the tent in both hands, pulling himself up and over just a heartbeat before George came steamrolling underneath.
Toby ran across the length of the collapsing tent, lungs on fire, and leapt the gap to a second tent nearby.
He landed on his bicep. The material sagged and caught him quite comfortably. From below he heard shouts from the tent's owner. Toby popped up and saw a tornado demolishing the beige tent. He grinned. George was caught in the fabric!
As Toby hopped back down to street level, his grin disappeared. George had only tangled with the tent for a few seconds before realizing it was futile. He switching to extraction via incineration. The tent became a volcano. Toby leapt back as a wall of heat smacked his face. Luckily, his vest was lying in the ground nearby (in a pool of his former body), and he snatched it up as he sped past.
George burst from the blackened tatters, howling like a vengeful god. He had had ENOUGH of this!! Flaming dishracks and display tables still boxed him in, but at least he could see. He cast around in all directions, stamping his hooves in frustration, searching for that vexatious mouse!
To his surprise, the prey was standing right there in the open. Arms outstretched. Staring him down like they were equals.
Toby was drenched in sweat. His ears rang and his head swam like he was close to passing out. But he held his ground. "You're in there somewhere, George. I am not giving up on you. I came this far to get you back, do you understand? You're my friend, dammit! And you're smarter than this! Cut your stupid tantrum and start acting like it!!"
George struggled to kick burnt merchandise out of his way so he could get to the mouse ASAP and stomp him straight through the surface of the world.
Toby held his ground.
George leapt free of the tent's remains and charged.
Toby held his ground.
George's brain was a hive of maddened wasps. He charged full-force, charring the dirt with a bulldozer scoop of flame in front of him.
Toby kept his eyes open and waited for just the right moment.
He blitzed into a run. Towards the onrushing wall of fire and bone. He dropped to his knees. Slid into the flame. There was no way to avoid it, but he risked a chance that if he was moving fast enough, it wouldn't have time to consume him. His chance paid off. Even though his ears were toasted marshmallows now, Toby kept his senses long enough to finish the move he'd planned. He shot like a bullet between George's forelegs, twisted himself around, reached out, and clamped his right hand around an ankle.
George's eyelights flared and he crashed to the ground like a lightning-struck tree.
Toby spent a few valuable seconds hurling himself backwards to rub his head violently against the dirt and put out the fire. Then he skittered out from under George's tripod and further reduced the construct's balance. Grasping the opposite side's hind leg, his hammer drew back and pistoned forward.
George gurgled in pain and sunk to the street. His two remaining legs scrabbled for stability. The others were shattered like glass. Shards of bone littered the ground. The mouse had crippled him.
And then, here he came. Walking right out in front of his eyelights. Singed and bruised all over, but with a look on his eyes of loving reproach. A little brother who'd had to kick his older sibling's butt to get him to behave.
"George. You can stop this. I love you."
Toby barely leapt out of the way in time to avoid the jet exhaust George blasted from his nostrils.
The mouse jumped back, screaming in his ear, "I'M NOT GOING TO LET YOU ACT LIKE THIS! You're BETTER than this! You're smart and loyal and your vocabulary's even better than mine! You're not some dumb, grunting animal! Now LISTEN to me! You're my FRIEND!!"
George whinnied defiance and kicked the mouse's kneecap into powder.
Toby's whole body clenched at the incredible scarlet pain, but he did not relent. He dropped to the ground and hammerstruck that leg too. George wailed. "Are you done acting like a baby yet!?" he wheezed.
Toby dragged himself around to lift up George's skull in both hands, speaking an inch away from his eyes. He was crying now. "George. Stop fighting me. We're best friends. You know it. Stop. Please. I'm begging you."
Toby saw nothing but hatred in those flickering eyelights.
He recognized the slight recoil of George's head just before another firesneeze. Before he could though, Toby held up his hammer again.
George saw it. Saw the frenzied look in the mouse's bloodshot eyes. He hesitated.
Then blasted him anyway.
Toby rolled sideways, seeing flickering orange. He threw his body on top of his burning arm, trying to smother the flame. His cracked knee sent lightning bolts through his nerves. It was almost too much pain to handle without puking. But he held on. Because it was only pain. It had gnawed at his body all his life. Migraines and nerve aches and bruises and gut groans and red, stinging eyes. He had practice with pain. There were things worth enduring it for.
Smoke rising from the blackened fur, Toby raised his arm high above George's head again. "You're going to LISTEN!!! That's an ORDER!!! Do you UNDERSTAND ME!?" Throat raw, he dragged himself back to glare down into the construct's eyes, drilling George to the spot, daring him to make the slightest move.
Toby's whole body shook. He could feel the muscles in his arm, taut as elastic. He again searched George's eyes for signs of recognition but found none. Only hatred and defiance. His friend was still locked away in there somewhere. And then that sparked a memory. 'Locked away in there.' Literally.
George prepared to bite or scorch again, whichever opportunity came first.
Toby gave him one last chance to listen. "You BELONG to me!! Don't you remember!? You're MINE! You PROMISED!!!"
The blackened teeth twitched, readying to clamp down on flesh.
Toby clenched his fist first. He brought it down, smashing through George's skull. As cranial shrapnel filled the air, Toby jammed his metal fingers deep into the shifting, swirling light that was the construct's essence.
An incredible light surged from within, brilliant as the town's own aurora. Toby was engulfed in ruby, violet, and bronze.
He shrieked, the words catching and tearing in his throat as tears poured down from his eyes. "WE HAD AN AGREEMENT! YOU PROMISED YOURSELF TO ME! THIS IS MINE!" He clenched his hand tighter, feeling the ethereal sinews oozing in his grip. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!?" THIS! IS! MINE!!! NOW OBEY ME!! THAT'S AN ORDER!!!"
"Dear me, Sire! You appear quite injured!"
All of Toby's maddened fury vanished at the sound of that voice. He fell over, reaching out with his other arm to cradle his friend's poor old skull. "George!?"
"Why of course, Sire Toby! Have we been fighting? We are both in an alarming state. I recall a feverish dream."
Toby laughed out loud, heedless of the agony in his leg and arm, or the crowd of Lalochezians all gathered around staring in dumbstruck disbelief. Toby wept and laughed and kissed what was left of George's forehead. "I'm so glad to see you! I'm so happy! I'm so happy! Here, lemme fix you up!" He drew back his hammer one more time and supernova'd George's head to the heavens.
A moment later, a brand new bonecuddy was standing up in the street, tall and proud. The crowd gasped, some backing away, others wasting no time in fleeing. George regarded them with embarrassment. This doubled when he looked around at all the destruction he'd caused. "Oh goodness gracious..." Several businesses lay in fiery ruins. There was a dented map kiosk laying in the middle of the street, along with many weapons and assorted body parts. Plus a hot dog cart lying upside down with its crooked wheels still spinning. George felt a pulse of animosity towards it and couldn't remember exactly why.
At the sound of the plaintive squeak, George instantly bowed low to scoop Sire Toby up in his mouth, as gentle as a mother cat with her kitten.
"On your back?" Toby requested.
"My pleasure," George replied. He positioned his master and friend delicately upon his backbone and began growing a flesh-saddle for him.
Toby didn't wait for it to finish. He wrapped his arms tight around the stallion's neck. "Just go, George! Before all these people get their hands on us and set a new speed-lynching record!"
"Yes, that is quite a pragmatic idea," he concurred, then turned tail and took off.
The sight of George's receding spectral tail snapped the citizens out of their stupor. As one, they grabbed whatever weapons they could and began a chase.
Toby was reeling in a daze. Rocking back and forth in blissful disbelief that his determination had endured and he was riding away upon his resurrected companion. But there were also rather a lot of endorphins being pumped into his skull to compensate for his pulped kneecap and grilled arm. His eyeballs felt like they were floating in hot soup.
"Are we rushing off in any particular direction, Sire Toby? Or just 'away'?"
They rocketed past a colorful sideshow of tents and citizens. Toby felt his guts constrict when he tried to focus on anything. "Do you remember where the tub stations are?"
"Certainly. I remember everything."
Nothing could have made Toby feel better than hearing that. "Stupendous."
"To be honest though, not entirely everything. You will need to illuminate me on what transpired between us just a moment ago. I feel certain it was nasty business."
"Yeah. Sorry." Toby patted his neck. "For now, just get to the tubs. I'm gonna try something stupid."
"May I be of assistance?" George asked brightly.
Toby managed a grin, despite the throbbing blister of excruciation in his leg. "You messed me up a bit, buddy. But don't worry about it. Keep running. I'm just gonna suicide real quick, then try to reform while I'm still on you. Catch me if I don't."
George thought this would require extremely dicey timing, but he had faith in his master. He nodded and grunted affirmation.
Toby could hear angry shouts behind him. Then a gunshot. Yep, the market-goers were still pissed. Toby wished he could go back and fill everyone's willwells to pay for the damage he'd caused, but he didn't think they were in the mood for forgiveness right now. They'd likely care less about repayment and more about making a pelt out of him.
He raised his palm to his temple. George's galloping frame jostled his body. He tried to calm himself and focus. 'Everything here works on will,' he reminded himself. 'I just have to envision it, then make it happen.' He pictured a point in space a few feet ahead of George's nose. Just enough distance for his new body to pop into being and plop in the saddle. "Ready George?"
He took a deep breath and let his hammer go. His skull inverted like an origami flower.
A heartbeat later he was yelping at the sudden meeting of his perineum and George's forehead.
"Ha HA! Not the most elegant catch, but a catch nonetheless!" George tossed his neck and sent Toby rolling into the saddle.
The mouse clung on with white knuckles. Now that his head was clearer, he couldn't believe he'd come up with something so insane as resurrection on horseback. Though his knee felt loads better. He gave it a flex. "Not bad!"
George glanced back. "You are taking this rather well, Sire Toby. You used to fear death immensely."
Toby shrugged. "I guess it's like they say, 'been there, done that.'"
George chuckled. And then another bullet whizzed past him and cracked the trunk of a palm.
Toby hunkered down as low as possible. "How far to the tub stations!?"
"Not far." George sounded as unconcerned as if they were out on a Sunday drive. Outrunning mere souls was child's play. And nothing could dampen his spirits now. He knew very little of what had happened after Madam Doll had become 'something else', but there had been a long, dreadful darkness. A sleepless dream. There was no time inside, yet he felt sure it must have been ages. And worse still, there was none of the calm that had found him in the soil during his hundred-year burial. He'd felt small and pitiful instead, toyed with by fears beyond his understanding. There had come a flash of fire. And then he was looking up into his deliverer's eyes. Sire Toby had saved him yet again. "May I ask our ultimate destination?"
It took Toby a second. He was so focused on escape, he'd nearly forgotten to plan where to escape to. "...Gilla's place!" he stumbled out.
"Oh good!" The possibility of tasting more of the porcupine's cooking gave wings to George's hooves. He wove through the startled, screaming citizens and ducked the shopping bags they flung at him in terror.
Toby remembered something else. George's size. He didn't have that handy-dandy little window this time. "George, when we get there, let me off and you go first. Just duck your head under and wish. Even if it doesn't slurp up all of you, I'll go through afterwards and fix you up, okay?"
"Perfectly understood," he replied, showing total trust.
Soon enough the line of bathtubs were in sight. Eight white porcelain transporters engulfing and disgorging various Phobiopolans. Nearby were waiting benches, more map kiosks, the edge of a parking lot, and people screaming at George. Toby had worried the tubs might all be full, but the sight of a galloping bonecuddy has a way of sweeping unwanted citizenry aside.
George screeched to a stop in a plume of dust and Toby went somersaulting through the air. George stretched his neck and delicately caught his master on the bridge of his nose. "Safe and sound! See you in a moment!" Toby was set delicately on his feet, and George stuck his head under the nearest vacant shower.
After a brief moment to get the world to stop spinning, Toby looked back down the path they'd taken. Plenty of howling people were chasing after him. The ones from Tif Tif's street were long gone (Toby hoped no accidental harm had come to the cheetah woman's tent during George's rampage), but plenty more guards and market-goers were determined to catch the runaway construct that had flashed past them.
Panting, Toby snapped into a fighting stance, right arm out in front of him. Several people nearby gawked, startled or confused.
"I've got a weapon in my arm! I'd rather not use it on anyone! I just want to get out of here!"
From stress and exhaustion, Toby's voice sounded a lot more commanding than normal. The people around him backed off. Anyone with that much craziness swirling around in their pink eyes was not to be trifled with.
"George?" Toby swiftly peeked back to see if his friend had succeeded in transporting. The answer was, partially. Half a horse lay slumped in the dusty street in front of the bathtub. The end of his spine was liquified and dribbling. The rest of him had already gone down the drain. Toby hopped in too.
'Gillagillagillagillagillagillagilla!!!' he thought as hard as he could. There was no hesitation this time. No more flashbacks. He had faced this part of his past already. Plus, compared to Logdorbhok, bathtubs didn't scare him much anymore.
He kept his eyes peeled, watching as the swarm of angered Lalochezians drew nearer. But they were still plenty far away by the time he felt his skin start to slide off his bones down into the bottom of the tub.
Toby emerged in a tangle of vines, where a flattened, ghoulish face was leering out of the foliage at him.
"GAAH!!" He was so keyed up already, he launched his hammer without thinking.
The construct had looked like a tiki face painted on the side of a cardboard box. Had. Its huge flat head imploded when Toby's hammer sunk through, killing it instantly.
Toby clutched his chest, panting. He'd forgotten how dense Marasmus was with constructs. He'd never seen that kind before though. It'd looked like something out of a Mardi Gras parade. 'And now your hammer's stuck somewhere in it's innards. Real smart,' he chided himself.
"Sire Toby? Did something happen?"
Toby looked behind him to see George with his back turned. Or rather, what was left of it. The bonecuddy retained most of a ribcage, with the rest trailing behind him in gooey streaks. He was currently trying to stand up on his two remaining legs.
"Yeah, um, there was a nightmare. I clobbered it."
"Good for you!"
He bit his lip. "Problem is, my hammer's somewhere in its face. And I don't think I can kill you back to normal without it."
George swung himself around like a hinge to face the mouse, also spotting the crumpled creature beside him. "Shouldn't be much of a problem. I was feeling a modicum of hunger anyway." Toby hopped out of the tub to give his friend a steadying paw. George managed to wobble over to the construct and start chewing. Toby turned away. The sounds were hideous.
A moment later, George looked back with a blood-soaked smile. "Here we go!" he said with gritted teeth, holding a hammer between them.
Toby reached for it.
George pulled it back. "Wait just a moment! I shall save you the trouble of cleaning it."
Toby jumped back as George's whole head became an inferno. Toby's instincts screamed that the construct had lost his mind again and was about to revert to murder mode. But then the flames died out, revealing an immaculate, gleaming hammer. George grinned. Toby was careful to take it by the rubber grip and even then the heat made him wince. "Thank you."
He nodded. "I enjoy being helpful. And moreso now that I have yet another reason to feel gratitude towards you."
Toby smiled. He needed a few moments for the steel to cool down anyway, so he spent them patting George's loyal brow. "You're a damn good friend, George," he said quietly.
The bonecuddy practically purred.
Toby couldn't let himself relax and appreciate the moment just yet. They were still on their own in a forest full of things with teeth. Best to get inside with Gilla first. Then he could break down and cry in relief and hug George all over till his arms ached. When his hammer was ready, he slipped it inside with his left hand, then popped it right back out against George's forehead.
Soon enough, a four-legged George appeared atop the bones of his previous self.
Toby hardly noticed, because he had suddenly become fascinated by his hand. His right hand. The one with the finger-stumps. A moment ago, he remembered flexing the fist and grabbing George's brains with it. 'But that's impossible. I don't have any fingers. I couldn't have... Unless...' He remembered something else. A flash of silver.
"Sire Toby? I am able. Shall we head off to Sir Gilla-Gilla's hut?"
"Yeah, I..." Toby said absently, still staring at his hand. He had an idea about it, but it could wait till later. Right now top priority was getting inside. He hoped Gilla-Gilla was home, and that the porcupine would let him in without Zinc and Junella nearby. 'Though why not? We're friends now too.'
George knelt down for Toby to hop into the saddle again. He wasted no time in taking off. He would have enjoyed finishing his meal (as he rarely got a chance to taste a construct he'd never consumed before), but these were dangerous woods. It was possible more convorines might lurk within. Luckily, he rarely forgot a route he'd traveled before. He knew exactly where Sir Gilla-Gilla's house was. And with the Fearsleigher not currently merged to him, he could leap over the forest's obstacles with much more agility.
Toby held on tight. George's jumps sent his stomach crashing up against his ribs, then down against his pelvis. The stallion seemed in high spirits. "Geez, George. I'm glad for it, but I kinda can't believe you're back to your old self so quickly."
"Should I not be?" he asked in reply.
"Well, I mean, considering what happened to-" Toby's mind stopped in its tracks as a horrible realization hit him.
'He doesn't know.'
George hadn't seen what Scaphis had done to the others. He'd been crushed and catapulted before she defaced them. He had no idea how long he'd been trapped as a ball, or what had happened to Toby during that time. "George, why do you think I'm taking you to Gilla's?" Toby asked cautiously.
The construct's ethereal ears twitched. "I assume we will rendezvous with the others there. If you have not already defeated Madam Doll in my absence, I had further assumed I would help strategize her downfall. What she did to Sir Aldridge and myself was inexcusable."
Toby's heart broke to hear George's sprightly optimism. He didn't want to be the bearer of bad news. He hesitated as long as he could stand to. "George... it's just us."
The stallion paused. The forest was quiet all around them. "Sire? Please explain."
"Keep going, George," Toby encouraged. "I'll fill you in. But let's not stand around out in the open."
He nodded and continued, at a somewhat slower pace. "Certainly. I was just startled by what you said. Do you mean that I was not the only one whom Madam Doll... disposed of?"
"Her name's not Doll," Toby sighed. "Don't you remember? Aldridge figured it out just before she tore him apart. She's Scaphis Tarrare. She always was."
George's tone was reserved, trying to retain his composure as the awful truth sunk in. "I remember, Sire. I could not possibly have forgotten. But I suppose I would prefer not to believe it." He snorted then, his voice gaining defiance. "Even so, that will not stop me from enacting revenge. You are saying that Madam Brox, Sir Zinc and Madam McPerricone are...?"
Toby would not give him details. He could spare him that much at least. "She kept them. She turned them into slaves. As far as I know, they're still up on Anasarca. We're going to Gilla-Gilla now because I don't think we can face her alone and win."
George exhaled smoke. "Do not underestimate my rage."
"I don't," Toby reassured, giving him a pat. "But I'm also not about to underestimate hers. She's got Aldridge's wand, remember? She already started with a strong will and now it's beyond what either of us can imagine. We'll be facing the most powerful living being in Phobiopolis." He was careful to insert the word 'living', as he knew there were two more powerful who were not. "I even debated with myself about asking Gilla for help. I know his streak of not dying is important to him. But then I thought, his friends are important to him too. He should know what's happened to them. He'd want to be given the choice to say yes or no. And L'roon's on our side too. I'm not sure for how long, but he's back in Lalochezia working on a potion I think you'll like."
The construct nodded somberly. "Even with their aid, this is to be a grim, difficult challenge," he assessed.
"Yes," he said, not sugarcoating it. Toby reached up to stroke between George's ears. "But we have to. Scaphis has been stretching herself past the mountain, swallowing up people all around the badlands. She'll keep growing until someone stops her. I know it's going to be difficult. Borderline impossible. I was going crazy for a while there, thinking I'd have to do it alone. But now we're together. If we don't have an army, at least we've got an 'us' again. With luck, that'll grow."
George looked back over his shoulder. "You have changed greatly since we were separated, Sire Toby," he said with gentle, proud approval.
Toby smiled. "I hope so."
George took in the subtle differences of the mouse's posture, body language and speech. This was a wholly different soul than the self-destructive wraith that had emerged from Dysphoria. But different also from the mouse he'd been before that. Pre-Dysphoria, he had been a Sire Toby who was just beginning to discover confidence. Whereas here was a Sire Toby who had not only caught hold of it, but had begun to feel comfortable with it. "I grieve for the absence of our friends," George said, "but at the same time, I am happy to see what you have become."
Toby was struck speechless for a moment. Then he leaned over and draped himself across the construct's neck, hugging him wholeheartedly.
The walk was short. Just enough time to give George a summary. The events atop Anasarca, Toby's days on the body sea, his new family in Scarlatina, the reemergence of his memory, and the few plans he'd made for the coming darkness. (He left out a few details of what George had briefly become in the marketplace. He knew he'd be drowned in apologies otherwise.)
George was very quiet but nodded frequently. He ached to hear about his friends' suffering. Every fiber of him wished to stampede back in time to save them. But since that was impossible, the only course of action was to keep moving forward and change the future instead. He agreed with Sire Toby, Sir Gilla-Gilla would be a powerful ally and a good start.
They reached the edge of the clearing. The woods were silent here. Ash had fallen to cover the circular field around the tiny cabin.
Something was wrong.
Toby squinted across the distance. Gilla's cabin was just as before. Everything seemed normal about it. But there was still something wrong. Toby felt it in his gut. And then he realized what was right in front of his eyes.
George looked back to inquire why the mouse had gotten quiet.
Toby slipped down from the stallion's back and gave his friend's ribs a pat. He continued staring across the blackened lawn, watching the wind pick up swirls of ash and dance them to and fro. He did not want to be right about this. Maybe there was an explanation. Maybe this was just his own dread telling him to expect the worst.
There was an easy way to test it though. He started walking towards the perimeter.
George darted his head out and clamped down on Toby's collar. "Sire! Have you forgotten the defenses?"
"I haven't," Toby said. "Look, George. Tell me when you see it."
This confused the bonecuddy. He studied the cabin. "Everything seems to be in order, if quiet. It is possible Sir Gilla-Gilla is off on an errand." The face of the cabin seemed identical to their memory. The porch chairs were still rickety. The airlock was barely perceptible past the screen door. (George bristled, remembering having to stand outside like a common dog before the porcupine would allow him and Madam Doll to enter. Although in hindsight, his distrust of her was entirely appropriate.) George scanned the surrounding area and felt puzzled. Something was out of place and he couldn't quite-
"My stupidity embarrasses me."
Toby shook his head. "It took me a second too. And don't worry, you've got a lot on your mind."
It wasn't just that the ground around the house looked like Gilla-Gilla had been rotating the soil for gardening. It was the ash. There wasn't an even coating. There were footprints.
Toby steeled his nerves for incoming flame, then stepped past the border line.
Not a damn thing happened.
Toby would have almost preferred being barbecued.
If that had happened, all it would mean was that George would have to stomp him out. He'd reform and everything would be okay. But his unsinged fur meant Gilla-Gilla's defenses were down. Nothing short of the apocalypse could cause that.
Just then an idea took hold of him. It was awful. Impossible. Though, now that it was in his mind, it seemed inevitable. He took off in a run towards the house.
George followed behind. They crossed the clearing, scattering ash behind them in dusty clouds.
Toby was panting when he got to the porch. He inhaled too much, choked, and had to breathe through his arm-fur for a moment. He'd forgotten how bad the ash tasted here. Still coughing, he looked all around for a way inside. The windows were intact. The airlock door was definitely shut tight. He took off to the side of the house.
George changed course to keep up with him. He turned the corner and saw his master standing frozen stiff, staring at the busted window and the massive hole in the lawn.
"She did," he muttered weakly. "She got to him first."
He didn't know that for sure. Maybe something else had broken in. Convorines, or that bunny with the tuning fork, or the boogeyman. One broken window wasn't proof. Even if there was a gaping, sunken crater in the dirt just beneath it. But of course, his gut already knew. He stared at the curtains that flicked back and forth in the wind like cats' tails. He saw the light glinting off the remaining shards of bulletproof glass.
His whole body resisted further investigation. But he had to be sure. Toby felt like he was mentally grasping his legs and forcing them to step forward.
One look through the window was all it took.
"GODDAMMIT!!!" he burst out. He clenched his balled fists and buried his face in them.
George came running over. "Sire Toby!" Before he could ask what was the matter, the mouse ran off yet again, this time towards the back. George snorted in vexation, but dutifully followed.
As soon as he turned the corner, everything was explained. Without needing to see the cabin's interior, the story was already laid out for them. Here at the back, camouflaged so perfectly that none of them had noticed it, there was a secret door. Of course Gilla-Gilla would have one. Probably several. Some time ago, something had come tapping at his window. He'd undoubtedly wondered how it got past his security. Then it let itself in. It had punched its way through inch-thick safety glass; the stuff skyscraper windows are made from. Gilla had run to his emergency escape route. But she was already there. And still was. Frozen like a snapshot, George and Toby beheld a tidal wave of beige-pink plastic. Thick around as an elephant's torso, bursting up from the soil to completely envelop the back door. A motionless battering ram of vinyl, every flying droplet as perfectly petrified as a sculpture.
Toby did not move so much of a whisker. He was standing right in front of her. Nothing was stopping her from launching out a gush of herself and engulfing him too.
'This is it. Everything ends here. All those plans you made? You might as well rip them up right now, because what did we figure out earlier? That if we come face to face with her before we're ready, she wins. Automatically. There is less than seven feet between us. You shouted loud enough for anyone in half a mile to hear. She knows you're-'
He had shouted loud enough for her to hear. And yet, she hadn't reacted in the slightest.
'Maybe she's baiting you.'
Or maybe not. Slowly, Toby turned around to make eye contact with George. With a nod, he indicated they should back up very, very quietly. George acknowledged this and the two of them began to tiptoe in reverse, all while keeping their eyes locked on the swirling surge of amorphous vinyl.
'It's like an earthworm. The biggest nightcrawler ever.' From its arc, Toby could see that it had stabbed its way out of the ground, reared back, then lunged for the doorway at full force. The door itself was hanging diagonal off its timbers. 'She punched through the instant he turned the knob.' And he already knew what the porcupine's fate had to be.
When they were out of sight again at the side of the house, Toby indicated to George to help him up through the broken window.
'Inside!?' George asked with his reaction.
In a careful whisper, Toby replied, "She's in there, I know. But I don't think she can hear us. If she could we'd be dead already, right?. But maybe this happened days ago, and maybe that chunk of her out there can't sense us. Maybe it's like her foot fell asleep. Maybe her awareness is somewhere else. Hopefully back on the mountain."
"A plausible line of deduction," George admitted. He lowered his snout to make a step for the mouse.
Toby watched where he put his paws, careful to avoid sharp bits. But Scaphis hadn't left much in the windowframe. The shards were spread from one end of the cabin to the other. He gripped the pane, then eased himself up and over. He lowered his foot slowly, remembered the trick to walking on broken glass.
Within the house, he could see that all of Gilla's boxed possessions remained neatly stacked. Scaphis had her prize and that was all she cared about. Toby gestured for George to follow him in. The much-larger construct surveyed the frame and recalled squeezing through before. At the time it had been for so much happier reasons.
Once all his hooves were on solid footing, he looked to where Toby was perusing and felt his heart drain dry. Toby had told him what Scaphis did to her victims. He hadn't seen it for himself until now.
Like a colossal eruption of vomit, Scaphis had completely flooded the secret passage and entombed the porcupine on the other side. The mouse and construct could see how the fluid had burst inwards like a firehose spray, then flashed itself frozen. There was a furson-sized lump at the center of its clutch. All that remained visible of Gilla-Gilla was a single splayed hand and a glimpse of a boot sole. He'd been flung backwards, fighting to the last. But he'd never had a chance. Her flesh was now his prison.
Toby stood in the porcupine's livingroom, stricken by the sight. Maybe Zinc was strong, and maybe Junella was quicker, but Gilla-Gilla was the most aware furson Toby had ever known. And Scaphis got him anyway. She'd stretched herself all the way down from the mountain, just for him. She'd felt her way along the ground by her fingertips. Or maybe she could take her head with her anywhere she went, sliding it around to see? Maybe she could grow more than one of them. But the 'how' didn't matter right now. What mattered was the implications. Scaphis had extended herself far past Phlegmasia for this specific purpose. That meant Toby had far underestimated her reach. But she'd come here because she knew Toby would. Or if she hadn't known that specifically, she absolutely knew Gilla-Gilla was capable of opposing her. She'd taken him out before he had a chance to.
'She knew about him because we showed him to her. We convinced him to let her into his home.'
The guilt was crushing. Toby's facial muscles trembled, but his tension kept him from crying. Instead, he walked himself through what she'd done. The house was like a map. Connect the dots. It wasn't hard to play detective when the evidence was lying right out in the open.
She'd known about the flamethrowers, so she tunneled underneath. She knew he'd evade, so she'd hunted for a secret door, anticipating where he'd run. Then she'd struck the window. Misdirection. She maneuvered him into taking the secret exit. And there she swallowed him up. A lightning flash, then her jaws closed around him like a cobra.
"It's not fair," Toby whispered to no one. "He tried so hard for so long to survive. He was proud of that. And she knew it and stole it from him anyway."
George stepped closer to reply. "Do you think there is any method of us retrieving Sir Gilla-Gilla?"
Toby bit deep into his lip to keep his damn tears in, because he knew the answer to that question and it sounded like the most heartless thing in the world. "We can't. Anything we did would wake her up. And then she'd get us too. We have to leave him here like this. I just hope he's not awake in there."
George lowered his head somberly, seeing the logic in Toby's decision. But obviously, not liking it.
Toby balled his left fist and felt his claws making pinpricks in his palm. He turned away from Gilla-Gilla's plastic mausoleum. Memories came back to him of the porcupine's voice, his crazy eyes, his hospitality, his fighting style, his coaching. Toby walked over to George and silently put his arms around the horse's bony chest. He laid his head against the sooty ribs and let the tears finally come.
George rested his head against the mouse's back.
"At least I have you," Toby breathed. "Even if the biggest part of my plan just got taken away, at least I have you. I wanted to say this earlier, George. I thought we'd settle down in here with big mugs of hot chocolate and I'd tell Gilla-Gilla about the plan and then I'd tell you how much I missed you. How much I was going crazy without you, thinking I'd have to do this all on my own. And even now it still seems too big. But at least... I..." He couldn't go on.
George nuzzled into his master's vest. "I agree that the circumstances of our reunion could be more ideal, Sire Toby. I will confess, I can barely contain the urge to rush over, chew Sir Gilla-Gilla free from his obscene confinement, and immolate myself until every last atom of Madam Tarrare's foul body melts away down the hole she came from."
Toby could feel George's rage just from the rigidity in his posture. But he didn't fear it anymore. It comforted him, because they both felt the same.
The bonecuddy sighed. "Still... my rational mind understands the need for well-considered action, not rashness."
Toby nodded. "George..."
He felt his cheekfur scrape against the blackened bone. "It just occurred to me how far I've come, and how much of that I owe to you. It was pure luck that I found you. I stumbled onto that spot where you were buried. Random chance. And if I'd been transported somewhere else that night, or passed by without noticing your glow, then... Then that'd be it for me. That would have been the end of my story. I never could have gone on without you."
George fidgeted bashfully. "There is no need to sell yourself short."
"I'm not," Toby said firmly. "When I first got here I was a nervous wreck. I couldn't handle how much it hurt to lose Piffle. It made me come face to face with how useless and scared I was. I was ready to let any big monster just come up and kill me to get it over with. Instead, I found you. And because of you I was able to hire Junella and Zinc. And because of them, we made it all the way across the world. But you were the key, George. If I hadn't found you, I would have just wandered off and ended up as some random Phobiopolan. Wandering around, barely scratching out a life. No skills, no hope. It... it almost hurts my brain to think how close I came to that. But instead I found you. And there must be a million other Tobies out there whose stories did end up boring and sour and unfulfilled because they never found someone like you to help them." He held on tighter. "George, you didn't just save my life. You made it worth something."
The bonecuddy did not know what to do with such praise. He shifted from hoof to hoof, tail swishing. "I suppose that is true. I suppose it could also be said that, were it not for me, Scaphis would not have reached Anasarca and we would not be here in these current circumstances."
Toby shrugged. "Oh well. Maybe the good parts were worth it."
"That is a preferable way of looking at things," George admitted. "And thank you."
Another squeeze. "You're welcome. Thank you too."
"You are welcome also." George lifted his head to meet his master's eyes. "What now, Sire Toby?"
The mouse flinched a little. George had said that so many times, and it hadn't sunk in just how wrong it felt. How undeserving. "George... Y'know you don't really have to call me that. I'm not your king. I don't own you."
A trace of a grin. "Correct. It is my choice to."
For some reason that made Toby cry harder, but in a good way. "Allright. Then you can call me anything you like, Sir George Charles Atkinson."
A small bow. "I will, Sire Toby deLeon." He paused. "Actually, did you ever inform me of your middle name?"
Toby blanked. "If I had one, it's long gone by now."
The mouse sighed. He thought he was getting better at this. Every time some new soul-crushing horror fell onto him, he spent less time dwelling on it. Now he could let the stormcloud pour on him for a moment, and let it pass. Not being alone helped a lot. And even though a part of him still wanted to just fall over on Gilla's couch and cry some more and give up, he knew he couldn't. He had a potion to pick up at... "Dammit. How are we gonna get back to the market now? I'm sure they're already putting up wanted posters of us. We destroyed a whole city block."
George surveyed the wallless room. "Perhaps Sir Gilla-Gilla has something we could make use of?"
That was an idea. Toby looked around too. He remembered the big sign at the entrance, the one that said 'DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING' about a dozen times. He wouldn't have put it past Gilla-Gilla to booby-trap his belongings, but what else could they do? "I guess. But we'll have to be really careful about it. If Scaphis can't hear us, she can probably still feel vibrations. Let's stay as far away from her corner of the house as we can."
And so began their eerie scavenging. It was skin-crawling work, skulking around the house knowing they were mere feet away from the flesh-colored petrified fountain still lurking silently at the back. Knowing that they were stealing from a homeowner who was helplessly cocooned. Toby could not stop glancing back at that single dark-furred hand reaching up out of the slime. Like the last moments of a quicksand victim. 'I'll make it up to you, bruv. Promise.'
If they were stealing one thing, there was no reason not to just go all the way. In for a penny, in for a pound. For starters, both Toby and George were bone-tired from fighting and stress, so they raided Gilla's pantry for comfort food. There were plentiful bushels of tree-jerky, so they both dove in. Very satisfying to sink their teeth into the tough meat and chew it to shreds (George wished it was actually Madam Tarrare). Toby also guzzled several bottles of water and bagged more for later. Plus some spare cracker-packs, MREs, and a couple of pounds from Gilla's bountiful stock of convorine bacon.
Then came defense. Toby didn't think he'd find another bracer in here, but was partially wrong. Gilla-Gilla had all sorts of protective gear hanging up by the front door. Enough for any emergency. The mouse and porcupine thought alike: nothing here was bulky enough to impede mobility. Toby found a pair of comfortable mesh gloves that extended all the way to the elbow. Segmented plates snugged his forearms like a pillbug's carapace. Probably not as impermeable as his bracers had been, but they looked like they could block a knife if not a bullet. He also donned pads for his shoulders and knees. A codpiece hung on the wall too, but Toby couldn't overcome his quease at the thought of wearing it secondhand.
Gilla-Gilla had been thoughtful enough to label every box in the house. Toby and George scanned the stacks like library shelves. There were no magic shuriken-returning-pouches to be found, but Toby did discover a nice sack of throwing daggers and scooped up a bunch. Another box held grape-sized bombs. From their ivory appearance, Toby hoped these were smaller cousins to the electrified eggs he'd thrown before. He also borrowed a backpack, filled the center section with food, and put the weapons within easy reach in the side pouches. In addition, Gilla-Gilla had plenty of transformation potions. Several boxes, neatly marked 'For Nightmares' and 'For Me'. Toby took one of each.
As he packed, Toby remarked that he was surprised the local monsters hadn't ransacked the place. George said there was no reason for them to. Most constructs cared only for causing suffering. Incapacitated as he was, Sir Gilla-Gilla likely no longer gave off life signs. They felt no need to destroy inanimate objects.
Before the duo left, Toby sat down to write a note. He told Gilla-Gilla everything that had happened and what his plans were next (He left out certain details, just in case Scaphis somehow read the note first). Most importantly, he apologized. Partly for what'd he'd taken, but more so for not being able to help. He didn't ask for forgiveness, only the porcupine's understanding. If everything worked out, he would be freed someday soon.
Toby wanted to slip the note into Gilla-Gilla's hand. But that would have been risking everything on a poetic gesture. Instead, he left it in plain sight on the dining table. He dumbfounded a can of Anisocoria Rain to hold it in place.
Then he and George left the cabin.
As they walked away, there were a few last matters to take care of. "George, I want you to listen carefully. Can you pinpoint a small nightmare? Something I could pick up and hold?"
George raised an aura eyebrow. "There are not many you would want to."
Toby smirked. "Not like a pet. I just meant something that size."
"Ah." He flicked his ears, turning his head to and fro. "I hear small feet."
Toby patted him on the foreleg. "Grab it and meet me over there."
They split up. George tromped towards the forest while Toby went around to the back of the house. The ash crunched like shredded paper beneath his sandals. He kept his eye on the secret door's gruesome tableau. He could faintly smell burnt plastic, even from several feet away. The smell had also lingered in the house while he and George had been 'shopping'. Like she was whispering to him.
George disappeared into the trees. For the moment, Toby was alone. He carefully tore the glove away from his right hand, leaving just the arm-guard. He had no fingers there anyway, and he wanted his palmslit exposed. Toby hated having to ruin Gilla-Gilla's property. He promised himself he'd buy the porcupine a replacement as soon as he could.
He turned slowly, listening to the woods. He'd spent a long time inside the cabin. It had been afternoon when they'd sped out of Lalochezia and by now the sun was starting to set. The sky was every color of bruises. Toby heard thundering legs approaching.
He turned. A pigthing was bearing down on him. One of the slavering, bristle-backed hogs that patrolled Ectopia Cordis' waste heaps. It was charging. Snorting.
The Toby of the past would have run screaming in fear. The Toby of right now just felt irritated. Tired of this world that never let up on him. All he could see when he looked at the pig was how much it's dripping snout looked exactly like a bullseye.
His hammer shot out. The pig's skull shattered and its body did a midair somersault.
Toby felt no triumph as it collapsed in the ash. Just doing his chores.
George came running up. He looked apologetic for not having been able to assist, yet glad to see his master had the situation in hand anyway. He couldn't speak these thoughts, since wriggling in his teeth was an outraged eraserhead.
"That's perfect, George. Now we let it go."
George gave the mouse a quizzical look.
Toby pointed towards Scaphis. "Throw it at her as hard as you can. I want to see if she reacts to it. And if so, how quick."
George nodded. "Shmart finking," he garbled. The eraserhead kicked its tiny legs and gnashed its massive teeth.
Toby backed up past the edge of the perimeter. Scaphis had probably burrowed underneath and ripped out every wire she found, but he didn't want to risk the chance that something, somewhere might still be active. He watched George toss the snarling thumb-shaped creature towards the plastic tentacle.
The reaction was almost exactly what Toby expected.
The eraserhead flew in a graceful arc towards Scaphis and bonked off. For just a moment it seemed it might scuttle away, confused but unharmed. Then, in the blink of an eye, a dozen tendrils of flesh shot out and snared it. The eraserhead screeched and thrashed. The strands of vinyl held tight. They constricted, killing the knobby nightmare without mercy.
Then they seemed to juggle it around, like someone rolling a jawbreaker back and forth inside their mouth. Contemptuously, the tendrils tossed the mangled little corpse aside and re-absorbed themselves into the main mass. Constructs were not worth keeping, it seemed.
"It's not a threat to her," Toby muttered. "There's no reason to waste energy keeping it like Gilla." He felt a buzzing in his skull, like this was an important clue. No further epiphany emerged though, so he tucked the thought away for later. "Let's go, George. Back to the tub."
George lifted Toby into the saddle just as a pair of terrorbunnies emerged from the trees, drawn by the scent of dead eraserhead meat.
A stranger emerged from tub station six in Lalochezia. Odd in appearance, but no more so than anyone else.
Out of the porcelain stepped a short red knight. He appeared to be clad in a suit of armor, except the armor was actually his skin. Glossy scarlet segments of chitin exoskeleton, streaked with ivory white, covered him head to toe. His face was a mask of radial symmetry from within which two small orange eyes lurked. Additional pads and arm-guards added seemingly-redundant protection. He was short, but looked formidable. He might have even been intimidating if not for the fluffy yellow feather boa curled around his neck.
George twitched like an irritated cat's tail. "I like this even less than being a parrot," he whispered.
Toby didn't want to break character to reach up and stroke him comfortingly. "I know. But I'm technically naked right now so I'm not comfortable either." He'd stashed his shorts and vest in the backpack, lest anyone recognize them. "We won't be here more than half an hour, tops. Then you'll get a nice surprise. I promise."
George sighed. "I shall endure this because I trust you, Sire Toby."
Toby headed away from the tub stations, back towards the market's many shops.
He got a few odd looks from the crowd, though nobody pointed to shout, 'Hey, there's the guy who let a bonecuddy loose this afternoon! Let's kill him!' That was good. Gilla-Gilla's transformation potions had worked perfectly. It made perfect sense that the one meant for himself would remold the target into a walking tank, while the other made a nightmare into something laughably harmless. Toby wondered if it was a random effect every time. He imagined George as a whoopie cushion, a lady's hat, or a corn muffin.
He rather liked this new body. Heavier than he was used to, but that wasn't really a problem because the muscles were tougher. He felt a bit like a turtle. Slow but protected. His exoskeletal plates clinked and rattled with every step. It was a nice sound, a bit like wind chimes. Toby guessed Gilla might have used this form if it was impossible to evade an enemy, so the only choice was to plant himself like a stone and withstand the attack.
Lalochezia at night looked like a different planet. Toby still didn't know if the giant palm trees helped maintain the city's outer aurora, but they definitely kept the place lit up after sundown. Each treetop was blazing an incredibly powerful red. The color of stop signs and taillights. The fronds were not on fire, but illuminated from within. The bloody glow played hell with the colors in town, making everything look like a photographer's darkroom.
Toby vaguely remembered where L'roon had said to meet him. He thought he could pinpoint it once they reached an area he'd seen before. Until then, he and George passed shops and carts and tents and customers. The streets were still mostly empty, but there was a different energy to this place at night. Maybe it was just the red tint, but the people here looked tougher now. More surly.
Toby passed a street performer perforating himself with knives and showing no pain. He saw a small gang in identical jackets, all chained together by their nose rings. He saw a barbecue stand where customers were served their own grilled hearts on paper plates. He saw a female hippo with mouths on either side of her head, smoking cigars out of both of them.
There was a rumpled mess at the curb with an overturned hat and a sign:
I AM MADE OF BURLAP SACKS
YOU WILL GIVE ME BURLAP SNACKS
And then, as his head bobbed back and forth taking in all the sights, Toby spotted something he remembered. A real blast from the past.
A bright white rocketship.
It was the exact same diner. Bubble cockpit, red tail fins, porthole windows. Even the same neon name: OUTERSPACE EATS. And just like before, people were avoiding the place like a bad smell.
Toby babbled to George, "That's it! That's the fake diner that trapped me and Piffle! With the waiterthing! The one that took us to..." He winced. "I knew his name earlier. What the hell was it?"
"Doctor Dacryphilia?" George supplied.
The boa nodded. "I remember you telling the tale."
"I have a feeling I'm gonna need your help on a lot of names," Toby said distantly. He craned his neck back, making sure the diner hadn't been a hallucination. He was unsettled to see it again. He guessed these places sprang up everywhere, like roach motels. Not just in... "Dammit, what was the town?"
"Yes," Toby growled. He'd been making so much progress with his memory, he'd forgotten how much he still had left to rebuild.
Toby was on edge anyway, and that feeling spiked when a voice behind him called out, "Hey, nice scarf!"
It was not said as a compliment, but a mocking challenge. Toby thought immediately of the terrier bully he'd met in Ectopia Cordis. He didn't remember that asshole's name either, but what did it matter? The mouse kept his face a stone, which was easy with this insectlike form.
"Hey!" The voice was following him. "You're not too chum-chummy, are you? I'm only making conversation, pal!"
'I'm about to be mugged,' Toby realized. He could feel his muscles pull taut. He stayed silent and kept his eyes on the path ahead, showing no reaction. But he listened intently until he could pick out the crook's footsteps distinctly from the crowd.
"I only need a few hundred grit. You could fill that, right? You look like a charitable guy. C'mon!"
Toby felt a hand clap his shoulder.
It was reflexive. He whirled around, grabbed the wrist it belonged to, and POW. The hammerstrike was like a grenade explosion. The ragged chunk of hand dropped to the street, and so did the young kangaroo it used to belong to. Two more kids who'd been shadowing the talkative one turned and bolted at a supersonic pace.
Toby froze as he saw this was just another of the street kids that ran around scrounging for meals. He was even skinnier than Toby had been. And there he was, on the ground, clutching his gushing wrist, backing away and staring up at Toby in all-consuming terror.
For the first time in Toby's life, someone was afraid of him.
Before the roo could get to his feet and flee, Toby reached out. "I'm sorry!! I thought you were going to rob me or pull a gun on me or something! I'm sorry! I didn't realize!" He wished this was a real suit of armor so he could lift up the faceplate and show his eyes.
The kangaroo kid was still breathing hard, staring up into the expressionless orange orbs in his attacker's masklike face. But the voice wasn't what he'd expected to come out of it. The kid stopped moving, but was still tensed to run at a heartbeat's notice. "You blew up my hand, you assface!! How the HELL!?"
Toby was about to show off his palm, then realized the kid might freak out at that. "It's something I have in my arm, for self-defense. Is there anything I can do to help you? Honestly, I had no idea you were, well, smaller than me." He also finally noticed that the kangaroo's skin was exactly the tone and texture of a baseball glove, stitches included.
Distrust was still in the joey's eyes. He hesitated a moment more, then hopped to his feet, still holding his stump. He glanced around and noticed his mates had abandoned him. "I guess I should've known better. I saw you come outta the bath. You've been fightin' nighties, havencha?" He mimed looking all around at imaginary enemies. "Got you spooked up? Tense? It's my fault."
"It's not," Toby insisted. "But you're right. I have been fighting a lot of things, not just nightmares. You said you needed some money? I'd be happy to help with that."
The kid grimaced. "Well, I had a wellwatch. But it was on my wrist. Echo: had." He pointed to his bleeding hand, indicating the little bits of plastic shrapnel in it.
"Oh crap! I blew that up too, didn't I?"
An annoyed nod.
"Um... I thought willwatches couldn't store will."
"Wellwatch, goob. Shit, you are a tourist. Mini-willwell. Like a wallet. I saved up for it."
The kid did not lie well, and Toby guessed it had probably been lifted from someone else's arm. Still... "Do they sell them here? I'll get you a new one."
The kid actually flinched, like he expected a trap. "...Thanks. That's nice of you. I appreciate it."
Toby saw his guarded posture. "I mean it. It's only fair. If nothing else, I..." He sighed, his voice lowered. "The way you looked at me a moment ago, I don't want to cause that feeling in anyone else ever again."
The roo was surprised to see this strange furson so affected by something like that. He shrugged. "Haven't been here very long, have you?"
Toby laughed dryly. "I don't even know anymore."
"Heh. Whatever. There's a watch shop a few blocks backit. Were you really serious?"
Toby nodded. "I'll follow you."
The roo turned and pointed down the street.
Toby couldn't help noticing the kid's wrist steadily dripping on the sidewalk. In the palm tree light, the blood looked black as oil. With the glove-leather skin, Toby half-wondered why stuffing wasn't pouring out instead. "Y'know, I could, um, finish you off and get you back to normal, if you're comfortable with that."
The kid laughed, bouncing on his long feet. "Nah! Either it'll grow back or I'll pass out from blood loss. I'm used to it. Just don't rustle my pockets if I go down, 'cause there's nothing in 'em but air anyway."
"I'd never do that!" Toby assured.
Another laugh. "You're crunchy on the outside with a marshmallow center, aren't you?"
"I... suppose so?"
A paw shot out for an unannounced shake. "Chorizo."
Wellwatches were just about as expensive as Toby had feared. But a promise is a promise. And he'd had plenty of practice spending willpower earlier that afternoon. After completing the sale, he filled the little device with as much juice as he had left in him and gave it to Chorizo, somewhat exhausted. The joey was practically dancing in disbelief that Toby had followed through. He bought them both corn dogs at a nearby grease joint. They sat on a bench while they ate. Chorizo inhaled his and went back for another. Seeing the kid's hunger, Toby let Chorizo help himself to the snacks he'd lifted from Gilla-Gilla.
Toby was glad to see the change in the way the kid looked at him. A large part of him still felt ashamed for attacking without thinking. When he'd heard the voice, he hadn't noticed the needful tremble in it. He hadn't remembered watching the street kids trying to cajole customers earlier. Toby's only thought had been, 'here comes something else trying to hurt me,' and reacted accordingly. He didn't want to become someone like that. Maybe it wasn't the smartest decision in a place like Phobiopolis (Chorizo razzed him about it a few times as they ate their dogs), but Toby still promised himself he'd remember this incident. It would be a marker to help him find a balance between trust and self-preservation.
It suddenly dawned on him that what really scared him about the incident was the thought of his 'fight or flight' switch getting flipped. He had always been keen to danger, ready to run at a blink. Maybe that had kept him a little safer, but it had also knotted his guts up and played hell with his nerves. It was a miserable way to live. And now that he had gained some confidence in fighting, he didn't want to turn into a mirror-version of his previous self. 'I think this is what I was afraid of at first when Gilla-Gilla was training me. I just couldn't get my finger on it.' Snapping Chorizo's wrist had been easy. Frighteningly easy. In a world like this, it would be a greased path to become the kind of furson who'd react to every provocation with aggression. But, look what that could do to you in the long run. Gilla-Gilla was a nice guy, but undoubtedly crazy. And probably very, very lonely.
'Or,' Toby couldn't help concluding, 'you could end up forever frustrated, forever snarky, forever on the attack... Like Junella.'
He wondered where she was tonight. If she was even aware of what Scaphis had done to her. If she was in agony. If she and the others were trapped in an unending mirage, or escaped and hiding somewhere in the castle walls.
Chorizo rambled about the upcoming concert of his favorite band, Shatterlatch, until he noticed his armored acquaintance had gone silent. Feeling awkward, he thanked the mouse again, said there were no hard feelings about the hand, and scampered off.
When Toby came to his senses again, the kangaroo was already gone.
He spent a moment wishing he'd had time to give a goodbye. Then he got up, threw his corn dog stick in the trash, and headed off to find L'roon.
"You handled that well, I think."
George had been playing the role of an inanimate fashion accessory for so long that Toby had forgotten he was there. "JEEziss, George!" He felt his heart thudding. "And are you serious? I blasted that poor kid's arm to smithereens."
"Yes, but you made amends for it. The apology matters more than the incident, I have come to believe."
Toby considered that.
Brass tubular bells intoned when Toby walked through the door of the ingredients shop. A jingle began to play:
Hey, hey! Jaziezal's!
Be loyal to your will,
And be loyal to your place of skill!
Toby didn't know if that meant something or just sounded cute.
This place was dim, sticky and uncomfortable. It didn't smell any better inside than outside. In fact, Toby started choking immediately on the foglike funk wafting from the incredible collection of glass jars on the shelves. George was immediately grateful he did not have his old body, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to move an inch in here without knocking over half the inventory.
Toby stared at the stock while using his left paw as an impromptu respirator. Each glass vessel held unsettlingly intriguing contents. Things that flared. Things that made noise. Things that wouldn't stop moving. Plants and rocks and lightning bolts and organs and screws and jellybeans.
Jazeizal himself was up at the counter, looking melted. The relatively-handsome moose had his head propped up on his arms, regarding his radio with sleepy eyes as it sang to him. His antlers had been sawn down to nubs, which made perfect sense. Otherwise, Toby could imagine an avalanche every time he turned his head.
There was a door at the back. Hand-painted letters announced: 'Laboratory space. 300G per hour. 1 pick from the freebie bin every five hrs.'
Toby wasn't sure if Jazeizal was awake or mummified, but he pointed at the door. "Is L'roon in there?"
Without so much as twitching an eye, the moose responded, "Yaisssss."
"Okay. Um, thank you." He moved towards the door.
Quicker than Toby would have thought possible, Jazeizal was blocking it. "Eh boss! No. No one gets in without-a da password. What's a password?"
Toby barely kept his backpack from toppling a shelf. L'roon hadn't told him anything about this. He looked up at Jazeizal's eyes. They were floating. His grin was bizarre. Toby wasn't sure if he was being played with. "'What's a password'?" he repeated. "It's a word or phrase demonstrating that you're trusted enough to enter somewhere."
Jazeizal's grin unrolled even wider. "Bossssss!" he said approvingly. He waggled his eyebrows. "No one's gotten that one in weeks." He stepped aside, opened the door, and bowed low for Toby to enter.
The mouse passed by and wondered if the smell in this place affected a furson's mind after a while.
Before him was what looked like a darkened stable, or a gun range. A long black hallway led to individually numbered stalls with partitions between. L'roon would not be too hard to find, as only two of them were currently lit. Toby looked around at the sheer size of this room and realized the building was definitely not big enough to contain it. He shivered for some reason.
The smell in here diminished, thankfully. The lab was cut off from the rest of the shop. Though residue of past creations still clung to the walls. There was an odor of paint and pickled beets, with an underlay of mildew.
L'roon was hunched over a long table covered in ominous-looking substances and equipment. Toby thought he'd surprise him with his new appearance. Instead the construct's slender, curved head rose and nodded to him without a flinch. "My dear friend. You are making a habit of keeping me waiting on your return."
The mouse was disappointed. "You knew it was me? I've got a whole new body!"
"I know your walk," the construct replied simply.
Toby noticed L'roon had a tube beneath his nostrils that led to a large metal tank. "Oxygen?"
"High-grade narcotics. Helps me focus. Come closer please, I could use your help with this."
The stall was about as large as an autopsy room, and blindingly bright. Toby could see every detail of L'roon's implements, the tubes of multicolored liquids bubbling nearby, and the many stains oozing towards the drain in the middle of the concrete floor. He cautiously walked closer and was presented with a measuring cup full of yellow liquid that hissed like acid.
L'roon kept his eyes on his work, not even glancing back. "Here: hate this for me."
Toby blinked. "What?"
"Lacking a soul and thus a will to wield makes certain areas of potioncraft far easier, and others impossible. Hate it," L'roon insisted, "as hard as you possibly can."
Toby didn't think he'd be very good at hating some goo, but he stared into the cup and tried to bring up his blackest thoughts. His cheeks started burning from embarrassment. But then he thought about Scaphis and results began to flow. He thought about all her cruelty and deceit. He thought about the muskrat from EC. He thought about Dr. Dacryphilia. The yellow liquid started emitting a sound like a teakettle.
L'roon chuckled. "Not bad!" He pulled the cup away and emptied it into a large beaker full of green snot. The mixture sang a few heartbroken notes, then settled into a bubbling boil. L'roon stirred it with a glass rod. "That should work nicely."
"Is that the potion I asked you about?"
L'roon cut him off with a laugh. "Ho ho! No sir, I finished that up hours ago. It's over there in the aluminium capsules. You took your sweet time getting back and so I began to play. I haven't gotten the opportunity to muck about in here for ages. It is both relaxing and stimulating to be able to experiment with no real goal in mind. To let the ingredients meet and mingle as they please. I have made nothing of importance so fa- GEORGE!!"
He exploded this last word so forcefully he broke the glass rod in the sink. Toby stumbled back several feet.
The merchant had not given any thought to Toby's boa until his subconscious put the pieces together. He ripped his drug feed away and waddled closer to regard his fellow construct. "It slipped my mind entirely! The reason I and your mouse split up in the first place, I mean. I never expected to see you again so soon! This is a disguise, am I correct? Can you speak?"
"Certainly, Sir L'roon, but I have been keeping quiet for appearances' sake."
The other nightmare's multi-pupiled eyes sparkled. His grin stretched to the moon. "Wonderful! Wonderful! What luck that Madame Tif Tif hadn't sold you off to some far-flung corner of the world."
Toby spoke up, "She's pissed at you."
L'roon steepled two sets of fingertips. "Oh? What a shame. Did she give a reason why?"
The merchant's attitude seemed an odd mixture of genuine surprise, slight remorse, and a pinch of schadenfreude. It seemed the two of them had a complicated history. "She said you promised her that George would sell, and instead her customers were afraid of him. I had to pay her back the forty thousand grit you charged her."
L'roon's jaw dropped in shock. Then he threw back his head and laughed so hard he collapsed against the work table and sent all the bottles and beakers jangling. "HAHAHAHA!!! THAT RAT! THAT WEASEL! THAT CONNIVER!! I told you to watch out for her! She played upon your sympathies, my dear friend! I only charged her ten thousand!"
Toby bit his lip. His cheeks burned. "I felt sorry for her."
L'roon got his laughter under control but couldn't keep the grin off his snout. "I'm sure you did. Why do you think she chooses such an innocuous form? Such a sweet little kitten. She couldn't possibly be hiding treachery under that big, soft coat, yes?"
At this reveal, a nasty part of Toby kind of wished it had been her tent that George burned down earlier. "Was she also lying about losing her shop and having to move to the crummy side of town?"
At this, L'roon became serious again. "She's remained in the same place for years. Hmmm. She may actually be in some genuine trouble. I shall have to go and visit later. Either to offer aid or gloat. Perhaps both."
Toby wasn't sure what to feel now. Tif Tif's shocked gratitude after he'd paid off the forty grand had seemed real.
L'roon turned his attention to the feather boa, running his spindly fingers along it. "But that's for later. How are you, my brother? You have been napping, I hear?"
George raised up one end of himself to give the appearance of having a head. "I was released by Sire Toby after considerable difficulty. I was... not on my best behavior initially. But again, Sire Toby helped."
A sly smile. "So I've heard. Stories spread like flu here. You two are already famous."
Toby winced. "Now you know why we're in disguise. We didn't want to come back and get burned at the stake."
"Is that what you think?" L'roon purred with mirth. "Some here may feel that way about you, but far more have spoken in awed voices about the little white mouse who tamed a nightmare with his bare hands. You are becoming a legend as we speak."
Toby's brain boggled. He'd never thought of it that way. "But I didn't! George was already-"
"Do they know that?" L'roon interrupted.
L'roon checked on the beaker again. It was making a noise like a badly-maintained furnace. "If I am not prying by asking, where exactly have you two rascals been all this time?"
George took the question while Toby unspooled him and set him down on a nearby table. "Sire Toby and I went to meet a mutual friend. We had hoped to enlist him to fight beside us. But regrettably, Madam Tarrare had 'enlisted' him herself."
The other construct became quite still. "Where does your friend live?" he asked with feigned indifference.
L'roon stared off into nothing. "Oh dear. That is farther than I thought."
"I don't think all of her stretched that far," Toby said. "I think she made a special effort to get to him."
"We are speaking of Monsieur Gilla-Gilla, aren’t we? The one who will not die?" L'roon asked.
Toby and George both nodded.
L'roon nodded quietly. "Well that's not good at all, now is it? I liked him. As suspicious and wily a heart as my own. I contemplated sharing my secret nature with him a time or two, but he never stayed long enough to chat. I will miss him."
George snorted. "There is no reason to think he's gone forever!" he said defiantly.
It is hard to take a rope of yellow feathers seriously enough to glare at it, but L'roon did. "My dear friend, you may have been interred at the time, but I was perfectly awake while Scaphis Tarrare walked the world. She lets nothing go. She would burn the world to a cinder for a grudge. Of which she has millions."
Toby was too fascinated to be irritated by L'roon's pessimism. "You actually knew her?"
"Knew of her," he corrected. "I may have even sold to her once or twice before she became her most famous form. But I saw her actions; you couldn't help it. Her tantrums echoed to the ends of the universe." He grinned in a frosty way. "She imagined herself history's greatest victim. Many who are plucked to Phobiopolis come around to the notion that they must have been chosen for some sinister purpose. Most grow out of this. In truth it is sheer blind luck that any of us are here. But Scaphis persisted. She was certain there was a purpose behind her vanishing to this dismal carnival. Not just a why but a someone. She organized a cult to find this imagined schemer. She even learned of the Cruelest One, of whom you are aware as well." L'roon looked right at Toby.
The mouse did not dare ask how L'roon knew about The Allfilth.
"And still that was not enough," the construct continued. "Because she never actually cared about answers. Her addiction was in seeking them. Being right. The Cruelest One was a pawn, she concluded. Someone else's goon. And to those of us who had been watching from a detached viewpoint, it came as no surprise when she began to point her finger at traitors in our midst. Constructs in disguise."
George rose up from the table like a snake. "Sir L'roon! That must have been terrifying! Did you go into hiding?"
A plummy chuckle. "Oh no no no. Remember, I have never disguised myself. I was but a humble peddler, cursed to look like a nightmare. What Scaphis inferred was that any number of Phobiopolan citizens were in league with a shadowy, powerful evil."
Toby felt unsettled. "That can't be true, right?"
"Of course it wasn't. Utter bollocks. You are skeptical because you have good sense. But if you had been there at the time, among Scaphis' flock, lapping up her every word as if they flowed from the lips of a goddess, then such an idea would sound perfectly reasonable to you. Because why would your savior, the great truth-seeker, lie? It would be blasphemy to ever consider that she had simply grown tired of competition with other magicians, with Aldridge's endless attempts to reason her out of madness. Her thralls were nothing more than bullets for her to aim. Sent to punish anyone she deemed guilty of the unforgivable crime of being declared guilty."
Goosebumps rippled through Toby's body. Even in trying to grasp the full scope of her vindictiveness, he had underestimated it. But struggling up from within his horror, he felt a sprig of hope. Some crafty part of him (possibly nurtured by L'roon himself) recognized this as an inroad. "Then you understand," he addressed the merchant, "why it's so important to stop her from regaining power."
"Oh yes," L'roon said offhandedly. He turned and began cleaning out beakers with a rag. "From reports of the Plastic Storm, my educated guess is that she has well and truly gone off the deep end this time. She doesn't care about wooing the people with honeyed horseshit anymore. She wants direct control. She wants them in her hands, where she can squeeze."
George picked up on where Toby was leading. "Then you'll join us in combating her?"
L'roon swirled the rag around as if this were the most casual of conversations. His true feelings were locked behind a wall. "Go off with you? Comrades in arms to slay the dragon? Hm. What then about my cart? Or the customers who depend upon my presence?"
His coyness irritated Toby. "There are more important things in the world."
"Not to me," L'roon said with a smirk.
Toby knew exactly what his game was. "You want to get paid first. Well, I’ll just come right out with it and be honest. I don't have anything for you this time. Not unless you want to suck out my eyes or my blood some more. But you're a smart guy. Think of this as an investment. If you don't help us now, how long until you've got no more customers? How long until she swallows everyone?"
George nodded. "Very well put, Sire."
L'roon nodded too, conceding that it was a good little speech. But when he turned around to face them again, there was a coldness in his posture he had not allowed either of them to see before. "Are you implying, my dear friend, that I am not already considering the long-term consequences?"
Toby had a feeling like he'd walked into a trap. He tried to keep a quaver out of his voice. "Yes," he finally said.
L'roon smirked. "Toby deLeon, George Charles Atkinson, you pair are the closest things to friends I have had in a long, long while. So I will give you this for free: a glimpse of myself with all masks off. Scaphis Tarrare doesn't scare me."
Toby reeled. "Why the hell not!?"
His shadow loomed over the mouse. "Because, young one, I have lived long enough to observe many patterns. The pattern of a Scaphis is that their madness is self-defeating. As I myself realized how a dirty dealer inevitably dries up his base of customers, so too does an irrational tyrant. She will rage and sputter and kick her little feet, and even if she manages to get exactly what she wants, she won't ever be able to keep it. Even if Scaphis engulfs the whole world, she'll be miserable the instant she's finished. There will be no one left to oppose her. And conflict is what a mind like hers truly craves, not satisfaction. I escaped her notice for centuries, and I will again. I am but a humble peddler after all. If Scaphis gobbles up my customers in the badlands, I will move further away to where customers remain. She will not make it past Ectopia Cordis, I'll wager. Luxy's smarter than her by a mile, and she has a chronic habit of trusting him. In the meantime, I will watch the show." L'roon finished with the most dead-eyed, sharklike smile Toby had ever seen. "Plus, there is always profit to be made in times of war. I will simply switch my stock from trinkets to weaponry."
The mouse backed away in revulsion. "You're sick."
L'roon smiled as if complimented. "I am as I am," he said lightly.
"No, I mean it!" Toby said, infuriated. He was so angry he dispelled his transformation, wanting to say this face-to-face. His exoskeleton vanished, replaced with white fur. "You're nothing but a war profiteer! Are you seriously telling me that you're A-OK with sitting on your ass while thousands of people suffer? You're really that heartless!? You care only about the money you can make off the people fighting back? Let me guess, you'll jack up the prices just 'cause they need what you're selling so badly!?"
"Of course not," L'roon said, playing at being offended. "I'd want to retain a degree of good will after the unpleasantries end."
Toby's eyes narrowed in loathing. (On the counter, the greenish potion boiled over.) "You're not taking me seriously."
"You're naked," L'roon countered.
Toby looked down and, indeed, reverting the transformation had left him in nothing but gloves and a backpack. His cheeks flushed, but his embarrassment just added to his anger. "I don't give a shit!!"
L'roon looked mildly startled.
"I actually liked you!!" Toby exploded. "But y'know... some part of me felt like all along it was going to end this way. I dreaded coming back here. I dreaded asking you to join me, because I knew you'd say something exactly like this. You COWARD!" The mouse lunged forward as he said this, and L'roon actually retreated a step. Toby shook his head. "No no no, wait. You're not a coward. Because a coward just runs away without thinking. You're something worse than a coward. You are thinking. Calculating like a cash register. Because that's all you really are: a machine! At least a coward cares."
L'roon kept his face absolutely neutral, but he'd backed himself against the workbench, braced with several arms. "I am as I am," he said again. This time, there was a bit of regret in the words.
Toby narrowed his eyes. "You can't tell me that and expect me to believe it," Toby said fiercely. "I changed. George changed. So did you!! You're trying to tell me you can't now? You just don't want to." He stared hard at the construct, demanding a reply.
The construct's many pupils looked the small mouse up and down, searching for an exception or a loophole. Some way he could wriggle out of this and make Toby happy without having to change anything about himself. Because his was a life of carefully-planned routine. There was room for adaptation to circumstance, as there always was in business. But this... He was being asked to throw his everything out the window. A life he'd spent centuries building. For what? To... to make one little mouse stop scowling!? Ridiculous! Why would he ever care about that!? L'roon tried to harden his expression. He folded his arms in front of his chest. But the master liar couldn't hide the truth. His posture did not convey defiance, but petulance. This was a tantrum. Dragging his claws to avoid being pulled towards uncharted lands.
Toby saw him then for exactly what he was. Likely what he always would be. The mouse turned around and leaned against the sink on the opposite wall. His breath felt like hot jets of steam.
L'roon did not understand why watching Toby turn his back hurt so much to see. He took a step closer, but couldn't bring himself to say a word. He turned to the boa instead, hoping for camaraderie among constructs. "George?"
Somehow, the rope of colored feathers radiated disdain. "You will find no sympathy here, Sir. I held my tongue because Sire Toby spoke all of my thoughts already. And much better than I could have."
Head down, Toby let the slightest chuckle pass from his lips at such a compliment. But inwardly, he felt crushed. Scoured raw. He did not want to be shouting so viciously at L'roon. He liked L'roon. But he couldn't forgive what the merchant was saying. He felt stupid for thinking it could turn out any other way. He'd seen a glimpse of the true L'roon when they'd passed through the huddled refugees. The construct was friendly and charming on the surface, but ultimately operated on looking out for #1. Even so, Toby hated to end things like this. He had lost Gilla-Gilla. Now he was losing another friend, at a time when he should have been rallying them.
An ugly, ugly little thought entered Toby's mind. "You know... I could blackmail you," he said emotionlessly.
L'roon lifted his head. "Excuse me?"
Toby turned around like a rusty hinge. "You told me your secret. You told me how your business would go straight down the toilet if people knew you were a nightmare. I could tell them. I could ruin you. I could make you come with me by force."
L'roon had never looked so helpless. A mere morning ago he would have bet his cart that the mouse didn't have it in him. But right now, seeing into those reddened eyes, he would not have made that bet.
Toby stood in silence for a moment, letting the tension string out. He had discovered that he could be cruel too.
"...But I won't," he finally said.
L'roon exhaled, gut sagging.
"Because what would it accomplish? You wouldn't be choosing to help me out of compassion, or loyalty. You'd be like a caged animal. Instead of focusing on Scaphis, I'd have to worry about you backstabbing me and escaping. That's not good strategy, is it?"
"No, it certainly is not," L'roon said, sounding both relieved and mortally wounded.
Toby regarded the merchant for a moment more, his cold gaze never softening. He pinned the construct beneath it like a butterfly in a case. "We could have done something amazing together," he said quietly.
L'roon straightened up and smoothed the wrinkles in his shirt. It seemed they understood one another. "I know," he said simply. "But it is not to be."
Toby closed his eyes. "If you've made your decision, we'll be going."
The construct nodded. "The potion you paid for is there on the table. Twelve doses. It was easier to produce than I'd ever dreamed. I always keep my word."
Toby recognized this as L'roon's last effort to ingratiate himself. He considered walking on past the potions and heading out the door. But he needed them. It would be stupid to give up his best idea for spite.
George watched as, in total silence, Sire Toby set the backpack on the counter, removed his folded clothes, put them on, placed the twelve shiny capsules into the bag, zipped it up, then placed the transformed stallion back around his shoulders.
L'roon watched too. The mouse's expression did not change one atom. It was carved in marble. Their business was concluded.
Toby flexed his feet inside his sandals, making sure they fit properly. Then he turned to the sink for a glass of water. He'd hurt his throat.
When he turned the tap, a stream of dead flies poured out.
"STOP THAT!!!" he screeched at it.
Immediately, water came out instead.
Jaw trembling, throat aching, Toby poured himself a glass and drank it down. When he finished, he glanced back and saw that L'roon was actually cowering away from him, pretending to be fascinated with his beakers again.
Toby stood in the harsh artificial light, watching the immense construct hunched over, moving tubes and jars here and there. Very busy with his work. Just an act.
Toby sighed painfully.
"Goodbye, L'roon," he said softly. His voice was calm and businesslike. "Good luck with your potions. Maybe we'll meet again sometime. I might even buy something from you. For a while there, we were friends, or I thought we were. But if we meet again, you'll be a merchant and I'll be a customer. That's all we'll be."
L'roon kept his back turned. Silent as a stone.
Toby looked down at the boa. "George, did you wanna add anything?"
"Nothing that has not already been said." A small shake of the feathers. "Farewell, Sir L'roon. I wish our ways were not parting."
L'roon moved bottles around.
And with that, Toby turned and walked back towards the shop.
L'roon listened to those small footsteps diminishing in volume. He put down his tools and stared at the wall. He thought about each word that had been spoken in this small room. He twitched towards the door. His legs wanted to turn and run and catch up and apologize. Beg for forgiveness. Beg to help the humble legend who tamed constructs, wished upon a broken amulet, changed the will of Phobiopolis with a shout, and who had looked into the eyes of cruelty incarnate and emerged intact. L'roon had merely been humoring the boy's fantasies of defeating the lost age's tyrant goddess and rescuing his hollowed friends, but now he believed. And yet, bizarrely, the mouse himself still didn't. Wasn’t that worth keeping an eye on? Wouldn't that be a show worth watching?
For a trembling moment L'roon thought that if he could just overcome his inertia, he'd get right up and follow him. Leave his cart to the scavengers. Spend his nights with the mouse and the construct. Pass onto them his most secret lore. Laugh away the hours in conversation with George. Groom the mouse into a warrior king. Position himself as the guiding hand behind this new emerging power and...
"And that's why he's better off without you," L'roon said to no one.
Down the hall, he heard a door open, then close.
L'roon stood and stared at the wall for a very long time afterwards.
Toby passed through the miasma of the ingredients shop and drew in fresh air once he was back outside. Lalochezia was going about its evening business. No one noticed that a small suit of armor had walked in, and an albino mouse had walked out. No one connected him to the afternoon's public disturbance. The night breeze ruffled his fur. Toby felt alone again.
He headed off to his chosen destination.
George did not speak. He told himself it was necessary to resume his disguise as a piece of clothing. But that was not why. He respected his master's decision. It was the right one. Nonetheless, it hurt. George had liked it very much to be called 'brother' by L'roon. He regretted not taking the chance to say this.
When they'd traveled most of the way back to the tub stations, Toby suddenly stopped and lifted George from around his neck. The boa was puzzled by this. Toby looked around until he spotted a map kiosk. He walked over and wrapped George around the top.
"Sire Toby? I don't understand." For a horrible instant he thought his master was leaving him behind as well.
Toby's voice was faux-cheerful. "Just for a moment, George. Don't worry. There's something I wanted to take care of before we go."
It was at that moment George noticed that they were standing directly across from OUTERSPACE EATS. "Sire, I do not think that whatever you are about to do is a good idea."
Toby's smile frightened him. "Sure it is."
The mouse turned and walked across the street towards the diner.
The place was exactly the same as in Stoma, down to the last detail. The neon, the cockpit, the red trim, the flowerbeds. Toby could see through the porthole windows to the gleaming vinyl seats inside. The chrome stools. The lighted menu without an item or a price upon it.
He kicked open the door and stepped inside. Several passers-by were startled by the sound and turned to look.
From inside the restaurant they heard the squawk of an artificial voice springing to life, babbling about fine dining experiences and would you please step this way sir? Then came the sound of metal smashing wood. More people stopped to look.
Behind the diner's door erupted a cacophony like an entire hardware store turning upside down. Impacts jarred the walls and windows. There were grunts and furious screams. The crackling radio-static voice sputtered like a drowning victim and finally went silent, but the crashing and banging didn't stop there. Citizens jumped back in shock when the windows started exploding. Chairs crashed through. And then the splintered half-corpse of a broomstick-thin waiter fell out onto the grass. The screaming was still inside. Feral shrieks of blinded fury. Sounds of pots and skillets being thrown. Then, for a moment, quiet. Just when the rubberneckers started to think it was over, some of them began to smell smoke. They began to see it too, rising in grey, wispy icicles from the broken windows. From the kitchen came the orange glow of flames.
Finally, a panting, rumpled mouse came barging out with a hammer gripped tight in his white-knuckled left hand. He slammed the door behind him so hard it cracked the frame. The fire roared louder and began to consume the roof. The cockpit filled up with dark smoke. Something in the kitchen exploded. Several people began applauding.
The mouse did not acknowledge them. He walked straight over to the waiterthing's busted scarecrow body and gave it a vicious kick. "You don't look so good!!" he yelled, his voice hoarse. "You should see a Doctor! HA!" He kicked it again, then picked it up and chucked it back through the window so it would burn too.
People backed out of his way as he passed. The mouse beelined for the nearest map kiosk and began to unravel some kind of yellow banner from it.
George was having a hard time believing what he had just seen. He wasn't sure if he should congratulate Sire Toby or offer counseling. "From what you said before about this place, it may simply regenerate a new trap in a new location elsewhere. Your actions were not strictly necessary."
"Sure they were," Toby said unconcernedly. He settled the boa around his neck, then on a whim, whipped it off again to set it on the ground. "All these people are watching, George. Let's give 'em a show. Change back."
"Sire Toby!?" he asked, incredulous.
By now the gathered crowd were wondering if this mouse was simply a lunatic who liked to set buildings on fire and talk to fluffy scarves. Though their murmurs turned to screams when an onyx-black nightmare suddenly appeared in their midst. The yellow feathers melted away and a full-sized bonecuddy poured into existence in its place, rearing up on its hind legs as it stretched back into its old familiar form. Those who were frozen in shock, or brave enough to keep watching, saw the oddest grin upon the mouse's face.
The bonecuddy slammed its forehooves to the pavement, then darted its head towards the mouse. Several onlookers flinched, not wanting to see the idiotic rodent getting chewed in half.
Instead, impossibly, the beast plopped the mouse down on its back.
Toby felt the comforting squish of George's backfat growing into place beneath his tush. "Let's get the hell out of here!" he screamed.
George reared up on his hind legs again, kicking his hooves and unleashing a bloodcurdling neigh, hoping to scatter the remaining civilians so he wouldn't accidentally trample anyone. After a sight like that, they absolutely gave him a wide berth.
The remaining crowd stared in utter shock, unable to believe what they'd seen. A soul riding upon a nightmare! Many of them had heard whispers about the event in the tent quarter earlier. They didn't believe until now. The horse and rider plunged into the night towards the tub stations, and within a minute, both were gone.
Some of the people who told the tale the next day said the mouse upon the bonecuddy had never stopped screaming. Others said he'd been crying so hard his eyes were red.